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General Joseph Lawton Collins
(1896 — 1987)


 

 

Joseph Lawton Collins was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 01, 1896, to parents Jeremiah Bernard Collins and Katherine (Lawton) Collins.  He was the tenth of eleven children (six girls; five boys):  Margaret, May, James, Katherine, Agnes, Peter, Ullainee, Joseph, Bernard, and two others who did not reach adulthood.  The family operated a combination grocery-mercantile-beer parlor on the West Bank at Algiers near the eastern terminus of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

 

 

General Joseph Lawton Collins served as U.S. Army Chief of Staff from 1949 to 1953.

Gen. Joseph Lawton Collins served as

U.S. Army Chief of Staff from 1949 to 1953.

Photo from Lightning Joe: An Autobiography

by Gen. J. Lawton Collins (1979).

 

Joseph attended Boy's High School in New Orleans.  In 1912 at the age of 16, he left home having won a scholarship to attend Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.  He received an alternate appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point for the following year, which came to fruition when the principal appointee failed the entrance exam.  He entered West Point on June 02, 1913, and graduated on April 20, 1917.

 

Following graduation, Collins was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant and assigned to the temporary command of M Company, 3rd Battalion of the 22nd Infantry at Fort Hamilton, New York.  Ten days later, he moved to his permanent assignment in K Company, which he would shortly command due to the shortage of officers caused by wartime expansion.  He was promoted to the rank of 1st Lieutenant in May of 1917 and received the temporary rank of Captain in August of that same year.  In June of 1918, he received the permanent rank of Captain and was made supply officer of the 22nd Infantry and shortly thereafter shifted from Fort Hamilton to a tent camp north of Syracuse, New York, for limited-service men (i.e. draftees).

 

Following a bout of illness during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, Collins was promoted to the temporary rank of Major in September of 1918 and assumed command of the 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry.  With the end of World War I on November 11, 1918, units began to demobilize with officers and men returning home from the front.  However, occupation forces were still needed and Collins received orders to report to the headquarters of American Forces in Germany (AFG) in May of 1919.  Placed in command of the 3rd Battalion, 18th Infantry of the 1st Infantry Division (the "Big Red One"), he served in this post for two months until the Treaty of Versailles was signed by Germany and the 1st Infantry Division returned home to the States.  He returned at this time to the 8th Infantry Regiment, one of three infantry regiments assigned to the AFG occupation forces in the Rhineland.  While in Germany, he reverted to the permanent rank of Captain, but was reassigned to the position of Assistant Chief of Staff for G-3 Operations of the AFG.

 

While in Europe, Joseph met and married Gladys Easterbrook, daughter of the first Chief of Army Chaplains Colonel Edmund P. Easterbrook, on July 15, 1921.  Together, they would have three (3) children: Joseph "Jerry" Easterbrook Collins, Gladys "Gladdie" Collins Stengler, and Nancy Collins Rubino.

 

Returning to the Unites States in 1921, Collins was assigned as an instructor in the chemistry department at West Point until 1925.  In 1926, he attended and graduated from the company officer training course at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia.  A year-long advanced course at the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Alabama, followed in 1927.  Afterwards, Captain Collins returned to Fort Benning as an instructor in the Weapons and Tactics sections from 1927 to 1931.  He then attended a two-year course at the Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, graduating in 1933.

 

Having been promoted to the permanent rank of Major earlier in August of 1932, Collins now reported for duty to Fort William McKinley in Manila, where he served as Executive Officer of the 23rd Brigade of the Philippine Division and assistant chief of staff G-2.  In anticipation of future conflict with Japan in the Far East (a U.S. war plan codenamed Orange), the Philippine Division—as part of their field exercises between 1934 and 1936—began to conduct reconnaissance of the Bataan Peninsula:  mapping trails, building roads, extending rail lines, and fortifying defensive strong points.  This groundwork proved pivotal in the defense of the Philippines later in 1941-42.

 

In 1937, Collins returned to the United States and attended the Army Industrial College in Washington, D.C., for a year-long course.  Upon graduation, he attended another year-long course at the nearby Army War College in 1938.  Following graduation, he remained at the War College as an instructor in the War Plans Division from 1938 through 1940.  With Hitler's blitzkreig into Belgium and France in May of 1940, the U.S. Army began to move to a war-time footing in preparation for possible involvement.  The Army War College was suspended in June of 1940 and Collins was temporarily assigned to duty with the Secretariat of the General Staff.  He also received a promotion to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel that same month.

