Ernest N. Harmon

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Ernest Nason Harmon
Ernest N. Harmon4.jpg
Nickname(s) "Old Gravel Voice"
Born (1894-02-26)February 26, 1894
Lowell, Massachusetts, United States
Died November 13, 1979(1979-11-13) (aged 85)
White River Junction, Vermont
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch  United States Army
Years of service 1913–1948
Rank US-O8 insignia.svg Major General
Unit ArmyCAVBranchPlaque.png Cavalry Branch
Commands held 1st Armored Division
2nd Armored Division
XXII Corps
Third Army
Battles/wars World War I
World War II
Awards Distinguished Service Cross
Distinguished Service Medal (4)
Silver Star
Purple Heart

Major General Ernest Nason Harmon (February 26, 1894 – November 13, 1979) was a senior officer of the United States Army. He served in both World War I and World War II, being best known for his actions in reorganizing the 1st Armored Division after the debacle at the February 1943 Battle of Kasserine Pass during the Tunisia Campaign.

Early life[edit]

Ernest Nason Harmon was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the son of Ernest and Junietta (Spaulding) Harmon.[1] He was orphaned at age ten, and was raised by relatives in the Newbury, Vermont village of West Newbury.[1] He was educated in West Newbury and graduated from the Bradford Academy in 1912.[1] He attended Norwich University for a year, and then received an appointment to the United States Military Academy.[1] While at West Point, he played football and hockey, and was a member of the boxing team.[1] Following his graduation in 1917, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Cavalry.[1] In August 1917 he married M. Leona Tuxbury: they had two daughters, Barbara Roll and Jeanne Oliver, and three sons, Halsey, Robert and Ernest Jr.[1]

World War I[edit]

Harmon was assigned to the 2nd Cavalry Regiment at Fort Ethan Allen, which was followed by duty at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.[1]

In March 1918, Harmon went to France with F Troop, 2nd Cavalry.[1] The 2nd Cavalry was the only Cavalry unit to go overseas during World War I, and B, D, F, and H Troops became the last horse-mounted U.S. Cavalry units to ever engage an enemy in combat.[2] Harmon served in the Baccarat Sector, at Camp du Valdahon, the St. Mihiel Offensive, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.[1] He served in France and Belgium after the war, and returned to the U.S. in June 1919 to become a student at the Fort Riley, Kansas Cavalry School.[1]

Post-World War I[edit]

In August 1921, Harmon was assigned to West Point as an instructor in Mechanical Drawing, and his additional duties included backfield coach for the football team, and coach of the school's first lacrosse team.[1] In the summer of 1924 he went to France with three other officers to compete in the modern pentathlon in that year's summer Olympic Games.[1] Harmon placed fifth in shooting, 37th in swimming, 27th in fencing, 32nd in equestrian, and 26th in the cross country run.[3] He finished tied for 31st overall (out of 38 contestants), and athletes from Sweden claimed the first three places.[3]

Harmon's subsequent assignments included the 6th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, and four years as Professor of Military Science and Commandant of Cadets at Norwich University.[1]

In 1933 Harmon graduated from the United States Army Command and General Staff College, and he was a 1934 graduate of the United States Army War College.[4] He then commanded a squadron of the 8th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Bliss, which was followed by four years in the logistics staff directorate (G4) on the War Department General Staff.[1] Harmon was briefly assistant chief of staff for I Armored Corps at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and was then assigned to serve as chief of staff to Adna R. Chaffee Jr. during Chaffee's command of the Army's newly-organized Armored Force.[5]

World War II[edit]

The United States entered World War II in December 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For nine months, from July 1942 until April 1943, Harmon commanded the 2nd Armored Division and trained the division for overseas service. Elements of the 2nd Armored Division began to arrive in Algeria, French North Africa, in November 1942, as part of Operation Torch. Upon landing in Algiers, Harmon was delegated by General Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in North Africa, to travel to the front to report on the deteriorating Allied situation in Tunisia and Algeria, and to assist where needed.[6] His on-site reporting and interventions during the Kasserine Pass battles in February 1943 helped stabilize and reorganize the U.S. II Corps, which had been thrown into disorder after the initial German attack.[7]

