About World War 2: US Carpet-Bombs a US General
Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair
The highest ranking US officers killed during World War Two were four lieutenant (3-star) generals. Two were killed when the planes they were flying in crashed and the other two were killed in combat: one by enemy artillery and the other by “friendly fire”. Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair died during the carpet-bombing of German positions in Normandy by US bombers when some of them released their bombs too soon.
Lt. General McNair was the Commanding General of Army Ground Forces, responsible for organizing and training US Army overseas forces. He served in both World Wars and was the a three-time recipient of the Army Distinguished Service Medal although he came under considerable criticism when US troops performed badly during the invasion of North Africa, due in part because of his “accelerated” training programs. He was also criticized for his disdain of self-propelled tank destroyers, believing towed anti-tank artillery was more efficient when, in fact, the artillery crews suffered high casualties and were consistently outperformed by tank destroyers. McNair also thought that tank versus tank duels were “unsound and unnecessary” and helped block the production of the M26 Pershing heavy tank.
When US forces under Lt. General Omar Bradley prepared to launch Operation Cobra, the US breakout from the Normandy beachhead in France, General McNair went along as an observer. Bradley had arranged, with General Eisenhower's permission, for the Air Force to pulverize the German lines before his ground forces attacked. Where the Soviets used breakthrough artillery-- masses of concentrated conventional artillery-- to soften up the enemy before an attack, the Americans used hundreds and thousands of heavy and medium bombers to accomplish the same thing. On July 25, 1944, while General McNair watched near the village of Saint-Lo, wave after wave of almost 2,500 US bombers dropped 4,000 tons of high explosives and napalm on the enemy. The massive destruction was to be concentrated in a four square mile area along the German lines, but 77 planes released their bombs too soon. As General Bradley wrote later of his friend and fellow West Pointer:
"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."
In what was the worst incident of US “friendly fire” during the war, 111 US soldiers were killed, including McNair, and another 490 were wounded. Among those who survived the bombing was famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle. He said it was “the most sustained horrible thing I've ever gone through”. The day before, another such incident had happened where 25 were killed and 130 wounded. It was not uncommon for enraged US infantry to fire on US planes during such incidents. General Eisenhower, who was also on hand, determined he would never use heavy bombers in support of ground troops again. But the bombing had achieved its intended purpose. The German line was broken.
Lt. General Lesley J. McNair was buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Normandy, France. Two weeks after his death, his son, Colonel Douglas McNair, was killed by a Japanese sniper on Guam. In 1954, the US Congress posthumously promoted him to General (4-stars).
The Four Generals
Here is a list of the four 3-star generals killed during World War II:
Lt. General Lesley McNair – See above.
Lt. General Frank Andrews – Died on May 3, 1943 when the bomber he was riding in crashed trying to land in Iceland.
Lt. General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. – Died June 18, 1945 when Japanese artillery targeted him while visiting a forward observation post on Okinawa. Posthumously promoted to General (4-stars) in 1954.
Lt. General Millard Fillmore Harmon, Jr. – Pronounced dead March 3, 1945 when the bomber taking him to Hawaii disappeared over the Pacific Ocean.
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