Key Point: Gillem was one of the first armored commanders in the U.S. military.
The United States had not yet entered World War II when Time magazine noted that the Army had created two new armored divisions. The commander of one of the divisions, said the magazine, was worthy of note. Selected to command the 3rd Armored Division “was an alert, progressive officer with an old Army name: Brigadier General Alvan Cullom Gillem, Jr.”The magazine was right to notice. Gillem was destined to help change the U.S. Army forever.
Two Foreign Expeditions
Born in 1888, Gillem graduated from high school in Pacific Grove, California, where he was a track star. After attending the University of Arizona for a year, he transferred to the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, where he became one of the school’s best athletes, excelling at track, baseball, and football. Financial problems ended Gillem’s time at Sewanee prematurely. His father, a cavalry colonel, could not afford to keep two sons in college on his Army salary, so Gillem left school voluntarily in 1910 to make way for his younger brother, an even better athlete. Gillem then tried to secure an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. When that failed, he enlisted as a private in the 17th Infantry Regiment at Ft. McPherson, Georgia. A year later, Gillem was promoted second lieutenant.
After an initial assignment at the Presidio in San Francisco, Gillem went to the Philippines in July 1911 with the 12th Infantry Regiment before joining Maj. Gen. John J. Pershing’s punitive expedition to capture Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. While serving with Pershing, Gillem commanded a mounted infantry company and experienced combat for the first time. Promoted to captain in May 1917, Gillem organized the 23rd Machine Gun Battalion, part of the 8th Infantry Division. Although he and his unit did not arrive in Europe in time to serve in World War I, Gillem was promoted to major after the war.
Following World War I, Gillem became professor of military science and ROTC commander at the State University of Montana. School officials were disappointed when the Army gave Gillem a new assignment, commanding 1,200 replacement soldiers bound for Siberia, a land still in the throes of the Russian Civil War. Arriving in Vladivostok in August 1919, Gillem joined the American expeditionary force that had been sent to assist Czech soldiers patrolling the Trans-Siberian Railroad and to guard the supplies and railroad stock the United States had shipped to Russia during World War I.
Despite various problems with the Czechs and other Allied troops, Gillem’s successful service in Siberia marked him as an officer to watch. His next assignments took him to the Philippines, Hawaii, and the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he graduated 57th in the 151-man class of 1923. Afterward, he was sent back to the Mexican border to take command of a battalion in the 25th Infantry, one of the Army’s two all-black infantry regiments.
In Command of the Oldest Tank Unit of the Army
From there, Gillem went on to the Army War College. After graduating in 1926, he was assigned to General Douglas MacArthur’s III Corps staff. Gillem fell under the MacArthur spell; he named his second son after the general. In 1930, Gillem became professor of military science at the University of Maryland. After five years in that role, Gillem was ordered to Fort Benning, Georgia, and promoted to lieutenant colonel. During a 4½-year tour at Benning’s infantry school, he served as chief of the weapons and tactics sections.
Promoted to colonel in 1940, Gillem took command of the 66th Infantry Regiment (Light Tanks). The oldest tank unit in the Army, dating back to World War I, the 66th was among the Army’s few pre-World War II tank units. It was still an experimental unit at the time, but the job put Gillem in the right place at the right time—significant change was coming soon. Despite the success of tanks on the battlefields of World War I, neither the Army’s official doctrine nor its command structure had evolved to exploit the potential of armor. Then, in May 1940, two watershed events occurred. In Europe, German armored forces soundly defeated the French Army. That same month, a provisional American armored division trounced a cavalry division during large-scale maneuvers in Louisiana.
Gillem observed the armored victory firsthand. One hot afternoon, he sat down under a tree with Generals Frank Andrews of the War Department and Adna Chaffee, commander of another tank unit. Reflecting on what they had seen, the men broached the idea of a creating an all-armor force. On May 25, the last day of the Louisiana maneuvers, more officers, including Colonel George S. Patton, joined Gillem, Andrews, and Chaffee for a meeting in the basement of a high school in Alexandria. The soldiers emerged from the meeting convinced that the time had come for an independent armored force in the U.S. Army. Their recommendation reached Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, who ordered the creation of the Army’s first two armored divisions.
At first, Gillem was still not entirely taken with tanks. He thought them slow and cumbersome, but the more he saw of the tanks, the more his opinion changed. “Infantry was my first love and tanks, under the pinched policy that was followed some time back, were making no progress,” he wrote. “However, conditions have changed and I was fortunate in being able to watch the development at close range and to get in on the ground floor. I am convinced that there is a place for both, and I know that a great many real authorities believe that the component of infantry around tanks should be increased.”
From Colonel to Major General in No Time
Armor’s ground floor was Gillem’s destination. The creation of an independent armored force required new leaders. Marshall selected 10 colonels for promotion to general; Gillem was on the list. Marshall had Gillem in mind for a spot in a new armored division, but as it developed Gillem stayed in the 66th a while longer because Marshall wanted him to help organize the unit for war. It eventually became the 66th Armored Regiment and joined the 2nd Armored Division.
Gillem’s promotion to brigadier general came through in early 1941. He took command of the 2nd Armored Brigade, 2nd Armored Division, and quickly impressed division commander George Patton. After observing a tricky exercise in bad weather, Patton wrote, “The results were, in my opinion, extremely satisfactory due to the good work of General Gillem and his staff.” A few months later, Gillem found himself standing beside Patton on a Fort Benning road. The two men watched an armored convoy rumble past. “Well,” Patton told Gillem, “I’ve just given you an armored division.” The division was the new 3rd Armored, and the rank of major general came with the job. These were days of rapid advancement for Gillem. Marshall told him, “Your promotions are coming so fast I think I shall have to prepare a mimeographed form and just insert the rank or the number of stars.” On January 17, 1942, Gillem was vaulted to the head of the new II Armored Corps.
Gillem arranged and directed the first ever desert maneuvers for an American armored and mechanized force. For six weeks, some 60,000 men wargamed across hundreds of miles of desert to prepare for the coming North African campaign. A Time magazine reporter watched as Gillem’s steel army rolled past, “powder-white and terrible with lancelike antennae uplifted and colored guidons fluttering in the sun.” Despite heat, dust, fumes, and smoke, trainees fought practice battle after battle under their commander’s eye. The reporter asked Gillem about the art of desert warfare. “There isn’t a tank man alive,” Gillem added, “who could operate a tank by himself, and there isn’t a tank crew that could keep a tank operating without the help of the last little man with the last little monkey wrench. They all know that.”
“Perfection of Training”
In May 1943, Gillem was transferred to Fort Knox to lead the new United States Armored Force. “From my initial estimate of the situation,” Gillem wrote, “I believe that emphasis should be placed on perfection of training. I am going to stress it in every way, shape, and form.” He added, “I hope to drive home some training items which have been brought to my attention from time to time, and to make the men going overseas thoroughly competent for the jobs ahead of them.”
Training was not the only task facing Gillem and his men. When American armor suffered some early defeats in North Africa, Gillem sprang to its defense. “Used in the proper combination, tanks are demoralizing and effective,” he wrote. “And in an armored division, tanks are used in the proper combination. Fighting an enemy is like hunting birds. You’ve got to ‘bird dog.’ Flush out your enemy and then do your shooting. Many tools are available to the armored commander, and they will do their job provided they are properly used.”