Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

O.P. Smith: the most underrated general in American history?

My candidate for the most underrated general in American history is Gen. O.P. Smith, who commanded the Marines at Chosin Reservoir. He is less known that several of his subordinates who were there, notably Chesty Puller and Ray Davis. I don’t know why he has been forgotten. I am tempted to say it is because ...

U.S. Navy
U.S. Navy

My candidate for the most underrated general in American history is Gen. O.P. Smith, who commanded the Marines at Chosin Reservoir. He is less known that several of his subordinates who were there, notably Chesty Puller and Ray Davis. I don’t know why he has been forgotten. I am tempted to say it is because he was quiet and scholarly, hardly fitting the gung-ho public image of the Marines. But Ray Davis wasn’t demonstrative, either. What I do know is that the decisions Smith made before the battle — to consolidate his forces, build fortified supply dumps along his line of retreat, and carve out two airstrips — were crucial in getting his Marines to the sea .  

You can read all about O.P. Smith in his biography, For Country and Corps, by Gail Shisler. I’ve read a lot about Chosin in the last month and found this one of the most illuminating books. I didn’t know, for example, that Smith was at odds not only with Army Maj. Gen. Almond, but also with his own Marine superior, Lt. Gen. Lemuel Shepherd, who essentially told him to go along with Almond’s lethally foolish plans. (And while we’re on the subject of unrecognized heroes, how about Lt. Col. Jack Partridge, who performed two essential and difficult tasks during the Chosin campaign, first carving out an airstrip that enabled Smith to evacuate 4,000 casualties and bring in supplies, and then in an unprecedented operation having bridge spans air-dropped so 14,000 Marines and soldiers could head south from Koto-ri? Smith noted in an interview that Partridge was never promoted to colonel after Chosin. Just how many thousands of Marines do you have to save to make 0-6?)     

Any other candidates for most under-rated general? I’d like to assemble a top 10 list.

My candidate for the most underrated general in American history is Gen. O.P. Smith, who commanded the Marines at Chosin Reservoir. He is less known that several of his subordinates who were there, notably Chesty Puller and Ray Davis. I don’t know why he has been forgotten. I am tempted to say it is because he was quiet and scholarly, hardly fitting the gung-ho public image of the Marines. But Ray Davis wasn’t demonstrative, either. What I do know is that the decisions Smith made before the battle — to consolidate his forces, build fortified supply dumps along his line of retreat, and carve out two airstrips — were crucial in getting his Marines to the sea .  

You can read all about O.P. Smith in his biography, For Country and Corps, by Gail Shisler. I’ve read a lot about Chosin in the last month and found this one of the most illuminating books. I didn’t know, for example, that Smith was at odds not only with Army Maj. Gen. Almond, but also with his own Marine superior, Lt. Gen. Lemuel Shepherd, who essentially told him to go along with Almond’s lethally foolish plans. (And while we’re on the subject of unrecognized heroes, how about Lt. Col. Jack Partridge, who performed two essential and difficult tasks during the Chosin campaign, first carving out an airstrip that enabled Smith to evacuate 4,000 casualties and bring in supplies, and then in an unprecedented operation having bridge spans air-dropped so 14,000 Marines and soldiers could head south from Koto-ri? Smith noted in an interview that Partridge was never promoted to colonel after Chosin. Just how many thousands of Marines do you have to save to make 0-6?)     

Any other candidates for most under-rated general? I’d like to assemble a top 10 list.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1