A Long, Hard Climb


On December 7, 1941, “a date that will live infamy,” America entered World War II when Japan attacked U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In the weeks that followed, thousands of young men enlisted in the U.S. military and began training to overthrow Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. In just over four years the forces of totalitarianism were destroyed, and the United States stood alone as the world’s preeminent nuclear superpower. As the leader of the free world, America’s post-war policies shaped the actions of allies and former enemies alike. Among those who helped charter those policies was an army officer who had proudly served the U.S. since the dawn of the twentieth century. He helped convert the U.S. from an isolationist power centered on its own needs into a major player on the world stage. His impact was nearly lost, however, before he was even given the opportunity to show what he was capable of. His name was George C. Marshall. This is the story of how he overcame professional and personal strife to be U.S. Army Chief of Staff.

From the start of his military career, George Marshall proved he was well suited to the life of an army officer. He was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania on New Year’s Eve 1880, and as the son of a Union veteran, he dreamed of life as a soldier. In 1897 he entered the venerated Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia. He was a shy and reserved young man who strove for perfection, and it was those qualities that allowed him to excel in drill, discipline and martial leadership. He graduated in 1901 as first captain of the corps of cadets. In January 1902 Marshall was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and was deployed to the Philippines. There he kept a firm hand on his soldiers, once even leading them in recrossing a stream when several soldiers protested for fear of crocodiles. He returned to America in late 1903 and served in a variety of assignments in the western U.S. Intelligent and innovative, he represented the type of officer needed as the army shifted from a small cadre of professional soldiers to the large force required of an emerging great power.

Throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, George Marshall showed he had the talents necessary to rise through the ranks of the new American army. To provide the army with a corps of highly trained officers, a staff college was established at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1906 Lieutenant Marshall applied for and was accepted into the program. After a somewhat lackluster effort as an undergraduate, he dived into his military studies and so impressed his superiors that he was selected to remain at the staff college to teach engineering and military art. Army Chief of Staff J. Franklin Bell also admired his exceptionalism and loaned him to the Pennsylvania National Guard. Marshall later remembered he “was able to do things there with a regiment where I wouldn’t be able to get command of a company on a post.” Most of his work with National Guard units centered around the performance of military maneuvers. In 1911 he oversaw a field exercise that included one of the first uses of modern communications to direct operations, and a year later he helped direct a massive drill session comprising regular army units and National Guards from New York, New Jersey and New England.

During this period, he demonstrated his enormous talent for staff work and the ability to plan and execute large-scale military maneuvers. Despite his success, in 1912 he was required, by law, to return to the low status of company command at a remote posting. Assigned once again to the Philippines, his abilities resulted in being given responsibilities far beyond his rank, once even given command of a 5,000-man force designed to test Luzon’s defenses. Time after time, Marshall excelled at whatever opportunity came his way. Future Air Force General “Hap” Arnold once observed Marshall in Philippine field maneuvers and told his wife he had just seen a future Army Chief of Staff in action. Nonetheless, because of the army’s promotion policies and its emphasis on seniority, by 1916 George Marshall was a 35 year-old first lieutenant going nowhere.

By that point Marshall was on the verge of resigning from the U.S. Army. The only way his commanders could utilize his immense talent was to make him a general’s aide. He served as a personal assistant to General Hunter Liggett in the Philippines and provided the same service to General Franklin Bell when he arrived back in America in 1916. Unprecedented praise and responsibility came from the generals, but he wrote his mentor, General E.W. Nichols, that he was frustrated with a lack of promotion and was considering life as a civilian. The general and others encouraged him to stay on, and by the end of the year, he finally had his long-anticipated promotion to captain. Following America’s entrance into World War I in April 1917, Marshall joined the staff of General William Siebert, commander of the U.S. First Division, as chief of operations in charge of establishing training camps for the division’s soldiers. In May 1918 the division was ready for action, and under Marshall’s guidance, it launched an offensive against German forces in Cantigny, France. His actions not only earned him a promotion to major but also attracted the attention of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Marshall was transferred to the general headquarters staff with the rank of brevet (temporary) colonel. In that capacity, Marshall planned the American attacks against Saint Mihiel, France and along the Meuse-Argonne in September. Finally at their limit, the Germans were forced to sign an armistice on November 11, 1918 and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, ending the war. As the AEF demobilized, Pershing and others lauded Marshall for his brilliance in military tactics and for his diplomatic skills in negotiating with America’s allies. The end of the fighting, however, signaled the return of a dim and uncertain future for George Marshall.

When World War I ended, Marshall found himself reduced in rank to major and returned to work as a staff officer. Though he detested the assignment, he was pleased to remain under General Pershing’s command when the two returned to America and the general became Chief of Staff in 1921. Over the next two years, he familiarized himself with each area of responsibility, from personnel and intelligence to operations and war plans. Pershing even trusted him to oversee the office when he left the capital on military business. In 1923 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and there were suggestions that his administrative talents made him a potential candidate to become Chief of Staff one day. Unfortunately, he soon learned Pershing had decided to retire. Coupled with Congress’ refusal to expand the army, Marshall evaluated what options were open to him. He finally chose to seek a posting in China. He found the experience enlightening as he studied Chinese politics and culture, but he also encountered frustration as he listened to soldiers criticize him for his harsh discipline — even calling him a martinet, a heavy-handed authoritarian, at times. He soon yearned to return to America, but when he did return in 1927, he found himself assigned as an instructor to the Army War College in Washington, D.C. Unlike his time at Fort Leavenworth, he found the position too limiting and declared, “I thought I would explode.” Then true disaster struck.

