Guard Roots: Gen. John W. Vessey Jr.

March 2017
Guard Roots

(read online digital version)

‘It turned out to be almost a dollar for a National Guard drill period’

One of the most admired four-stars of the late 20th century never forgot where his military career began

Gen. John W. Vessey Jr. enlisted in the Minnesota National Guard in 1939 at the age of 17. He ended his career 46 years later as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Vessey, who died in August at the age of 94, served with the 34th (Red Bull) Infantry Division during World War II, fighting in North Africa and Italy, where he received a battlefield commission.

He was wounded while serving in Vietnam as an artillery officer. He received his fourth star in 1976 and commanded U.S. forces in South Korea before President Ronald Reagan tapped him to be the U.S. military’s senior officer in 1982.

Following his retirement in 1985, he was sent by three different presidents to Vietnam to look into the whereabouts of Americans listed as prisoners of war or missing in action, negotiating an agreement that allowed Pentagon teams into the country to search for remains.

He received several awards for the breakthrough, including the 1990 NGAUS Harry S. Truman Award, the association’s highest honor, and a 1992 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Thomas Saylor, a history professor at Concordia University-Saint Paul, conducted 90 hours of recorded interviews with Vessey in 2012 and 2013 to preserve his accounts of events during his career. Below is an excerpt from the Vessey Oral History Project covering his days in the Minnesota National Guard.

Thomas Saylor: This is the spring of 1940 and the war in Europe had begun the previous fall, in September of 1939. The Japanese were at war in China, and had been since 1937. As a high school student, how aware would you say you were of those world events?

John Vessey: I’d say that we were intensely aware of it. Just we as a community. There were a number of Minnesotans who went to Canada and volunteered for the Canadian armed forces. I knew several friends who did that. Considered it myself. But I had already joined the Minnesota National Guard, so it was out of the question for me.

My father, being a World War I vet, was intensely aware of it, and was convinced that the United States would eventually be involved. There was an air of inevitability I think, but at the same time a great hope that we would not be involved. … Frankly, there was another aspect of life at that time, and that is that it was the latter years of the Depression and we had lived through the Depression. Everybody was broke. That is, everybody that I knew was broke. [Joining the Guard] was a way to add a few dollars of income to a broke teenager.

When you say that, talk about the Depression and money, when you think about Minneapolis in the mid-to-late 1930s when you lived there, would you say that you perceived or saw the Depression around you or the effects of it?

Yes, clearly. But for someone who had grown up during that period, the contrast between the times we lived in and better times was probably far greater for someone of the age of my parents than for me. This is the way it was for a person of my age. It was just. … a dollar was an awful lot of money.

How did your parents react when you brought up the subject of enlisting in the National Guard, because you were just 17?

My mother thought it was a very bad idea, and my father thought it was OK.

How did you come upon the idea in the first place?

From a friend who had earlier done the same thing.

He had joined. And what was appealing to you about joining the National Guard?

Well, I was told I could be the motorcycle rider.

So at a pure base level, that’s what we’re talking about here.

(Chuckles) That’s right.

So this was appealing. I take it there was some money involved too?

Oh, yes.

Do you remember how much, sir?

When we drilled we got federal pay for the day, which would have been like $21 a month a soldier in the Regular Army got at that time. So that wasn’t much. Then you got a state stipend which actually added to it, so it turned out to be almost a dollar for a National Guard drill period.

Then when you went to Camp Ripley in the summertime, two weeks at camp would wind up $15–$18, maybe $20 or something like that.

Now correct me if I’m wrong here. You were a motorcycle rider in Headquarters, 59th Field Artillery Brigade, of the 34th Infantry Division.


You, from joining the Guard … it was a year and a half really until the 34th Infantry Division was inducted into federal service in early 1941. During that period of time you were a year and a half older. What were examples of the lessons that you learned from your time in the National Guard during that time?

