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Cold War Files: All Units: People: James A. Van Fleet

James A. Van Fleet
James A. Van Fleet
b. March 19, 1892 - 1992
Colonel, US Army, 1941-1944; General, US Eighth Army, 1951-1953

James Alward Van Fleet was born in Coytesville, New Jersey, March 19, 1892, and raised in Florida. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1915, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant of infantry. The following year he participated in the Mexican border campaign of 1916-1917. During World War I he commanded a machine-gun battalion in the 6th Division and saw action in the Gerardmer sector and in the Meuse-Argonne offensive.

In the interwar period, Van Fleet served in a number of different peacetime assignments: teaching military science at Kansas State Agricultural College, South Dakota State College and the University of Florida; he was a student and an instructor at the Infantry School; a unit instructor of the organized reserve at San Diego, California; commanded a battalion in the 42nd Infantry Regiment in Panama, served with the 5th Infantry Regiment at Fort Williams, Maine, commanded a battalion in the 29th Infantry Regiment; and, beginning in February 1941, with the rank of colonel, commanded the 8th Infantry Regiment.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, America's entry into World War II did not bring Van Fleet rapid promotion to general rank or high command. When Van Fleet had been at the Infantry School, George C. Marshall, then assistant commandant in charge of the academic department, had confused him with someone else who had a similar name and was a well-known alcoholic. Consequently, 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.

He was not selected either for the Command and General Staff College or the Army War College. The pattern continued after Pearl Harbor, so that in 1944, Van Fleet was still commanding the 8th Infantry with the rank of colonel. On D-Day he led the 8th Infantry, part of the 4th Division, ashore at Utah beach, Normandy, and several weeks later in the capture of Cherbourg, France. In these actions, Van Fleet displayed courage under fire and demonstrated that he was a driving leader who got things done. Thereafter, with the confusion about his identity finally "cleared up" to Marshall's satisfaction, Van Fleet's rise was spectacular.

Promoted to the rank of brigadier general, Van Fleet was assistant commander of the 2nd Division during the St. Lo breakout and the capture of Brest, France, and commanded the 4th Division during the Siegfried Line Campaign and the 90th Division during the operation to capture Metz, France, and the Battle of the Bulge. In March 1945, Van Fleet, now holding the rank of major general, assumed command of the III Corps, leading it through the American First Army's encirclement of the Ruhr pocket in Germany and the American Third Army's drive into Austria. By the end of the war, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, regarded Van Fleet as one of the "greatest fighting" soldiers in his command.

Immediately following the war, Van Fleet held several commands in the United States, and in 1947, he was transferred to the European Command in Frankfurt, Germany. In February 1948, he was appointed director of the joint U.S. Military Advisory and Planning Group in Athens, Greece, with the responsibility for advising the Greek government in its struggle against Communist insurgents. Soon after, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and named a member of the Greek National Defense Council. During the next two years Van Fleet struggled to turn the Greek Army into an effective fighting force, overseeing its training, organization and operations. On his recommendation, incompetent officers were sacked, more maneuver battalions created and aggressive offensive actions undertaken. Backed by massive American aid and assisted by the faulty tactics of the insurgents and the decision of Marshal Josip Tito of Yugoslavia to close the Yugoslav-Greek border through which the insurgents were supplied, the Greek Army, in a personal triumph for Van Fleet, had completely routed the Communists by the end of 1949.

After duty as commander of the Second Army in the United States, Van Fleet was sent to Korea in April 1951, to command the American Eighth Army as the replacement for General Matthew B. Ridgway, who had succeeded General Douglas MacArthur as Far East commander. The Eighth Army was more or less straddling the 38th Parallel. Van Fleet arrived just as the Chinese Communists and the North Koreans were preparing to launch their single greatest military effort of the Korean War. In a fierce battle that lasted from April 22-29, he skillfully withdrew the Eighth Army's front line, shifted the IX and X Corps to prevent an enemy breakthrough to Seoul, and inflicted 70,000 casualties on the enemy. Following the rebuff of another Communist attack in May, Van Fleet took the offensive and inflicted 200,000 casualties on the Communists in a drive north of the 38th Parallel to the Iron Triangle area of North Korea. There Ridgway concluded that a deeper advance into North Korea would be too costly, and had Van Fleet construct fortifications on the "Kansas" and "Wyoming" lines while the United Nations (U.N.) Command pursued cease-fire talks.