During the fighting, Harmon had opportunity to observe Major General Lloyd Fredendall, commander of II Corps, as well as his superior, the British Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson, commander of the British First Army. Anderson was in overall control of the Allied front in eastern Algeria, commanding British, American, and French forces. Harmon noticed that the two generals rarely saw each other, and failed to properly coordinate and integrate forces under their command. Fredendall was barely on speaking terms with his 1st Armored Division commander, Major General Orlando Ward, who had repeatedly complained to his superiors of the dangers of separating his division into weaker combat commands for use in various sectors of the front. Harmon also noticed that Fredendall rarely left his command headquarters, a huge fortified bunker constructed a full 70 miles behind the front lines (the bunker took two hundred Army engineers three weeks to excavate, using hundreds of pounds of explosive to blast rooms out of solid rock).[6] Allied forces were bereft of air support during critical attacks, and were frequently positioned by the senior command in positions where they could not offer mutual support to each other. Subordinates would later recall their utter confusion at being handed conflicting orders, not knowing which general to obey–Anderson, or Fredendall. While interviewing field commanders, Harmon received an earful of criticism over what many Allied officers viewed as a cowardly, confused, and out-of-touch command. Noting that Fredendall seemed out-of-touch (and at one point, intoxicated), he requested and received permission to go to the front and intervene where necessary to shore up Allied defenses.[8]

While Harmon attributed the lion's share of the blame for the catastrophe to Fredendall, he also began to question Anderson's leadership abilities with respect to a large command. Anderson was partly to blame for the weakness of II Corps in southern area of the front. When Fredendall asked to retire to a defensible line after the initial assault in order to regroup his forces, Anderson rejected the request, allowing German panzer forces to overrun many of the American positions in the south. Anderson also weakened II Corps by parceling out portions of the 1st Armored Division into various combat commands sent to other sectors over the vehement objections of its commander, Major General Ward.[9]

Major General Harmon had been in Thala on the Algerian border, witnessing the stubborn resistance of the British Nickforce, which held the vital road leading into the Kasserine Pass against the heavy pressure of the German 10th Panzer Division, which was under Rommel's direct command.[7] Commanding the British Nickforce was Brigadier Cameron Nicholson, an effective combat leader who kept his remaining forces steady under relentless German hammering. When the U.S. 9th Infantry Division's attached artillery arrived in Thala after a four-day, 800-mile march, it seemed like a godsend to Harmon. Inexplicably, the 9th was ordered by Anderson to abandon Thala to the enemy and head for the village of Le Kef, 50 miles away, to defend against an expected German attack. Nicholson pleaded with the American artillery commander, Brigadier General Stafford LeRoy Irwin, to ignore Anderson’s order and stay.[7] Harmon agreed with Nicholson and commanded, "Irwin, you stay right here!"[7] The 9th's artillery stayed, and with its 48 guns raining a whole year's worth of a (peacetime) allotment of shells, stopped the advancing Germans in their tracks. Unable to retreat under the withering fire, the Afrika Korps finally withdrew after dark.[7] With the defeat at Thala, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel decided to end his offensive.

After Rommel had finally been halted at Thala, Harmon returned to Fredendall's headquarters, and was incredulous to find Fredendall expecting to pick up where he had left off. Harmon's reports on Fredendall's conduct during and after the battle (in an interview with Major General George Patton, Fredendall's replacement, Harmon called Fredendall a cowardly "son-of-a-bitch") played a key role in the Fredendall's removal from command of II Corps and reassignment to a training command in the United States.[10] Offered the command of II Corps in Fredendall's place, Harmon declined, as it would appear to others that Harmon was motivated by personal gain. Instead, in March, General Eisenhower appointed Patton, a colleague and friend of Harmon's, to replace Fredendall. Harmon later accepted command of the 1st Armored Division after the relief of Major General Ward in April.

Harmon, pictured here in 1944.

Harmon led the 1st Armored Division throughout the rest of the Tunisia Campaign, which came to an end in mid-May 1943, with the surrender of almost 250,000 German and Italian soldiers, who subsequently became prisoners of war (POWs). He went on to lead the 1st Armored Division in the Italian Campaign, leading the division in terrain unsuitable for the employment of armor, until July 1944 when he returned to the United States. During the Italian Campaign he and his division played a significant role in the Battle of Anzio. In September he returned to the command of his old division, the 2nd Armored, and led the division on the Western Front, which played a large role in the Battle of the Bulge, until he assumed command of the XXII Corps, in early 1945, and led the corps in the final stages of the war, participating in the Western Allied invasion of Germany. The end of World War II in Europe came soon after, on May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe Day.

