The General Who Wore Six Stars

The General Who Wore Six Stars

The Inside Story of John C. H. Lee

Hank H. Cox

Potomac Books, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2018, 280 pages

Book Review published on: April 13, 2018

As someone who has been researching a biography of the same officer the past few years, I really wanted to dislike The General Who Wore Six Stars for appearing out of the blue. Despite some problems, however, Hank Cox’s second foray into historical exposition offers two undeniable benefits to professional academics, professional soldiers, and the much larger group of people who choose to read good military history. First, Cox takes a stridently revisionist position vis-à-vis Lt. Gen. John C. H. Lee’s reputation among historians in general. In particular, Cox calls out some of the icons of professional/popular historiography (i.e., Rick Atkinson and Steven Ambrose) for their abominable characterizations of Lee as an effete and bumbling martinet of no consequence to the Allied war effort. Second, Cox joins a growing list of authors who seek to pull back the curtain of hagiography surrounding both Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar N. Bradley. Cox deftly relates how both systematically undermined Lee’s authority and effectiveness by acts of omission and commission—behaviors rooted not in reasoned judgment of military affairs but by their pettiness and vanity.

Cox’s vehicle for making these two principal arguments is a straightforward biography, sorted chronologically into twenty-two chapters. The vast majority of this book (beginning with chapter 7) focuses on Lee’s role as the senior logistician for the European theater of operations. This structure gives short shrift to the formative years of Lee’s life, wherein I believe lie the keys to understanding Lee’s later behavior as commanding general of the European theater’s Services of Supply, and later, the Communications Zone. No doubt this is due in large measure to the dearth of publicly available resources; however, Lee’s papers remain privately held. The chapters covering Lee’s command tenure in Europe from 1942 to 1947 is, nevertheless, a compelling read for all audiences.

The biggest shortfall to Cox’s work lies in its feel as a “hothouse tomato,” the result of its foundation on just a handful of sources. The foundational source is Lee’s own “Service Reminiscences,” composed by him following his retirement in November 1947. Written as a memory jog rather than a definitive account, it was intended to form the basis for a much fuller memoir that remained unwritten at the time of Lee’s death in 1958 at the age of seventy-one. The other principal resource is Roland G. Ruppental’s two-volume Logistical Support of the Armies that is part of the U.S. Army in World War II, commonly known as the “Green Books.” Cox does make use of several personal memoirs and recent scholarship, most notably D. R. K. Crosswell’s 2013 biography of Beetle Smith. The overall impression, though, is that the two-page bibliography is rather thin gruel, inasmuch as it offers no archival primary sources or contemporary accounts.

The other major shortcoming is rooted in Cox’s role as an outsider to both the military and critical biography research and writing. To cite just a few examples: On page 100, Cox’s discussion of the origins of the Allies’ Combined Bomber Offensive demonstrates his complete unfamiliarity with either the interwar theorists or the evolution of the air war over Europe. A few pages later, Cox’s terse summary of Exercise Tiger, the April 1944 rehearsal for Operation Overlord, mischaracterizes the German combatants as U-boats and does not mention that the majority of lives lost resulted from friendly-fire incidents, not enemy action. A number of less dramatic but equally galling errors abound, including the misidentification of an officer who is clearly an Army colonel in photograph 14 as Gen. Brehon Somervell. As such, more attentive editing would have prevented that error and several similar ones, but the larger errors of scholarship must belong to the author.

But I must reiterate that, warts and all, Cox’s book belongs in the physical or digital library of every serious scholar of World War II. His exposition of the antagonism between Lee’s headquarters and the combined headquarters of the 1st U.S. Army, the 12th Army Group, and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force is cleaner than what Croswell wrote and is, therefore, all the more memorable—evidence of Cox’s long experience as a journalist. His discussion of Lee’s status as a lonely pioneer for expanded opportunities for black servicemen is concise and pointed, if not comprehensive. Cox’s treatment of the slanderous accusations made against Lee by an unhinged journalist is too short to permit the reader to make an adequate assessment of the case, but it does set up his closing argument well. Finally, his summation of Lee’s life and legacy, and his status as the outstanding “unsung hero” of the Allied war effort brilliantly collects the several themes of the preceding chapters together into a coherent and convincing whole. The General Who Wore Six Stars leaves the reader marveling at Lee’s sanguinity in the face of such universal vituperation as he endured beginning in the earliest days of U.S. involvement in the war.

Book Review written by: Thomas E. Hanson, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas