General Joseph "Lightning Joe" Lawton Collins (May 1, 1896 – September 12, 1987) was a senior United States Army officer who served in World War II and became Chief of Staff of the United States Army during the Korean War. During World War II, he served in both the Pacific and European Theaters of Operations (ETO), one of few senior American commanders to do so.
His elder brother, Major General James Lawton Collins, was also in the army. His nephew, Michael Collins, was the command module pilot on the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 that put the first two men on the Moon and would retire as a major general from the United States Air Force. His sister Gertrude was married to Brigadier General Arthur Edmund Easterbrook.
Early life and military career
Collins was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, into a large Irish Catholic family on May 1, 1896. He entered the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, New York in June 1913, at the age of 17, and graduated on April 20, 1917, exactly two weeks after the American entry into World War I, and shortly before his 21st birthday. Due to the outbreak of war, the graduation was several weeks early. He graduated 35th in his class of 139. Among those he graduated alongside were Matthew Ridgway, Mark W. Clark (who shared the same birthday as Collins and, as the two youngest cadets, were both known as the "class babies"), Bryant Moore, Ernest N. Harmon, William C. McMahon, Norman Cota, Laurence B. Keiser, William W. Eagles, William Kelly Harrison, Jr. and Frederick Augustus Irving. All of these men were, like Collins, destined to become general officers and later to achieve high rank in the army, with Ridgway, along with Collins, becoming Army Chief of Staff and Clark becoming a four-star general.
He was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the Infantry Branch of the United States Army and was assigned as a platoon and later company commander with the 22nd Infantry Regiment. He was promoted to first lieutenant in May, and temporary captain in August. He attended the U.S. Army Infantry School of Arms at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and served with the regiment at various locations between 1917 and 1919. He was promoted to captain in June 1918, and to temporary major in September, and took command of the 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment the following month. The war came to an end soon afterwards, on November 11, 1918 at 11:00am. Unable to fight overseas during World War I, he commanded the 3rd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment in France in June 1919, and was assistant chief of staff, as a G-3 staff officer with the American Forces in Germany from 1920–1921.
During this time Collins served in the Army of Occupation with the Philippine Scouts in Germany.
Between the wars
Collins married Gladys Easterbrook in 1921 and, reverting to the rank of captain in 1920, he was instructor in the department of chemistry at the USMA from 1921–1925. He graduated from the company officer course at the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1926, and from the advanced course at the U.S. Army Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma the year after. He was an instructor in weapons and tactics at the U.S. Army Infantry School from 1927–1931 and, promoted to major in August 1932, was executive officer (XO) of the 23rd Brigade in Manila, and assistant chief of staff, was a G-2 staff officer with the Philippine Division from 1933–1934.
He graduated from the U.S. Army Industrial College in 1937, and the U.S. Army War College the following year. He was then an instructor at the U.S. Army War College, 1938–1940. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in June 1940 and, now a full colonel, was chief of staff of VII Corps in 1941.
World War II
By the time the United States entered World War II in December 1941, due to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Collins had been a temporary colonel since January 1941. In February 1942 he was promoted to the one-star general officer rank of brigadier general and the two-star general officer rank of major general in May.
He was chief of staff of the Hawaiian Department from 1941–1942 and served as the Commanding General (CG) of the 25th Infantry Division—nicknamed the "Tropic Lightning" Division—on Oahu and in operations against the Japanese on Guadalcanal between 1942–1943 and on New Georgia in from July to October 1943. At the time of his appointment he was the youngest division commander in the U.S. Army, aged just 46. It was during this campaign that Collins gained his nickname of "Lightning Joe".
He was later transferred to the European Theater of Operations (ETO), he commanded VII Corps in the Normandy invasion and on the Western Front through to the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945. Collins was chosen by Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, who had served with Collins at the U.S. Army Infantry School before the war, then commanding the First Army in England, as a replacement for Major General Roscoe B. Woodruff, who was senior to Collins but, unlike Collins, had no recent combat experience. He was appointed after a brief interview with Bradley and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, about his combat experience after Collins summed up his tactical approach in the Pacific as always targeting the high ground in an attack. Bradley turned to Eisenhower, claiming that Collins "talks our language." At the age of 47, this made Collins the youngest corps commander in the U.S. Army. Among the units serving under Collins' command was the veteran 82nd Airborne Division, commanded by Major General Matthew Ridgway, a fellow graduate of the West Point class of 1917.
VII Corps played a major role in the Normandy landings in June 1944 and the subsequent Battle of Normandy, including Operation Cobra. Lawton Collins was a favourite of the commander of all allied armies in Normandy, Field Marshal Montgomery, who after Operation Goodwood laid the path for Lawton Collins VII Corps to break out in Operation Cobra on 27 July 1944. After Cobra was the Battle of the Falaise Pocket, which completed the destruction of the Wehrmacht in Normandy. The corps then took part in the liberation of Paris and the Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine, where the corps broke through the Siegfried Line and endured heavy fighting in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. VII Corps later played a major role in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest battle on the Western Front during World War II, and finally took part in the Western Allied invasion of Germany. VII Corps is perhaps best known for the leading role it played in Operation Cobra; less well known is Collins' contribution to that plan.
One of the few U.S. senior commanders to fight in both Europe and the Pacific, against the Germans and Japanese respectively, Collins contrasted the nature of the enemy in the two theaters of war:
The German was far more skilled than the Japanese. Most of the Japanese that we fought were not skilled men. Not skilled leaders. The German had a professional army.... The Japanese... didn't know how to handle combined arms - the artillery and the support of the infantry - to the same extent we did. They were gallant soldiers, though.... They fought very, very hard, but they were not nearly as skillful as the Germans. But the German didn't have the tenacity of the Japanese.
Collins was promoted to temporary lieutenant general in April 1945 and permanent brigadier general in June. He was very highly regarded by General Omar Bradley, Collins' superior for most of the war, and many German senior commanders believed Collins, along with Lieutenant General Troy H. Middleton, commanding the VIII Corps, to be one of the best American corps commanders on the Western Front. Bradley commented that "Had we created another ETO Army, despite his youth and lack of seniority, Collins certainly would have been named the commander." For his service during the war Collins was three times awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal, twice awarded the Silver Star and twice the Legion of Merit.
After the war he was deputy CG and chief of staff of Army Ground Forces from August–December 1945. Later he was director of information (later chief of public information) of the U.S. Army between 1945–1947. He was deputy, later Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army from 1947–1949 and was promoted to temporary general and permanent major general in January 1948.
Collins was Army Chief of Staff from August 16, 1949 – August 15, 1953; as such he was the army’s senior officer throughout the Korean War. As a wartime chief of staff his primary responsibility was to ensure that adequately trained and equipped soldiers were sent to fight in Korea.
He directed the army’s operation of the railroads, brought the first Special Forces group into the order of battle, and was closely associated with the development of the army’s contribution to the newly established North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Collins was representative of the United States to the Military Committee and the Standing Group of NATO from 1953–1954. He was special representative of the United States in Vietnam with ambassadorial rank, 1954–1955 and returned to his NATO assignment. He retired from active service in March 1956, after almost 40 years of military service.
General Joseph Lawton Collins died in Washington, D.C., on September 12, 1987. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.
|1st Row||Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster||Silver Star|
|2nd Row||Legion of Merit with three oak leaf clusters||Bronze Star Medal||World War I Victory Medal||Army of Occupation of Germany Medal|
|3rd Row||American Defense Service Medal||Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two campaign stars||European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with five campaign stars||World War II Victory Medal|
|4th Row||Army of Occupation Medal||National Defense Service Medal||Legion of Honour (Grade of Commander)||Croix de Guerre with palm|