People: World War II

Vernon Baker, born in 1919, served as a First Lieutenant in the infantry during World War II. His brave actions saved the lives of many in his company, and he was responsible for eliminating three enemy machine gun positions and an observation post. For his bravery, he was awarded a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and the Distinguished Service Cross. Historians concluded that he was wrongly denied the military’s top award because of his race. In 1997 he became the only living African-American veteran of World War II to receive the Medal of Honor when he was presented this award by President Bill Clinton. He is one of only seven African Americans ever to receive this award. Baker died in 2010 at the age of 90.
Omar Bradley, born in 1893, graduated from West Point and just missed service in World War I. In World War II he was assigned to the European Theater where he served for a while under General George Patton. General Eisenhower later selected Bradley to command the 1st U.S. Army during the D-Day invasion. It was under his command that Paris was liberated and the Germans were turned back at the Battle of the Bulge. He was known by the men under his command as “the soldier’s general” because of his care and compassion for his men. In 1949 he became the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 1950 he was promoted to five star General of the Army rank. He later served as a leader of the Veterans Administration. He died in 1981.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the thirty-fourth President of the United States. He was born in Texas, but grew up in Kansas. After attending West Point, Eisenhower was stationed in Texas where he met his future wife, Mamie Doud. Eisenhower had outstanding organizational skills, graduating first in his group at Army War College. During World War II, he was commander of the Allied Forces that landed in North Africa and the Allied forces that fought in Sicily and Italy. He was the Supreme Commander of the troops that invaded France on D-Day and was promoted to General of the Army. In five years he went from being a Lieutenant Colonel to the highest ranking position in the American Army. In 1952 and again in 1956 Dwight Eisenhower was elected President of the United States and was responsible for establishing the Interstate Highway System.
Douglas MacArthur was born in New Mexico where he spent much of his childhood on an Army base which was commanded by his father. He graduated first in his class at the Military Academy at West Point in 1903, beginning a life spent serving in the military. He completed various assignments before fighting courageously in World War I, becoming the most highly decorated American soldier of the war. He then returned to West Point as Superintendent.

MacArthur soon left for the Philippines to prepare the islands for independence. But when Japan attacked the Philippines in World War II, MacArthur’s troops were initially defeated. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered him to Australia. MacArthur assured his men, “I shall return.” True to his word, in 1944 he liberated the Philippines. In 1945 he accepted the Japanese surrender. For the next five years he served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Japan, helping the country to rebuild and establish a democratic government.

General MacArthur served his country once again during the Korean War. During this war, MacArthur had disagreements with President Truman over the course of action to take. When he made these differences public, President Truman relieved him of his duties in Korea. As Commander-in-Chief, President Truman had the authority to take this action. This led to MacArthur’s retirement from the military in 1951. He would return one final time to West Point to give his Duty, Honor, Country address in 1962.

George Marshall, born in 1880, graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1901 and from the Army Staff College in 1908. He served as an aide-de camp to General John J. Pershing from 1919 to 1924. He later achieved the rank of Five Star General and served as Chief of Staff of the War Plans Division during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He became FDR’s chief consultant during World War II. In this position he was responsible for making sure that the needs of the military were met. This required him to work with Congress and the American people to explain what was necessary on the home front to win the war. He retired from the military in 1945 but in the same year began his diplomatic career. He represented President Truman on a special mission to China in 1945-1946. In 1947 he became Truman’s Secretary of State. During this time he formulated and proposed the Marshall Plan which was an economic plan to rebuild post-war Europe and insure that the spread of communism would be contained. Some have called the Marshall Plan one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the modern era. Marshall was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 and died in 1959.
Chester Nimitz was born in 1885 in Fredericksburg, Texas. As a student at Tivy High School in Kerrville, he originally wanted to join the army. When no positions were available at West Point, he decided to take the exam at Annapolis and thus began his career in the Navy. He would eventually command the Pacific Fleet during World War II. In 1945, he represented the United States when the Japanese surrendered aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. As a result of his knowledge of submarines, he became one of the leading naval authorities of his time. He would later serve as a goodwill ambassador with the United Nations before dying in 1966.
George Patton, born in 1885, graduated from West Point in 1909 and later served as a member of General Pershing’s staff in search of Pancho Villa. In 1917 he became the first member of the newly established U. S. Tank Corps, where he would win fame. In World War II he was with the Allied forces during the invasion of North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Patton was an often controversial figure with definite opinions on how he thought the war should proceed. He was not afraid to voice his views to his superiors. As D-Day approached, the Allies needed Hitler to believe that they were going to invade near Pas de Calais, France. The plan was to create a fictitious unit, and to make this believable, they had to have a real commander of this fake unit. General Patton was given this assignment. This did not sit well with Patton because he saw this as a demotion. His real command, which was a secret, was to command the Third Army which he would lead into battle following D-Day at the Battle of the Bulge. He ordered a 90 degree turnaround of forces to relieve American troops that were surrounded. He was killed in a car crash in 1945.
Eleanor Roosevelt was raised by her grandmother after the death of both of her parents. She married Franklin Delano Roosevelt who later became President of the United States. As First Lady, Eleanor had her own radio program and wrote her own newspaper column. Because President Roosevelt was paralyzed with polio, she traveled around the country, interacted with people, and then shared the information with her husband to help him make informed decisions. During the Great Depression, Eleanor exhibited her concern for others by supporting programs for youth employment and helping the poor in many ways. She also boldly fought for civil rights for African Americans as well as women’s rights. During World War II Eleanor Roosevelt visited American soldiers all over the world. After her husband’s death in 1945, Eleanor served as a delegate to the United Nations and was chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights. Additionally, she helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. President Truman said that Eleanor Roosevelt was the "First Lady of the World” because she dedicated her entire life to others. Eleanor once said, “You get more joy out of giving to others, and should put a good deal of thought into the happiness you are able to give.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt was born in New York. After attending prestigious schools, he followed the example of his fifth cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt, and entered politics. He was elected to the state senate in 1910 and later appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson. In the summer of 1921 Roosevelt was stricken with polio. He persevered through physical therapy but never fully regained the use of his legs. Seven years later he was elected governor of New York and in 1932 was elected President of the United States.

