Forty-seven years ago this month, on October 16, 1959, the man President Harry S. Truman called “the greatest living American” died in his bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Renowned for his integrity, honesty, modesty and unwavering adherence to what he believed was right for his country, General George C. Marshall had risen over the course of a half-century of public service from relative obscurity as a Regular Army officer to build the mighty military force that ensured Allied victory in World War II, secured a democratic future for Europe and guided his country’s foreign policy in the first days of the Cold War .
Although leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower at times might have wondered if it were true, Marshall was indeed human. Just like any of us, he made mistakes. One of them proved among the most fortuitous in military history.
Deluged with the work of building an army that could fight a global war, Marshall kept with him a little black book in which he recorded the names of officers who showed promise. Veterans of World War I battles such as Château Thierry and the Meuse- Argonne were known to quiver like sheepish schoolboys when the chief of staff observed them leading troops. They knew full well that remarks jotted down in Marshall’s book could make or break their careers.
A keen observer with a masterful ability to discern what it would take to lead the largest American army in history, Marshall plucked from anonymity several soldiers who would become among the most famous generals in history. One of those who failed to make the cut, however, was James Alward Van Fleet.
Like Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, Van Fleet was a member of the West Point class of 1915 — “the class the stars fell on.” Unlike his more well-known classmates, Van Fleet saw extensive combat in the trenches of France, and was roundly judged a highly competent, promising officer. Then Marshall came on the scene.
While scores of officers who were younger and far less experienced rose rapidly to higher commands, Van Fleet somehow remained a colonel. What frustration he must have felt on June 6, 1944, when he would lead merely a regiment ashore at Normandy. But fortune happened to place one of the Army’s most seasoned regimental commanders just where needed in those hazardous early moments of D-Day. When Van Fleet’s men were dropped well away from their intended landing spot, thanks largely to his leadership they were able to secure the causeways off Utah Beach and move rapidly inland, avoiding the type of bloodbath found on Omaha Beach.
Eisenhower was well aware of this, and when Marshall visited him in France a few days after D-Day, among the first things the Allied supreme commander said was that Van Fleet should receive an immediate promotion. To that, the chief of staff scoffed that he had been scratching Van Fleet off the promotion list for years because the colonel was known throughout the Army as a drunkard.
When told that he had confused Van Fleet, a virtual teetotaler, with another officer named Van Vliet, Marshall quietly set about righting this wrong. Van Fleet was quickly made assistant commander of the 2nd Infantry Division, and by October 1944 was commanding a division. A major general in March 1945, Van Fleet took over III Corps in the war’s final days. He received his third star in 1948, commanded the Eighth Army in Korea and was promoted to full general in August 1951. He retired in 1953 and died in 1992.