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World War 2 History: US Carpet-Bombs a US General

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

WW2: Lt. General Lesley J. McNair, the highest-ranking American officer to be killed (by friendly fire) during World War Two.

WW2: Lt. General Lesley J. McNair, the highest-ranking American officer to be killed (by friendly fire) during World War Two.

Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair

The highest-ranking US officers killed during World War II were four lieutenant (3-star) generals. Two died when the planes they were flying in crashed, and the other two were killed in combat: one by enemy artillery and the other by “friendly fire.” Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair died during the carpet-bombing of German positions in Normandy by US bombers when some of them released their bombs too soon.

Lt. General McNair was the Commanding General of Army Ground Forces, responsible for organizing and training US Army overseas forces. He served in both World Wars and was a three-time recipient of the Army Distinguished Service Medal. However, he came under considerable criticism when US troops performed badly during the invasion of North Africa, partly because of his “accelerated” training programs.

He was also criticized for his disdain of self-propelled tank destroyers, believing towed anti-tank artillery was more efficient when, in fact, the artillery crews suffered high casualties and were consistently outperformed by tank destroyers. McNair also thought that tank versus tank duels were “unsound and unnecessary” and helped block the production of the M26 Pershing heavy tank.

WWII: Saint Lo Breakthrough - 25-31 July 1944. Note the carpet bombing area where General McNair was killed.

WWII: Saint Lo Breakthrough - 25-31 July 1944. Note the carpet bombing area where General McNair was killed.

Carpet-Bombing Incident

When US forces under Lt. General Omar Bradley prepared to launch Operation Cobra, the US breakout from the Normandy beachhead in France, General McNair went along as an observer. Bradley had arranged, with General Eisenhower's permission, for the Air Force to pulverize the German lines before his ground forces attacked. Where the Soviets used breakthrough artillery-- masses of concentrated conventional artillery-- to soften up the enemy before an attack, the Americans used hundreds and thousands of heavy and medium bombers to accomplish the same thing. On July 25, 1944, while General McNair watched near the village of Saint-Lo, wave after wave of almost 2,500 US bombers dropped 4,000 tons of high explosives and napalm on the enemy. The massive destruction was to be concentrated in a four square mile area along the German lines, but 77 planes released their bombs too soon. As General Bradley wrote later of his friend and fellow West Pointer:

"The ground belched, shook and spewed dirt to the sky. Scores of our troops were hit, their bodies flung from slit trenches. Doughboys were dazed and frightened....A bomb landed squarely on McNair in a slit trench and threw his body sixty feet and mangled it beyond recognition except for the three stars on his collar."

In what was the worst incident of US “friendly fire” during the war, 111 US soldiers were killed, including McNair, and another 490 were wounded. Among those who survived the bombing was famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle. He said it was “the most sustained horrible thing I've ever gone through”. The day before, another such incident had happened where 25 were killed and 130 wounded. It was not uncommon for enraged US infantry to fire on US planes during such incidents. General Eisenhower, who was also on hand, determined he would never use heavy bombers in support of ground troops again. But the bombing had achieved its intended purpose. The German line was broken.

Lt. General Lesley J. McNair was buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Normandy, France. Two weeks after his death, his son, Colonel Douglas McNair, was killed by a Japanese sniper on Guam. In 1954, the US Congress posthumously promoted Lt. General McNair to General (4-stars).

The Four Highest Ranked US Generals Killed During the War

Here are the four 3-star generals killed during World War II:

  • Lt. General Lesley McNair – See above.
WWII: Lt. Gen. Frank Maxwell Andrews

WWII: Lt. Gen. Frank Maxwell Andrews

  • Lt. General Frank Andrews – Died on May 3, 1943 when the bomber he was riding in crashed trying to land in Iceland.
WWII: Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar B. Buckner.

WWII: Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar B. Buckner.

  • Lt. General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. – Died June 18, 1945 when Japanese artillery targeted him while visiting a forward observation post on Okinawa. Posthumously promoted to General (4-stars) in 1954.
WWII: Lt. General Millard F. Harmon

WWII: Lt. General Millard F. Harmon

  • Lt. General Millard Fillmore Harmon, Jr. – Pronounced dead March 3, 1945 when the bomber taking him to Hawaii disappeared over the Pacific Ocean.


Operation COBRA and the Breakout at Normandy

Lesley J. McNair

Operation Cobra

Frank Maxwell Andrews

Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr.

Millard Harmon

© 2012 David Hunt


David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 30, 2015:

AMAZING comment, Bob. Thanks for reading and taking the time to write about your connection to this incident.

Bob Gross on July 30, 2015:

I was on this mission and a close friend who was an infrantry officer was in a foxhole when the General dropped in by his side. He said General the Germans are over their. The General responded " I KNOW BUT I AM HERE TO OBSERVE". He jumped out of the foxhole and as my friend wrote me " your bombs came down like raindrops"as the wind had shifted on our flare bombs that had been placed for us to bomb the Germans, With the wind shifting away from the Germanswas but towards the American troops resulted in the General's death as well as many of our troops

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 24, 2012:

Hi Gypsy. Thanks for the comment and sharing. I'm learning a lot myself by just researching back-stories.

Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on September 24, 2012:

Voted up and interesting. These generals deserve a memorial salute. Love these fascinating hubs about pieces of history I had no knowledge about. Passing this on.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 22, 2012:

Hi rcrumple, thanks for commenting. Yes, Friendly Fire is still with us to this day. The military does take it very seriously, although there are those who shrug their shoulders and trot out phrases like "collateral damage". War is a nasty business.

Rich from Kentucky on September 22, 2012:

One would think that even though a situation where 111 were killed should have been avoidable, we would have advanced beyond the "Friendly Fire" deaths in today's wars. Amazing, even though not as great a number at a time, they still continue week after week. Very interesting article. Great Job!

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 21, 2012:

Thanks for commenting, aethelthryth. In Lt. General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr.'s case (the other general killed in action on Okinawa), the front line troops did not look forward to his visits since he insisted on wearing his 3-star helmet, which, when the Japanese noticed this, invariably resulted in a Japanese artillery strike on their position. Usually, Buckner had left the scene by the time the Japanese started firing, leaving the troops to face the consequences. In the incident where he was killed, the troops had finally convinced him to exchange his helmet for a plain one, but the Japanese had already spotted his stars.

aethelthryth from American Southwest on September 21, 2012:

Interesting topic you've researched.

I get the idea that WWII veterans find the modern zero tolerance for mistakes in the fog of war, to be rather whiny, considering how many of their fellow soldiers died from stupid mistakes, back when there was the concept of an honest mistake...

The Iwo Jima veteran I know pointed out that in the wilderness of New Mexico where he lives, somebody gets killed in a hunting accident every year, so it shouldn't be too shocking when you get that many nervous men with weapons in a small area, somebody's going to die for less than heroic reasons.

But since I thought generals are usually out of harm's way, I say it was to the generals' credit that they shared the danger.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 21, 2012:

Thanks xstatic. I've found that, while researching such events, I get a clearer understanding of what went on as I dig deeper to get context. Sort of a "bottom up" approach to history. I appreciate your interest.

Jim Higgins from Eugene, Oregon on September 21, 2012:

I really like these WW II history Hubs you do. It is fascinating and little known information. I think I missed one or two but will catch up. Sharing and voting Up!

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 21, 2012:

Pavlo, thanks for commenting. You're right about that. As I was researching I thought along similar lines-- sort of like "GENERAL MCNAIR WAS KILLED... oh, and also 110 others" or, as the British might say "and 110 other ranks". But, that's the way of things, whether fame or rank or position, there's still a lot more of us anonymous types, isn't there?

Pavlo Badovskyi from Kyiv, Ukraine on September 21, 2012:

Good to be a general. Each death is reported and recorded, while simple soldiers were killed in thousands and their graves are often unknown. This hub was sad to read, yet it is our history. Voted up!