At that time, all the training was local. That is, you were trained by the unit that you joined for the duties that you were to perform. In contrast to today where a young man or woman joins the National Guard and they’re sent off to basic training at a Regular Army installation and then come back from that training. Then probably go to another school for advanced individual training, training in the specialty in which they will serve.

In those days it was all done in the units. You were trained by the people who would lead you. So the training was much more informal. Completely different concept. In some ways it was better than the way we do it today because you were immediately a part of a team that you were going to play a role in, yet it wasn’t the standardized training and perhaps far from as complete as the training that the soldier gets today.

It may have been really dependent on the quality of the person doing the training.


What’s an example of a positive relationship perhaps that you developed here with somebody that you met in the National Guard, that made an impact on you?

Headquarters Battery of the 59th Brigade was a good outfit. We had a lot of bright, dedicated young people, and some not so young, that were in that outfit. When I think back … we saw the picture in the other room of Joe Stewart and I and that horse that we bought in Northern Ireland. Joe Stewart was our supply sergeant, which doesn’t seem like a big deal, being a supply sergeant for an artillery battery. But Joe Stewart always had things according to regulation and always had track of our equipment. He was one of those non-commissioned officers who knew his business and helped create an atmosphere of, you had to know what you were supposed to do. You had to be, today the word is professional—I don’t think we ever used that word, but you had to be competent at what you were supposed to do.

It was sort of an atmosphere where … I remember many a night both at Camp Ripley and later on when we were mobilized that you’d look around the squad tent that you were sleeping in and the soldiers were reading a field manual about their duties and the skills that they were supposed to possess and trying hard to perfect those skills. So it was an atmosphere that seemed to permeate that particular outfit.

Many years later I gave a talk. It was the first in a series of lectures that was endowed by a friend of mine at the World War II Museum in New Orleans. I didn’t know what to talk about. But I decided to talk about the people that I had served with in World War II, and it took me back to the early days of that outfit. Here was this outfit of 130 soldiers. The first batch was the batch that had been inducted into the Regular Army from the National Guard, and then the next batch was a batch of draftees who came into that outfit and they were primarily from the upper Midwest, many from Minnesota. Then the subsequent replacements through the war came from all over the United States.

But we went through the war from late 1942 through 1945. We had one court-martial that I remember. I remember only one absence without leave. The discipline was superb. We didn’t have any troublemakers. Those guys, after the war I don’t remember any of them stopping at jail at any time. They went on to become doctors and lawyers, a federal judge, school teachers. You sort of tick them off by name and you remember competent young Americans that worked very hard to do what needed to be done serving the nation.

What was that like, that experience of going back and bringing these people up in your active memory?

In a way it was fun and nostalgic, and sort of sad when you thought of those that were casualties and didn’t make it through the war. But that outfit continued to have reunions up until just a few years ago when we decided that there were too few of us to come anymore. There were more widows coming to the reunions than there were former soldiers. I don’t know how many company, battery or troop outfits there were in the 10 million-man United States Army, but there had to be hundreds of thousands of them. They were the outfits that made the war go. And I’m sure that there were many of them that were even more close-knit than ours was. You see movies like Band of Brothers and so forth.

What contributes to that, General Vessey, to building the tightly knit groups that you just mentioned?

Part of it is the common mission, but also part of it is, very much part of it, is the leadership and the general esprit de corps, the history of the United States and the United States Army. I don’t mean to imply that every outfit in the United States Army is a good outfit, because that’s not true. We’ve had some real turkeys in leadership positions, and we’ve had some terrible outfits that have done some terrible things. But by and large the Army is pretty good and does its duty reasonably well. But it is that leadership that’s able to create this common bond among the soldiers, that is this: I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine. It is a bond that’s not broken.

Being in the National Guard when the unit was facing federal induction and the war clouds were getting darker, how did that make you feel?

It was the world in which we lived. You couldn’t change it. You’d already enlisted, and you were part of it. It put a little urgency in what you were doing.