U.S. News and World Report Cover Story 7/5/99

They left West Point in 1939, soldier-scholars who made a difference


They are the boys of the class of '39, the class the big wars fell on. The charter members of the greatest generation, they were the young princes of World War II. Many were colonels before they were 30. Today, their hair, what's left of it, is gray. Backs that were ramrod straight in troop assemblies on dusty parade grounds are bent now. Legs that marched through the hedgerows of Normandy and the jungles of Bataan now are no longer so trustworthy. The boys, even the youngest now, are in their 80s. But don't think of them as old. Think, rather, of lions in winter.

Back in the summer of 1935, over 700 of the boys marched up the hill to the Plain from the train station at West Point. Four years later, having survived the hazing, the hassles, and the academic grind, 456 cadets graduated. Last month, 78 members of the class of '39 came back to West Point. The occasion was their 60th-anniversary reunion, and the '39-ers know for most this will be their final roll call. They looked just ahead of them in the Old Graduates' March and saw only eight members of the Class of '29. The toll of years is inexorable, but somehow it's not very frightening to these men. After all, they have known death intimately for most of their lives.

"We did our job." West Point is a special place, and every graduating class has its share of heroes and visionaries. The class of '39 is special, though, for the impact its members had on the military–molding, shaping, and leading through World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. "The reason our class had an impact," says retired Gen. Walter "Dutch" Kerwin, who served as vice chief of staff of the Army, "is because we came in in 1939 and got our feet on the ground and moved into key positions. We had a substantial impact by having gone through three wars. . . . We, as individuals, did not change things, but we as a class, moving up the line, made substantial changes." Gen. Andrew Goodpaster served as President Eisenhower's top military aide and, later in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as supreme allied commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Europe. Known as "Good P" among the '39-ers, Goodpaster credits the influence of the class to "outstanding professional ability and character and readiness to take responsibility." In a word, Goodpaster says, "We did our job."

The numbers bear him out. Seventy-two members of the class became general officers in the Army and the Air Force. An additional 224 rose to the rank of colonel. Many served for 30 years or more.

But starting out was a shocker. As new second lieutenants, the class of '39 joined a peacetime Army that had stagnated for years at 148,000 men and 12,000 officers. After World War I, most served with little hope of promotion and none for a pay raise. Over the next four years, these second lieutenants would be the core around which the Army grew to a trained force of 12 million men. At West Point, the cadets were taught by instructors who had been frozen at the rank of lieutenant for more than 15 years; many of the class of '39 would end the war in 1945 wearing a full colonel's eagles. They led infantry and armor regiments, Air Corps bomber and fighter groups. Class members fought and died in every theater of the war. Someone from the class of '39 fought in virtually every major battle, from Corregidor to North Africa, from Normandy Beach to the Bulge. The casualty rate, unsurprisingly, was high. The war claimed more than 40 members of the class.

FDR's vision. The class of '39 was the first of President Roosevelt's big classes at the military academies, almost twice the size of the entering classes of preceding years. FDR had persuaded Congress to give each Congress member one additional appointment to the academies that year. He seemed to know, very early on, that those extra officers would be desperately needed by the time they graduated. FDR's commencement address to the class, in hindsight, seems eerily prescient. "I am sure the lessons you have learned at West Point will be of use in peace, no less in war," the president told the graduates, "and that in you the nation will take the same pride, the same confidence, as, through the generations, it has held for the officers of the armies of the United States." Just days later, on September 1, as the class of '39 reported to their first duty stations, Nazi forces crossed into Poland. World War II had begun.

West Point proudly states that "much of the history that we teach was made by people we taught," and it is no idle boast. West Point produced graduates who would general the armies of both sides in the Civil War, from Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant to William Tecumseh Sherman to Stonewall Jackson to James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart to George Meade to P. G. T. Beauregard to George Pickett. Both the rebel officer who attacked Fort Sumter, beginning the war, and the Union officer who surrendered it were West Pointers.

The history, the tradition, the harrowing plebe year, the scrambling to make the grades was all soaked up by the class of '39, and it made them better men; the wars they soldiered through and survived, against the odds, made them better still. The passage of the years and the gentle influence of the women they married mellowed them.

Now they have nothing left to prove; nothing more pressing to do than love their grandkids and great-grandkids. They have survived to see West Point and the world itself change so drastically that neither one much resembles what they knew in their prime. The West Point class of '99 was graduating right after the class of '39 reunion. It contains 934 graduates: 125 of them women; 55 of them African-Americans; 47 of them Asian and Pacific Islanders; 34 of them Hispanics; and 9 American Indians. The class of '39 had one black cadet during plebe year; he left by June; some say he was driven out by the harsh treatment accorded blacks at the academy back then.

The only women the '39-ers saw in the old days were the ones they called, and still call, "our gals" or "our OAOs "(One and Onlies). They would ride the train or the Hudson River ferry to West Point on an occasional weekend for a Saturday hop, or dance. The gals would share a room at the Hotel Thayer on the bluff above the river, and if their beaus came to dinner, the women had to pay. The cadets were not permitted to have any money on their person. Most married their OAOs in a parade of weddings that began at West Point the day after graduation and this year are marking 60 years of marriage. With all that back pay in their accounts, most were able to afford a brand-new car to drive their brides away in. They had three months' leave accumulated, and must have felt as if they had the world in a jug as they drove away on their honeymoons.

Off to the Pacific. But that world was about to explode. After Hitler's attack on Poland, the U.S. Army was ordered to beef up security in Panama, Hawaii, and the Philippines. Assignments of the young lieutenants from '39 were skewed heavily toward those locations. By the spring of 1942, when the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island surrendered to the Japanese, some two dozen of the class of '39 had survived the infamous Death March, only to disappear into the hellish Japanese POW camps. Ten died of starvation and disease. The rest came home, their health destroyed.

The first member of the class of '39 to die in battle fell in the Philippines. Lt. Russ Bowers was killed in action on Christmas Eve, 1941, leading a reconnaissance patrol up the North Manila Road. The casualties mounted. And the soldiers' commitment deepened. "The one thing about World War II is, nobody ever had to be told why we were fighting," says Lt. Gen. Stanley R. "Swede" Larsen, now retired. "We had to win; we had to stop those guys."

Wars come complete with war stories, but most of them have to be pried out of the men of the class of '39. From the storied battlefields of Europe and the Pacific, to Korea and then Vietnam, the '39-ers were there, and they made a difference. Harry W. O. Kinnard jumped with the 101st Airborne Division behind German lines in Normandy on D-Day. Gen. Maxwell Taylor had promoted the '39-er to colonel and made him the division planning officer. Kinnard was 29. One night, Taylor was back in Washington, and Kinnard was throwing a champagne party in his quarters in France when the phone rang. It was Maj. Gen. Tony McAuliffe, the division artillery commander. "There's been a German breakthrough," McAuliffe told Kinnard. "We move out in the morning."

The Battle of the Bulge had begun. MPs were dispatched to sweep troops out of the bars and cathouses. The next day they headed for Bastogne, short of men, ammunition, weapons, everything. On the road north, McAuliffe ordered his troops to sweep up all the stragglers and retreating units. If they were fit to fight, they became part of Task Force SNAFU (Army slang for: situation normal, all fouled up). They even body-snatched some entire artillery battalions–"a great help when finally we were surrounded," Kinnard says.

"Nuts!" The Germans sent a truce party into Bastogne with a demand that the Americans surrender. When McAuliffe heard they were coming, he said, "Nuts!" When the demand was finally delivered, the general asked his staff what he should say. Kinnard piped up: "Why not tell them what you said earlier?" McAuliffe was puzzled. "What was that?" he asked. Kinnard replied, "Nuts!" That was the message the Germans carried back. The airborne troops withstood everything the Germans threw at them, and eventually Gen. George Patton's Sherman tanks broke through and smashed Hitler's last-gasp counterattack.