 

In January of 1941, Collins was assigned as Chief of Staff of the VII Corps in the 2nd Army and promoted to the temporary rank of Colonel.  During this time, he participated in the planning and execution of the Tennessee Maneuvers (June, 1941), the Arkansas Maneuvers (August, 1941), and the Louisiana Maneuvers (September, 1941).  Following the Japanese surprise attack on U.S. forces at Hawaii, the VII Corps began preparations on December 12 to transfer to the West Coast to take over the defense of Northern California.  On December 16, however, Collins received orders transferring him to the post of Chief of Staff of the Hawaiian Department under General Delos Emmons.  He and Emmons boarded a B-24 Marauder bomber that same night and flew from San Francisco to Honolulu.  He would not see his wife or children again for two years.

 

In his role as Emmons' wartime Chief of Staff, Collins helped to coordinate the ground defenses of the Hawaiian islands.  In February of 1942, he was promoted to the temporary rank of Brigadier General.  This was followed by another promotion in May to the temporary rank of Major General when he was given command of the 25th Infantry Division (known as the "Tropic Lighting" Division) on Oahu, Hawaii.  After an intensive six-month training period, the 25th received orders and sailed for Australia on November 25, 1942.  Their orders were changed en route, however, and the division proceeded to Guadalcanal to relieve the 1st Marine Division which had seen heavy fighting there since August.

 
Major General Joseph Lawton Collins (right) confers with Major Charles Davis (left) on New Georgia Island in August of 1943.
MGen. Joseph Lawton Collins (right) confers with Major
Charles Davis on New Georgia Island in August of 1943.
Official U.S. Army photograph.

 

 

The 25th Division entered combat against the Japanese for the first time on January 10, 1943, as part of operations by the XIV Corps.  By February 09, organized enemy resistance had been broken with surviving units abandoning the island.  It was during this time that Collins received the nickname "Lightning Joe," based upon the radio call sign for his Division Headquarters and the Division's own nickname of "Tropic Lightning."  Unfortunately, after fighting had ceased, the general fell victim to the same mosquitoes that plagued his own men and the Japanese in the South Pacific's jungle environments.  He developed estuvo autumnal malaria and was confined to quarters and under medication for approximately three weeks.  While elements of the 25th were already involved in the attempt to capture Munda on New Georgia Island in July of 1943, it was not until August 01 that the bulk of the division arrived.  Again working as part of the XIV Corps, the 25th helped to push Japanese forces from the area and secure it for use in future air raids against Rabaul.  While here, the general suffered a relapse of malaria.  Following the New Georgia campaign, the 25th was sent to New Zealand for rest and rehabilitation in November of 1943.

 

 
Captain Robert Kirkpatrick briefs Major General Collins on the capture of Fort du Roule overlooking the city and harbor of Cherbourg, France, on June 26, 1944.
Capt. Robert Kirkpatrick briefs MGen. Collins on the capture
of Fort du Roule overlooking the city and harbor
of Cherbourg, France, on June 26, 1944.
Official U.S. Army photograph.
 
 
 
Returning home to Washington, D.C., on leave for the holidays, General Collins received orders on January 19, 1944, reassigning him to the European Theater.  On the recommendation of General Omar Bradley, he was assigned by General Dwight D. Eisenhower to command the VII Corps of the U.S. 1st Army.  Flying to England, he took command on February 12.  Over the next three months, the VII Corps trained throughout the English countryside for the upcoming invasion of Europe.  On June 06, 1944, VII Corps landed on Utah Beach at Normandy, France, tasked with the capture of the Cotentin peninsula and the port city of Cherbourg.  Afterward, they spearheaded the breakthrough east of St. Lo in Operation Cobra, joined in the great defensive battle at
Mortain, and participated in the closing of the Falaise Gap.  Sweeping across the French countryside, Collins' men drove north into Belgium on September 02.  The full weight of the Corps was next thrown against the famed Siegfried Line (West Wall) in the vicinity of Aachen with fierce fighting taking place in the Hürtgen Forest.  Aachen fell in October and the Hürtgen was cleared of enemy activity in December.

