Before there was Basic

Even the most unmilitary civilian knows about Basic Training. But the concept of centrally training new soldiers at one location before sending them to a troop unit is actually a fairly new concept.

For most of the Army’s history, a man would enlist, and then be shipped directly to a troop unit. There the unit would train him in soldierly skills. In the peacetime Army of yesteryear, when the skills of the individual soldier were little more than musketry and the manual of arms, that was all that was needed. But as World War II loomed, the increasing sophistication of weapons and infantry tactics meant something more was needed.

For a large part of the draftee Army, the old practice still held sway. As the Army expanded after Pearl Harbor, the War Department brought new divisions into existence on almost a monthly basis. A cadre of officers and senior non-commissioned officers would be gathered, assigned to a camp or fort, and prepare to activate a brand new division.  About 1100 officers and men would be in this cadre. Soon, a troop train would pull into the camp railhead and offload 12,000 or so men. For the next year, the division would train. Theoretically, the first 13 weeks of the division’s existence would be dedicated training individual soldier skills such as marksmanship, drill and ceremonies, physical fitness, and other tasks that we would today see trained at a basic training center. After that level of training, the division would then move on to unit training. Training would progress from the platoon, to company, battalion, and finally regimental levels. As the training progressed, the individuals gathered more experience. Further, that progressive training allowed staffs at the battalion and regimental levels more experience and training time for their own needs. Also, this building block approach was needed, because until the troops were trained, there weren’t any assets for the battalion and regimental staffs and commanders to train with!

After mastering the unit level training program, the division would move to “combined arms” training, where the division as a whole was integrated in the field, combing infantry, artillery and supporting arms and services into one combat team. The capstone of the division training program would see the division either “fighting itself” by using one regiment as an opposing force and maneuvering against it with its other two regiments, or, in the best case scenario, the entire division engaging in maneuvers against another division in its capstone exercises. Once the division had completed its training cycle, it would be ready for deployment overseas. In this way, an infantry division could go from a blank sheet of paper to a potent combat force in one year.

Sounds easy and sensible, right? Well, of course, in practice, it wasn’t.  The problem was, as units started to go overseas, they started to need replacement personnel for losses. These losses ranged from the mundane (people with bad teeth couldn’t deploy) to the obvious replacement of casualties.

Divisions in training were repeatedly raided of personnel to provide replacements for the deployed divisions. That caused a great deal of personnel “turbulence” as they then would have to receive new troops, and start training them all over again. Further, most divisions had to “calve off” a cadre of 1100 or so of their best, most trained people to form yet another division. This constant turnover meant that divisions training schedules were rarely neat orderly progression envisioned. Training took longer than hoped for, and the end result of the training was rarely as satisfactory. Units were further handicapped by equipment shortages as well. Production shortages meant that divisions in training rarely had more than 50% of their allotted equipment on hand until they were alerted for deployment. Only then would they be brought up to full equipment. And that equipment usually came from raiding the stocks on hand of divisions further back in the training cycle.

To some extent, this problem, especially with regards to personnel, had been anticipated. In 1940, the Army set up its first basic training centers (though then they were known as Replacement Training Centers). Each of the combat arms (Coast Artillery, Field Artillery, Cavalry, and of course, Infantry) set up one or more RTCs. So did the then nascent Armored Force and a few of the technical services.

The RTC provided the thirteen weeks of individual training that was considered the minimum needed to prepare a soldier to deploy overseas and join a fully trained unit.

In 1942 and 1943, not many divisions had deployed overseas, so casualties were fairly light in the Army. The bulk of RTC grads were used to fill up shortages of divisions in the training pipeline. That was still personnel turbulence, but at least the divisions didn’t have to start all over again with “ this is the M1 rifle…”

But almost all Army divisions were activated by late 1943, and casualties in deployed divisions were increasing. By 1944, the demand for casualty replacements overseas was soaring. More and more, an inductees likely career path upon being drafted would be a thirteen week stint of basic training, then shipment overseas to a replacement depot, and eventually he’d find himself slotted in a rifle squad in one of the divisions.

After World War II, the size of the Army was slashed. No new units were activating, so the division making machine described above wasn’t a viable training model. Further, as the Cold War heated up (and as Korea amply demonstrated) units had to be maintained at a high level of training and readiness. They wouldn’t have the luxury of months of training before deployment.  Putting all soldiers through a basic training program to prepare them to join existing units was the only sensible scheme. And it continues to this day.

Troop units in the Army today, especially in the past decade, face many of the same problems. Ideally, a commander of an Infantry Brigade Combat Team alerted for deployment to Afghanistan would like a solid year of training to prepare. And ideally, he’d spend that year training the same troops, and deploying with those same troops. But it is a practical impossibility for a unit to have no turnover in two years. In that time, some soldiers will see their enlistments end, others will be promoted, and still others will prove unsuitable for military life and be administratively discharged. But the principle of minimizing turnover remains. Department of the Army works hard to keep the turnover to a minimum. But I’m sure the officers who read this blog know that rule is honored more in the breach…

6 thoughts on “Before there was Basic”

  1. The USMC made stabs at a “boot camp” going all the way back to before the Civil War. But the Corps finally established a baseline training regimen in specified depots in 1911.

    These depots were consolidated with the East Coast (to the Mississippi) at Parris Island SC in 1915, and everyone west of the Mississippi to San Diego (moved from Mare Island) in 1923.

  2. I doubt there is any unit, in any service branch, that is immune the problems you outline when it comes to turnover. I know we had it on Courtney, and I became the problem child just before Sylvania was deployed to the Med as I had less than a month to go on my hitch when Sylvania was supposed to get underway.

    On Courtney the Navy started stripping our crew 9 months before we were alerted for return to CONUS for decommissioning. We’d try to get replacements but BUPERS was a stone wall and didn’t respond to us.

  3. I believe that one of the Air Cav units during Vietnam used unit training instead of sending the recruits thru the regular basic training pipeline.

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