Lieutenant General John Wilson (Iron Mike) O’Daniel, By Brig. Gen. Kennard R. Wiggins Jr. (DE ANG Ret)
John Wilson O’Daniel was born in Newark Delaware February 15, 1894. He graduated from high school at Oxford Pennsylvania in 1912 and attended Delaware College in Newark Delaware, where he played varsity football and earned the nickname “Mike”. . He enlisted in the Delaware National Guard in 1913 with Company E, 1st Delaware Infantry. In July 19, 1916 he was mobilized, and served as a corporal and sergeant with the First Infantry at the Mexico border in Deming New Mexico. Before mobilization, he had been living with his brother, James Allison O'Daniel and Aunts Etta J. Wilson, and Willie Nelson in their home at 313 E. Main Street in Newark.He was honorably discharged from service on his 23rd birthday, February 15, 1917.
After graduation from Delaware College in 1917 he was commissioned a second lieutenant of the Infantry Reserve on August 15 at Reserve Officers Training Camp at Fort Meyer Virginia. He received his regular commission on October 26 and was assigned to the 11th Infantry at Camp Forrest Tennessee.
He shipped out for overseas duty and participated in the St. Mihiel and Neuse –Argonne offensives. He was wounded at St. Mihiel September 12, 1918. Testifying to his endurance and aggressiveness in battle was his nickname, “Iron Mike”, awarded by his peers, said to be a result of his actions at St. Mihiel, where he fought for twelve hours, even though he was hit in the face by a German machine gun bullet and severely wounded. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions as well as the Purple Heart.
In a letter to Dr. Samuel Chiles Mitchell, the President of Delaware College, O’Daniel described Armistice Day in France, and how he and his men experienced the last hours of the war.
Longwy. France Nov. 26, 1918 My Dear Dr. Mitchell Your two kind letters I rec’d. while on the line. They were great too as at that time every little bit did help some. I got the last one the day before we went over the top or rather the day we crossed the Meuse R. You will have to pardon me if I use a little slang now and then to express myself. I feel that I would like to tell you about our last little scrap. It lasted from Nov. 5 to 11 and consisted of chasing the Bosch for all we were worth. We had him bluffed and on the run when the bell rang. We had chased him and fought him for 20 kilometers in the 5 days, thru rain and cold. Our boys never complained once, but kept right after him. My company had the honor of being the advanced guard on the crossing of our Regiment over the Meuse R. and also capturing Hill 260 which was a great point of vantage. The last time we went over the top was Nov. 10, at a town called Louppy. My company captured most of the town and in it a wonderful old chateau with paintings, high walls, and a wonderful terrace, motes (sic) immense gates and other things that go to make up a chateau. The boys went over that last time with a yell. Fritz went a flying and our men after him. When night came we found ourselves thru the town with the Bosch dug in on the far side of it. My company was dug in inside a little church yard with Fritz about 300 yards away. Machine guns were popping and everything pretty setting pretty when night came on and then plenty of shells. Morning and 9:30 came, some on came to my P.C. and told those of us there that Armistice was on and things would be over soon. One of my Sgts. Who has been awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery said in his characteristic slow drawl, “Wal, what it takes to make peace I’ve got buckled around me”. He had it too. 100 rounds of U.S. Ammunition on the outside and about 150 lbs. of solid American all the way thru. That is the way we all felt about it when the end came. Orders came to go after ammunition. Six men went for it. We knew what that meant – over the top again. Ten o’clock and a runner came puffing in with a message.. It read – “Armistice Official Announced, Take affect at 11 a.m. Fire shot for shot” I read it aloud, no one said a word. We just looked at each other and then sent the word to the men around us. There wasn’t a sound. At 11 a. m. we hear a noise out front and upon looking over the wall of the cemetery of the little church saw about 200 Bosch without arms walking around and laughing and talking. All was over.
It reads like a novel, but true it is. A coincidence is the dates on which the Armistice came – 11th month, 11th day, 11th hour and 11th Infantry. All noise had ceased- the world was at peace, and here we are on our way to the Rhine.
It might interest you to know that I have been promoted to the rank of Capt. And have been fortunate enough to have been decorated with the Dist. Service Cross (Ed. Note: second highest Army decoration for Valor).
I have only the Lord to thank for it all. I can’t realize it. But here we are. You may notice that I have mentioned my company. I do so because I am proud of that little bunch of men. Why shouldn’t I be with one man wit the Medal of Honor, 3 with D.S.C.’s and 12 with Citations. They all deserve it too. All Americans are the same. The most wonderful fighters and the best fellows on earth.
This is captured Bosch paper and it happens to be all I have at present so excuse everything.
Thanking you again for your kind letters, best regards to the old Institution and all my friends.
Sincerely, J. Wilson O’Daniel
He returned to the United States with the 11th Infantry on September 1919 and was transferred to the 25th Infantry at Camp Stephen D. Little Nogales Arizona.
General O’Daniel became an Infantry instructor with the New Jersey National Guard at Trenton in May 1924. In September 1927 he entered the Infantry School at Fort Benning Georgia and was graduated in May 1928. He was transferred in July 1928 to the 21st Infantry at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii and in January 1930 was placed in command of the Military Police Detachment of the Hawaiian Department at Fort Schafter. In October 1931 he joined the 12th Infantry at Fort Howard Maryland.
In the 1930’s with the country locked in Depression, General O’Daniel undertook a series of assignments that departed from traditional military roles. In May 1933, General O’Daniel became assistant to the Officer in Charge of the Port of Embarkation at New York City for the Pilgrimage of War Mother and Widows. From September to November 1933, he was on Civilian Conservation Corps duty at Smokemont, North Carolina and then was assigned to the 22nd Infantry at Fort Oglethorpe Georgia. In July 1934 he was appointed Army liaison officer with the Tennessee Valley Authority. In March 1935 he became adjutant of District “D” of the Civilian Conservation Corps at Fort McClellan, Alabama. He was named Executive Officer of District “D” in July 1935 earning advancement to Major in August, and a year later he became Professor of Military Science and Tactics at the Academy of Richmond County at Augusta Georgia.
General O’Daniel entered the Command and Staff School at Fort Leavenworth Kansas in September and was graduated in June 1939. He was then assigned to Fort Brady Michigan as an instructor of the Citizen’s Military Training Camp and Officer’s Reserve Corps. In August 1939 he became branch instructor in the Michigan Military Area with headquarters in Detroit.
In January 1941 he became commander of the Second Battalion, 24th Infantry at Fort Benning with which he participated in the Third Army maneuvers in Louisiana – a critical test of logistical and combat capabilities for the later fighting in World War II. At the onset of World War II, in December 1941 he was promoted to Colonel and became Assistant Chief of Staff for operations of the Third Army and Director of the Junior Officers Training Center in San Antonio, Texas. In June 1942 he was named Operations Officer of the Amphibious Training Center at Camp Edwards Massachusetts.
In July 1942 General O’Daniel was transferred to Allied Force Headquarters in Europe as Commander of the American Invasion Training School in the British Isles. General Mark W. Clark said at the time of preparation for the African and Italian programs:
“I selected Colonel Mike O’Daniel to head our amphibious training program. The Colonel had been with me in World War I when I commanded Company K of the 11th Infantry Regiment in the Argonne. After I was wounded by shrapnel there, Mike took over command and by his gallant conduct on the field of battle won the Distinguished Service Cross. He recently had headed up amphibious and commando training at Ground Forces Headquarters in Washington.”
In September 1942 he assumed command of the 168th Infantry in the North African theater and led that unit on November 8-9 in the capture of Algiers. He was also rewarded with his first star on the 20th of November. In December 1942, he was assigned to organize the Fifth Army Invasion Training Center in Africa which trained the forces for the landings in Sicily and Salerno.
