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General "Lightning" Joe Collins

1948 photograph of General J. Lawton Collins (Photo: U.S. Army)
1948 photograph of General J. Lawton Collins (Photo: U.S. Army)

Joseph Lawton Collins (1896-1987) was born as the 10th of 11 children in an Irish immigrant family living in Algiers, Louisiana, just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. He decided to follow his older brother, James Lawton Collins, and embark on a military career. As an aside, the family's military service was nothing less than stellar. James Lawton Collins served in the Philippine-American War, the Pancho Villa Expedition and World War I, held military positions stateside during World War II, and retired as a major general. One of his sons, James Lawton Collins Jr., served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, retiring as a brigadier general. Michael Jr.'s older brother, Michael Collins, became a major general, an astronaut and member of the Apollo 11 crew.
 
Joseph graduated from West Point in 1917, with the legendary class that also included Matthew Ridgway, Mark W. Clark, Norman Cota (Read our earlier article – The service of General Norman Cota) and several other future generals. 2nd Lieutenant Collins was assigned to the 22nd Infantry Regiment, where Norman Cota was also serving at the time. The regiment remained stateside for the war, depriving Collins of the chance to prove his aptitude at leading troops. Instead, he served at a number of stations and attended the Infantry School of Arms at Fort Sill, where he got acquainted with artillery. His experience there taught him the importance of officers widening their perspective by gaining experience with multiple arms of the military.

Collins as a young cadet (Photo: WWII Gravestone)
Collins as a young cadet (Photo: WWII Gravestone)

Collins spent a brief time in Europe with the occupation forces, then returned to America. He got married, and served in the Philippines for a while, but he spent most of the next decade and half as a student and an instructor in the Army, reaching the rank of major by the mid-30s. He began to feel a growing desire to put his knowledge to practice. Once, at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, General Stuart Heintzelman told Collins that he had put in a request to have Collins serve as an instructor. A crestfallen Collins asked for permission to make a statement and said the following: "I've been teaching or being taught now for fifteen or sixteen consecutive years, and if I were to be stationed here at Leavenworth for another year I think I'd lose all practical ability, if I ever had any." Heintzelman realized Collins was right, and let him seek a posting with the troops.

Generals Eisenhower, Bradly and Collins in Europe (Photo: U.S. Army)
Generals Eisenhower, Bradly and Collins in Europe (Photo: U.S. Army)

Collins became chief of staff to the VII Corps by early 1940, but he would not see combat with them – at least not for a while. A week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, VII Corps was transferred from Alabama to California to protect the West Coast against a possible Japanese invasion. Collins flew ahead of the troops, and was surprised to find new orders when he arrived. The chief of staff for the Hawaiian Department had just been killed in a plane crash, and Collins was his replacement. He traveled on to Hawaii.
 
In his new position, Collins helped build up Hawaii's defenses, then finally got a combat posting in May 1942 with the 25th Infantry Division. Age 46, he became the youngest division commander in the U.S. Army at the time. Sent to Guadalcanal to dislodge the Japanese forces there, the division's rapid movements during the bloody back-and-forth earned it the nickname Tropic Lightning. Collins also got a nickname of his own. He became "Lightning Joe", both as a reference to the division's name, and possibly also because a soldier mispronounced his name "Lawton" as "Lightning" on one occasion. The division went on to fight in the New Georgia campaign, liberating further Pacific islands.

Collins (right) with Major Charles Davis on New Georgia, August 1943 (Photo: U.S. Army)
Collins (right) with Major Charles Davis on New Georgia, August 1943 (Photo: U.S. Army)

Fighting in the jungles of the Pacific taught Collins many important lessons, one being about the use of artillery. American artillery doctrine at the time placed artillery spotters on hilltops from which they were to direct and adjust artillery fire, while a few liaison officers, mostly inexperienced 2nd lieutenants, were placed among the infantry units on the frontlines. This worked well in places where a hilltop offered a view of low-lying, flat terrain, but broke down in the densely forested, hilly Pacific islands, where hilltop spotters just couldn't see far enough. Collins had them taken down from the hills, and placed the best spotters right at the frontlines, from where they could perform their job more accurately. He persisted in this practice later in Europe, even when it put him at odds with more hidebound officers.

Collins overseeing the landing of troops and supplies on Guadalcanal (Photo: LIFE Photo Collection)
Collins overseeing the landing of troops and supplies on Guadalcanal (Photo: LIFE Photo Collection)
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Collins returned to the States and his family in December 1943 for a short R&R. There he had an accidental meeting with General Dwight Eisenhower and his wife. When Ike saw Collins, he exclaimed: "Why Joe! I didn’t know you were down here. I understand you are coming over to join us!" Collins learned that he was to be sent to Europe.
 
