Monday, September 19, 2011

Profile of a Legend - General Creighton W. Abrams

Photo courtesy of U.S. Army
General Creighton W. Abrams—The Soldier’s Soldier
by Brian M. Sobel, excerpted from M1 Abrams at War

The speed, power, mobility, and fire capability of the M1 Abrams tank is the very personification of the general whose name is indelibly associated with one of the world’s most feared battlefield weapons. Named for Creighton W. Abrams, who rode the lead tank in numerous engagements during World War II, the M1 gives a commander a variety of options, something Abrams knew was vitally important in battle.

The story of Creighton Abrams and his advancement through the ranks of the United States Army, up to and including army chief of staff, is the material of legend, as were his exploits during three wars. In World War II, he achieved victory after victory against the Germans, including a heroic breakthrough to relieve Bastogne during the famed Battle of the Bulge. The general they called Abe was tough, demanding, gruff, and loved his soldiers. In turn, his soldiers loved him.

The fighting general was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1914 to Creighton and Nellie Abrams. The oldest of three children, Abrams was a success early in life. As a senior in high school he was the captain of the 1931 Agawam High football team that went undefeated and unscored-upon. As important in his overall development, Abrams was also the class president, class orator, and editor of the school paper, and in a singular honor voted by his classmates as the boy most likely to succeed.

From the time he was a young man Abrams thought about an army career; his high school speeches often had a military theme. It was therefore fortune, or perhaps destiny, that found Abrams taking an exam to attend West Point.

In July 1932, Abrams entered the ranks of West Point as a plebe and in 1936 graduated and started his career as a second lieutenant in the 1st Cavalry Division. In August of 1936, Abrams married Julie Harvey. A 1936 graduate of Vassar College, she had met Abrams two years before at a West Point dance. From the first, Julie and Abe were a formidable and loving team. Creighton Abrams would go on to have a storied military career, and Julie, for her part, would contribute to the effort in many ways, including founding the Arlington Ladies, a group whose members attend each graveside service at the famed Arlington National Cemetery.

Abrams was promoted to first lieutenant in 1939, then to temporary captain in September 1940. In April 1941, he was part of the newly-activated 4th Armored Division, then at Pine Camp, New York, where he was made a regimental adjutant of what would quickly become the 37th Armored Regiment. Training was underway in earnest in preparation for battles to come. In July 1942, Abrams, still a captain, took command of the 3rd Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment. Within months, he would become a lieutenant colonel.

Training troops for the war then raging across the globe proceeded at breakneck speed. September 1942 found Abrams in Tennessee for armored maneuvers, followed by training at the California Desert Training Center. Soon thereafter, the division underwent an overhaul that resulted in the creation of the 37th Tank Battalion, with Abrams at the helm. It is with this courageous group of fighters that he would draw the attention of friend and foe alike.

The 37th was a force to be reckoned with, listing some 70 tanks in its ranks, including 17 light and 53 medium tanks. Abrams took nothing for chance. He was a stickler for training and doing things right; he reasoned correctly that solid training would save lives later when the bullets started flying. After deploying to England for additional training, Abrams led his troops and equipment ashore at Utah Beach in France on July 11, 1944, 35 days after the D-day invasion.

In France, the 4th Armored Division was assigned to the First Army, however, when the Third Army under Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr. became operational on August 1, 1944, the 4th was shifted to the Third Army. Soon Abrams and the whole of Patton’s army began racing across France. Abrams was relentless and seemed to be everywhere at once. Commanding from a tank that the crew and Abrams nicknamed Thunderbolt, he went on a tear, with the main concerns of defeating the enemy and looking after the welfare of his men. Abrams was so intense as a commander that by the war’s end he had chewed up and spit out seven command tanks, ending with Thunderbolt VII. Moreover, his reputation was growing by the day.

As Abrams and the 37th Tank Battalion continued to find success on the battlefield, he was watched with great admiration by commanders throughout Europe. After numerous successful encounters with the enemy, Patton, in a briefing to reporters, reportedly said of Abrams, “If you are going to write about him, you better do it right away. He’s so good, he isn’t going to live long.”

Abrams and his battalion were the lead group in one battle after another. The famed tank battle of Arracourt in September 1944 is only one example of armored fighting in which Abrams excelled. Those who witnessed Abrams during this period well remember the fighting commander with a cigar punched in the side of his mouth, yelling encouragement to his men and leading by example.

Abrams was called upon time and again during the climactic days of World War II. The famous Battle of the Bulge was perhaps the pinnacle of his World War II battlefield experience. Abrams, then fighting in the Saar, led a relief force to the besieged village of Bastogne, arriving one day after Christmas 1944 to rescue the 101st Airborne Division and other members of American units. His star was rising, and the media of the time was informing the world, especially Americans back home, that Abrams was a name worth remembering. Patton would say of Abrams near the end of the war, “I’m supposed to be the best tank commander in the army but I have one peer, Abe Abrams. He’s the world champion.”

