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Colin Powell at the 3rd Armored Division


Gen. Powell writes in his 1995 autobiography "My American Journey" about his time with the Division in 1958-60 and about the Cold War and the Army's mission in Germany. It's great reading, as is the entire book.

His words include, "You can serve thirty-five years in the Army and rise to the top, yet your first assignment [3rd Armored] always stands out as the most unforgettable, the one against which all future posts are measured. That is what Gelnhausen meant to me." (continue reading below)

More Photos (Powell with 3AD in 1959-60)

  Above: Department of Defense photos from 1990-91 when Gen. Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and top military commander during the Gulf War.


Powell's experiences with the Division in 1958-60, which he describes in detail, included the following, to name only a few:

  • "Life-long lessons" at "learning to care about and look after" his troops.

  • Commanding a platoon that guarded a 280mm atomic cannon (the monster artillery piece with tactical nuke shells).

  • Seeing 16 soldiers die and 27 wounded in apparently the worst Army accident of the Cold War (landing of a mis-charged 8-inch artillery shell in a bivouac area in Grafenwoehr, 9/2/60).

  • By chance, meeting Sgt. Elvis Presley ("grimy, weary looking") on a road near Giessen while on maneuvers.

Powell was assigned to the 3rd Armored after completion of ROTC (City College of New York) and Basic Officer Training Courses at Ft. Benning, GA. Arriving in Gelnhausen in December, 1958, the 21-year-old 2nd Lt. joined the 2nd Battalion, 48th Infantry Regiment, at Coleman Kaserne.

Excerpts from "My American Journey"
By Colin Powell
with Joseph E. Persico
(available at and others)


... 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 had happened.

"Powell, are you on your way yet?" he asked right off the bat.
"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 cataclysm begin.

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 unreasonable.

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 for trouble.

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 Benning.

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 standards.

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 leadership.

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 Gap.

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 die.

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.


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