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Cold War Files: All Units: People: Joseph Lawton Collins

Joseph Lawton Collins
b. May 1, 1896 - d. September 12, 1987
General of 25th Infantry Division, US Army, 1942-1943; Chief of Staff, US Army, 1949-1953

Born in New Orleans, Louisiania, May 1, 1896, Collins graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1917, but missed combat in World War I.

Following two stateside assignments, he went to Germany in 1919, as part of the occupation forces. Two years later, he returned to West Point, where he served as a chemistry instructor for four years. In the next dozen years, he was a student or a teacher in various service schools before going to the Philippine Islands. In 1936, he attended the Army Industrial College and Army War College, after which he joined the faculty of the latter. Although the short, stocky, good-looking Collins was always a well- organized, articulate individual with great interpersonal skills, he was, on the eve of World War II, considered a good, but by no means extraordinary, officer.

World War II saw Collins' fortune rise quickly. In 1942, he became commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division, and in January 1943, he led that unit as it drove the Japanese off Guadalcanal. It was at that time that he earned the nickname, "Lightning Joe." Next it was on to New Georgia where his earlier success was repeated. In December 1943, he was given command of the VII Corps, which he led onto Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and then across Europe until it joined with Soviet forces at the Elbe River in April 1945.

Several postwar assignments in Washington, D.C. were followed by an appointment as deputy chief of staff in 1947, vice chief of staff in 1948, and after receiving his fourth star, chief of staff of the Army on August 16, 1949—a position he held throughout the Korean War.

Prior to the North Korean attack, Collins joined the other chiefs in the assessment that Korea was not of strategic importance to the U.S. and therefore should not, in the event of an attack, be defended by U.S. forces. On June 30, after a telecommunications conference with General Douglas MacArthur in Japan, Collins came to the conclusion that U.S. ground forces should be committed to battle.

As the U.S. military presence increased in Korea, so did the influence of the JCS, in that the president had designated it as his agent for Korea. While the JCS was responsible for proposing policy and implementing the commander in chief's orders, the operations in Korea were predominantly those of the Army; thus Collins became the primary planner, coordinator, and implementer of military action. Consequently, at the JCS meetings during the war, Collins generally took the lead.

Early in the conflict, much of Collins' time was spent setting up the unified U.N. Command and establishing a U.N. fighting force. These activities were extremely complicated because of the President's desire to have as many nations as possible represented in the force, as opposed to the JCS desire to have only those forces that could make a militarily significant contribution. No issue, however, was more difficult than meeting the manpower needs of the Army.

When the war started, there were only 592,000 troops on active duty, but within two years, there were nearly 1.6 million, more than a two and a half-fold increase. Matters were further complicated because individuals drafted or called to active duty were, by law, limited to serving 21 months. Thus soldiers were trained, sent to Korea for approximately a year, and returned to civilian life. This rapid turnover created constant training and supply problems. Because of the pressing needs for more soldiers, many National Guard and Reserve units and inactive Reservists were called up. Such decisions generated much criticism from those affected by Collins' recommendations.

Several weeks into the war, MacArthur informed Collins of his planned invasion at Inchon. From the beginning, Collins opposed the move, and while he remained skeptical, he ultimately agreed to the action out of a firm conviction that such decisions should be those of the theater commander.

As the conflict turned into a stalemate in 1951 and 1952, Collins, who was accustomed to the no-holds-barred combat of World War II, grew increasingly frustrated, and thus he supported the use of nuclear weapons to bring the war to an end in the spring of 1953.

In the last two years of his service in Korea, he successfully saw that manpower needs were met, that racial integration of units became a reality, that troops were adequately trained and supplied, and that Congress provided the funds needed by the Army to carry on the fighting. The latter became increasingly difficult as public support for the conflict waned.

On August 15, 1953, less than three weeks after the Armistice, Collins concluded his service as chief of staff. He subsequently served as the U.S. representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Military Committee and as special envoy to South Vietnam before retiring in 1956. In later years, he always maintained that Korea was a victory for the U.S. because the purpose had been to halt communist aggression and that had been accomplished. He remained in Washington, D.C. until his death on September 12, 1987.

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