 

Not long afterward, the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes region that became known as the Battle of the Bulge began.  The VII Corps took part in stopping the German's northern drive and pushing the Wehrmacht (German Army) back into Germany.  The pursuit of German forces into their homeland saw the VII Corps capture of Cologne, the third largest city in Germany, on March 07.  As heavy fighting began during the clearing of the rugged Harz Mountains, elements of the VII Corps discovered the forced labor concentration camp at Nordhausen on April 12 where prisoners were used in the production of German V-1 and V-2 rockets.  Collins received a promotion to the temporary rank of Lieutenant General on April 20.  On April 26, elements of VII Corps met the 1st Ukrainian Army on the Elbe River.  With the German surrender on May 08, 1945, VII Corps prepared to turn over its territory to occupation forces.  The unit was relieved on June 11 and Collins returned home to the United States.  That same month, he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.

 

Following his return to the United States, Collins was appointed in August of 1945 to serve as Chief of Staff of Army Ground Forces in Washington, D.C., under General Jacob L. Devers.  In December of 1945, he was assigned as Director of Information in the Office of the Chief of Staff.  On July 29, 1947, Collins was named Deputy Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army under General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1947-1948).  During this time, the Departments of War and of the Navy were combined with the new Air Force in a unified Department of Defense.  With Eisenhower's retirement, Collins served as Deputy Chief of Staff (and later Vice Chief of Staff) under General Omar Bradley (1948-1949).  He was promoted to the temporary rank of General and the permanent rank of Major General in January of 1948.  On August 16, 1949, with Bradley's elevation to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Collins succeeded him as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.

 

During his time as Chief of Staff of the Army, the U.S. Army—and the other branches of the armed forces—underwent desegregation and integration.  Collins was closely associated with the development of the Army's contributions to the newly established North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  Though it was a United Nations military action, the Korean War in its entirety (June 25, 1950 ~ July 27, 1953) was fought during his time as Chief of Staff.  During his tenure, President Harry Truman ordered the seizure of all major U.S. railroads when an impending labor strike threatened to disrupt the flow of essential support to forces in Korea.  Both labor and management agreed to work under Army supervision until a settlement could be reached.  The first Special Forces group was ushered into the order of battle in June of 1952 during his stewardship of the Army.

 
The Joint Chiefs of Staff on November 22, 1949: (L-R) Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, USN; General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, USAF; General Omar N. Bradley, Chairman; and General Joseph Lawton Collins, USA.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff on November 22, 1949: (L-R) Admiral
Forrest P. Sherman, USN; General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, USAF;
General Omar N. Bradley, Chairman; and General Joseph
Lawton Collins, USA.
Official U.S. Army photograph.
 

 

Upon the completion of his four-year term as Army Chief of Staff on August 15, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Collins to stay on active duty as the U.S. representative on the Military Committee & Standing Group of NATO.  He served in this capacity until being sent as a special representative to South Vietnam with the rank of Ambassador (November of 1954 ~ May of 1955).  Upon his return from Vietnam, General Collins returned to his post as U.S. representative to the NATO Standing Group (1955-56).  He retired from active service on March 31, 1956, after forty-three (43) years of service.

 

Following retirement, Collins served as vice chairman and director of the Presidential Committee for Hungarian Refugee Relief (Dec. 12, 1956 ~ May 14, 1957).  He also served as the first chairman of the Foreign Student Service Council and on the board of trustees of the Institute of International Education (1957~1965).  Other volunteer service included the Society for the Prevention of Blindness of Metropolitan Washington (co-founded by his eldest sister May).  He was employed with Pfizer, Inc. for twelve years as vice chairman of the company's international division (1957~1969).

 

General Collins was the recipient of numerous awards and honors.  Among them were the following:

 

