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General McNair: Verndale man made the U.S. a superpower

General McNair was featured on the cover of TIME magazine in 1942.1 / 2
General Lesley McNair is originally from Verndale.2 / 2

General Lesley McNair has been called "A Maker of Armies." Originally from Verndale, McNair is the city's most famous citizen.

"The astonishing successes of the Armies he organized and trained constitute the only praise that he desired - and never since the tragedy of Bataan and Corregidor have our armies suffered a serious defeat," General George Marshall said. "The aggressive spirit which General McNair instilled in our men was the driving force of his own character."

General Marshall also described McNair as "a classic soldier, superior in every field."

McNair was born on May 25, 1883, in Verndale to James and Clara (Manz) McNair.

General McNair had a distinguished career. He graduated eleventh in a class of 124 from West Point at the age of 21 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. (1904-09). He was promoted to 1st Lieutenant (June 1905) and Captain (May 1907) and was then assigned to the 4th Artillery Regiment in the west (1909-14). 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 Veracruz, Mexico, (April 30 through Nov. 23, 1914). He then saw service under General John J. Pershing, in the Pancho Villa Expedition, and was promoted to major (May 1917).

When the United States 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 Army 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.

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 1940 he was made a permanent Major General and organized General Headquarters at the Army War College. In 1941, he was made a Lieutenant General and Commanding General of the Army Ground Forces. Until the majority of the troops went overseas, he had the largest command in the Army. He went to Tunisia where he was wounded and awarded the Purple Heart in the Field.

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.

General McNair was killed in his foxhole July 25, 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.

McNair is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Normandy, France. His tombstone originally listed him as a lieutenant general, the rank he held at death. Although he was posthumously promoted to the rank of general by the U.S. Congress in 1954, the American Battle Monuments Commission was initially unaware of the change. His gravestone was not changed to reflect his final rank of general until Nov. 11, 2010, making him the highest-ranking military officer buried at that cemetery.

Washington Barracks in Washington, D.C. was renamed Fort Lesley J. McNair in his honor in 1948. McNair Barracks in Berlin, Germany and McNair Kaserne in Höchst (Frankfurt am Main), Germany were also both named in his honor.

Sidebar

Mark Calhoun, author of the book "General Lesley J. McNair: "Unsung Architect of the U.S. Army," will speak at the Verndale Lions Community Center at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 12.

His program will examine McNair's role during WWII and highlight previously unknown details of his career, focusing on his efforts to prepare the Army Ground Forces to serve under General Eisenhower — from North Africa to Sicily, to the D-Day landings and breakout during Operation Cobra and ultimately to the crossing of the Rhine and victory in Europe.

In its detail and scope, this first full military biography reveals the unique and valuable perspective McNair's generalship offers for the serious student of military history and leadership. After a 20-year career as a U.S. Army Aviator and military operational planner, Mark T. Calhoun now serves as an associate professor at the United States Army's School of Advanced Military Studies.

"General Lesley J. McNair: Unsung Architect of the U. S. Army," published by the University Press of Kansas in 2015, is Calhoun's first book.

This event is one of a series of free programs for Spring 2016 from the Wadena County Historical Society. It is produced in collaboration with the Verndale Historical Society. The free program will be followed by a BBQ chicken dinner, a fundraiser for the Verndale Historical Society. Tickets for the dinner are $10. Proceeds will go towards construction of a facility to house the society's grist mill model and Verndale's 1895 fire pumper.

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