"Will To Win" - His Greatest Legacy


The Legacy of General James A. Van Fleet

By his grandson, Joseph A. McChristian, Jr.

My grandfather, General James Alward Van Fleet, often said that he “was proud and honored to be a living grandson of Joshua Jan Van Fleet, an American soldier in the Revolutionary War for Independence!” In August 1779, a band of Mohawk Indians, hired by the British to terrorize Dutch settlers into submission, raided their settlement and burned at least twenty farms, including that of the Van Vliet family. Joshua Jan Van Vliet answered New York Governor George Clinton’s call for volunteers and enlisted in the New York State Militia shortly before his 15th birthday. The spelling of his name on the army rolls was Anglicized to match the Dutch pronunciation; thereafter, he became Joshua Jan Van Fleet. During the War of 1812, Joshua served again, this time as a colonel of the New York State Militia. Grandfather traced both his Dutch and military heritages directly to this man.[1]

As a young boy, Grandfather grew up in central Florida where his father, William Van Fleet, had been an early pioneer and settler in the 1870’s. William was an energetic and meticulously honest man who several times earned great fortunes, only to have bad luck or poor timing wreck his many ventures. But he had pluck and tenacity, and in a sense inspired Grandfather’s “WILL TO WIN”, for whatever adversity he encountered, he kept trying.[2]

When he died at the age of 100 on September 23rd, 1992 General Van Fleet had served in the U.S. Army for thirty-eight years, in five wars from the Mexican Border Campaign in 1916 through the Korean War. He distinguished himself as a leader in combat at every level from platoon to army. For nearly forty years after retiring from the Army in 1953 he continued to lead an extraordinary life as a soldier, statesman, businessman, farmer, rancher, sportsman, friend, father, grandfather, and leader and patriot. There are many lessons we can learn from his inspiring examples. He remains a national hero in both Greece and South Korea.

West Point honored General Van Fleet in 1992 as the first recipient of the Distinguished Graduate Award presented by the U.S. Military Academy. The National Collegiate Football Hall of Fame presented him with their Distinguished American Award in 1976. He received many more honors and awards from organizations and countries around the world recognizing his exemplary service and his great achievements. He displayed great wisdom, human understanding, humility and charismatic leadership in all walks of life. Few men have ever left a legacy as great as his.

His leadership was key to the Allied victory in Europe in World War II, from going ashore with his 8th Infantry Regiment spearheading the D-Day landing on Utah Beach, to leading the 90th Infantry Division at Bastogne, to commanding the III Corps from the Remagen Bridgehead across Germany to the foot of the Austrian Alps. When General Omar Bradley was asked to describe Van Fleet’s leadership, he replied it was “best described by the rate at which he was earning Distinguished Service Crosses – about three a day.”[3] General Patton, in briefing a congressional delegation in his headquarters in Bad Tolz, Germany, stated that “Van Fleet was the best of all combat generals who served under him.”[4] “After the war, General Eisenhower called Van Fleet’s battle record the best of ‘any regimental, division or corps commander we produced’”.[5]

Several years after World War II, on February 1st, 1948, General Van Fleet received secret orders directing him to report to General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower, then Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, in Washington. They had been good friends for many years, beginning as classmates and football teammates, along with Omar Bradley, in the West Point Class of 1915. After reporting in, Van Fleet recounts that “General Eisenhower told me to report to General George Marshall, then Secretary of State, who would make the decision on my new assignment.”[6]

Secretary of State George C. Marshall had recently returned from London where he had attended the wedding of Princess Elizabeth, heir to the British throne, and Prince Philip of Greece. While in London, he met with Her Majesty, Queen Frederica of Greece. She described the growing intensity of the Communist guerrilla activity that was threatening to take over her country. Queen Frederica expressed thanks for the logistical support being provided by the British and the Americans, but she said Greece needed the help of a combat general who knew how to win a war. She asked if the United States could help.

When Secretary Marshall asked Van Fleet for his views, Van Fleet answered “that if the Greeks had the WILL TO WIN, and with our aid, Greece could be saved without the need of a single American rifleman.”[7] Marshall liked the answer and directed Van Fleet to depart the following day for Athens, via London, so the British Imperial General Staff could look him over and so it appeared he came from both Washington and London.

Marshall told Van Fleet to determine if the Greeks had the WILL TO WIN, to establish close friendships with their Majesties, King Paul and Queen Frederica, who were dearly loved by the Greek people, and to report directly to Secretary Marshall. Once in Greece, after three weeks on the front with the Greek National units in combat, Van Fleet cabled Marshall that “the Greeks have the WILL TO WIN!” Marshall told him to stay in Greece and that the job was his. Thus did Van Fleet become a “General among Diplomats”.

By the summer of 1950, under General Van Fleet’s guidance and inspiring leadership, the Greek military had defeated and driven the Communists out of Greece. He was hailed as a national hero. The Greek people erected a marble statue of him, the first time this had been done for any living foreigner since the days of Pericles over 2000 years ago.

Van Fleet emphatically denied misleading statements back in Washington that this had been a “civil war”. “Believe me,” he said, “I was there, and there was nothing ‘civil’ about it.”[8] The Soviet Union had wanted to secure control of the Balkans and as General Van Fleet said years later, “international Communist aggression in Greece took years of planning, infiltration, training and building the framework within the country of propaganda, recruitment, intelligence, and logistics.”[9] The war had been won “mostly by the Greeks themselves. They did the fighting without a single American rifleman.”[10]

Less than a year after the end of the war in Greece, President Truman relieved General of the Army Douglas MacArthur in the Far East, replaced him with General Matthew Ridgway, and sent General Van Fleet to take command of the US Eighth Army from Ridgway.   “As head of the U.S. Eighth Army, Van Fleet commanded all U.S. ground forces in Korea, as well as the entire ROK Army and all ground contingents of UN member nations.”[11] He arrived in Korea on  April 14th, 1951, eight days before the Chinese Communists launched their largest offensive of the war, with over 350,000 troops from four Chinese Army Groups together with another 25,000 men from the North Korean People’s Army. Van Fleet led the U.S., Korean and allied United Nations forces “to victory in what remains the largest campaign waged by the U.S. Army in the post-World War II era.”[12] By late-May, these enemy forces were falling back toward China in a rout! Korean President Syngman Rhee, General Van Fleet, Korean General Paik Sun Yup, US Army Lieutenant General Edward M. Almond (Commanding General of X Corps), and many other allied leaders wanted to pursue the enemy all the way to the Yalu River and to unify Korea at that time. Victory was within our grasp! It could have been achieved! Imagine the world today if Korea had been unified as a free, democratic country in June 1951.

In the Winter 2012 issue of Army History, Robert B.  Bruce, an associate professor of military history at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, argues that the political aims of the Truman administration prevented Van Fleet’s Eighth Army from achieving a decisive military victory. “In the opinion of Van Fleet, his military victories in Korea in April-June 1951 were squandered and victory in the Korean War was denied him and his Eighth Army not by an enemy in the field but by a policy decision made by his own military and civilian superiors. In later years, Van Fleet would write and speak often on what became a recurrent theme to him: “The Will to Win.” In Van Fleet’s estimation, he had possessed the men and materiel necessary to end the Korean War with a resounding victory in June 1951, but Ridgway, the Truman administration, and the JCS had lacked this will to win.”[13]

It was a few years later, at a reception following the funeral of King Paul of Greece when former President Harry Truman announced in a loud voice to those around him “You want to know about a great general? There’s Van Fleet. I sent him to Greece and he won that war. I sent him to Korea and he won that war. He’s the greatest general we ever had.” Van Fleet politely, but pointedly, replied, “Well, actually Mr. President you never quite let me finish that last one.”[14]

Shortly after his arrival in Korea, Van Fleet instituted a tremendous program of training and rebuilding the Armed Forces of the Republic of Korea. He helped the Koreans establish numerous military schools, even a war college, and most important of all for leadership, the Korean Military Academy, often referred to as the “West Point of Korea”. The Koreans refer to him as “The Father of the Korean Army”[15] and have erected a larger than life size bronze statue of him at the Korean Military Academy. To this day, his name is still revered in Korea and his memory continues to inspire the leaders of the future.

After the War, President Eisenhower asked General Van Fleet to accept the post of US Ambassador to Korea. Van Fleet respectfully declined this request from his old friend, explaining that he did not agree with the Eisenhower Administration’s policies with regard to Korea, and he could not use his influence with President Syngman Rhee to advocate those policies.

