Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘17th Armored Engineer Battalion’

 

My father (third from left, second row) and some classmates at Command and General Staff School: Ft. Leavenworth, 1940

Howard L. Peckham spent his pre-World War II days serving his country in the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, the branch into which he was commissioned upon graduation from West Point in 1918. His work took him to various locations, including the Philippines, West Point (where he was an engineering instructor), Cleveland, Puerto Rico, Florida, and New York.

Excerpts from Chapter 3, “Clouds Over Leavenworth and Benning” of A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham:

In 1939, when my father’s work as Deputy Administrator of the WPA (under Brehon B. Somervell) in New York City ended, we moved to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, where he attended the prestigious Command & General Staff School.  In February 1940, he graduated from the school and would soon be a part of an expanding U.S. Army. Under the guidance of Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, the army was increasing its membership, modernizing its equipment, and starting to prepare its troops for combat.

More and more officers would be needed to fill leadership roles. This caused a rumor to spread in officers’ clubs throughout the United States that Camp Beauregard, Louisiana, would soon become the location of massive war maneuvers.

That rumor turned out to be true. One of the participants in those realistic games of war was my dad. His three months in Louisiana serving with the 21st Engineers involved intensive training for a leadership position in a combat environment, precipitated by the storm of events in Europe and Asia. The War Department ordered more than sixty-five thousand troops from various divisions and regiments of the U.S. Army to join this massive training operation. Tanks and other equipment lined the wide highways, and soldiers marched through busy towns and open fields. Occasionally, soldiers rode atop mule packs, which was a sight the residents of Rapides County, Louisiana, would never forget.

In Europe, meanwhile, German troops were not able to land in Britain—much to Hitler’s disappointment and Churchill’s relief. Its shores were highly fortified, and the use of radar there helped the military spot potential invaders who attempted to arrive by ship.

Churchill’s relief was short lived, however. Starting in July 1940, frustrated Germany sent its Luftwaffe bombers roaring through the sky to Britain, causing its terrified citizens to run repeatedly, week after week, into the safety of bomb shelters. Like crystal vases shattered by rocks, Britain’s factories, airports, homes, ports, and buildings were broken apart by German blitz bombs.

Significant events were also happening in Howard Peckham’s army career. In July, he received news that he had been promoted to major and would soon participate in a growing armored force.

This force, which moved on treads, had historic roots in the United States Cavalry, a force of mounted horsemen who galloped their way through America’s wars—starting with the Revolutionary War and ending during World War I. The Louisiana maneuvers, in which tanks had played an important role, had shown the need for a strong armored force within the army. Also, World War I had shown a horse cavalry to be impractical.

The War Department thus created sixteen armored divisions during World War II. It selected Fort Benning, Georgia, as the home base for the 2nd Armored Division, which was activated there on July 15, 1940.

Among the core units attached to the 2nd Armored Division was the 17th Armored Engineer Battalion, whose job was, among other tasks, to design and construct the pontoon bridges across which heavy armor would be driven. The officer appointed to command the 17th Armored Battalion at Fort Benning was Howard Peckham, and Fort Benning was the destination to which we drove in August 1940. In October 1941, about four weeks after his promotion to lieutenant colonel, Howard Peckham was detailed to the General Staff Corps as Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3, of the 2ndArmored Division. As G-3, he was concerned with the dual functions of planning and operations.

In the following month, the last peacetime maneuvers for the division were held in the Carolinas. In Patton: A Study in Command, H. Essame writes that in an exercise in North Carolina, “Patton and the 2nd Armored Division completely outshone all others.”

In spite of the preparedness of the 2nd Armored Division, no one at Fort Benning was prepared for the startling events that occurred on the otherwise peaceful Sunday of December 7, 1941—especially not the wives and children.My mother was the first member of our family to hear the news. She had been listening to the radio when an announcer interrupted her program with a shocking report—the Japanese had made a sneak attack on America at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Soon after the attack, the post commander (Omar Bradley) ordered troops from Benning to guard the bridges and electrical generating plants throughout Georgia.

Fears of sabotage or enemy attacks also resulted in the enforcement of air raid drills. When we heard sirens at night indicating that a drill was about to begin, Dad would often call out to my brother and me. “Turn off the lights!” he would shout. Like busy squirrels hunting for acorns, we would rush from room to room to check that they were all off. Then we would sit quietly in the bleak darkness of our home, as though sitting in a cave, until the signal came on again to indicate that the drill had ended.

[It’s interesting to note that George Patton served under Omar Bradley at Ft. Benning. As the war progressed, it would be the other way around.]

 Patch of the 2nd Armored Division worn by my father and the other men of the division.