Dennis Nolan Builds the First US Army G-2 Section

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

In May 1917, General John J. Pershing had cause to celebrate and lament his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of a “theoretical army which had yet to be constituted, equipped, trained, and sent abroad.”  As his first step in the monumental effort to build the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), he carefully chose his field general staff comprised of Administrative (G-1), Intelligence (G-2), Operations (G-3), Logistics (G-4), and Training (G-5) sections.

While Pershing searched for his most trusted staff members, Maj. Dennis E. Nolan was completing a two-year assignment on the War Department General Staff.  His first experience in intelligence work was preparing products used by the General Staff for planning and mobilization purposes. This included a threat estimate on Germany’s capability to invade the United States.  Nolan had been commissioned a Second Lieutenant in Infantry following graduation from the US Military Academy in 1896.  He received two citations for gallantry in action during the Spanish-American War and commanded a squadron of the 11th US Volunteer Cavalry during the Philippine Insurrection. It was during this latter assignment that Nolan had come to know Pershing and the future AEF Chief of Staff, James Harbord.  Between 1901 and 1915, Nolan held a variety of positions including, instructor of law and history at West Point, director of Southern Luzon in the Philippines, and officer with the 30th Infantry.

Despite his impressive service record, Nolan was hardly holding his breath for a position on the AEF staff.  Consequently, when Maj. Harbord summoned him for dinner one night and informed him of his appointment as the AEF G-2 in charge of the Intelligence Section, Nolan declared himself “surprised and delighted.”  He sailed with Pershing and the rest of the AEF staff less than two weeks later.

Once on the ground in France, Nolan built, from the ground up, the Army’s first multi-discipline theater intelligence organization.  Following the British model, Nolan divided his Headquarters G-2 Section into four divisions: Information, Secret Service, Topographical, and Censorship and Press.  Nolan’s staff, totaling nearly 350 personnel, compiled daily intelligence reports based on a multitude of sources.  In addition to the traditional methods of intelligence collection, such as patrolling, observation, prisoner interrogation, and document translation, Nolan added aerial observation, photographic interpretation, sound and flash ranging, and radio intelligence.  He also played a direct role in organizing the Corps of Intelligence Police, the Army’s first permanent counterintelligence organization.  Venturing outside the normal intelligence arena, Nolan’s press division started up The Stars and Stripes newspaper to communicate orders and regulations, provide news of events, and boost the morale of American soldiers in Europe.

Because Pershing’s General Staff organization was repeated in the tactical units, intelligence officers were appointed at every echelon down to battalion.  To increase their effectiveness, Nolan drafted a set of intelligence regulations applicable to each echelon and established a school at Langres, France, to train all intelligence officers down to division.  Throughout the war, these tactical intelligence sections pushed intelligence up through higher headquarters to Nolan’s G-2 Section, which also pushed intelligence down to give lower echelons a broad picture of the enemy’s situation.

In the closing days of World War I, Nolan was given an opportunity to command the 55th Infantry Brigade, 28th Division, for ten days. For extraordinary heroism in action near Apremont, France, on October 1, 1918, he received the Distinguished Service Cross and the respect of his men, who recalled Nolan was “right up there with us doughboys.”  He then returned to his G-2 Section for the duration of the war.

Nolan’s G-2 Section, the Army’s first theater intelligence organization, unquestionably contributed to the AEF’s success.  Declaring that “no army was better served by its intelligence bureau than our own,” Pershing awarded Nolan the Distinguished Service Medal.  Secretary of War Newton D. Baker praised “the fidelity and intelligence with which General Nolan supplied [Pershing] eyes to penetrate the fog which clouds military actions.”

After the Armistice, Nolan was detailed to the Peace Commission until returning to Washington in July 1919.  After a year instructing military intelligence at the Army War College, he was named as the War Department’s Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2. Perhaps his most important contribution during this assignment was the establishment of the Military Intelligence Officers Reserve Corps—the first formal recognition of the Army’s need to retain professional MI officers.  From 1924-1926, he served as the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, receiving promotion to the rank of Major General in 1925. His final assignment was Commander, Second Corps Area and First Army.  In 1936, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 64, Nolan had served 44 years and was the second-highest ranking officer of the US Army.

 

Dennis Nolan

Dennis Nolan

Col. (later Maj. Gen.) Dennis Nolan sitting at his desk in AEF Headquarters, May 23, 1918.
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