The Jury Talks Back


Bleg: A Question

Filed under: Uncategorized — Fritz @ 9:27 pm

I was out walking the dogs and I had a question that I thought the collected knowledge of the blogsphere might be able to answer:

  1. What was the greatest amount of rank mobility in America’s armed forces during World War II?  Where there any privates who became generals or lieutenants who made it to admiral during the time from Pearl Harbor to V-J Day?

Not a terribly important question, but one that popped into my head, almost unbidden, that I would be interested in seeing answered.  Well, not completely unbidden.  I was thinking about how much I’ve enjoyed the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, and I was wondering if it would be possible to do a modern version.  Of course, their’s was a longer war, and O’Brian sets five or six of the books in one historical year anyway, but still…


  1. James Gavin comes to mind right away. He enlisted as a private in April 1924, graduated West Point in June 1929, and was a captain at the outbreak of World War II. He rose to be the youngest Major General during the war, commanding the 82d Airborne Division. He retired in 1958 as a Lieutenant General.

    Comment by Robert Bell — 9/23/2009 @ 5:46 am

  2. I’m thinking that Arleigh Burke started out as enlisted, but before WW2. Now, he has a class of ships named after him.

    Other than that, all I can remember is Audie Murphy, an underage shrimp no outfit wanted, but became the most decorated soldier and a Lt.

    Comment by PCD — 9/23/2009 @ 6:26 am

  3. Yeah, 1812 was very long year for Lucky. IIRC, he circled the globe, had several shipwrecks, was cast away, tragedy at home, etc.

    So, why does 2009 feel the same way?

    Comment by Kevin Murphy — 9/23/2009 @ 8:13 am

  4. Well . . . .

    Don’t know about the present, but David Drake’s Leary/Mundy series is an SF version of Aubrey-Maturin.

    The first book in the series “With the Lightnings” is available as a free book on the Baen website.

    Comment by Mark L — 9/23/2009 @ 12:48 pm

  5. Ike might be a better bet, he was a major at the outbreak of the war and was supreme allied commander/europe long before war’s end.

    Comment by GM Roper — 9/23/2009 @ 12:50 pm

  6. Correction, he made a very rapid rise after being a Major for a very long period of time, but was promoted to Brigadeer in Sept. 1941. But still, Supreme Commander only 2 1/2 years later was still an accomplishment.

    I denounce myself for posting inaccurate info.

    Comment by GM Roper — 9/23/2009 @ 1:11 pm

  7. I don’t think WWII lasted long enough, or went badly enough, for the type of mobility you’re looking for, at least in the US forces.

    There were a number of enlisted to officer promotions, the most famous being Audie Murphy. (Murphy went from Private (E-1) to First Lieutenant (O-2) during the war.) Most enlisted-to-officer promotions topped out as Lieutenant, I can’t think of any that made it higher than Captain. Generally speaking, the army didn’t want to place them in charge of anything larger than a squad without proper officer training, something that usually wasn’t an option for them until the war was over.

    People starting the war as Lieutenants often had fast promotions. With the way the military was expanding, it was said that anyone with decent organizational skills and the luck to survive could go from Lieutenant to full Colonel (or Captain in the navy) in just a few years, and many did. Yet most of these stalled out at Colonel, lacking the credentials or connections to break into the ranks of the Generals (or Admirals).

    Now, the type of mobility you’re looking for is quite possible in the US forces, it just takes a bit longer. Fairly recent examples are Jeremy Michael Boorda (Seaman E-1 to Admiral O-10); Jerry R. Curry (Private E-1 to Major General O-8); and Tommy Franks (Private E-1 to General O-10).

    In fact, the best example of what you’re asking for that I can think of is Chuck Yeager. He enlisted as a Private (E-1) in 1941, was a Captain (O-3) when WWII ended, and eventually made Major General (O-8) by the time he retired in 1975.

    Comment by Dan D — 9/23/2009 @ 5:19 pm

  8. I seem to remember during one of the naval battles WWII, there was a LT(jg) who took over command of a task force or battle group when the Chain of Command was wiped out above him, even though there were senior members commanding other vessels…sent signals as if he was the Commodore and was commended for it. (Or am I remembering a fictional part of ‘Starship Troopers’ by RAH)

    Something like a Marine or Army 1LT commanding a brigade.

    Of course…there are two cases of rather famous enlisted becoming the dictators of their respective countries (Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolph Hitler)

    Comment by MunDane68 — 9/24/2009 @ 5:25 am

  9. 8, remember Idi Amin had been a Sgt. in his army in Uganda.

    Comment by PCD — 9/24/2009 @ 6:04 am

  10. Napoleon Bonaparte commanded a battalion of artillery (Major) under “The Republic”.

    Comment by nk — 9/24/2009 @ 7:37 am

  11. And don’t you dare compare him to Hitler ever again.

    Comment by nk — 9/24/2009 @ 7:38 am

  12. 8, I Grok the Heinlein!

    Maybe you are thinking of George Armstrong Custer?

    From Wikipedia:

    George Armstrong Custer (December 5, 1839 – June 25, 1876) was a United States Army officer and cavalry commander in the American Civil War and the Indian Wars. At the start of the Civil War, Custer was a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and his class’ graduation was accelerated so that they could enter the war. Custer graduated last in his class and served at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. As a staff officer for Major General George B. McClellan, Custer was promoted to the rank of Captain during the Army of the Potomac’s 1862 Peninsula Campaign. Early in the Gettysburg Campaign, Custer’s association with cavalry commander Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton earned him a promotion from first lieutenant to brigadier general of volunteers at the age of 23.

    Custer established a reputation as an aggressive cavalry brigade commander willing to take personal risks by leading his Michigan Brigade into battle, such as the mounted charges at Hunterstown and East Cavalry Field at the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1864, with the Cavalry Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, Custer led his “Wolverines” through the Overland Campaign, including the Battle of Trevilian Station. Custer, now commanding the 3rd Division, followed Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley where they defeated the Confederate army of Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early in the Valley Campaigns of 1864. In 1865, Custer played a key role in the Appomattox Campaign, with his division blocking General Robert E. Lee’s retreat on its final day and received the Flag of Truce at Lee’s surrender.

    Comment by PCD — 9/24/2009 @ 10:33 am

  13. If you’re going back to the US Civil War, there’s always Galusha Pennypacker.

    Enlisted at the age of 16 as a quartermaster sergeant, he received a full promotion to Brigadier General at the age of 20.

    Youngest US Army general ever, before or since.

    Comment by Dan D — 9/24/2009 @ 10:45 am

  14. Barack Obama went from unpatriotic loser, perhaps an ensign in the Weather Underground who couldn’t keep a steady job lawyering for ACORN, to Supreme Allied Commander and CinC in less than a second.

    Only in America, Uganda, Somalia, or Venezuela, eh?

    Comment by Juan — 9/24/2009 @ 1:12 pm

  15. Ike was a Major for a very long time because he, along with Patton, wrote articles in the 1920’s about the use of tanks that contradicted the theories promoted by the “Tank School” crowd. The fact that Patton and Eisenhower had more actual experience with tanks (Patton as a tank commander in WWI and Eisenhower at the Commandant of the WWI Tank Training Center) than any of the “Tank School” crowd did not matter. Patton had to return to the horse calvary and Ike took refuge in a series of staff positions.

    Also, Napoleon came to the notice of the Revolutionary leaders when he was the only officer who took action against the Paris mob. The other officers were fearful of acting in a “politically incorrect” manner as the Paris mob was supposed to be the heart of the revolution.

    When the mob turned against the leaders of the revolution, it was Captain Bonaparte with two guns that gave the mob a “taste of grape” that quelled their enthusiasm. For this act, he was arrested and imprisoned while the revolutionary leadership decided what to do with him.

    They had two choices : execute him and never have any military support against future mob action or reward him. They chose to “reward” him by promoting him and sending him to Italy. The rest is history.

    Comment by Longwalker — 9/24/2009 @ 5:33 pm

  16. My father was commissioned in 1942 as a Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps and he was discharged at the end of WWII as a Colonel commanding a reconnaissance squadron. He had an Army commission and not a wartime commission, so he would have retained his rank had he stayed in. Family members told me his rapid rise in rank was due to his ability as a pilot/commander as well as the significant loss of life sustained by reconnaissance pilots.

    Comment by DRJ — 9/24/2009 @ 8:51 pm

  17. Two that spring to mind are Brig Gen Chuck Yeager and Lt Gen “Chesty” Puller.

    Chuck Yeager entered the Army as an enlisted man and retired from the Air Force as a Brigadier General. He fought in WWII as a commissioned fighter pilot.

