IKE SKELTON’S ACCEPTANCE SPEECH OF
THE 2012 SYLVANUS THAYER AWARD
WEST POINT, NEW YORK
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 18, 2012
Thank you General Huntoon, Mr. Glore, members of the West Point Corps of Cadets, ladies and gentlemen. The great Roman Orator, Cicero, once said that gratitude is the greatest of all virtues. I am so very grateful to the West Point Association of Graduates for this distinct honor of the Sylvanus Thayer Award. Words cannot fully express my heartfelt appreciation. You see, as a high school student at Wentworth Military Academy in my hometown of Lexington, Missouri, it was my dream to come to West Point and to embark on an Army career. Instead, rather than West Point being in my future, I found myself a patient at the polio hospital at Warm Springs, Georgia. Thus, my being with you today is in a sense a fulfillment of my teenage dream. Though it is 63 years later than I had anticipated, I am nevertheless elated beyond measure. But despite my illness, my interests in things military did not fade. Through the years, I took up the hobby of studying American military history, little realizing at the time how much that hobby would someday hold me in good stead as a Member of Congress serving on the House Armed Services Committee.
First, I want to congratulate each member of the West Point Corps of Cadets for your dedication and willingness to join the American Profession of Arms. The Profession of Arms is actually more than a profession; it is a calling. During my 34 years in Congress, I had the honor to appoint Missourians to West Point to join the profession. The purpose of this profession is to protect and maintain a secure America. No calling is more important to your fellow countrymen, and your West Point experience will prepare you well to serve our country in the years ahead.
After your last parade, when you take your oath as a commissioned officer, you will enter the ranks of the finest military our country has ever produced. You will carry with you the spirit of Duty, Honor, Country wherever you go.
The profession that you have chosen, the Profession of Arms, is a calling which will require the utmost of your efforts, and offer you rare opportunities for leadership. The world you will enter is an uncertain and dangerous world. Potentially, it is more dangerous now than in many years; you could face errant countries, insurgencies, cyber-warfare, or domestic disasters. The Kingston Trio expressed it right with the ragtime Merry Minuet lyrics:
They’re rioting in Africa
They’re starving in Spain
There’s hurricanes in Florida and Texas needs rain
Your days and years in uniform may be the most challenging in your life. You will join a military that will be returning home after more than 11 years of conflict; many service members returning from deployments will be tired, and many will be mature beyond their years. They will also be occupied with tasks related to resetting their lives, training, and studying for future threats and engagements. These veterans have laid the foundation for you to give the best that is in you to someday be a great captain in your own right.
But I urge you to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from these veterans of the battlefield, whose experience and expertise will help you grow as a soldier, improve as an officer, and enhance your ability to serve our nation. Much of your personal and professional development will be shaped by what you learn from these important mentors and colleagues.
Many who have come before you have brought great distinction to the Corps of Cadets and to our country. I have been privileged to know many West Point graduates, from those who served as platoon leaders to those who wore stars on their shoulders. Each was a credit to West Point and to our nation. There are three West Point graduates who are my personal heroes, who epitomize the words: Duty, Honor, Country. Two are from my hometown of Lexington, Missouri, and one is from Texas, and I would like to tell you a bit about them.
Lieutenant Hector Polla, Hector Polla of Lexington was the son of Italian immigrant parents. He tried for three years, unsuccessfully, to obtain an appointment to West Point. During that time, he attended Wentworth Military Academy Junior College. Finally, in 1937, Congressman W. L. Nelson nominated him to attend the Academy.
Hector graduated in June 1941 and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Army. After the infantry basic course, he reported for duty in the Philippine Islands, assigned to the Philippine Scouts. As you know, the Japanese attacked the Philippines on December 8, 1941.
For his actions during the heroic defense of Bataan, Lieutenant Polla was awarded the Silver Star Medal. As a prisoner of the Japanese, Lieutenant Polla survived the Bataan Death March and nearly three years in the Cabanatuan Prison Camp.
In December 1944, he was placed on a Japanese ship to be taken to Japan for slave labor. When American Navy planes bombed the ship, Lieutenant Polla swam to shore, but was soon re-captured. He was then placed aboard another ship, which was bombed by the American Forces off Formosa. Lieutenant Polla died of wounds resulting from this attack. Neither of the Japanese ships flew prisoner of war flags to notify American pilots that POWs were aboard. Survivors of the Cabanatuan Prison Camp praised him for his leadership, fortitude, and skill. Today, the new road leading into Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri that winds through the Ozark Hills into the West Gate is known as the Hector Polla Road.
General William M. Hoge
William M. Hoge graduated from Wentworth Military Academy in 1911 as the top ranking high school cadet. He received an appointment to West Point and graduated in 1916, being commandeered in the Engineering Corps. His first assignment was on the Mexican border. In 1917, he married his childhood sweetheart, Nettie Frendall, of Lexington. In 1918, he sailed to France, was promoted to Major, and took command of a battalion. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by General Pershing for extraordinary heroism near Brulles, France, having supervised the construction of a bridge over the Muse River under direct shell fire. In 1935, he commanded a Philippine Scout construction battalion in Bataan under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur. In 1942, he built the Alcan Highway across northwestern Canada into Alaska. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, he coordinated assault troops coming ashore on Omaha Beach, at which time he met up with his son, who was also a West Point graduate. He was involved with the defense of St. Vith during the Battle of the Bulge. As a leader of a combat command with the Ninth Armor Division, his troops captured the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine River, allowing the American Forces to establish a bridgehead. After commanding in Korea, General Hoge was assigned stateside and then to Germany as Commander-in-Chief, United States Army / Europe. He retired in 1955, returning to his childhood home of Lexington; moving next door to the Skelton home. General Hoge was a great commander to serve under, respected, admired, and a true friend of the soldier. He was also a very good neighbor. At Fort Leonard Wood, the Post Headquarters is named the William M. Hoge Building.
