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.
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