Lesley James McNair
Graduate, U.S. Military Academy, Class of 1904
Engagements: • World War I (1914 - 1918)• World War II (1941 - 1945)
Lesley James McNair
Lesley James McNair was born on 25 May 1883 in Verndale, MN, the son of James and Clara Manz McNair. He graduated eleventh in a class of 124 from the U.S. Military Academy and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant of Artillery after graduation in the class of 1904. During the years 1904-09 he served in a series of ordnance and artillery appointments in Utah, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington, DC. He was promoted to First lieutenant in June 1905 and to Captain in May 1907. He was then assigned to the 4th Artillery Regiment in the west from 1909-14.
While attached to the 4th Artillery Regiment, he was sent to France to observe French artillery training for a period of seven months during 1913. Upon his return he took part in Major General Frederick Funston's expedition to Veracruz from 30 April 30-23 November 1914. He saw service under General John J. Pershing in the Pancho Villa Expedition and was promoted to Major in May 1917.
World War I
When the U.S. entered World War I, McNair went to France where he served with the 1st Infantry Division. For his outstanding service, he was awarded both the Distinguished Service Medal and the French Légion d'honneur. He was also promoted to Lieutenant Colonel (August 1917); Colonel (June 1918); and Brigadier General (October 1918), thus becoming, at age 35, the youngest general officer in the U.S. Army (at that time).
Following the end of the First World War in November 1918, he left his position as senior artillery officer in the General Staff's Training Section and reverted to his permanent rank of Major in 1919. After returning to the U.S., he first taught at the General Service School (1919-1921); then he served as a staff officer in Hawaii (1921-1924); and served as a professor of Military Science and Tactics at Purdue University from 1924 to 1928.
In 1928 he was promoted to the permanent rank of Lieutenant Colonel; he graduated from the Army War College in 1929. Following this, he served as Assistant Commander of the U.S. Army Field Artillery School (1929-1933), and then in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the first Franklin Roosevelt Administration (1933-1935). He was promoted to Colonel in May 1935. After receiving a promotion to Brigadier General in March 1937, he was given Command of the 2d Field Artillery Brigade in Texas, which he commanded until April 1939.
As Commandant of the Command and General Staff College from April 1939 to July 1940, McNair initiated changes that prepared the College's graduates to meet the upcoming challenges of World War II.
World War II
McNair was Chief of Staff of GHQ, U.S. Army from July 1940 to March 1942. He was promoted to Major General in September 1940, and to temporary Lieutenant General in June 1941.
In March 1942, General McNair became Commanding General, Army Ground Forces. As such, he was responsible for the organization, training and preparation of the U.S. Army for overseas service. He was instrumental in preparing large-scale divisional and corps exercises to provide Army commanders with some experience in controlling large forces in simulated combat. However, McNair's emphasis on abbreviated basic combat training schedules for inductees, as well as his programs for the training and supply of individual replacements to combat units, would later face widespread criticism after the U.S. Army invasion of North Africa in 1942. That criticism continued until the end of the war in Europe.
McNair, who had already received a Purple Heart for being wounded in the North African Campaign, was killed in his foxhole on 25 July 1944 near Saint-Lô during Operation Cobra, by an errant aerial bomb dropped during a pre-attack bombardment by heavy strategic bombers of the Eighth Air Force.
General Omar N. Bradley, his ground forces stymied, had decided to use carpet bombing to break the German lines. Eighth Air Force used 1,500 heavy bombers, 380 medium bombers, and 550 fighter bombers, to drop 4,000 tons of high explosives and napalm. Bradley was horrified when the bombs from 77 planes fell short of their targets:
"The ground belched, shook and spewed dirt to the sky. Scores of our troops were hit, their bodies flung from slit trenches. Doughboys were dazed and frightened....A bomb landed squarely on McNair in a slit trench and threw his body sixty feet and mangled it beyond recognition except for the three stars on his collar."
Medals and Awards
Army Distinguished Service Medal with 2 Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters
Fort Lesley McNair in Washington, DC, was renamed in his honor in 1948.
McNair Barracks in Berlin and McNair Kaserne in Höchst (Frankfurt am Main), Germany were named in his honor. McNair Kaserne was closed and turned over to the German government when the 17th Signal Battalion moved to Kitzingen, Germany in 1992.
Death and Burial
Lieutenant General Lesley James McNair died a particularly violent death in combat on 25 July 1944. An errant bomb from friendly forces landed squarely on McNair in a slit trench and threw his body sixty feet; mangling it beyond recognition except for the three stars on his collar.
His remains are buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, Basse-Normandie Region, France, in Plot F, Row 28, Grave 42.
His son, Colonel Douglas McNair, Chief of Staff of the 77th Infantry Division, was killed two weeks later by a sniper on Guam and is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.
