Why Did So Few Generals Die in on World War II’s Battlefields?

March 28, 2021 Topic: History Region: World Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIU.S. ArmyGeneralsSurvivorsStatistics

Why Did So Few Generals Die in on World War II’s Battlefields?

Most of the generals who died during the Second World War were executed by their nation's leader for incompetence.

Here's What You Need To Remember: The United States suffered about 407,000 military deaths during World War II. The vast majority of those killed were enlisted and lower ranking officers.

General George S. Patton, Jr., once said, “An army is like a piece of cooked spaghetti. You can’t push it, you have to pull it after you.” He was referring to commanders being leaders as he had little use for commanders that were not out in front of their units. This attitude was the norm in the U.S. military in World War II, and the amazement is not that a few dozen general officers were lost, but that U.S. armed forces did not lose more!

Leaders being out front or is not a unique military concept, nor exclusively that of the United States. Since the earliest days of recorded warfare, the good leaders have always been at the forefront of battle.

Some nations have a unique concept of control over military leadership. This was especially evident in the Soviet Union in the years before the onset of World War II. During the war, Hitler not only directed military battles, but controlled the general officer corps to an incredible, and as it turned out, disastrous degree.

Russia and Germany Both Hard Up for Officers

A few years before World War II Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin purged the Soviet military of most of its high ranking and experienced officers. During his frenzied attack on the officer ranks through the end of 1938, Stalin had executed at least 65,000 officers, including 13 of 15 generals of the army, 93 percent of all officers ranked lieutenant general and above, and 58 percent of all officers ranked colonel through major general. Ironically, one of the few senior commanders to survive, Dimitri Pavlov, would be executed within days of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union because of incompetence.

After the war started, Germany was equally hard on general officers. During the course of the war, Hitler executed 84 German generals, and another 135 generals were killed in action.

Demoting Officers Who Fall Behind Expectations

The United States, of course, has never had a policy of executing officers, even for inexcusable failures. The U.S. does have a tradition, such as that displayed following the disaster at Pearl Harbor, of relieving and even demoting officers that fail to meet expectations. Two flag officers, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and General Walter Short, were relieved of command and demoted after the Pearl Harbor attack as they were, rightly or wrongly, held responsible for failure to plan for this eventuality.

The United States suffered about 407,000 military deaths during World War II. The vast majority of those killed were enlisted and lower ranking officers. However, there were some “fallen stars” as well. Nearly 1,100 U.S. Army generals served at some point during World War II, and of those about 40 died during or immediately following the war. Not all were in combat units, and some were not in enemy territory when they died.

40 Out of 1,100

Of these generals, at least 11 were killed in action or died of wounds from hostile actions, two were executed by the Japanese while POWs, four were killed in plane crashes, one was killed by friendly fire, and five died of natural causes, including two of heart attacks. The remainder died of various causes in the first few months after the end of hostilities.

Following are brief sketches of some of these American officers that were lost—some in battle, some by accident, some by natural causes—during the course of World War II. Some generals who died during the war are not mentioned here because it has been impossible to find anything more than a line noting their death. In one case, the record simply says “circumstances of death unknown.” This is, without doubt, because of the chaos of war.

General Gustav J. Braun, Jr. was the assistant division commander of the 34th Division at the time of his death in 1945 in combat in Italy. The 34th Division was a National Guard unit from Iowa. Braun had served in various staff positions within the 34th, including chief of staff and commander of the 133rd Regiment, a subordinate unit. The 34th Division had fought some of the fiercest battles in all of the war, and at war’s end the division’s losses included 3,737 killed, 14,165 wounded, and 3,450 missing in action.

The 34th Division had fought its way up the Italian peninsula and was in the shadows of Monte Bel Monte and its well-entrenched German defenders. Elements of the 34th Division attacked the defenders, with limited success. The arrival of deep winter led to both sides digging in to wait for spring thaws. It was during this stalemate when Braun was killed. He was flying in a light aircraft on reconnaissance when it was shot down by enemy gunfire.

The nominal infantry division size during World War II was approximately 12,300 soldiers. Additional attached specialty units, such as engineers, intelligence, or medical often brought the total to about 15,000. The 34th Division was reconstituted several times to maintain its effective combat strength while sustaining such heavy losses.

Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., was the commanding general of the 10th Army and was one of the highest ranking American officers killed in action during the war. Buckner’s 10th Army consisted of two corps, the III Amphibious Corps made up of the 1st, 6th, and 2nd Marine divisions, and the XXIV Corps with the 7th, 27th, 77th, and 96th Infantry divisions.

The final battle for Okinawa, and what proved to be the final land campaign of World War II, was viciously fought from the north to the south. The campaign began on April 1, 1945, and lasted 82 days. During the final days of the battle, Buckner was killed by an artillery fragment. He was one of approximately 7,000 Americans killed in this battle that also saw the deaths of 110,000 Japanese soldiers by the time the battle ended on June 22, 1945.

Buckner’s father, Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Sr., had surrendered to Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Fort Donelson during the Civil War. Some have argued, perhaps wanting to prove that the apple does not fall far from the tree, that Buckner, Jr., was a racist and prejudiced against most minorities. Prior to his Pacific adventures, Buckner had commanded troops in Alaska and was derisive in his comments about African-American soldiers as well as native Alaskans.

Brig. Gen. James Leo Dalton II was the assistant commanding general of the 25th Division in the Philippines. The 25th Division was involved in fighting across the South Pacific but met its strongest resistance in one of its last battles, capturing the Balite Pass at the head of Cagayan Valley at Luzon in 1945. The 25th was in combat for a record 165 days and lost more men to combat than any other U.S. division at Luzon.

Colonel William Orlando Darby was the assistant commanding general of the 10th Mountain Division when it was conducting combat actions in Italy. Darby had been designated for deployment to Hawaii, but after the Japanese attack he was sent to the 34th Infantry Division instead. From there, he was able to get an assignment to the newly formed 10th Mountain Division and took to the stringent regime like a fish to water.

Darby, who had led a contingent of U.S. Army Rangers during combat operations in Sicily and Italy, was killed by artillery fire on April 30, 1945, just a few days before V-E day. His name had already been submitted to President Harry S. Truman for promotion to brigadier general, and he received the promotion posthumously, three months after his 34th birthday. Darby was the only Army officer promoted posthumously to flag officer rank during the war.

Brig. Gen. Claudius Miller Easley was the assistant commanding general of the 96th Infantry Division when it was activated in 1942. The 96th Infantry was one of the few U.S. divisions to have the same commander throughout its World War II actions. The division was shipped to the Pacific theater and made an assault landing on Okinawa on April 1, 1945. Two months later, after being slowed by heavy rain, the division resumed the offensive against weakening enemy resistance. Easley was wounded by a sniper during the Leyte campaign and was killed on June 19, 1945, just days before the end of the last ground battle and only a few months before the end of the war.

Brig. Gen. Charles L. Keerans, Jr. was the assistant commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. His death was one of the oddest to occur during the war. In 1943 the 82nd had prepared to make a night combat jump into the area around the Gulf of Gela, on the western coast of Italy. The effort was plagued with problems, including several American transport planes being shot down by friendly fire. Keerans’ plane was one of those hit by friendly fire, but the pilot was able to crash land the plane in the water, 400 yards off shore. Keerans survived the crash and the next morning chatted with a sergeant from another unit and asked the sergeant to accompany him inland. The sergeant said that he wanted to return to his outfit and left. Keerans went inland by himself and was never seen again. For several years the army assumed he had been killed during the ditching of the aircraft, but the sergeant’s story provided a different interpretation and the general was simply listed as killed in action, although his body was never found.