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Polk County’s 4-star hero could replace Confederate general in U.S. Capitol

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Twenty-three years ago a young House member introduced a bill to replace the statue of Confederate Gen. Kirby Smith in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol with one of Gen. James A. Van Fleet. It passed the House, but the Senate sponsor got cold feet after receiving phone calls from several Confederate memorial groups.

That House member, Joe Tedder, a Lakeland Democrat, who is now Polk County Tax Collector, is again working to get the famous World War II and Korean War four-star general and winning University of Florida football coach into Statuary Hall.

“It is just incredible what this man accomplished both as a football coach and a military officer in wars ranging from the fight to capture Pancho Villa to the Korean War,” Tedder said.

Van Fleet was born in Coytesville, New Jersey, March 19, 1892, because his father had sent the family “up North” to avoid a cholera outbreak in Bartow. Growing up in Bartow, he attended Summerlin Institute with best friend and future Gov. and U.S. Sen. Spessard Holland.

In 1911 he was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, something that would have made his grandfather, Joshua Jan Van Fleet, a member of the New York militia in 1779, proud.

In his senior year, he was starting fullback on Army’s undefeated football team, which may have led to his successes later.

Van Fleet graduated from West Point in 1915, known as “the class the stars fell on” including Omar Bradley and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

His first assignment was with the 3rd Infantry Regiment under Gen. John J. Pershing in search of Villa. In World War I, he commanded the 17th Machine Gun Battalion.

After the war, Van Fleet became ROTC commander at several colleges. When he was assigned to the ROTC unit at the University of Florida, he also became the football coach 1921 to 1924 and returned 1932 and 1933.

His winning percentage was the highest of any Gator coach until Steve Spurrier, Tedder said. Over the door of the locker room leading to the field today are the words of Van Fleet, “Will To Win” which each player touches or hits on the way to play the game.

He headed the lead regiment onto Utah Beach on D-Day.

At the end of World War II, Van Fleet was Lt. General (three stars) and commander of an Army Corps.

In 1948 Van Fleet was sent to Greece to command the Joint Military Advisory Group, advising the Greek military in its civil war against communist insurgents.

In 1951 as a four-star general he was sent to command the 8th Army and U.N. Forces. His only son, Capt. James A. Van Fleet Jr., an Air Force pilot, was shot down and observed as being captured.

“This is the measure of the man,” Tedder said. “He refused offers by Korean and U.S. commanders to go free his son. He said ‘I can’t tell mothers their sons were killed trying to save my son.’ That had to be the toughest decision.”

Two years later, James A. Van Fleet Jr. was declared legally dead.

Gen. Van Fleet retired in 1953 to his farm in Polk County, but was occasionally called to Washington for advice.

President Harry Truman is presumed to have said, “He was the greatest combat general we ever had. I sent him to Greece, and he won the war. I sent him to Korea, and he won the war.”

He died Sept. 23, 1992, just months after his 100th birthday celebration at his Polk City ranch. Cadets from West Point and the Korean and Greek military academies were there.

Van Fleet is among those named Great Floridian and in the Florida Sports Hall of Fame.

Two statues of Van Fleet exist. One is in Korea and the other in Greece. None are in the U.S., Tedder said.

A bill is moving through the Legislature to remove Kirby Smith and set up a committee to choose a replacement.

“I hope we can convince citizens of the state that this outstanding Floridian should be honored with a statue in the Capitol,” said Tedder, who plans to organize an informational campaign to spread the story of Van Fleet across the state.

Former Ledger of Lakeland columnist Bill Rufty is Central Florida political correspondent for SaintPetersBlog and Florida Politics. Rufty had been with the Ledger from 1985-2015, where, as political editor, he covered a wide range of beats, including local and state politics, the Lakeland City Commission, and the Florida Legislature. Ledger editor Lenore Devore said about Rufty’s 30-year career: “[He is] a man full of knowledge, a polling expert and a war history buff … who has a steel trap in his brain, remembering details most of us have long since forgotten.”

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