On 19 July 1954, McNair was promoted to four-star general pursuant to Public Law 88-508. [Eleven lieutenant generals (including McNair) were promoted to 4-star rank on 19 July 1954. Seven promotions were granted to living retirees; four were awarded posthumously.]
McNair's tombstone at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial originally listed him as a Lieutenant General; the rank he held at death. The American Battle Monuments Commission was unaware of the promotion to general in 1954. For that reason, his gravestone was not changed to reflect his final rank of general until 11 November 2010. McNair is now the highest ranking military officer buried at that cemetery.
Evaluations of General McNair
Initial Training Issues
During the early months of World War II, Lieutenant General McNair received largely favorable treatment for his training programs and policies. McNair was frequently quoted for his pronouncements that no army could be fully effective unless it is properly organized, correctly equipped, adequately led, and completely trained. In a 1943 wartime profile for The Saturday Evening Post written just before the rout of U.S. Army forces at Kasserine Pass, reporter John T. Whitaker effusively wrote of McNair: "If you have a son or husband in uniform, you may owe his welfare or even his survival to 'Whitey' McNair."
Under pressure to quickly produce huge numbers of soldiers, McNair resorted to cutting back basic and advanced combat training, particularly in the areas of combat initiative (small-unit leadership exercises for enlisted troops, where all NCOs and officers have been ruled killed or wounded), combat acclimatization, weapons proficiency, and small unit tactics. With the exception of elite combat units such as airborne forces, who received intense physical training as well as realistic weapon and unit combat instruction, McNair used the bulk of the training cycle to train Army inductees in their particular specialty or classification. The faults in this system were soon exposed after the battle of Kasserine Pass and other critical initial encounters with the battle-seasoned German forces, in which U.S. infantry, service, and supporting arms troops lost unit cohesion and retreated in disorder after being overrun. While U.S. forces in continual operations against enemy forces soon acquired combat experience of their own, the cost of 'on the job training' proved extremely expensive in terms of casualties and loss of morale. Though McNair and his successors later implemented more realistic training based on modern battle experiences, widespread reports of insufficiently-trained soldiers and combat specialists would continue to occur for the duration of the war. In this respect, McNair was not helped by the practice of assigning generals who had done poorly in combat assignments, such as Lloyd Fredendall and John P. Lucas, to head stateside training commands.
Individual Replacement System
Another problem surfaced with the individual replacement system (IRS), a concept devised by General George C. Marshall and implemented by McNair. Instead of learning from combat veterans in the same unit (via transfer to an existing battalion or regiment temporarily rotated out of the combat zone for retraining), replacements were first trained at a variety of facilities, then sent to replacement depots (repple-depples). Shipped without unit organization or strong command, they were passed from one temporary duty station to another, often spending months between leaving their original organizations and assignment to a unit. During this time they became physically soft, their discipline slackened, and their acquired basic infantry or combat skills tended to be forgotten. It was at this point that the individual army replacement was transferred to an active duty unit, frequently a fighting arm such as armor or infantry that was 'on the line' (currently engaged in combat operations). In addition to this, U.S. commanders frequently encountered replacement soldiers that had received no training on their individual rifle or assigned weapons system at all. As the IRS plan began to break down completely in late 1944, other men, including older individuals and those physically incapable of rigorous physical duty were taken from other army specialties (clerk-typist, cook etc.) or training programs and hurriedly given six weeks' infantry training, upon which they were reassigned as combat infantry replacements. In consequence, casualty rates skyrocketed; in many frontline units, replacement soldiers lasted an average of just three to four days before being killed or wounded. At the same time, veteran soldiers were retained on the line until they were killed, wounded, or became incapacitated by battle fatigue or physical illness.
Tactical Doctrine Controversies
McNair also espoused controversial theories on armored support of infantry forces, theories which were later found to be inadequate. He particularly came in for criticism over tank destroyer doctrine. As an artillery officer, McNair favored towed anti-tank artillery over self-propelled tank destroyers, even after it had become apparent that German forces were converting their anti-tank forces into self-propelled guns as soon as such vehicles could be produced. Due to inherent delays in deploying such towed guns, combined with greatly increased crew exposure to German small arms and mortar fire, American towed anti-tank artillery was never really effective during the war in Europe; instead, some units were tasked as substitute howitzers firing conventional artillery missions. When used in their original role as towed anti-tank guns against German tanks and defensive emplacements, the towed battalions suffered disproportionate casualties compared to the self-propelled tank destroyer battalions.
McNair was not always successful in selecting subordinate commanders with genuine military leadership abilities. He had a natural affinity and very high regard for General Lloyd Fredendall, perhaps the most incompetent U.S. senior battlefield commander of World War II. McNair even included Fredendall on a list of three senior generals he thought capable of commanding all American forces in England. As part of Operation Torch, Fredendall was later sent to North Africa, where he was relieved of command by General Eisenhower after the debacle at Kasserine Pass.
|Honoree ID: 283||Created by: MHOH|