John Vessey was a 16-year-old student at Roosevelt High in Minneapolis when he enlisted in the Minnesota National Guard in 1939. (The New York Times says he lied about his age to get in.)
Forty-six years later he retired from the Army as a four star general. According to his Joint Chiefs of Staff bio, no one has served in the Army longer than Vessey, who died at his home in North Oaks Thursday night at age 94.
Lessons in World War II, medal in Vietnam
His Joint Chiefs biography includes these highlights from Vessey's long military career: He was with the 34th Infantry, which was deployed to North Africa in 1941 and suffered a number of setbacks on battlefields there early in World War II.
This instilled in Vessey a lifelong appreciation of the need for realistic combat training, modern equipment, physical fitness, and air-ground cooperation, he later said.
Vessey was a lieutenant colonel when he served in the Vietnam War. In 1967 he was commanding a battalion that had established a base well behind enemy lines.
When they were attacked by Viet Cong troops, Vessey and his soldiers were outnumbered but defended their base nonetheless, killing hundreds of attackers. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in that battle.
In 1982 Vessey was named Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In that post during President Ronald Reagan's administration he helped guide the biggest peacetime growth of defense spending in U.S. history.
Accounting for POW/MIA
Vessey continued to make important contributions to the military after his 1985 retirement.
He served under three presidents as a special emissary to Vietnam on the question of American service members missing from the war.
The Times says it was Vessey's 1988 breakthrough in talks with Hanoi that led to ground searches by Pentagon teams. In the following years, they uncovered the remains of about 900 military personnel and concluded that no prisoners were still being held.
Vessey was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush in 1992.
Vessey returned to his native state in his retirement. He and his wife lived for decades in the Lake Mille Lacs area – the Associated Press says their home was on Little Whitefish Lake near Garrison.
Sarah Vessey Krawczyk told news outlets her father of natural causes at his home in North Oaks.