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The Will to Win: General James Van Fleet


Happy belated birthday to the man who President Harry Truman called America’s “greatest general,” James Alward Van Fleet, born on March 19, 1892 in Coytesville, New Jersey.

Based on Van Fleet’s lineage, it was in his blood to be an American soldier. His grandfather served in the New York militia during the American Revolution and his father fought for the Union during the American Civil War. Destined to fight great battles of his own for America, Van Fleet was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1911 and graduated with the historic class of 1915, which earned the nickname, “The Class the Stars Fell On.” During his senior year at the Academy, Van Fleet played fullback on an Army football team that went undefeated and was recognized as the national champion by several top organizations of the day.

Van Fleet on the gridiron. (Photo Credit: The Korea Society)

In 1916, Van Fleet served under Major General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing in Mexico during the manhunt for the Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa. After the United States entered World War One, he sailed to France with the Army’s 6th Division in July 1918. Van Fleet was placed in command of the 17th Machine Gun Battalion and earned two Silver Stars for valor under fire before he was wounded in action just days before the guns of the First World War fell silent on November 11, 1918.

Van Fleet performed many different assignments for the Army in the years before the world’s next titanic struggle broke out, including a successful stint as the head football coach of the Florida Gators. While also leading the university’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, he compiled a record of 12-3-4 over two seasons as the top football man at Florida.

During the Second World War, Van Fleet emerged as one of America’s most dependable commanders. On June 6, 1944, he led the 8th Infantry Regiment into battle on D-Day, spearheading the 4th Infantry Division’s landing on Utah Beach in Normandy, France. He went on to lead the 4th and 90th Infantry Divisions and later the U.S. III Corps. Van Fleet’s leadership proved vital during the pivotal Battle of the Bulge as he guided the lead elements of Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr.’s Third Army in the drive to relieve the heavily besieged town of Bastogne, Belgium. By the end of the war, his III Corps had battled its way across Germany to Austria.

Van Fleet presenting one of his soldiers with the Silver Star, the U.S. Army's third-highest award for valor in combat. (Photo Credit: Everytown, USA)

Following the Second World War, President Harry Truman called upon Van Fleet to help Greece in its fight against communist insurgents. Now a lieutenant general, Van Fleet helped Greek forces turn the tide of battle and emerge victorious against the communists.

After his victory in Greece, Van Fleet assumed command of the U.S. 8th Army during the Korean War in April 1951. Under his leadership, American and U.N. forces managed to hold on against some of the most intense enemy offensives of the war and then counterattacked, driving North Korean and Chinese forces back across the 38th Parallel (the line separating North and South Korea.) After the communists called for peace talks, Van Fleet’s troops held the line for nearly two years as armistice negotiations were conducted. A few months before the war came to a close, Van Fleet retired from the Army after 37 years of service on March 31, 1953.

General Van Fleet in Korea. (Photo Credit: flickr.com/manhhai)

Over the course of his career, Van Fleet ultimately rose to become a four-star general and earned more than 20 medals, the most prized of which to him was the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. For his efforts to modernize South Korean forces during the Korean War, he earned the nickname, “Father of the ROK Army.” President Truman proclaimed him as “the greatest general we have ever had. I sent him to Greece and he won the war. I sent him to Korea and he won the war.” As Van Fleet’s grandson defined the great soldier, “His motto was ‘the will to win,’ and he lived that his whole life.” At the time of his death at the age of 100 in 1992, Van Fleet was the oldest living general officer in the United States.

Sources

Arlington National Cemetery: James Alward Van Fleet.

Dominion Hill: General James A. Van Fleet.

Encyclopaedia Britannica: James Alward Van Fleet.

The Hall of Valor Project: James Van Fleet.

The Washington Post: Famed Army General James A. Van Fleet Dies.

U.S. Army: General's Grandson Shares Leadership Lessons in Korea.

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