Gen. Fred Weyand

Don Chapman
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February 25, 2010

Retired four-star Gen. Fred Weyand, who passed away Feb. 10, 2010, at age 93, appeared on MidWeek’s cover on July 2, 1997. This is the cover story on the longtime Honolulu resident who participated in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War, and later served as Army Chief of Staff. Weyand, despite frequent suggestions from the author, never wrote a book. But seldom has he talked publicly about his fabled career as he did in a series of interviews leading to this story. We’re posting it here as a tribute to a great man.

When Gen. Douglas MacArthur said that old soldiers never die, just fade away, he was not thinking of his former subordinate Fred Weyand. The only thing the retired four-star general fades is one of his tee shots at Waialae Country Club, and then it’s on purpose. At age 81, Weyand keeps a schedule of responsibilities that would frazzle a man half his age.

Weyand and wife Arline have called Hawaii home for more than 50 years and he is deeply involved in our community. He’s a former vice president and current member of the board of directors at First Hawaiian Bank, a trustee of Damon Estate, a 33rd degree Mason and past chairman of the Hawaiian Open golf tournament. He’s worked with the Boy Scouts, the Downtown Improvement Association, the Red Cross, Honolulu Symphony and Hawaii Opera Theater. And he’s the president-elect of the Honolulu Rotary Club.

Also telling, he’s an accomplished Hawaiian steel guitar player.

And on Wednesday, he’ll emcee a tribute to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team at the second annual Patriots Celebration dinner — wearing the green uniform that still fits him 31 years after retirement.


“The 442nd is a big part of the heritage of the Army,” says Weyand, who was an active participant in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Paris Peace Talks, as well as serving on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I’m honored to do this.”

So much history tilts on the fulcrum of queasiness, which is what Weyand felt at the age of 20 as a pre-med student when he first saw a human body split wide open. Ironically, if he had a stronger stomach for blood and guts, America would have gained one good physician — and lost one of its greatest generals.

As a boy, his family had moved all over California with his father, who worked for Associated Oil. After graduation from Fresno High, the young man who would earn 43 military honors enrolled in pre-med at the University of California at Berkeley.

“I was the oldest son by six years,” he says. “My brother Robert became a very eminent neurosurgeon, which is what my dad wanted us both to be, doctors. But then I went to view an autopsy. I decided right there I was not going to be a doctor. Oh, that was gruesome! I don’t mind the sight of my own blood, but the sight of someone else’s blood is something else.”

Another irony is that the man who left medicine because he didn’t like to see other people bleed would participate in three wars that would claim more than 381,000 American lives. The Korean War alone took 5 million lives, 29,550 of them Americans.

But fighting tyranny was not his first choice after leaving medicine. Instead of fighting disease, he would fight crime.

“After three years of pre-med at Cal, (after seeing that autopsy) I had to scramble around and find a new major,” Weyand explains. “I became a criminologist.”

His career goal was to establish a private lab for criminal analysis.

“In those days, there were independent criminal analysts. Some of them were quite well-known. Novels were written about detectives who solved the murder by matching a fiber off of a sweater when they had nothing else to go on.

“And I thought, well, if I’m gonna be a criminologist, which involved a lot of lab work, I really ought to know what’s going on out there where the rubber meets the road.”

So he joined the Berkeley Police Department during his senior year and stayed on after graduating.

“They put me on the vice squad,” he says. “Berkeley had pretty innocuous vice in those days. We didn’t have drugs. It was like the pimps taking the prostitutes to the University Hotel, and we’d go down in plain clothes and check bars, maybe roust a wino off the train. About once a year you’d get a safe-cracking case, that was a big deal.”

During his years at Cal, Weyand was in the Reserve Officer Training Corps. Because Cal was a land-grant college, ROTC was required for all male students in their first two years.

“The third and fourth years it was an elective, but it was only about an hour a week. And the beauty of it, at least in my thinking at the time, was you’d get out of Cal with that much effort as a second lieutenant. So if you’re ever going to war, at least you’re going as an officer and not as a private. But I had no idea the Second World War was coming.”

The young cop was called to active duty in September 1940.

“I wondered later,” he recalls, “if you should give any credence to the idea that President Roosevelt knew that something was happening, because here our country was calling guys into the Army a year and some odd months before Pearl Harbor. But I found there was nothing to that.”

His first duty was at the Presidio in San Francisco with the Coast Artillery.

“It didn’t take long after Pearl Harbor for that to become obsolete,” he says. “With the airplane, it was pretty obvious you weren’t going to defend the United States with 16-inch guns on land.”

The Army sent the former gunner to a German military immersion course.

“The idea was that I could go with an OSS unit into the invasion of Europe and know the equipment, the names of the German commanders, the names of the units, the tactics they employed,” says Weyand, whose family name is German. “And I had several years of German, so I could handle the language. Then I got my orders — and I was sent to Burma! There wasn’t a German within a thousand miles!

“I was in intelligence and it was interesting work. We had just broken the codes of both the Japanese and German militaries. But it was so top secret that those of us who knew about it also knew that if the Germans or Japanese had any idea that we knew, they could change their encoding equipment just like that. It was super-super secret. Washington would send the decoded messages from the Japanese Imperial Army and then I would personally take it over to Gen. ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stillwell. Nobody but Stillwell was entitled to know that information. And that was the only time I got a bad efficiency report, when my boss was wondering what the hell am I doing going into see Stillwell all the time, and why wasn’t I reporting to him, because he’s the intelligence officer. But as far as Gen. Stillwell was concerned, I was mana from God because he didn’t have any other intelligence that was worth anything.”

It was there that Weyand learned not to rely too heavily on intelligence: “After the war, I found that the Japanese 18th Division in Burma was sending messages to Imperial headquarters saying they were advancing, when in fact they were retreating.”

Late in the war, Weyand was assigned to another hush-hush project:

“It was highly secret that the Russians were going to come into Manchuria, they had an agreement with Roosevelt to get into the war in Asia. And there was going to be a place where they would meet the U.S. and Chiang Kai-shek to figure out what the passwords would be and so forth. They sent me back to Washington and when I got off the plane, horns started to blow and whistles and everything else. The damn war was over!”

After WWII, young men who had survived combat were leaving the military by the thousands, returning to civilian life, making up for lost time, marrying and making families so fast, sociologists would call it the Baby Boom.

Weyand weighed the pros and cons of civilian and military life:

“As a criminologist, after six years of active duty, technology had probably passed me by. And I really felt the war wasn’t over. I’d been in China and it was obvious that thing was going to go on and on. And it was obvious this Soviet thing was not going to be any piece of cake either. I thought if I stay a reserve officer, the odds are I’m going to be back in here before very long. Which turned out to be another four years in Korea.”

The ex-coast gunner who had gotten into intelligence took a regular commission and made another switch. After a tour in Hawaii, Weyand went to Fort Benning and became an infantryman.

“I graduated from there in June of 1950 and a few days later North Korea invaded South Korea,” Weyand says.

The Korean War, like so many in American history — WWII, Vietnam, the Gulf War — was “a great example of unpreparedness,” he says.

“Our division, which would normally be about 14,000 to 15,000 men, had 7,000. We arrived in Japan with two regiments and received 8,300 Korean kids scarfed off the streets and out in the countryside. They’d never carried a rifle. We had six weeks to get them combat-ready. And that’s what we ran into Korea with.

“I was in a headquarters job for a couple months and then I got my wish. It was the only job I ever really fought for, which was an infantry battalion. In my whole life, I really politicked for that.”

Now a lieutenant colonel, Weyand took command of the First Battalion of the 7th Infantry in the winter of 1950-51.

“We retreated back as the Chinese came in, and then went back up through Pusan and liberated Seoul. We were like a yo-yo, we’d get up so far and then the Chinese would kick us back. But that was a great battalion. Talk about American soldiers — you could equate those men’s bravery with the 442nd’s! They’re cut out of the same cloth. They believed in me because I was up there with them all the time. You’d think something was an impossible mission, and by God if they wouldn’t figure out some way to do it. It might be costly as hell, but they did it.

“Korea was a defining moment for me. People ask me, what was the best job you ever had? — thinking Joint Chiefs, four-star general. But it was Korea, with a battalion of men. I knew every one of them, they knew me, we were in it together.”

He learned a great lesson in leadership there from Gen. Matthew B. Ridgeway:

“He took the 8th Army when it was really on the floor, the commander had been killed. I was way up there on the front and within 48 hours I knew somebody else was in command. We started getting fresh food instead of K-rations. Just like that (snap). He figured out what troops needed up there. And he got enough of it up there, and with heroic effort, to let everybody know, hey, there’s something new going on here, something good.

“I had two regimental commanders under me, totally different guys, totally different styles of leadership. But they had one thing in common, and that is, if you take care of your troops, they’ll take care of you. If there’s any axiom of leadership, that’s it. I don’t care where it is, in the corporate world or anywhere. If Walter Dods takes care of his employees — I don’t mean he’s got to give them raises every month — but if they know he’s paying attention to them, they’ll take care of his First Hawaiian Bank. It sure worked in the military.”

His own style of leadership, Weyand says, “was a combination of stuff. I wanted to be compassionate. I wanted the men to know that I understood what they faced and I was willing to face it with them. And I appreciated what they did and let them know that. I fought for them at higher headquarters and they knew that.”

