General Lavelle’s rank and honor is restored
“He was devastated, but it did not destroy him. He always stood tall. He held his honor and dignity through all of it.” – Geraldine Lavelle Enloe, daughter of General John D. Lavelle ’38
It took 40 years for justice to prevail in the case of Air Force General John D. Lavelle ’38, who, in 1972, was falsely accused of violating the rules of engagement and creating false reports when he ordered air strikes in North Vietnam. Recently discovered evidence, including the Nixon White House tapes, fully exonerates Gen. Lavelle, which led to President Obama’s nomination last summer and Senate confirmation this year (not confirmed at press time) for posthumous restoration to four-star general.
The issue of the case against the general centered on whether Air Force pilots were permitted to bomb enemy missile sites whose tracking radar hadn’t locked onto their planes. The rules of engagement forbade it; however, President Nixon issued secret orders, conveyed to Lavelle by his Pentagon superiors, to allow protective reaction strikes against enemy missile (surface to air) sites, based on the threat they could pose to U.S. aircraft. As commander of the Seventh Air Force, overseeing all air operations in Vietnam, the general ordered airstrikes against North Vietnamese antiaircraft missile sites in late 1971 and early 1972. Even though Lavelle was following commands, including those from the President, he became a scapegoat; and the false charges that he defied orders led to the removal of two stars and his retirement from the Air Force in 1972.
“My father was heartbroken,” wrote John D. Lavelle, Jr. in 2007. “In the end, he found comfort knowing what he did saved airmen’s lives, and that was worth more to him than the four stars.”
Lavelle died of a heart attack in 1979 at age 62, seven years after his retirement from the Air Force. He served his country for 33 years, which included World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. His military career began shortly after his graduation from John Carroll when he enlisted as an aviation cadet. The Cleveland native received his pilot training at Randolph and Kelly fields in Texas.
During World War II, Lavelle experienced combat in the European Theater of Operations, where he served with the 412th Fighter Squadron. During the Korean War, he was commander of the Supply Depot at Tachikawa Air Base in Japan. In 1952, he was assigned commander of McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey and the 568th Air Defense Group. Four years later, he attended the Air War College and held several positions at Air Force headquarters, then went to Europe in 1962 as deputy chief of staff for operations at Headquarters Fourth Allied Tactical Air Force, NATO. In 1966, he took command of the Seventeenth Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany and the Seventh Air Force in Vietnam in 1971.
Lavelle’s military decorations and awards include the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit with three oak leaf clusters, Air Medal with an oak leaf cluster, and Air Force Commendation Medal with an oak leaf cluster.
“Jack was a leader and always would be – you knew that as soon as you met him,” says Larry Kelley ’36, who became good friends with Lavelle during their Carroll days when he drove Lavelle to and from campus in his Ford convertible.
A few years later, Kelley stood as best man in Lavelle’s wedding.
The general and his wife, Mary Jo, raised seven children. Mary Jo, 91, who lives in Marshall, Va., was thrilled when the Secretary of the Air Force advised her of the President’s nomination.
“Jack was a good man, good husband, good father, and good officer,” she says. “I wish he were alive to hear this news.”
– Susan Curphey