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Remembering Omar Bradley: Missouri childhood shaped the 'GI's General'

Gen. Omar Bradley

By ERIK CLIBURN | Moberly Monitor-Index, Mo. | Published: November 11, 2019

MOBERLY, Mo. (Tribune News Service) — This year marks the 75th anniversary of several major events in World War II, and perhaps the most noteworthy events in the military career of Randolph County's most famous veteran, Gen. Omar Bradley.

Bradley was instrumental in the planning and execution of the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, the event credited with turning the tide of the war in Europe in favor of the Allies.

That year, Bradley was named commander of the First U.S. Army in January and in August became commander of the 12th Army Group, the largest American field force ever assembled under one commander. He was promoted to permanent major general in September.

Seventy-five years ago today, Bradley was in the middle of a nearly two-month-long counterattack by German forces, known as the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. After sweeping across France following the breakout from Normandy, Nazi resistance stiffened as Allied forces penetrated into Germany itself.

The battle ended as a defensive victory for Germany and was the longest recorded battle in U.S. Army history. It served as a precursor to the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive of the war.

Bradley, who died in 1981, is one of only five U.S. Army or Air Force officers to achieve the rank of five-star general while alive.

A section of the Randolph County Historical Society museum in Moberly is dedicated to Bradley. Visitors can see photos of him, personal letters and memos written to and from colleagues and friends, his childhood christening gown and more memorabilia.

The historical society also has a 1944 comic book that depicts Bradley's life from an early age up to his involvement in WWII.

The comic book was primarily to let the public know about Bradley and some of the other generals commanding in the war before D-Day, said Joe Barnes, a director on the historical society board.

"To me it's just an illustrated press release," Barnes said.

Before a Veterans Day parade on Saturday in Moberly, Carl Parrick, first vice president of the society, mentioned that Bradley was not only the most famous veteran in the county's history, but the most notable person in all of Randolph County's history.

The list includes William "Bloody Bill" Anderson, a Civil War guerrilla who grew up near Huntsville, and John Hancock Hall, an inventor who made the U.S. Army's first mass-produced breech-loading rifle.

"I'd say he's probably the most famous person, history-wise and reputation-wise, in Randolph County," Parrick said. "... He was very well-respected and admired by the people he worked with. He treated everybody, from what I understand, with respect and dignity. And I think that's really important."

Randolph County still points to Bradley as its historical crown jewel, Barnes said. That is apparent through the towering statue of him at Rothwell Park in Moberly.

"This is one of the aspects of Randolph County's image," Barnes said. "One of the things Randolph County can be noted for."

Barnes recalled the first time he met Bradley at Moberly's centennial celebration in 1966.

"He seemed to me to be very appreciative of any kindness," Barnes said. "[He was] an extremely shy, quiet and humble man, one who seemed not at ease from pomp and ceremony. ... I think he would have been more comfortable with visiting his remaining local friends and hunting than with the banquets and hoopla of the centennial."

Bradley is one of the highest-ranking generals in U.S. Army history, behind the likes of George Washington, John "Black Jack" Pershing (of Linn County), Ulysses S. Grant and other notable generals who were promoted posthumously.

Bradley was promoted to five-star rank Sept. 20, 1950, making him the most recent officer to achieve that promotion. He served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, and as administrator of veterans affairs during the Truman presidency.

"Throughout the war, he was not only an outstanding commander, but he was my warm friend and close adviser," Eisenhower wrote. "... Bradley was the master tactician of our forces and, in my opinion, will eventually come to be recognized as America's foremost battle leader."

Aside from his military exploits, Bradley was affectionately referred to as "the G.I's General," a term coined by war correspondent Ernie Pyle.

Pyle followed Bradley and his forces during the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. These writings form many of the early legends of Bradley's calm and collected demeanor.

"The outstanding figure on this western front is Lt. Gen. Omar Nelson Bradley," Pyle wrote Sept. 4, 1944. "He is so modest and sincere that he probably will not get his proper credit, except in military textbooks. But he has proved himself a great general in every sense of the word. And as a human being, he is just as great. Having him in command has been a blessed good fortune for America."

