James A. van Fleet

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James A. Van Fleet

Born March 19, 1892
Coytesville, New Jersey
Died September 23, 1992
Polk City, Florida

American military leader and diplomat

James A. Van Fleet left Korea four months before the end ofthe Korean War and retired from the U.S. Army, embittered by his experiences with the limited warfare that was favored there. The highly respected four-star general was a man who saw the world in black and white. He believed his mission as the commander of the Eighth Army in Korea was to try to defeat the enemy and win the war. Fearing a third world war, neither the Truman administration nor the later Eisenhower administration allowed him to launch any of the all-out offensives he drew up. Van Fleet became a harsh critic of the two-year truce negotiations in Korea, and a firm supporter of the Republic of Korea (ROK) president Syngman Rhee (1875–1965; see entry) in his desire to unify Korea by military force. When he returned to the United States from Korea in 1953, Van Fleet blasted the politicians who had impeded military offensives for fear of large-scale war. His frustration was heightened by his grief over the loss of his son, a U.S. Air Force pilot, who had been lost in a bombing mission in Korea. Despite his bitterness, Van Fleet was responsible for some outstanding military efforts in Korea, most notably his restructuring and retraining of the ROK army. Always a man who got things done effectively and efficiently, he held solid defense lines in the trench warfare during the truce period and led the troops to victories in the desperate battles at Heartbreak Ridge and Bloody Ridge.

Early life

James Alward Van Fleet was born in New Jersey, but only because his mother had traveled there during her pregnancy to escape a flu epidemic in their home in Florida. Van Fleet was raised in Florida from the time of infancy and was known for his southern accent and manners throughout his life. Van Fleet came from a military family. His grandfather had been in the New York militia during the American Revolution (1775–83). His parents were friends of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), and his father, William, served in the Union Army during the Civil War (1861–65). William then went on to establish the first railroad in Florida, where the family remained.

Van Fleet graduated from the Summerlin Institute in Bartow, Florida, and was nominated to the military academy at West Point in 1911. At West Point he had as classmates Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969), the future general and U.S. president, and Omar N. Bradley (1893–1981; see entries), the future general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Van Fleet was tall, graceful, and athletic. He was a fullback on the successful West Point football team, but he was always something of a loner. John Toland, in his history of the Korean War In Mortal Combat, quotes the West Point year book, in which Van Fleet was described as "a brusque, outspoken individual and not much of a mixer. He finds pleasure in the society of magazines and books, and is a frequenter of the gym. Perhaps this reticent [quiet] attitude has kept some of us from knowing him as well as we should."

Military life begins

After graduating from West Point, Van Fleet fought with the U.S. Army in the Mexican border campaign, participating in the pursuit of the famous rebel bandit Pancho Villa (1878–1923) from 1916 to 1917. During that time he was promoted to captain. World War I (1914–18) then brought him to France as the commander of a machine gun battalion. He was wounded in action in 1918 and received two Silver Stars for bravery in his World War I service.

During the period between the world wars, Van Fleet spent many years teaching military science and Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) training at several colleges. From 1921 to 1924, and again from 1932 to 1933, he was a winning football coach at the University of Florida.

World War II

When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Van Fleet was a colonel commanding the Eighth Infantry Regiment. Unlike many of his peers, he did not rise quickly in the ranks. This was due to a mix-up. George C. Marshall (1880–1959), later a great general and secretary of state, had mistaken him for another man who was an alcoholic. According the John Kennedy Ohl in The Korean War: An Encyclopedia: "As Marshall's importance in the Army grew in the 1930s, culminating in his appointment as chief of staff in 1939, Van Fleet's career progression suffered."

Leading his regiment as a colonel, Van Fleet quickly put any doubts about his leadership abilities to rest. He participated in some of the fierce battles in France and in the Battle of the Bulge. By March 1945, he had been promoted to major general and placed in command of the III Corps. He led the corps into Germany and then in its drive to Austria, gaining the reputation of one of the great fighting generals of World War II for his efforts.

Greek battle against communists

In 1948, Greece was experiencing a strong uprising of communist rebels that threatened the standing government. Van Fleet was named the director of the joint U.S. Military Advisory and Planning Group, with the mission to advise the Greek government in its fight against the communists. (Communism is a set of political beliefs that advocates the elimination of private property. It is a system in which goods are owned by the community as a whole rather than by specific individuals and are available to all as needed.) He set to work reshaping the Greek army, with a rigorous program of training and discipline and an overall reorganization. After two years of Van Fleet's direction, the Greek army was able to eliminate the communist rebel force entirely.

Taking over in Korea

In August 1945, when the Japanese, who were occupying Korea, were defeated, the general order for their surrender included an arrangement for Korea in which the Americans were to accept the Japanese surrender south of the 38th parallel (the dividing line between northern and southern Korea) and the Soviets, who were already on the Korean border, would receive the surrender north of it. The Soviets did not object, and thus the land of Korea was split into two zones. By 1948, both North and South Korea had established their own governments; Soviet and American troops then withdrew. North Korea was firmly communistic, with support coming in from China as well as the Soviet Union. South Korea had set up a democratic government that drew support from the United States. The governments of both communist North Korea and nationalist South Korea hoped to reunify Korea under their leadership. Thus, in the summer of 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. The United States and the United Nations forces soon entered the war on the side of the South Koreans while the Chinese came to the defense of the North Koreans. (The UN was founded following World War II to maintain worldwide peace and to develop friendly relations among countries.)

In April 1951, President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) relieved General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964; see entries), the supreme commander of the UN forces in Korea

and U.S. forces in the Far East, of his command. MacArthur had on several occasions publicly misrepresented the intentions of the president and his administration in the Korean conflict. MacArthur sought an unlimited war in Korea in which he could go after the enemies in North Korea and China with all the force the allies could muster. Truman worried about a third world war being ignited by an all-out defense against China and set his staff on a mission to negotiate an end to the war at the truce table.

General Matthew B. Ridgway (1895–1993; see entry), the commander of the Eighth Army in Korea, was appointed to replace MacArthur, and Van Fleet was sent to Korea to take over Ridgway's post as Eighth Army commander. He arrived in April 1951, ready to command. Van Fleet found the Eighth Army in a face-off with the Chinese and North Korean armies, with both sides digging in for sustained trench warfare at the 38th parallel. Almost immediately after his arrival the Chinese launched a powerful offensive against the UN forces. Van Fleet quickly engineered a highly skillful defense, killing tens of thousands of enemy soldiers and barring them from breaking through the UN lines to recapture the capital city of Seoul.

A month later, Van Fleet ordered his forces to drive north to North Korea's Iron Triangle area. Although his drive was successful, Ridgway ordered the troops to go back to the defense lines held before Van Fleet's offensive, the Kansas and Wyoming lines. Later in the summer of 1951, Van Fleet launched several other, smaller offensives, capturing Heartbreak Ridge and Bloody Ridge after bitter and bloody fighting. By late fall, though, Ridgway ordered Van Fleet to stop all offensives. The truce talks, which had been stalled, were once again in motion.

From that point on, Van Fleet's forces were allowed to engage only in small, limited attacks. Van Fleet grew increasingly discouraged, saying that the limited warfare was lowering the morale among his men and that he was not receiving enough ammunition to maintain security for his troops.

Retraining the ROKs

Throughout the war, the American military and the American press had been scornful about the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army. Although the South Koreans had lost many times the number of soldiers that the UN forces had lost, they had frequently broken ranks and scattered when the enemy was fierce. The Chinese knew to hit the defense lines of the Eighth Army at the ROK positions, where there was often weakness. The ROKs never had sufficient equipment or arms and ammunition and they had little training when the war began. The leadership was also inconsistent. Despite all this, they had proven repeatedly to be dedicated fighters.

Not long after he took command, Van Fleet decided to take all the ROK divisions out of the line and retrain them. In July 1951, he established the Field Training Command. The training program took nine weeks and was done division by division. According to ROK General Paik Sun Yup (1920–; see entry) in his memoirs, From Pusan to Panmunjom:

The center started from scratch, assuming nobody knew anything. Every man in a division, with the exception of its commander, was required to undergo the training, and when the training was over, a unit had to pass a test before being assigned to the front…. By the end of 1952, all ten ROK Armydivisions had completed the training. Units that completed the course lost 50 percent fewer men and equipment in combat than did units that had not had the training. Furthermore, divisions that completed the course and returned to the front revealed an élan [spirit] and confidence quite superior to what they had shown before going through the training.

