Anthony McAuliffe

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Anthony McAuliffe

Anthony McAuliffe (1898-1975) exhibited superior ability commanding airborne and regular army troops during the Normandy Invasion, Operation Market Garden, and the Battle of the Bulge, three of the most critical military engagements for the Western Allies against Nazi Germany during World War II. McAuliffe was also instrumental in the racial integration of the U.S. Army, for which he was particularly proud.

Born on July 2, 1898 in Washington, DC, to a father employed by the government, Anthony McAuliffe seemed destined for a career in the service of his country. He attended public schools in Washington, DC, and secured admittance to West Virginia University in 1916. McAuliffe embarked on his life's work following the U.S. entry into World War I, transferring to the War Emergency Course offered by the U.S. Military Academy in June 1917. He completed the course in November 1918, just days before the end of the war, and reentered the Academy as an officer cadet. McAuliffe graduated 29th in a class of 284 in June 1919.

Peace Time Career

The years immediately following the war were a time of downsizing in the United States military. American participation in World War I, the "war to end all wars," was seen as an aberration. It appeared extremely unlikely that American military intervention would be required overseas in the foreseeable future. As such, the size of the American army was drastically decreased, and promotions for military personnel were few and far between. Against this backdrop, McAuliffe managed to advance his career, showing the promise that he was later able to fulfill under the pressure of battle.

Following his graduation from West Point, McAuliffe entered the Army Field Artillery School in Camp Zachary, Kentucky. He also married his high school sweetheart, Helen Willet Whitman, on August 23, 1920. The couple would eventually have two children. Upon finishing his artillery training, McAuliffe was transferred to the West Coast, serving from 1920 until 1922 at Fort Lewis, Washington, and the Presidios of San Francisco and Monterrey, California. He was promoted to first lieutenant and began a three-year stint at Schofield Barracks on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, in 1923. Upon his return to the mainland, McAuliffe was transferred to Fort Riley, Kansas, before settling at Fort Hoyle, Maryland from 1927 until 1932. McAuliffe returned to Hawaii from 1932 until 1936. He served as a general's aide until 1935, when he was promoted to captain.

Although his career path had led him to specialize in artillery operations and staff work, McAuliffe was determined to secure a position commanding combat troops. To this end, he enrolled in the Army Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1936, completing the program the following year. He then served as an instructor at the Artillery School at Fort Still, Oklahoma, until 1939.

McAuliffe's career as a staff officer continued despite his desire for combat command. He was appointed to a study group examining race relations in the Army at the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania in 1940. This study group recommended that the Army become more fully integrated, an objective that McAuliffe remained committed to throughout his military career. His participation in the study group earned McAuliffe promotion to the rank of major and a transfer to the Army General Staff. He received a further promotion prior to the U.S. entry into World War II, becoming a lieutenant colonel in 1941.

Field Command

The United States entered World War II on December 8, 1941, the day following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Officers with thorough training and experience quickly became a prized commodity. Overnight, the military embarked on an unprecedented expansion to meet the requirements of a global war. Given his success as a staff officer and desire to command troops, McAuliffe was promoted to colonel in 1942 and placed in command of the artillery elements of the newly formed 101st Airborne Division, which was slated to participate in the Allied liberation of France.


While U.S. forces battled the Axis powers in the Pacific and in North Africa and Italy during 1942 and 1943, the invasion of German-held France was forced to wait. The difficulties present in amphibious operations, and the anticipated strength of the German defense of the French, Belgian, and Dutch coasts, necessitated a large and meticulously planned buildup prior to invasion, which was not completed until spring of 1944.

Allied plans for the invasion of France, relied heavily on airborne troops in the initial stages of the operation. Allied airborne forces were to drop behind the invasion beaches of Normandy in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, and secure vital roads and rail lines that the main body of the invasion force would require. The airborne forces would also delay the transfer of German reserve forces to the invasion area. This was to prove no simple task, given the technological limitations faced by airborne operations at the time. Without accurate navigation and positioning systems, most of the Allied airborne forces were dropped several miles from their planned landing zones. Many men and much equipment were lost during the risky night jump. In McAuliffe's case, his troops and equipment landed three miles from their intended landing zone and his immediate commander, Brigadier General D. F. Pratt, was killed during his parachute drop. Despite this disastrous beginning to the operation, McAuliffe quickly assumed Pratt's position and organized the capture and defense of a vital bridge over the Vire River and the key village of Pouppeville. His forces linked with invading troops, pressing inland on the morning of June 6, 1944.

In the days following the invasion, McAuliffe led a successful attack on the town of Carentan in support of the expansion of the Allied beachhead. McAuliffe's participation in the D-Day invasion and subsequent operations demonstrated his command abilities, as the 101st Airborne achieved most of its objectives despite encountering difficult and unforeseen obstacles. His confidence in his own abilities and those of his troops was evidenced in his behavior prior to the operation. As his men boarded their planes for the night parachute drop, McAuliffe had each of them exchange signed 100-franc notes so that they could all treat each other to a celebratory drink following their victory. Despite their bravery and determination, Allied airborne troops suffered heavier than expected casualties during the invasion of Normandy. The effectiveness of airborne operations, in general, came under some doubt. These doubts were to be confirmed by the failure of the next major Allied airborne operation.

