NEWS | Jan. 23, 2022

George Lee McClain, Adjutant General of Kentucky 1935-1939

By John Trowbridge, Contributor

NOTE: This is a guest article from SFC(R) John Trowbridge. He's a Kentucky Guardsman and former Command Historian that has compiled information on this topic from a variety of sources which aren't cited here. For more information on where this information has originated, please contact Mr. Trowbridge at the following: john.m.trowbridge.nfg@mail.mil

The thirty-fourth Adjutant General of Kentucky was George Lee McClain, born on January 23, 1895, at Bloomfield, Nelson County, Kentucky.  George was the only son of William Thomas and Nina Cochrane McClain.  By 1900, his father had moved the family to Bardstown, where young George received his initial education in the local schools. 
 
In 1916 he entered the University of Kentucky at Lexington, where he would graduate in 1919.  During his years at UK, George was active in various activities and organizations, a trait he would continue for the remainder of his life.  During his Junior and Senior years, he was involved with Kappa Alpha (Pan-Hellenic Council); Alpha Delta Sigma; Patterson Literary Society; English Club; Strollers Dramatic Club; Stage Manager “Mice and Men” (15 November 1917); On the staff of The Kentucky Kernel.  He was Orator for both his Junior and Senior Classes.  As a senior he was a member of the Lamp and Cross.  Prior to his attendance at university, McClain had become a Mason with in the Duvall Lodge in Bardstown, while at UK he served as a member of Lamed Pe Masonic Club.
 
            McClain began his military career while a student at UK as a member of the Army ROTC program, eventually serving as Captain of Company D, University Battalion.  On April 28, 1918, McClain left the university to join the Army at Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.  He was initially assigned to the 20th Training Battery, Field Artillery Corps, Officer, Training School, July 31, 1918, as a Private.  On the same day, McClain was then transferred to the 36st Company, 9th Training Battalion, 159th Depot Brigade.  On August 31, 1918, he graduated from the Field Artillery Central Officers Training Camp, and commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, Field Artillery, U.S. Army.  Second Lieutenant McClain was assigned to duty at Camp Sevier located in Greenville, South Carolina, where he would remain until released from active duty on December 6, 1918.
 
            In early 1919, McClain returned to Lexington to finish his university education.  McClain is remembered in the 1919 edition of The Kentuckian:
 
Lee has a happy smile, a heavy melodious voice and the most contagious laugh ever heard on the campus.  He could laugh with seeming pleasure at some Prof’s jokes.  He is a Stroller of no mean ability and can also add the title of Lieutenant to his name.  Barbers love his beard.  He has absolutely refused to allow Farquhar [Professor E. F. Farquhar] to convince him that he is a blockhead, even continuing his arguments when commanded to “stand up.”  He is the constant possessor of at least one intense love affair and says, “No Senior is complete without one.”  “Happy” has a campus full of friends.
           
In June 1919, McClain received his B.A. in English Language and Literature. McClain had a life-long relationship with the university’s alumni association, in January 1941, he was elected the association’s executive secretary, and then in May 1942, he was elected President.
 
Soon after graduation George went to work as a reporter for the Lexington Herald newspaper, reporting on agriculture issues.  In 1920 McClain went to work as a member of the faculty of Eastern Kentucky State Normal School in Richmond, Kentucky.
 
During the years following the First World War he continued to serve in the military as a Second Lieutenant of Field Artillery in the Officer Reserve Corps (ORC) from February 20, 1919 to January 20, 1924.  Additionally, George became an active member of the American Legion serving in various capacities with Bardstown’s Old Kentucky Home Post 121, as its commander and finally becoming State Commander of the Kentucky American Legion from 1926-1928.  In 1930, he was appointed a member of the Kentucky Disabled Ex-Service Men’s Board.
 
On November 28, 1923, George married local girl, Catherine Elizabeth Spaulding.  They would have a son, William Thomas McClain, who was born in 1926.  George was now working as a textbook salesman with the John C. Winston Book Company, as well his devoting his spare time to various groups and organizations.  In 1931, he was elected vice-president of the Bardstown Chamber of Commerce.
 
Due to his state-wide popularity, and his ability as an organizer and speaker McClain was urged to run as the Democratic nomination as Lieutenant Governor in 1934, an opportunity which he declined.
 
With the election of Albert Benjamin “Happy” Chandler as governor, his first official act, on December 10, 1935, was to appoint George Lee McClain the Adjutant General of Kentucky, a position he would hold throughout the Chandler administration.  McClain was federally recognized as a Brigadier General, July 8, 1936, and NGUS Adjutant General Department (AGD), Brigadier General, August 19, 1936.
 
There were those in the Legislature and Guard who opposed McClain’s appoint, making the argument that the appointment was illegal because McClain had not and was not a member of the Kentucky National Guard.  Never the less McClain became the Adjutant General of Kentucky.
 
