John William Vessey, Jr.

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John William Vessey, Jr.
Gen John Vessey Jr.JPG
Vessey in 1983
Birth name John William Vessey, Jr.
Born (1922-06-29) June 29, 1922 (age 100)
Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch  United States Army
Years of service
  • 1939-1941 (U.S. Army National Guard)
  • 1941-1985 (United States Army)
Rank US-O10 insignia.svg General
Unit 34th Infantry Division
Commands held

John William Vessey, Jr. (born June 29, 1922) is a retired United States Army general. He served as the tenth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from June 18, 1982 to September 30, 1985.

When he retired in 1985 at the age of 63, General Vessey was the longest-serving active duty member in the United States Army. He began his 46-year military career in the Minnesota National Guard in 1939 when he was still 16. He received a battlefield commission during the Battle of Anzio in World War II. General Vessey also served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. As a Lieutenant Colonel, he graduated from college in 1963 at the age of 41. As a Colonel, he was a student at the Army helicopter school at the age of 48.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan appointed him as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a position he would hold for over three years, a comparatively short term. He was the last four star combat veteran of World War II on active service.

After retiring from the Army, General Vessey became involved in efforts to account for military personnel listed as missing in action from the Vietnam War. He made several trips to Vietnam to search for remains as part of resolving the Vietnam War POW/MIA issue. General Vessey was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992. As of 2015, Vessey is the oldest living US Army four-star general.

Early life and education

Vessey was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on June 29, 1922. In May 1939, thirteen months before he graduated from Roosevelt High School, he enlisted in the Minnesota National Guard as a motorcycle rider in Headquarters, 59th Field Artillery Brigade, 34th Infantry Division.[1] His unit was activated in February 1941.

Personal Life

He is married to the former Avis Funk of Minneapolis. They have two sons, John III and David, and a daughter, Sarah. They retired to a home in central Minnesota near Garrison, Minnesota. [1]


World War II

During World War II, Vessey served with the 34th Infantry Division. The experience of early American setbacks in North Africa left Vessey with a lifelong appreciation of the need for realistic combat training, modern equipment, physical fitness, and air-ground cooperation. When Major General Omar Bradley, Commander of II Corps in North Africa, launched the U.S. drive on Bizerte in April 1943, he gave the 34th the most difficult objective: the well-defended Hill 609. In the first clear-cut U.S. Army victory of the campaign, the 34th Division took its objective, opening the way for the U.S. advance on Bizerte. Vessey, who had been a First Sergeant since 1 September 1942, later described being a first sergeant in combat as the "toughest job" he had. He was with the 34th when it entered the Anzio beachhead in Italy in May 1944; there he received a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant, serving as a forward observer.

Korean War and afterwards

After the war, most of Vessey's service continued to be in field artillery assignments. In the 1950s he served with the 4th Infantry Division in Germany and the Eighth U.S. Army in the Republic of Korea. During this period he also attended the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

By the time Vessey became a lieutenant colonel, he had earned enough credits through night school and correspondence courses for a bachelor of science degree, which he received from the University of Maryland University College in 1963. In 1965, he received a master of science from George Washington University. From 1963 to 1965 Vessey commanded the 2d Battalion, 73rd Field Artillery in the 3rd Armored Division; then he spent a year as a student at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, Vessey served for a year as Executive Officer of the 25th Infantry Division Artillery in Vietnam. In March 1967, when acting as Commander of the 2nd Battalion, 77th Artillery, he was given the mission of establishing a fire support base at Suoi Tre during Operation Junction City. Located deep in enemy-controlled territory, Vessey and his men oriented the firebase's defenses on the enemy's likely avenues of approach and rehearsed counterattack plans. During the attack by a reinforced regiment, the base was partially overrun. Vessey and his men fired their howitzers directly into the enemy ranks. Although greatly outnumbered, the defenders, aided by gunships and artillery, killed four hundred of their assailants while successfully defending the firebase. Lieutenant Colonel Vessey received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the battle.

From Vietnam, he went to Germany, to serve first as Commander of the 3d Armored Division Artillery from October 1967 until March 1969 and then as Division Chief of Staff for a year. He was promoted to colonel in November 1967. Vessey went back to Southeast Asia in December 1970 to head the U.S. Army Support Command, Thailand. In January 1972 he went into Laos to coordinate all US military operations in support of the war in Laos. Vessey worked with the U.S. ambassador, the CIA station chief, and an assortment of military contingents. When the Laotian ceasefire came in February 1973, the Royal Lao government controlled all major cities and the vast majority of the population.

After the Vietnam War

Upon his return to the United States, Vessey became Director of Operations in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans. Promoted to major general in August 1974, he assumed command of the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) at Fort Carson, Colorado. Promoted to lieutenant general in September 1975, he became the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans.