Market Garden

The 101st Airborne Division, and the rest of the Allied airborne forces, rested and replaced their losses in the months following the Normandy invasion. Other Allied forces pressed forward from the invasion area to liberate most of France and Belgium, and a portion of the Netherlands by the end of August 1944. Although the pace of the Allied advance had been swift after the invasion, it slowed to a standstill in the face of the natural obstacles presented by the Rhine River and its major tributaries. Many strategies for placing a large force on the eastern bank of the Rhine were debated by the Allied General Staff. A plan proposed by British Field Marshall, Bernard Montgomery, was approved by the overall commander of the Allied forces in the West, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Montgomery, normally a very conservative general, had come up with a daring and innovative plan for using airborne forces to secure a series of critical bridges crossing the Rhine and Maas rivers, the Wilhelmina Canal, and several other large waterways crossing a 37-mile long area in the central Netherlands. In conjunction with this airborne operation, forces of the British XXXth Corps, comprising one armored and two infantry divisions, would drive along roadways linking the bridges secured by the airborne forces, thus breaking through the German lines on the lower Rhine.

Montgomery's plan, code-named Operation Market Garden, would employ the U.S. 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, the British 1st Airborne Division and 52nd (Air-portable) Division, and the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade in its initial phase. McAuliffe, and the rest of the 101st Airborne Division, were scheduled to drop on the city of Eindhoven at the furthest point from the Allied lines, on September 17, 1944.

The 101st Airborne made its drop successfully and secured the town of Eindhoven. However, they were unable to prevent the Germans from destroying one of its key objectives, a large bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal. Other parts of Market Garden did not go even this smoothly. Allied intelligence failed to detect the presence of a German armored division in the operational area. Also, the Germans captured a complete draft of the plans for the operation. As such, the planned advance of the British XXXth Corps never materialized, leaving the Allied airborne forces trapped behind enemy lines. Under the leadership of General Maxwell Taylor, the 101st Airborne Division succeeded in making its way back to Allied territory, fighting a fierce battle at the town of Veghel at which McAuliffe provided distinguished service. His part in the battles led McAuliffe to be promoted to Brigadier General in the aftermath of Market Garden.

Market Garden ended in complete failure for the Allies, who suffered heavy casualties and wound up precisely where they started when the operation began. The operation also cooled any enthusiasm that might have still existed regarding the use of airborne troops. For the rest of the war, airborne troops were used in the same manner as normal infantry formations. Despite the eventual failure of Market Garden, the operation remains one of the more ambitious uses of airborne troops in military history, and was the subject of the film A Bridge Too Far.

The Battle of the Bulge

In the wake of their heavy losses in Market Garden, the 101st Airborne Division was transferred to the Ardennes region, straddling southeastern Belgium, Luxembourg, and a portion of northeastern France. This region was believed to be a quiet region due to its geography, which was very hilly and heavily forested, and its road network, which was relatively undeveloped by western European standards. The region was viewed as unsuited to armored actions and was chosen as a good place for the 101st to rest and recuperate.

Despite its terrain and poor roads, the Ardennes was not impossible for armored units to cross, as the German army had proven in 1940 by using the region as a springboard for their surprisingly easy conquest of France. In fact, with the Allies now threatening to invade Germany itself, and the Russians preparing to enter East Prussia, the German high command had once again, at Hitler's insistence, identified the Ardennes as an ideal avenue for a surprise attack. The German Ardennes offensive was designed to catch the numerically superior Allied forces off guard, open a large hole in the Allied lines, and enable German armored formations to cross the Meuse River and capture the Allied supply nexus at Antwerp, Belgium. Although its chances for success were slim, the Germans committed the last of their reserves to the offensive, which was viewed as their last realistic chance to throw the Allies back and forestall the imminent invasion of Germany.

To have any chance of reaching its objectives, the German offensive had to be conducted in poor weather, which would negate the overwhelming aerial superiority of the Allies. As such, the German forces massed opposite the Ardennes waited in early December 1944 for a long-range forecast of several days of bad weather before launching their attack. Conditions were at last judged to be favorable on December 16, and the attack commenced that evening. German surprise was complete, and the Allied forces in the Ardennes were sent reeling for several days. The 101st Airborne Division, stationed just to the south of the German offensive, was ordered into battle in an attempt to patch some of the numerous holes that were developing in the Allied lines. Despite their initial successes, however, the Germans were met with heroic resistance all along their attack routes. Their armored columns were creating gigantic traffic jams on the Ardennes' overworked roads, leading them to fall dangerously behind their proposed timetable from the outset.

