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First Name: John

Last Name: Vessey

Birthplace: Minneapolis, MN, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Army (1784 - present)

Middle Name: William

Date of Birth: 29 June 1922

Date of Death: 18 August 2016

Rank: General

Years Served: 1939-41 (ANG), 1941-1985 (USA)
John William Vessey, Jr.

•  World War II (1941 - 1945)
•  Korean War (1950 - 1953)
•  Vietnam War (1960 - 1973)


John William Vessey, Jr.
General, U.S. Army

John William Vessey, Jr. was born on 29 June 1922 in Minneapolis, MN. In May 1939, thirteen months before he graduated from Roosevelt High School, he enlisted (at age 16) in the Minnesota National Guard as a motorcycle rider in Headquarters, 59th Field Artillery Brigade, 34th Infantry Division. His unit was activated in February 1941.

World War II

During World War II, Vessey served with the 34th Infantry Division. The experience of early American setbacks in North Africa left Vessey with a life-long appreciation of the need for realistic combat training, modern equipment, physical fitness, and air-ground cooperation. When Major General Omar Bradley, Commander of II Corps in North Africa, launched the U.S. drive on Bizerte in April 1943, he gave the 34th the most difficult objective: the well-defended Hill 609. In the first clear-cut U.S. Army victory of the campaign, the 34th Division took its objective, opening the way for the U.S. advance on Bizerte. Vessey, who had been a First Sergeant since 1 September 1942, later described being a first sergeant in combat as the "toughest job" he had. He was with the 34th when it entered the Anzio beachhead in Italy in May 1944; there he received a battlefield commission as a Second Lieutenant on 6 May, serving as a forward observer.

Korean War to the Vietnam War

After WWII, most of Vessey's service was in field artillery assignments. In the 1950s he served with the 4th Infantry Division in Germany and the Eighth U.S. Army in the Republic of Korea. During this period he also attended the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, KS.

By the time Vessey became a Lieutenant Colonel, he had earned enough credits through night school and correspondence courses for a bachelor of science degree, which he received from the University of Maryland College Park in 1963. He was 41 years old. In 1965, he received a master of science from George Washington University. From 1963 to 1965 Vessey commanded the 2d Battalion, 73rd Field Artillery in the 3rd Armored Division; then he spent a year as a student at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, Vessey served for a year as Executive Officer of the 25th Infantry Division Artillery in Vietnam. In March 1967, when acting as Commander of the 2nd Battalion, 77th Artillery, he was given the mission of establishing a fire support base at Suoi Tre during Operation JUNCTION CITY. Located deep in enemy-controlled territory, Vessey and his men oriented the firebase's defenses on the enemy's likely avenues of approach and rehearsed counterattack plans. During the attack by a reinforced regiment, the base was partially overrun. Vessey and his men fired their howitzers directly into the enemy ranks. Although greatly outnumbered, the defenders, aided by gunships and artillery, killed four hundred of their assailants while successfully defending the firebase. Lieutenant Colonel Vessey received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the battle.

From Vietnam, he went to Germany, to serve first as Commander of the 3d Armored Division Artillery from October 1967 until March 1969 and then as Division Chief of Staff for a year. He was promoted to Colonel on 28 November 1967. As a Colonel, he was a student in Rotary Wing training at the Army Aviation Flight School at the age of 48.

Vessey went back to Southeast Asia in December 1970 to head the U.S. Army Support Command, Thailand. In January 1972 he went into Laos to coordinate all U.S. military operations in support of the war in Laos. Vessey worked with the U.S. ambassador, the CIA station chief, and an assortment of military contingents. When the Laotian ceasefire came in February 1973, the Royal Lao government controlled all major cities and the vast majority of the population.


Upon his return to the U.S., Vessey became Director of Operations in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans. Promoted to Major General in August 1974, he assumed command of the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) at Fort Carson, CO. Promoted to Lieutenant General in September 1975, he became the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans.

Vessey received his fourth star on 1 November 1976. From 1976 to 1979 he served in the Republic of Korea as Commanding General of the Eighth U.S. Army; Commander of U.S. Forces, Korea; and Commander in Chief of the United Nations Command. In 1978, he became the first Commander in Chief of the Republic of Korea-United States Combined Forces Command. His tour was marked by increased tension caused by evidence of a North Korean buildup and by President Jimmy Carter's 1977 announcement that U.S. ground forces would be withdrawn. Vessey worked to assuage South Korean concerns and to change the President's decision. After Carter's 1979 visit, withdrawal plans were suspended, and then cancelled. From July 1979 until June 1982, General Vessey served as Vice Chief of Staff of the Army.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

On 18 June 1982, Vessey became the tenth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the last World War II combat veteran to serve in the position. Vessey was the only Chairman who had been neither a Service Chief nor a commander of a unified or specified command. He served as Chairman during a period of unprecedented growth in peacetime defense spending and an expanded U.S. military presence worldwide intended to counter growing Soviet military power.

Vessey and the Service Chiefs believed that their overriding task lay in convincing Soviet leaders that their quest for military superiority and geostrategic advantage was fruitless. In Europe, they pushed the controversial, but successful, deployment of Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles to offset the Soviet SS-20 missiles. In Southwest Asia, highly visible U.S. military activities underscored the U.S. commitment to defend its vital interests in the region. In Central America, training and intelligence were provided to support counter-insurgency efforts.

Believing that it was a mistake to commit a superpower's forces to a peacekeeping mission, in 1982 and 1983 Vessey and the Joint Chiefs advised against deployment of a Marine contingent to Lebanon as part of a multinational peacekeeping force intended to restore peace among warring factions there. Their advice was not taken, and on 23 October 1983 a truck-bomb attack on the Marine headquarters building in Beirut killed 241 U.S. Marines and Army soldiers. In late February 1984, President Reagan withdrew the contingent from Lebanon.

Vessey stressed the need for improvement of war plans and, for the first time, JCS members, along with commanders of unified and specified commands, personally participated in war games. Realizing the need to strengthen the joint system, Vessey and the Service Chiefs improved Joint Staff operations by adding a capability for budgetary analysis and by improving the quality of its personnel; changes that did not require legislation.

Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger understood the importance of decentralization; he authorized Vessey to direct military operations on the Secretary's behalf. For example, the 1983 Grenada operation was planned by Atlantic Command, reviewed by the JCS, and approved by Secretary Weinberger and the President-all in four days. Vessey oversaw execution of the operation that rescued U.S. citizens and brought a pro-U.S. government into power.

During Vessey's tenure there was increased emphasis on space as a theater of operations. In early 1983, the Joint Chiefs mentioned to the President that defense against nuclear-armed missiles might be technically feasible in the next century. To their surprise, Reagan seized upon the concept and on 23 March 1983 announced his vision of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Realizing the enormous military advantages to be gained from operations in space and to support SDI, the JCS recommended the establishment of a unified command for space. US Space Command was activated on 23 September 1985.

Vietnam Emissary

General Vessey retired at age 63 on 30 September 1985; several months before the expiration of his second term as Chairman. He was the last four-star World War II combat veteran on active duty and, with forty-six years of service, had served longer than anyone then in the Army. In retirement, he served President Reagan and his successors, Presidents George Bush and William J. Clinton, as a Special Emissary to Vietnam on the question of accounting for American service personnel missing in action from the Vietnam War. He made several trips to Vietnam to search for remains as part of resolving the Vietnam War POW/MIA issue.

For his work in Vietnam, General Vessey was awarded the U.S. Military Academy's prestigious Sylvanus Thayer Award in 1996. He was also given the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1992.

Summary of Service

Dates of Rank

Minnesota National Guard; entered service May 1939

First Sergeant 1 September 1942

Second Lieutenant 6 May 1944 (battlefield commission)

First Lieutenant 1 April 1946 Permanent on 13 June 1951

Captain 4 January 1951 Permanent on 29 October 1954

Major 14 May 1958 Permanent on 26 January 1962

Lieutenant Colonel 7 January 1963 Permanent on 2 January 1969

Colonel 28 November 1967 Permanent on 12 March 1973

Brigadier General 1 April 1971 Permanent on 23 December 1974

Major General 1 August 1974 Permanent on 25 August 1976

Lieutenant General 1 September 1975

General 1 November 1976

Medals, Awards and Badges

Distinguished Service Cross
Defense Distinguished Service Medal with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster
Army Distinguished Service Medal with 2 Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters
Navy Distinguished Service Medal
Air Force Distinguished Service Medal
Legion of Merit with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster
Bronze Star Medal with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster
Purple Heart
Air Medal with Award Numeral 4
Joint Service Commendation Medal
Army Commendation Medal with Valor Device
Army Good Conduct Medal
American Defense Service Medal
American Campaign Medal
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Silver and Bronze Star
World War II Victory Medal
Army of Occupation Medal
National Defense Service Medal with Bronze Star
Vietnam Service Medal with Bronze Star
Vietnam Campaign Medal
Presidential Unit Citation
Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation
Army Aviator Badge
Joint Chiefs of Staff Identification Badge
Army Staff Identification Badge