Colonel Arch Barrett
During my tenure in Congress, I was incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work with another graduate of this great school, a man who embodied both in uniform and in civilian life the phrase Duty, Honor, Country. Air Force Colonel Arch Barrett graduated from West Point in 1957, receiving an Air Force Commission. He was a fighter pilot in Vietnam, being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, retiring from the Air Force in 1981. Armed with a Harvard University Ph.D., Colonel Barrett joined the staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee. Over a period of four years, he helped guide legislation that created jointness within the military. I sponsored the initial legislation in the House of Representatives and, after three years a comparable Bill was passed in the Senate, and after a House/Senate conference, this legislation was passed in its final form and became law. It is known as the Goldwater-Nichols Act, in honor of the Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman and the House Subcommittee Chairman. But for Arch Barrett’s intellect and hard work, our military services would undoubtedly still today face difficulties in working together, as was the case prior to passage of the legislation in 1986. After retiring from the Armed Services Staff, he became a professor at the Navy Postgraduate School, instructing on military matters. As a result, he is a national treasure, exemplifying both in uniform and as a civilian the meaning of Duty, Honor, Country. Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that I introduce to you this outstanding American, Colonel Arch Barrett of the West Point Class of 1957. Colonel will you please stand up.
Having served in Congress on the Armed Services Committee for over three decades and part of that time I was honored to serve as the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee. I have witnessed the Profession of Arms grow stronger through the years, both in intellect and deed. I am so proud of those who wore and those who today wear the American uniform. They have been and are the protectors of all that Americans hold dear.
Knowing that each of you soon will become an officer in the American military, let me give you some thoughts that might be of benefit to your career. Over scores of Congressional hearings, briefings, and visiting with American troops in the far corners of this globe, I recommend to you the following principles:
1. Understand the Constitution of the United States to which you will swear allegiance upon becoming Army Second Lieutenants. I especially direct your attention to Article 1 Section 8 which spells out the duties of Congress as they relate to you during your days in uniform; should you be asked to impart knowledge and facts to Congress, do so without color or varnish, as legislation is often passed based upon testimony by military leaders. Also, become acquainted with Article 2, Section 2 which makes the President the Commander-in-Chief of our military.
2. Become a student of the Art of War. America has historically been known to be innovative, both on and off the battlefield. Do not wait until you are assigned to a war college, but become a prolific reader of the history of warfare, particularly American military history. It is very important, and I know you have heard the saying: “history repeats itself.” Mark Twain was more accurate when he said: “history does not repeat itself; but it sure rhymes a lot.” In the library, you will find over 2,000 years of military experience. In my extensive work with our war colleges, both intermediate and senior, I kept in mind the admonition of Sir William Francis Butler:
“The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.”
Visit battlefields, not as a walk-through of a national park, but as an immersion in the laboratories of war.
In 1935, then Senator Harry S Truman told a college student “if you want to be a good American, then you must know your history.” This student, Fred Schwengel, served 10 years in Congress and thereafter became the United States Capitol Historian.
3. Take care of your troops and their families. Remember, they are American treasures who have voluntarily chosen the military way of life. Their performance will reflect your leadership, foresight, understanding, and compassion. An encouraging word at the right time always will be welcomed.
4. Do your best to be proficient in your specialty. You must uphold the high standards of being part of the world’s greatest military. Your joint assignments will come along later in your career, but be the best soldier possible in your career field. President Truman liked to tell about the grave marker in Tombstone, Arizona which reads: Here lies Jack Williams. He done his damnest. And that is what I urge you to do.
5. Take time with your family. Your deployments will often call for separation, but when you are together, make the most of it and be a role model for any children you may be blessed to have.
6. Listen to your Sergeants. Many are filled with experience and wisdom, which is yours for the asking. Many senior Army officers have told me how they relied on the Sergeants who served with them during their early years.
These are just a few recommendations from someone who witnessed the American military from the vantage point of 34 years as a Member of Congress.
As you enter your designated positions in uniform, know that you carry with you the support, goodwill, and the full faith and confidence of all Americans. You have an obligation to ensure that your actions in your life and in your service are always deserving of the trust America bestows upon you. As each of you solemnly take your oath to our great nation, it is my hope that you will lead the charge with sword, spirit, and honor.
As you become a member of the United States Army, you will walk onto the world stage, where often the actions of a Second Lieutenant working at the tactical level can have strategic implications. The good that you can do collectively and individually will manifest the best that is in you. Troubles and challenges will surely come our way, and you may be called upon to fight and win our nation’s wars to help bring about brighter days.
During the sunrise of my life, it was my dream to come to West Point. That did not happen. But now, as the sun dips toward the sunset, I am at West Point. No graduate with brand new Second Lieutenant bars could be more thrilled than I. I will cherish this medal as if it were my diploma. It is with heartfelt gratitude that I humbly say thank you.