James Ellis grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. His father played football with Bear Bryant and commissioned through ROTC as an Engineer Officer, serving in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II. His mother raised three boys. Jim played football and had a successful junior year in high school, but a shoulder injury ended his chances of playing in college. After graduating from high school, his father took him to the recruiting station to enlist, and he trained for the Signal Corps. One of his NCOs in Basic Training inspired him through the positive example of good leadership – a lesson that remained with Ellis throughout his career. A company commander then recommended he take a test for West Point, providing a new fork in the road. He then attended the United States Military Academy Prep School (USMAPS), making some of his best friends there before coming to West Point. On his way to R-Day, he and some prep school friends stopped at a bar right outside of Thayer Gate for a final beer before beginning Beast Barracks. Academically, he did very well, graduating #14 out of 601 in his class. During his first class year, he served as the First Captain, and had the opportunity to meet MacArthur, Eisenhower, Bradley and President Kennedy among other notables. He remembers a parade at West Point when young Margaret Westmoreland walked out onto the parade field and held his hand. He commissioned as an Infantry Officer and was stationed at Ft. Bragg in the 325th Infantry for his first assignment. There, he served as a Davy Crocket (tactical atomic weapon) Platoon Leader and later commanded A Company, 1st Battalion, 325th Infantry in the 82nd Airborne Division. He participated in the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965, conducting an air landing at the San Isidro Air Base. He was deployed from June to December and participated in military operations in urban terrain. He then transferred to the 1st Infantry Division and deployed to Vietnam from August 1966 to July 1967, commanding A Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, and then serving as an Operations Officer. Between his tours in Vietnam, he earned a Master’s Degree in International Relations from Princeton. He returned to Vietnam in July 1970 and worked for John Paul Vann in CORDS in the Mekong Delta, where he realized that America had no chance of winning the war in Vietnam. Returning from Vietnam in 1971, he taught in the Department of Social Sciences until July 1974. In May 1977, he took command of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Training Brigade at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, where he observed the Army taking steps to increase diversity. Later in his career, he was ordered to Pakistan to take over as the Chief of the Office of the Defense Representative at the American Embassy after the previous Chief had been killed in a plane crash. There he noted the constant tension between India and Pakistan, as well as the problems being caused by the Soviets in Afghanistan. In 1994, he retired after serving as Commander of the 10th Mountain Division, Commanding General of the Third Army and CENTCOM, and finally as the Deputy Commanding General of Forces Command. He then took a position as the CEO for Newman Charities and, even in retirement, he remains connected to that organization to this day.
In this interview, he talks about his childhood, his West Point experiences, and his Army career. Good and bad leaders along his life’s journey helped shape the type of leader Ellis became. He recalls the leadership example of Rocky Versace, his Cadet Platoon Leader. He remembers MacArthur’s “Duty, Honor, Country” speech, and making the decision to record it. He emphasizes the importance of positive leadership examples during the formative stages of a Soldier or Cadet’s military career and provides examples that influenced him. Finally, he reflects on what his service and West Point mean to him.