R.I.P.General Courtney Hicks Hodges January 5, 1887 – January 16, 1966.
From private to general.
Courtney Hicks Hodges (1887-1966), the son of a Georgia newspaper publisher, chose a military career as a young man but flunked out of West Point due to his problems with math. Not deterred, he enlisted as a private and climbed the ranks the hard way, becoming in 1945 the second man in the U.S. Army to go from the lowest possible rank to the highest.
Early on, he served in the Philippines with George Marshall and in Mexico with Patton. He fought in Europe during the First World War, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel and receiving the Distinguished Service Cross. According to some sources, he also received two Purple Heart citations for being gassed but tore them up as he considered the injuries “sissy.” After the war he became an instructor at West Point, an extraordinary accomplishment for someone who had dropped out previously.
During World War II, he first commanded X Corps stateside, then the Third Army (before Patton), finally taking the reins of the First Army in August 1944, during the Battle for Normandy. Hodges was known for being a crack shot, an avid big game hunter and an unflappable gentleman through and through. He wore a jacket, necktie and combat boots for mess every night. Omar Bradley, who had been Hodges’ subordinate, was so influenced by the man’s dignified behavior that he continued to call him “Sir” even after he became his superior. While Hodges kept his distance from others, he was also compassionate towards his men. He was seen weeping by the roadside as trucks carrying wounded soldiers rolled by on at least one occasion.
He was far from being a perfect commander. He was often criticized, especially after the particularly bloody Battle of Hürtgen Forest, for lacking vigor and imagination, not caring about logistics problems, refusing to discuss his orders and preferring head-on attacks to maneuver warfare. He also requested unusually detailed reports, going into individual platoon positions, possibly a hold-over from his days in lower ranks. His possible greatest failing was a lack of tolerance for even the slightest failure: of the 13 corps and division commander relieved in the 12th Army Group during the war, 10 were sacked by him.
Despite his shortcomings, the First Army under his command made historic achievements. It bore the brunt of fighting during Operation Cobra, which allowed Patton to break out of Normandy, then stayed behind to roll up the remaining German forces the hard way. It cleared the way to Paris, though the grateful task of actually entering the French capital first was left to French troops.
In the fall of 1944, the First Army fought two major battles at the same time. The Battle of Aachen ended with the capture of the city, which formed part of the Siegfried Line, but the victory couldn’t be exploited due to the German surprise offensive in the Ardennes. Nearby, the bloody Battle of Hürtgen Forest unfolded into one of the worst American defeats in Europe, arguably marking the low point of Hodges’ career.
The First Army soon found itself in the Battle of the Bulge. During the battle, they and the U.S. Ninth Army were cut off both from Bradley, the Army Group commander located in Luxembourg, and any other American units. The two armies were temporarily placed under the command of British Field Marshal Montgomery. Coordinating their efforts, they did much to stop the German surprise offensive.
The following spring, Hodges’ army became the first Allied force to cross the Rhine on March 7, two weeks before Patton’s Third Army. The next months, Hodges was promoted to four-star general, his long climb through the ranks of the U.S. Army coming to an end. He and his First Army were slated to be sent to the Pacific to participate in the invasion of Japan but the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the war before that could happen. Nevertheless, Hodges was there in September, becoming one of the very few people who witnessed the surrender ceremonies of both Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan.