General James Alward Van Fleet was born on March 19, 1892 and he passed away on September 23, 1992. Upon his death he was 100 years and seven months old. With his long life Van Fleet became the oldest living general officer in the United States. Note that Van Fleet was not just the oldest general, or the oldest colonel, or the oldest major. He was the oldest general officer in the history of the United States Armed Forces.
General Van Fleet grew up, and was trained, with a number of illustrious military men. He was a class mate of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Omar Bradley at the United States Military Academy at West Point. And as Commanding General of the Eighth United States Army during the Korean War, he was preceded in that position by Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgway, and succeeded in that position by Lieutenant General Maxwell D. Taylor.
As was true of his contemporaries, Van Fleet served in both the First World War and the Second World War. In the First World War, Van Fleet was a battalion commander, as part of the American Expeditionary Force, under General John J. Pershing. Prior to and during the early part of the Second World War, Van Fleet commanded the Eighth Infantry Regiment, and led it into combat during the D-Day landings on Utah Beach in June 1944. In addition, as you will read later, Van Fleet also served in the Korean War, so his military service spanned three major wars.
Van Fleet was widely and highly regarded as an outstanding military officer. But he was blocked from promotion because the Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, erroneously confused Van Fleet with a well-known officer, with a similar name, who was an alcoholic. When George Marshall learned of his mistake, Van Fleet was quickly promoted to divisional and corps command, and served under General George Patton during the remainder of the Second World War.
Following the Second World War, in 1946, General Van Fleet was sent to Greece, to aid the Greek government in its battle during the Greek Civil War. The Greek Civil War was essentially an attempted power grab by the communists to take over Greece from its non-communist government and civilians General Van Fleet supervised 250 United States military advisors and administered $ 250 million in aid to the Greek government.
Several years later, from August 1950 to April 1951, General Van Fleet became the Commanding General of the United States Second Army. Following that position, he replaced General Matthew B. Ridgway as commander of the United States Eighth Army, and the United Nations forces in Korea. That position was probably his most difficult one during his entire military career. The armed forces under General Van Fleet’s control in Korea were vastly outnumbered by the numerically superior Communist forces, consisting of the North Korean and Communist Chinese armed forces.
Being in command of the Eighth United States Army, plus the United Nations Forces, during war time conditions, was probably the pinnacle of General Van Fleet’s career. But unfortunately the outcome of that war was somewhat disappointing for the United States and for the United Nations. It ended in a stale mate, and continued the totalitarian oppression of the North Koreans for many more decades, and into the present. General Van Fleet must have felt some of the responsibility for that disappointment. But even worse than his professional disappointment, General Van Fleet must have been devastated by the loss of his only son, a United States Air Force officer, in the Korean War.
Following the Korean War, in 1953, General Van Fleet retired. Since his graduation from West Point in 1915, General Van Fleet had served in the United States Armed Forces for 38 years. If we also add his four years at West Point, Van Fleet’s total service time amounted to 42 years, a long and distinguished career. Upon General Van Fleet’s retirement, President Truman honored General Van Fleet with the accolade of being “the greatest general we have ever had. I sent him to Greece and he won the war. I sent him to Korea and he won the war”. Earlier, during the Korean War, President Truman had called General Van Fleet “America’s greatest general”.
Following his retirement from the United States Army, General Van Fleet was the leading force and spirit behind the establishment of the Korea Society, a non-profit organization. The Korea Society was and still is dedicated to the promotion of friendly relations between the people of the United States and Korea.
As a long term leader in the military, covering a time span of over 40 years, and spanning three major wars, General Van Fleet was awarded a plethora of awards and decorations. General Van Fleet was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross with two oak leaf clusters, the Distinguished Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters, the Silver Star with two oak leaf clusters, and the Bronze Star with two oak leaf clusters. In addition General Van Fleet received the Purple Heart wit two oak leaf clusters, the World War I Victory Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal. And to cap it off, there were four more medals, consisting of the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Service Medal, the Combat Infantry Badge and the United Nations Service Medal.
General James Van Fleet was clearly a Dutch American and probably from quite a number of generations back. His original family name was probably Van Vliet, but that name was changed to the more English sounding name of Van Fleet. General Van Fleet was married to Helen Moore Van Fleet [1892-1984], and had two surviving daughters and twelve grandchildren. General Van Fleet passed away in September 1992 in Polk City, Florida. He was buried in Section 7 of the Arlington National Cemetery.
Those readers, with a strong interest in General James Van Fleet’s life, can find much detailed information in his biography, published in July 2001, by Paul F. Braim. The book is entitled, “Will to Win: The Life of General James A. Van Fleet”. The book is published by the Naval Institute Press.
James Van Fleet, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Van_Fleet
James Alward Van Fleet, http://www.arlingtoncemetery.com/vanfleet.htm
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