Michael M. Van Ness, the grandson of “the general in command,” has created a remarkable biography chronicling the adventures of a farm boy who rose high rank in the US military and served with distinction in two world wars as a combatant, officer, and sage observer.
Born in 1891, John Benjamin Anderson must have had considerable intelligence as well as patriotism and grit, since he was accepted at West Point Military Academy at age 19, an honor conferred on only 130 applicants per year—and finished in the top third of his class. He would soon serve under General Pershing in the Mexican War, giving him the experience of combat and coincidentally, his first ride in an automobile. That deployment earned him inclusion in Pershing’s ranks in World War I. It was then his diaries began, and though he protested humorously that “I hate to write,” these personal recollections give readers an up-close picture of the devastation of warfare.
Anderson also describes, in straightforward prose, the grim conditions of foot soldiers in that terrible war—in muddy water up to their waists in the trenches, and always carrying two gas masks. The war gave him a chance for advancement through the ranks, and admiration for his fellow fighters, including the “bulldog tenacity of the British.”
His welcome home included giving a speech to the locals along with the realization that the military would be his lifetime profession, as the family had died or scattered. He studied to attain the rank of major and then lieutenant colonel, married happily, worked in Washington, DC, and had an assignment with the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) during the Great Depression.
In 1942, as a new war was rumbling once more in Europe, he took charge of training an infantry division. In 1944, he met with Winston Churchill; in fact, at one time he escorted Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery over the Rhine River. General William Simpson was a dear friend of Anderson’s and the pair maintained contact for years. He wrote letters to his wife, daughter, and mother-in-law; his homey descriptions included seeing a cart drawn by a dog, and noting foreign celebrations of Christmas. His XVI corps served in the Rhineland campaign, and he personally oversaw the liberation of the Dutch city of Roermond, where his name is revered to this day.
After the war, Anderson retired but often attended reunions with his military cohort and continued to receive civilian recognition. However, unlike many others, including his friend Simpson, he did not receive a post-war promotion. A rise to lieutenant general would fairly reflect his actual role in World War II, so Van Ness and others continue to petition for this honor—a third star—to be bestowed posthumously, as it is undoubtedly merited.
Van Ness served in the Navy in a medical capacity and shares a deep understanding of his outstanding forebear in this well-organized life story, which offers a thorough, thoughtful exploration of the many issues that arose during his grandfather’s wartime service. General in Command – The Life of Major General John B. Anderson will resound those who have served their country, either at home or abroad, their families, and with military history buffs. Highly recommended.