After their training, the ROKs were finally provided with a more reasonable supply of arms and ammunition. When they went back to the line, the South Korean army was strong and skilled and had no more "bug-outs," or disorganized retreats. By December 1952, three out of four Eighth Army soldiers at the battle front were ROKs. Today in South Korea, there is a statue of Van Fleet at the site of the military academy there.

The loss of a son

Van Fleet and his wife Helen had two daughters and a son. Their son, James A. Van Fleet Jr., had followed his father's footsteps into the military as a U.S. Air Force B-26 pilot. He was a captain at the time of the Korean War. In April 1952, he was on a night bombing mission in North Korea when he was shot down. He was reported missing in action; two years later his status changed to "presumed dead."

Grieving over his son and eager to go after the enemy, Van Fleet repeatedly prepared plans for large-scale offensives against the Chinese and North Koreans. He suggested using the Chinese Nationalist troops in Taiwan (formerly Formosa) and also wanted to bomb mainland China. (Chinese Communists had driven the American-backed Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek [1887–1975; see entry] and his forces to the island of Taiwan in October 1949 following a bloody civil war.) Van Fleet believed that his successes on the battlefields proved that the UN forces could win the war and forcibly unite Korea under ROK president Syngman Rhee. And he became increasingly bitter when his views were rejected by Ridgway and the Truman administration. "Though we could readily have followed up our success, that was not the intention in Washington," he later wrote in an article in Life magazine. "Our State Department had already let the Reds [communists] know that we were willing to settle on the 38th Parallel. Instead of getting directives for offensive action, we found our activities more and more proscribed [prohibited] as the time went on." When Eisenhower became president, Van Fleet found, once again, that his plans to defeat the enemy through military force were not even considered. The Eisenhower administration was just as anxious to settle the war through negotiation as the Truman administration had been.

Going home

In disgust, Van Fleet gave up his command of the Eighth Army in February 1953 and returned to the United States, where he promptly retired from military service. He wrote two articles for Life in which he claimed that the United States could easily win the war in Korea if politicians and policy-makers would stop restraining the forces. For a short time the articles raised controversy about the U.S. position in Korea, but Van Fleet's claims were convincingly disputed by many military leaders in Korea, particularly Ridgway and Van Fleet's successor, Maxwell Taylor. Van Fleet, the fighting general, would never accept the idea that war could be limited or that an enemy could be swayed by words rather than arms.

After retiring, Van Fleet served as an ambassador to the Far East under Eisenhower in 1954 and as a consultant on the National Guard and Special Service Forces to President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) in 1961. He lived a long life, making his last public appearance at his one-hundredth birthday party in March 1992. He died six months later in his sleep.

Where to Learn More

Graebner, Norman A. "Van Fleet, James A." In Historical Dictionary of the Korean War, edited by James I. Matray. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Life, May 11, 1953.

Ohl, John Kennedy. "Van Fleet, James A." In The Korean War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Stanley Sandler. New York: Garland, 1995.

Paik Sun Yup. From Pusan to Panmunjom: Wartime Memoirs of the Republic of Korea's First Four-Star General. Dulles, VA: Brassey's, 1992.

Toland, John. In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950–1953. New York: William Morrow, 1991.

Web sites

"James Alward Van Fleet." Arlington National Cemetery Website. [Online] http://www.arlingtoncemetery.com/vanfleet.htm (accessed on August 14, 2001).

Words to Know

bug-out: to panic and run away from a battle in confusion; a disorderly retreat without permission.

limited warfare: warfare with an objective other than the enemy's complete destruction, as in holding a defensive line during negotiations.

morale: the way that a person or a group of people feels about the job they are doing or the mission they are working on.

trench warfare: combat in which enemies dig into ditches facing each other across the battlefield; the ditches then serve as defensive positions. Trench warfare is usually associated with World War I (1914–18).

unlimited war: a military conflict in which a combatant nation uses every means within its power to pursue the goal of completely defeating the enemy.