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Cullum Files

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Class Notes

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As a distinguished soldier, diplomat and advisor to Presidents, John William Vessey, Jr. has rendered a lifetime of outstanding service to the nation and his fellow citizens. In successive positions of increasing responsibility, in and out of uniform, General Vessey has exemplified unparalleled devotion to the principles expressed in the motto of the United States Military Academy, "DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY."

General Vessey's extraordinary half-century of service began with his enlistment in the Minnesota National Guard in 1939. During World War II, he fought as an artilleryman with the 34th Infantry Division throughout the North African and Italian campaigns. He rose to the rank of First Sergeant before receiving a battlefield commission on the beaches of Anzio in May 1944.

During the early post war era, he served with troops in the 4th Infantry and 3d Armored Divisions in Germany.

In Vietnam, he commanded an artillery battalion, where, in an engagement that typified his leadership and courage, he won the Distinguished Service Cross for personally leading his battalion's defense, manning one of its howitzers, delivering direct fires against assaulting enemy infantry.

As a general officer, he served in Southeast Asia where he coordinated military operations in Thailand and Laos, later commanded the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson and then was selected as the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans.

In 1976, General Vessey received his fourth star and was assigned to Korea as Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command; Commander, United States Forces, Korea; Commanding General, Eighth US Army and two years later, as the first Commander-in-Chief, Republic of Korea - United States Combined Forces Command.

During General Vessey's tenure of command, the President announced plans to withdraw US ground forces from Korea. In a demonstration of selfless moral courage, General Vessey, in hearings before Congress, publicly stated his personal opposition to the President's proposed withdrawal.

In 1979 General Vessey returned to Washington as Vice Chief of Staff of the Army. Three years later, President Reagan selected General Vessey, whom he called his "Mud Soldier," as the 10th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As Chairman, General Vessey sought to reduce inter-service rivalry and to streamline the national military command structure. He fought to build the nation's military capability to deter and, if necessary, to defeat a continuously increasing Soviet military threat. Six years later, the success of his efforts was conspicuously demonstrated in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq.

In 1985, General Vessey retired from active military service, having served with true distinction at every level from Private, cannoneer, to General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Retirement, however, brought no respite from the recurring call of duty. In 1987, President Reagan asked General Vessey to serve as Presidential Emissary to Hanoi for POW/MIA matters. Serving three Presidents in that capacity, he faced perhaps the most difficult challenges of his many years of service. Dealing with an intractable Vietnamese Government in an atmosphere of incessant domestic criticism, he persisted and negotiated procedures for combined search operations to locate and return American military dead. Through his tireless efforts, more than 8,000 former South Vietnamese military officers and governmental officials were released from detention and over 300,000 separated Vietnamese family members, including thousands of Amerasian children, were permitted to leave Vietnam.

General Vessey is the holder of more than thirty-five United States military and foreign government decorations. In 1986, the Association of the United States Army awarded General Vessey its prestigious George Catlett Marshall Award. In 1992, President Bush, in the name of a grateful nation, presented General Vessey the nation's highest civilian decoration, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Throughout five decades of incomparable service, General Vessey has set a unique example of selfless devotion to duty and concern for his fellow countrymen. His life and accomplishments reflect extraordinary qualities of courage, dedication and leadership and epitomize the values expressed in the West Point motto. Accordingly, the Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy hereby awards the 1996 West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award to John William Vessey, Jr.

General, USA (Retired)
Chairman, Association of Graduates