Patton figures in another '39-er tale. Walter T. (Dutch) Kerwin was surveying the north shore of Sicily for somewhere to place his artillery when German guns began shooting at him. "The cliffs were very steep and it was difficult to get a decent view of where the Germans were," Kerwin recalls, "and there were these noisy jeeps up above us." Kerwin knew it was Americans in the jeeps, but he needed to hear so he could pinpoint the German guns. "Finally I stood up and I yelled: 'You dumb sonofabitch, get the hell out of there.' " There was a sudden crunching of brush as down the hillside came Old Blood and Guts, his driver, and an aide in tow. "We chatted maybe a half-hour or so," Kerwin recalls. "He was very pleasant." Dutch Kerwin met Patton once more, toward the end of the war. The general had broken his neck in a car accident in Germany and was paralyzed from the neck down. Kerwin was assigned to escort Mrs. Patton and a neurosurgeon from Washington to Frankfurt, and on to the general's bedside. Patton died soon after, just before Christmas 1945.

Among the '39-ers, there are countless tales of derring-do, but few match those of John Ray. He was a young major working for Gen. Omar Bradley in North Africa when he was captured by the Germans–the first time. He was put to work carrying stretchers loaded with German wounded. "My friends," Ray notes, "were now shooting at me." He escaped but was recaptured and placed in solitary confinement. But fortune soon smiled on him. Two hours later, the camp commander summoned Ray and said he intended to turn over the camp and the prisoners to Ray in a few hours. "Why not now?" Ray asked. At which, Ray recalls, the German handed over his pistol, "and I put him in solitary."

Fraternal connections. Ray rejoined General Bradley and accompanied him to England to begin planning the invasion of Normandy. On June 7, 1944, Ray landed on the beach, right alongside Bradley.

During the Battle of the Bulge, Ray, by then a lieutenant colonel, was captured again. He had been instructed to travel the American front lines, warning the widely dispersed American units of the German breakthrough. On Dec. 17, 1944, as he was setting out, Ray met his kid brother, Roger, West Point '43, a lieutenant in the infantry, and gave him his West Point Class of '39 ring for safekeeping. Not long after, Ray came under German fire. He took a round in the helmet and suffered a grazing wound to his head. Once again, he was a POW of the Germans. This time, he was put to work filling captured American vehicles with gasoline. A German soldier ordered Ray and the other prisoners to walk away from the fuel dump and wait. He planned to shoot them in the back. Ray balked. "If you shoot an American," he said, "you are going to shoot him in the face." The German relented. Sent to a POW camp at Hammelburg, Ray soon went to work boosting prisoner morale.

Relief soon arrived in the form of an American task force commanded by Capt. Abraham Baum. After marching 1 mile away from camp, the prisoners were given three choices. If they were well enough to fight, they could join Captain Baum and fight their way back to the American lines. If not, they could try to make it back on their own. Or they could simply return to the German-occupied camp. Ray and most of the others opted to stay, and it was a good thing for them. On its way back, Task Force Baum got shot to pieces. Of 307 men who began the mission, 15 managed to get back with a few POWs. Nine were killed, 16 were missing, 32 were wounded. The rest all ended up as POWs themselves.

Back to Asia. The prisoners who stayed behind with Ray were shipped by rail to Munich. On May 5, 1945, the German commander surrendered the camp with tens of thousands of POWs to Col. Paul R. (Pop) Goode, West Point Class of '17 . During a meeting of his senior officers afterward, Goode was interrupted by a major with a message. He read it aloud: "To: Col. Paul R. Goode. Please release Lt. Col. John Ray to 1st Army Headquarters." The order came from Supreme Headquarters. Ray left the camp with the major. In June 1945, Ray boarded a ship headed home to America. Aboard was his brother Roger, who gave back Ray's class of '39 ring. The troop transport was part of a convoy that included the destroyer-escort USS Martin H. Ray. The ship was named for their brother, a Naval Academy graduate who was killed at the Battle of Midway.

Just as so many of the '39-ers started out in Asia, many more wound up there later on in their careers. In July 1944 Lt. Col. James I. Muir Jr. was on his way to become executive officer of what was left of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), more commonly known as Merrill's Marauders, fighting the Japanese in the jungled mountains of Burma. For months the Marauders had been inching their way toward taking Myitkyina from a determined Japanese defense. Only 200 of the 3,000 original Marauders were still fighting. Eighty percent had dysentery; an additional 15 to 30 each day went down with deadly mite typhus. "I think we lost more people to illness than to combat," Muir recalls.

