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Van Fleet, James Alward

Van Fleet, James Alward

(b. 19 March 1892 in Coytesville, New Jersey; d. 23 September 1992 in Polk City, Florida), career army officer who served in World War I, World War II, and Korea and rose to the rank of four-star general.

Van Fleet was the youngest of four children born to Medora Roxanne Schofield, a homemaker, and William Van Fleet, a businessman who had served in the Union Army during the Civil War. The family moved from New Jersey to Florida when Van Fleet was an infant. In 1911 he graduated from Summerlin Institute in Bartow, Florida, and entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Upon graduation in June 1915 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry. On 25 December 1915 he married Helen Hazel Moore. The couple had three children. Their only son, James, Jr., became an air force pilot; he was reported missing in action during a bombing mission over North Korea in April 1952 and declared “presumed dead” by the air force in 1954.

Van Fleet’s first service was on the Mexican border in Texas during a period of strained relations between the United States and Mexico. After America’s entry into World War I, he was assigned in October 1917 to Fort Leaven-worth, Kansas, where he helped train future officers and advanced to the rank of captain. In early 1918, after three months of training with the Sixteenth Machine Gun Battalion, Sixth Infantry Division, he was shipped to France. Here he took command of the Sixth Division’s Seventeenth Machine Gun Battalion, which he led during the MeuseArgonne offensive. He was wounded near Sedan a week before the armistice of 11 November 1918.

After occupation duty in Germany, Van Fleet returned to the United States in June 1919. In 1920 he left the Sixth Division for work with the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) units at several colleges, including the University of Florida, where he also served as coach of the football team. In February 1925 he returned to field duty as a battalion commander with the Forty-second Infantry in the Panama Canal Zone.

In 1927 Van Fleet became an instructor at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and between 1928 and 1929 he was a student in the school’s “advanced course.” During the 1930s he alternated between educational duties with reserve officer units and field duty.

The outbreak of World War II found Van Fleet in command of the Eighth Regiment, Fourth Infantry Division, which went to England in January 1944. Van Fleet, who did not use alcohol, was still a colonel because Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall had apparently confused him with an officer with a similar name who had a drinking problem. The identity problem was resolved after Van Fleet’s regiment successfully spearheaded the Fourth Division’s landing on Utah Beach on D day, 6 June 1944. His skill in directing his unit during the initial landing earned him a promotion to assistant division commander of the Second Infantry Division and the rank of brigadier general.

In October 1944 Van Fleet was given command of the Ninetieth Infantry Division during the Allied thrust toward Germany. By the end of 1944 he had advanced to the rank of major general, and his division was the vanguard of the Allied counteroffensive during the Battle of the Bulge. In March 1945, after a brief time in England, he was given command of the Third Corps, which led the breakout from the bridgehead at Remagen. His corps advanced rapidly across Germany and had reached the foot of the Austrian Alps when Adolf Hitler committed suicide and the war in Europe came to an end.

The Third Corps returned to Camp Polk (later Fort Polk), Louisiana, to prepare for action in the Pacific, but Japan surrendered before it could be redeployed. In February 1946 Van Fleet moved to Governors Island in New York Harbor, where, after a reorganization of army areas in the United States, he became the deputy commander of the First Army.

In December 1947 Van Fleet returned to Europe as a deputy chief of staff at the headquarters of the European Command in Frankfurt, Germany. On 6 February 1948 President Harry S. Truman named him to command United States forces in Greece, where a civil war between communist and noncommunist elements was under way. On 19 February 1948 the United States Senate confirmed his promotion to lieutenant general. As director of the Joint United States Military Advisory and Planning Group, Van Fleet advised the Greek government and supervised the training of the Greek army, which successfully contained the communist threat.

In August 1950 Van Fleet returned to the United States to assume command of the Second Army. After Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur as commander of United States and United Nations forces in the Far East in April 1951 in a dispute over the conduct of the Korean War, Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgway, who had been the field commander in Korea, replaced MacArthur. Van Fleet succeeded Ridgway as the commander of the United States Eighth Army in April 1951, just as communist forces launched a major offensive, which he soon broke. In June 1951 he went over to the offensive, but Truman accepted a truce and fighting subsided, although an armistice would not be signed until July 1953. Van Fleet, who relinquished command of the Eighth Army on 11 February 1953, stirred controversy when he alleged that he could have defeated the communist forces had he been permitted to go for victory.

Van Fleet left the army on 31 March 1953 after almost thirty-eight years of infantry service and was given the rank of four-star general. His retirement was interrupted briefly during 1961 and 1962 by temporary service as a consultant to the Department of Defense on guerrilla warfare. Van Fleet again stirred controversy by calling for the firing of Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, the chief delegate to the United Nations, because he had not supported the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.

After leaving the army, Van Fleet returned to Florida, where he became involved in real estate ventures and a variety of business pursuits. In addition, he served as a director on the boards of a number of corporations, was active in organizations fostering American support of Greece and South Korea, and traveled extensively as a representative of both the United States government and private groups. After the death of his first wife in 1984, Van Fleet married Virginia Skinner-Higgins Wells later that year. They had no children.

Six months after celebrating his 100th birthday, Van Fleet died of natural causes at his ranch in Polk City. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

Van Fleet was an outstanding combat officer with a reputation for earning the respect and affection of the men he led. His decorations included three Purple Hearts, three Distinguished Service Crosses, four Distinguished Service Medals, three Silver Stars, and three Bronze Stars. A blunt, outspoken man who sometimes stirred controversy, he nonetheless displayed diplomatic skill during his successful effort to prevent the fall of Greece to communist insurgents. He also proved to be an efficient army commander in Korea.

Van Fleet’s papers are at the George C. Marshall Foundation, Lexington, Virginia. A brief biographical sketch covering his early career may be found in Current Biography 1948. Alan Axelrod and Charles Phillips, Macmillan Dictionary of Military Biography (1998), gives an overview of Van Fleet’s military career. Clay Blair, The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953 (1987), provides an assessment of Van Fleet’s performance as an army commander in Korea and discusses his sometimes stormy relationship with General Matthew B. Ridgway. Obituaries are in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Miami Herald (all 24 Sept. 1992).

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