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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.
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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.