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A FULL 59 OF THE 164 members of the U.S. Military Academy’s class of 1915 became general officers, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley and James Alward Van Fleet. But on June 6, 1944— while Eisenhower and Bradley were leading the D-Day invasion— -Van Fleet was nowhere on the radar screen for promotion to general officer rank. That, however, was soon to change. By the end of World War II, Van Fleet had not only become a four-star general but was the most decorated man in his class, with three Distinguished Service Crosses (DSC), two Distinguished Service Medals, two Silver Stars (he had received one in World War I) and numerous other awards.

James Van Fleet grew up in a humble dwelling in the small town of Bartow deep in Florida’s interior. He entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1911, and upon graduation chose to go into the infantry, which he considered the “ heart of the United States Army.”

By 1917 he was a captain in command of a machine gun company. His gunners responded enthusiastically to his intensive instruction, and his efforts were rewarded in October 1917 with an assignment to the Army School Unit at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he taught officer candidates machine gun tactics.

Six months later Van Fleet was given command of a company in the 16th Machine Gun Battalion of the 6th Division. His unit arrived in England on July 18, 1918, and he soon took command of the 17th Machine Gun Battalion, also in the 6th Division. The 6th never got into action, but Major Van Fleet was wounded in a German air attack, and he was awarded a Silver Star for valorous conduct.

After serving in the Army of Occupation, the 6th Division returned to the United States in May 1919 and was disbanded. The interwar years were a mixed bag when it came to opportunities for advancement. The Army was greatly reduced in size, so positions in troop units were hard to come by. Van Fleet spent most of the time as a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) instructor at the University of Florida, where he was also a very successful football coach. Until Steve Spurrier came along, Van Fleet boasted the best coaching record in the university’s football program.

After five years of ROTC duty, Van Fleet took command of the 1st Battalion, 42nd Infantry Regiment, at Camp Gail lard, Panama, for two years. After a year as a student at the Infantry Officers Advanced Course at Fort Benning, Ga., which he found not to his liking or advantage, it was back to the University of Florida as professor of military science for another five years. In July 1933 he assumed command of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, in Maine. Two years later he was posted as a senior instructor to the organized Reserves in San Diego, Calif., and in 1936 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. In September 1939, Van Fleet became commander of the 1st Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment , at Fort Benning.

On June 26, 1941, Van Fleet was promoted to colonel, and three weeks later he took command of the 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, at that time organized as a provisional motorized unit. During the next three years, he saw his classmates put stars on their shoulders while he trained his regiment for combat. Van Fleet was, nevertheless, in his element. Based on the fine tuning he imparted to his unit, his regiment was selected as one of the spearheads of the Normandy invasion landing on Utah Beach. It was the only U.S. Army regiment to secure all its objectives on the first day of the assault landing. Van Fleet’s valor was such that he earned his first DSC within a few days of D-Day.

In late September Van Fleet, now a brigadier general, was dispatched to command first the 4th Infantry Division and then, on October 16, the 90th Division, the “Tough Hombres.” It was in the latter command that he would make his reputation. Van Fleet rapidly gained the confidence of his subordinates, and they performed above his expectations.

In early November the crossing of the Moselle River north of Metz was designed to be the northern prong of a double envelopment. Metz, with its many strong, well sited forts, had been holding up Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army since September 1944, when his tanks literally ran out of fuel. Before the Third Army could out flank Metz’s defenses, however, the Moselle River, which flowed from south to north, had to be negotiated. The plan was for the 90th to cross the river north of Metz above Thionville, the 5th Infantry Division to break out of its tenuous bridgehead below the city, and the two divisions to meet short of the German border.

An audacious early morning assault planned by Van Fleet’s operations officer, Lt. Col. Richard Stilwell, surprised the defenders. By the end of the first day, eight of the nine infantry battalions were across the flooded river. After besting the German resistance and the brutual terrain, the 90th met the 5th well to the east of Metz on November 19, which sealed the fate of the large German garrison in and around the town.

On November 15, Van Fleet had been promoted to major general. His division was also recommended for the Distinguished Unit Citation, but the recommendation was turned down. To the day he died, Van Fleet regretted that the division did not get the recognition he felt it deserved. Yet for many years after the war, the crossing of the Moselle River was taught as a textbook operation at Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College.

