BARTOW, Fla. (FOX 13) - The popular Van Fleet Trail runs through the heart of Polk County, but many may not know the man behind the name played a major role in United States military history.
On D-Day, Polk County's James Van Fleet was the commander of the 8th Infantry Regiment that spearheaded the invasion force on Utah Beach.
Van Fleet and his troops spent months training in England for the invasion. "He picked a spot on the beach that had not been heavily defended by the Germans ahead of time," explained his grandson, Joe McChristian Jr.
McChristian has the personal notes his grandfather left behind on that fateful day, June 6, 1944
"The landing in retrospect," he read. "The ease at which the assault on Utah Beach was carried off was surprising even to the attackers."
Commander Van Fleet landed well west of the bloody battle on Omaha Beach. The 21,000 soldiers of his 4th Division suffered 197 casualties.
"His regiment was the only one in the entire invasion force that achieved their objectives that first day," continued McChristian.
General Van Fleet is memorialized at the Polk County History Center. He commanded in four wars and became one of the highest decorated U.S. soldiers in history, earning the respect of the nation's highest leaders.
"After the war, General Eisenhower called Van Fleet's battle record the best of any commander we produced," recalled McChristian.
Polk County's favorite son even graced the cover of ‘Time’ magazine twice for his distinguished service.
But McChristian says his grandfather's greatness was best seen in the men he commanded.
"His troops loved him because he loved them. He took care of them. When he worked with his troops, he treated them as members of the team, even members of the family."
Van Fleet passed away in 1992, shortly after celebrating his 100th birthday. He's buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but his actions on Utah Beach and his legacy as a national hero live on through a proud grandson.
"I'm grateful, on behalf of all of us, that generation did what they did to help defend our freedoms and democracy."