"The day I arrived I was sent out to do some reconnaissance," Muir says. He took a Thompson .45-caliber submachine gun and set out. A Japanese machine gun gave him his baptism of fire. The replacements pouring into the airstrip had, most of them, no more combat experience than Muir. "We got them off the plane, 25 to 30 people. None of them had ever fired an M-1 rifle before." They got a 10-minute lesson including how to load the rifle, were permitted to fire one shot into the air, and were soon marched off to do battle. "We finally captured the town of Myitkyina." One hundred eighty-seven Japanese were taken prisoner and 600 others escaped. "I remember watching the Chinese carrying a bathtub on a long pole out of the town," says Muir. He wondered if they intended to carry the tub all the way to China.

Korea was the next great field of battle for the '39-ers. William J. McCaffrey was a colonel and a deputy chief of staff of the Army's 10th Corps in Korea in the terrible winter of 1950-51. An Army column and a Marine column had taken opposite sides of the mountains in the advance to the Yalu River. About then, the Chinese Army crossed the Yalu and hit the Army hard. The corps commander, Lt. Gen. Ned Almond, wanted the marines to take a narrow dirt road across the icy mountains and strike the Chinese in the rear to relieve the pressure on the Army troops. The marines, smelling a disaster, resisted. An exasperated Almond ordered McCaffrey to take a forward command group up to Hagaru-ri and establish it right next door to the Marine headquarters to put more pressure on them to move. McCaffrey did just that. Then he was ordered back down to the coast to pick up a copy of general headquarters' plan for how to manage the end of the Korean War. On the way, he met a marine who said he was taking fire from above. "I tore on down the road to Hungnam," McCaffrey recalls, "got something to eat and fell in bed. I was awakened by a desperate call from the lieutenant colonel I had left in charge." The forward command post McCaffrey had established was taking small-arms fire. McCaffrey ordered the man to take the soldiers in the CP over to the Marine command post. They never made it. They were overrun and killed by the Chinese. "No one," McCaffrey said, "needed the End of the War Plan by then."

Bowing out. Vietnam was the last of the big conflicts the '39-ers had a hand in, and none thought it was pretty. Lt. Gen. Stanley "Swede" Larsen commanded I Field Force, a corps command that covered 40 percent of South Vietnam's central section in 1965-66. In the late fall of 1965, some of the war's bloodiest fighting occurred in the Ia Drang Valley, where the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) had driven a tough North Vietnamese Army force back into neighboring Cambodia.

In the spring of 1966 Larsen, on leave visiting his family in Washington, was asked by Pentagon brass to do a press briefing on Vietnam. "I talked for over an hour on my area of responsibility, I Field Force," the general recalls. "As I finished, I pointed to the map and said, 'Over here in Cambodia, the enemy forces that fought the 1st Cav in November are resting and refitting, but in the last few weeks they have started coming back, and I am certain we are going to have to fight them again.' " Before Larsen even got back to his house, the secretary of state and the secretary of defense had given news conferences, and both of them declared that Larsen was dead wrong. There were no North Vietnamese in Cambodia, they declared.

The next day Larsen was summoned to a meeting. There were maybe a dozen people there, including the Army chief of intelligence, his deputy, the deputy chief of Department of Defense intelligence, and a bunch of intelligence officers of lower rank. Larsen recalls the moment vividly: "I said, 'OK, let's at least begin with the fact that the enemy is in Cambodia, right?' All shook their heads and said, 'No, never heard that.' I said, 'Look here, I have five of your [intelligence] guys on my staff who go off every day and fly planes along the Cambodian border doing intercepts of the North Vietnamese radio traffic inside Cambodia. That's where I get my information. Right?' They all shook their heads." Larsen got up and walked out.

