J. Lawton Collins, 1896-1987 (Lighting Joe)

Joseph Lawton Collins (1896-1987) was one of the most capable American Corps commanders of the Second World War, and one of a small number of senior officers to serve in both the Pacific and European fronts, commanding the 25th Division on Guadalcanal and the 7th Corps from D-Day to the end of the war.

Collins was born in Algiers, Louisiana, the son of an Irish immigrant who had served as a Union drummer boy in the American Civil War. Collins was the nephew of Martin Behrman, the mayor of New Orleans from 1904 to 1920 and again from 1925 to his death in 1926. Behrman used his influence to gain Collins an alternate appointment to West Point – one that he could only take up if the first nominee failed his entry examination. In the first example of what Collins called his 'usual Irish luck', the principle candidate failed, and Collins took up his place at West Point on 2 June 1913. He graduated 35th in his class of 139 in April 1917 and entered the infantry, but didn't reach Europe until after the Armistice ended the First World War.

Promotion was slow in the inter-war army. Collins served as an instructor at the Army War College from 1938 to 1940, but despite this was not considered senior enough to be given command of a regiment in the expanding army, instead becoming Chief of Staff for the 6th Corps, based in Birmingham, Alabama.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Collins and the 6th Corps staff moved to the West Coast, where they were to serve under General De Witt, but Collins' 'Irish luck' struck again. General Walter C. Short, the senior Army officer at Pearl Harbor, was recalled ten days after the attack and was replaced by Major General H. A. Dargue. Dargue was killed in a plane crash while on his way to Hawaii, and was replaced by General Delos Emmons, while Collins was appointed as the new Chief of Staff of the Hawaiian Department.

Collins reached Hawaii on 17 December 1941. After five months as Chief of Staff he was appointed to command the 25th Infantry 'Tropic Lightning' Division, which had been formed around the peacetime Hawaiian Division, and had quite a poor reputation. Collins was fortunate in that he had six months to improve his new division before it entered combat on Guadalcanal.

Collins led the 25th Division into combat early in January 1943 when it relieved the 1st Marine Division. The division then landed on beaches west of the Tenaru River and took part in a three-division strong offensive that captured Kokumbona and Mt. Austen. At the start of February one of the Division's regiments – the 161st Infantry – took part in the final fighting around Cape Esperance that ended organised Japanese resistance on Guadalcanal.

Collins remained with the division through five months of training on Guadalcanal and during the fight for Munda on New Georgia. He gained his nickname during this period in the Pacific, from his Divisional HQ's codename - 'Lightning'. 

Despite his impressive performance on Guadalcanal and New George MacArthur didn't think Collins was ready to command a corps. That appointment came from the very top, when General Marshal recommended that Collins should command 7th Corps in the invasion of Europe. Eisenhower agreed, and on 19 January 1944 Collins was ordered to take command of his new corps.

On D-Day 7th Corps was responsible for the landing on Utah Beach, which proved to be the least costly of the day, partly because the Germans had believed that the flooded areas behind the beach would discourage the Allies and partly because the two US Airborne Divisions caused such much confusion behind German lines that no coherent counterattack ever emerged.

Collins went onshore on D-Day+1. His first objective, to reach the west coast of the Cotentin Peninsula, was achieved on 18 June and his second, the capture of Cherbourg, on 27 June. Collins' corps then turned south to take part in Operation Cobra, the breakout from the Normandy beachhead. The Americans hoped that the heavy air bombardment that preceded the ground attack would mean that there was very little resistance, but when they ran into more resistance than had been expected the general feeling was that the attack had failed. Only one intelligence officer realised that the Germans had no reserves behind the thin front line, and he convinced Collins to risk launching his armoured attack despite the failure of the infantry to reach the planned starting point for the tanks. Collins' gamble succeeded, and his tanks led the Allied breakthrough on the German left flank that ended the deadlock in France and led directly to the fighting in the Falaise Pocket.

Collins' corps played a part in the fighting that defeated the German counterattack at Mortain, and then attacked the south-western flank of the Falaise Pocket. After the liberation of Paris the 7th Corps took part in the fighting in the Aachen Gap, broke through the Siegfried Line, and by December 1944 was involved in the brutal fighting in the Huertgen Forest.

Collins thus found himself on the northern side of the German 'bulge' at the start of their Ardennes offensive. He played a major part in the defeat of the German attack, disengaging on his eastern front and turning south to attack the northern shoulder of the 'bulge', blocking the German transport routes through St. Vith.

After the end of the Ardennes offensive Collins returned to the offensive, capturing Cologne on 11 March 1945 before advancing towards Paderborn to complete the isolate of the Ruhr and Model's Army Group B. Finally Collins and 7th Corps advanced to the south of the Harz Mountains and reached the Elbe. On 20 April Collins was informed that he had been promoted to Lieutenant General, dated from 15 April. On 22 April all resistance ended on his front. 

Collins was highly regarded by friend and foe alike. General Bradley described him as 'independent, heady, capable and full of vinegar', while the German generals ranked him (alongside General Troy Middleton) as one of the two best US corps commanders in Europe.

After the war Collins rose to the highest ranks in the army. In September 1945 he became Chief of Staff, Army Ground Forces, before on 15 December becoming US Army Chief of Information, with the task of defending the army in the post-war world. After two years of this PR work he was appointed Eisenhower's deputy chief of staff on 1 September 1947, then retained the post when Bradley replaced Eisenhower in February 1948. By the end of 1948 Collins had been promoted to full general and appointed vice chief of staff, and on 16 August 1949 he became army Chief of Staff. He held this post for four years that included the Korean War, before becoming the US representative on the NATO standing group. He held this post from 1953 until his retirement in 1956, with one break between October 1954 and May 1955 when he was sent to Vietnam in an attempt to shore up the government of Ngo Dinh Diem.

The D-Day Companion, ed. Jane Penrose. A selection of thirteen separate essays on different aspects of the D-Day lands, from the initial planning to post-war memorials; this is an excellent piece of work that sets the D-Day landings firmly in context. An excellent starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about Operation Overlord, but its wide range of topics means it is likely to be of value to anyone with an interest in the subject. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (28 May 2009), J. Lawton Collins, 1896-1987 (Lighting Joe) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_collins_j_lawton.html

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