My military career began in 1949 when, with two fraternity brothers, I enlisted in the Colorado Air National Guard while attending the University of Colorado in Boulder. We joined for three reasons—and probably in this order: (1) we could use the extra cash, (2) we were able to put on our uniforms and go to Buckley Field in Denver and fly for free wherever in the United States aircrafts were flying—and that was almost everywhere, and (3) we were patriotic and thought that it would be a wonderful experience. At some point I was asked how I would feel about being a radar operator. I responded that I thought it seemed pretty challenging and soon found myself assigned to the 557th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron. My capabilities were not there, I too easily confused blips with lights and so on, so my assignment became squadron clerk.
The Korean War began on Sunday, June 25, 1950 and my squadron was activated shortly after we returned from summer camp. Being a private first class wasn’t my cup of tea, and when a notice crossed my company clerk’s desk I was presented with an alternative. It was a regulation that allowed anyone to separate from the Air Force and return to school if they were (1) already accepted for advanced ROTC—which I had been enrolled in for two years, (2) studying engineering or premed, and (3) willing to serve for three years, rather than the usual two years. By 3:00 p.m. I was on my way home.
In 1952, after completing a miserable basic, a commission in the Corps of Engineers was mine. I went on active duty in 1955 and, with about forty-two other brand new “shave tails,” was assigned to the 116th Engineer Group in Fort Lewis, Washington.
As a platoon leader of B Company of the 109th Engineer Battalion, I quickly learned how to listen to sergeants who told me what to do. Also, there was the opportunity to build my first—and only—bridge.
My next assignment, as a new First Lieutenant, was as Executive Officer of the 157th Light Equipment Company and subsequently company commander—my experience serving as CO was one of the most important of my life and has been a guide for my life since. As a twenty-four-year-old engineer I was trusted with expensive pieces of construction equipment (worth $53.2M in today’s dollars), outstanding NCOs, and soldiers who wanted to learn a skill they could use for the rest of their lives.
Leadership meant accomplishing a job in a way that satisfies the real desires and needs of the people who are doing the day-to-day work—so the 157th ran as a business.
The men knew that if they were going to keep their equipment running, it had to be taken care of—because when it was in the shop then they did soldiering duties like marching and cleaning the barracks. Also, it became abundantly clear that my equipment could do any job needed on Fort Lewis. Any budding entrepreneur knew how to leverage this for his men. For example, when visiting “ration breakdown” I asked the CO if he hated loading mess trucks in the mud when it rained—which it almost always did—and he said, “Of course! What can I do about it Lieutenant?” After explaining to him that the 157th had a rock crusher, dump trucks, front end loaders, and motor graters that could make him the finest parking lot on the post, the bright American officer asked, “What do I have to do?”
The CO provided the four thousand soldiers on the post with rations—each company receiving a set number of pounds of beef. Of that beef, the amount of hamburger, steak, and tenderloin each company received might vary—some companies receiving more steak and tenderloin and less hamburger. Well, the soldiers of the 157th deserve steak, prime rib, and tenderloin. An agreement was quickly struck and we shook hands. He had a deal and we had the company mess in the 116th. There were tasks like this to be done all over the post.
The end of my three years approached and I was asked by my colonel to volunteer to go before a military board for appointment to the regular Army, instead of the reserve Army. At the time the Corps of Engineers was involved in a reduction of force, returning the many soldiers who had become officers during WWII and the Korean War back to their NCO permanent rank. The competition was tuff for a Corps of Engineers Reserve Commission. Just after returning to Rapid City a certified letter arrived saying that I had been chosen for a regular commission in the Corps of Engineers with a date of rank the same as those who graduated from West Point in 1952. It was clear that my wife would absolutely not be happy with a military life—our eldest son had been born by this time—so we decided to stay in Rapid City and explore all the opportunities that the city and Northwestern Engineering had to offer.