John W. Vessey, Jr., was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on 29 June 1922. In high school, he joined the Minnesota National Guard; in 1940, his unit was called up to active duty. He served as an artillery sergeant in the 34th Infantry Division (Red Bull Division). He fought with distinction in North Africa, and received a battlefield commission at Anzio.
After World War II, Vessey attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, the Armed Forces Staff College, and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. He also graduated from the University of Maryland at age 41.
Vessey served as the executive officer of the 25th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War. In 1970, he graduated from the Army Helicopter School, where he was 15 years older than the next-oldest student. The next year, Vessey was promoted to brigadier general. In 1974, he was promoted to major general and commanded the 4th Infantry Division. He then became a lieutenant general in 1975 and was made Deputy Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.
In 1976, Vessey was made a four-star general and led the Eighth Army in Korea. He also served as the commander in chief of the U.S.-Republic of Korea Combined Forces Command and the United Nations Command. In 1979, Vessey became the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army under General Edward C. Meyer.
President Ronald Reagan made Vessey the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; he served as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 18 June 1982 to 30 September 1985. As the Chairman, JCS, he sought to improve global war planning, enhance the quality of the JCS advice to the President, and he championed greater efficacy in joint operations. General Vessey retired from duty on 30 September 1985 and now lives in Minnesota.