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WORLD WAR II
ROBERT ALEXIS McCLURE
Called the “Forgotten Father of US Army Special Warfare”
If you were to leisurely stroll through the shaded peacefulness of Fairmont Cemetery, you might happen upon a stone simply inscribed, “Robert McClure, Major General, U S Army”. If you cast about in your mind, chances are you will not recognize the name nor recall any heroic deeds attributed to it. This is not surprising for Major General Robert Alexis McClure was a man destined to live, die and repose in obscurity. Whether this was by choice or by circumstances, it is only fitting that at least a small part of his story be brought to light.
Robert Alexis McClure was born March 4, 1897 in Mattoon, Illinois, a town that only existed because of and was sustained by a railroad line. Its size and history, though not as long, coincides with that of Madison. Built during a boom time and then suffering financial hardships, the town has stabilized and endured.
Robert McClure’s parents were George Hurlburt and Harriet Julia Rudy McClure. For a time they lived in Mattoon and reared a family which included Robert and his sisters, Persis Elizabeth and Mary Susan but sometime around 1907 George and Harriet divorced. Harriet soon remarried to Frank Eckert, a traveling salesman and, after residing for a short time in Mattoon, and adding another son, William, the family moved to Madison, Indiana in the spring of 1911. In Madison Robert attended school until 1913, when he transferred to the Kentucky Military Institute. Here he passed his exams and graduated in 1916 and was sent to the Philippines as a Second Lieutenant for the Philippine Constabulary. In 1917 he joined the regular army and was sent to China with the 15th Infantry. During 1917 he was promoted to 1st lieutenant.
On November 11, 1918, he married Marjorie Crandall Leitch in Kobe, Japan and to them would be born two sons, Robert Dugald and Richard Alexis. In 1920 Robert Returned to the U. S. and was stationed at Camp Sherman, Ohio from 1920 to 1923. He was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia in 1923 as an instructor. During this time he vacationed and visited Madison and even did some recruiting in his hometown from time to time. On November 23, 1923, he placed in the Madison Courier the following, “Dear Sir, Since my last vacation spent in Madison, I have had a change in assignment. I now command the regimental headquarters company, 29th infantry, and find it the most desirable assignment I have had. I have a few vacancies in the company which I am desirous of filling with (the) right sort of young men and naturally I turn at once to Madison. Through your medium I believe I can place the prospects offered by this company before the class of ambitious young men who are the ones we most desire to number in our organization. I have something to ‘sell’ these young men. Benefits for which they would be required to spend considerable money. In addition to these, which I shall enumerate below, they can earn while they learn….”
In rapid succession he was then assigned to military installations in Utah, Arizona, Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia and Fort Riley, Kansas. All this time he was attending diverse military classes and training courses. His dedication and obvious ability gained him a place at the Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Georgia and later he was sent to the Army War College at Washington.
McClure was an expert horseman and, for a time, instructor in horsemanship at Fort Benning He performed a feat that caught national attention. In Madison, on the evening of May 14, 1924, it was announced that, “The fox news service tonight at the Grand Opera House will show as on of its items a movie of Captain Robert A. McClure, 29th Infantry, Ft. Benning, Ga. in his feat of leaping his horse over a dining table at which a number of soldiers are seated. A picture of the jump was recently used in the illustrated sections of Sunday papers. Captain McClure…. is one of the able young officers of the
U. S. army of today.”
Then, as a Lieutenant Colonel, he was Executive Officer under General John DeWitt and General Phillip Peyton. By 1942 he had advanced to Military Attaché in London. Soon after the country’s entry into World War II he was made Chief of Intelligence of the European Theater for the General Staff. In September of 1942 Dwight D. Eisenhower personally appointed McClure to his Allied Forces Headquarters as Chief Intelligence Officer for the European Theater of Operations. In December of 1942 he moved to the North African Theater of Operations where Ike put him in charge of Information and Censorship (INC) of the Allied Forces Headquarters. Here he was to pull together the various functions of public relations, censorship and psychological warfare, a relatively new concept that McClure was literally and virtually creating as he went along. It was a conglomeration of military and civilian personnel encompassing the U. S. Office of War Information (OWI), the U. S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which would evolve into the CIA, and the British Political Warfare Executive (PWE) among others. It was, in the beginning, an incohesive and cumbersome group of diverse departments. McClure used his ability to assess a situation and apply trial and error techniques, using what worked and discarding what did not. He was recalled to Europe in 1943 and was assigned to COSSAC (Chief of Staff, Supreme Allied Commander).
By the end of the North African and Sicilian campaigns, McClure, himself, began to believe he had found his “niche”. He had managed to pull together a group of various offices and turn them into an effective, working department. Considering the diversity of the department and the various egos involved, this was no small feat and in early 1944 General Eisenhower authorized the establishment of the Psychological Warfare Division of the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force to support the European campaign in Nazi Germany with McClure at the head.
At the end of the war Eisenhower again turned to McClure to direct the planning for the occupation of Germany. Among other things, he was to take over the “reorientation of German” by use of radio, newspaper and other communications. It was not enough to win the War; Eisenhower now intended to win the hearts, or at least the cooperation, of the German people. With the go-ahead from Ike and with the blessing of President Truman, McClure advanced Psychological Warfare, setting up what we now would find recognizable as the format that is still in place today. At the end of the war President Truman dissolved the OSS but from it came the nucleus of men and techniques that would form today’s CIA.
McClure’s contributions and innovations are too varied and monumental to all be chronicled here but it must be mentioned that in 1952 the Green Berets, also known as “United States Army Special Forces”, were formally established by now Brigadier General Robert McClure with Col. Aaron Bank and Col. Russell Volckman in charge. He anticipated the dangers that would be encountered with the Russians in the future and understood the U. S. would need a new and different arsenal to combat it. He established a Psychological Warfare Center at Fort Bragg to provide formal instruction to Army personnel. The new unit was placed in a set of abandoned WWII wooden barracks in the back corner of the fort called Smoke Bomb Hill. From this humble beginning grew the important wing of the military known as Special Forces and Psychological Warfare that we know today.
During his career Major General Robert A. McClure garnered many honors and accolades. He received, among others, the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters and the Legion of Merit from his own country and many from foreign countries including Great Britain, France, Poland, the Netherlands, and Italy.
By early 1953 most of McClure’s major programs had been implemented and he was assigned to Iran as Chief of the U. S. Military Mission. Here he was promoted to Major General. In 1956 he retired from the service after 39 years. While on a cross-country trip with Marjorie to San Clemente where they were to enjoy retired life, he became ill. On January 1, 1957, he died of a heart ailment in Arizona. His body was brought back to Madison and was interred in Fairmont Cemetery near his mother and stepfather, Frank and Harriet Eckert. When Marjorie died in 1988 her ashes were brought to Madison and placed in Fairmont Cemetery with her husband.
It is hard to fathom that a man who had the confidence of generals, walked with presidents and conceived of and created such an organization could lie in virtual obscurity, but it is so.
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