On the morning of December 18, 1944, elements of the 101st Airborne Division, the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and the 755th Field Artillery Battalion, converged on the small town of Bastogne, Belgium, a critical road junction directly in the path of the German advance. Brigadier General McAuliffe assumed command of these forces and established a defense of the town. Although Bastogne was held during initial attacks, German forces encircled the town on December 20, leaving McAuliffe's troops isolated from reinforcement and supplies. By this point in the battle, because the Germans had fallen well behind their timetable, the capture of Bastogne had become the key to the battle. Try as they might, German forces could not dislodge McAuliffe and his scratch force over the next two days. Finally, on December 22, 1944, the commander of German forces encircling Bastogne offered McAuliffe the chance to surrender his forces. McAuliffe's one-word reply to this offer, a sarcastic "Nuts," was much celebrated in the Allied countries, summing up as it did their resolve to defeat the Germans regardless of cost.

The following day saw a break in the weather, allowing Allied aircraft to operate over the battlefield and provide airdropped supplies to the hard-pressed defenders of Bastogne. Although the Germans attempted to reach the Meuse River for the next three days, the clear weather ensured that their offensive would fail. Elements of the 4th Armored Division, led by General George Patton, relieved the siege of Bastogne on December 26, 1944, and the Germans had retreated by December 29. His performance in what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge secured McAuliffe's status as an international hero.

War's End

McAuliffe was transferred to the 103rd Infantry Division in January 1945. He participated in the crossing of the Rhine River and the subsequent operations of the Allied forces in southern Germany and Austria. Troops under McAuliffe's command liberated the Brenner Pass linking Austria and Italy, and the Austrian city of Innsbruck. At the end of the war in Europe, in April 1945, McAuliffe was placed in command of the 79th Infantry Division for a short while, and then transferred to command the airborne center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina later the same year.

The Atomic Age

In July 1946, McAuliffe was named the army ground forces advisor for Operation Crossroads, the experimental above-ground detonation of an atomic bomb on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. His position regarding nuclear weapons was quite a conventional one for the time. He believed that the U.S. should stockpile atomic bombs as a deterrent to their use by any other power. His knowledge of artillery and familiarity with nuclear devices led McAuliffe to be appointed Army Secretary of the Joint Research and Development Board, in which capacity he served from August 1946 until December 1947. He then served as deputy director for research and development of the Army logistics division from 1947 until 1949, but yearned for another field command.

Desegregation of the Army

McAuliffe was restored to field command in March 1949 as head of the 24th Infantry Division, stationed in occupied Japan. He was promoted to Major General in October of the same year and was transferred to become chief of the Army chemical corps. In this post he became an expert on chemical and biological weapons and the means to counter their use. By the outbreak of the Korean War, in the spring of 1951, McAuliffe was named assistant chief of staff for personnel of the Army and was promoted to lieutenant general. In this post, he was responsible for addressing the issue of race relations within the army, drafting recommendations for the inclusion of African-American troops in military formations.

During World War II, African-Americans had served with distinction, although most of them were placed in service and transportation units. African-American combat formations did exist, but were fully segregated from their white counterparts. This internal segregation of the army persisted into the Korean War, but was scheduled for review. In initial examinations of the racial composition of the Army, undertaken in 1950, McAuliffe recommended that African-Americans continue to be placed in segregated units, given the racial attitudes of American society as a whole. Existing African-American units were already overstaffed, however, so McAuliffe proposed creation of additional African-American formations. Manpower needs during the Korean War quickly dictated a review of these recommendations. The necessities of war had already led to the integration of several combat units operating in Korea. The performance of these units had been satisfactory and their integration had caused no serious morale problems, leading McAuliffe to revise his position and recommend full integration of the Army in the summer of 1951. By December of that year, he ordered all major commanders in the Far East to prepare and submit integration plans for their forces. These orders were extended to include European commands in 1952. Although desegregation would not proceed unhindered in the coming years, the Army would become one of the most integrated organizations in American society by the 1970s. Of all his accomplishments, McAuliffe was most proud of his role in eliminating racial segregation in the U.S. Army.


McAuliffe was transferred to Europe and placed in command of the 7th Armored Division in 1953, following a short stint as deputy chief for Army operations. He received a further promotion to four-star general in 1955, and was named commander in chief of the U.S. Army in Europe later that same year. McAuliffe retired from the Army in 1956.

As a civilian, McAuliffe drew on his military background in chemical warfare, taking a position on the board of directors of the American Cyanamid Company, a major manufacturer of chemicals. He also continued to apply his knowledge and skills to public service, acting as chairman of the New York State Civil Defense Commission from 1959 until 1963, at which time he retired to Chevy Chase, Maryland. McAuliffe spent his last years playing golf and bridge at the Army-Navy club. He died on August 11, 1975 in Washington, DC.

Further Reading

Dictionary of American Biography, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994.

Illustrated World War II Encyclopedia, edited by Brigadier Peter Young, H. S. Stuttman Inc., 1978.

Koskimaki, George E., D-Day with the Screaming Eagles, House of Print, 1970.

Marshall, S. L. A. Night Drop, Little, Brown and Company, 1951.

McGregor, Morris J., Jr., Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-1965, Center of Military History, United States Army, 1981.

Toland, John, Battle: The Story of the Bulge, Signet, 1959.

Webster's American Biographies, edited by Charles Van Doren, G. & C. Merriam Company, 1974.

Weigley, Russell F., Eisenhower's Lieutenants, Indiana University Press, 1981. □