General Van Fleet had a great love for Korea and the Korean people and he often spoke about Korea as his second home. For nearly forty years after the end of the Korean War, he devoted much of his life to promoting foreign investment in Korea and to strengthening all aspects of the relationships, friendships and bonds between the United States and the Republic of Korea.

Standing on the steps of the Capitol Building on the morning of January 29th, 1953 he spoke to the People of Seoul. For him the time of his departure from Korea was a very sad occasion in his life. His only wish was that he could have done more for Seoul and for Korea and for the fighting forces of the Republic of Korea. He said to the people of Korea:

“I shall come back. You have made me a part of you. I know you are a part of me. I shall not ask you to give me back my heart – I leave it with you.”[16]

On November 20th, 1957, General Van Fleet was one of the five signers of the Certificate of Incorporation of the Korea Society, Inc., establishing it as a New York Corporation for the following purpose:

“To further and continue the friendly relationship that has long existed between the American people and the people of Korea through mutual understanding and appreciation of their respective cultures, aims, ideals, arts, sciences and industries, to the end that their peoples may, through an ever closer cooperation, continue their contribution to the improvement of mankind.”[17]

With support from an outstanding Board of Directors, congratulations and encouragement from President Dwight Eisenhower and Korean President Syngman Rhee, and General Van Fleet as its first President, The Korea Society was off to a good start. For nearly sixty years it has been providing exemplary service to the peoples of both countries.

In May, 1962, he visited Korea with a delegation of American businessmen invited to come to Korea by General Park, Chung Hee. Upon his return, on June 1st, 1962, he spoke at a meeting of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. He titled his remarks “The Miracle on the Han”. He concluded by saying

“I have been to Korea many times, each time agreeably surprised by the hard-working, skilled and intelligent labor force. This time I found it well-organized and dedicated. The military government has brought about security, stability, progress, and a moral rebirth. This is what I call “The Miracle on the Han.” Yes, it is the most exciting nation in Asia. Here the “know-how”, hard work, dedication, organization, and management can build anything that is being built in Japan, in Italy, in Germany, or even in the United States, and export it at a price that will be competitive world-wide.

On my recent trip, in all that I have seen, wherever I have gone, I have found a fresh spirit of progress and optimism in the land. I shall not soon forget the beauty of their mountains and their valleys, the smiles and voices of their children, the hospitality and warmth of their homes. It is my other home, and I shall go back.”[18]

Throughout his life, General Van Fleet inspired others with “The Will To Win” by his daily example and through his writings and speeches. On May 10th, 1976 at the US Army War College, his address to the students and faculty was titled “Operation Win”. He said,

“MOST of you officers; if not all, have served your Country on the battlefields of Korea and Viet Nam -- maybe in World War II and Greece.

You know, there are no second-place winners.

Surely we all experienced -- full measure -- our Country’s agonies at a time when THE WILL TO WIN, on the home front and elsewhere, disintegrated.

Liberty cannot endure without leaders imbued with the Will To Win and the ability to influence and inspire others with the WILL TO WIN.

YES -- you must instill that ideal in your subordinates and encourage it in our superiors, your people, and your government. When our National Will is weak, it impairs our alliances and encourages all forms of aggression. BUT, when our Will is strong and resolute we improve our alliances and discourage aggressors.”[19]

Military, political and economic world events are not the only arenas in which General Van Fleet had an impact. He was an avid sportsman and especially loved the game of football. As a fullback on the Army team, he helped defeat Navy 20-0 in 1914. As head coach in 1924 of the University of Florida Gators, his team beat Alabama 16-6. In 1976, on the occasion of being presented the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame’s Distinguished American Award, he spoke about what football and armed combat have in common. He said, “Both must have High Morale and The Will To Win.” He recalled General Douglas MacArthur’s saying that “There is no substitute for victory.” In closing, Van Fleet added “I wish to quote again General MacArthur, who said ‘Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory.’ THAT, GENTLEMEN, is Football’s contribution to THE GAME OF LIFE.”[20]

Today, as we enjoy the fruits of his labors and listen to the wisdom of his words we can ask ourselves “how did he do it?” What can we learn about the character and personality of the man and about his leadership style that might inspire others to follow his example? The Washington Post captured some of it in an article published on April 28th, 1951, two weeks after he arrived in Korea. The headline was “Van Fleet’s Inspiration”. I quote:

“Courage, faith, humility – these are the qualities that stand out in General Van Fleet’s first message to his troops. In simple language, the new commander of the Eighth Army in Korea has brought encouragement to his soldiers in the face of the Chinese onslaught. He has done more, however, than praise the skill and determination of the United Nations forces and cite their superiority in all but numbers. With a directness which gains additional eloquence by the fact that it comes from the battlefield, he has summarized the larger issues in the fighting:

‘You are fighting to stop armed aggression and maintain peace not only in Korea but in your respective homelands. This renewed battle is for the preservation of life, liberty and the right to the pursuit of happiness of all free men. These are fundamental in the rights of man – the rock upon which our civilization is founded – and they are the first rights which communism denies its own people.

The time has come when all men of the free and decent world must steel their souls to face the desperate, bitter and uncompromising battle with armed Communist aggression. Our strength rests on the solid foundation of belief in God and the rights of man rather than on the will of dictators, imposed through cruelty and complete disregard of human rights.’

Even in the grimness of war, these words are inspiring to those who hear them, the more so because, as the troops must know, they spring from a deeply religious nature. They tell a lot about the character of a man who uttered them, and they carry a conviction borne of fighting experience and spiritual toughness which must show to the soldiers in Korea that their commander has the quality of leadership.”[21]

General Van Fleet was a charismatic leader who exuded confidence, competence, courage and conviction. He was a humble man who was proud to say of himself, “I am a soldier.” Of all the honors, awards and decorations bestowed upon him around the world, his most prized possession was his Combat Infantryman’s Badge. On September 24th, 1992, the day after General Van Fleet’s death, the New York Times wrote:[22]

“Throughout his career, the tall, blue-eyed four-star general had a reputation for caring for and respecting even the privates in his command. ‘I never want to command by fear,’ he once said. ‘I never want to be accused of abuse of power. Power is given to you to exercise in a kindly way.’”

When asked once how we won the war in Greece, he said, “It was ‘WE, THE TEAM’ that made victory possible.”[23] Drawing an analogy with football, he saw himself as the coach, sent by President Truman with a directive embodying real authority and grave responsibility. The team members included a united, stable Greek government, effective leadership of the quarterback, Field Marshall Alexander Papagos, aggressive generals and superb soldiers, along with a competent staff of loyal and highly qualified Greek, British and American staff officers. In support were the people of Greece, inspired by their beloved King Paul and Queen Frederica who furnished the unity and morale to fight on to victory. Each individual was important to the team’s success.

This principle of the importance General Van Fleet placed on each individual on the team was recalled a few years ago during a business meeting in Korea. A group of senior executives from a large U.S. corporation was negotiating a venture with one of the largest Korean industrial conglomerates. When the Chairman of the Korean company learned that the senior U.S. executive had known General Van Fleet, the Chairman stopped the meeting to tell a story. During the Korean War he had been a young soldier, part of an honor guard welcoming General Van Fleet to his unit’s headquarters. As General Van Fleet was approaching the entrance, he stopped, turned, and walked straight to this young soldier. Placing his hand on the soldier’s shoulder, he asked, “What is your function?” Van Fleet then said, “If you understand your function in this unit, the unit will be successful.” The Chairman then concluded by saying that this principle had guided him his entire life from that moment with General Van Fleet, and that it was the main reason for the success of his corporation.

General Van Fleet preserved the records of his life and experiences for posterity in his personal archives which he donated in 1989 to the George C. Marshall Foundation,[24] located on the campus of the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. The Van Fleet Collection of correspondence, photographs, memorabilia and other records occupies over sixty-five feet of shelf space in the vaults of the Marshall Foundation, making it one of the largest collections in the Archives. The Van Fleet Foundation[25] is working with the Marshall Foundation to digitize General Van Fleet’s archives in order to make them available, freely over the Internet, to the entire world.

Today, General Van Fleet continues to receive awards and honors as his contributions and his legacy are remembered. In June, 2015 the Republic of Korea issued a postage stamp honoring him as a hero of the Korean War. In the fall of 2015, the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Korea awarded him the Paik Sun Yup ROK – US Alliance Award honoring him for his contributions to the formation and continued strengthening of the alliance between our two countries.

General Van Fleet was a winner! He had amazing stamina. His enthusiasm was contagious. He made those around him feel that he was thrilled they were with him. He also made us feel that with him we were winners as well. His example continues to inspire in us the “WILL TO WIN”.

©2016 Van Fleet Foundation, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


[1] James A. Van Fleet, “Joshua Jan Van Vliet”, written statement about his grandfather and father, Van Fleet Personal Files (VFPF), Van Fleet Foundation, Hobe Sound, FL.

[2] Ibid

[3] Author’s comment: Although General Van Fleet earned three Distinguished Service Crosses, it was not all in one day. I assume that General Bradley may have been referring to the heroism of the men under General Van Fleet’s leadership who were earning Distinguished Service Crosses.

[4] “James Alward Van Fleet, General, USA (Ret)”, biographical article written by Major General Joseph A. McChristian, USA (Ret) on the occasion of General Van Fleet’s 100th birthday, Van Fleet Personal Files (VFPF), Van Fleet Foundation, Hobe Sound, FL, pp.2,3.

[5] “The Face Is Familiar”, TIME Magazine, May 14th, 1951, p.29

[6] “HOW WE WON IN GREECE”, an address by James A. Van Fleet, General, U.S. Army (Retired) at a Symposium Sponsored by the University of Wisconsin Institute for Research in the Humanities and University Extension at The Wisconsin Center, The University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, April 11, 1967, p.2., VFPF, Van Fleet Foundation, Hobe Sound, FL.

[7] Ibid., p.3

[8] Ibid., p.7

[9] Ibid., p.7

[10] Ibid., p.11

[11] Robert B. Bruce, “Tethered Eagle: Lt. Gen. James A. Van Fleet and the Quest for Military Victory in the Korean War, April – June 1951”, article by published by the US Army Center of Military History, in the Winter 2012 issue of Army History, the Professional Bulletin of Army History, p.8

[12] Ibid., p.7

[13] Ibid., pp.27-28

[14] Ibid., p.28

[15] “James Alward Van Fleet, General, USA (Ret), biographical article written by Major General Joseph A. McChristian, USA (Ret), op. cit., p.4.

[16]  REMARKS BY GENERAL JAMES A. VAN FLEET, COMMANDING GENERAL, EIGHTH ARMY, TO THE PEOPLE OF SEOUL, ON THE STEPS OF THE CAPITOL BUILDING, 29 JANUARY 1953 – 1100 HOURS, original typed copy of his remarks, Van Fleet Personal Files (VFPF), Van Fleet Foundation, Hobe Sound, FL.

[17] Certificate of Incorporation of Korea Society, Inc., photocopy of original document in VFPF, Van Fleet Foundation, Hobe sound, FL, p.1.

[18] THE MIRACLE ON THE HAN (Korea), Remarks by General James A. Van Fleet, U.S. Army (Ret.), Luncheon Meeting, Los Angeles World Affairs Council, June 1, 1962, VFPF, Van Fleet Foundation, Hobe Sound, FL, pp. 10-11.

[19] “OPERATION WIN”, address by General James A. Van Fleet at the US Army War College, May 10th, 1976, VFPF, Van Fleet Foundation, Hobe Sound, FL.

[20] “FOOTBALL – THE GAME OF LIFE”, address by General James A. Van Fleet, U.S. Army (Ret.) in 1976, on the occasion of being presented the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame’s Distinguished American Award, VFPF, Van Fleet Foundation, Hobe Sound, FL.

[21] “Van Fleet’s Inspiration”, article published by The Washington Post newspaper on Saturday, April 28th, 1951.

[22] “James A. Van Fleet, Leader In Korean War, Dies at 100”, obituary by Dennis Hevesi published in The New York Times newspaper on Thursday, September 24th, 1992, p. D24.

[23] “HOW WE WON IN GREECE”, op.  cit., p. 10.

[24] See http://marshallfoundation.org/library/collection/james-a-van-fleet-papers/#!/collection=245

[25] In June 2015, the Van Fleet Foundation was incorporated in the State of Florida as a not for profit corporation. It is now registered with the US Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable foundation. The mission of the Van Fleet Foundation is “To honor the life and leadership of James Alward Van Fleet through the preservation of his archives, promotion of historical research, publication of relevant articles and books, and participation in compelling programs and events that celebrate and perpetuate his legacy.” The Foundation maintains a website at www.VanFleetFoundation.org.