The Story of Kansas

Lyon Co. native led troops in WWI

Gen. James Harbord retired from the Army in 1922 and became president of RCA.
Gen. James Harbord retired from the Army in 1922 and became president of RCA. Courtesy image

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.”

During World War I, James Harbord was Gen. John J. Pershing’s right-hand man.

He led troops into some of the fiercest and most controversial battles of the war. Afterward, he became president of RCA, Radio Corporation of America.

Not bad for a country boy from Lyon County.

Harbord was born March 21, 1866, in Bloomington, Ill., but was raised in Bushong, a Lyon County town north of Emporia.

In 1886, Harbord graduated from Kansas State Agricultural College in Manhattan. He then taught two years at the college before enlisting in the Army. In 1891, he received a commission.

In the Spanish-American War, Harbord served as assistant chief of the Philippines Constabulary from 1903 to 1909 and again from 1910 to 1913. It was there he became friends with Pershing, and in 1916 was with Pershing on the Mexican border while American troops tried unsuccessfully to capture Pancho Villa.

In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Harbord was promoted to brigadier general.

He commanded the 4th Marine Brigade and the Army 2nd Infantry Division during the battles of Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood. The battles were bloody and full of casualties.

Through much of the summer of 1918, the 2nd Division played a deadly tug-of-war with German forces. Nearly 10,000 U.S. soldiers were wounded and 1,811 died.

Harbord assigned the troops to take the woods, which involved sending the men over an open wheat field, continually swept by German machine gunfire.

U.S. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels described the battle:

“The Marines fought strictly according to American methods — a rush, a halt, a rush again, in four-wave formation, the rear waves taking over the work of those who had fallen before them, passing over the bodies of their dead comrades and plunging ahead, until they, too, should be torn to bits. But behind those waves were more waves, and the attack went on.”

Over and over, the German machine guns raked the field, killing and wounding men.

Daniels wrote: “Men fell like flies."

Once across the field, the battle continued with men fighting from tree to tree. It took weeks for the battle to end.

Daniels wrote: “Fighting day and night without relief, without sleep, often without water, and for days without hot rations, the Marines met and defeated the best divisions that Germany could throw into the line.”

Following the battle, Harbord was recalled from the front and put in charge of troop and supply movement. He was then promoted to major general and awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

After the armistice, he was named by President Woodrow Wilson as Chief of Military Mission to Armenia.

He was later criticized over his leadership in World War I for sending troops in without adequate support.

When Harbord retired from the Army in 1922, he became president of RCA and served there until his retirement in 1930.

He died August 20, 1947, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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