4-star Gen. Van Fleet,
bull Gator, dies at 100
.',, -:.\. t., , ] r , < e',/
By RONNIE BLAIR /1~ 4//7'7J
NIT I-e'g,.nil i,' u: paper -
POLK CITY James A. Van Fleet, a re-
tired U.S. Army general who led successful
campaigns in World War II and the Korean
War. died Wednesday at his Polk County
ranch. He was 100.
In the 1920s. Van Fleet was a coach of the
Florida Galors and head of the University of
Florida ROTC program.
A West Point classmate of Dwight Eisen-
hower and Omar Bradley, Van Fleet earned
his mtiiary fame in the 1940s and 1950s. At
the height of his career, he look part in the
Normandy invasion, led United Nations and
South Korean forces in the Korean War, and
helped prevent a communist takeover of
The U.S. Army honored Van Fleet, a
Barlow native, with four stars.
His strategies during World War II are still
studied at war colleges, particularly his cam-
paigns at Utah Beach on D-Day and the Bat-
tie of the Bulge.
Van Fleet, who also fought in World War I,
spent his final years in his native Polk Coun-
ty. He spoke frequently at civic events where,
long after he retired from the Army. Polk
Countlans still hailed him as a hero. Earlier
this year. Polk City honored him with a sur-
prise party on his 100th birthday.
He will be buried in Arlington National
Van Fleet was born in Coylesville, N.J., on
See VAN FLEET on page 9A
Fleet nwilh a
part y on his
day'. He died
in Polk ity'.
dant of ca-
at the i'ni-
*\ ,j,-f, l i -:r,uij
continued from page IA
March 19, 1892. His father, William Van Fleet,
a railroad man who built a number of lines in
Florida, moved the family to Bartow when
young James was an infant.
In Bartow in the 1890s, William Van Fleet
invested in phosphate mining. But the phos-
phate business fell on hard times, so James
Van Fleet, the youngest of four children, deliv-
ered groceries and mail to help the family
"I grew up a poor boy," he said. "We weren't
down and out. Just no trips to Hawaii. No extra
money. It was good for me. It's good for any-
one. I learned to work."
In 1911, he graduated from Summerlin Insti-
tute and enrolled in the U.S. Military Academy
at West Point, N.Y.
Van Fleet never intended to join the mili-
tary. Without his knowledge, his father ar-
ranged to get him the West Point appointment.
Van Fleet told the story this way:
"My dad came hustling home one day, just a
puffin'. He said, 'James, come here.'"
'You're going to West Point.'
"And that was my reason for going to West
Van Fleet, Eisenhower and Bradley graduat-
ed from West Point in 1915. The class of 1915
became the most famous West Point ever pro-
duced, and some called it "the class the stars
Van Fleet graduated 92nd in the class of 164
cadets. This was during a time of uprisings in
Mexico, anid in 1916, the Mexican bandit chief
Pancho Villa crossed the border into New
Mexico. His men killed 16 Americans.
A furious President Woodrow Wilson sent
Gen. John J. Pershing into Mexico in search of
Villa. One of the young men under the com-
mand of Pershing was Van Fleet.
Van Fleet remained under Pershing's com-
mand in World War I and headed a machine-
gun battalion in France.
He returned to the United States after the
war. He had married Helen Hazel Moore on
Christmas Day in 1915, and the couple settled
for awhile in Manhattan, Kan., where Van
Fleet directed the ROTC program and served
as an assistant football coach at Kansas State
In 1921, the Van Fleets moved to Gaines-
ville, where Van Fleet headed the ROTC pro-
gram at the University of Florida. His interest
in football continued, too. He served as assis-
tant coach of the Gators in 1921 and 1922, then
became head coach in 1923 and 1924.
He later became an assistant again under
head coach Charley Bachman from 1929 to
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec.
7, 1941, Van Fleet went back to war. This time,
his commander was Gen. George S. Patton.
Van Fleet reached the rank of colonel and
was heading the 8th Infantry Regiment by 1944
when the Allies planned the invasion of
The successful mission wasn't without its
When Van Fleet landed, the first wounded
man he encountered was one of his company
"There he was, just bleeding all over, and his
clothes practically shot off him," Van "Fleet
said many years later. "As the medics evacuat-
ed him, he cried like a baby. He didn't want to
Van Fleet then led a division in the Battle of
the Bulge. He was there for the Allies' first
crossing of the Rhine River at the Remagen
His troops spearheaded the drive across
Germany, and on V-E Day, they were at the
foot of the Alps.
By V-E Day, Van Fleet had achieved the
rank of major general. After World War II, he
held commands at Governors Island, N.Y., and
Frankfurt, Germany, before going to serve in
the Korean War.
,Van Fleet retired from the military in 1953
at age 61. Besides his four stars, he also had
earned three each of the Purple Heart, Distin-
guished Service Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star
and his most prized possession, the Combat
He was briefly recalled to active duty in
1961 ,to train guerrilla fighters.
Florida politicians tried several times to per-
suade Van Fleet to run for governor or U.S.
He always declined.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter asked Van
Fleet to represent the United States at the fu-
neral of assassinated South Korean President
Park Chung Hee, whom Van Fleet considered
a close friend.
Van Fleet spent his final years in his home
near Polk City.
He emerged occasionally to speak at histori-
cal gatherings in Polk County, such as Bartow's
Independence Day celebration in 1985. There
he saluted 12-year-old Keith DeLoach, a mem-
ber of the Royal Rangers scouting organiza-
tion, who nervously returned the salute.
"You'll be celebrating this country's birth
for many more years, young man," the general
told the boy. "Always hold this day close to
Van Fleet turned 100 on March 19 and was
honored by residents of Polk City.
About 1,000 people from around the county,
Florida and the world, including dignitaries
from South Korea and Greece, attended a sur-
prise birthday party for the general in Polk
City's Freedom Park.
Ronnie Blair is an assistant city editor for The
Ledger in Lakeland.