Van Fleet later complained that he had the Communists on the run in June 1951, and that he could have won the war by advancing to the Yalu River if he had not been halted. In this complaint he was expressing the frustration of a blunt soldier who saw victory and defeat in absolute terms. In fact, the Eighth Army probably did not possess the strength to advance even as far as Pyongyang, North Korea; and if it did, the price in casualties would have been too high considering the likely results. Notwithstanding his later statement, Van Fleet in June 1951, recognized that further advances were neither desirable nor feasible and agreed with Ridgway's decision to stand on the Kansas and Wyoming lines.

In August 1951, Van Fleet, recently promoted to full general, launched a limited offensive in eastern Korea after truce talks had stalled; and after two months of bitter fighting, he seized Heartbreak Ridge and Bloody Ridge. He followed up this offensive with another limited offensive in central Korea in October. Van Fleet's offensives inflicted heavy casualties on the Communists but at a high cost in U.N. casualties as well. When truce talks resumed, Ridgway in November 1951, ordered Van Fleet to cease offensive action and emphasize an active defense of the existing front line.

During 1952, Van Fleet chafed under the restrictions placed on him by the Truman administration's commitment to a limited war strategy in Korea. Seeing no point in fighting battles for the same hills and concerned about the combat readiness of his army, he produced plans for a major offensive. But Ridgway and his successor, General Mark W. Clark, saw little profit in such an operation. As a result, except for costly limited attacks in the Iron Triangle area in the summer and fall, Van Fleet engaged only in small-scale actions and artillery duels. Relying heavily on firepower to minimize his own casualties, he demanded greatly increased ammunition allowances. However, inadequate domestic production and resupply problems forced him to ration ammunition, and later he complained that he had been handicapped by shortages.

Despite his differences with his superiors, Van Fleet was an able army commander. By constantly working to keep the Eighth Army at peak fighting efficiency, he maintained it as an effective and reliable force capable of delivering devastating blows against the Communists.

Van Fleet likewise worked to revitalize the South Korean Army. He started new training programs and pressed for its expansion to prepare it for offensive action. In the process he made it into a formidable fighting force and was recognized by the South Koreans as the "father" of their army. To the chagrin of many of his colleagues, Van Fleet also strongly identified with the authoritarian government of South Korean President Syngman Rhee and its opposition to the truce talks and the repatriation of prisoners and its desire to unify Korea militarily.

Grieving over-the loss of his son, an Air Force pilot who was shot down while on a mission over North Korea in 1952, and embittered by the strategy of limited war in Korea followed by the Truman administration and then by Eisenhower's administration, Van Fleet relinquished his command of the Eighth Army in February 1953, and two months later retired from the Army. On his return to the United States, he sparked controversy by charging that he had been denied the opportunity to achieve total victory in Korea by political decisions in Washington, D.C., and by the failure of Washington to provide him with adequate quantities of ammunition. These charges aroused the interest of politicians who believed that Communists must be firmly defeated everywhere, but they were strongly challenged by Ridgway, Army Chief of Staff General Joseph L. Collins, and Lieutenant General Maxwell Taylor, Van Fleet's replacement with the Eighth Army.

In 1954, Van Fleet served as Eisenhower's special ambassador to the Far East, and in 1961-1962, he was a consultant on guerrilla warfare for the office of the secretary of the Army. Quiet, self-assured, Van Fleet stands out for his record as a combat commander and for his achievements in Greece and Korea.

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