Great Louisiana Maneuvers

The Kisatchie National Forest and nearby Camp Claiborne provided a large training area that became part of 3400 square miles of land military exercises in the early 1940s eventually involved more than 400,000 troops and found much success in battle readiness and a proving ground for ideas old and new. 

Prior to 1939, the US military existed primarily as an infantry force. By 1939, technology had produced newer, better weapons. With war looming on the horizon, military leaders needed to find the best ways to employ these mechanized units.

The Kisatchie National Forest and nearby Camp Claiborne provided a large training area, but military leaders envisioned an even bigger exercise. They secured the rights to conduct maneuvers in more than 3400 square miles of sparsely populated rural areas in north and west central Louisiana, as well as a large section of east Texas.

The Great Louisiana Maneuvers consisted of a series of exercises held in 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, and 1944, and eventually involved more than 400,000 troops. Most consisted of a series of brief exercises that would be executed and evaluated before moving on to the next. In 1941, the largest and best remembered exercise, commonly known as “The Big One”, consisted of a mock battle between the “red” and “blue” armies for “navigation rights” to the Mississippi River.

According to J.R. “Bill” Bailey’s article in “Military Traer”, General George Marshall once stated, “I want the mistakes make in Louisiana, not made in Europe. If it doesn’t work, find out what we need to do to make it work.” And that’s exactly what they did. Many mistakes were made. Many new methods were tried – some worked, some didn’t.

Troops camped in the fields and woods, or if they got lucky, in the barns or yards of local citizens. They forced the swollen rivers and bayous, shot at each other with wooden “rifles”, dodged “flour sack” bombs, and slogged the muddy roads as they maneuvered for victory. Umpires observed the fighting and ruled on who and how many were killed or damaged.

Citizens still talk of being stuck in traffic while battles were fought in city streets, of how men who would go on to become great leaders, like Patton and Eisenhower, frequented their establishment, and of how those men sometimes bested one another. One such story tells of when Lieutenant General Krueger, who was commanding the Red Army, crossed the Sabine River into Louisiana. His entire army was stalled when they found that General George Patton had bought all the available gasoline in the area with IOUs.

In the end, the Louisiana Maneuvers were considered a great success. Many new ideas were discovered, many old ones laid to rest. Great leaders were chosen and others discarded. Troops proved to themselves and their leaders that they could be successful in the field despite great difficulties. In a scene from the World War II movie, “A Walk in the Sun”, when the soldiers are asked to take a farmhouse held by the Germans, one soldier comments that as bad as the fighting might get, “it can’t be worse than the Louisiana Maneuvers.”

1940-41 Louisiana Maneuvers on History

More Stories of the Great Louisiana Maneuvers, Rickey Robertson, Florein, Louisiana