Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the World War II hero who was later vilified for his leadership of the United States' failed war in Vietnam, died Monday night in Charleston, S.C. He was 91.
Westmoreland died of natural causes at Bishop Gadsden retirement home, his son, James Ripley Westmoreland, told Associated Press.
Jut-jawed and ramrod straight, strong-willed but soft-spoken, the spit-and-polish Westmoreland projected the quintessential image of an American military leader. Although some critics would later call him a warmonger and even a war criminal, his rise through the Army hierarchy was the stuff of which legends are made.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 20, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Westmoreland obituary -- The obituary of Gen. William Westmoreland in Tuesday's Section A failed to include the name of a second surviving daughter, Margaret Childs Westmoreland.
He was chief of his fellow cadets at West Point; the decorated leader of a unit that helped turn back German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in North Africa; an artillery officer in the European campaign that forced Hitler to his knees; a commander of the heralded 101st Airborne Division; superintendent of West Point; and, finally, the Army's chief of staff.
But his battlefield credentials, though noteworthy, never quite matched those of his heroes -- men like the arrogant but brilliant Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the dogged but self-effacing Gen. Omar N. Bradley.
Westmoreland participated in the Normandy invasion -- the Allies' grandest moment of World War II -- but he didn't land until four days after D-day.
He went on to head the 101st, but never made a combat jump.
He led an infantry unit in Korea, but not until most of the fighting was over and peace talks had begun.
And his ultimate field command -- leader of the U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968 -- will forever be marked by disputed claims, controversial tactics and repeated military setbacks, not to mention the more than 46,000 Americans killed in action and the eventual loss of the war.
There were 16,000 U.S. personnel in Vietnam when Westmoreland arrived, and he kept asking for more. The number climbed to 27,000 by February 1965 and to 300,000 by mid-1966. The total would top half a million by 1967.
To many Americans, Westmoreland was a military leader whose ability to win had been crippled by hesitant, uncertain politicians. Veterans groups applauded his speeches and hailed him as their champion.
But to far more of his countrymen, Westmoreland was a man who was unable to understand the situation in Vietnam and led the U.S. forces to disaster. Student audiences called him "America's Eichmann" and stoned his bus.
His lawsuit over a CBS documentary that charged he had conspired to cover up his failures in Vietnam ended, at best, in a draw.
"He was a very decent man who got into a very difficult war and didn't understand it," David Halberstam, author of "The Best and the Brightest," an account of the missteps in Vietnam, said several years ago. "I regard him as a tragic figure, a man you just want to look away from."
Born in South Carolina on March 26, 1914, "Westy" came by his military ambitions so early and honestly that one of his biographers, Ernest P. Furgurson, dubbed him "the inevitable general."
Westmoreland's father, a prosperous mill and banking executive, had attended the Citadel, South Carolina's military college. His mother's father was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute. Westmoreland's parents dressed their young son in soldier suits, and he was proud to wear them.
Although reserved and somewhat distant in high school, his good looks, polite manners and meticulous dress helped him get elected class president, and his grades -- above average but not spectacular -- were good enough to get him into the Citadel.
Westmoreland's composure and dignity during the infamous hazing inflicted by Citadel upperclassmen marked him as a comer, and he recognized early on the importance of having friends in the right places.
Family connections got him an interview with then-South Carolina Sen. James F. Byrnes. When Byrnes' first choices failed to make the cut, Westmoreland won the Democratic senator's appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Westmoreland liked West Point, and West Point liked him.
The strapping young man's dedication, hard work and professionalism won him the admiration of his peers and the respect of the academy's brass. Although his grades were ordinary, his quiet leadership led to his being named first captain of the cadets, the highest rank and honor the academy can bestow on a student.
The Army Westmoreland joined after graduation in 1936 was underfinanced, under-equipped and undermanned. With only 168,000 officers and enlisted men, it ranked 18th in the world in size, behind Portugal and only one place ahead of Bulgaria.
At his first posting, Ft. Sill, Okla., his company commander gave him a lousy proficiency rating, but Westmoreland soon caught the appreciative eye of Gen. Arch Arnold, the base commander. Arnold liked the way Westmoreland sat a horse, and saw to it that the personable second lieutenant was included in the general's cherished fox hunts.