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States: General History and Description >> Early 20th Century, 1901-1960 >> Military History
commander of the largest U.S. fighting force ever assembled under one command; last person to hold the rank of 5-Star General
Omar Nelson Bradley was born in a log cabin near Clark, Missouri, on February 12, 1893, the only surviving child of schoolteacher John Smith Bradley and Sarah Elizabeth Hubbard Bradley. Although his family was poor Omar was able to receive a good education, and to become a star player on the Moberly High School baseball team. To supplement the family income, he also became a crack shot and earned money by putting on exhibitions. He went to work for the Wabash Railroad after high school in order to earn enough money to enter the University of Missouri, but was encouraged instead to apply for an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. After placing first in the competitive exams for his district, he received an appointment from Congressman William M. Rucker to enter West Point in the fall of 1911.
left: Cadet Bradley
Bradley relished the discipline, rigorous code of conduct, and structured society of West Point. An enthusiasm for sports took time away from academics, but he still graduated 44th in his class of 164, in 1915. He lettered both in football and in baseball, and later commented on the importance of sports in teaching the art of group cooperation. Many of his classmates would go on to distinguished careers in their own right, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, Joseph M. Swing and James A. Van Fleet.
Bradley graduated with the rank of Second Lieutenant of Infantry. Three months later he was assigned to the 14th Infantry Regiment's Third Battalion at Fort George Wright, near Spokane, Washington. It was here that he came under the tutorship of Second Lieutenant Edwin Forrest Harding, who led a small group of fellow Lieutenants through weekly tactical exercises and discussions of military history and current operations in Europe. These weekly sessions proved quite valuable, as many members of the group went on to distinguish themselves in combat.
The first opportunity for Bradley and his comrades to put their weekly sessions to an actual test almost came during the Mexican Civil War of the early 1900's. When that war spilled over the border into the United States, American regulars under the command of Brigadier General John J. Pershing marched into Mexico in pursuit of the rebel commander, Pancho Villa. Because of the possibility of full-scale war with Mexico, the War Department called up the Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico National Guard and ordered more Regular Army units to the border. One of those units was the 14th Infantry, which encamped at Douglas, Arizona. Although neither Bradley nor any of his comrades saw any combat on the border, they did learn much about handling troops in field conditions, conducting long motor marches, and maintaining discipline, morale, and training in less-than-ideal conditions. In 1916, Congress passed the National Defense Act, which doubled the authorized size of the Regular Army and increased the number of infantry regiments to five. As a result of this expansion, Bradley was promoted to First Lieutenant. Bradley and his regiment remained in the Southwest until after the United States declared war on the German Empire in 1917.
World War I and the Interwar Years
Bradley was promoted to Captain almost immediately after the U.S. formally entered the First World War, but was disappointed when, instead of being sent to Europe, his regiment was ordered to police the copper mines in Montana. Promoted to Major in August 1918, he finally received orders to prepare for duty overseas. The 14th Infantry, with Bradley in command of its second batallion, became part of the new 19th Infantry Division, which was organizing at Camp Dodge, near Des Moines, Iowa. But Bradley was ultimately frustrated again when the great influenza epidemic of 1918 delayed the division's deployment until after the armistice was signed in November, 1918, and the division never left the United States. Bradley's batallion was demobilized, and he was posted to South Dakota State College, where he spent a year as an assistant professor of military science. He also reverted to his permanent grade of Captain.
In September 1920, Bradley began a four-year tour of duty as an instructor of mathematics at West Point. During this period he also continued his study of military history, with special emphasis on the campaigns of General William Tecumseh Sherman, whom Bradley considered a master of the war of movement. He was promoted to Major in the spring of 1924, and ordered to attend the advanced course at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, in the fall of that same year. It was at Fort Benning that Bradley concluded that his tactical judgment was as good as that of men who had fought in battle. He may very well have been right, for he graduated second in his class, ahead of numerous officers who had combat experience in World War I.