In a pensive moment, Weyand talks of the agonies of leading troops into battle: “I had times when I just was desperate. There wasn’t any more I could do and we were in deep trouble. I had men getting killed. I’d had all the fire support I could, did all the maneuvers I could. There was nothing more I could do. And it came automatically. I had a little military-issue Bible, and I opened it up. And this fight in Korea, it went on all through the night. And all I could do was read that Bible and pray. It made quite a mark on me. The battle was successful, finally. It was costly, but we prevailed. It taught me that when there was no other resource that I could reach out for, there was this one that’s a personal thing. I’m not saying God saved us or anything like that. But when everything tangible fails you and you have nothing more to turn to, what do you do? You turn to a higher power. I’ve had that happen to me a couple times.

“I don’t care what denomination or faith you are, just believe in something bigger than you, because it’s out there.”

He recalls being in the White House, waiting to give the president a briefing on the war or the peace talks, and ducking into an alcove for a few moments of meditation to calm himself.

“It works,” he says.

Here he matter-of-factly reveals one of the more painful circumstances of his current life: “My wife is an Alzheimer’s patient, and every night I look at her and I think about Korea.

“I took over this battalion after they’d covered for the Marines coming out of the Chosin Reservoir. Through a fire and enemy action, they’d lost all of their personal belongings. Those guys didn’t have any writing paper, no toothbrushes, no shaving gear, no comic books — no books of any kind — no snacks, none of the things that were personal.

“My wife — through a phone call or a letter or something, I don’t know and now she can’t tell me — but she figured it out. And that gal mobilized her hometown of Healdsburg (Calif.) to support the First Battalion. They officially adopted the battalion, I think one of the first times in the country that had been done. She was shipping out boxes and apple crates of snack foods, writing material, shaving gear, comic books. She organized kids in the high school to write letters to the men in the battalion and they got pen pals going.

“No matter what the hell my men thought of me, they gave me high marks for marrying Arline because they all knew what she was doing for them.”

He’d met Arline Langhart at a Demolay dance when she was a student at San Jose State and he was at Cal. They married shortly before he was called to active duty.

“We’ll be married 57 years in September,” he says. They have three children. Robert is a “computer wizard.” A former Army enlisted man, he was stationed in England and married a British woman. He lives there and designs programs for big companies such as British Steel. Daughter Carolyn is a physiological psychiatry researcher who lives in Newfoundland. Daughter Nancy is married to Matthew Hart, general manager of the Westin Maui Resort at Kaanapali.

The former pre-med student has recently helped doctors understand Alzheimer’s disease in a new way. With all of his other activities, Weyand continues to spend as much time as possible with Arline.

“Alzheimer’s patients can become argumentative, resistant, cursing you and running away,” he says. “But I’ve surrounded her 24 hours a day with love and care. The doctors tell me they believe that’s made all the difference. They say she should be to the point where she doesn’t recognize me. But I came home last week from a round of golf and said, ‘Did you miss me?’ And she smiled so nicely and said, ‘You know I did.’ That made me feel pretty good.”

(Note: Arline Weyand, who was known as “first lady of the Army” when her husband was Chief of Staff, just as she was the “first lady of the 25th Infantry” when he was at Schofield, passed away in May 2001 at age 86.)

Weyand had another front-row seat for history when he was assigned to Berlin in 1958. The Cold War was at its coldest.

“The Russians wanted us out of Berlin,” he says. “So they’d cut off the Autobahn, which was by agreement 110 miles of open road so we could maintain contact with West Berlin, surrounded by communist territory. So we’d crank up a little armored force and start down the Autobahn. We’d do the same thing with the train. It was like playing chicken. When you’re there, it’s not like you’re back in Washington, viewing these things and realizing all the portent. You’re just there in your tank ready to defend the Autobahn, or the train route, and go on through. The Russians would stop us and ask for documentation. We’d refuse. Ultimately, they’d give way, but you always had to be firm with them.”

Which is how most of us talk about our kids. Fred Weyand did it with the Russian army.

In 1964, Weyand became commander of the 25th Infantry Division, Tropic Lightning, at Schofield Barracks. In 1966, he took them to Vietnam, with tons of clothing and goods donated by the people of Hawaii for South Vietnamese civilians.

“Vietnam was a great case of peace-keeping and fighting blurring together,” he says. “It was a psychological burden on young soldiers. One minute they’d be out doing humanitarian things, administering medical care to villagers, distributing goods, adopting an orphanage, and the next minute without warning they’d be in a pitched battle, fighting and killing. A lot has been said about Vietnam, but I don’t think enough attention has been paid to that aspect.”

After serving as military adviser to Henry Cabot Lodge at the peace talks in Paris from 1968 to 1970, Weyand returned to Vietnam and ran the Army under U.S. commander Gen. William Westmoreland.

“Our orders definitely were being called from Washington. I wouldn’t even try to second-guess Westy,” Weyand says when asked about American strategy.

