A G.I. General in Full and at Last

Review of Omar Nelson Bradley: America’s G.I. General, 1893-1981, by Steven L. Ossad (University of Missouri Press, 492 pages, $36.95)

Until now most of what we know about General of the Army Omar Bradley has come from his own memoir, A Soldier’s Story (1951), a co-authored autobiography, A General’s Life (1983), and to a lesser extent from the war diary kept by his military aide, Chester “Chet” Hansen. The broader public who have not read these accounts know Bradley primarily from his appearance (portrayed by Karl Malden) in the 1970 blockbuster movie Patton, a film for which he served as senior military adviser.

Bradley’s accounts of his own life suffer from the drawback of most memoirs—the natural tendency to downplay or excuse failures and magnify triumphs. In Bradley’s case, the work of historians has been made more difficult by the stranglehold Bradley’s second wife, Kitty, held on his image and private documents until her death in 2004.

Steven Ossad’s well-researched biography of Bradley offers a refreshing take on the general’s life and service. He is even-handed in his judgments and presents a holistic portrait of Bradley, with an understandable focus on his service in World War II. The so-called “G.I. General” comes across as an able tactician who was a competent corps commander in Africa and Sicily, but who was then thrust into a role as army group commander in which he struggled. His post-war service as head of the Veterans Administration and as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—the position that earned for him a coveted fifth star—are treated as part of Bradley’s legacy.

Ossad also presents Bradley the man. Bradley was unable to admit fault, whether the fault be a base-running error in the 1913 Army-Navy baseball game or the more consequential failures to close the Falaise Gap in August 1944 or react appropriately to the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes later that year. He was a less than faithful husband who in his later years engaged in a long-term affair with the twice-divorced screenwriter and journalist Esther Dora “Kitty” Buhler, 30 years his junior, while his first wife Mary suffered from leukemia that would take her life in 1965. The result is the best treatment of Bradley to date and one that will no doubt stand the test of time as the definitive take on the general’s life.

Bradley grew up in rural Missouri before attending West Point, graduating in the famed class of 1915, the “class the stars fell on.” He missed combat duty in World War I and his service in the interwar period, while competent, hardly marked him for greatness. His break came in his posting to Fort Benning in 1929, where he served as head of the weapons section under the assistant commandant, future U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. Having one’s name in Marshall’s black book ensured a choice posting when war came.

Bradley ascended quickly after mobilization began in earnest in 1940, serving as commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning before commanding the 28th and 82nd Infantry Divisions during their activation and training in the United States. Bradley would never serve as a division commander in combat, however.

Marshall dispatched Bradley to Africa in February 1943 to serve as assistant to Allied forces commander General Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. Bradley arrived at an opportune moment. U.S. forces had just suffered a major defeat at Kasserine Pass and Ike tasked him to determine the shortcomings that had led to the debacle. After Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. assumed command of the II U.S. Corps from the lackluster Lloyd Fredendall, Bradley became Patton’s deputy and shortly thereafter assumed command of the corps when Patton disengaged to plan the invasion of Sicily.

Bradley served competently as a corps commander in the closing stages of the Tunisian campaign and in Sicily. The latter operation brought him to the attention of the public, courtesy of renowned war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who spent three days with Bradley and provided favorable coverage of him. Pyle genuinely admired Bradley, and in his columns created an image of him as America’s “G.I. General.” Bradley most likely would have topped out at corps or army command, but fate intervened when reports emerged of Patton slapping two soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Patton would not lead U.S. ground forces into France on D-Day; instead, that job fell to Bradley.

In the preparations for the Normandy invasion, Bradley surrounded himself with officers with whom he had served in the Mediterranean. There was nothing wrong with this exactly, but Bradley and his team proved incapable of accepting advice from others who might have some to share.

For just that reason, Marshall had sent to England Major General Charles “Pete” Corlett, the commander of the 7th Infantry Division that had successfully invaded Kwajalein in the Pacific. Bradley ignored him; Corlett’s advice on the need effectively to bomb the shores of Normandy fell on deaf ears. Bradley likewise turned down the offer of specialized armored vehicles, British Maj. Gen. Percy Hobart’s “funnies,” with the exception of the mine-clearing flail tank. It would be the GIs who would pay the price for the G.I. General’s stubbornness and unwillingness to learn from others.

