On the Fourth of July, 1917, American troops of the 1st Infantry Division paraded through the streets of Paris. Having resisted allowing them to be on display for fear that the trained eye would see the leading edge of America’s contribution to the war effort for what they were—civilians in uniforms—American Expeditionary Forces commander Gen. John Pershing had finally relented. The French were thrilled, less those who could see that these men were not prepared to cross the mud and blood to reach green fields beyond the trenches.
Finishing their parade at the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, it was an American colonel, though often attributed to Pershing himself, who declared, “Lafayette, we are here!” Thus began a 20th century of American returns to Europe through the vicissitudes of war, peace, Cold War, domestic policy constraints, global obligations and a need to honor commitments.
The annual Return of Forces to Germany (REFORGER), beginning in 1969, stood as a 20th century bookend to the deployment of American forces that contributed to winning “the war to end all wars.” Without a shot fired, soldiers participating in REFORGER exercises did their part to win the Cold War, while, unbeknownst to them, helping prepare the U.S. Army for its pivot to a Middle Eastern theater that would consume it for some 30 years. As a chapter in the Army’s history, REFORGER merits clear-eyed consideration reaching beyond misty-eyed nostalgia.
The next time Americans paraded through the streets of Paris to remind Lafayette that “we are here,” they paid a heavy blood tax, crossing beaches in Normandy, France, and fighting through the bocage. Less than a year later, Germany defeated, again, GIs shed their uniforms and returned home. By 1947, the millions of soldiers needed to defeat Adolf Hitler had shrunk to 135,000 occupation troops with an eye on the Soviets but no intent to defend anything east of the Rhine River.
Cold War Rages
The 1st Infantry Division stood opposite a stiffening Iron Curtain backed by nearly 100 communist divisions. Confidence supplied by a monopoly on atomic weapons evaporated in a Soviet mushroom cloud sooner than expected when the Soviets tested their first atomic weapon in 1949.
During the next 20 years, the U.S. worked through approaches to confront the Soviet threat in Europe while fighting in Korea and Vietnam. NATO, formed in 1949, committed the U.S. to the collective defense of Europe. By the mid-1950s, the alliance introduced West Germany as an armed member of NATO’s command and control structure. In time, German domestic political needs contributed to the need for REFORGER, given Germany’s increasing unwillingness to surrender everything east of the Rhine.
The U.S. Army’s efforts to reinvent itself, manifest in the Pentomic Division concept, never quite worked, making some thinking officers uncomfortable with the knowledge of how a nuclear battlefield would transform the German countryside they sought to defend. In January 1960, then-Col. William DePuy wrote in ARMY magazine that if the U.S. did not address its ability to “maintain a rough symmetry of capabilities with the Communist bloc in each category of force,” there would be a reckoning, and the risk that “at some point we simply will be faced with a bet we cannot cover.” Before he transformed the Army a decade later, there were other important steps on the road to REFORGER.
President John Kennedy committed more American forces to Europe as NATO’s forward defense signaled a willingness to confront the Warsaw Pact at the inter-German border. But the necessary boots on the ground became increasingly hard to find when the French withdrew from NATO’s military structure in 1966, and the expanding war in Vietnam strained American readiness in Europe. Furthermore, Congress questioned the expense of billeting soldiers in Europe.
In 1967, DoD placated Congress by agreeing to withdraw two brigades from Europe. Heavy equipment remained in Europe for soldiers returning annually. Commanders in Europe were not amused when the Army assigned the 34,000 troops, now in the U.S., to U.S. Army Europe. At least on paper, NATO retained a mechanized infantry division if, in fact, it would have to cross the Atlantic to join the fight. Until 1993, the Army, in combination with its joint partners, used REFORGER to perfect crossing an ocean quickly enough to cover the bet DePuy had written about.
Lending tangible action to words, a brigade of the 24th Infantry Division returned to Europe, drew equipment from pre-positioned stocks and participated in REFORGER I in January 1969. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia only months earlier helped bring into focus the inability of the U.S. to get back to Europe in a timely manner with a force that could fight. Delivering a capable force would increasingly become an important part of answering an important question: how to defend Europe below the threshold of nuclear war.
