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Massive war-games campaign covered Central Oregon in ’43

Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers, shipped to the Beaver State for training, learned combat lessons that would save their lives and help them win the Second World War during the huge campaign simulation known as the Oregon Maneuver.

Major General Alexander M. Patch, Jr., the commander in charge of the Oregon Maneuver, talks to Colonel Roy R. Gerfen while riding in the passenger seat of a Jeep driven by Brigadier General E.S. Sebree in New Caledonia in 1942. (Image: Library of Congress)

On the crisp autumn day of Sept. 29, 1943, behind their makeshift breastworks and beside their three-inch field pieces, the soldiers of the 94th Infantry “Deadeye” Division knew the end was coming soon. They were outnumbered two-to-one, dug in near a tiny hamlet on a dusty desert. Arrayed against them was a sea of soldiers backed up with a large force of tanks. Overhead roared a squadron of heavy bombers, softening them up for the final assault. It would all be over soon.

And the soldiers of the 94th couldn’t wait. The attacking force was composed of the 91st “Powder River” Division and the 104th “Timber Wolves” division — until a few days before, their friends and comrades at the various Army training camps around Oregon. This climactic battle would be the final action in the biggest military training exercise in the history of the Pacific Northwest — one which has become known as the “Oregon Maneuver.”

The Deadeyes were going to lose the battle — they knew that. But they’d give a good account of themselves, and then there would be hot showers and a little something to eat that didn’t come from a K-ration can, and a frank and useful discussion of what they’d learned — lessons that would save many of their lives just a few months later.

The Battle of Oregon: Red vs. Blue

Camp Adair, the state’s biggest Army base and the home cantonment for most of the soldiers involved in the Oregon Maneuver, as it appeared just after the war. (Image: OSU Archives)

Soon the fight was on. The bombers roared overhead, dropping hundreds of bags of white powder which burst open on impact, marking bomb hits. Soldiers within the “blast radius” hurled themselves to the ground to play dead or wounded. Soon the sound of the tanks could be heard, rolling and shooting on three sides, closing in on the little micro-town of Wagontire.

“Major General James L. Bradley’s ‘red’ army put up a stubborn stand against the onslaught of the ‘blues,’” the Bend Bulletin’s reporter wrote.

But it was soon over.

“The third ‘Battle of Oregon’ ended shortly after noon, when the directors felt that all combat lessons of value had been learned,” the reporter added.

Testing the soldiers' mettle

The Oregon Maneuver kicked off late in the summer of 1943, under the command of General Alexander Patch. The goal was to refine and test the combat skills of the three infantry divisions that had been training in the state’s army cantonments: Camp White, in Jackson County; Camp Abbot, near Bend; and the big one, Camp Adair, near Corvallis — known to its 40,000 reluctant residents as “Swamp Adair” for its seemingly constant cold drizzle and mucky ground.

The divisions were split up into two opposing forces: a “red force,” consisting of the Deadeyes; and a “blue force,” made up of the Powder River and Timberwolf divisions. The Deadeyes would be on the defense; the other two would take the offense.

The planning for the Maneuver had started in early spring, when the commanders selected a giant patch of Crook, Deschutes, Lake, Klamath, Jefferson and Grant counties for the exercise. They wanted a lot of room to move around and a wide variety of terrain features — not just for the combat training, but also for the provisioning of the forces. Especially for soldiers bound for Italy and (after D-Day) France, the war that loomed before them would, if they were lucky, turn on their ability to get food, clean water, ammo and other supplies to the front. History is littered with stories of successful armies defeated not by the enemy’s arms, but by their own inability to get supplies to the advancing front lines.

The entire maneuver started out with four weeks of live-fire exercises in the dusty volcanic areas between Sisters and Bend, and practice crossing the Deschutes River. Then it was showtime, and “red” team — the Deadeyes — dug themselves into a defensive line near Brothers, just east of Bend, and the “blue” forces charged into battle.

Over the second half of September, the red team was pushed back to Hampton Mountain, then back again to Burns, and finally back to its last-stand position near Wagontire, where the Deadeyes stood off the attacking forces for three days before the exercise was declared complete.

Of course, with 100,000 soldiers prowling around with all the supplies and ancillary personnel to boot, traffic became pretty challenging for Central Oregon residents. But there’s no record of anyone seriously complaining about it. After all, there was a war on.

Ironically, the scene of the “red” forces’ last stand was the same spot on Silver Creek that had seen one of the key battles of the Bannock War, back in 1878, between the U.S. Army and several Native American tribes of Eastern Oregon and Idaho.

Oregon-trained divisions in combat

The sign at the cutoff to the site of what used to be Camp Adair, north of Corvallis, with the emblems of all the Army divisions that trained there — including all three participating divisions from the Oregon Maneuver. (Image: F.J.D. John)

Once the exercise was over, the three divisions that had participated in it were sent off to win the war — each to a different theater of operations. The Powder River Division (the 91st) shipped out for North Africa. Over the following year, they battled their way up the Italian boot, joined British allies and locked horns with the German 10th Army, defeating the massive slave-labor-built Gothic Line as they went.

The Deadeye Division (the 96th) was deployed to the South Pacific and prepared for action against the Japanese, helping rout them out of the Philippines and subsequently participating in the bloody and terrible conquest of Okinawa.

And the Timberwolf Division (the 104th) — something of a specialized outfit, having been trained to fight at night — was sent to France, where they locked horns with the Nazis in northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The weather there — chilly and muddy, with a near-constant drizzle nearly all the time — wasn’t anything like what they’d worked in during the Oregon Maneuver, in sunny-if-occasionally-icy-cold Central Oregon … but it sure must have reminded them of their training back at “Swamp Adair.”

(Sources: Brogan, Phil. East of the Cascades. Portland: Binford, 1977; archives of the Bend Bulletin, Jul-Sep 1943)