Bradley's leadership style is often juxtaposed to that of Gen. George Patton, whom Bradley served under in North Africa. Patton was considered much more flamboyant and aggressive; in comparison, Bradley was very mild-mannered.

During the final battles in France and Germany, Bradley was Patton's commander.

David Hogan, a historian for the U.S. Army Center of Military History, has extensively researched Bradley's military career and early life. Behind Bradley's calm demeanor, many emotions and ambitions were at play that most are unaware of, Hogan said.

"He was actually much more complex than the image," Hogan said. "... Behind the surface of modesty, amiability and simplicity, for which he was known, there were a lot of different things going on."

Bradley was born in an unincorporated part of Randolph County, known as the Rudolph Bennett Conservation and Wildlife Area, near Clark. His family soon moved to Higbee, where they lived during Bradley's early childhood.

Though not necessarily apparent through his demeanor, Bradley had a grief-stricken early life, Barnes said. His brother died at 3 years old, when Bradley was about 8. He grew up fairly poor and frequently moved. His father, John Bradley, died in 1908, when Omar was 15 years old.

Bradley's mother, Mary Hubbard, moved both of them from Higbee to Moberly for three years while Bradley attended Moberly High School, then known as Central High School. Hubbard soon remarried.

"It was a hard introduction for [Bradley] into the Moberly school system," Hogan said. "He was the farm kid, the hick, and he had the insecurities of having lost his father at an adolescent age."

Early on in his high school days, Bradley began to compete in several sports, including baseball and track.

"Sports kind of rescued him," Hogan said. "He was a jock."

Bradley grew up throwing baseballs with his cousins near the railroad tracks in Higbee. He and a cousin would practice throwing baseballs in the concrete bastions along the tracks, about 100 yards apart.

"Over time, he built up a pretty powerful throwing arm, which became kind of legendary up at West Point," Hogan said. "... He got banned from pitching at times in his career because he was too overpowered."

Beyond just baseball, Bradley was an overall sportsman. He played in the finals of the Army golf championship in 1929 and was an avid hunter and accomplished marksman, though his marksman abilities are likely embellished to some degree, Hogan said.

Bradley's athletic abilities led to an increased confidence at a time where athleticism was becoming more appreciated, Hogan said.

"He had a lot of confidence in the way he carried himself," Hogan said. "He carried himself like an athlete. ... That was an era where athleticism was beginning to be respected in different fields, particularly in the army."

As a natural fit alongside his love for sports, Bradley had a competitive streak. Hogan referred to an instance where Bradley scolded a teammate for not hustling.

That competition also fed into his ambition. After completing high school in 1910, Bradley had few job prospects other than working as a boilermaker for the Wabash Railroad.

Eventually, a Sunday school teacher of his suggested he attend West Point. Bradley was accepted into the prestigious military academy in 1911. During his time at West Point, Bradley "certainly maintained an exterior of calm, most of the time," Hogan said. "... But within him, there was a pretty substantial amount of ambition."

Though Bradley did not consider himself religiously devout, he regularly attended the Central Christian Church in Moberly throughout his childhood. He took on many of the characteristics promoted by Christianity at the time, Hogan said.

"He grew up with that Midwest sense of friendliness, benevolence ... but, at the same time, a certain sense of wariness," Hogan said.

Hogan is working on a presentation about Bradley's personality and how it reflects where and how he grew up.

"I sensed it when I went to Moberly, through talking to people," Hogan said. "He kind of reflects the nature of the community from which he came."

After Bradley served in the war, he would occasionally come back to Moberly and Randolph County to meet with friends and family, Barnes said.

Bradley died of a brain clot in New York City in 1981. He had the longest active-duty career in U.S. military history, from 1911 to 1981. Though he retired in 1953, he was still considered active duty because of his rank.

Despite Bradley's influence on Randolph County and national history, he is starting to fade into obscurity, Barnes said.

"Bradley has become basically a name in the history books and in trivia contests," Barnes said. "... People just don't know him anymore."

ecliburn@moberlymonitor.com

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Gen. Omar N. Bradley, head of the Veterans Administration, reviews the troops at Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany in September, 1947.
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