Once more, as in North Africa, Brigadier General John W. O’Daniel of Newark Delaware was singled out by General Mark Clark during the Salerno landing as one man he could always depend upon. Clark declared that a good beachmaster was the first essential at a landing operation, and that he had one of the best in “Mike” O’Daniel, that he (O’Daniel) soon molded a traffic system out of chaos, and thus surmounted the first serious crisis.
General O’Daniel in June 1943 was named Deputy Commander of the Third Infantry with whom he landed in Sicily. On July 24 1943 he returned to Algiers and was attached to the 36th Division for the Salerno landings. Although not required to do so, he chose to land with the troops at Salerno. He became officer in charge of amphibious operations for the Fifth Army on October 1, 1943 and the following month was reassigned as Assistant Commander of the Third Infantry Division.
BG O’Daniel photos by William Heller
He took part in the landings at Anzio in January 1944 and assumed command of the combat tempered Third Infantry Division after General L.K. Truscott was advanced to the post of Sixth Corps Commander. This occurred while the Third was still on the beachhead in February 1944. While under his command the division repelled furious German counterattacks, finally breaking out of the beachhead encirclement and driving to Rome, where he was rewarded with his second star. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff for his service in Italy.
Much publicized, if not completely reported, was the comment he made at a staff meeting in response to a question from British Field Marshall Sir Harold Alexander, commander of the Allied Armies in Italy. “I believe your division did not give an inch”, said Alexander. “Is that true?” The reply was “Not a God-Damned inch.”
He served there until August 1944 when O’Daniel and his Third Division landed at the St. Tropez Peninsula in Southern France and drove north through the Vosges Mountains to Germany. General O’Daniel led the Third Division up the Rhone Valley to Strasbourg, in the Colmar Pocket where it decimated German Forces in January 1945 and when it smashed across the Siegfried Line at Zweibrucker in March 1945. He frequently flew over the front lines in a light airplane dropping notes to the troops below, exhorting them to advance. His outfit took Schweinfurt and the he led the Division across the Rhine and participated in the capture of the Nazi citadel at Nurenburg on April 20, 1945 after ruthless house to house fighting. General O’Daniel hoisted his flag over Adolph Hitler Square in the center of the city and paid a rousing tribute to the exhausted infantrymen around him for having “driven the hun” from one of the last remaining Nazi strongholds.
Just before noon on April 20, 1945-Adolf Hitler's birthday-the 2d Battalion of the 30th reached the Adolf Hitler Platz in the center of the town after taking its ground in a building-to-building fight. The street markers in the square were replaced by others bearing the name "Eiserner Michael Platz" (Iron Mike Square) in honor of the 3d Division's Commanding General Maj. Gen. John W. O’Daniel who was known to his intimate friends and to thousands of Marnemen as "Iron Mike."
At 1830, in the battered Adolf Hitler Platz, a rifle platoon from each regiment, as well as tanks, TDs, and Flak wagons, stood in silent array. Old Glory ascended an improvised flagpole and the band played the National Anthem. Maj. Gen. John W. O’Daniel then spoke.
"Again the 3d Division has taken its objective," he said. "We are standing at the site of the stronghold of Nazi resistance in our zone. Through your feats of arms, you have smashed fifty heavy antiaircraft guns, captured four thousand prisoners, and driven the Hun from every house and every castle and bunker in our part of Nurnberg. "I congratulate you upon your superior performance. . ."
The band broke into "Dogface Soldier." A few bewildered civilians contemplated the red, white, and blue banner flying at half-mast in mourning for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The Third Infantry went on to conquer Augsburg, Munich, and Salzburg. It ended the war with the capture of Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s mountain stronghold in May 1945. Representatives of German Field Marshall Kesserling surrendered to him and he turned them over to General Jacob L. Devers near Munich on May 5, 1945. One of O’Daniel’s proudest trophies from the war was a pair of Hermann Goering’s trousers. He called them “a lot of pants”.
