The Army’s architect, killed by his own design

From Beyond The Band of Brothers

Lesley James McNair (1883-1944) was an often and unfairly overlooked general of the U.S. Army. This is probably because he never led forces into battle and had no heroics to his name. He was, however, a fundamental force in preparing America for World War II and is known as the “unsung architect of the army” for a reason.

McNair in 1929

As a young artillery officer, he participated in the Veracruz occupation of 1914 and the Pancho Villa expedition of 1916-17, mainly as a staff officer away from combat. By this time, he was already in high demand in the Army for his skills in technical drawing, engineering, prototype building and statistical analysis. He made an early name with his work on improving animal-carried mountain artillery and creating firing tables for different types of guns and ammunition to help artillery crewmen plan and control indirect fire more accurate.

Battery C, 4th Field Artillery during the Pancho Villa expedition. McNair was commander of this battery from 1909 until 1912.

After a brief stint in France in World War I, he spent the interwar years in a succession of teaching, planning and overseeing positions. During this time and the early years of World War II, he was instrumental in modernizing the training, doctrine, organization and equipment of the Army. Recognizing developments in technology, he helped make artillery more mobile, better at communication with other units, and more efficient at fire direction.

McNair receiving the Distinguished Service Medal from General Pershing, 1919

He contributed to the reorganization of divisions to a triangular system, in which each division comprised three regiments, rather than four as in World War I. This and other organizational changes proved vital to making the Army more manpower-efficient during the war. Though the War Department originally planned to fight the war with 350 divisions, this number could later be revised to 200-220, leaving more civilians to work at home.

McNair (right) and General of the Army Omar Bradley during the Louisiana Maneuvers in 1941. The Maneuvers were a series of large-scale exercises designed to evaluate Army performance.

Such increased efficiency through organization and better equipment was important because the Army was struggling with frequent materiel and manpower shortages (due to other branches of service being more popular with volunteers).

McNair with Patton during a training exercise in 1942

McNair also created the training system that prepared American soldiers for the battlefield. His greatest innovation was to first only teach basic individual soldiering skills. Once those were mastered, recruits were placed in small units and taught to operate in such. Operating in larger and larger units was then introduced gradually. Another staple of his reforms was the effort to make training more realistic with the use of live fire when possible.

U.S. Army training in 1942

In March 1942, General Headquarters was broken up into Army Ground Forces, Army Air Forces and Army Service Forces, with McNair as head of the first. He centralized control of the formerly separate branches of infantry, field artillery, coastal artillery and cavalry, along with the new “quasi-branches” of airborne, armor, tank destroyers and anti-aircraft artillery. This was done to reduce internal rivalry, though jockeying for resources and influence could not be eliminated altogether.

McNair (right) with other generals. Left to right: head of Army Air Forces Henry H. Arnold, Joseph T. McNarney, US Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, and head of Army Service Forces Brehon B. Somervell.

Despite his formidable organizational skills, which his superiors pointed out thorough his career, McNair never got to lead a force in combat. This was probably at least partially due to his secret: he was deaf. His hearing problems began early in his career and gradually worsened. By beginning of World War II, he relied on lip reading and avoided situations where it wouldn’t help, such as conferences.

In 1943, McNair visited troops in North Africa to see the effectiveness of training and protocol. While observing frontline combat, he was wounded on the head and arm by shrapnel.

McNair, with his injured arm in a sling under his shirt, shortly after getting wounded in Africa and receiving the Purple Heart

He was sent to Europe in 1944 in preparation of the Normandy Invasion. Once troops were already in France and Patton was given command of the Third Army, McNair was given Patton’s previous command: the fictional First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG). FUSAG was a deception, an army group that only existed on paper, in radio transmissions and in the shape of dummy vehicles, designed to fool German intelligence into believing the Normandy landings were only a distraction from the “real” invasion near Calais.

Inflatable dummy tanks like this played a part in Allied deception operations like FUSAG before D-Day

In July 1944, McNair traveled to Normandy with a dual purpose. On one hand, his presence there was to suggest to the Germans that FUSAG was preparing for major action. On the other, he was to observe and evaluate combat action there. Pursuing this second objective led to a foxhole near Saint-Lô on July 25, observing the opening movements of Operation Cobra, the breakout from the Normandy beachhead.

McNair sharing a jeep with Eisenhower

The plan called for softening up German defenses with heavy carpet-bombing from the air, followed immediately by an advance of ground forces. This sort of operation, however, was new to the United States Army Air Forces, and many bombers dropped their load too early, straight on top of American troops. On bomb happened to land exactly in McNair’s foxhole. The explosion threw him 60 ft. through the air, killing him instantly. He was only recognized afterward by the stars on his epaulets. The incident caused the death of over 100 U.S. soldiers.

In order to maintain the FUSAG deception, McNair was buried in secret, his funeral only attended by his aide and Generals Omar Bradley, Patton, Courtney Hodges and Elwood Quesada.

McNair’s grave in the Normandy American Cemetery. He was promoted from lieutenant general to Four Star General posthumously in 1954. Due to oversight, the rank on his cross was only corrected in 2010.

Lesley McNair’s contributions to the war effort were largely forgotten and sometimes even disparaged. Without his organizational work in the background, however, the Army probably wouldn’t have been up to the tremendous challenge of World War II.

If you’d like to learn more about the leaders who made a difference in World War II, near or far away from the frontline, visit us at and sign up for one of our all-inclusive tours!

%d bloggers like this: