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Major-General John Van Bokkelen Metts

Wilmington Native, Businessman and Soldier

Cape Fear Historical Institute Papers 


Major-General John Van Bokkelen Metts

An early member of the famed Wilmington Light Infantry, John Van Bokkelen Metts was serving as a lieutenant-colonel with the North Carolina National Guard when called into active US military service in June, 1916 to deploy with the

Second Infantry, NC National Guard in Mexico. Between

1916 and March 1917 his unit was part of the Mexican

Border Crisis force suppressing Pancho Villa’s army

and was here commissioned full colonel.

The Second North Carolina returned home in March 1917

with many called into service when the United States

declared war against Germany. Colonel Metts led his

men into Europe, now-designated as the One-Hundred Nineteenth Infantry Regiment, Thirtieth

Division of the United States Army, his brigade

commanded by Brigadier-General Samson L. Faison,

a native of Faison, NC and combat veteran of

the Indian Wars and Philippine Islands Campaign.


After arriving in Europe in early May, 1918,

Col. Metts brigade began intense organization and

training for trench warfare with British and Australian

troops. The ensuing operations of the One Hundred Nineteenth Regiment during September and October

focused on the St. Quentin and Cambrai area,

including an important assault upon the Hindenburg

Line at the former.  Considered impregnable at

St. Quentin, this line was defended by vast fields

of heavy barbed wire, trenches and connecting

tunnels, all guarded by machine guns in

concrete fortified emplacements.

Col. Mett’s regiment attacked early Sunday

morning, Sept. 29th, 1918, after the most terrific

artillery barrage the Western Front had seen to date.

He and his men fought through broken German

fortifications and soon occupied the town of

Bellicourt and the St. Quentin canal.

The fog and barrage smoke was said to be so intense

during the attack that a compass was necessary to

keep proper direction and the dead scattered all over

the battlefield. Shell holes were so numerous

“that one could not walk three steps without

falling into one.”

As the regiment advanced further it encountered

heavier German artillery fire which included

mustard gas shells.

Colonel Metts was in command of his regiment at

both Ypres operations, as well as the Somme offensive.

For meritorious conduct and exemplary combat

leadership he was awarded the Distinguished

Service Medal and received high recognition

for his regiment’s success in helping break the

Hindenburg Line at St. Quentin.  



Returning to the US in April 1919, Colonel Metts was

ordered to Washington for duty with the General Staff;

in May 1920 he returned to his home State and

commissioned adjutant-general by Gov. Thomas Bickett.

While holding this office General Metts commenced

a re-organization of the State’s National Guard, then in

1926 assumed command of the Sixtieth Brigade, Thirtieth

Division, United States Army, as brigadier-general.

In 1940 he was appointed State director of Selective

Service under Gov. Clyde R. Hoey and served in

this capacity throughout World War II.  In 1949,

he was promoted to the rank of major-general.


After a long military career and serving as

North Carolina’s adjutant-general for thirty-one years

under nine governors, General Metts retired to

private life. His lifetime achievements were

many and included being president of the

Adjutant Generals’ Association of the United States

and serving on the National Guard’s executive

committee plus several standing committees.

President Harry S. Truman awarded the Medal of Merit

for Selective Service to General Metts, with further awards being the Distinguished Service Medal of the National

Guard Association of the United States in 1955, and the

North Carolina Distinguished Service Medal in 1956.

Early Life

General Metts was born in Wilmington on

December 17, 1876, fourth in a family of

six children, to parents James Isaac Metts and

Cornelia Cowan Metts.

An early ancestor was Frederick Metts, who fought in the Revolution under the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion.

His father, James Isaac Metts, served with both the

Eighteenth and Third North Carolina Regiments,

and fought with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Shot through a lung and captured at Gettysburg,

he was imprisoned at Johnson’s Island prison in

Ohio until exchanged in April 1864 in such poor

health that his obituary had been prepared in advance.  

Metts fourth son was named in memory of boyhood

friend and Company D, Third North Carolina Regiment

commander, Capt. John Van Bokkelen, who died

of intestinal fever in late June 1863 near Richmond.

Postwar, General Mett’s father went into business

partnership with his wartime Colonel and prewar

president of the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad,

Robert H. Cowan. James Isaac Metts married

Cowan’s daughter Cornelia, John Van Bokkelen

Mett’s mother.

As a youth General Metts attended Wilmington’s

Tileston Normal School, and was enrolled in the

Cape Fear Academy classical curriculum until age

sixteen. He then spent two years with his

father’s wholesale grain business before joining

the Walker Taylor Insurance Company. There he

worked for five years, sold the acquired interest

in the firm and opened his own general insurance

agency in Wilmington.

To guide his sons in their business careers, father

James Isaac Metts wrote a note for them to follow,

entitled “Don’t.”

“Don’t forget that perseverance, politeness and patience unlock the door of success; Don’t forget to carry out your instructions to the letter; Don’t forget to keep your

business to yourself. Discuss it only with those

interested; Don’t forget that the act of giving up

a set purpose in view of a possible contingency,

is dangerous to character; Don’t forget to

associate with businessmen on the road. Father.”

His military interest began in 1894 when Metts joined

the Wilmington Light Infantry military organization as

a private -- rising through the ranks to captain in 1903

and lieutenant-colonel in 1907. He was also at that

time active in Wilmington civic affairs and served as

a New Hanover County Commissioner.  In 1906,

he married Josephine Budd of Petersburg, Virginia,

their union produced two children, Josephine

Budd Metts Huntt, and John Van B. Metts, Jr.

General Metts lived in Raleigh while North Carolina’s Adjutant-General from 1920 onward, residing there until his death on October 14, 1959.  He is buried in Wilmington’s Historic Oakdale Cemetery.  

Notes and References:

North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865, A Roster. Vol. III, Infantry. NC A&H 1971

Doctor to the Front, Donald Koonce, UT Press, 2000

Metts, John Van B., Josephine Metts Huntt, 1991; NCpedia

History of the 119th Infantry, 30th Division, US Army Operations in Belgium and France, 1917-1918, Coleman B. Conway, DocSouth, 1920.

North Carolina Biography, Vol. III, 1929, 1941.