The next obstacle in the way of the 90th was the Saar River and the thickest part of the Siegfried Line. Van Fleet sent the 357th and 358th regiments across the Saar in a lightning move early in the morning of December 6, 1944.

Soon after the Americans established their bridgehead, the Germans counterattacked from the environs of Dillingen, but they were unable to drive the Tough Hombres back across the river. By December 9 the division had captured Dillingen and was effectively through the densest part of the Siegfried Line. For gallantry in action, Van Fleet earned his second DSC.

By January 8, 1945, when many historians feel the Battle of the Bulge ended, the 90th was in position to attack Wiltz, close to the border between Luxembourg and Belgium. Patton had taken Van Fleet aside after directing the 90th to spearhead the attack to link up with the Americans advancing from the north. According to Van Fleet, Patton told him, “…you’ve never failed me. I know you can do it. The 90th has always accomplished anything I give them to do.” This message was not lost on Van Fleet.

The 357th Infantry jumped off on January 9, deftly gaining the high ground on which the Luxembourg hamlet of Berle stood. The 359th came up beside it, encountering stiff resistance. The next day the 1st Battalion of the 359th took very heavy casualties trying to advance across open ground against elements of the German 5th Parachute Division. Somehow, however, the word mistakenly got back to the 90th Division’s command post (CP), just as Patton arrived there, that the 359th’s objective had been taken, and well pleased he departed.

When Van Fleet returned to the CP he learned of Patton’s visit and immediately determined to correct the situation by ordering an attack that night to capture the key crossroads that intersected the main route of German retreat from Bastogne. That night the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 359th Infantry literally marched through the German lines. With a battalion on either side of the road walking single file, the two units sliced up the seam separating two German divisions without being detected. The next morning the Germans counterattacked, but the two battalions, supported by tanks and tank destroyers, stopped the enemy cold. Van Fleet’s keen judgment was amply vindicated. The German 5th Parachute Division went down in the official U.S. history of the war as the only German unit of that size to be destroyed in the Battle of the Bulge. For his valorous conduct during the 90th’s fighting in Luxembourg Van Fleet was awarded a third DSC.

Van Fleet’s division continued on through Luxembourg, and on January 29 it crossed the Our River and plunged into the Siegfried Line for a second time.

Patton called Van Fleet to his headquarters in Luxembourg in early February 1945, complimented him on the 90th’s performance and informed him that he was to get a corps command. On March 17, 1945, he was back in Germany commanding the III Corps of the U.S. First Army. The III Corps had just crossed the Rhine River at Remagen, and Van Fleet was eager to push forward. The 9th and 99th Infantry divisions and the 7th Armored Division, which made up the core elements of the III Corps, were experienced units. The corps under its former commander had gained the nickname of the “ Phantom Corps” because of its stealth and speed of movement. After repelling a major German counterattack on March 21, the III Corps led the First Army’s southern push eastward on the 25th and then turned north to assist in the encirclement of the Ruhr industrial region.

Van Fleet’s orders were to bypass blocked and mined road junctions and keep moving. So eager were his units that they outran the Army corps on either flank, and the First Army had to order the III Corps to halt until the units on each side could come abreast. By the end of March the III Corps had advanced 150 miles and taken 33,795 prisoners of war. In addition, the corps had liberated more than 100,000 slave laborers, displaced persons and Allied POWs.

On April 15, the III Corps was reassigned to Patton’s Third Army. Turning south, the corps now consisted of the 86th and 99th Infantry divisions and the 14th Armored Division. On April 24, the III Corps began a race of 140 miles to reach the Inn River in Austria, crossing in turn the Altmuhl, Danube and Isar rivers.The southeastern direction of the advance was toward Adolf Hitler’s supposed last redoubt. On May 2, the corps was pinched out by Allied units advancing on either flank, ending its war in Europe.

World War II, however, was not the end of the line for Van Fleet. He went on to distinguish himself in Greece and in Korea, retiring as a four-star general in 1953. For the next 40 years Van Fleet pursued a productive business career. He died in September 1992 at the age of 100.


Originally published in the September 2004 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.