Bradley’s strengths and shortcomings shone in stark relief during the Normandy campaign. His refusal to heed the advice of others led to near-disaster on Omaha Beach, where lack of effective air and naval gunfire support nearly doomed the invasion and consigned more than 2,000 G.I.s to their graves.

Bradley’s next major decision was more inspired. After slugging through the Norman hedgerows for seven weeks, the Army launched Operation Cobra, Bradley’s plan to break through German defenses near St. Lô. Although hampered once again by poorly coordinated air support that killed several hundred U.S. personnel, Bradley’s forces succeeded in shattering the German defenses that had kept them penned in for nearly two months. Having achieved the long-sought after breakout, Bradley sullied the accomplishment by unfairly blaming U.S. airmen for short bombings, when his decision to withdraw the front by only 800 meters as a safety buffer had more to do with the fratricide than the airmen’s technical decisions.

Nevertheless, Operation Cobra succeeded spectacularly in nearly surrounding German forces in Normandy. Yet Bradley squandered the opportunity to finish the war by taking counsel of his fears, stopping Patton’s Third U.S. Army at Argentan and allowing 70,000 German troops and many of their all-important command and staff groups to escape the encirclement. Ossad sides with Bradley’s argument that allowing Patton to close the gap was unwise, one of the few instances where the biographer gets too close to his subject.

Ossad is justifiably more critical of Bradley’s handling of fighting in the Hürtgen Forest and the Bulge. The former battle should never have been fought; as 12th Army Group commander, Bradley should have vetoed the bloody attacks into the teeth of German defenses in the Hürtgen, instead routing the attack around its periphery. His decisions in the Bulge were just as poor and potentially disastrous. Bradley was far too complacent in reacting to the German counteroffensive, refused to move his headquarters into a position from which he could maintain effective control of his armies, lacked situational awareness of what was happening on the First U.S. Army’s front, failed to visit his subordinate commanders in the field during the first crucial days of the battle, and then exploded at Eisenhower when Ike justifiably temporarily assigned operational control of the First and Ninth U.S. Armies to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. Bradley was sidelined, relegated to watching Patton drive to Bastogne and glory. The battle was the worst month and a half of his life and showed his limitations as a senior commander.

Bradley made better decisions to end the conflict, including a vigorous exploitation of the captured Remagen Bridge across the Rhine River, urging Patton to cross the Rhine in-stride, and the encirclement of the Ruhr Valley, which effectively ended German resistance in the West. By the end of the war Bradley was in command of four field armies totaling 1.25 million men, the greatest operational command in the history of U.S. arms.

After the war, President Harry S. Truman called on Bradley to take care of American servicemen as head of the Veterans Administration. While maintaining his four-star active-duty rank, Bradley undertook unheralded but important service as VA director, modernizing the creaky bureaucracy and bringing scores of senior European Theater veterans into the agency’s ranks. By the end of his tenure, he had transformed the VA into a more modern organization capable of meeting the needs of the 16 million new veterans who had served in World War II.

Bradley finished his service as U.S. Army chief of staff and, more importantly, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the latter role, he refereed the contentious “revolt of the admirals” and supported President Truman when he relieved General Douglas MacArthur of command of U.S. forces in Korea. Bradley also wisely kept U.S. strategy focused on Europe, famously opining to Congress that expanding the war beyond Korea would involve the United States and its allies in “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” He was right on all counts.

Ossad has written a highly readable and entertaining account of one of the great figures of World War II, bringing the story of Omar Bradley to a new generation of readers and earning a justified distinguished book award from the Society for Military History. The biography is recommended for both specialists and lay readers interested in World War II and early Cold War history as well as those interested in military leadership.

Photo Credit: Keystone-France\Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

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About Peter Mansoor

Colonel Peter R. Mansoor, U.S. Army (Retired), is the General Raymond E. Mason, Jr. Chair of Military History and a frequent commentator in the media on national security matters. He assumed this position in September 2008 after a 26-year career in the U.S. Army that culminated in his service in Iraq as the executive officer to General David Petraeus, the Commanding General of Multi-National Force-Iraq, during the period of the surge in 2007-2008. He has authored a history of this experience, Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and The Remaking of the Iraq War, which was a finalist for the inaugural Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History in 2013.