John H. Cushman, a retired Army lieutenant general who received multiple battlefield commendations for heroism during the Vietnam War and who later sought to bring a more flexible intellectual approach to military planning, died Wednesday at a military retirement facility in Washington. He was 96.
The cause was a stroke, said his son John H. Cushman Jr., a former reporter in the Washington bureau of The New York Times.
Gen. Cushman grew up in a military family — his father was an Army brigadier general — and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
He first served in the Army Corps of Engineers before requesting a transfer to the infantry in the 1950s. He served three tours of duty in Vietnam, first as a military adviser and later in command positions with the 101st Airborne Division.
During his second tour in 1967 and 1968, Cushman, then a colonel, took part in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. After North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive in January 1968, Cushman often oversaw field maneuvers from the air, sitting in the jump seat of an unarmed command helicopter.
He sometimes surprised his troops by flying through heavy fire to assist at the front lines. He received the Air Medal after one mission, the Bronze Star Medal after another and the Distinguished Flying Cross after a third. His citations noted that at times he airlifted soldiers to front lines and helped transport the dead and wounded.
On March 16, 1968, Cushman saw that the soldiers in an advance unit under his command had been cut down by machine-gun fire from a hidden bunker. After disembarking from his helicopter, he “moved forward to join the lead riflemen of the platoon” and helped coordinate a rocket attack, according to a citation accompanying his award of the Silver Star.
“Exposing himself to hostile fire at close range,” the citation continued, Cushman “remained with the artillery forward observer near the enemy positions until the rocket attack was successfully completed.”
Years later, a staff sergeant wrote to Cushman, describing conditions on the ground.
“I tossed over a dozen hand grenades and fired about 200 rounds from my M-16,” the sergeant wrote. “We were almost out of ammo and I gave the command to fix bayonets.”
At that desperate point in the battle, Cushman’s helicopter could be seen returning to the front lines, hauling fresh supplies of ammunition.
“I saw your chopper come in on the other side of the small river — you were getting a lot of fire . . . and I thought that they were going to shoot you down,” the sergeant wrote. “I tried to wave you off but you kept comming [sic]. I got some of my troops and we crossed the river and retrieved the ammo. You gave us a hand salute. I saluted you back and we held our own.
“If it wasn’t for your bravery probably all of us would have died that day.”
Two months later, on May 30, 1968, Cushman spent hours under fire in his helicopter, directing commanders in the field well into the night. His actions resulted in a second Silver Star.
The Army credited Cushman with leading at least 10 operations that led to the deaths of 820 North Vietnamese troops and the capture of 200 more.
He returned to Vietnam for a third tour of duty in 1971, as a brigadier general. His helicopter was shot down over South Vietnam, but he escaped injury or capture.
Later, Cushman was commandant of the Command General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he sometimes clashed with other top leaders over ideas on military planning and strategy.
His dispute with his commanding officer, William DuPuy, which dated back to the 1960s, was especially sharp.
“In 1974, the fundamental difference between the two men, as Cushman saw it, was that DuPuy was teaching the Army how to fight,” military historian Thomas Ricks wrote in his best-selling 2012 book “The Generals,” “while Cushman was complementing that work by teaching Army officers how to think about fighting.”
Cushman complained to Ricks that DuPuy’s old-school methods would create “a generation of idiots who all know how to clean a rifle but who don’t know ‘why’ we have an Army.”
DuPuy criticized Cushman’s intellectual approach to military tactics and issued a scathing performance evaluation that nearly ended Cushman’s career: “It is very difficult to make him truly responsive to guidance, to make him a true member of the team.”
The Army chief of staff, Gen. Frederick Weyand, intervened and assigned Cushman to a post in South Korea, from which he retired as a three-star general in 1978.
“I like to have my own way, I am stubborn,” Cushman said in a 2009 Army oral history. “When I’m right, I really don’t like to change.”
John Holloway Cushman was born Oct. 3, 1921, in Tianjin, China, where his father was stationed as an Army officer. When he came to the United States at age 3, he spoke Chinese more fluently than English.
The family moved from one military post to another, and the younger Cushman went to work at 16 before enlisting in the Army in 1940. He received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy a year later.
He excelled at West Point, where he was elected first captain of the Corps of Cadets for his final year. He was captain of the lacrosse team and was a second-team all-American in both lacrosse and soccer.
After his D-Day graduation in 1944, he served in the Pacific during World War II. He received a master’s degree in civil engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1951. After switching to the infantry, he became an early proponent of the Army’s use of the helicopter and received training as a pilot. He also became proficient in the French, Vietnamese and Korean languages.