A dedicated soldier who served his nation through four wars (World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War) and was wounded in each of them, General Frederick J. Kroesen, Jr., U.S. Army (Retired) has performed with distinction in every facet of an active-duty career spanning 41 years. He wears the Combat Infantryman’s Badge with two stars awarded for leading troops in combat as a company commander in France during World War II, as a battalion commander in Korea, and as a brigade commander in Vietnam.
He later commanded two divisions—the 23rd (Americal) in Vietnam and the 82nd Airborne in the United States—as well as VII Corps in Germany. While wearing four stars, he commanded the U.S. Army Forces Command, served as the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, and completed his active service as the senior commander of the Army’s forces in Europe during four years of the Cold War.
Since his retirement, General Kroesen has produced a substantial body of thought-provoking articles and essays that reflect his deep and abiding concern for the future of America’s Army and the nation it serves. He continues to share his strength, knowledge, experience, patriotism and love for the Army through his writing, speeches, and advice to agencies throughout the defense community.
His selfless devotion to his soldiers and his lifelong determination to accomplish the mission richly exemplifies the values in the motto of the United States Military Academy “Duty, Honor, Country.”
As the United States struggles to defeat a determined terrorist enemy, models of steadfast soldiering are sorely needed to stir the desires of young men and women for lives of military service and achievement. General Frederick J. Kroesen, Jr. is just such a model. Accordingly, the Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy takes great pleasure in presenting to him the 2007 West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award.
It was a beautiful, almost fall day at West Point last Thursday, 20 September 2007. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the light falling on The Plain during the brigade review had the golden hue typical of late summer afternoons at our rockbound highland home. The heat of the previous few days had relented, along with the high humidity, producing a near-perfect day. The schedule for the presentation of the 50th West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award had unfolded as planned, with the 2007 awardee, GEN Frederick Kroesen, and his wife Rowene enjoying various visits and briefings, culminating in the now-traditional pre-parade reception in the ballroom of the West Point Club.
The first Thayer Award was presented on 21 March 1958 to Dr. Ernest O. Lawrence. Because the presentation was scheduled to coincide with the celebration of the anniversary of the founding of the Military Academy, a major blizzard prevented President Eisenhower ‘15 from attending, although he had planned to do so. Awards to John Foster Dulles, Henry Cabot Lodge, Dwight David Eisenhower, and Douglas MacArthur ‘03 in the following years, and all subsequent awards, now are made during the more clement weather, in the spring or fall. Over the course of almost a half-century, recipients have included Francis Cardinal Spellman, Bob Hope, Neil A. Armstrong, Billy Graham, Omar N. Bradley ‘15, Clare Boothe Luce, James H. Doolittle, Edward Teller, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Barbara Jordan, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, Sandra Day O’Connor, Daniel K. Inouye and The American Soldier (during our Bicentennial in 2002).
The genesis of the West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award was a recommendation made by the Class of 1931 at their 25th Reunion in 1956. The Class, accepting a suggestion from their Washington, DC, contingent, recommended the establishment of an annual award to a prominent citizen who embodied the principles of Duty, Honor, Country. LTG Willis D. Crittenberger ’13, Association president at the time, appointed a committee to review the recommendation, and the award became a reality. The Class of 1931 contributed $500 to defray the cost of the first medal, and Mrs. Laura Gardin Fraser, a distinguished sculptor and medalist, was chosen to design it. Earlier, she had won the design contest for the West Point Sesquicentennial Medal and had assisted her late sculptor husband, James Earle Fraser, with the Patton statue. General of the Army Omar N. Bradley was on the first nominating committee for the Thayer Award, along with GEN Lucius D. Clay, June ’18, and GEN Alfred M. Gruenther ’19, among others.