“But because we were on different levels, I would disagree with him. I became aware of Westy’s responsibilities and realized Vietnam was not just one war, it was several wars. The war I was involved in with the 25th Division was working against the Vietcong (VC) and securing the South Vietnamese people so they could carry on their lives as they were entitled to do. But you had another war against an enemy with tanks, flamethrowers, long-range artillery. That’s a wholly different thing than I had to contend with. If Westy didn’t pay attention to that threat, those North Vietnamese would maraud all over.

“He and I would get at odds because all of a sudden he’d say you have to take your division out of where we were securing everything, and go up to where the North Vietnamese divisions are coming down. I did it a couple of times and got that settled. Then you’d come back and your own area was alive with VC who were terrorizing. Schoolteachers were being shot, farmers couldn’t harvest their rice. You’d have to do it all over again. I’d say, damn it, Westy, we’re spinning our wheels down here.

“I left Vietnam with the conviction that we didn’t understand air power’s ability to attack with precision. We could have brought Hanoi to the bargaining table much sooner. We’d only turn it on and off, never use it to its full ability.

“There’s blame enough all around, but I wonder why the Joint Chiefs couldn’t give the president a winning strategy he could sell to the American people. I haven’t talked about it much, but the military has a responsibility when the country is at war. Success depends on strategy. Why did President Johnson depend so much on civilians for strategy, not the military?”

Weyand also disagrees with how the war was presented to the American people: “Vietnam was so weird. It was a policy of attrition. The American people will not endure hardship forever. If we can’t sell people on what we’re doing, maybe we shouldn’t be in that war.”

Weyand was America’s last troop commander in Vietnam. Having overseen the evacuation of U.S. personnel, on March 29, 1971, he took down the last American flag in Vietnam. He then assumed command of the U.S. Army Pacific, headquartered at Fort Shafter. In 1973, he became vice chief of staff of the Army. The next year, he became Army chief of staff and a member of the Joint Chiefs. He was just the second Army chief who earned his commission through ROTC and not through the Army academy at West Point.

Cal-Berkeley — long a hotbed of radical thought and student protest — named him alumnus of the year and invited him back to campus when he was on the Joint Chiefs. “During the war they’d asked me to come back to campus and speak,” he recalls. “I told them I was honored, but I wouldn’t go on that campus in a tank! “Then they named me alumnus of the year in 1976. I was honored, but it didn’t ring true. ROTC was down to 300 students. They were not allowed to appear in uniform on campus. The Cal band would not play when they marched. The faculty would not attend their functions. So I said I’d love to come back to campus if the ROTC could have a parade that the Cal band would play for and some of the deans were on the observation stand with me. And they did. When I think of the highlights of my life, that’s one of the best.”

He retired in 1976, 36 years after being called to active duty, and soon after joined First Hawaiian Bank. Considering his years of leadership and his experience at the highest levels of power and international decision-making, Weyand would seem a natural for public office. Has he ever considered running for elective office?

“Oh, hell no!” he says with a laugh.

“Look at Colin Powell. I’m a great admirer of his. I know him, know what he’s about. When they started mentioning his name as presidential material, I knew there was no way he’d run. The difference between him and Eisenhower is that the Republicans drafted Ike. He didn’t have to run through all the primaries like Powell would have to do now.

“The thing about military people running for politics, I’ve learned that the uniform protects us. That’s true at the highest levels. I’ve dealt with Congress on behalf of the Arny. I’d go up there with the Secretary of the Army, and the questions to me would be very straightforward. They might disagree with me, but they’d be polite. Then the Secretary of the Army, a civilian, would get up there and they’d cut him to ribbons, humiliate him. Military people are not used to having their integrity impugned, their family investigated.”

Remarkably, despite serving in three wars, Weyand was never wounded. “There was mortar stuff, you’d hear the concussions, so you knew stuff was around, but I was lucky,” he says.

“James Jones, the author, was a dear friend of mine. One of his theories, and he talked to me about it for hours, was that if a person survives combat, he will always have a deep-seated feeling of guilt that he should have died — because he had so many friends who were killed or maimed. And there was something — if he’d have done it the way he was supposed to have, he wouldn’t have survived either. It’s an odd statement, but he believed it. I’ve since found there is some substance to that.”

Does he take the theory personally?

“Well, Jim Jones thought it up. It hadn’t occurred to me before that,” Weyand says.

“If you have any guilt at all, it would be, is there something you could have done that would have kept your men from being killed? Life is so unbelievable. People get horribly chopped up and mangled and they live. And other people, a bullet just grazes the jugular vein or a piece of shrapnel no bigger than an inch goes into the kidney, and they die.

“I guess I haven’t made a big study of myself on the guilt thing, but I don’t have any. “But a lot of it I wouldn’t want to do over again.”

On this Fourth of July, Americans everywhere can be grateful that he did it once.

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