When he took office the country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Thirteen million people were out of work and almost all banks had closed. In his First Inaugural Address he likened the crisis to a foreign invasion, and asserted that the Constitution’s separation of powers and system of checks and balances would have to be temporarily suspended in order to see the country through. He proposed what he called the New Deal: expansive federal programs, funded by citizens paying taxes. He sent a record number of bills to Congress attempting to bring relief to farmers and the unemployed. In 1935 he proposed the Social Security Act. Controls were enacted on utilities and businesses, and the government moved towards regulating the economy. The repeal of Prohibition also brought in more tax revenue for the federal government.

After his decisive reelection victory in 1936, Roosevelt became frustrated with the Supreme Court which had been overturning some New Deal legislation as unconstitutional expansions of Congress’ powers. In what has come to be called his “Court-packing scheme,” he proposed that Congress increase the size of the Supreme Court to a maximum of fifteen members. This proposal failed, but two justices changed their voting, and the court began upholding New Deal laws.

Roosevelt faced issues of national interest and foreign policy. He attempted to keep the country out of World War II, favoring a “Good Neighbor” policy of neutrality. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt believed he had to act; Congress declared war on Japan the next day and on Germany and Italy three days later. Roosevelt served as Commander in Chief of the military making the defeat of Nazi Germany the first priority. Fearing Japanese saboteurs, he signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the forced internment of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. This action was upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States (1944).

In all, President Roosevelt was elected to four terms as President. Until that time, U.S. presidents had followed the example of President George Washington who had limited his service to two terms. In 1951, the 22nd Amendment was passed limiting U.S. Presidents to two terms.

The Navajo Code Talkers served as an elite unit during World War II in the Pacific Theatre. Prior to the formation of this group, the Japanese had been successful in breaking more than 30 American codes. An American missionary who had grown up on a Navajo reservation came up with the idea of using the Navajo language as a solution. A group of 29 Navajos was charged with the task of creating the code. They used traditional Navajo words to describe events and then created new words that were only known to those who had been trained. They started with approximately 200 words and ended with over 600. The code was never broken and was so protected that it was not declassified until 1968. In 2001 the Navajo Code talkers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The Flying Tigers, also known as the American Volunteer Group in China, was a group of American pilots who served during World War II. They were volunteers because the United States had not yet entered the war. The Chinese hired a U.S. Army Air Corps Veteran, Claire Chennault, to train the pilots. It was an undisciplined group of men who answered the call for volunteers because they were seeking adventure. They would become the first Americans to fight the Japanese in World War II and would win over 300 victories. In 1991, they were finally credited with time served in the U.S. armed forces. The pilots received the Distinguished Flying Cross, and others who supported them were awarded Bronze Stars.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators to serve during World War II. Most of these men were college graduates or undergraduates and were trained at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama. This highly decorated group of Americans was often fighting on two fronts – overseas against the enemy and at home against racism. At home, many African American officers were denied access to officers’ clubs on base even though this violated Army regulations. One specific incident in Indiana in 1945 led to the arrest of 103 African American officers when they attempted to enter an officers’ club. One important factor which led President Truman to issue Executive Order 9981 in 1948 directing the desegregation of the U. S. armed forces was the outstanding record of accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen.