Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of profiles of Army authors—individuals who worked to share ideas, contribute to vital professional discourse, and improve the Army’s readiness to meet future challenges—published by the Harding Project.
Major General Edwin “Forrest” Harding threw his cigarette to the ground. In the dense, humid jungle, the cigarette’s ember would have matched the fiery tension in the air. Harding’s West Point classmate, Lt. General Robert L. Eichelberger, stood in front of him, his expression stern.
Eichelberger’s words must have cut deep for Harding, whose soldiers had fought and died in the Battle of Buna, the outcome of which still hung in the balance.
As commander of the 32nd Infantry Division, Harding had been at the forefront of an intense jungle campaign to liberate Papua New Guinea from Imperial Japanese occupation. But malaria and malnourishment wreaked havoc on Harding’s troops. Sent by General Douglas MacArthur to inspect the situation, Eichelberger found the division combat ineffective and relieved Harding two weeks after the battle began, replacing him with the division artillery commander. Overseeing the battle as the I Corps commander, Eichelberger eventually captured Buna, but it took several weeks and came at great loss of life.
While relief from command during the Battle of Buna would forever be associated with Harding, this perhaps overshadows the deeply important contributions he made in the years ahead of World War II—contributions that make him worth remembering, and emulating, for today’s Army leaders of all levels.
Two-Star Son of Ohio
Born and raised in Franklin, Ohio, before Harding rose to command the 32nd Infantry Division, he ascended through the ranks along a mostly traditional path. Graduating from West Point in 1909, Harding served across the Army in infantry assignments. As a lieutenant, he served in the Philippines and on the Mexican border. He returned to West Point and taught history as a captain. He commanded a battalion of the 15th Infantry Regiment in China as a major and then taught at Fort Benning (now Fort Moore). His military education included graduating from the Infantry School, the Command and General Staff School, and the (at the time, newly established) Army War College. When World War II broke out, he was commanding the 27th Infantry Regiment in Hawaii. But those are the facts that a standard military biography will capture. There was much more to Harding as an Army officer.
Throughout his career, Harding was renowned for his clever and wide-ranging intellect. While they were in China together, George C. Marshall declared Harding the “poet laureate” of the 15th Infantry Regiment. Later, at Fort Benning, Harding led the post’s drama club and could be found frequently on the post newspaper’s society pages. Harding brought his wit to each assignment.
Harding also served as a mentor and teacher to many. In his early years in the Army, Harding became close with both Marshall and Omar Bradley. As lieutenants, Harding convinced Bradley “that an officer had to begin studying at the very start of his career and continue to study regularly if he hoped to master his profession.” Later, as Marshall led “an almost complete revamping of the instruction and technique” at the Infantry School at Fort Benning in the 1930s, he recruited Bradley and Harding to the faculty. Harding led the 4th Section, which focused on history and writing.
Renewing Interwar Military Discourse
In the 1930s, Harding confronted a set of challenges altogether different than those of malaria and scrub typhus he and his soldiers faced on Papua New Guinea. The Great Depression had pushed officers like Harding into leadership roles in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a far cry from combat. Meanwhile, the tiny, resource-poor peacetime Army struggled to transform for faster, mechanized warfare.
Enter Major Edwin Harding. With the Army in desperate need of adapting to the changes in the character of war, Harding renewed not one, but two military publications: Fort Benning’s Mailing List and the Infantry Association’s Infantry Journal.
Assigned to Fort Benning as a colonel in 1934, Marshall tasked Harding with revitalizing the Infantry School’s nascent magazine. Under Harding, Mailing List, (today’s Infantry) shifted from dry, printed lectures or map exercises to a semiannual publication with chapters on specific topics. Mailing List also sought to help soldiers understand infantry combat by publishing personal narratives, mostly from World War I, an important means of identifying both continuities and change in the conduct of warfare that continues in the Army today. Harding also included excerpts from Infantry in Battle, a book he was editing on behalf of Marshall.
Editing Infantry in Battle was Harding’s second major accomplishment while at Benning. Based on experiences of Americans during World War I, this textbook features “numerous historical examples, [so] the reader is acquainted with the realities of war and the extremely difficult and highly disconcerting conditions under which tactical problems must be solved in the face of an enemy.” So important was this book that a British division commander described it as “the only one book he took with him on maneuvers.” When Harding closed out his time at Fort Benning and headed to the US Army War College, he had modernized Mailing List and also prepared what would be the authoritative text on infantry operations.
With a fresh War College diploma in hand, Harding repeated his Mailing List trick with the Infantry Journal—the semiofficial magazine of the Infantry and the Army. With the Great Depression affecting every facet of American life, military publications like the Infantry Journal also suffered. Subscriptions dwindled, and the content was often seen as mundane. The Infantry Journal was in rough shape.
To fix the journal, Major General Edward Croft, the chief of infantry, tasked Harding with revitalization. Under his leadership, the Infantry Journal underwent a transformation. A lively new cover, contributions from renowned military thinkers, and a focus on progressive thought turned the journal from a neglected publication to a must-read for military professionals. Within four years, subscriptions surged to nearly ten thousand. Between the Mailing List, Infantry in Battle, and the Infantry Journal, Harding’s work was instrumental in renewing professional discourse in the interwar period.
Battle of Buna
Of course, any successful organization must be results oriented, and when the stakes are as high as they are in combat, this is especially true for military organizations. Harding commanded the 32nd Infantry Division as it attacked Buna, a critical node for air attacks in the Papua New Guinea campaign. Unfortunately, MacArthur thought Harding lacked aggressiveness, and Eichelberger duly replaced him. While Eichelberger ultimately succeeded at Buna, he did so with great loss of life and was even described as the “Butcher of Buna.”
The Battle of Buna was a tough one. Due to the challenges of fighting across the great distances of the Pacific theater, Harding’s 32nd Infantry Division was committed piecemeal. The 114th Engineer Battalion flew into Papua New Guinea while the 126th Infantry Regiment sailed. The 128th Infantry Regiment flew in the greatest airlift US forces had undertaken to that point. These logistical challenges prevented the division’s howitzers, mortars, and engineers from accompanying the infantry regiments. Japanese Zeros even struck Harding’s ship as he approached Port Moresby, forcing him, another general, and his artillery commander to swim to shore as precious mortars and howitzers sank to the ocean’s bottom.
Conditions got worse as the troops marched forward to Buna. Dysentery, malnutrition, long marches through swamps, poor supply, and Japanese fire weakened the attacking division and other troops.
Back in Australia and frustrated by the lack of progress, MacArthur dispatched Eichelberger to “remove all the officers who won’t fight.” MacArthur then went on: “I want you to take Buna, or not come back alive.” Eichelberger reorganized and pressed the attack, but still came up short. Failing to make progress, he waited for Australian armor and reinforcements.
Ultimately, Buna fell to the combined American and Australian forces, but at the cost of the 32nd Infantry Division. American casualties in Papua New Guinea exceeded those in Guadalcanal despite that battle’s longer duration and greater number of troops involved. Likewise, 8,659 of 14,646 troops in the area succumbed to malaria. Following the battle, the division returned to Australia after Eichelberger characterized it as needing “building up from the bottom.”
Scholars have debated Harding’s relief since it occurred. While several contend that Eichelberger won because he received the reinforcements and armor that Harding requested, interviews with observers concluded that Harding and his officers “seemed to lack aggressiveness” and that perhaps the relief was warranted.
Letters and Leadership
Ultimately, history remembers military leaders for their battlefield successes. A number of Harding’s peers—George S. Patton, who was in Harding’s West Point class, and Bradley, Harding’s friend and also a division commander at the same time as Harding was—became among the most well-known military leaders of the war. Harding, by contrast, remains a comparatively little-known figure, the subject of footnotes in books rather than of books themselves. Yet, if his relief during one of the first major campaigns in the Pacific during World War II means we fail to recognize—and seek to emulate the model of—his deeply impactful work during the interwar years, the military profession suffers as a result.
Zachary Griffiths is a major in the United States Army.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.