Two months later the North Vietnamese came back across the border and the 4th Division took the brunt of it. U.S. forces captured 83 prisoners, and Larsen reported that. Back came a message from the brass, asking if he could determine where the prisoners had come from. Larsen: "I sent a reply that stated that of the 83 captives, all 83 stated that they came into Vietnam from Cambodia. . . . I told myself right then that I would never, ever take that kind of crap from anyone for the rest of my life."

Things went from bad to worse. Dutch Kerwin went to Vietnam as chief of staff to the U.S. commander, Gen. William C. Westmoreland. It was January of 1968 and he had a small house outside Saigon that he shared with his driver. Kerwin remembers awakening at 2 a.m. to the sound of gunfire. It was Tet, 1968. All hell had just broken loose. Kerwin and the driver jumped into their jeep and headed for the military headquarters near Tan Son Nhut airfield. They made it to headquarters. The place was bedlam. Westmoreland was down at the U.S. Embassy. Kerwin was in touch with him by radio. He had Westmoreland in one ear and the director of the Joint Staff in the other. "It was quite a long time before things calmed down."

Tet was bad. But things would get worse. Gen. Andrew Goodpaster was promoted to three-star rank in January 1964 and became assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. In early 1965, he was asked to conduct a study on U.S. involvement in South Vietnam. "President Johnson asked the question: Can we win in Vietnam and what do we have to do?" Goodpaster remembers. "That question came to me." Goodpaster concluded that victory was possible, but only if the nation's leaders would allow the military to achieve it. That never happened.

It was a bitter loss for those of the storied class still in service. They had helped forge a military like none the world had ever seen. From the Plain to the fighting fields of Europe and the Pacific, then to Korea, the class of '39 had made its mark. Vietnam left the taste of ash and the humiliation of defeat. But there was something still. America had raised a wondrous fighting force. And the young men who had been at its core for so many of its finest moments still had much to take pride in.

With Lindsay Faber

What a medal really means

Of the many class of '39 graduates who distinguished themselves on battlefields around the world, only two were awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest distinction for valor in combat. Robert George Cole was a 29-year-old Army lieutenant colonel who led an audacious bayonet charge against withering German machine-gun fire, enabling his battalion to secure a strategic French bridge. Cole never got his medal. A sniper killed him four months after his heroic charge. Leon Robert Vance Jr. was a 28-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Corps flying a bombing run into occupied France when his plane took enemy fire, wounding him and killing the pilot. Vance nonetheless delivered his bombs on target, then flew his crippled plane back to England. Like Cole, Vance never saw his medal either. He died seven weeks later when a plane bringing him home was lost over the North Atlantic. Following are the citations for Cole and Vance:


"Lieutenant Colonel Cole was leading his battalion . . . when his entire unit was suddenly pinned to the ground by intense and withering enemy rifle, machine-gun, mortar, and artillery fire. After the devastating and unceasing enemy fire had for over one hour prevented any move and inflicted numerous casualties, Lieutenant Colonel Cole . . . issued orders to assault the enemy positions with fixed bayonets. With utter disregard for his own safety and completely ignoring the enemy fire, he rose to his feet in front of his battalion and with drawn pistol shouted to his men to follow him in the assault. Catching up a fallen man's rifle and bayonet, he charged on and led the remnants of his battalion across the bullet-swept open ground and into the enemy position. His heroic and valiant action in so inspiring his men resulted in the complete establishment of our bridgehead across the Douve River."


Lieutenant Colonel Vance led a Heavy Bombardment Group in an attack against defended enemy coastal positions in the vicinity of Wimereaux, France. Approaching the target, his aircraft was hit repeatedly by antiaircraft fire, which seriously crippled the ship, killed the pilot, and wounded several members of the crew, including Lieutenant Colonel Vance, whose right foot was practically severed. In spite of his injury, and with three engines lost to the flak, he led his formation over the target, bombing it successfully . . . . Gradually losing altitude, he at last reached the English coast. [Because] one of the crew members was unable to jump due to injuries; Vance made the decision to ditch the ship in the channel, thereby giving this man a chance for life . . . . By his extraordinary flying skill and gallant leadership, despite his grave injury, Lieutenant Colonel Vance led his formation to a successful bombing of the assigned target and returned the crew to a point where they could bail out with safety."

