R.I.P. General Maxwell Davenport “Max” Taylor August 26, 1901 – April 19, 1987.
Commander of the Screaming Eagles.
During his early years at West Point, Maxwell Davenport Taylor (1901-1987) gained reputation as an intellectual with a facility for languages. After a brief stint with field artillery, this reputation got him a number of diplomatic assignments in Tokyo, Beijing and Latin America in the 1930s. While in China, he noticed that occupying Japanese soldiers carved their names and units in a Buddha statue. He copied these down, gathering intelligence on which Japanese units were present in Northern China.
In June 1942 he became Chief of Staff under General Matthew Ridgway, helping the latter transform the 82nd Division into the U.S. Army’s first airborne division. The unit was quickly sent to the Mediterranean with Taylor commanding the division artillery in combat in Sicily and on the Italian mainland.
On September 7, 1943, Taylor was sent on a dangerous covert mission behind enemy lines. His task was to travel to Rome a mere 24 hours before the scheduled American invasion, some British units had already landed in Southern Italy days earlier, and talk to Italian Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio about the possibility of dropping airborne soldiers around Rome to protect it from German takeover immediately after the country’s surrender. To make his job harder, the rules of engagement forced him to wear his American uniform on this secret mission: if he had worn civilian clothes and were to be captured by the Germans, he would have been executed as a spy. Taylor and the intelligence officer accompanying him solved the conundrum by arriving to Rome in an ambulance car and pretending to be POWs. The paratroopers’ planes were already in the air when Taylor realized that German forces were moving towards the designated drop points. Deciding that proceeding with the operation would have been a likely death sentence for most participants, he quickly sent a radio message to recall the force.
After his service in Italy, Taylor became the replacement commander of the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, after the unit’s first commander suffered a heart attack. He jumped with his men on the night of June 6, 1944 and led them in the liberation of Carentan, the Battle of Normandy and Operation Market Garden.
The 101st is perhaps most famous for its role in the defense of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. Taylor, however, was away at a staff conference back in the United States and missed the battle. In his absence, the division was commanded by General Anthony McAuliffe, whose famous “Nuts!” reply to the German demand of surrender hallmarked the defiant spirit of the town’s defenders. Taylor was once asked by his son what he would have answered had he been there. He replied that since this was an international communication, he would have replied in French, the proper language of diplomacy, and would have said something like “These are still the Ardennes, but this is no longer 1940.”
After the war, General Taylor served in a variety of positions, including superintendent at West Point, where he drafted the first official Cadet Honor Code, and also commanded forces in the late stages of the Korean War. Over these years, he came into conflict with his former commander-turned-president, Dwight Eisenhower. Ike was pushing the New Look doctrine that called for cutbacks in the army and a willingness to use nuclear weapons. In contrast, Taylor advocated for a stronger conventional force that could be deployed in situations where nuclear bombing would be disproportionate. As Chief of Staff, he tried to work around the cuts by reorganizing divisions: instead of three regiments, they were to comprise a “pentomic” group of five small, self-contained battlegroups that could rapidly disperse or concentrate as needed.
After retiring in 1959 and writing a book about his views on strategy, he found a new ally: Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s “flexible response” military policy as president was greatly influenced by Taylor’s views and he convinced the general to come out of retirement. Taylor’s first job was to investigate how the catastrophic Bay of Pigs invasion went so horribly wrong.
Taylor became one of JFK’s closest military advisers and eventually Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He developed a mutual respect and friendship with both John and Robert Kennedy that ran so deep that Robert even named one of his sons Matthew Maxwell Taylor Kennedy in honor of him.
Taylor’s last major military contribution before his second and final retirement was probably convincing Kennedy to send U.S. troops to Vietnam early on in the conflict, rather than letting the President have his way and leave the Vietnamese to solve the situation themselves. Even this early intervention, however, was not enough to prevent the ultimate loss of the country to the Viet Cong.