Why our guest speaker matters at #MWLUG

As are many others, I’m preparing myself for next week’s MWLUG. However, since I’m not a speaker yet, much of my preparation involves being ready to ask good questions — and helping others do the same. In particular, I have a background in military history that matches very well with our guest speaker, Virgil Westdale.

As some of you know, I blog about military history, with emphasis on World War II. I’ve spoken at some conferences about the role of the 36th Infantry Division in the invasion of southern France (Operation Dragoon) and the fighting in the Vosges Mountains (preceding the Battle of the Colmar Pocket). Mr. Westdale served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in WWII and they were ‘attached’ to the 36th Infantry Division during that fighting in the Vosges Mountains.

What’s a Regiment and what’s a Division?

One of the challenges when talking about military history is the terminology. Most people have heard of Divisions and are likely familiar with a few (101st Airborne Division, known as the ‘Screaming Eagles’, or the 1st Infantry Division, known as ‘The Big Red One’). Divisions are large with around 15,000 men being a common size for American Divisions in WWII. A Division was usually comprised of 3 Regiments and assorted other units, some ‘organic’ and some ‘attached’. Organic elements are those units that are a normal part of the larger unit, while attached elements are those assigned on a temporary basis.

Among the units that would be organic or attached to a Division would be infantry, artillery, armored (tanks), engineers, medical units, and various logistical elements. Normally, units smaller than a Division didn’t get different types of units assigned to them. However, a Regimental Combat Team was different. Like a Division, the RCT could have those other units assigned to it. That way, the RCT could fight as a separate unit, with its own ‘organic’ anti-tank, artillery and engineering units. The Army didn’t have a lot of RCTs, since they preferred to do things on a Divisional scale.

The pain of attached units

Any time that a unit was attached temporarily to a larger unit, it tended to suffer worse than the organic units. That is, if I had three Regiments and got another temporarily, I would probably use that temporarily attached one more vigorously. As a Divisional commander, you’d know each of Regiments and likely be concerned about their welfare. The attached unit wouldn’t be one familiar to you, so you wouldn’t have the empathy for them — and if they were joining you while you were already fighting, they’d be ‘fresh’ and more able to cope with the stress of combat.

Thus, every separate Regiment or Regimental Combat Team, and certainly every separate Battalion, was over-used in combat. Imagine if you’re hiring a developer to simply help you out with a single project. Aren’t you going to be less concerned with their growth and happiness, while being far more concerned with results? Might you drive them a little harder because you see every nickel that goes to support them?

Was the 442nd unique?

Even for a Regimental Combat Team, the 442nd was unique. It faced higher challenges, was treated even worse than most ‘attached’ units and still managed to outperform every expectation.

It was formed of Japanese-Americans, many of them from Hawaii. About 1300 Japanese-Americans serving in the Hawaiian National Guard formed the basis for the 100th Infantry Battalion, which was the core of what became of the 442nd. Japanese-Americans (Nisei) on the mainland of the US were interned in camps during the war in one of the more racist actions taken by our government. Despite this, many of the young men from the camps chose to enlist in the Army.

Since it was a racially segregated unit, that meant that it could only get replacements who were also Nisei. This was a terrible problem since the recruits bound for the 442nd were only for the 442nd and couldn’t just be taken from any replacement depot. This meant that they rarely got any replacements except when they were in rear areas. So, if the 442nd was in combat for a month or two, its numbers would dwindle each day. That was very uncommon. While replacements didn’t refill any unit in the line, there was usually a steady stream of both new and experienced men (when a wounded soldier healed, he might end up in a different unit).

The Nisei soldiers quickly earned a reputation for fierceness in combat and dedication to duty. This was a double-edged sword. They earned high praise for their efforts, but it also meant they ended up with the toughest assignments. What’s worse is that since they were not with one specific Division, they could end up with the toughest assignments from anywhere within the European Theater of Operations. With no high-ranking officer being concerned for their welfare, they had to fend for themselves.

What happened in the Vosges?

One of the 442nd many tough assignments was in the Vosges Mountains. The 36th Infantry Division was fighting through the mountains, trying to reach Alsace. Many people think of the campaign up from southern France as the ‘Champagne Campaign’, as though the Germans simply turned and ran back to Germany. They didn’t. When the positions they held were untenable, they would fall back to the next easily defended position. The Vosges Mountains were not only good defensive ground, but they protected the Alsace region — which the Germans thought of as part of Germany. So, they had great ground and they were no longer simply delaying.

Unfortunately, the Allied command thought they could just push through, so continuous attack was the order of the day for months. General Dahlquist, who commanded the 36th Infantry Division, was incessant in his requests for more troops. So, they sent him the 442nd. I think the assessment of how the 442nd was used by Dahlquist is that it was almost criminally negligent. They were pushed to the limit and used in some assaults that were over open ground which ought to have been avoided.

Near the end of their stay with the 36th, one of Dahlquist’s battalions was pushed too far forward down a ridgeline and the Germans crept in from either side to cut them off. Thus, the 1st Battalion of the 141st Regiment became a ‘lost battalion’. Needless to say, the Nisei were tasked with breaking through enemy lines to rescue them. In the end, the rescue resulted in as many casualties for the 442nd as the number of men it rescued.

Over the five weeks that 442nd was attached to the 36th, they suffered 80% casualties. Yes, 4 out of 5 men in the unit was killed, wounded or missing at the end of the 5 weeks. After they were pulled out of the line at the end of their attachment, Dahlquist asked for them to gather on a parade field to be reviewed. When he saw the small number of men, he was livid. He had ordered that every man be on the parade field. Every single one who could walk was there. Their bodies and uniforms were broken, but not their spirit. It’s said that when Dahlquist realized what had happened, tears filled his eyes, but the damage was done. He’d abused them and threw a tantrum when they presented themselves.

So why does this matter?

Virgil Westdale went through one heck of tough time in the war and we’re only dealing with one small aspect in what I’ve written above. He also faced many other challenges throughout his life, yet achieved great things. I suspect that the lessons he learned about leadership and perseverance are ones we would all do well to learn.

Of course, there may be some object lessons about managing developers or about having champions right in the midst of the story…. What do you see in what you’ve read that you might use? Or what might you want to ask Mr Westdale about at MWLUG?

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Categories: Conferences | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Why our guest speaker matters at #MWLUG

  1. Roy Rumaner

    I plan to shake his hand, ask if I can give him a hug and say thank you for rescuing the extended family that I have never met.

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