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Kennerth W. Keller: Lessons learned from WWII

Inside Business

Posted: September 15, 2009 11:02 p.m.
Updated: September 16, 2009 4:55 a.m.
The six months following the attack on Pearl Harbor were a whirlwind.

From Dec. 7, 1941, until the Battle of Midway in early June 1942, the newspapers, radio and newsreels were filled with stunning defeats for America and her allies, punctuated by occasional small victories.

In the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur gave up on his initial strategy to fight the Japanese on the beaches once he realized how undertrained and underequipped his troops were.

Instead, he dusted off War Plan Orange, created in 1921.

This called for the orderly retreat of American and Filipino troops to the Bataan Peninsula, which held many advantages for the defenders.

War Plan Orange, like many strategic plans, had a number of assumptions.

The most important one was that there would be sufficient food, ammunition, equipment, medicine and spare parts to last six months.

The plan forecast that at six months, reinforcements would arrive, the U.S. Navy having fought across the Pacific Ocean, bringing relief to the defenders on Bataan.

Despite having a good plan, there was ample confusion, mistakes and foul-ups in execution. This happens in battle and it happens in business.

In this particular case, not enough ammunition was transported and someone, literally, forgot the food.

Not far from Bataan there were warehouses filled with enough rice and canned goods to feed the defenders for over two years. Convoys of empty trucks drove past the full warehouses into Bataan.

The food situation quickly became critical; there was only enough food for a single month.

Everyone was put on half rations to stretch what little food there was. Despite this, morale remained high and the defense perimeter was strong.

Over time, morale dropped as the fighting intensified.

The men suffered from tropical diseases, including malaria, scurvy, beriberi, edema, night blindness, dysentery, hookworm and dengue fever.

Thousands were in hospitals and many more were not fit for duty due to illness, fatigue or hunger. Still, they fought on.

During the height of the Japanese bombardment, General Wainwright, who took over after MacArthur departed for Australia, visited the front lines.

Enemy shells were coming in at treetop level and exploding all around. Once Wainwright’s jeep stopped, everyone ran to a foxhole except for the general.

Wainwright noticed a captain he had known in Virginia. He walked over and sat down on some piled sandbags. His back was to the Japanese; his body exposed to the shelling. Wainwright talked with the captain as if he had nothing else to do.

When the shelling stopped, he got back into the jeep and drove back to his headquarters.

On that drive back to headquarters, a young navy lieutenant on the staff told Wainwright: “General, I admit I do not understand your situation here. Do you realize sir that you are loved by your men, you are in command here on Bataan, you are risking your life, and I don’t understand why? The men love you. They want you alive. Why do you expose yourself in the way you did a few minutes ago?”

Wainwright replied to the lieutenant, “Young man, you don’t understand what we have to give to our men. A general in the Army of the United States does his best to give his men arms and ammunition, food, medicine and recreation. We have none of those things. The men are starving. We are running out of ammunition. As you saw, they are dying.

“What can I give them? What can I do for my men? The only thing I can give them now is morale. My life is not worth as much as you think it is. I can give them morale and my presence on the front line is not the waste you think it is. When I sat on the sandbags, I did it deliberately. They want their general and they want to know he is here. I do that, and I do if for a good reason.

“The Battle of Bataan ended with the greatest single surrender of American troops in the history of our nation. U.S. troops did not completely liberate the Philippines until the end of the war.

On Sept. 2, 1945, General Wainwright, having survived being a prisoner of war, stood on the deck of the USS Missouri and watched the Japanese surrender to the Allied Forces.

This story offers three lessons for leaders. The first is that most plans won’t work unless they are executed, down to the details. The second is that assumptions in plans are often wrong. The third is that despite the worst possible circumstances, a leader can and should lead from the front, setting an example for all to see.

Ken Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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