Harmon remained in command of XXII Corps until it was deactivated in January 1946. He helped organize the initial post-war government of Allied-occupied Germany, including organization of the U.S. Constabulary. He then served as deputy commander of Army Ground Forces before retiring from the U.S. Army in 1948.

Career highlights[edit]

General Harmon's career highlights include:

  • Participant in the modern pentathlon at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris.[3]
  • During World War II, General Harmon served as Commanding General of the 1st Armored Division in Tunisia and Italy. After the capture of Rome, he returned to the United States as a corps commander. He returned to command the 2nd Armored Division in 1944 before being named XXII Corps Commander. Among his soldiers, he was known as "Old Gravel Voice."
  • In May 1945, he liberated Plzeň, the largest town in the West of Czechoslovakia. After the war, he would live in the Continental Hotel.
  • In January 1946 he took command of the VI Corps, which became the U.S. Constabulary.
  • He served as Commanding General of the Third United States Army from January 10, 1947, to March 14, 1947.
  • He served as Deputy Commanding General, Army Ground Forces, from March 1947, until his retirement in March 1948.

Post-army life[edit]

General Harmon left the United States Army for Norwich University, where he served as president from 1950 to 1965. In 1955, he received an Honorary Doctorate of Law from Saint Michael's College, Colchester, Vermont. General Harmon died at White River Junction, Vermont, on November 13, 1979.

Orders, Decorations and Medals[edit]

Major General Harmon´s ribbon bar:

Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o "Obituary, Ernest N. Harmon 1917". apps.westpointaog.org/. West Point Association of Graduates. Retrieved October 4, 2016. 
  2. ^ Strickland, Jeffrey (2015). I Rode with Wallace: My Military Story for Ordinary People. Raleigh, NC: Lulu, Inc. p. 45. ISBN 978-1-329-56566-1. 
  3. ^ a b c "Ernest N. Harmon Olympic Results". sports-reference.com. Retrieved 2012-06-22. 
  4. ^ Matheny, Michael R. (2011). Carrying the War to the Enemy: American Operational Art to 1945. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. p. 255. ISBN 978-0-8061-4156-5. 
  5. ^ Zabecki, David T. (1999). World War II in Europe: An Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Routledge. p. 335. ISBN 978-0-8240-7029-8. 
  6. ^ a b Andrews, Peter, A Place to be Lousy In, American Heritage Magazine (December 1991), Volume 42, Issue 8, pp. 100-109
  7. ^ a b c d e Murray, Brian J., Facing The Fox, America in World War II, (April 2006), pp. 28-35
  8. ^ D'Este, Carlo, Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life, Orion Publishing Group Ltd. (2003), ISBN 0-304-36658-7, ISBN 0-304-36658-7
  9. ^ Calhoun, Mark T., Defeat at Kasserine: American Armor Doctrine, Training, and Battle Command in Northwest Africa, World War II, Army Command and General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth, KS (2003), pp. 73-75
  10. ^ D'Este, Carlo, Patton: A Genius for War, Harper/Collins (1996), ISBN 0-06-092762-3, ISBN 978-0-06-092762-2, p. 460
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Houterman, Hans. "US Army Officers 1939-1945". unit histories. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
Military offices
Preceded by
Willis D. Crittenberger
Commanding General 2nd Armored Division
1942–1943
Succeeded by
Hugh Joseph Gaffey
Preceded by
Orlando Ward
Commanding General 1st Armored Division
1943–1944
Succeeded by
Vernon Prichard
Preceded by
Edward H. Brooks
Commanding General 2nd Armored Division
1944–1945
Succeeded by
Isaac D. White
Preceded by
Henry Terrell, Jr.
Commanding General XXII Corps
1945–1946
Succeeded by
Post deactivated
Preceded by
Geoffrey Keyes
Commanding General Third Army
January 1947 – March 1947
Succeeded by
Oscar Griswold