Book Review: The Last Fighting General – The Biography of Robert Tyron Frederick
by Michael F. Dilley
The Last Fighting General – The Biography of Robert Tyron Frederick by Anne Hicks.
Schiffer Pub Ltd
ISBN No.: 978-0764324307
A biography of Robert T. Frederick is long overdue. Frederick organized and commanded the First Special Service Force in World War II, among other accomplishments. Frederick, a hard-driving, inspirational leader, commanded from the front. His life should be celebrated in U.S. Army leadership courses but it isn’t. This is due, in part, to a general unfamiliarity with Frederick, his accomplishments, and his leadership philosophy.
Frederick was born in San Francisco in 1907. When he was 14 years old, he lied about his age to join a cavalry unit in the California National Guard. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1928 and was commissioned in the Coast Artillery branch.
Between the world wars most Americans questioned the need for a standing Army. Those years were grim ones for professional soldiers, including Frederick. In those years, he served in several Coast Artillery units and was even assigned to the Civilian Conservation Corps in the West Coast area. His Coast Artillery assignments included units in Panama and Hawaii. Frederick rose steadily through the ranks and was a major when he reported for duty at the War Department Plans Division in September 1941.
In the spring of 1942, Frederick evaluated a British proposal, known as Project PLOUGH. This project proposed to train troops to be sent to Norway who would use specialized equipment, including a motorized snow sled. Frederick recommended against U.S. involvement in the project. When the U.S. and England agreed to go forward with the project, Frederick was selected, in typical Army logic, to raise, train, and command the unit. This was the birth of the First Special Service Force, a joint U.S.-Canadian unit composed of three regiments, which was based at Fort William Henry Harrison, in Helena, Montana. Training for the Force included techniques of parachute operations, snow and mountain operations, with emphasis on night-time execution, and a new method of hand-to-hand fighting, known as the O’Neill System. Eventually, the plan to use the snow sled in combat was dropped. However, the Force continued to train for combat.
The Force’s first combat action was in August 1943 during the invasion of Kiska in Alaska. The plan was for one regiment of the Force to be held in reserve and to drop by parachute if necessary, while the other two were to land with the amphibious assault. The operational command level cancelled the parachute drop when it learned that the Japanese had left Kiska prior to the planned assault. The Force gained its first victory under fire in Italy when it took Mount la Difensa. The Forcemen climbed this almost sheer obstacle in two nights in a cold rain storm and then assaulted the German forces on top at dawn, sweeping them from the area. La Difensa had been an obstacle in Fifth Army’s march to Rome. For several weeks prior to the commitment of the Force, several Fifth Army units tried unsuccessfully to capture it. Frederick continued to command the Force through the amphibious assault at Anzio and led his unit (and Fifth Army) into Rome on 4 June 1944.
Following the liberation of Rome, Frederick was promoted (he was now a brigadier general) to organize and command the First Airborne Task Force as part of the invasion of Southern France in August 1944. Once this invasion was successful, Frederick was promoted again (to major general) to become commander of the 45th Infantry Division, a position he held until war’s end. No unit that Frederick commanded ever gave up ground it had taken in combat, a remarkable achievement. Frederick eventually retired from the Army in 1952, following assignments to the Military Government Group in Vienna, Austria and the U.S. Advisory Group in Greece, and as commander of Fort Ord, California.
Frederick was a very visible leader in all of his assignments with troops. Many of his former subordinates tell stories of fighting their way to a position only to find Frederick waiting for them. Frederick had little time for leaders he believed were only interested in self-promotion (he counted George Patton and Mark Clark among these). His main interests were the two basic prongs of leadership: accomplish the mission and take care of the troops. He spoke frequently to military and civilian groups alike about his philosophy of leadership while he was still on active duty and after he retired.
This book tells the story of Frederick in a fairly straightforward way. However, it is a very difficult book to read. Hicks has a very awkward style of writing that includes too many split infinitives and long wandering introductory phrases to sentences that are confusing enough anyway. I found that I had to read many sentences several times to understand what the author is saying. There were more than several words missing from sentences throughout the book. At least one major fact is wrong (Truman’s opponent in the 1948 election was Thomas E. Dewey, not John Dewey). I believe this book should have been edited more carefully that it was. The reason I mention all of this is because Schiffer usually produces better books than this; this could be a better book with careful editing. One other failing that I think should be mentioned is that none of Frederick’s speeches or papers on leadership have been included or summarized. I think this is worthy of mention because it was a major impact on those who heard or read of his philosophy or served under him.
Despite the difficulty you will encounter in reading this book, I recommend it. Military students, history students, and military leaders should know more about Frederick than they do; he has much to teach them. Frederick set an example that is a benchmark in military leadership, one that all military leaders should strive to emulate.
Copyright © 2014 Michael F. Dilley.
Written by Michael F. Dilley. The author retains the copyright to this piece bearing his name. No reproduction, copying, or other forms of retrieval without permission. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Michael F. Dilley at:
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About the author:
Michael F. Dilley has a B.A. in History from Columbia College in Missouri and is a retired U.S. Army Military Intelligence officer. He served two tours in Viet Nam and six and one-half years in airborne units. In the field of military history, he was written three books (one of them as co-author) and contributed to two anthologies. He has also written many articles and book reviews dealing with special purpose, special mission units.
Published online: 03/09/2014.
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