Following his tour at Fort Benning, Bradley was assigned to the 27th Infantry of the Hawaiian Division. He returned to the United States in 1928 to attend the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1929, Bradley became an instructor at the Infantry School, where he spent the next four years. After graduating from the Army War College in 1934, he returned to West Point to serve in the Tactical Department. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1936. When he left West Point in 1938 for duty on the War Department General Staff, he had spent some sixteen years in Army schools as student and teacher.
After a brief period in the Army staff's manpower and personnel office, Bradley became assistant secretary of the General Staff in the Office of the Army Chief of Staff. In February 1941, as the Army was expanding in anticipation of war with the Axis Powers, Bradley was promoted from Lieutenant Colonel to Brigadier General, skipping the rank of Colonel, and sent to Fort Benning to command the Infantry School.
At Fort Benning, Bradley promoted the formation and training of tank forces, as well as airborne forces. He also developed an officer candidate school (OCS) model that would serve as a prototype for similar schools across the Army. The OCS would ultimately turn out the thousands of Lieutenants needed to lead the platoons of an Army that eventually fielded eighty-nine divisions during World War II.
World War II
Two months after Pearl Harbor, Bradley took command of the 82nd Infantry Division. The new commander saw to it that incoming drafts of soldiers were welcomed with military bands, and that when they were marched to their cantonments they found uniforms, equipment, and a hot meal waiting for them. Disturbed by the poor physical condition of the new soldiers, he instituted a rigorous physical training program. In response to learning that the most famous alumnus of the division, Alvin York, had done most of his combat shooting at very short range, Bradley adjusted the division's marksmanship program to include a combat course in firing at targets only twenty-five to fifty meters away. Just as he was looking forward to taking the 82nd Infantry Division overseas, Bradley was ordered to take command of the 28th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit based at Camp Livingston, Lousisiana, instead.
At Camp Livingston, Bradley reassigned every junior officer who was over age and unable to cope with field conditions -- in 1941, about 20 percent of all National Guard First Lieutenants were forty or over. The more senior officers who lacked the knowledge or skills for battalion and regimental command were also transferred. Then he obtained new drafts from OCS to replace those officers who had been transferred away. Once he had established a more efficient command-level structure he began a systematic training program that included increasingly more complex tactical exercises at the battalion and regimental level.
North Africa Campaign
In February 1943, Bradley was ordered to take over X Corps at Austin, Texas. Before he could assume that command, however, the orders were countermanded and he was instead sent to North Africa to work for his classmate Dwight D. Eisenhower. Bradley's assignment was to serve as Eisenhower's eyes and ears, reporting on the situation on the Tunisian front and the means that might be used to correct the many problems then being faced by American forces. One of Bradley's first recommendations was that Eisenhower relieve Major General Lloyd Fredendall from command of II Corps, whose troops had demonstrated a particularly poor performance at the Battle of Kasserine Pass.When Eisenhower assigned George Patton to replace Fredendall, he also made Bradley the corps Deputy Commanding General. Bradley succeeded to command of the corps on April 15, when Patton left to draw up plans for landings in Sicily. During the final battles of April and May 1943, the II Corps attacked northward toward Bizerte, avoiding obvious routes of approach and using infantry to attack German defenders on the high ground before bringing up the armor. American troops entered Bizerte on May 7, and two days later more than 40,000 German troops surrendered to II Corps.
Invasion of Sicily
Almost immediately after the surrender at Bizerte, Bradley went to Algiers to help plan the invasion of Sicily. Under command of General Patton's Seventh Army, Bradley's II Corps was in the vanguard of the Operation HUSKY assault. By August 16, 1943, British and American forces held Sicily. It was during the fighting in Sicily that famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle "discovered" Bradley and established his reputation as the "soldier general" because of obvious his care of and compassion for those soldiers under his command. Shortly after the fighting ended, Eisenhower told Bradley that he would command an army and then activate an army group in the forthcoming landings in France.
Invasion of Normandy
Bradley returned to the United States long enough to select the staff for his new command, the First U.S. Army, then stationed at Governor's Island, New York. The headquarters deployed to England in October 1943, and Bradley became both First Army Commander and Acting Commander of the 1st U.S. Army Group (subsequently redesignated the 12th Army Group). Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower arrived in England in January 1944, and shortly thereafter confirmed that Bradley would command the American army group when it was activated.
During the months before the invasion, Bradley supervised the refinement of assault plans and troop training. On the morning of June 6, 1944, Bradley was aboard the cruiser USS Augusta, his headquarters for the invasion. At 6:30 in the morning American troops and their Allies assaulted the Normandy beaches. Although the landings at UTAH beach went remarkably well, those at OMAHA beach met much stiffer resistance than had been expected. Unable to maintain steady communications with the troops ashore, Bradley worried over what appeared to be a developing catastrophe. He even considered evacuating the troops and sending follow-on assaults to UTAH or the British beaches. By early afternoon, however, he was getting reports that American troops were beginning to reach the bluffs above the beach, and by evening the Allies had established themselves firmly on the Normandy coast. On June 9, Bradley moved First Army headquarters ashore.
The Final Push
Throughout the rest of June, Bradley's forces repelled several German counterattacks and strengthened their hold on the beachheads. In July, Bradley sent VII Corps to capture the port of Cherbourg and expanded the beachhead into the hedgerow country behind the coast, preparing for the breakout envisioned in the OVERLORD plans. The first attempts at breaking out failed in the face of heavy German opposition. Bradley then conceived a plan for a one-corps attack centering on St. Lo, using heavy air support. Operation COBRA began on July 25 with a saturation bombing attack, and about one month later Bradley's army had reached Avranches and begun a rout of the Germans.
Once the breakout was complete, Eisenhower activated the Third U.S. Army, with General Patton in command. Bradley turned the First Army over General Courtney Hodges and activated the 12th Army Group (later called the Central Group of Armies), which by war's end comprised 12 corps, 48 divisions, and 1.3 million men -- the largest U.S. fighting force ever assembled under one command. This fighting force, using tactics and manuevers devised by Bradley, swept through France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany. In January 1945, Bradley's army met the Soviet army at the Elbe River. Once Germany had fallen, Bradley sent Patton's Third Army into Bavaria, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, cementing the Allied success and bringing the war in Europe to a close.
Post-War Military Career
Bradley had hoped for a command in the Pacific once the European phase of the war was over, but General Douglas MacArthur did not require another army group commander for his planned assault on the Japanese home islands, and Japan ultimately surrendered before Bradley could convince his superiors otherwise.
On August 15, 1945, President Harry Truman appointed Bradley to direct the Veterans Administration (VA). Almost immediately Bradley set out to modernize and restructure the organization. Under his leadership VA hospitals were built where they could provide the most benefit to the most veterans, rather than where politicians wanted them located. Medical care at those hospitals was greatly improved as well. Bradley also revised and extended the educational benefits of the G.I. Bill, arranged for jobs and job training programs for veterans, established a program of loans for veterans, and administered a massive growth in veterans insurance and disability pensions. He remained at the helm of the VA until December 1947.
On February 7, 1948, Bradley succeeded Eisenhower as Army Chief of Staff. While in this position Bradley secured an increase in military pay that brought it into line with equivalent civilian pay scales for the first time since before World War II, and gained presidential support to extend the Selective Service System. On August 16, 1949, Bradley became the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On September 22, 1950, Congress officially promoted Bradley to General of the Army (five-star general), making him the last officer in the American defense establishment to be promoted to that rank.
Internationally, Bradley was directly involved in the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the rearming of Western Europe. On October 5, 1949, he became the first Chairman of the Military Committee of NATO, and served in that post through 1950. He remained as the U.S. representative to the NATO Military Committee until 1953, and served as an adviser to President Truman throughout the Korean War.
Bradley retired from active military service on August 15, 1953. He spent the rest of his life in various civilian industries, including a stint as board chairman of the Bulova Watch Company, and in 1959 he was named president of the George C. Marshall Foundation. He also made frequent speaking appearances and often made it a point to visit active military units and meet soldiers of all ranks.
General of the Army Omar N. Bradley died on April 8, 1981, and is interred in Arlington Cemetery.
Bradley related his World War II experiences in A Soldier's Story (1951).
This page was last updated on April 07, 2017.