At war’s end it was reported that O’Daniel’s “Rock of the Marne” Third Division had been awarded one fourth of all Medals of Honor presented during the war for its feats in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany.
In June 1945, he was presented with the Conspicuous Service Cross of Delaware by the Adjutant General, Paul R. Rinard and the Governor’s Medal, presented by Colonel William J. Storey, Secretary of State acting for Governor Walter W. Bacon. The first, the State’s highest military award , was made in front of the Public Building in Wilmington, while the second, the states highest civilian award, was presented on the University of Delaware campus.
In July 1945, General O’Daniel was assigned temporary duty with Army Ground Forces Headquarters in Washington DC. Later that month he became the commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, and in November 1946 was also appointed Commanding General there.
General O’Daniel was named Military Attaché at Moscow Russia in June 1948 and after temporary duty with the Intelligence Division at Army headquarters, assumed that position the following September, serving until August 1950 when he was appointed Infantry Inspector in the Office of the Chief of Army Field Forces at Fort Monroe Virginia. He once recalled that it was the only time he ever wore all of his military decorations he had received, “to dazzle the Russians who were impressed with his medals.” After returning from Moscow he made news when he wrote a lengthy magazine article about his experience and was quoted as saying, “For all its advertised glory, Moscow first impressed me, and still does, as a vast slum.” The Soviet newspaper Pravda responded by accusing him of being a spy and a liar.
In July 1951, he went to Korea to command 1st Corps, 8th Army for his last combat assignment. During his service in Korea, he was awarded the Air Medal for meritorious achievement on flights from July 21 to August 14, 1951 and the Commendation Ribbon for meritorious achievement on July 18, 1951. General O’Daniel gained an appreciation for the use of airpower saying "The airlift to Korea is one of the greatest developments of this war. It gives a commander advantages he never had in wars before." He pinned on his third star on December 20th 1951. On September 1, 1952, General O’ Daniel became commanding general of U.S. Army Forces Pacific returning once again to Fort Schafter, Hawaii.
He capped his distinguished career when he was posted as the very first Chief of the Military Assistance Advisory Group for Indo-China in April 1954 at the behest of President Eisenhower, leading the vanguard of America’s involvement in Indochina. He took a voluntary drop in rank so he would not outrank the French commander at that time. It was a controversial appointment, in that O’Daniel was viewed by some as not having the requisite tact and sophistication. Eisenhower defended him and believed that his critics had underestimated him. “Despite his nickname and his tough exterior”, Eisenhower wrote, “General O’Daniel was a man of great ability and tact”.
He quickly became involved in Vietnamese affairs even before the French were defeated. He had been chosen for the assignment largely on the basis of his successful role in creating and supervising the training programs which had transformed the South Korean Army into an effective fighting force during the Korean War. Now, in the aftermath of the Geneva settlement, he and his 342-man group began preparing for the immense task of rebuilding South Vietnam's armed forces.
He was optimistic that with American help Communism in Southeast Asia could be held at bay. He recommended increased aid to the French and an increased American presence. His advice was taken, and he set out to train and equip a more competent and professional South Vietnamese military as France disengaged from the area. Iron Mike became a forceful advocate of the U.S. commitment to Viet Nam, calling it "a test of our guts and our resilience." A monument to General O’Daniels was erected at Quang Trung, about ten miles west of Saigon, and the site of the largest training camp in the country at the time.
General O’Daniel retired from active service on December 31, 1955. At his retirement ceremony General Maxwell Taylor, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, paid a personalized tribute during a Pentagon ceremony. Commenting that “Iron Mike” always gets his objective”, General Taylor told the story of how General O’Daniel captured Berchtesgaden in May 1945. Racing down one side of the Autobahn and finally putting his forces across the single available bridge, General O’Daniel’s men won the spirited race to the prized objective from the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division. General Taylor had been in command of the 101st at the time. General O’Daniel was awarded a third oak leaf cluster to his Distinguished Service Medal at the ceremony.
