If you had to sit down with a pencil and paper and come up with who you think is the best soldier in American history, who would you choose?
Before we ask who we would choose, we better think of HOW we would choose, because to call this a hard question would be an epic understatement. How would we even pick what elements factor in? To make things easier, perhaps we could name some of our most famous fighting men and work backwards to the question. General George S. Patton and Gen. “Chesty” Puller probably come to mind for most history buffs; both were legendary leaders and tremendous force multipliers. If there was no Patton leading tanks across Europe or Puller commanding Marines in the Pacific, you could safely make the case that World War II would have been longer and more costly.
But narrowing our hypothetical question down to famous officers is too narrow of a scope. Besides, if you invented a program that mass-produced officers on par with Patton and Puller, but didn’t have spectacular privates and non-commissioned officers to command, that force would be combat ineffective. So what about enlisted soldiers like Audie Murphy, who is perhaps the most-decorated soldier in our history? We have to be careful when considering medals, because the military awards process is flawed and highly subjective; for example, the chain of command can lose paperwork (perhaps intentionally); acts can go unwitnessed, such as if the whole unit is wiped out; the war might be unpopular; the secretive nature of special operations forces or combat taking place in sensitive areas; or any of a number of other factors. Plus sometimes well-connected people, like Naval officer (and U.S. Congressman) Lyndon B. Johnson, are awarded medals that they didn’t earn.
Though the system has its flaws, at least medals are a decent indicator of valor, and that is why we publish citations for valor on this site.
1781: Gen. George Washington leads a combined army of 8,000 Continentals, 7,800 French soldiers, and 3,100 Colonial militia out of Williamsburg (Va.) to the newly constructed trenches surrounding Lt. Gen. Lord Cornwallis’ trapped British forces at Yorktown, beginning the siege that will effectively bring an end to the American Revolution.
1787: After putting the finishing touches on the Constitution of the United States, the Continental Congress sends copies out to the states for ratification.
1924: Two Douglas DT-2 biplanes land at Sand Point, Wash., completing the U.S. Army Air Service’s 175-day, 27,553-mile journey, marking the first ever aerial circumnavigation of the globe.
1941: Capt. Joseph J. Rochefort, officer-in-charge of Pearl Harbor’s cryptology section, warns commanders that a change in Japanese radio traffic could indicate a major operation.
1945: Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower relieves Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. of his post as military governor in Bavaria following controversial statements about the de-nazification process. Next month, Eisenhower transfers Patton from his beloved Third Army to lead the Fifteenth Army, a relatively small staff responsible for compiling a history of the European War.
1964: The Lafayette-class ballistic missile submarine USS Daniel Webster departs Charleston (S.C.) Harbor, becoming the first ship to deploy with the new Polaris A3 missiles. The A3 carries three 200-kiloton warheads with a maximum range of 2,500 nautical miles. When the USS Daniel Boone joins the Pacific Fleet in December, American nuclear missiles can now target anywhere on the entire Eurasian landmass.
2001: President George W. Bush declares that American combat forces are in “hot pursuit” of those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, while the Pentagon adds that American and British special operations forces have deployed to Afghanistan.
2012: Contrary to the Obama Administration’s narrative that the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was a spontaneous protest over a YouTube video, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence announces that it was in fact a “deliberate and organized terrorist attack.”
1776: After a series of defeats by the British, the Continental Army conducts a strategic withdrawal of Long Island, and Gen. William Howe sends a letter to Gen. George Washington seeking a peace conference. Washington rejects the offer, forwarding the message to Congress instead. Diplomacy falls flat when the British refuse to recognize American independence on Sept. 11, and the British respond by capturing New York City four days later.
1862: Near Lexington, Ky., Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith accomplishes the “nearest thing to a Cannae” (Hannibal’s double envelopment of the Roman army – perhaps the greatest tactical achievement in military history) during the Civil War. The Confederates rout Maj. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson’s inexperienced Union troops – capturing over 4,000 – in the Battle of Richmond.
1918: Southeast of Verdun, France, Gen. John J. Pershing’s First Army moves into position at the Saint-Mihiel salient. Among Pershing’s three U.S. (and one French) corps is Lt. Col. George S. Patton, Jr.’s newly formed 1st Provisional Tank Brigade, which will conduct the first tank warfare in American history in the upcoming Battle of Saint-Mihiel – the first independently-led American operation of World War I.
1963: After the United States and Soviet Union narrowly avoid war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a “hot line” is installed between the Pentagon and Kremlin, providing the two nuclear-armed superpowers with instant communication in hopes of preventing another conflict. The U.S. sends “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890,” and the Soviets respond with another message indicating all their teletype keys are functioning. The 10,000-mile secure cable connection still operates today, however it has been upgraded to a telephone system.
1995: NATO begins its first bombing campaign, Operation “Deliberate Force.” American land- and carrier-based warplanes, along with aircraft from 14 other nations, drop over 1,000 precision-guided munitions on Bosnian Serb positions, and the operation marks the first combat action for the German Luftwaffe since the end of World War II 50 years earlier.
Did you know that President Harry S. Truman fought during World War I?
Truman joined the Missouri National Guard in 1905. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Capt. Truman commanded Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, part of the 35th Infantry Division. From “The Soldier from Independence: Harry S. Truman and the Great War”:
Truman’s battery was frequently employed well forward. He was detailed to provide fire support for George S. Patton’s tank brigade during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, engaged German field guns and was credited with either wiping out or forcing the permanent abandonment of two complete batteries. When firing on these and other targets, he disobeyed orders and fired “out of sector” against threats to his division’s open flank. Truman’s 35th Division, a National Guard formation made up of units from Missouri and Kansas, suffered grievously in that battle, and the battery of the man who would later order the dropping of the atomic bombs was sited approximately 150 yards forward of where Patton was wounded in an area referred to by one artilleryman as “a cemetery of unburied dead.”
The more I find out about Harry Truman, the more I like him. Truman remained an officer in the Field Artillery Reserve until retiring as a colonel in 1953.