Vessey received his fourth star in November 1976. From 1976 to 1979 he served in the Republic of Korea as Commanding General of the Eighth U.S. Army; Commander of U.S. Forces, Korea; and Commander in Chief of the United Nations Command. In 1978, he became the first Commander in Chief of the Republic of Korea-United States Combined Forces Command. His tour was marked by increased tension caused by evidence of a North Korean buildup and by President Jimmy Carter's 1977 announcement that U.S. ground forces would be withdrawn. Vessey worked to assuage South Korean concerns and change the President's decision. After Carter's 1979 visit, withdrawal plans were suspended and then cancelled. From July 1979 until June 1982, General Vessey served as Vice Chief of Staff of the Army.

Chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

On June 18, 1982, he became the tenth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the last World War II combat veteran to serve in the position. General Vessey was the only Chairman who had been neither a Service Chief nor a commander of a unified or specified command. He served as Chairman during a period of unprecedented growth in peacetime defense spending and an expanded U.S. military presence worldwide intended to counter growing Soviet military power.

Vessey and the Service Chiefs believed that their overriding task lay in convincing Soviet leaders that their quest for military superiority and geostrategic advantage was fruitless. In Europe, they pushed the controversial but successful deployment of Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles to offset the Soviet SS-20 missiles. In Southwest Asia, highly visible US military activities underscored the US commitment to defend its vital interests in the region. In Central America, training and intelligence were provided to support counter-insurgency efforts.

Believing that it was a mistake to commit a superpower's forces to a peacekeeping mission, Vessey and the Joint Chiefs in 1982 and 1983 advised against deployment of a Marine contingent to Lebanon as part of a multinational peacekeeping force intended to restore peace among warring factions there. Their advice was not taken, and on 23 October 1983 a truck-bomb attack on the Marine headquarters building in Beirut killed 241 US Marines and Army soldiers. In late February 1984 President Reagan withdrew the contingent from Lebanon.

Vessey stressed the need for improvement of war plans and, for the first time, JCS members along with commanders of unified and specified commands personally participated in war games. Realizing the need to strengthen the joint system, Vessey and the Service Chiefs improved Joint Staff operations by adding a capability for budgetary analysis and by improving the quality of its personnel, changes that did not require legislation.

Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger understood the importance of decentralization; he authorized Vessey to direct military operations on the Secretary's behalf. The 1983 Grenada operation, for example, was planned by Atlantic Command, reviewed by the JCS, and approved by Secretary Weinberger and the President—all in four days. Vessey oversaw execution of the operation that rescued US citizens and brought a pro-US government into power.

During Vessey's tenure there was increased emphasis on space as a theater of operations. In early 1983, the Joint Chiefs mentioned to the President that defense against nuclear-armed missiles might be technically feasible in the next century. To their surprise, Reagan seized upon the concept and on 23 March 1983 announced his vision of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Realizing the enormous military advantages to be gained from operations in space and to support SDI, the JCS recommended the establishment of a unified command for space. US Space Command was activated on 23 September 1985.

Later work

Vessey (left), greets U.S. Army general and Joint Chiefs chairman Martin E. Dempsey (right) at the Minnesota National Guard Armory in Rosemount, Minnesota on August 16, 2012.

Vietnamese emissary

Vessey retired on September 30, 1985, several months before the expiration of his second term as Chairman. He was the last four-star World War II combat veteran on active duty and, with forty-six years of service, had served the longest of anyone then in the Army. President Reagan praised Vessey and gave a moving speech on his behalf. The President pointed out that Vessey had served in many leadership positions in his career but the greatest praise given to him was by General Creighton Abrams who simply said "I want Vessey for this job he is a Soldier . In retirement, he served President Reagan and his successors, Presidents George Bush and William J. Clinton, as a special emissary to Vietnam on the question of American service personnel missing from the Vietnam War. For his work in Vietnam, General Vessey was awarded the prestigious United States Military Academy's Sylvanus Thayer Award in 1996. He was also awarded the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1992.

Summary of service

Dates of rank

Rank insignia Rank Date
No insignia Private
(Minnesota National Guard)
May 1939
US Army WWII 1SGT.svg First Sergeant 1 Sep 1942
US-O1 insignia.svg Second Lieutenant 6 May 1944
(Battlefield Commission)
US-O2 insignia.svg First Lieutenant 1 Apr 1946
(permanent on 13 Jun 1951)
US-O3 insignia.svg Captain 4 Jan 1951
(permanent on 29 Oct 1954)
US-O4 insignia.svg Major 14 May 1958
(permanent on 26 Jan 1962)
US-O5 insignia.svg Lieutenant Colonel 7 Jan 1963
(permanent on 2 Jan 1969)
US-O6 insignia.svg Colonel 28 Nov 1967
(permanent 12 Mar 1973)
US-O7 insignia.svg Brigadier General 1 Apr 1971
(permanent 23 Dec 1974)
US-O8 insignia.svg Major General 1 Aug 1974
(permanent 23 Aug 1976)
US-O9 insignia.svg Lieutenant General 1 Sep 1975
US-O10 insignia.svg General 1 Nov 1976

