... And I was about to see the world. My first orders sent
me to the 3d Armored Division in West Germany. In that Cold War
era, when the globe seemed divided between white and red, I was
excited to be going to the front line, with our godless communist
adversary deployed just across the Iron Curtain.
... I was sent to Gelnhausen (which the GIs had Americanized
to "Glen-haven"), a picturesque town nestled in the
valley of the Kinzig River, about twenty-five miles east of Frankfurt.
The Soviet zone was forty-three miles to the east. My unit. Combat
Command B of the 3d Armored Division, occupied Coleman Kaseme,
a former German army post near the Vogelsberg mountains, where
most of the troops lived in modem concrete barracks clinging
to the hillsides. I was assigned as a platoon leader to Company
B, 2d Armored Rifle Battalion, 48th Infantry, my first field
command - forty men. The first morning I faced them, shivering
in the cold at reveille, my reaction was mixed. On the one hand,
these soldiers, all shapes, sizes, colors, and backgrounds, were
much like the guys I had grown up with at home. On the other
hand, the Benning ethic had taken over. These men were not my
buddies; they were my responsibility. I was to take care of them.
I felt instantly paternal toward men close to my own age, and
some even older.
I was also about to discover an Army far different from the romping,
stomping, gung ho airbome rangers of Fort Benning. Captain Tom
Miller, B Company Commander, my new superior, typified the breed.
Miller was one of the battalion's five company commanders, mostly
World War II and Korean-era reserve officers, barely hanging
on. If lucky, they would stay on for twenty years and retire
as majors, maybe lieutenant colonels. If less lucky, they would
be reduced back to the enlisted ranks. If really unlucky, they
would be mustered out and thrown onto the civilian job market
in middle age.
These men may not have been shooting stars, yet there was something
appealing about them, something to be learned from them, something
not taught on the plain at West Point or in the texts on military
science and tactics, as my experience with Captain Miller and
a pistol was about to illustrate.
In those days, the Air Force and the Navy had nuclear weapons,
and so the Army had to have its nukes. Our prize was a 280mm
atomic cannon carried on twin truck-tractors, looking like a
World War I Big Bertha. The Russians obviously wanted to know
where our 280s were so that they could knock them out if and
when they attacked. Consequently, the guns were always guarded
by an infantry platoon as the trucks hauled them around the German
forests to keep the Soviets guessing. One day Captain Miller
summoned me. He was assigning my platoon to a secret mission.
We had been selected to guard a 280. I eagerly alerted my men.
I loaded my .45 caliber pistol, jumped into my jeep, and headed
for battalion headquarters to be briefed. I was excited; I was
going to guard a weapon that fired a nuclear warhead!
I had not gone far when I reached down for the reassuring feel
of the .45. It was gone. I was petrified. In the Army, losing
a weapon is serious business. I was torn between taking time
to look for the pistol and getting on with the mission. Finally,
I realized that I had to radio Captain Miller and tell him what
"Powell, are you on your way yet?" he asked right off
"Yes, sir. But, you see ... I lost my pistol."
"You what?" he said in disbelief, then, after a few
seconds, added, "All right, continue the mission."
After being briefed at battalion headquarters, I returned to
pick up my unit, uneasily contemplating my fate. I had just passed
through a little German village when I spotted Captain Miller
waiting for me in his jeep at the wood line. He called me over.
"I've got something for you," he said. He handed me
the pistol. "Some kids in the village found it where it
fell out of your holster." Kids found it? I felt a cold
chill. "Yeah," he said. "Luckily they only got
off one round before we heard the shot and came and took the
gun away from them." The disastrous possibilities left me
limp. "For God's sake, son," Miller said, "don't
let that happen again."
He drove off. I checked the magazine; it was full. The gun had
not been fired. I learned later that I had dropped it in my tent
before I ever got started. Miller had fabricated the whole scene
about the kids to scare me into being more responsible. He never
mentioned the incident again.
Today, the Army would have held an investigation, called in lawyers,
and likely have entered a fatal black mark on my record. Instead,
Miller concocted his imaginative story. He evidently thought,
I've got this ordinarily able second lieutenant. Sometimes he
gets a little ahead of his skis and takes a tumble. I'll teach
him a lesson, scare the bejeezus out of him; but let's not ruin
his career before it gets started.
Miller's example of humane leadership that does not always go
by the book was not lost on me. When they fall down, pick 'em
up, dust 'em off, pat 'em on the back, and move 'em on. I gave
Miller and my other superior officers plenty of opportunities
to pick me up-for example, when I lost the train tickets for
my platoon en route to Munich and found myself and my men stranded
in the Frankfurt Bahnhof. I have never spoken of these embarrassments
until now. Maybe they will help young officers learn a lesson:
nobody ever made it to the top by never getting into trouble.
The Army's mission in Germany was to man the GDP, the General
Defense Plan line. The line cut north-south across the Fulda
Gap, a break in the Vogelsberg mountains through which the Iron
Curtain ran. Every piece of artillery, every machine gun, rifle,
mortar, tank, and antitank weapon in our division was intended
to hit the Russians the moment they came pouring through the
gap. My platoon guarded a little stretch of the Iron Curtain.
Why would the Russians be coming? I did not know; the answer
was above my pay grade. But we assumed the assault could come
at any time. The Cold War was frigid then. The Russians had leaped
ahead in space the year before with Sputnik. They were blocking
our traffic to Berlin on the autobahn. The Elsenhower administration
had adopted a policy of massive retaliation, which meant keeping
conventional forces on short rations while beefing up our nuclear
punch. Our strategists assumed that we were inferior to the Russians
in conventional weaponry, so we had to rely on our nuclear superiority.
All Lieutenant Powell understood of this was that we were thinly
deployed along the GDP, and that once the Russians started coming,
we were to fight like the devil, fall back, and watch the nuclear
I went home on leave during the summer of 1959 for the wedding
of good CCNY friends, Chris and Donna Chisholm, and to see my
new niece, Marilyn's baby, Leslie, and her older sister. Lisa.
Mostly I went to see my girl. We talked about getting married
before I went back. If we did, she intended to stay in New York
until she finished nursing school. I would have to return to
Germany alone for another sixteen months, not a promising start
for newlyweds. I needed Pop's advice. And so, late one night,
in the basement family room, I gingerly raised the subject. His
reaction stunned me. Pop thought I wasn't ready. He did not elaborate.
But he made no bones about it; he was dead set against this marriage.
He had never rejected an idea of mine so flatly. Family approval
was all-important to me, and I was not ready to go up against
Luther Powell, the Godfather. My leave ended and I returned,
still a bachelor, to Gelnhausen.
By the end of that year, I got my first promotion, to first lieutenant,
an automatic advancement that had only required my staying out
of trouble for eighteen months.
I had my first experience with military law in Germany. Three
Army truck drivers had decided to turn a German road into a racetrack,
speeding and passing each other on the way back to their post.
One of these five-tonners skidded out of control and slammed
into a Volkswagen in the oncoming lane. Three German civilians
were killed. I was tapped to prosecute these drivers for manslaughter
in a special court-martial. The GIs had engaged a civilian lawyer
to defend them.
Starting from ground zero, I immersed myself in the facts and
law of the case. Still, I was not Mr. District Attorney. On the
appointed day, I entered the tent where the trial was to be held,
a young infantry lieutenant up against professional lawyers engaged
by the defense. I nevertheless managed to win convictions against
two of the defendants, including the sergeant in charge.
As I walked out of the court, I felt that I had learned as much
about myself as about military law. I had first filled leadership
roles with the ROTC and Pershing Rifles. Since going on active
duty, I had assumed more serious responsibility. These situations,
however, largely involved passing along canned orders. The trial
marked almost the first time that I had had to do much original
thinking, and a lot of it on my feet. That day marked an awareness
of an ability I apparently had. I seemed to be able to assimilate
a mass of raw information, pound it into coherent shape, and
communicate it intelligibly, even persuasively.
The trial assignment continued another pattern that emerged early
in my career. I was often pulled off my regular assignment for
unusual duties. Once I was directed to run the division pistol
team. We took the championship. Another time I was sent to command
an honor guard for two months. I was detailed to brigade headquarters
as assistant adjutant. I was moving around so much that I was
afraid I might slip off the career track. Still, my efficiency
reports were encouraging. One, dated July 20, 1959, by Captain
Wilfred C. Morse, ended, "[Powell] is tenacious, firm, yet
polished in manner and can deal with individuals of any rank.
His potential for a career in the military is unlimited and should
be developed on an accelerated basis." I was twenty-two
years old, and I was being taken seriously. But just six months
after that report had me floating on air, the next one brought
me back to earth.
Among the easygoing reserve officers in the battalion, we were
about to meet an exception. I had recently been reassigned as
executive officer, Delta Company, 2d Battalion, 48th Infantry,
and we were due for a new company commander. When he was named,
near panic set in. Captain William C. Louisell, Jr., was a West
Pointer and a former tactics instructor at the military academy.
Some of our junior officers had been cadets under Captain Louisell,
whom they judged one of the all-time hardnoses. Louisell turned
out exactly as advertised - tough, by-the-book, brilliant, sometimes
I got an early taste of Louisell in the matter of the armored
personnel carriers. One of my responsibilities was to see that
our APCs were always parked headed downhill, with the left front
comer of one vehicle aligned with the right front comer of the
next, ready to pounce against the Red Army. Louisell measured
the placement of these vehicles practically with a surveyor's
transit, and God help us if any comer was out of alignment.
One day, I was in the orderly room on the phone, shouting at
a fellow lieutenant at the top of my lungs, when Louisell walked
in. He took me aside and chewed me out for my behavior. Shortly
afterward, I received my efficiency report. To the layman, it
might not seem disastrous. Louisell had said of me, "He
has a quick temper which he makes a mature effort to control."
But in the code of efficiency report writing, I had taken a hit.
These words marked the only negative comment on my performance
since the first day I had put on a uniform in ROTC. Louisell
called me in, sat me down, and raised the matter of the blowup
on the phone. "Don't ever show your temper like that to
me or anyone else," he warned. It was demeaning to everybody.
I still have a hot temper. I still explode occasionally. And
whenever I do, I hear Bill Louisell's warning voice.
While working as Louiseil's exec, I got a foretaste of what hot
war could be like if the Cold War ever ignited. It was a morning
after payday in the summer of 1960. Our brigade had gone to Grafenwohr
for field training. The troops were to be billeted in over six
hundred general-purpose tents. Our company had not yet arrived
in force, but a sister unit, the 12th Cavalry, had come in the
night before. Its tents were full of troops, still asleep at
this early hour.
I was returning from a bartering mission with another company's
exec, bringing rations I had traded for back to our mess hall.
My ears pricked up at an odd, whistling sound overhead. In about
a nanosecond, I realized it was an artillery shell that had strayed
wildly out of the impact area. I stopped, frozen, and actually
saw the 8-inch round come in. It struck a tent pole in the 12th
Cavalry's sector, detonating in an air-burst. The roar was deafening,
followed by a terrifying silence. I dropped the food and rushed
toward the blast as dismembered legs, hands, and arms thumped
to the ground around me. Money from payday came fluttering to
earth. Some other soldiers joined me, wading through the acrid
smoke and fumes. Inside the tent, I zipped open a sleeping bag,
and what was left looked like an illustration of viscera in a
medical textbook. In an instant, a dozen lives had been snuffed
out and more men wounded. The tragedy was later found to have
been caused by human error in aligning the gun, and the battalion
commander and other officers were relieved of their duties. I
had seen a hundred war movies, but nothing had prepared me for
the sights I saw that day.
ROTC and Fort Benning had been about officers. Gelnhausen was
my indoctrination into what the Army is really about - soldiers.
Here in the 48th Infantry, life revolved around the care of our
men. In those days, the Army was composed mostly of draftees.
They tended to be better educated than the volunteers, some even
college-trained, and we chose our clerks and technical staff
from them. The draftees wanted to put in their two years and
get back to school, jobs, wives and kids, or girlfriends. We
called them the "Christmas help," the people who came
in, fought the nation's wars, and went home. They were not looking
The volunteers were a different lot. Most were well motivated,
and many would eventually work their way up to sergeant, becoming
part of the Army's backbone. Others had enlisted aimlessly, and
some out of desperation, since in those days judges often gave
troublemakers the choice of jail or the Army. I had one eighteen-year-old
volunteer come to me for permission to marry a German girl whom
he had gotten pregnant. At the time, the Army deliberately made
it difficult for young GIs to marry foreigners. Many of these
couples were immature, and we tried to slow down their passion.
