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Biographies: J Lawton Collins

 J(oseph) Lawton Collins, Army chief of staff, was considered by his contemporaries both a Soldier's Soldier and a general's general, and enjoyed an outstanding reputation as a combat officer and as a first-rate military planner and administrator. Born in New Orleans, Louisiania, May 1, 1896, Collins graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1917, but missed combat in World War I. Following two stateside assignments, he went to Germany in 1919, as part of the occupation forces. Two years later, he returned to West Point, where he served as a chemistry instructor for four years. In the next dozen years, he was a student or a teacher in various service schools before going to the Philippine Islands. In 1936, he attended the Army Industrial College and Army War College, after which he joined the faculty of the latter. Although the short, stocky, good-looking Collins was always a well- organized, articulate individual with great interpersonal skills, he was, on the eve of World War II, considered a good, but by no means extraordinary, officer. World War II saw Collins' fortune rise quickly. In 1942, he became commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division, and in January 1943, he led that unit as it drove the Japanese off Guadalcanal. It was at that time that he earned the nickname, "Lightning Joe." Next it was on to New Georgia where his earlier success was repeated. In December 1943, he was given command of the VII Corps, which he led onto Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and then across Europe until it joined with Soviet forces at the Elbe River in April 1945. 

By this time the heavily decorated infantry officer had risen to the rank of lieutenant general. Several postwar assignments in Washington, D.C., were followed by appointment as deputy chief of staff in 1947, vice chief of staff in 1948, and after receiving his fourth star, chief of staff of the Army, August 16, 1949—a position he held throughout the Korean War.

As the U.S. Army's highest ranking officer, he was responsible for the supply, training, and functioning of all Army forces and for their operational command when sent into combat. Collins quickly found that his aggressiveness on the battlefield could not be used as effectively on the political battlefields of Washington. Because of considerable interservice rivalry, he was forced to walk a treacherous path among the leaders of the different military services and their congressional advocates.

The Army chief of staff's influence on events in Korea was exerted through the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), composed of its chairman, Gen. Omar N. Bradley, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Forrest P. Sherman, and Collins. That body was responsible to Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson, and later George C. Marshall, and ultimately to President Harry S. Truman for U.S. military around the world.

Prior to the North Korean attack, Collins joined the other chiefs in the assessment that Korea was not of strategic importance to the U.S. and therefore should not, in the event of attack, be defended by U.S. forces. It was that position which explains his initial reluctance to support U.S. involvement at the June 25 Blair House conference. At that same meeting, he indicated he did not feel that air and naval forces would be able to halt the North Korean forces. Yet a day later, he supported use of U.S. air and naval forces against the aggression. On June 30, Collins, after a telecommunications conference with Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Japan, came to the conclusion that U.S. ground forces should be committed to battle. Based on that recommendation, and that of all other major advisors, Truman made the decision.

Although U.S. involvement was under the umbrella of the United Nations, the command structure was set up in such a way that the war was in reality, run by the United States. As the U.S. military presence increased in Korea, so did the influence of the JCS, in that the president had designated it as his agent for Korea. While the JCS was responsible for proposing policy and implementing the commander in chief's orders, the operations in Korea were predominantly those of the Army; thus Collins became the primary planner, coordinator and implementer of military action. Consequently, at the JCS meetings during the war, Collins generally took the lead.

Early in the conflict, much of Collins' time was spent setting up the unified U.N. Command and establishing a U.N. fighting force. These activities were extremely complicated because of the president's desire to have as many nations as possible represented in the force, as opposed to the JCS desire to have only those forces that could make a militarily significant contribution. No issue, however, was more difficult than meeting the manpower needs of the Army. When the war started, there were only 592,000 troops on active duty, but within two years, there were nearly 1.6 million, more than a two and a half-fold increase. Matters were further complicated because individuals drafted or called to active duty were, by law, limited to serving 21 months. Thus Soldiers were trained, sent to Korea for approximately a year, and returned to civilian life. This rapid turnover created constant training and supply problems. Because of the pressing needs for more Soldiers, many National Guard and Reserve units and inactive Reservists were called up. Such decisions generated much criticism from those affected by Collins' recommendations.

Several weeks into the war, MacArthur informed Collins of his planned invasion at Inchon. From the beginning, Collins opposed the move, and while he remained skeptical, he ultimately agreed to the action out of a firm conviction that such decisions should be those of the theater commander. From that time on, Collins was troubled by MacArthur's arrogance and contempt for the Washington establishment. While Collins agreed with MacArthur's position of advancing into North Korea to destroy the Communist Forces, he was alarmed by MacArthur's failure to adhere to warnings about sending U.S. Forces to the Yalu River. For such reasons, plus a fear that MacArthur's actions might widen the war, Collins supported Truman's April 1951 decision to relieve MacArthur.

As the conflict turned into a stalemate in 1951 and 1952, Collins, who was accustomed to the no-holds-barred combat of World War II, grew increasingly frustrated, and thus it was not surprising that in the spring of 1953, he supported use of nuclear weapons to bring the war to an end. In the last two years, he successfully saw that manpower needs were met, that racial integration of units became a reality, that troops were adequately trained and supplied, and that Congress provided the funds needed by the Army to carry on the fighting. The latter became increasingly difficult as public support for the conflict waned. On August 15, 1953, less than three weeks after the Armistice, Collins concluded his service as chief of staff. He subsequently served as the U.S. representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Military Committee and as special envoy to South Vietnam before retiring in 1956. In later years, he always maintained that Korea was a victory for the U.S. because the purpose had been to halt Communist aggression and that had been accomplished. He remained in Washington, D.C., until his death September 12, 1987. Collins' tenure as chief of staff has been blighted in history by a perception that he did not adopt a more firm line against his subordinate, MacArthur, and his public disagreement with administration policy as laid down by the JCS. But Collins should also be remembered for his successes in securing adequate funding for the Army, for his meeting of manpower needs (at whatever political cost), his good faith and successful racial integration of the Army, and for seeing to the adequate training and supply of U.S. troops worldwide during the last two years of the war.

Keith D. McFarland

Bradley, Omar, with Clay Blair. A General's Life (1983). 
Collins, J. Lawton. Lightning Joe: An Autobiography (1979). 
War in Peacetime: The History and Lessons of Korea (1969). 
Ridgway, Matthew. The Korean War (1967). 
Schnabel, James E, and Robert J. Watson. The History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Policy, Vol. III, The Korean War (1979).

Reprinted with permission from The Korean War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Stanley Sandler and published by Garland Publishing, Inc.