After World War II, Abrams served in numerous leadership positions and during the Korean War served as chief of staff of three successive corps, including the I, IX, and X Corps. After Korea, Abrams served as chief of staff of the Armor Center among other assignments, until he headed back to Europe in 1959 as a brigadier general and assistant division commander of the 3rd Armored Division, in Germany. Abrams was principally involved in the training at Grafenwohr, where tank maneuvers and gunnery activities were the order of the day. Soon, Abrams was named deputy chief of staff for military operations, United States Army, Europe. In 1960, he was promoted to major general and returned to the 3rd Armored Division as commanding general. In this assignment, Abrams again excelled, and officers who served under him in that command were struck by his depth of knowledge and command presence in nearly every situation. The author’s father, a battalion commander under Abrams in the 3rd Armored Division, found him to be demanding yet inspirational and, monst importantly, interested in both the small and large details. Abrams was also a larger-than-life figure when telling stories to or chatting with the sons and daughters of his subordinate commanders.

Abrams continued to receive a great deal of media attention, and it was while at the helm of the 3rd Armored Division that he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, highlighting an article about the army in Germany and around the world. The cover photo was vintage Abrams; he was pictured with a helmet on, standing in front of a battle tank, the main barrel looming menacingly near the hardened veteran of war. Intentionally or not, it was a clear message of strength to any potential adversary.

After commanding the 3rd Armored, Abrams returned for a tour of duty in Washington before heading back to Europe in 1963 as the commander of V Corps, with the rank of lieutenant general. Abrams took a special interest in the armored capabilities of his command; his passion for the tanker and tank warfare was felt throughout the command. He believed the mobility and firepower of the tank, especially the M60, was the greatest deterrent to Soviet aggression and therefore vital in the success of the United States during the Cold War.

In 1964, Abrams became the army’s vice chief of staff. He was at the center of the storm in Washington, D.C. with even greater responsibilities, including assisting in the early ramp-up of forces for the Vietnam War.

Newly minted as a four star general in September 1964, Abrams set about the task of developing the forces needed to fight in Vietnam. In April 1967, Abrams learned he would soon head to Vietnam to become the deputy commander of the United States Military Assistance Command. As a soldier who had seen plenty of war, 53-year-old Abrams was experienced and left Washington knowing he could make a difference in Vietnam. Others in both military and political circles knew it was only a matter of time before he would take the top job in Vietnam, replacing General William C. Westmoreland.

When Westmoreland returned to the United States in the summer of 1968 to become chief of staff of the U.S. Army, Abrams took over as the commander in Vietnam. He performed superbly even though the limitations of the conflict were a heavy cross to bear. In one of the most telling comments of the war, a Sunday New York Times magazine article quoted a high-ranking public official as saying, “Abrams is one of the most impressive men I’ve ever met. You know, it’s too bad. Abrams is very good. He deserves a better war.”

Nonetheless, Abrams soldiered on, along with the nation and the rest of her soldiers. By June 1972, Abrams was set to return to the United States after more than five years of service in Vietnam; he had served his nation well. While South Vietnam eventually fell to the North Vietnamese, the army and the world remembered Abrams and his tenure in Vietnam in very good light. He had performed brilliantly under the most trying of circumstances.

In June 1972, it was announced that Abrams would be named chief of staff of the United States Army. In that capacity, Abrams oversaw the army in the final stages of the war, including the phased withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, the transition of the army to a volunteer force, and a host of changes in the army organizational structure.

By 1974, Abrams had made his mark as chief of staff, but fell ill to cancer and died in September of that year. The army had lost its brightest star, and accolades and tributes flowed in from every direction. A combat veteran of three wars and an unparalleled leader of men in battle, Abrams left a large hole in the fabric of the United States Army. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, next to the army’s first chief of staff, Major General Leonard Wood.

Perhaps one of the highest compliments accorded Abrams after he passed away came from a general who served under him on numerous occasions. The late Major General George S. Patton, whose father commanded Abrams during World War II, said of him, “If Abrams gave me a mission with the chance of staying alive at 1 in 10, I’d ask, when are we moving out? I never felt that way about an officer before or since, and I worked for some good ones. No officer I ever met, either above me or below me in rank, could touch General Creighton W. Abrams. He was the best soldier I have ever known, including all the members of my family.”

Abrams served in uniform, including his years at West Point, for 42 of his 59 years. The Abrams tank is a fitting tribute to the army’s man of tempered steel.

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