It’s 1945, and Allied soldiers are fighting their way towards the west bank of the Elbe River in Germany. One of the men deeply involved in the fierce combat is American James Hollingsworth, commander of a tank battalion. Lining up his 34 tanks against the Nazis, Hollingsworth yells “Charge!” It’s a seldom heard order in the modern warfare of WWII. But it works: the Germans flee.
To begin with, James Francis Hollingsworth was born in March, 1918, just a short distance to the north of the Texan city of Sanger. He was the first of the four sons that his parents James and Mamie brought up on their farm. The Hollingsworths were also shopkeepers, with stores in Dallas and Denton.
As a youngster, James junior took his lessons at the Union Hill School, a tiny country establishment with just three rooms. But childhood wasn’t just a time of lessons for the young Hollingsworth. He made his start in the world of work aged just 10, tending livestock and working in the fields, where wheat, corn and cotton grew.
He also took on a large burden of responsibility at a tender age, helping his parents in the running of the family farm and taking on the management of as many as 30 farmworkers. Then he joined Sanger High School in 10th grade, where he was an accomplished athlete, excelling in basketball, track and football.
Along came the Great Depression of the 1930s, and like so many American communities, Sanger suffered from it. The Hollingsworth family’s finances were stretched, but James was determined to see his education through. When he didn’t arrive at school on horseback, he made his way there on foot.
After leaving school, still fired by his firm resolve to get a good education, Hollingsworth went on to North Texas Agricultural College in 1935. He spent a single year there before moving on to Texas A&M College, majoring in dairy science and vocational agriculture. Always the willing worker, he got himself a job at the college dairy.
Hollingsworth’s prior farming experience soon got him promotion at the dairy to the position of lab technician, which meant a pay hike of a handy 25 cents an hour. Hollingsworth settled into a rigorous daily regime at college. Typically, he’d rise at 4:00 a.m., put in a shift at the dairy and then take part in cadet drills. After that came a full day of study, rounded off with another stint of dairying.
Then his enthusiasm for the college cadets brought the reward of the position of cadet captain with the battalion staff of the Corps of Cadets, Headquarters Company, First Infantry Battalion. And when he graduated from A&M in May 1940 with his bachelor’s in agriculture, he was immediately commissioned into the U.S. Army reserve as an officer.
After a few months working at the Hughes Tool Company in Houston, Texas, the call came from the service in July 1940, and Hollingsworth joined the regular army. Hollingsworth now attended the Armor School at Fort Benning in Georgia. There he would get his first taste of the tank, the modern weapon that would play a huge part in the Second World War.
Hollingsworth took part in some vital research at Fort Benning, testing whether tanks equipped with diesel or petrol engines were best suited to operations in desert conditions. And then, in what must have been an exciting assignment for the young officer, he was sent to Belem in Brazil on a special mission to gather intelligence on German U-Boat deployment.
Then on December 7, 1941, Japan launched its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The next day, the U.S. declared war on Japan, and on December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on America. The die was cast for a devastating world war, and Hollingsworth would play a full part in the ferocious conflict to come.
Hollingsworth was ordered to join the 2nd Armored Division, nicknamed “Hell on Wheels,” in December 1942. It had already landed in Casablanca on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. There, he took command of a tank company. His unit had three platoons, each with a complement of five tanks. He didn’t have to wait long for his first taste of action.
In the February 1943 Battle of Kasserine Pass, Hollingsworth found himself up against the German Afrika Korps and their formidable Tiger tanks. The action took place in the Atlas Mountains of Tunisia in a two-mile-wide passage that cut through the mountainous terrain. The Americans and British suffered heavy losses and were pushed back 50 miles.
Fortunately, the German Commander General Erwin Rommel, the legendary Desert Fox, decided his supply lines were overstretched and decided to retreat. In any case, Hollingsworth lived to fight another day. And the next big fight he was involved in came in July 1943 with Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of the Italian island of Sicily.
