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Throwback Thursday: As Hitler raged, tanks rolled through Belleville

Our editorial page on Oct. 5, 1938, gushed over the spectacle of the U.S. Army’s motorized 7th Cavalry Brigade (Mechanized) passing through Belleville the day before and spending a day camped at Scott Field.

“From the motorcycle advance guard to the supply company bringing up the rear, the column anywhere from 15 to 20 miles in length, was always under complete control of the brigade commander by means of the most efficient radio communication yet devised by man.”

The tank brigade was headed from Fort Knox, Ky., to Fort Riley, Kansas, and their passing through our area merited a front page photo, the editorial and a full page of photos inside the paper. Local folks flocked to Scott Field, pestering soldiers with questions, getting in the way of the tanks and taking up parking reserved for the company.

The M1 light tanks used by the 7th Cavalry in 1938 may look feeble compared to what we’re used to seeing in war movies, but they were part of a rapidly evolving arsenal of the time. “They are capable of exceeding 45 miles per hour and spewing death from machine guns mounted fore and aft,” our front page said. Still, the M1 “combat cars” were kept at home for training as war broke out.

In the late 1930s, the 7th Cavalry was engaged in a series of war games intended to modernize our war tactics. Some of those exercises were aimed at evaluating the role of the war horse, with commanders insisting there remained a role for their steeds and trying to mix traditional horse soldiers with the tank units.

That notion quickly died and more cavalry units were mechanized.

Some photos of the brigade show the old blimp hangar at Scott Field. It had just been sold for scrap and was being razed along with the hydrogen tanks that had been part of Scott’s lighter-than-air mission from 1921 until 1938. Scott in 1938 was named as the new General Headquarters Air Force, which meant it would manage the Army’s air combat arm.

That decision was reversed by the outbreak of World War II and headquarters was kept close to Washington, D.C. Scott Field during the war, and for the next 20 years, was one of the U.S. Army Air Corps’ major training facilities, turning out airplane mechanics, welders, radio mechanics and weather observers.

It was a time of transition on other fronts. The headlines that fall were about FDR brokering peace and Hitler being given the Sudetenland. Der Fuhrer was not appeased by the chunk of Czechoslovakia and World War II followed.

Our editorial kept remarking about the “efficiency” of the tank brigade. It urged residents to visit Scott Field and “go back home secure and proud in the knowledge that with such outfits as the 7th Cavalry Brigade and hundreds of similarly trained military units making up Uncle Sam’s fighting force, no foreign enemy is going to set back our borders or change our form of democratic government.”

We were right about the borders, but the foreign enemy certainly changed the second half of the 20th Century and created a multi-million man corps of veterans. Then as now, we salute them.

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