Throughout his trying experiences, Marshall had always found solace in the arms of his wife Elizabeth, known as Lilly. He had first met her as a cadet at VMI, and after the two married in February 1902, she accompanied him to many of his postings. Sadly, she had long suffered from a heart condition which became exacerbated by a diseased thyroid gland. In August 1927 she underwent surgery on the gland and was told it appeared to be a success. On September 15th she learned she could go home the next day. Delighted, she sat down to write her mother the good news, but as she picked up her pen, she suddenly collapsed to the floor dead. Marshall was at the War College about to begin a lecture when he was told he had a telephone call. For one of the few times in his life, his austere façade cracked, and he buried his face in his arms. Those who saw him in the immediate aftermath described him as “white as a sheet.” He was so distraught he asked an aide to arrange the funeral. Unfortunately, he would experience loss again within the year as first his mother and then his mother-in-law died. To make his grief greater, he had no children or close friends on whom to lean. With nowhere else to turn, he accepted a position as assistant commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. With the typical Marshall determination and drive, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the job.

No sooner had he set foot at Fort Benning than Marshall felt new life flooding into him. He enjoyed reconnecting with old comrades like Joseph Stillwell, who had served with him in China, and establishing new bonds with men like Omar Bradley, who would play a vital role in the country’s future. It quickly became apparent, however, that the curriculum was in need of a massive overhaul. He was granted a free hand to reorganize the training given to the officers enrolled in the school. Remembering the experiences of World War I, he placed an emphasis on innovativeness and rapid mobility. To accomplish these objectives, he provided students with faulty maps, just as if they were on an actual battlefield. Almost 200 future generals would take Marshall’s lessons and put them into practice during World War II. Despite his primary focus in the classroom, Marshall did enjoy Fort Benning’s social scene, and it was in nearby Columbus he met Katherine Brown in 1929. She was a former actress and Baltimore widow with three teenage children. They were married on October 15, 1930, with General John Pershing as best man. Fellow officers marveled as his vitality returned. Cool and dispassionate in public, in private he was a loving husband and a doting stepfather.

At the same time his personal life was resurrected, his languishing career experienced a surge of energy as well. In 1932 he received the job he most wanted — command of infantry troops — first as battalion commander at Fort Screven, Georgia and then as regimental commander at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina. In 1933 he was promoted to colonel and briefly served as senior instructor to the Illinois National Guard. His most surprising success, however, came in organizing young men into President Franklin Roosevelt’s prized Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Marshall not only enthusiastically supported the program but also participated in its numerous projects to restore America’s environment. In 1936 he rejoiced at his promotion to brigadier general and assignment to Portland, Oregon as supervisor of local CCC projects. After two years, however, he was ordered back to Washington, D.C. to head the War Plans Division. At the very highest levels, people were beginning to take notice of him. He served as head of War Plans for only three months before receiving an appointment as deputy chief of staff. In that position, Marshall earned the respect of President Roosevelt and his top adviser, Harry Hopkins, with his frank opinions and his proposals on rebuilding the army. In April 1939 Roosevelt invited the general to the White House and quite unexpectedly informed Marshall he would be the next Chief of Staff. The final leap to the top was meteoric.

Jumping in rank from brigadier general to full general, George Marshall officially took office as Army Chief of Staff on September 1, 1939 — the same day Germany invaded Poland and ignited World War II. In the two years between his induction and Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, he obtained more than $2.5 billion in funding. He also urged a rapid buildup of U.S. forces, and by the end of 1940, he commanded an army of 800,000 men. Preparations for war continued throughout 1941, including the decision to defeat Nazi Germany first and then destroy Imperial Japan. In the immediate aftermath of the December 7th attacks, Marshall and the rest of the U.S. Army mobilized for combat. Despite wanting to command the European front himself, Marshall remained in Washington to direct American operations in Europe and the Pacific. He chose a bright, capable officer named Dwight Eisenhower to command in Europe while Douglas MacArthur led the war against Japan. After four years of war, he joined the rest of America in celebrating the end of the war. With the war’s end, Marshall retired from the U.S. Army, but in 1947 he returned to public life as President Harry Truman’s Secretary of State. In his new position, he helped resurrect Europe’s devastated economy, through the mechanisms of the Marshall Plan, and led the country through the early years of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. His final act of service to the U.S. was as Secretary of Defense during the Korean War. His most famous action was supporting President Truman’s decision to relieve Douglas MacArthur as head of Allied forces in Korea. In the wake of hostile criticism, George Marshall left government service for good in September 1951 and retired to his home in Leesburg, Virginia where he remained until his death in October 1959. As the nation mourned the loss of an iconic leader, he was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

George Marshall’s rise to prominence was certainly not rapid nor without struggle, but he persevered through each difficulty and challenge to eventually achieve the heartfelt respect and thanks of a grateful nation. Despite feeling frustrated on occasion, he refused to be discouraged by his slow progression up the chain of command. In much the same manner, he resolutely overcame the crushing loss of his first wife. His calm and confident manner as the highest-ranking member of the U.S. Army inspired those who waged the struggle for freedom from 1941-45. His devotion to duty was absolute, regardless of circumstances. Whether adversity builds character or reveals it, there is no truer demonstration of that idea than the life of George C. Marshall.


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2 responses to “A Long, Hard Climb

  1. Great story of a military icon, Jake! I’m a little embarrassed to say that I learned a great deal — well done! Thanks for bringing Gen Marshall’s story to your readers.

  2. Jack Showers

    Great Read, Jake! thanks Jack Showers

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