In his World War II enlistment papers, John William Vessey Jr.’s height (5-foot-10), weight (150 pounds) and education (three years of high school) seem about right. But his birth year, listed as 1920, is two years off. Hennepin County birth records show he first reported for duty on June 29, 1922.
It wasn’t just a typo. The oldest of a Minneapolis World War I Army veteran’s seven children, Vessey fudged his age when he joined the Minnesota National Guard in 1939 at 16. You were supposed to be 18. He trained as a private at the downtown Minneapolis Armory before World War II.
“He slipped past recruiters,” the New York Times said when Vessey died in North Oaks last August at 94.
After sneaking into the military as a Minneapolis Roosevelt High School student, Jack Vessey stuck around for 46 years. He said he was among the first to fight the Germans on the ground in North Africa. He was promoted to second lieutenant, winning his battlefield commission on Italy’s bloody beachhead at Anzio.
In 1976, when the nation celebrated its bicentennial, Vessey was elevated to a four-star general while coordinating operations at the Pentagon. When he retired in 1985, he was the last four-star, World War II combat veteran still on active duty.
But the high point of Vessey’s military career arc came in 1982 when someone came poking around. That someone was President Ronald Reagan, who was done interviewing candidates to become his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“He stuck his finger in my chest and said, ‘I’ve looked at all the other candidates,’ and he said, ‘I really want you to take this job.’ But he said, ‘You talk to your wife and decide.’ ”
His wife, then of 37 years, Avis, wasn’t about to stand in the way. Vessey became Reagan’s top military adviser for more than three years, 1982-1985, toward the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
“I’ve seen many false depictions of Reagan as though he were a hawk and a man of war,” Vessey said. “That was not the case. … But he believed, as did our first president George Washington, that the surest way to maintain the peace is to make it clear that you’re always ready for war.”
Those comments are part of a roughly 10-minute video interview — vimeo.com/180748647 — recorded in 2010 in a Shoreview office.
“I reached out to him to more fully explore his role working alongside Reagan,” said Randal Dietrich, who produced the video as an independent historian before becoming the manager of the Minnesota History Center’s “Greatest Generation” project.
“I got to know him pretty well,” Dietrich said. “Reagan’s diaries had been published about this time so I was able to find specific excerpts referencing the Joint Chiefs and then essentially ask Vessey to comment about the entries from specific diary entries.”
The video reflects Vessey’s forward-looking style.
“We thought we were well trained at the time,” Vessey said. “We were well trained but not for the war we were going to fight. … I spent the rest of my time in the armed forces making sure that the outfit I was with was going to be trained for the war it was going to fight in the next war, not the last war.”
Vessey said that’s why he so enjoyed working for Reagan, as the president rebuilt the military for future battles.
“And if you don’t think we did that, look again at the first Gulf War,” Vessey said on the video. “You may disagree with the strategic concept or the end of it. … But if you look … you will see the armed forces that Reagan built and what they were capable of doing.”
Historians credit a more tech-savvy military, using teleconferences, televised charts and other high-tech enhancements, as key innovations deployed after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the early 1990s.
By then, Vessey had formally retired — splitting time between his place on Little Whitefish Lake near Garrison and North Oaks — though he wasn’t kicking up his heels.
In 1988, Vessey’s negotiations with Communist leaders in Hanoi led to the eventual discovery of the remains of about 900 military members missing in Vietnam.
Reagan, the older George Bush and Bill Clinton all used Vessey as a special White House envoy to find out what had happened to those hundreds of Americans listed as prisoners of war or missing in action since 1975, when North Vietnam defeated the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese. Vessey was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, in 1992 for his post-retirement work finding lost soldiers’ remains.
“Plain-spoken, he had none of the polish of former chairmen, and unlike most of them … he had mostly been a combat officer, out of Washington’s limelight,” the New York Times said.
A humble Minnesotan, Vessey liked it that way: “We have had a lot of famous generals who have been in the public eye, and I think rightly so — MacArthur, Eisenhower, Bradley,” he said in 1984. “I am not in that category.”
From his service in North Africa, Italy, Korea, Germany and other hot spots, Vessey was authorized to decorate his uniform with seven rows of medals and ribbons. But he usually kept those in a drawer.
After Vessey died, retired Navy chaplain Rear Admiral Donald Muchow pulled out a speech the general delivered on Veterans Day 1984:
“There are not any cheap, easy gimmicks as we seek world peace and national security,” Vessey said. “Strength, steadiness, willing allies and the willingness to serve all are great contributors. Above all we need moral and spiritual health in order to sustain our freedoms.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.