Later, in the 1970s, we were instructed not to interfere with
love - an eighteen-year-old private had a constitutional right
to make a fool of himself as much as any eighteen-year-old civilian.
In the case of the private who came to me, since he and his girlfriend
had obviously held their honeymoon in advance, I told him I would
try to expedite the paperwork. That was not the whole problem,
he said. He also needed permission to get his prospective mother-in-law
into the United States because he had gotten her pregnant too.
This situation had not been covered in the basic course at Fort
Getting rid of troublemakers and misfits in the fifties consumed
months and required piles of paperwork. We tried to persuade
ourselves that all we needed was better leadership to bring the
delinquents around. Meanwhile, the good troops saw the bad ones
getting away with murder, a situation destructive of morale overall.
It would take another twenty years before the all-volunteer Army
gave us the luxury of turning down people whom judges did not
want to jail and to "fire" GIs who could not meet our
Sergeants were a tough breed in those days. The wise lieutenant
learned from them and otherwise stayed out of their way. My first
platoon sergeant was Robert D. Edwards, from deepest Alabama,
which was initially a cause of concern to me. I need not have
worried. My color made no difference to Edwards; I could have
been black, white, or candy-striped for all he cared. I was his
lieutenant, and his job was to break in new lieutenants and take
care of them. He always addressed me in the old Army third-person
style: "Does the lieutenant want a cup of coffee?"
The troops feared Edwards, and with reason. Once, I had to explain
to him why he could not keep a soldier who had gone AWOL chained
to the barracks radiator. Edwards found my reasons puzzling and
went off muttering about the decline of discipline. While he
was feared, he was, at the same time, respected and revered by
the men. They understood Edwards. He was in their comer. No matter
how primitive his methods, he had one concern-the welfare of
the platoon and the men in it. If they soldiered right, he looked
out for them.
I came to understand GIs during my tour at Gelnhausen. I learned
what made them tick, lessons that stuck for thirty-five years.
American soldiers love to win. They want to be part of a successful
team. They respect a leader who holds them to a high standard
and pushes them to the limit, as long as they see a worthwhile
objective. American soldiers will gripe constantly about being
driven to high performance. They will swear they would rather
serve somewhere easier. But at the end of the day they always
ask: "How'd we do?"
And I learned what it meant when soldiers brought you problems,
even problems as perplexing as that of the eighteen-year-old
dual lover. Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers
stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped
leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help
them or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of
Another of my memorable mentors was Major Raymond "Red Man"
Barren, our battalion executive officer. His wife, Madge, was
a den mother to young officers. We adored her. One late night
at the officers' club bar, the Red Man explained the essence
of Army leadership to us: "You go to bed at night. Everything
is hunky-dory. The unit is humming. Everyone's accounted for.
You think you're doing a helluva job. You wake up the next morning
and discover that in the middle of the night, when no one was
looking, things got screwed up bad. Stuff happens. You guys understand?
Stuff happens. And a leader's just got to start all over again."
Many a morning I entered the Pentagon, as Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, with the Red Man's wisdom ringing in my ear.
I have a warm spot in my heart for those long-ago officers. Men
like Major Barren and Captains Miller, Blackstock, Watson, and
even Louisell taught us to love soldiering and to care about
and look after our troops. And they passed on to us the fun of
the Army. Do the job right, but don't take yourself too seriously.
And we certainly did have fun. Our social life revolved around
the O-club, which was perched on a hill overlooking the Kinzig
River Valley. Every evening the lieutenants adjourned to the
bar to drink Lowenbrau beer served by Friedl, the bartender,
while the old captains held court, regaling us with war stories
and passing on legends. Dinner was followed by more drinking,
after which we staggered into our Volkswagens and careened rashly
downhill to our quarters.
In those socially incorrect days, we played several drinking
games, at which I excelled until I encountered "7-14-21."
In this game, we took turns rolling a cup of five dice, counting
only aces. Whoever rolled the seventh ace ordered a twelve-ounce
drink that Friedl concocted of straight bourbon, scotch, gin,
brandy, and crème de menthe. As Fried whipped this green
concoction in a blender, the game continued. Whoever rolled the
fourteenth ace paid for the drink. The game ended when the person
who rolled the twenty-first ace was obliged to chugalug Frieda's
vile brew. One night, I hit twenty-one three times in a row.
I, who am today a social sipper, fulfilled my obligation, downed
the stuff, and on the third glass passed out. I was poured into
bed only to be hauled out again at 2:00 A.M. for a surprise alert.
I had to be strapped to the backseat of my jeep to hold me up.
Fortunately for this near-brain-dead lieutenant, that was not
a night the Russians chose to come roaring through the Fulda
For black GIs, especially those out of the South, Germany was
a breath of freedom-they could go where they wanted, eat where
they wanted, and date whom they wanted, just like other people.
The dollar was strong, the beer good, and the German people friendly,
since we were all that stood between them and the Red hordes.
War, at least the Cold War in West Germany, was not hell.
You can serve thirty-five years in the Army and rise to the
top, yet your first assignment always stands out as the most
unforgettable, the one against which all future posts are measured.
That is what Gelnhausen meant to me. It marked the beginning
of lifelong friendships among my class of lieutenants. We needed
each other to survive. We shielded each other from occasional
assaults by senior officers. We covered each other's mistakes
and posteriors. And we competed against each other. Steve Stevens,
Keith Bissell, Ike Smith, Hal Jordan, Tiger Johns, Walter Pritchard,
Bill Stofft, Jim Lee, Joe Schwar, and others remain vivid in
my memory. Joe and his wife. Pat, were to save the Powells four
years later when my pregnant wife and I were practically left
out in the street in a less than hospitable Southern city. Some
decided the Army was not for them and left. A handful made general.
We were a new officer generation, post-World War II, post-Korea.
We would serve our apprenticeship in places like Gelnhausen,
but we would undergo our baptism of fire halfway around the world
in Southeast Asia, where some, like Pritchard and Lee, would
However memorable and valuable it was, I discovered a downside
to the German experience. An unhealthy attitude had infected
these garrison soldiers, a willingness to cut comers and make
things look right rather than be right. Here is a small but telling
illustration. The Army had installed a new equipment maintenance
system for ordering parts. Nobody could figure it out. Rather
than blowing the whistle, rather than saying this system stinks,
it was easier to go to military junkyards and salvage the parts
we needed. Then we would fudge the paperwork to make it look
as if the cockamamie system had worked, thus perpetuating poor
management practices. Senior officers went along with the game,
and junior officers concluded that this was how it was played.
This self-deception would be expanded, institutionalized, and
exported, with tragic results, a few years later to Vietnam.
In November 1960, while I was overseas, a presidential election
took place, the first in which I was old enough to vote. Not
much of the campaign penetrated Gelnhausen; I didn't see the
famous televised Nixon-Kennedy debates. I did vote, however,
and cast my absentee ballot for JFK. Not much searching analysis
went into my choice. In those days, he and his party seemed to
hold out a little more hope for a young man of my roots.
I completed my two-year tour in Germany at the end of 1960.
By then, I had succeeded Bill Louisell as Delta Company's CO.
I was the only lieutenant in the battalion commanding a company,
a job usually held by a captain. My battalion commander. Lieutenant
Colonel Jim Bartholomees, asked me to extend. But I was homesick.
I had a girl whom I had not seen for sixteen months. And I was
ready for a change. Infantry Branch had assigned me to Fort Devens,
Massachusetts, where I expected to have an opportunity to command
another company. And Devens was just a few hours' drive from
New York City, which appealed to me. I bid a sentimental goodbye
to the 48th Infantry. I had joined as a rookie, and I was leaving
as a fairly seasoned pro.
Long afterward, I was telling my children about this period,
and they perked up at only one story. One morning, during maneuvers,
we had come upon a scout jeep from another unit parked on a narrow
road near Giessen.
"Hey, Lieutenant," one of my men shouted. "Come
on over. Look who's here."
I walked over to the jeep, where a grimy, weary-looking sergeant
saluted me and put out his hand. It was Elvis Presley. That their
father had shaken the King's hand astonished my kids. What impressed
me at the time was that instead of seeking celebrity treatment,
Elvis had done his two-year hitch, uncomplainingly, as an ordinary
GI, even rising to the responsibility of an NCO.