Exploring three generations of military service–the second generation

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.

Bridge 2Bridge 3 Bridge 1

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.

Remembering Veterans Day when it was still called Armistice Day

Let me share a story with you about three generations of military service and the changes experienced from each generation to the next—from a battlefield commission during World War I (which might not have happened had the general awarding the commission known that my father was Jewish) to a West Point graduation (when being Jewish was not an obstacle to earning a commission).

In 1918, the armistice ending World War I began on November 11th at 11:00 a.m. and, one year later, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11, 1919 as the first commemoration.

Armistice Day was always a very special holiday in the Black Hills and my father, Morris, who had won a battle field commission in World War I—thus making him a genuine “local hero”—usually made three speeches, each with a different tone.

The first speech was in the Rapid City Auditorium (located where the Dahl now stands) and, from a child’s point of view, it seemed similar to many other gatherings I had observed. It was the usual public address at the appropriate public time. The second speech was at a celebration in the Kadoka high school gym and somehow seemed a little more personal. This speech invited public participation which occurred with occasional applause and laughter. The last speech was in a little country church late in the afternoon (perhaps around 3:00 p.m. or 4:00 p.m.) and was the most different from the others. There was only enough room inside the church for the adults, so we children would wait outside. Through the closed door we would hear, and were impressed by, the occasional loud noise of everyone inside stamping their feet on the floor—this gave me the idea that it was probably the best speech of the day.

In his speeches my father would share his experiences serving during World War I, including how he was recommended for a field commission. During the St. Mihiel offensive in Germany all of his company’s officers were killed and my father assumed command. He rallied the men and the company built a bridge to transport waiting ambulances filled with wounded men to the rear lines—all while under heavy German fire. A general overlooking the battlefield saw the company building the bridge and said, “Make that sergeant a lieutenant.”

While the actions of my father and his company were described as heroic, he told me that it was not a sign of any real bravery, because what bothered him more than the German bullets were the screams of the wounded soldiers who would have been stranded without the bridge.

On November 11, 1918, at 11:00 am the armistice ending World War I began and, eventually, the troops returned home. On the ship taking him back to the United States a regular Army officer asked my father, “Well Lieutenant, how does it feel to be an officer?” He replied, “It’s just great, really wonderful.” The regular asked him what made it that way for him and he answered, “Having a stateroom.” The regular said, “Well that’s not very professional.” My father’s reply: “That’s because you did not come over in the hold.”

The field commission made my father one of a small minority of Jewish men who became officers at that time. In fact, the German Army had more Jewish officers, proportionally, than the United States Army. Would Morris Adelstein have been recommended for a field commission had the general known that his last name was Adelstein? We’ll never know, but years later his grandson would be accepted to and graduate from West Point with the name Adelstein.