Some men are born to serve in the Armed Forces. Sometimes it’s familial tradition for sons to follow in a father’s footsteps, or a grandfather’s. In other cases, young men, at a very early age, dream of doing nothing else. And some men are drawn to service not by birthright or innate desire, but by circumstances in which they find themselves or their country.
Men in the latter category can become surprisingly effective, adapting to the service’s rigors and demands as if they were, in fact, born to it.
One such man is Lucian Truscott, considered to be one of the finest Generals who ever served in World War II. Even though he didn’t attend West Point, the prestigious military academy, and had no battlefield experience at the outset of the war, Truscott’s less obvious talents soon became clear, and he proved himself an ideal candidate for top honors as a military commander.
He first entered the war as a Colonel, as he had signed up during World War 1, feeling honor bound to serve his country. But when that war ended, he had a decision to make: realistically, would his lack of experience on the field impinge on his chances for advancement? But he stayed, and when World War Two arrived, he was made Colonel.
Truscott turned out to have a skill that proved very valuable to his leaders, including Dwight D. Eisenhower. He could play, and knew a great deal about, polo. This gave him a connection to Lord Mountbatten, who was leading forces in Europe at the time.
Eisenhower sent Truscott overseas with a mandate to forge a stronger bond between the two Allies. Truscott and others watched the Dieppe battle led by Mountbatten in 1942, and though it was a somewhat disastrous raid, but learned a lot about what not to do.
He was subsequently determined to use what he had learned at Dieppe to reduce casualties and death among his men when he finally began planning raids and battles himself.
His first mission as a General, in 1942, was when he led Operation Torch in Morocco. It was considered a success and earned Truscott a second star. But he felt it had been less than wonderful, too many men lost their lives. Yet it led Eisenhower to appoint him Deputy Commander.
Truscott always tried to think of strategic ways to reduce casualties. Because he believed that the enemy was in superior shape, he insisted his men undergo brutal rounds of personal training before heading into battle. They got into such great physical shape that they went into fighting doing what the men fondly dubbed, “the Truscott Trot.” But it helped, and the men grew fiercely loyal to him.
Truscott’s dedication to his men, as much as his training and experience, led to him becoming one of the most in demand generals leading forces into battle all over Europe.
When sent to Italy, he was not happy with one General, in particular, Mark Clark, who had rerouted troops in an attempt to seize Rome. Truscott felt that the attack was Clark’s vainglorious attempt to stroke his own ego, demonstrating little regard for the well being of the men, or the bigger picture of the war’s goals. He did not wish to participate in what he deemed to be an exercise in ego. Ultimately, Truscott led VI Corps in the invasion of Southern France.
In May, 1945, Truscott was asked to speak at a ceremony at the Sicily Rome American Cemetery in Italy. When he rose to stand by the dais, Truscott turned his back on his listeners so he could speak directly to the dead. Then, as World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin recalled, he apologized to the fallen men buried there.
He would not speak of “the glorious dead,” Mauldin commented, as so many other military leaders did. He found no glory in row after row of white crosses giving mute testimony to dead soldiers, most of whom were in their late teens or early twenties.
According to Mauldin, Truscott then made a promise. That if he ever met any old people, particularly old men, who thought death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out. It was, he said, the least he could do.
We honor you, Lucian Truscott.