'The tail on the kite'
The wives remember lives rich in meaning


Living the Army life, they say, can be like drinking champagne on a beer budget. Dempsie McChristian and her two-star husband, Joe, a member of the West Point class of '39, have sipped their share, both the superb and the not so fine. "We had tea with an emperor. We had dinner with a king and queen," says Dempsie. "We danced in a palace. We also slept on a floor in a Greek village. It has not been boring."

The sentiment is echoed by other wives of the members of this warrior class. On Dec. 7, 1941, Pat Brombach's husband, Charles, was bouncing their 10-month-old daughter on his shoulders in their apartment at Pearl Harbor's Hickam Field. "He reached to wake me up to get ready for church and–ka-boom!--the first bombs went off," Pat recalls. "He pulled up a venetian blind just in time to see the hangar where his office was located go up in a huge explosion. Then we saw the planes with the big red ball on their wings swooping down."

As Charles jumped into his khakis, Pat and the baby took cover behind a piano. When the bombing slackened, she decided to make a dash for a friend's home off the base. First, though, she had to grab some essentials. For her daughter, she shoved diapers and baby bottles into a suitcase. "But when it came to packing something for myself, my mind went totally blank." The only things she took, she later discovered, were "the real essentials"–two pairs of nylons and a bottle of Chanel No. 5.

Parents and prayers. Confusion, for the wives of professional soldiers, is a way of life, along with loneliness and fear. As the young officers of the class of '39 headed off to war, most of the wives returned to their parents. "We had very little money, so we had to go home," explains Mary Martin, the wife of Lt. Gen. William Martin (Ret.). "Every day you got news that someone's son or husband had been killed. It was a frightful time. I said my prayers. I was terribly lonely without him. But I was busy. Our work was raising kids."

Not knowing was the worst. Mary McCaffrey "ached for news" about her husband, Bill. "He always assured me he was going to come home," she says. "No matter what happened, he would walk through the front door. I tried very hard to believe him. But in my heart, I was totally terrified all the time." Now a retired lieutenant general, Bill McCaffrey understands why his wife was so scared. "Combat is a lot of dull days and then a few moments of terror," he says. "When you're there, you know when to be afraid. When you're not there, you're afraid all the time."

Allie Mae Beall remembers what her husband, Lt. Col. Robert Cole, told her as they embraced at Fort Bragg, N.C., just before he left for Europe. "Don't cry," he said, and she didn't. At home, however, she fretted and prayed. "I never really knew where he was." From a D-Day radio newscast, she learned he had parachuted into Normandy. Still, she had no inkling that he had led a bayonet charge that routed the Germans from a village and cleared the way for the first assault troops to move inland from Omaha Beach. His gallantry would earn him the Medal of Honor, but he didn't live to receive it. Four months after D-Day, a sniper shot him dead.

In the decade that followed World War II, many in the class of '39 moved every two or three years, often to places short of housing. Mary Martin remembers how she, William, and their two young sons lived in a "tiny shack" in Kansas. "Furniture was rented. Pick one kind, and you got a flag. Pick another, and you got a picture of FDR." But she is not complaining. "The military was an absolutely marvelous life." "The discipline that was handed from the husband and expected of the wife and children gave a base for a moral kind of living. . . . It was the happiest time of our lives because we were all working for our country."

And supporting their husbands in their chosen career. Today's young women can go to college and "be something," says Cynthia Dolvin, the widow of Lt. Gen. Welborn Dolvin, but "very few of my generation had careers. We graduated from college and then we got married. I wasn't a frustrated doctor or lawyer. I never was anything. I was always the wife and the mother, the tail on the kite."

Dolvin's daughter, Ginger Peabody, 48, says her mother underestimates her role, especially during her many years as a commander's wife. At posts around the world, she directed an endless series of luncheons, teas, dinners, and VIP receptions. To do that requires the skills of a first lady, says Peabody. "You have to be very good with people."

"There are obligations that go with being the commander's wife," Cynthia Dolvin agrees. But, she repeats, she still was just the tail on the kite. "And I was perfectly content. I had it really lucky."