The life of one whose career reflected in shining perfection the glory of his Alma Mater terminated with the death, from pneumonia, of Major General William Durward Connor of the Class of 1897 on June 16, 1960. Here was a graduate who lived West Point. ‘‘Duty, Honor, Country” were not mere words to him. The motivations and ideals that the Academy motto implies were those that influenced and governed him in every action, not only in his official life, but in his personal life as well. The remarkable scope and variety of his service is a matter of historical record; it is one of superior achievement to be found in official files. There too can be found the record of his many honors and awards from our own and foreign governments: among them the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star (OLC), Companion of the Bath, Commander of the French Legion of Honor, and the Croix de Guerre with palm.
Connor was bom in Newark, Wisconsin, the second of seven children of Edward and Adeline Powers Connor, on February 22, 1874, and was appointed to the Military Academy from Clinton, Iowa, where his family then resided. He was an outstanding cadet, captain of the 1896 football team, senior officer of the Cadet Staff, and graduated Number One in his class.
As a young Engineer officer he had combat duty in the Spanish War and the Philippine Insurrection, and was awarded die Silver Star and brevet promotion for gallantry in action. After his return from the Philippines, his service included normal Engineer assignments, including duty as instructor in engineering at West Point where he also assisted in molding a successful football team, and as student at the Command and General Staff School.
In 1907, while District Engineer in Memphis, Tennessee, he married Elsa Van Vleet. Their happy home life together was an inspiration to all who were privileged to know it. He is survived by is wife, his sister—Mrs. Strauss, wife of Colonel R. H. Strauss, Retired—and eleven nieces and nephews.
From Memphis he was ordered to the Army War College as a student. After a tour of duty in command of the Engineer Battalion and the Engineer School, he returned to the War College as Assistant Commandant.
Important assignment followed important assignment for this then young officer, and with the dawn of our participation in World War I, he was summoned from the Philippines for General Staff duty with General Headquarters, American Expeditionary Forces. There he quickly won the respect, confidence and lifelong friendship of General Pershing and of Pershing’s Chief of Staff, General Harbord. At the request of General Haan, commander of the 32nd Division, Connor was assigned to that Division as its Chief of Staff. Shortly thereafter he was assigned to command of the 63rd Infantry Brigade in the 32nd Division and promoted to Brigadier General. In this capacity he participated in the Chateau Thierry, Vesle and other offensives, and was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action.
A superb staff officer, Connor nonetheless preferred troop duty. Therefore it was a disappointment, though he recognized it as a great compliment, when General Harbord asked General Pershing that Connor be made available to assist in reorganizing the then sprawling Service of Supply. Needless to say, he was a tower of strength in helping to build up an organization capable of sustaining our rapidly moving Army in France. So outstanding was his service in the S.O.S. that he was selected subsequently as its Chief of Staff and later as its Commanding General. When Pershing returned to the United States, he appointed Connor his successor as Commanding General, American Forces in France. The gigantic task of disposing of American property all over Europe was accomplished in less than a year and no breath of scandal ever touched a single settlement made.
The value placed on Connor’s varied war services by those in a position to estimate them is attested by a report rendered on him by one high in authority throughout the War and afterward: “...In my opinion General Connor has few equals in our service. To an extremely bright mind and well balanced intelligence he adds great driving force and organizing ability, industry and the highest of character. I should trust him without hesitation on any duty his judgment would permit him to undertake...”
On his return to the United States, Connor again commanded the now enlarged Engineer School until appointed brigadier general on the first list of permanent general officers to be made after the War.
Amongst Connor’s subsequent details was three years of highly effective service as Commanding General of the U. S. Army Forces in China, where relations not only with the Chinese authorities but also with the respective foreign commands and with our own American Legation had become strained. With h;s usual tact and ability, matters were soon adjusted to everyone’s satisfaction. Dr. Schurman, then American Minister, reported to both the State and the War Department enthusiastically recommending Connor’s immediate promotion to major general. Shortly thereafter, at the age of fifty-one, Connor was made a major general, at that time the senior rank available in the United States Army.
Then followed command of the Second Infantry Division, and assignment as Commandant of the Army War College where a large number of the men who later rose to high command in World War II served under him. From 1932 to 1938, Connor was Superintendent of the Military Academy. During this period, West Point was confronted with many serious situations. Pressures from certain academic sectors were growing. Congressional attitudes were in a state of flux. Connor, with intelligence and diplomacy, accomplished adjustments in an orderly and purposeful manner, firmly establishing the Academy’s position and paving the way for West Point as it exists today. A high-ranking retired officer, asked by the War Department to make an unofficial survey of West Point at this time, wrote: “...I think General Connor’s administration has been the best one I have known at West Point. Many well thought out improvements have been made under his administration...I have long regarded Connor as having the best brain in the American Army. With it he has good judgment and a fine heart.” West Point was General Connor’s last active duty assignment prior to retirement.
Connor was recalled to active duty in 1941 to serve as chairman of the very important War Department Construction Advisory Committee. All members except himself were prominent civilian engineers and inclined to look askance at a military chairman. But as always in any group under Connor’s control, mutual confidence and harmony prevailed and lasting friendships were formed.
One of Connor’s attributes was his ability to make friends and to retain these friendships regardless of the passage of time. After his death, many hundreds of letters came speaking eloquently of his greatness of mind and heart. Contemporaries and juniors of the military, hosts of friends in civil life, statesmen and diplomats, men of the professions, humble tradesmen who had served him—all expressed themselves in the same oft-repeated refrain. Their messages constitute a eulogy of hundreds of voices. All felt the same sense of shock at Connor’s death whch may be typified in a single quotation:...Somehow I have always thought of General Connor as indestructible. Perhaps that is just another way of expressing a conviction that such character, tenderness and thoughtfulness could never die .
The life of William Durward Connor touched so many lives, so many situations, that it is difficult to present an adequate portrayal in a short sketch. Perhaps he himself gave the best summation of his eighty-six years on earth when, in a speech to a West Point graduating class, he quoted the words of the Emperor Akbar, the great Mogul conqueror of all India: “I have lived a long time, and I have seen many things, but I have yet to see a man lost in a straight road!”