    USMC “Chesty” Puller was in the enlisted ranks. He actually started as a commissioned officer and then gave up that commission for a short time to become an enlisted soldier. He would retire from the Corp as a Lt General (three stars). Puller did serve in WWII, initially as a Major and ending up as a Colonel.

    Both of these men received their final ranks after many years of service long after WWII ended.

    DRJ, what type of plane did your father fly?

    Comment by Pons Asinorum — 9/24/2009 @ 10:37 pm

  18. Pons Asinorum,

    Sorry for the delay in responding to your question but I had to ask him. Here’s his response:

    “PT-? biplane; BT-13; AT-6; P-39; P-63; P-40; P-43; P-51; P-38; A-20; A-26; A-36; C-47(DC-3); B-25; B-26; B-10; L1A and some small cubs to train observers. First three were in flight training, the P planes were fighters, the A planes were attack planes, the C planes were cargo planes, the B planes were bombers and the L plane was a short range liaison plane for military tactics observation.”

    Comment by DRJ — 9/26/2009 @ 1:13 pm

  19. DRJ,

    Ask you dad his opinion of the difference in flying the A-36, a Allison powered early Mustang, and the P-51 Rolls-Royce Merlin powered Mustang.

    Comment by PCD — 9/26/2009 @ 1:30 pm

  20. DRJ, please thank your father for his service. What an extraordinary flight-career he had during WWII. What a cross section of aircraft-types (I could spend an easy week or so just asking him questions)!

    Looking at all the different aircraft-types, something tells me a brave and extraordinary man has a story to tell.

    Comment by Pons Asinorum — 9/27/2009 @ 11:15 pm

  21. DRJ,

    Wow. A P-38?

    What I wouldn’t give to be able to find one, restore it, and fly it. They seem like they were just amazing craft.

    Which one did he enjoy flying the most?

    Comment by Scott Jacobs (in class) — 9/28/2009 @ 8:06 am

  22. Scott,

    Seen a P-38 at the EAA museum in Oshkosh.

    I recall that there was an expedition to Iceland to recover several P-38s and at least 1 B-17 from a glacier where they landed out of gas. Turned out all were crushed by accumulated ice.

    Comment by PCD — 9/28/2009 @ 9:01 am

  23. I’ve seen P-38’s up close at different air-shows, and I absolutely love them.

    Comment by Scott Jacobs (in class) — 9/28/2009 @ 9:16 am

  24. PCD,

    I’m sorry for the delay but it’s hard to get my Dad to talk about the war. I asked him to compare the A-36 and the P-51. He said the A-36 and the first P-51s were powered by Allison engines which were not so powerful, especially above 15,000 ft, but the P-51s performed well at altitudes up to 35,000 ft with the Rolls Royce engines. He described them as “superb machines” and said “we were fortunate to have the newer engines after the P-51 C” because “our superior planes contributed to our successes during the war.”


    I don’t know which was his favorite but he liked the P-51s.

    Comment by DRJ — 9/29/2009 @ 12:03 pm

  25. Pons Asinorum,

    I think he has a lot of stories to tell but like many WWII vets, he doesn’t talk about it much. I’ve encouraged him to tell his grandsons about his service so they will have those memories and know more about what his generation did.

    Comment by DRJ — 9/29/2009 @ 12:06 pm

  26. DRJ,

    Thank your dad for me.

    I think it is a crying shame for the WW2 vets’ stories not to be chronicled and recorded.

    If people were schooled in such stories, maybe we would not inflict other Chamberlains and Obamas upon ourselves.

    Comment by PCD — 9/30/2009 @ 6:09 am

  27. DRJ, we owe everything to your dad and those like him (and by we, I mean the world in general and the USA specifically).

    I would like to echo PCD’s comments and just add that there are so many who have no idea of the evil-forces these men faced, fought, and defeated. They taught us not to fear evil, but to fight it. They protected the world from a monstrosity. If not for them, who knows what kind of world we would live in today.

    I hope we have not forgotten the lesson they paid for. They gave us a chance; I just hope we have not blown it for the next generation.

    Comment by Pons Asinorum — 9/30/2009 @ 3:43 pm

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