Army Distinguished Service Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters 
Silver Star Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster 
Legion of Merit Legion of Merit with two Oak Leaf Clusters and a Gold Star with Combat "V" 
Bronze Star Bronze Star 
World War I Victory Medal World War I Victory Medal 
Army of Occupation of Germany Medal (WWI) Army of Occupation of Germany Medal (World War I) 
American Defense Service Medal American Defense Service Medal 
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three Bronze Service Stars
European-African-Middle East Campaign Medal European-African-Middle East Campaign Medal with Arrowhead and five Bronze Service Stars 
World War II Victory Medal World War II Victory Medal 
Army of Occupation Medal Army of Occupation Medal (Germany—World War II) 
National Defense Service Medal National Defense Service Medal 
French Legion of Honor French Legion of Honor with Rank of Officer 
French Croix de Guerre with Palm French Croix de Guerre with Palm 
Order of the Bath British Honorary Companion of the Order of the Bath 
Order of Suvorov Soviet Order of Suvorov, 2nd Class 
Order of Leopold II Belgian Order of Leopold II with Palm and Degree of Grand Officer
Belgian Croix de Guerre Belgian Croix de Guerre with Palm
Argentine Order of the Liberator General San Martin Argentine Order of the Liberator General San Martin, Degree of Grand Official
Brazilian Order of Military Merit Brazilian Order of Military Merit, Degree of Grand Officer
Greek Order of George I Greek Order of George I, Degree of Grand Cross
Columbian Order of Boyaca Columbian Order of Boyaca, Degree of Grand Officer
Chilean Medal of Military Merit Chilean Medal of Military Merit, 1st Class
Republic of Korea Taeguk Distinguished Military Service Medal (South Korea) Republic of Korea Taeguk Distinguished Mlitary Service Medal with Gold Star
Mexican Order of Military Merit Mexican Order of Military Merit, 1st Class

 

Other awards received by General Collins include the following:

  • the Order of Homayoun, 1st Class, from the Pahlavi Dynasty of Iran

  • the Order of Military Merit from Pre-Revolution Cuba

  • the Eisenhower Liberation Medal from the Committee on the Holocaust

The General's historical writings include War in Peacetime:  The History & Lessons of Korea (1969) and Lightning Joe:  An Autobiography (1979).  On May 17, 1983, the General was inducted into the Fort Leavenworth Memorial Hall of Fame which honors American soldiers who have contributed significantly to the defense of the United States.  On November 11, 2008, he was posthumously inducted into the Louisiana Veterans Hall of Honor which seeks to honor servicemen and women from Louisiana who have had outstanding or unique military careers.  General Collins was one of only three U.S. generals to command troops in combat in both the Pacific and European theaters (the others were Major General Charles H. "Cowboy Pete" Corlett and General Alexander M. "Sandy" Patch).  In what is perhaps the most echoed of statements or opinions regarding his career and abilities, General Omar Bradley described Collins as the ablest of all American corps commanders during World War II.  Respected on both sides of the line, his German counterparts ranked him (along with Lieutenant General Troy H. Middleton) as one of the two best U.S. corps commanders in Europe.

 

The Collins family has a large legacy in the U.S. armed forces in addition to the general's contributions.  James Lawton Collins, the general's oldest brother, also graduated from West Point (Class of 1907).  He served in the U.S. Army on the staff of General John J. Pershing in the Philippines, Mexico, and later in France during World War I, eventually retiring in 1946 at the rank of Major General.  Two of James' sons—James Lawton Collins, Jr., and Michael Collins—also graduated from West Point.  James, Jr. (West Point Class of 1939) served in the U.S. Army, leading an artillery battalion ashore at Utah Beach during the invasion of Normandy and later serving in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War.  He eventually earned the rank of Brigadier General and was a noted Army historian.  Michael Collins (West Point Class of 1952) took a commission in the U.S. Air Force.  He initially served as a test pilot before being selected as an astronaut by NASA and serving on the flight crew of Gemini 10.  His last space flight was made as the command module pilot for the Apollo 11 moon landing mission.  He retired from the Air Force with the rank of Major General.  The general's own son, Joseph "Jerry" Easterbrook Collins attended West Point (Class of 1946) and retired with the rank of Colonel.

 

On September 12, 1987, General Joseph Lawton "Lightning Joe" Collins died of cardiac arrest in Washington, D.C., at the age of 91.  In addition to his many military achievements and accolades, he was remembered as an ardent lover of both animals and music.  He was survived by his wife Gladys; his children Joseph, Gladys, and Nancy; and seventeen (17) grandchildren and eight (08) great-grandchildren.  He was laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

 

 

 

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Sources used in the compilation of this article:

Commanding Generals and Chiefs of Staff:  Portraits & Biographical Sketches of the United States Army's

          Senior Officer, by William Gardner Bell.  U.S. Army Center for Military History (1983).

Lightning Joe:  An Autobiography, by General J. Lawton Collins, U.S. Army.  Louisiana State University Press (1979).

J. Lawton Collins, 1896-1987 (Lightning Joe), by J. Rickard.  Military Encyclopedia on the Web (May 28, 2009).

 

 


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