Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., a soldier’s soldier who lied about his age to enlist in the service, won his commission on a battlefield in World War II and became a four-star general and then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Reagan administration, died Thursday night at his home in North Oaks, Minn. He was 94.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Sarah Vessey Krawczyk.
When his military career was finally over in 1985 — after the wars and killing, the medals and promotions, the White House meetings on defense and nuclear strategies, and the 46 years that had made him the nation’s longest-serving active soldier — General Vessey did not quietly fade away.
Instead, in retirement, he went back to Vietnam repeatedly, as a special envoy of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton, to find out what had happened to the hundreds of Americans listed as prisoners of war or missing in action since 1975, when North Vietnam defeated United States-backed South Vietnam.
The fate of the P.O.W./M.I.A.s has been one of the most divisive and troubling legacies of the war.
General Vessey’s breakthrough talks with Hanoi in 1988 led to on-the-ground searches by Pentagon teams that uncovered the remains of about 900 American military personnel over the next two decades, and to official conclusions that no American prisoners were still being held in Vietnam, though hundreds of cases remain unresolved, a source of continuing political controversy and grief for families.
Far from a West Point or Annapolis man, the future general was a Minneapolis high school boy, not quite 17, when he slipped past recruiters (minimum age was 18) and joined the Minnesota National Guard in 1939. His Army infantry unit was activated in 1941, months before America’s entry into World War II.
By 1943, he was a first sergeant fighting in North Africa. His unit took a strategic hill in the American drive to seize the Tunisian port of Bizerte. Allied victories there and at Tunis proved critical to the defeat of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in North Africa.
A year later, as American troops clung to the Italian beachhead at Anzio in some of the war’s bloodiest fighting, the sergeant and two other noncoms in his unit won battlefield commissions as second lieutenants. They were dispatched as forward observers; within days one was dead and the other seriously wounded.
After the war, he served in Germany, a Cold War hot spot, and in Korea, though not during the Korean War.
He next saw action in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. He was wounded and won a Distinguished Service Cross for defending a firebase that was partly overrun by Vietcong, the Communist insurgents in the south. The invaders were so close that he and his men had to depress their howitzer barrels and fire point blank into the onrushing enemy ranks.
General Vessey, then retired, at the dedication of a World War II memorial in St. Paul in 2007. Credit Jim Mone/Associated Press
After assignments in Europe and Southeast Asia and at the Pentagon, where he was in charge of operations and plans, he won his fourth star in 1976.
For three years he commanded American forces in South Korea. There, amid threats from North Korea, he persuaded President Jimmy Carter not to withdraw American ground forces from the peninsula.
General Vessey was a surprise choice for chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1982. Plain-spoken, he had none of the polish of former chairmen, and unlike most of them he had never been a service chief. He had mostly been a combat officer, out of Washington’s limelight. But he was regarded as a leader of proven courage and integrity who inspired confidence. He was also an old-fashioned patriot, and Reagan liked him.
The general oversaw enormous growth in military spending and global military presence to counteract Soviet expansion. He deployed missiles in Europe and maintained strength in Southeast Asia, but was leery of military interventions in Central America. He directed a Caribbean operation to rescue Americans at risk in Grenada, but opposed using American troops in a multinational peacekeeping force in Lebanon. Those troops were withdrawn after a 1983 truck-bomb attack in Beirut killed 241 Marines and Army soldiers.
General Vessey improved interservice cooperation, defense budget analyses and military planning. In 1983, he suggested to Reagan that weapons in space might be used in the future for defense against Soviet missiles. The president seized on the idea and proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, the space-based system called “Star Wars.” It was never fully developed, although it led to better antimissile systems.
The general was entitled to wear seven rows of battle decorations and campaign ribbons, but kept most of them in a drawer. On Memorial Days, instead of riding in staff cars, he marched to Arlington National Cemetery to pray at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He disliked jargon; to him, “restoring peace on favorable terms” meant winning the war. He rarely gave news conferences or interviews, and avoided the spotlight.
“We have had a lot of famous generals who have been in the public eye, and I think rightly so — MacArthur, Eisenhower, Bradley,” he told The New York Times in 1984 as he approached retirement. “I am not in that category. They don’t need to see me. What they want me to do is to make sure that the armed forces of the United States are as effective as we can make them.”
John William Vessey Jr. was born in Minneapolis on June 29, 1922, to John and Emily Roche Vessey. He graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1940. He earned his first college degree, a bachelor of science from the University of Maryland, when he was 41 and a lieutenant colonel. He later received a master’s degree from George Washington University. When he graduated from helicopter school at 48, his classmates were young enough to be his children.
In 1945, he married Avis Claire Funk, who died last year. In addition to his daughter, General Vessey is survived by two sons, John W. 3rd and David; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
He was active in the Lutheran Church and once considered a career as a minister.
For his post-retirement efforts in Vietnam on behalf of American prisoners of war and those missing in action, General Vessey received from President Bush the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1992.
Niraj Chokshi, Jack Begg and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.