There is s song in the movie “White Christmas” with the lyrics “What do you do with a general when he stops being a general?” The point in the movie is that a WW II major general has retired and is running a ski resort in Vermont. He is not happy and wants to get back into the Army, but they aren’t having it. Well, what do you do with a general? I have known many generals in my life. I am pleased to call several of them friends. These guys really did excel in their jobs.
I was in a HAWK (air defense missile) battalion at Fort Bliss, TX back in the 1970s. The battalion commander had replaced the previous commander who left under a cloud. As a result of the condition of the battalion the new commander was allowed to hand pick his battery commanders. I was honored to be one of the ones picked to command one of the HAWK batteries. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time because it may have been the toughest assignment I ever had in the Army. There was just so much wrong in the battalion that had to be fixed that we were constantly stressed. We did turn the unit around by the end of my tour there. Anyway, this is about generals. Of the four line battery commanders, me being one, three became generals. I did not, but that was largely because I made some career decisions that I knew would preclude getting a star. I made those decisions based on my and my family’s needs.
This story, though, is not about any of those generals. It is about one of the most famous of our WW II generals, General of the Army Omar Bradley. Bradley was one of only nine military officers to achieve the rank of 5 star general. The question posed in the song mentioned above does not apply to a 5 star rank. Once achieved, the rank of General of the Army is there for life. We haven’t had any achieve that rank since WW II and likely won’t see it again (my thinking), but the nine selected out of the great global war of the 1940s were special indeed. What do you do with a 5 star general? Well, if you are Douglas MacArthur , you just “fade away.” If you are Dwight Eisenhower, you become Commander in Chief (President of the US) and if you are Omar Bradley…well, that is what the rest of this story is about.
If you are wondering where this becomes a memory of mine, please hold on a little bit longer. It is coming.
As a 5 star general in 1977, Omar Bradley, moved to Fort Bliss, TX. Yep, the same Fort Bliss where I was a HAWK Battery Commander. In 1977, Omar Bradley was about 84 years old give or take, He was born in 1893 so you can do the math to check. Having kept his rank he was entitled to a staff and an aide de camp. His Aide was an Army Lieutenant Colonel. He also became the senior officer on post when he arrived so had his pick of quarters. That meant that some other general on post was about to be displaced and in fact, as the saying goes s@#t flows downhill so someone else is displaced and so on. Well, General Bradley selected the quarters that belonged to the general that commanded the William Beaumont Army Medical Center. He also took over a floor of the hospital to serve as his headquarters. Being fair, none of this caused any lapse in readiness for the post, the hospital or the Army in general (pun intended).
Well, in the summer of 1977, Fort Bliss welcomed General Bradley to his new headquarters in the high desert of the great southwest. A military review was planned with representatives from all the units of the post. My battery was one of the many arrayed on the parade field that very hot summer afternoon. If you’ve ever spent a summer in El Paso, you are likely familiar that it can get to 120 degrees in the shade and there is no shade. B Battery was aligned in its designated unit location standing tall with freshly starched fatigues and spit shined boots. As we stood out there in the heat I had cautioned my soldiers frequently about not locking their knees and told each one to keep an eye on the soldier in front of him to be able to warn if they noticed any locked knees. We also super hydrated before we got out to the field. I was really concerned about being out on the open parade field in the heat. Without doing serious research I can’t tell you how many troops dropped out that afternoon, but I can say with some bit of pride that no soldier in B Battery dropped out. Some will say this is cruel and unusual punishment, but I will tell you that we had trained for desert combat so we were ready for it and though I cannot speak for any of the soldiers standing behind me in formation, I personally was honored to be standing in front of one of the icons of WW II. Omar Bradley was called the Soldier’s General because of his concern for his troops in WW II. He always accomplished his mission, but always considering the consequences of his decisions.
Once all the appropriate speeches were made, the formation performed a Pass in Review. The band struck up and one by one the units marched out to pass in front of the reviewing stand. I don’t remember how many units were in that parade, but there was a bunch. Each battalion led by its battalion commander and staff was followed by the batteries in the battalion. General Bradley in a wheel chair on the reviewing stand, rose as each battalion passed (his aide had to assist him) and saluted the unit as it passed. He could have stayed seated in his wheel chair and we would have all understood, but that was not the way of the Soldier’s General.
I’ve written before in these stories how much I loved the parades in the Army. I know, I am clearly in the minority, but I did love to step off to Stars and Stripes Forever or, really, any other John Phillip Sousa marching tunes. I was in my element passing before the great general.
Later after making sure the members of my battery that stood with me on the field that day were well and re-hydrated, I went back by the field and you could see black marks showing where each soldier had stood in formation. You see, the black polish used to shine our boots had melted and left hundreds of footprints on the field. Wish I had thought to take a picture of that.
One last Omar Bradley story that is second hand because I was not there. Seems that among his other duties such as writing his memoirs and being an adviser to the Army leadership, General Bradley would often be a guest speaker at various schools and events in the military. On one such occasion, General Bradley was speaking to a group of young Army captains and lieutenants. After his speech there was a question and answer period. In any class there is always one, sometimes more, but always one officer that demanded attention and would jump up to be the first to ask a question that was usually posed in a manner to trip up the speaker. We called these guys “spring butts.” Anyway, on this occasion, the captain asked the general to tell of a time when he went against authority and made a command decision counter to what his superiors were advocating. The captain ended his question with the a statement to this effect…” I ask this because I know the general didn’t become a general by being a yes man.” General Bradley responded to the question with an example of when he used logic to change a course he felt was wrong and added. “The captain is right, I did not become a general by being a yes man. That is, however, how I became a major.”