Each year as September 11th approaches, I think of my grandfathers: both veterans of WW11, both West Point graduates, and both professional soldiers who rose in rank to become general officers. While they were veterans of the wars in Korea and Vietnam as well, it was WW11 that formed Ben Harrell and George Pickett.
I’ve read Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation and what I took away was that men like my grandfathers have created what you might call a ripple effect in our country’s history that’s difficult to articulate; and, if you knew these men, you’d understand why they were remarkable.
George Pickett, an unlikely hero, graduated near the bottom of his class at West Point; a wiry man with black curly hair, an angelic face and a mother who was a manic-depressive. George was complicated, had an oversized ego and a level of paranoia… perhaps, and inherited from his mother, which made his life and those who loved him, a bit difficult. But he was a brilliant military strategist; maybe it was genetic for he was a collateral descendant of his namesake, George Pickett of Gettysburg fame.
In 1945, at the age of 26, my grandfather was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and, as commander of a battalion of the 16th Armored Division, was GEN Patton’s youngest battalion commander. While serving with Patton’s forces, he received a Bronze Star for Valor and a Silver Star. Throughout his career, there were many medals and accomplishments yet George had a tendency to boast and this trait did not serve him well. While he garnered a certain respect for his intellect, he did not have many friends nor supporters.
After graduating from the National Defense University in Washington, DC, George became the 49th commanding officer of the 2d Regiment of the Dragoons, later designated the 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment, with headquarters in Nuremberg, Germany. He was responsible for surveillance and observation of large segments of the East German and the Czech borders. Having accepted the surrender of many of the same towns and villages in the region in April 1945, he now returned to defend that area. In 1963, he was promoted to brigadier general and appointed Chief of Staff, Combat Developments Command, Ft. Belvoir, VA. Promoted to major general in 1967, he served as Commanding General, 2nd Infantry Division.
It was at Fort Belvoir, my mother, George’s daughter, Barbara met and married my father, Ben Harrell’s son, Charlie. My grandfather, George Pickett was assigned as my grandfather, Ben Harrell’s second in command. It was an arranged marriage, my mother likes to say and it brought together two unlikely families and two unlikely stories.
Ben Harrell was everything George Pickett was not. He was a gentle and endearing man, loved by everyone who knew him. And while he was not a brilliant military strategist, he was smart enough to help formulate the tactical plans for the Allied Invasion of North Africa in 1942, codenamed Operation Torch. Ben had a magnificent head of hair which I am proud to say, I inherited and a temper that I got as well. When asked by a reporter about the capture of Casablanca, he said: “On paper the plan looked pretty good, but the thing was too damned complicated.” Knowing my grandfather, I imagine there were some expletives that were deleted from that quote. One of my earliest memories of Ben Harrell, was being taught to march and sing the 7th Infantry Division fight song, a bit too colorful for my mother’s taste who put a stop to that event.
At the beginning of the Vietnam War, Ben Harrell served as the Commanding General of the prestigious 101st Airborne Division and, in 1967; he became the Commanding General of the 6th Army at the Presidio of San Francisco. In 1968, he was promoted to the rank of general and became NATO Commander, Allied Land Forces SE Europe. His medals would fill the page so I’ll just say he served our country well.
So what’s the point you might ask. The point is this: when the chips are down, aren’t we fortunate to know that our country can produce the likes of a George Pickett even with his many flaws and a Ben Harrell who didn’t see why the impossible was not possible. Not that we are a country of heroes but the potential is there.