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4-Star Army Gen. William Rosson, 86

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page B06

William B. Rosson, 86, a retired four-star Army general who was a battalion commander at Anzio, Italy, in World War II and a senior commander in Vietnam and served on the board of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, died Dec. 12 after a heart attack at his home in Salem, Va.

Gen. Rosson, who entered the Army in 1940, immediately after graduating from the University of Oregon, served four tours of duty in Vietnam, longer than any other senior commander in that war. He retired in 1975 after two years as commander in chief of the Southern Command in the Panama Canal Zone.

William B. Rosson of Salem, Va., fought in World War II and was a senior commander in Vietnam.

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At 25, he received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military honor, for his actions in the brutal campaign at Anzio. He participated in four amphibious assaults during World War II, helping plan the invasion of southern France and fighting with VI Corps all the way to Germany. He was a regimental commander early during the occupation of Germany.

Rosson, a great soldier at 25, also was an impressive staff officer at that age, said Gordon Rudd, a military historian who teaches at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. "He was not a Westmoreland, he was not a MacArthur, he was not a high-profile guy. . . . He was more like Omar Bradley, who was a soldier's soldier."

In World War II, he fought in 10 campaigns with the 3rd Infantry, in such locales as North Africa and Germany.

He received many military awards and decorations, including the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Doughboy Award, the infantry's highest award. Apparently, he did not take the awards too seriously.

After the war, while working in Europe under Bernard Montgomery, the British field marshal, Rosson noted that Montgomery was wearing all of his 38 ribbons. According to a story that made the rounds of NATO headquarters, Montgomery then asked each officer in the room, in turn, how many ribbons he had earned. Rosson, who had no idea how many awards he had, answered, "Thirty-nine." Montgomery left the room in a huff, and the American's popularity with British staff officers soared.

Gen. Rosson also displayed physical courage in his career. In 1954, while assigned to a military advisory group in Indochina, he flew over the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the bloody altercation that ended French involvement in Vietnam. The first two Americans killed in Vietnam combat, both civilians, died in similar flyovers, downed by withering antiaircraft fire from Vietminh.

Gen. Rosson, who subsequently served in Germany and at the Pentagon, returned in 1965 to Vietnam, where he was chief of staff for Westmoreland. He took over I Corps for a Marine commander on leave, a rare case in which an Army officer was in command of a predominantly Marine formation. Gen. Rosson subsequently formed a division of separate units that became the Americal Division and later became deputy commander in Vietnam under Gen. William Abrams. From 1970 to the end of 1972, he was commander in chief of the Army in the Pacific before ending his military career in Panama.

After his retirement, Gen. Rosson received a master of letters degree in international relations from Oxford University.

He moved to Salem, near Roanoke, in 1984, after he married Bertha Mitchell Rosson, and became involved with the National D-Day Memorial efforts. His wife survives him.

"He was a great, strong supporter. He was a great man for detail," said William Bagbey, the founding chairman of the foundation that built the memorial. "Of course, he was not one who pushed himself to the front, but he did, by his actions, get very much to the front."

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