Awards and Decorations

USAAvtr.png Aviator Badge
Joint Chiefs of Staff seal.svg Joint Chiefs of Staff Identification Badge
United States Army Staff Identification Badge.png Army Staff Identification Badge
Distinguished Service Cross
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Defense Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Army Distinguished Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters
Navy Distinguished Service Medal
Air Force Distinguished Service Medal
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze Star with oak leaf cluster
Award numeral 4.png Air Medal with award numeral 4
Joint Service Commendation Medal
Army Commendation Medal with "V" device
Purple Heart
Presidential Unit Citation
Presidential Medal of Freedom
Army Good Conduct Medal
American Defense Service Medal
American Campaign Medal
Silver star
Bronze star
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with silver and bronze campaign stars
World War II Victory Medal
Army of Occupation Medal
Bronze oak leaf cluster
National Defense Service Medal with oak leaf cluster
Bronze star
Bronze star
Vietnam Service Medal with two campaign stars
Croix de Guerre with bronze palm (France)
Order of Military Merit, Taegeuk Cordon (Korea)
Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with bronze palm
Gallantry Cross Unit Citation.png Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation
Civil Action Unit Citation.png Republic of Vietnam Civil Actions Medal Unit Citation
Vietnam Campaign Medal


  • 1939: National Guard enlisted service
  • 1941: 34th Division Artillery, Camp Claiborne, LA, Northern Ireland, North Africa, and Italy as S/Sgt, 1st Sgt, and then battlefield commission to 2Lt (Communications Officer/Forward Observer/Air Observer)
  • 1945: US Army Field Artillery School, Fort Sill, OK
  • 1949: Student, Field Artillery Officers Advanced Course, Field Artillery School, Fort Sill, OK
  • 1950: Battery Officer; then Battery Commander, 18th Field Artillery, Fort Sill, OK
  • 1951: Assistant S-3 and Liaison Officer; then Headquarters Battery Commander; then Assistant S-3 and Liaison Officer, 4th Infantry Division Artillery US Army, Europe
  • 1954: Student, Artillery Officer Advanced Course, Artillery and Guided Missile School, Fort Sill, OK
  • 1955: Battery Commander, Artillery and Guided Missile School Officer Candidate School
  • 1956: Gunnery Instructor, Artillery and Guided Missile School, Fort Sill, OK
  • 1957: Student, US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS
  • 1958: Artillery Section, Eighth US Army with duty station CINCPAC Coordination Center, Philippines
  • 1958: Chief, Operations Branch, Artillery Section, Eighth US Army, Korea
  • 1959: Assignment Officer, then Executive Officer, Artillery Officers Division, Office of Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, Washington, D.C.
  • 1963: Student, Armed Forces Staff College, Norfolk, VA
  • 1963: Commander, 2d Battalion, 73d Artillery, 3d Armored Division, US Army, Europe
  • 1965: Student, Industrial College of the Armed Forces, Washington, D.C.
  • 1966: Executive Officer, 25th Infantry Division Artillery, Vietnam
  • 1967: Commander, 3d Armored Division Artillery, US Army, Europe
  • 1969: Chief of Staff, 3d Armored Division, US Army, Europe
  • 1970: Student, US Army Primary Helicopter School, Fort Wolters, TX; later US Army Aviation School, Fort Rucker, AL
  • 1970: Commanding General, US Army Support Command, Thailand
  • 1972: Deputy Chief, JUSMAGTHAI (Chief MAAG, Laos)
  • 1973: Director of Operations, Office Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans, Washington, D.C.
  • 1974: Commanding General, 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized), Fort Carson, CO
  • 1975: Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans, US Army, Washington, D.C.
  • 1976: Commanding General, Eighth US Army; and Commander in Chief, US Forces, Korea; and Commander in Chief, United Nations Command
  • 1978: Commander in Chief, Republic of Korea-United States Combined Forces Command, Korea
  • 1979: Vice Chief of Staff, US Army, Washington, D.C.
  • 1982: Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, D.C.[2]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Gen. John W. Vessey Jr" (PDF). Minnesota Military Museum. Retrieved 7 June 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. The above article from the section "Early life, World War II and early military career" to "Assignments" is a letter by letter conversion of the just referenced .pdf file from the Joint Chief's web site. It is in the public domain.
Military offices
Preceded by
Gen. Frederick Kroesen
Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army
1979 – 1982
Succeeded by
Gen. John A. Wickham, Jr.
Preceded by
David C. Jones
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Succeeded by
William J. Crowe