His decorations include the French Croix de Guerre, the British Order of the Bath, the Italian Silver Medal, the Silver Star with cluster, the Legion of Merit with cluster, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart. He holds the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Distinguished Service Medal with cluster. He was given Delaware’s highest civilian medal, the Governor’s Medal and the Conspicuous Service Cross of Delaware. He was awarded an honorary PhD from the University of Delaware in 1956.
After returning from Vietnam and retiring, he was chairman of a civilian group called American Friends of Vietnam, demonstrating his personal commitment to the Vietnamese people.
He attended a reunion in Newark at the University of Delaware also attended by retired Marine Lt Gen. Robert T. Pepper, and Gen. Julian C. Smith in 1967. O’Daniel sent his alma mater a portrait given to him by Ngo Dinh Diem, the first president of South Vietnam. The Middletown Transcript recorded his last visit to Delaware on Nov 28 1971: “Lt. Gen. John W. "Iron Mike” O’Daniel, World War II hero, returned to Newark to settle the estate of his aunt Miss Etta J. Wilson.”
A 1945 oil portrait of General O’Daniel by Stanley Arthurs was presented to his alma mater, and hangs in Alumni Hall at the University of Delaware. On May 1, 1953 the National Sojourners, DuPont Chapter No. 78 presented a portrait of the general painted in 1945 by E. Klotsche, a POW artist at Fort DuPont to the state, to be hung in Legislative Hall with other portraits of distinguished leaders of World War II. The portrait was accepted by Governor J. Caleb Boggs in a brief ceremony.
He died in San Diego on March 27 1975, survived by his wife Gretchen, a daughter Mrs. Ruth Snyder of Pacific Grove California, and four grandchildren. His first wife, Ruth died in 1965. A brother, Lieutenant J. Allison O’Daniel, was killed in an air crash in France while serving in World War I.
His only son, John W. O’Daniel Jr., a paratrooper, was killed in action in World War II at Arnhem in 1944. Private O’Daniel was a member of Company A, 506th Parachute Regiment in the crack 82nd Airborne Division and was reported missing in action during the fighting after the “perfect drop” at Nijmegan Bridge, Holland. The drop took place on September 17, 1944 and Private O’Daniel was killed by a machine gun bullet near Mook Holland the following day. A graduate of Newark High School, the young soldier was attending Sullivan Military Academy when he was inducted. Transferring to the paratroops, he was sent overseas in July 1944, and took training in England. His decorations included the Silver Star Medal, awarded posthumously, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
SOURCES: Documents from the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center Carlisle Pennsylvania Iron Mike O’Daniel Dead: A General in Three Wars, Obituary New York Times 29 March 1975 p.26 O’Daniel Starts Vietnam Training New York Times 13 Feb 1955 Died. Lieut. General John W. ("Iron Mike") O'Daniel, 81, Time Magazine: 7 April 1975 Lt. Gen. John (Iron Mike) O’Daniel Dies, Obituary Washington Post, Sunday, March 30, 1975 p. B6 “Iron Mike “Always Gets His Objective, Says General Taylor (He Should Know) ANAFJ 17 Dec 1955. Gen. O’Daniel Dies; Served in 3 U.S. Wars, Wilmington Evening Journal 29 March 1975 Generals O’Daniel, Pepper, Julian Smith Return for Delaware Annual Reunion, Newark Post Newark Delaware, Thursday May 11, 1967 When Talking About Heroes, Remember these Three Men, Elbert Chance, News Journal Compass, October 22, 1987 Official Biography prepared by DoD Office of Public Information August 1954 Delaware’s Role in World War II, Volumes I and II, William H. Conner and Leon deValinger Jr., Delaware Heritage Commission, Delaware State Archives, Dover Delaware, 2003
Brig. Gen. Wiggins is the past Executive Director of the Delaware Military Heritage and Education Foundation. He is the author of “Delaware Army National Guard” and “Delaware Air National Guard”, and "Dover Air Force Base" histories published by Arcadia Publishing.