By 1980, part of the answer was the goal of moving 10 divisions to Europe in 10 days, a bit more complicated than a single brigade as envisioned in 1967. This led to an increasing requirement for equipment stocks in Europe.
The process of moving the people to the equipment during REFORGER forced greater cooperation between the Army and the Air Force. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 between Egypt, Syria and Israel showcased modern combat pitting Soviet versus Western technology. The U.S. Air Force flew more sorties and delivered more tons to the Israelis than the Soviets were able to provide their proxies. This experience led to restructuring within the Air Force and the creation of the Airlift Concepts and Requirements Agency to enhance the ability to deliver needed troops to Europe to defeat the Soviets.
REFORGER offered an annual opportunity to test a system in need of regular exercise. Gen. Donn Starry, commander of the U.S. Readiness Command, observed that everything from “a division to a two-man tooth drilling detachment” was on the list of 19,000 units needed for the war plan in Europe. Even with months of planning, REFORGER elicited thousands of changes to movement planning.
Doctrinal efforts and technological advances—AirLand Battle, M1 Abrams tanks, Apache helicopters and more—did not obviate the need to get additional troops to Europe rapidly to beat the Warsaw Pact. By the early 1980s, plans included III Corps as a three-division reserve that would likely fight in northern Germany. In the late 1970s, Gen. Crosbie Saint had been the exercise chief for REFORGER. In 1987, he commanded III Corps during REFORGER as it moved from the U.S. to northern Germany to rehearse committing that reserve. Three years later, he would become the first officer to deploy two different corps from two different continents. The unintended benefit of REFORGER was about to be realized.
The existential threat to Germany disappeared in 1989 as the Iron Curtain collapsed. Before even a fraction of the peace dividend could be enjoyed, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990. Lt. Gen. John Yeosock, commander of Third U.S. Army, turned to Maj. Gen. Gus Pagonis to get the Army to a developed theater. They had worked together in the past on REFORGER, “maybe the best background that an army could have provided” for the new challenge, according to Pagonis.
From battalion commander to deputy commander of a theater support command, the experience Pagonis gained was “invaluable” both pushing units from the U.S. and receiving them in Europe. No two plans are exactly the same, but his initial plan for Third Army’s effort to reach the Middle East “was that of a REFORGER,” he said.
For Operation Desert Shield to become a Storm, Third Army needed another corps. Back in Europe, VII Corps awaited inactivation as part of the impending peace dividend. When the order came, Saint sent it on a circuitous detour before casing its colors and mothballing its vehicles. U.S. Army Europe relied on every personal and institutional relationship that had been created during the REFORGER era.
Germany turned its infrastructure—barges, railroads, containers—to the task. Combat vehicles moved and shipped with ammunition, in contravention of regular rules, to speed their ability to move to the front in the Middle East. Convoys moved on Sundays, an unnatural act recognized by anyone who had ever served in Germany. Germany demonstrated its gratitude for years of support by sending VII Corps to war with donated chemical reconnaissance vehicles, heavy equipment transporters, ambulances and water transportation vehicles that sometimes moved to ports on free rail cars.
It is hard to imagine the 100-hour war without VII Corps’ great wheeling envelopment. It is even harder to imagine those forces reaching the line of departure on time without generations of REFORGER muscle memory.
Untested as a concept for war in Europe, REFORGER was many things. It reflected a commitment to NATO, offered a means to enhance joint cooperation, evolved to meet ever-changing defense needs in Europe and provided valuable training to everyone, especially senior leaders, in moving an army over a vast distance.
REFORGER was more than an annual exercise, as it became part of the Army’s DNA and connective tissue to the nation’s allies. It prepared the Army to meet unforeseen challenges. It was a chapter in the Army’s history of which even Pershing would have been proud.
Col. Matthew Morton is an Army strategist serving as a member of the Joint Staff History and Research Office, the Pentagon. He is the author of Men on Iron Ponies: The Death and Rebirth of the Modern U.S. Cavalry. He has a doctorate in history from Florida State University.