James Richard Townsend was born July 23, 1893, in Burlington, North Carolina, and was raised in Greensboro. He attended North Carolina State University, graduating in 1914 with a degree in civil engineering. Townsend then worked in the City of Greensboro engineering department until enlisting with the National Guard in 1917. In 1920 he entered the United States Army, serving in Hawaii, Panama, and Washington, D.C. He was commanding general of Camp Davis in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Camp Han in California during the Second World War. General Townsend also commanded anti-aircraft defenses at Casino, Italy, during World War II, as well as serving in Rome, Northern Italy, Southern France, and the Pacific.
Townsend retired from the army in 1946 and the following year was appointed city manager for the City of Greensboro, serving in this capacity until retirement in August 1961. He then moved to Durham, where he served as chairman of the North Carolina Board of Water Commissioners until 1967. He was also president of the North Carolina League of Municipalities.
Townsend was the recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Croix de Guerre with Palm Leaf, and the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf. Greensboro’s largest water reservoir, Lake Townsend, is named in his honor. General Townsend died in Durham, N.C., on January 24, 1982, at the age of 88.