He arrived to England in January 1944. He had no specific assignment, but an interview with Ike and General Bradley quickly changed that. During the meeting, he explained that his tactical approach was always to target the high ground during an attack. Bradley turned to Eisenhower and declared that Collins "talks our language". He was reunited with VII Corps, but this time as its commander, rather than chief of staff. The youngest division commander in the U.S. Army became the youngest corps commander. This also placed him in indirect charge of the two legendary Airborne Divisions, the 82nd and the 101st, which were attached to VII Corps for the Normandy landings. VII Corps assaulted Utah Beach on D-Day, then went on to liberate the city of Cherbourg, a strategically vital location for its deep-sea port (Read our earlier article – The liberation of Cherbourg).

Collins with German General von Schlieben in Cherbourg, shortly before the latter signed the official surrender documents (Photo: U.S. Army)
Collins with German General von Schlieben in Cherbourg, shortly before the latter signed the official surrender documents (Photo: U.S. Army)

On Guadalcanal, Collins learned the importance of placing his artillery spotters on the frontline. In Europe, he learned how to keep in touch with his corps. He often left his headquarters to visit his troops, leaving his trusted artillery commander, General Williston B. Palmer, in charge. On his visits to various locations, he always plugged into the phone lines so division commanders could reach him to report unexpected events and ask for new orders. In Collins's own words:
"If a division commander wanted to get me he could immediately get me through the line that came from his Command Post. We would then discuss whatever the problem was, and again I would have to make a decision. But I'd also want to know what the division commander said about it. What was he going to recommend? I constantly tried to get the judgment of my subordinate commanders. So I kept them fully informed when the time came for a decision. Only one man can make the decision and that's the commanding general or commanding officer."
 
Collins's next job was helping the Allies break out of Normandy. The local bocage terrain, a maze of pastures separated by thick, tall, impenetrable hedges, provided the Germans with countless ambush sites, while the German-held city of Caen was a strategic stronghold British and Canadian forces couldn't crack. It was during the fighting here that Collins became a favorite of General Sir Bernard Montgomery, the Commander of Ground Forces in Normandy. Collins's corps was given a key role in Operation Cobra, the breakout from the beachhead. VII Corps' job was to wait for a heavy aerial bombardment to eliminate German defenses in a corridor, then exploit this opening.

Collins receiving the Companion of the Order of the Bath from General Montgomery in 1944 (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Collins receiving the Companion of the Order of the Bath from General Montgomery in 1944 (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The bombardment occurred on the morning of July 25, 1944, and while it caused heavy losses and tore up the ground, it failed to eliminate German defenses. Troops from the Panzer-Lehr Division, an elite armored division, managed to pull together and put up a spirited defense. Operation Cobra seemed to be in peril for a while, but Collins realized that the Germans could only defend isolated pockets instead of a continuous frontline. His decision to press on led to a breakthrough, which General Patton's new Third Army then exploited as it poured through and started encircling German positions, eventually leading to the killing or capture of at least 60,000 German soldiers inside the Falaise Pocket (Read our earlier article – The Falaise pocket).
 
After securing Normandy, VII Corps and Collins participated in the liberation of Paris (Read our earlier article – The liberation of Paris), then advanced east toward the Rhine and the German border. On the way, VII Corps unexpectedly encountered a large retreating German force in what became known as the "Battle of the Mons pocket." With help from First Army's other two corps and Belgian resistance fighters, they managed to kill 3,500 German soldiers and capture another 25,000, as well as put a large number of enemy vehicles and guns out of commission. The Allies only suffered about 180 casualties (half of them dead, the other half wounded) while achieving this victory.

Collins in his M8 Greyhound in Belgium, 1944 (Photo: War History Online)
Collins in his M8 Greyhound in Belgium, 1944 (Photo: War History Online)

General Collins led his corps through the Siegfried Line, Germany's fortified border, but then he got bogged down in the Hürtgen Forest during the autumn and winter of 1944 (Read our earlier article – America's bloody blunder in Europe). Hürtgen Forest was one of the toughest tests of American resolve in the European theater, and probably the U.S. Army's worst defeat in World War II. Collins later commented on the battle thus:
"Somebody had to cover the Hürtgen Forest. I happened to be the unlucky one this time. But not all of it, because later on, the area was turned over to a different corps, and it did the real fighting in the forest. We fought on the fringe of the forest, most of it. We did finally clear the top end of Hürtgen, but it was tough going. […]It's easy to go back to second-guess and say, "Well, you shouldn't have done that." Then what would you have done? Who would have cleared it? How much time would it have taken? Nobody was enthusiastic about it, least of all the 704th, but we had to do it. That was part of our job, but we didn't fight it all. The V Corps later took over."