Distinguished Service Cross Citation

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918 (amended by act of July 25, 1963), takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Lieutenant Colonel (Field Artillery) John William Vessey (ASN: 0-65047), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations involving conflict with an armed hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam, while serving with 2d Battalion, 77th Artillery, 3d Brigade, 4th Infantry Division. Lieutenant Colonel Vessey distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous actions on 21 March 1967 while serving as a Battalion Commander during a combat mission near Suoi Tre. During the early morning hours, Colonel Vessey's battalion received a massive assault by a Viet Cong regiment. Although more than 200 mortar rounds fell, Colonel Vessey fearlessly moved through his unit area, first to alert his men, then to direct various phases of the defense. When vital howitzer positions were destroyed by hostile fire, he rallied men from other sections to man the guns, and he himself assisted as a cannoneer. He was wounded during this action, but continued to lead and fire the artillery pieces. At one point, he spotted Viet Cong rocket launchers that were placing devastating fire into the battery perimeter. He seized a grenade launcher, moved into an open area and knocked out three of the insurgents' weapons. When an enemy tracer round ignited a drum of diesel oil and threatened to set off two drums of explosives nearby, Colonel Vessey ran to that highly dangerous point and helped move the drums to safety. His professional command and courageous fighting throughout the battle were instrumental in turning back the numerically superior enemy force and killing more than 600 Viet Cong. Lieutenant Colonel Vessey's extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.

General Orders: Headquarters, U.S. Army, Vietnam, General Orders No. 4206 (August 18, 1967)


1939: National Guard enlisted service

1941: 34th Division Artillery, Camp Claiborne, LA, Northern Ireland, North Africa, and Italy as S/Sgt, 1st Sgt, and then battlefield commission to 2Lt (Communications Officer/Forward Observer/Air Observer)

1945: US Army Field Artillery School, Fort Sill, OK

1949: Student, Field Artillery Officers Advanced Course, Field Artillery School, Fort Sill, OK

1950: Battery Officer; then Battery Commander, 18th Field Artillery, Fort Sill, OK

1951: Assistant S-3 and Liaison Officer; then Headquarters Battery Commander; then Assistant S-3 and Liaison Officer, 4th Infantry Division Artillery US Army, Europe

1954: Student, Artillery Officer Advanced Course, Artillery and Guided Missile School, Fort Sill, OK

1955: Battery Commander, Artillery and Guided Missile School Officer Candidate School

1956: Gunnery Instructor, Artillery and Guided Missile School, Fort Sill, OK

1957: Student, US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS

1958: Artillery Section, Eighth US Army with duty station CINCPAC Coordination Center, Philippines

1958: Chief, Operations Branch, Artillery Section, Eighth US Army, Korea

1959: Assignment Officer, then Executive Officer, Artillery Officers Division, Office of Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, Washington, DC

1963: Student, Armed Forces Staff College, Norfolk, VA

1963: Commander, 2d Battalion, 73d Artillery, 3d Armored Division, US Army, Europe

1965: Student, Industrial College of the Armed Forces, Washington, DC

1966: Executive Officer, 25th Infantry Division Artillery, Vietnam

1967: Commander, 3d Armored Division Artillery, US Army, Europe

1969: Chief of Staff, 3d Armored Division, US Army, Europe

1970: Student, US Army Primary Helicopter School, Fort Wolters, TX; later US Army Aviation School, Fort Rucker, AL

1970: Commanding General, US Army Support Command, Thailand

1972: Deputy Chief, JUSMAGTHAI (Chief MAAG, Laos)

1973: Director of Operations, Office Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans, Washington, DC

1974: Commanding General, 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized), Fort Carson, CO

1975: Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans, US Army, Washington, DC

1976: Commanding General, Eighth US Army; and Commander in Chief, US Forces, Korea; and Commander in Chief, United Nations Command

1978: Commander in Chief, Republic of Korea-United States Combined Forces Command, Korea

1979: Vice Chief of Staff, US Army, Washington, DC

1982: Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, DC

Honoree ID: 348   Created by: MHOH




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