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First Special Service Force , A biography the first CO, Robert T. Frederick

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Military.com Book Review: The Last Fighting General

Michael F. Dilley - Special Warfare Military.com

The Last Fighting General: The Biography of Robert Tryon Frederick
By Anne Hicks Atglen,
Schiffer Military History,
ISBN: 0-7643-2430-6. 270 pages. $35 US

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 lard-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.

In the spring of 1942, Frederick evaluated a British proposal, known as Project Plough, which advocated training 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 battalions, which was based at Fort William Henry Harrison, in Helena, Mont. Training for the force included techniques of parachute operations, snow and mountain operations (with emphasis on nighttime execution) and a new method of land-to-hand fighting known as the O1NeUl 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, Alaska. The plan was for one battalion of the force to drop by parachute, while the other two were to land by 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 Monte Ia Difensa. The men of the force climbed this almost sheer obstacle in one night in a cold rainstorm and then assaulted the German forces on top at dawn, sweeping them from the area. La Difensa had been an obstacle in the Fifth Army's march to Rome. Frederick continued to command the force through the amphibious assault at Anzio and led his unit (and Fifth Army) into Rome June 4, 1944.

Following the liberation of Rome, Frederick was promoted (to brigadier general) to organize and command the First Airborne Task Force as part of the invasion of Southern France in August 1944. When 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; the U.S. Advisory Group in Greece; and as commander of Fort Ord, Calif.

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 whom he believed were interested only 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.

This book tells the story of Frederick in a fairly straightforward way. However, it is a difficult book to read. Hicks has an awkward style of writing that includes long, wandering introductory phrases to sentences that are confusing enough anyway. 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). Schiffer usually produces better books, and this one could be better with more careful editing. One other failing that should be mentioned is that not any of Frederick's speeches or papers on leadership have been included or summarized. These are worthy of mention because they had a major impact on those who heard or read his philosophy or served under him.

Despite the difficulty you will encounter in reading this book, I recommend it. Frederick set an example that is a benchmark in military leadership, one that all military leaders should strive to emulate.
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