Husky was a success, and by August 17, 1943 the Allies had defeated all of the Axis forces on the island. It was an important victory, clearing maritime routes across the Mediterranean for use by merchant shipping. And the next stop was mainland Italy with the first amphibious landing coming in early September 1943.
Once Sicily had been conquered, the U.S. Army set about reorganizing some of its armored formations into units designed for faster deployment and attack capabilities. This exercise included the 2nd Armored Division, Hollingsworth’s unit. It was earmarked for the forthcoming invasion of northern France.
Hollingsworth and his comrades traveled to England, arriving there on November 25, 1943, which happened to be Thanksgiving Day that year. Ahead of Hollingsworth and his men lay many months of intensive training for the largest amphibious landing that the world has ever seen. The 2nd Division incorporated the hard lessons of the North African and Sicilian campaigns into the painstaking preparations.
The 2nd Armored Division landed on Normandy’s Omaha Beach on June 9, three days after D-Day. The division then took part in Operation Cobra in July, a concerted assault on German lines designed to break out of the beachhead the Allies had secured in Normandy. The German forces collapsed and the Normandy Campaign ended in victory for the Allies in early August 1944.
Often under heavy air attack by the Luftwaffe, Hollingsworth now took his unit to the north of Paris and successfully crossed the River Seine and then the Somme and Meuse rivers. His unit continued north across Belgium and eventually reached the German defensive position of the Siegfried Line in late August. That put them close to entering Germany.
Hollingsworth was given the command of the 67th Regiment’s Second Tank Battalion in October 1944, which was in position on the Wurm River in the west of Germany. The battalion now headed for the Rhine River. At this point, Hollingsworth received a wound, but he returned to duty in November. His unit had reached the German town of Puffendorf about 30 miles west of the city of Cologne on the Rhine.
Then the Germans launched a major offensive in the Ardennes forests, which came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Hollingsworth and his battalion now had to return to Belgium to counter this attack. Hollingsworth was wounded again the day after Christmas and a third time on January 11. He was now evacuated to England.
Hollingsworth was so keen to get back into combat in Europe that he left hospital without being formally discharged. This led to him being marked as absent without leave, akin to desertion. In fact, he now hitchhiked across Europe to Belgium, where he rejoined his unit and took part in repelling the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge.
On March 24, 1945, Hollingsworth’s unit crossed the River Rhine near the German city of Krefeld. It was not long after this crossing that the famous incident mentioned earlier took place. Hollingsworth formed up 34 tanks in battle formation and gave them the shouted order of “Charge!” Then the Germans fled in the face of this onslaught, ditching their weaponry.
Subsequently, Hollingsworth and his men now fought their way to the Elbe River, where they were ordered to capture a bridge in the city of Schoenebeck. During the fierce battle that ensued, Hollingsworth left his tank to guide his battalion through burning wreckage. Under heavy fire, the tanks made it to the bridge, but Hollingsworth received wounds in the face and a shot in the knee.
Unfortunately, the Germans blew the bridge up, but nevertheless Hollingsworth was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He’d stayed with the fighting until he was finally ordered to accept medical evacuation. General Eisenhower now ordered the 2nd Armored Division to halt at the Elbe and prepare to move on Berlin. But the German surrender intervened on May 8, 1945, and the war in Europe was over.
By the close of the Second World War, the man who had started as a lieutenant was now Colonel Hollingsworth. At the war’s start, the lieutenant had been in command of three platoons. By its end he was responsible for a regiment. And during the hostilities, Hollingsworth had won five Purple Hearts, four Bronze Stars, four Silver Stars and that Distinguished Service Cross.
After his return to the U.S., Hollingsworth took command of the Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas where he stayed for four years. There then followed a series of overseas postings in Germany and Pakistan and spells at West Point and Fort Hood, Texas. Another promotion came along, this time to brigadier general.
