Julian Johnson Ewell was the son of Colonel George W. Ewell (1879-1972), a career Army officer. Julian Ewell was born in Stillwater, Oklahoma on November 5, 1915, while his father was serving as a Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor at Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Oklahoma State University–Stillwater). He was raised in California, Panama, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., and graduated from New Mexico Military Institute in 1932. He attended Duke University before transferring to the United States Military Academy, from which he graduated in 1939. He received his commission as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry, and received paratrooper training at the start of World War II.
Having advanced to lieutenant colonel, Ewell assumed command of 3rd Battalion 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 101st Airborne Division. In June 1944, Ewell parachuted into Normandy and led his men into combat for the first time. Despite being unable to immediately account for a majority of his battalion because so many paratroopers had missed their landing zones, Ewell was still able to regroup and engage the Nazi defenses.
On September 17, 1944 Ewell's battalion parachuted into the Netherlands as part of Operation Market Garden and Ewell soon moved up to regimental executive officer. With the death of 501st commander Colonel Howard R. Johnson on October 8, Ewell moved up to regimental command.
That winter he commanded the 501st when the 101st Airborne Division was rushed into the emergency defense of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, and received the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroic actions.
Ewell continued his service after World War II. As a Colonel in the late 1940s he served as Executive Officer to General Maxwell Taylor during Taylor's command of U.S. forces in Berlin. In 1953, he was assigned as commander of the 9th Infantry Regiment in South Korea.
After the Korean War Ewell attained the rank of Brigadier General, and his assignments included: Assistant Commandant of Cadets at West Point; Executive Assistant to General Taylor during Taylor's assignment as Military Aide to President John F. Kennedy and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Assistant Division Commander of the 8th Infantry Division; Chief of Staff of V Corps in West Germany; and Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff for Combat Developments Command.
From 1968 to 1969 Ewell commanded the 9th Infantry Division as a Major General. During his command, the division carried out Operation Speedy Express, an effort to eliminate Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers with overwhelming force.
From 1969 to 1970 Ewell commanded II Field Force in Vietnam, receiving promotion to Lieutenant General.
After leaving command of II Field Force Ewell was military advisor to the U.S.-South Vietnamese delegation at the negotiations for the Paris Peace Accords.
From 1972 until his 1973 retirement Ewell was Chief of Staff of the NATO Southern Command in Naples, Italy.
Critics have charged Ewell with focusing obsessively on "body counts" during the Vietnam War, causing his subordinates to inflate their numbers by killing civilians and committing atrocities in an effort to demonstrate success. David Hackworth, author of Steel my Soldiers' Hearts, was critical of Ewell's performance. Hackworth, who served in the 9th Division during the Vietnam War, wrote that in 1968 and 1969 the division was credited with killing 20,000 enemy, yet recovered only 2,000 weapons, suggesting that the numbers of enemy dead were vastly inflated.
A 1972 Inspector General report concluded that there may have been as many as 7,000 civilian deaths during Speedy Express out of a total 11,000 reported killed by troops.
In 1995 General Ewell and Ira Hunt, a retired Major General who had served as Ewell's Chief of Staff in the 9th Division, published Sharpening the Combat Edge. In their book, Ewell and Hunt argued that the allegations of obsession with the body count were unfounded, and that their effort to inflict maximum damage had "unbrutalized" the war for civilians in South Vietnam.
The version of events presented by Ewell and Hunt—an "unbrutalized' civilian population—is countered in Nick Turse's book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Turse presents detailed documentation of war crimes, including those he argues are Ewell's, and argues that the coverup of Speedy Express went to the top of American decision making in Vietnam. Turse's book is intended to present a sharp counterpoint to those he argues attempt to minimize the viciousness and unethical behavior shown by some American commanders and soldiers in Vietnam.
General Ewell was a graduate of the United States Army Command and General Staff College, the United States Army War College and the National War College.
In addition to the Distinguished Service Cross, General Ewell's awards and decorations included: the Distinguished Service Medal (4); Silver Star (3); Legion of Merit (2); Bronze Star; Purple Heart; Air Medal; and Combat Infantryman Badge. He was also a recipient of several foreign decorations, including the Legion of Honor (Chevalier) from France.
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Julian J. Ewell (0-21791), Lieutenant Colonel (Infantry), U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Commanding Officer, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, in action against enemy forces on the night of 18–19 December 1944, at Bastogne, Belgium. In the darkness of 18–19 December 1944, Colonel Ewell's regiment was the first unit of the 101st Airborne Division to reach the vicinity of Bastogne, Belgium, then under attack by strong enemy forces. While his regiment assembled, Lieutenant Colonel Ewell went forward alone to Bastogne to obtain first hand enemy information. During the night of 18–19 December 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Ewell made a personal reconnaissance amid intermingled friendly and hostile troops and on 19 December, by his heroic and fearless leadership of his troops, contributed materially to the defeat of enemy efforts to prostrate Bastogne. On 3 January 1945, when an enemy attack threatened to blunt the impetus of the regimental offensive, Lieutenant Colonel Ewell personally lead a counterattack which stopped the enemy and made possible the continued offensive action of his regiment. Throughout the action at Bastogne, the heroic and fearless personal leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Ewell were a source of inspiration to the troops he commanded. His intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 101st Airborne Division, and the United States Army.
Headquarters, XVIII Airborne Corps, General Orders No. 19 (March 14, 1945) Hometown: Washington, D.C.
General Ewell was married four times. His first two marriages, to Mary Gillem and Jean Hoffman, resulted in divorces. He was married to his third wife, Beverly McGammon Moses, for forty years before her death in 1995. In 2005 he married Patricia Gates Lynch. Ewell had four children and two stepchildren.
In retirement General Ewell lived in the Fairfax Retirement Community at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He died at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Fairfax on July 27, 2009. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Section 59, Grave 3854.
World War II memorabilia from Ewell is on display at the December 44 Museum in La Gleize, a facility which commemorates the Battle of the Bulge.