IT WAS 1944 and the American forces Lt. Gen. Omar Nelson Bradley had led across Omaha and Utah beaches were pinned in Normandy taking heavy losses. He had determined, Gen. Bradley later wrote, to "avoid at all costs those pitfalls that might bog down our advance and lead up into the trench warfare of World War I. We had fought a fast war of movement in the Tunisian campaign where the terrain militated against us, and I was convinced those tactics could be duplicated in a blitz across France. With the mobility and fire-power we had amassed in both British and American divisions, we could easily outpoint and outrun the German in an open war of movement. But to exploit this advantage in mobility it was essential that we break a hole through the enemy's defenses rather than heave him back. Only a breakout . . . ."

Thus was born Cobra, the operation that perhaps more than any other bore the personal stamp -- broad conceptual understanding, careful planning, deep concern for his men, success -- of Gernal of the Army Bradley, who died on Wednesday at age 88, the last of the great American five-star commanders of World War II. For two nights he pored over detailed maps of the region and devised his plan. He would use strategic bombers, on a line marked by an easily seen ruler-straight Roman road, to destroy or stun the German defenders and then send his First Army crashing through the gap. "We spread our feet and leaned far back trying to look straight up, until our steel helmets fell off," Ernie Pyle, with the troops, wrote. "And then the plans came" -- 2,246 of them, dropping 4,000 tons of bombs. Cobra tore a 10-mile hole at St.-Lo and allowed its architect to claim it as "the most decisive battle of our war in western Europe."

To this day it seems a marvel that the American military, in the trough between world wards, found, trained and propelled into leadership positions such an exceptional corps of generals and admirals. Omar Bradley was typical: an unknown George Marshall protege out of a small Missouri town and West Point (1915) who turned out to know all that needed to be known about war and organization and men. Never can especially flashy or controversial personality, he came to be regarded over his decades of service as the consummate military professional, dedicated and dignified. He commanded great armies. At the same time, he wrote, "I preferred to live, work, and eat in the field." The country will not forget its immense debt to him.