A battalion aid station staffed by the 68th Medical Group supporting VII Corps readying casualties for evacuation during the Battle of Hürtgen Forest (Photo: U.S. Army)
A battalion aid station staffed by the 68th Medical Group supporting VII Corps readying casualties for evacuation during the Battle of Hürtgen Forest (Photo: U.S. Army)

Collins' next test came soon after, at the Battle of the Bulge. Montgomery, who had great faith in the American general, selected him and his corps to lead the main effort during the counterattack against advancing German forces along the north side of the salient (the "bulge" where German forces pushed into the Allies, creating a protrusion in the frontline). However, the Germans reached VII Corps and attacked even as the corps was preparing for its own attack. Montgomery and Collins' American superior, General Courtney Hodges, decided to call off VII Corps' attack and give him permission to withdraw.

Collins (left) with Montgomery and General Ridgway in December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge (Photo: US Army Center for Military History)
Collins (left) with Montgomery and General Ridgway in December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge (Photo: US Army Center for Military History)

Collins was not going to have any of that. His command post received the orders in a somewhat vaguely worded verbal form on December 24. Collins, however, was not there. He was away visiting the frontline, and left his artillery commander in charge. When Collins returned, he found a colonel from First Army HQ there, who traveled to the command post to clarify the order. Playing for time, Collins requested written orders then ordered his tanks to attack before the orders from above could arrive. This armored attack, supported by aircraft and artillery, managed to shatter the German advance. Collins then decided to "defend" by following the spirit, rather than the letter of his orders, and conducted limited attacks on those German positions that were the most likely to break. His actions, even while playing loose with orders from his superiors, managed to turn the tide of battle in the north of the Bulge.

Lieutenant Stookie Allen's drawing of Collins's "Beer Bridge" (read on below) (Image: National Archives and Records Administration)
Lieutenant Stookie Allen's drawing of Collins's "Beer Bridge" (read on below) (Image: National Archives and Records Administration)

VII Corps continued the invasion of Germany in the spring of 1945. They got to the Rhine in March and set about crossing it. Collins challenged 1106 Engineer Combat Group to build a pontoon bridge across the river in ten hours, promising them beer if they could do it. The engineers rose to the challenge, constructing a 1308-feet-/400m-long bridge supported by 107 floats within the time limit. A man true to his word, Collins bought beers for the 600 men.

The "Beer Bridge" across the Rhine near Bonn (Photo: U.S. Army)
The "Beer Bridge" across the Rhine near Bonn (Photo: U.S. Army)

On April 24, Collins informed General Hodges that enemy resistance in the zone assigned to VII Corps was over, but the war itself wasn't over yet. VII Corps was called up for the Pacific, a theater Collins had already fought in before. Even as they were departing from Europe, however, Japan surrendered.
Collins, a brigadier general by the end of the war, stayed with the army. He was greatly admired by General Omar Bradley, who later commented that had the U.S. decided to create another army in the European theater of operations, Collins would have been its commander despite his relative youth.
Collins briefly served as deputy commanding general and chief of staff of Army Ground Forces, then became the director of information of the Army, essentially a public relations position. He served as deputy Chief of Staff, then Vice Chief of Staff, and eventually Chief of Staff of the United States Army. In that position, he was the Army's senior officer during the Korean War. He also brought the first American Special Forces group into the order of battle, the command structure of the military.

General Collins conferring with officers in Korea (Photo: Pepperdine University Libraries)
General Collins conferring with officers in Korea (Photo: Pepperdine University Libraries)

He represented the U.S. in NATO in the mid-50s, and served as a special representative to Vietnam in 1954-55, when Vietnam was divided, supposedly temporarily, in two parts, and Ngô Đình Diệm's pro-American but thoroughly anti-democratic regime was established in the south.
 
Joseph Lawton Collins died on September 12, 1987 of cardiac arrest. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery with his wife, Gladys Easterbrook Collins, daughter of the first Chief of Army Chaplains Colonel Edmund P. Easterbrook.

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The grave of Joseph Lawton Collins and his wife in Arlington National Cemetery (Photo: U.S. Army)
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