Omar Nelson Bradley was born in rural Missouri and spent his boyhood impoverished, with no thought of a military career, until someone suggested that he might qualify for an appointment to West Point, where he could receive a paid education. Bradley seized the opportunity, qualified for admission in 1911, and graduated in the class of 1915, later acclaimed as “the class the stars fell on.”
During World War I, while most of his contemporaries were serving in the American Expeditionary Force in France, Bradley’s infantry regiment was guarding copper mines in strike-ridden Montana. Cast into the backwater of the army of the interwar period, he was apprehensive, needlessly as it turned out, that his lack of combat service would harm his career.
Bradley graduated from the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1929, and subsequently served as an instructor in tactics at the Infantry School. He deeply impressed the assistant commandant, Lieutenant Colonel George C. Marshall, who rated him “quiet, unassuming, capable, [with] sound common sense. Absolute dependability. Give him a job and forget it.” Bradley, in turn, emulated the future chief of staff’s leadership qualities, later observing, “From General Marshall I learned the rudiments of effective command[ellipsis4] When an officer performed as I expected him to, I gave him a free hand. When he hesitated, I tried to help him. And when he failed, I relieved him.”
In 1938, Bradley was assigned to the War Department General Staff, where one of his duties was to present decision papers orally to Chief of Staff Marshall, who promoted him directly to brigadier general in 1941 and sent him to Fort Benning as commandant of the Infantry School. In 1942, Bradley was promoted to major general and first given command of the Eighty-second Division, and later of the Twenty-eighth (National Guard) Division. With the efficiency and ruthlessness that was to characterize his later performance, he rapidly turned the understaffed, clique-ridden, demoralized Twenty-eighth Division into a first-class fighting unit.
In February 1943, Marshall assigned Bradley to North Africa to assist Dwight D. Eisenhower in the aftermath of the disastrous American defeat at Kasserine Pass. He was sent first as an observer to Second Corps under Lloyd Fredenthall, but on the recommendation of the new commander, George S. Patton, Jr., Bradley was appointed deputy commander and later succeeded Patton in command of the corps, which he led with distinction during the final days of the campaign in Tunisia and in the short but difficult Sicilian campaign in July and August 1943.
Eisenhower next selected Bradley to command the U.S. First Army in Operation Overlord, the cross-Channel invasion of Normandy, on June 6, 1944. Bradley was the architect of Operation Cobra, the American breakout from the Cotentin Peninsula that unleashed the First Army and Patton’s newly activated Third Army into Brittany and across southern Normandy, precipitating the collapse of the German army that ended the campaign.
As an army group commander from August 1, 1944, to V-E Day in May 1945, Bradley commanded more troops than any general in American history: four armies, twelve corps, forty-eight divisions–in all, over 1.3 million troops.
Despite earning the nickname “the GI General” from correspondent Ernie Pyle, Bradley’s low-key style of command made him little known among his troops. The only serious criticisms of his generalship are that he acted indecisively during the battle of the Falaise gap and uncharacteristically insisted on attacking through the H[udie]rtgen Forest in the autumn of 1944. In all other circumstances, Bradley was a resourceful strategist and tactician who earned high praise from Eisenhower as “the master tactician of our forces” and “America’s foremost battle leader.” In 1950, when Bradley became one of only five U.S. Army officers promoted to the five-star rank of General of the Army, President Harry S. Truman praised Bradley as “the ablest field general the U.S. ever had.”
In August 1945, Bradley was appointed to head the Veterans Administration, and until February 1948, when he succeeded Eisenhower as U.S. Army Chief of Staff, he helped overhaul an organization responsible for seventeen million veterans. In August 1949 he became the first-ever chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serving two terms during the difficult period of the Korean War.
Omar Bradley retired in 1953 after thirty-eight years of distinguished military service; when he died at the age of eighty-eight, his reputation as one of the giants of the U.S. Army of World War II, and an exemplar of the American military tradition of producing superior leaders, was secure.
CARLO W. D’ESTE
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.