By the beginning of 1966, America’s involvement in Vietnam had increased to the extent that there were almost 185,000 U.S. soldiers in the country. And in that year, Brigadier General Hollingsworth, now assistant commander of the 1st Infantry Division, was posted to Vietnam. He had a reputation as a gung-ho, fighting general and was known by his personal call sign, “Danger 79er.”
In June 1966 Hollingsworth came into the public eye when a journalist, Nicholas Tomalin, profiled him in an article published in the British newspaper The Sunday Times. Tomalin accompanied Hollingsworth for a day as he flew by helicopter around an area of South Vietnam some 20 miles from the capital, Saigon. The piece in The Sunday Times carried the headline “The General Goes Zapping Charlie Cong.”
“The General,” Tomalin wrote, “has a big, real American face, reminiscent of every movie general you have seen. He comes from Texas, and is 48.” Tomalin described Hollingsworth’s mission that day. It was to drive Vietcong soldiers off two important supply routes. “So this day we aim to zapp him [the Vietcong], and zapp him, and zapp him again till we’ve zapped him right back where he came from. Yes, sir. Let’s go,” Hollingsworth told Tomalin.
As the day went on, Hollingsworth spotted two figures running through a field. He ordered his pilot to fly low and fired off a burst at the pair from his M16 rifle, hanging out of the open door. The journalist piped up, “But General, how do you know those aren’t just frightened peasants?” Hollingsworth replied, “Running? Like that? Don’t give me a pain.”
After more gunfire, Hollingsworth got his chopper to land and personally captured a wounded Vietcong. “’That’s a Cong for sure,’ cries the General in triumph and with one deft movement grabs the man’s short black hair and yanks him off his feet, inboard,” Tomalin wrote. He finished his piece with a final quote from Hollingsworth.
“There’s no better way to fight than goin’ out to shoot VCs. An’ there’s nothing I love better than killin’ Cong. No, sir,” Hollingsworth declares. This media exposure caused a bit of trouble for the general. The U.S. Army’s chief of staff, Harold K. Johnson, was not impressed. He told Hollingsworth it was not his job to personally kill the Vietcong. His role was to command the troops who were supposed to do that.
Despite this reprimand, in November 1966, Hollingsworth’s bravery earned him a second Distinguished Service Cross. When three special forces units had been surrounded and cut off by hostile forces, Hollingsworth flew at low altitude in his command chopper in the face of heavy Vietcong fire. By doing so, he was able to direct close air support to relieve the surrounded troops.
Hollingsworth’s first tour of duty in Vietnam ended in 1967, but he came back for a second time in 1971. During the major Battle of An Loc in April 1972, he was responsible for arranging air support for the South Vietnamese forces as they fought off a concerted attack by regular North Vietnamese troops.
Hollingsworth’s actions during the An Loc battle helped prevent the North Vietnamese from advancing on Saigon. He continued in that battle until he was seriously wounded in one eye by rocket fire. Hollingsworth was apparently worried that the possible loss of an eye might end his days as an active soldier.
His commanding officer, General Abrams is said to have reassured him. Abrams told Hollingsworth that he’d rather have him with one eye than most others even if they had three eyes. In fact, Hollingsworth’s eye was saved and he now received his third Bronze Star. His next posting was to command troops stationed in South Korea.
In Korea Hollingsworth rejigged the operational plans that were in place for resistance of a possible North Korean attack. The plans he inherited assumed that the Americans and their South Korean allies would make a largely defensive response. Hollingsworth introduced a new plan involving a much more aggressive strategy.
General Hollingsworth retired from the army in 1976. Some believed that another brush with the press had hastened his retirement. He’d told The Wall Street Journal in January 1976 that if the North Koreans attacked South Korea his plan for a “short violent war” would give victory in just nine days. It seems some in authority regarded this as unhelpful.
It’s been said that, due to the piece in The Sunday Times, Hollingsworth was at least in part the inspiration for the fictional Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1979 Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now. However true that is, there’s no doubt that Hollingsworth was one of the bravest soldiers who fought for America through WWII and Vietnam. Hollingsworth died in 2010 aged 91.