Lesley James McNair was born May 25, 1883 in Verndale, MN. His family moved to Minneapolis, where high school was available for McNair and his siblings. While he was on the waiting list for the U.S. Naval Academy, he accepted an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy, and began attending in August 1900.
McNair commissioned into artillery, but soon transferred to ordnance. His first project was improving artillery used in mountainous areas where the large heavy caissons couldn’t go. McNair did studies in metallurgy and other topics that gave him experience in laboratory experiments. He also learned to use forges, lathes, and other equipment.
In 1909, he returned to artillery, and served at Fort Riley, KS, during the testing of defenses against howitzers. McNair served at the Field Artillery School, and spent time in France before World War I observing French artillery in training. McNair participate in the Pancho Villa Expedition.
He was assigned to the 1st Division in 1917, and was in charge of pre-mobilization training for the division. His roommate on the ocean voyage to France was Maj. George Marshall. McNair was promoted to temporary brigadier general in June 1918, at that time the youngest general officer in the Army, at 35. During the war, he served as the chief of artillery training and tactics.
After the war, McNair served on the faculty at the School of the Line (now Command and General Staff College) at Fort Leavenworth, KS. He was then sent to Fort Shafter, HI, to study coastal defenses. In 1924, McNair served with the ROTC at Purdue University. McNair then attended the Army War College. He was then assigned to the Field Artillery Center and School and pioneered accuracy techniques including forward observers and direct fire rather than timed or rolling barrages. In 1934, McNair was put in charge of CCC camps in MS and LA.
McNair became the commandant of Command and General Staff College to reorganize training at the school at the behest of George Marshall. During 1940 and 1941, he was in charge of the large training at the Louisiana Maneuvers. In 1942, McNair became commander of Army Ground Forces. He was injured in North Africa in 1943 when he went to see how effective the training had been. In 1944, while observing troops in France, McNair was killed by Eighth Air Force bombs dropped short of their target in a close-air-support role.
McNair is buried in the Normandy American Cemetery in France.
To find other items that the Marshall Foundation has on transportation, search “McNair” in the library catalog: https://www.marshallfoundation.org/library/results/
Digitized items in the George C. Marshall archives: