McNair, Lesley J. (1883-1944) | Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections
Lesley J. McNair was born in Verndale Minnesota May 25, 1883, the son of James and Clara Manz McNair. He graduated eleventh in a class of 124 from the United States Military Academy and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant of Artillery (1904). He then served in a series of ordnance and artillery appointments in Utah, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. (1904-1909). He was promoted to 1st lieutenant (June 1905) and captain (May 1907) and was then assigned to the 4th Artillery Regiment in the west (1909-1914). While attached to the regiment he was sent to France to observe French artillery training for a period of seven months (1913) and upon return took part in Major General Frederick Funston's expedition to Vera Cruz (April 30-November 23, 1914). He then saw service under General John J. Pershing, in the Pancho Villa Expedition, and was promoted to major (May 1917).
When the United States of America entered the First World War, McNair went to France, where he served with the 1st Infantry Division. For his outstanding service, he was awarded both the Distinguished Service Medal and the French Legion d'honneur. He was also promoted in due succession to lieutenant colonel (August 1917), colonel (June 1918), and brigadier (one-star) general (October 1918) thus becoming the youngest general officer in the United States Army at the time at the age of 35.
Following the end of the First World War in November 1918, he left his position as senior artillery officer in the General Staff's Training Section and reverted to his permanent rank of major (1919), returning to the United States to teach, first, at the General Service School (1919-1921), then doing a stint as a staff officer in Hawaii (1921-1924), then as a professor of military science and tactics at Purdue University from 1924 to 1928.
He was promoted to permanent lieutenant colonel (1928) and graduated from the Army War College in 1929. Following this, he served as assistant commander of the U.S. Army Field Artillery School (1929-1933) then in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the first Franklin Roosevelt Administration (1933-1935). He was promoted to colonel (May 1935) and received command of 2d Field Artillery Brigade in Texas following his promotion to Brigadier General in March 1937, and commanded from March 1937 to April 1939.
As Commandant of the Command and General Staff College from April 1939 to July 1940, McNair initiated changes that prepared the College's graduates to meet the upcoming challenges of World War II.
McNair was Chief of Staff of GHQ, U.S. Army from July 1940 to March 1942. He was promoted to Major General in September 1940, and temporary Lieutenant General in June 1941.
In March 1942, General McNair became Commanding General, Army Ground Forces. As such, he was responsible for the organization, training and preparation of the U.S. Army for overseas service. He was instrumental in preparing large-scale divisional and corps exercises to provide Army commanders with some experience in controlling large forces in simulated combat. However, McNair's emphasis on abbreviated basic combat training schedules for inductees, as well as his programs for the training and supply of individual replacements to combat units would later face widespread criticism after the U.S. Army invasion of North Africa in 1942, criticism that continued until the end of the war in Europe.
McNair, who had already received a Purple Heart for being wounded in the North African Campaign, was killed in his foxhole July 25, 1944, near St. Lo during Operation Cobra, by an errant aerial bomb dropped during a pre-attack bombardment by heavy strategic bombers of the Eighth Air Force.
His son, Colonel Douglas McNair, chief of staff of the 77th Infantry Division, was killed two weeks later by a sniper on Guam.
Fort Lesley McNair in Washington, D. C. was renamed in his honor in 1948. McNair Barracks in Berlin, Germany was named in his honor.