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Lesley J. McNair

Lesley J. McNair

General Lesley James McNair (May 25, 1883July 25, 1944) was an American Army officer who served during World War I and World War II. McNair and Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., both lieutenant generals at the time of their deaths, were the highest-ranking Americans to be killed in action in World War II; both were promoted posthumously to general, on July 19, 1954, by Act of Congress.

Early life and career

He was born in Verndale, Minnesota, the son of James and Clara Manz McNair. He graduated eleventh in a class of 124 from the United States Military Academy and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant of Artillery (1904). He then served in a series of ordnance and artillery appointments in Utah, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. (1904-1909). He was promoted to 1st lieutenant (June 1905) and captain (May 1907) and was then assigned to the 4th Artillery Regiment in the west (1909-1914). While attached to the regiment he was sent to France to observe French artillery training for a period of seven months (1913) and upon return took part in Major General Frederick Funston's expedition to Vera Cruz (April 30-November 23, 1914). He then saw service under General John J. Pershing, in the Pancho Villa Expedition, and was promoted to major (May 1917).

World War I

When the United States of America entered the First World War, 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 in due succession to lieutenant colonel (August 1917), colonel (June 1918), and brigadier (one-star) general (October 1918) thus becoming the youngest general officer in the United States Army at the time at the age of 35.

Between wars

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 (1919), returning to the United States to teach, first, at the General Service School (1919-1921), then doing a stint as a staff officer in Hawaii (1921-1924), then as a professor of military science and tactics at Purdue University from 1924 to 1928.

He was promoted to permanent lieutenant colonel (1928) and 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) then in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the first Franklin Roosevelt Administration (1933-1935). He was promoted to colonel (May 1935) and received command of 2d Field Artillery Brigade in Texas following his promotion to Brigadier General in March 1937, and commanded from March 1937 to 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 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. Once he was satisfied that the Army could operate in large bodies he concentrated on revising training to simulate the conditions that the Army was facing in North Africa. Chris Gabel has written of McNair's training skills, in which he still has no peers, in a book entitled Louisiana Maneuvers.

McNair, who had already received a Purple Heart for being wounded in the North African Campaign, was killed July 25, 1944 near St. Lo during Operation Cobra, by friendly fire during a pre-attack bombardment by the Eighth Air Force.

His son, Colonel Douglas McNair, chief of staff of the 77th Infantry Division, was killed two weeks later by a sniper on Guam.

Fort Lesley McNair in Washington, D.C. was renamed in his honor in 1948. McNair Barracks in Berlin, Germany was named in his honor.


It was said of Lieutenant General McNair that he did more than train men—he realized that no army can be fully effective unless it is properly organized, correctly equipped, adequately led, and completely trained. In a 1943 profile for The Saturday Evening Post, John T. Whitaker, wrote: "If you have a son or husband in uniform, you may owe his welfare or even his survival to 'Whitey' McNair..

His insistence on these fundamentals, especially realistic training, helped save untold thousands of American lives.

However McNair also espoused controversial doctrines on armor support of infantry forces which were later found to be inadequate. He particularly came in for criticism over tank destroyer doctrine. McNair was an artillery officer and he favored towed anti-tank artillery over self-propelled tank destroyers. The American towed anti-tank artillery was never really effective during the war and the towed battalions which McNair favored suffered disproportionate casualties when compared to the self-propelled tank destroyer battalions.

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