One of McClain’s first actions as Adjutant General was to fire employees of the State Military Bureau, this was done on the recommendation of State Auditor J. Dan Talbott, requesting that the individuals be dropped from the state payroll.  The majority of those discharged where members of the State’s highway patrol.
 
McClain served as commander of the Kentucky State Police, as the Adjutant General.  He was responsible to enforce the “new” driver license law in 1936 and the ruling that no member of the state police may receive fees from arrests.  In September 1936, he was instrumental in reshaped the state’s police force by combining the duties previously performed by the State Police Department and the State Highway Patrol into one organization.  
 
Additionally, in 1937, he was appointed President of the National Guard Association of Kentucky and a member of the Kentucky State Safety Commission.
 
Recurring disorders in the Kentucky coalfields in Harlan and Union Counties in January 1936, would once again require the activation of the Kentucky Guard in 1937 and May and August 1939, before a Congressional investigation was instituted.
 
The supreme test of McClain’s tenure as Kentucky’s Adjutant General came in January 1937, with the flooding of the Ohio River and its tributaries inundated the State.  McClain was in Washington at the time with Governor Chandler and Kentucky delegation attending the inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.     
 
On January 21, 1937, Lieutenant Governor Keen Johnson, while Governor Chandler was in Washington, D.C., telegraphed the U.S. Secretary of War with the following message:
 
Disaster impending from floods various places in the state. Absolutely necessary to use National Guard equipment. Please grant authority by wire.
 
It was soon evident that even the entire Kentucky National Guard could not relieve such a widespread and massive calamity.  On January 25th, Adjutant General G. Lee McClain telegraphed General Malin Craig, Chief of Staff, U.S. War Department for assistance:
 
Conditions in Kentucky of which you are cognizant provoke this unusual request. The safety, peace, happiness, and health of several hundred thousand of our citizens in the Ohio Valley prompts this Department in breaking precedent.  Particularly does this condition apply to the centers of population of Kentucky and on the Ohio River. Every resource of the National Guard in this State has been utilized to the fullest extent compatible with the safety of our people. We are at a standstill. Such centers of population as Louisville, our largest city, Paducah, Covington, Dayton, Newport, Hickman, Henderson and others will suffer an untold loss; and several hundred thousands of our population will feel the effects in the utmost degree. Consequently, I do not feel embarrassed, acting in the capacity that I do, in making the following request to alleviate the conditions that exist in different localities. In my opinion, and that of our closest observers and advisors, the use of Federal troops is absolutely necessary. Regardless of regulations and recognizing the fact that every resource has been utilized for the protection of our people, we request that two regiments of Infantry, two companies of engineers, medical officers with medical supplies, be ordered to report for duty to Louisville immediately. There is a possibility that conditions will necessitate help other than this. You may be assured that this request will not be made unless positively necessary.
           
Kentucky troops were initially activated for flood duty on January 21st.  The last contingent was relieved from duty on June 8, 1937.  During this period 172 officers and 2,022 NCOs and enlisted personnel were called to active service.  All units of the Kentucky National Guard participated with the exception of Company C, 149th Infantry, which was held in reserve.
 
            General McClain served a total of 99 days coordinating the efforts of the Kentucky Guard.
 
            Two important publications came out of McClain’s office prior to his retirement as the Adjutant General, first the 1938 pictorial Historical Annual National Guard of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and then the 1939 Adjutant General’s Report, entitled The Military History of Kentucky.
 
            McClain left the office of Adjutant General on December 10, 1939, having been replaced by John A. Polin who served as the Adjutant General under Governor Keen Johnson’s administration.
 
Due to the activation of the entire Kentucky National Guard in 1940 McClain would once again see military service, this time as part of the Kentucky Active Militia from 1940 to 1946.  In 1940 he was appointed State chairman of the Kentucky Civil Aeronautics Authority.  The mission of this organization was to aid the Army in expediting air pilot training.  McClain would travel state-wide talking to groups and individuals interested in Army Aviation.
 
During a talk given to members of the Indiana and Ohio Civil Aeronautics Authority at Indianapolis in August 1940 McClain stated. “The young men of America have as much patriotism as those of us who enlisted in 1918; they want to do the right thing.”
 
 On September 19, 1941, a plan was announced to establish an active State Militia consisting of from 1,600 to 1,800 men by October 15.  The new militia was to be organized closely after the Kentucky Guard.  Units were to be located in communities which already had an armory.  McClain was initially appointed to immediately to inspect the armories and Guard facilities in Western Kentucky.
 
The on September 30, McClain was appointed to a newly organized Kentucky Civil Defense Board, which would be a key organization in the defense of Kentucky’s state property, bridges, industries and utilities when the Kentucky Guard was called to federal service.  McClain was appointed as an Assistant Director and assigned the duty as a liaison between Adjutant General John A. Polin and State American Legion Commander James T. Norris, and plan for organizing a home guard, for defense of the state once the Guard was activated.
 
On February 1, 1941, McClain was appointed to the Kentucky Adjutant General’s staff in the Inspector General’s office.  In April 1941, he was appointed to the American Legion’s National Defense Council.  In January 1942, he was appointed by Governor Keen Johnson as executive director of the Salvage for Victory Campaign in Kentucky and directed an intensive and highly successful State-wide effort to collect metal, paper, rags, etc. for the war effort.  Later in 1942 he was appointed as the Civilian Mobilization Advisor for Kentucky’s Citizens Service Corps.
 
            The Kentucky Active Militia supported the 1943 and 1944 Kentucky Derby, where McClain served as the Provisional Regimental Commander.  On June 20, 1940, he organized Kentucky’s War Information Center.  Colonel McClain was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in the Active Militia on November 12, 1943.
 
            With the war still raging in 1944 in Europe and the Pacific in a speech given on December 3, McClain stated that he was advocate for Compulsory Military Training. 
 
During the existence of the Kentucky Active Militia McClain served as vice-president and later, president on the board of the Kentucky Active Militia Officers’ Association.
 
On February 26, 1947, the Kentucky Militia was disbanded by order of Governor Simeon Willis.  The organization which served as the protector of the state when the Kentucky National Guard, passed out of existence.  At its peak the militia consisted of 2,000 officers and men.
 
            In 1948, McClain was appointed and served as first chairman of a tri-county Selective Service Board for Nelson and two adjoining counties.
 
            For many years active in local and state politics he served two terms as Representative of Nelson and Anderson Counties in the Kentucky General Assembly, from 1950 to 1954.  On June 15, 1950, McClain assisted with “pinning” ceremony of Kentucky Adjutant General Roscoe L. Murray to the rank of Major General.  Murray was the first Adjutant General to be promoted to the rank of Major General.  While serving in the Kentucky House, McClain sponsored a bill for the equalization of public libraries across the Commonwealth. The bill passed by votes of 83 to 0.
After his retirement he was consultant for the textbook firm of Holt, Rinehart & Winston.  For several years he was the partner in an insurance business at Bardstown, which carried his name. He continued to serve his community and country, serving as Civil Defense Director of Bardstown region with headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio; the Appeal Board for the State Veterans Bonus, the Board of Adjustment under the City of Bardstown’s Zoning Ordinance, and the American Heart Fund, serving as chairman in annual fund raising campaigns.  Always interested in education and history, Lee McClain was a chief instigator in establishment of a Nelson County public library at Bardstown after World War II as a memorial to those who gave their lives in the service of their country. 
 
The National Guard Armory on the Louisville Road at Bardstown was named in his honor in 1961 when Governor Combs paid tribute to the long and varied career of Brigadier General McClain in the dedication ceremony.  While serving as the Adjutant General in 1937, General McClain established the 113th Ordinance Company, a unit of the National Guard, at Bardstown.  It was responsible for the successful military career of many of Nelson County’s young men.  Today the armory is home to Battery C, 138th Field Artillery Battalion.
 
Brigadier General George Lee McClain died on February 4, 1965, from a fall at his home 10 days prior, at Flaget Memorial Hospital, Bardstown, Kentucky.  He was laid to rest with the pomp and ceremony with a full military funeral at the Bardstown City Cemetery.
 
Sources: 
The Adjutant General’s Report, 1939, The Military History of Kentucky.
Executive Journal Governor Keen Johnson (1939-1943), Kentucky
Department of Libraries and Archives.
Executive Journal Governor Simeon Willis (1943-1937), Kentucky
Department of Libraries and Archives.
Historical Annual of the United States, Commonwealth of Kentucky, 1938.
Individual Soldier File (ISR), Kentucky Department of Military Affairs, Military
Records and Research Branch.
The Kentuckian, University of Kentucky Yearbook, 1917, 1918 and 1919. 
Kentucky National Guard General Orders (1939-1947), and General Orders of the
Kentucky Active Militia (1940-1946).  Kentucky Department of Military Affairs, Military Records and Research Branch.
The Kentucky National Guard’s Response to the Great Flood of 1937.
Military History of Kentucky, 1939.
National Guard Register, 1939.
National Guard of the United States, Commonwealth of Kentucky, 1938.                     
U.S. Federal Census, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940.
Websites:
Find a Grave. 
Fold3.
Family Search.
            Newspapers.com.
The Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY.
The Kentucky Standard, Bardstown, KY.
Lexington Herald, Lexington, KY.
Lexington Herald-Leader, Lexington, KY.
 
 

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