Monday, May 30, 2011

Omar Bradley

Arlington, Virginia. Visited September 2009

In honor of Memorial Day I’m doing a blog on my favorite World War II Commander, General Omar Bradley. Bradley’s combination of leadership skill, tactical innovation and personal integrity made him embody the best in military leadership. And it is characteristic of the man’s lack of self-promotion that he so seldom comes up in the conversation of great heroes of the Allied cause in World War II. But one would be hard pressed to find a story better suited to the American ideal of what a true soldier should embody. Known as the ‘soldier’s general’, Bradley rose through combat experience to command the largest Army group in history under one man; was the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was the last soldier ever promoted to the rank of five star general.  You can see a brief Bradley Bio here.

His story is right out of Life Magazine. Omar Bradley was born to a poor family in a log cabin in rural Missouri in the year 1893. He worked hard to get a basic education, excelled at sports and was working with the railroad to make enough money to attend the University of Missouri when his Sunday School teacher suggested he apply to West Point. Bradley got an appointment based on outstanding test scores. While at West Point he excelled at extra-curriculars but was an average student, graduating in 1915 just as World War I was breaking out.

Much to his dismay, Bradley never made it to the European theater, doing stateside duty on the West Coast. Yet he began to distinquish himself as a skilled organizer and developed a keen understanding of battlefield tactics. In the decades between the wars he had several posts as a student and instructor at key military colleges which honed this knowledge base and which allowed him to advance in rank as a professional soldier. He came to the notice of George C. Marshall, who would go on to run the military during World War II.

As World War II broke out he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and given the responsibilty of ramping up two infantry divisions which would play significant roles in Europe. But as the North African front exposed the ill preparedness of the green American troops, Bradley’s organizational and leadership skills were called upon to reverse losses against the Germans and help prepare for an invasion of Sicily and Italy beyond. During this campaign he served under George Patton.
Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower
and George Patton

The Allied breakthrough in Italy created the opportunity to plan a large scale invasion of France and Omar Bradley was called into the center of Operation Overlord – the D Day invasion. In fact much of the eventual plan for the Normandy Invasion was the result of Bradley’s planning and tactical innovation. It fell to Bradley to command the US invasion of Omaha and Utah beaches. On November 6 1944 the Allies launched the D Day invasion and after significant struggle a beachhead on the mainland was secured. It is about this hardfought triumph that Bradley said, “Bravery is the capacity to perform properly even when scared half to death.”

During the closing years of the war Omar Bradley became indispensable to the Allied command under Dwight D. Eisenhower. Almost alone among the top echelon of generals Bradley seemed impervious to politics and was the only commander able to effectively manage the combustible George Patton. Eventually the entire US force in Europe was placed under his command, meaning he personally oversaw a fighting force of 1.3 millions soldiers. It was his tactical plan in connection with the Soviet advance that ultimately led to the defeat of the German army and the end of the war in Europe.

Bradley Statue in Moberly, Missouri

After the war General Marshall personally requested Bradley to oversee the Veteran’s Administration. With the rapid downsizing of the wartime army, the VA was a backwards department unprepared to meet the needs of the fighting men it was created to serve. Within just a couple of years Omar Bradley’s leadership and organizational skills had transformed it into a agency that was a signficant force in allowing the ‘greatest generation’ find its way home from the war.

Omar Bradley receiving his fifth star
from President Harry Truman

In 1949 Omar Bradley became the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During his tenure he received his fifth star, becoming the last “General of the Army” in US history. The last post in his long distinguished career was first chairman of the Military Staff Committee of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Bradley retired in 1953, and began a long career in the private sector, while also serving all of the post war presidents with his counsel and experience in military matters. The soldier’s general emerged as one of the few top commanders from World War II to grasp the fundamental change in the nature of war that came with the atomic age. Reflecting on his experience as a warrior for freedom Bradley commented,

“We've learned how to destroy, but not to create; how to waste, but not to build; how to kill men, but not how to save them; how to die, but seldom how to live.”

Omar Bradley funeral procession to Arlington
National Cemetery
Omar Bradley died in April 1981 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors. My singular personal awareness of the general is when I watched the funeral of Dwight Eisenhower in 1969. The TV kept showing the aging general standing in full dress uniform honoring his former commander. Bradley was the last of a stellar generation of American commanders from World War II to pass from the scene.

There is a special reason this visit to Arlington National Cemetery where I saw Bradley also makes this Memorial Day blog meaningful. It was one of the last times I had the chance to spend an extended time with my dad. He had taken the train up to Philly so that I could drive with him down to Arlington to attend the memorial service of a cousin, Richard Allen. Vice Admiral Dick Allen had served as a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War, had captained the USS America in the Libya bombing raid in 1986 and had been head of the North Atlantic Naval Air Wing at the end of a distinguished naval career. He had fought a heroic battle with cancer and had testified greatly in that battle to his trust in Jesus Christ. Along with my son Grant and my nephew Ben we had the priviledge of attending as family a full honors burial at Arlington, which was very moving.

Bradley Fighting Vehicle on the move in Iraq

So this blog is a chance to honor the soliders of over a century of service to our country. Omar Bradley, soldier and commander through two world wars, Jake Farmer, citizen soldier in post-war Europe and the Korean Conflict and Dick Allen, fighter pilot in Vietnam and Naval officer through the end of the Cold War and in the War on Terror.

On this Memorial Day let us salute the men and women who dedicate themselves to serve our country in the military with courage and fidelity and those who have given their lives in the cause.

Other blog subjects buried at Arlington Cemetery:

Joe Louis

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