The 2007 recipient, GEN Kroesen, is an excellent choice. Unable to obtain an appointment to West Point in the years preceding World War II, he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Rutgers University. When that program was terminated due to wartime requirements, he was called to active duty as an enlisted man and subsequently attended OfficerCandidateSchool, receiving a commission as a second lieutenant of Infantry. He proudly wears the Combat Infantryman Badge with two stars, signifying awards for combat service as a platoon leader in the 63rd Division in World War II, a battalion commander in the 187th Regimental Combat Team in Korea, and a brigade commander of the Americal Division in Viet Nam. He later commanded the Americal Division in during his second tour in Southeast Asia. More significantly, he also wears the Purple Heart with two oak leaf clusters, testimony to his having been wounded in each of those combat assignments as well. In fact, he should have a third cluster to his Purple Heart for injuries received in the Cold War, when terrorists of The Red Army Faction attempted to assassinate him and his wife of 61 years in Heidelberg, Germany, in September of 1981.
A soldiers’ general who has commanded at all levels from platoon upwards, GEN Kroesen spoke to the Corps of Cadets about the American Soldiers they soon will lead. Calling to task those who question the quality of today’s American Soldiers, he opined that in struggles of mortal combat, Americans are more likely to survive to gain the upper hand, especially when initiative, ingenuity, quick reaction and low-level decision making is required. America’s leaders, however, must be confident that our Soldiers will continue to perform as well in the future as they have so many times in the past. He also commended the non-commissioned officer corps of the United States Army for creating self-confidence in the soldiers and small units that they train and recommended that all new lieutenants use the expertise of their sergeants. These professionals recognize that it is their job to make certain that their lieutenants succeed. He related the story about the visit of a high-ranking former Soviet general officer to the United States after the Iron Curtain came down. Given free access to many of our training sites and tours and demonstrations of some of our most sophisticated weapons systems, the Soviet general was asked what impressed him the most. It was not our weapons or our high-tech training simulations. It was the NCOs who briefed him, conducted training and answered questions—even though he was convinced that they were officers wearing NCO uniforms.
After calling attention to the vast size and diversity of the Army in terms of weapons systems, equipment and training and educational opportunities, however, GEN Kroesen reminded the cadets that the Army is, unlike the Navy or the Air Force, first and foremost people, and these people require leadership to accomplish their missions. This leadership can be summed up in one word: Confidence. Soldiers must have confidence in themselves, because of the training they have received; confidence in their units as competent, effective teams; and confidence in their leaders. He then ended his presentation by advising the cadets to find the right partner to share their life and asking his wife of over 60 years to stand and be recognized.
As a soldiers’ general, he gave our young cadets, many of whom soon will be in harm’s way, some excellent advice, both professional and personal.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire
Upon receiving the Sylvanus Thayer Award
West Point – September 20, 2007
General and Mrs. Hagenbeck, General Stroup and members of the Association of Graduates, members of the West Point Staff and Faculty, distinguished guests, old friends and colleagues from years past, members of my immediate family and ladies and gentlemen of the Corps of Cadets…
I am honored to be here. First, to be the reviewing officer at the magnificent retreat parade this afternoon, my first such honor in many years. I thank and compliment all who participated.
The second honor, of course, is the receipt of the Sylvanus Thayer Award for which I am indebted to the Association of Graduates, most especially to Major General Bill Webb and the class of ’47 and Lieutenant General Clarence “Mac” McKnight and the class of ’57 both of whom nominated me and who I am sure had to campaign for my selection. I am sincerely grateful for your efforts.
And finally, I am honored that General Gordon Sullivan and the Association of the U.S. Army, AUSA, have published a second edition of my book for the purpose of furnishing a copy to every West Point cadet. A military author could not ask for a better or more satisfying reward, but please know it is one volume you have no academic obligation to read and on which you will suffer no test or examination. (I may, however, ask the Superintendent to spring a pop quiz on the faculty.)
My purpose this evening is to talk about a favorite subject, the United States Army and the legacy you inherit when you pin on your 2nd lieutenant’s bars. One small indicator of that legacy was my acknowledgment of the ladies and gentlemen of the Cadet Corps. Your 2nd lieutenant’s bars automatically confer the titles officer and gentleman or officer and lady because of the reputation established by those who have preceded you in the officer corps of our Army – a minor item, but indicative of a standard you will be expected to uphold.
What I think of the soldiers who make up our Army is in the book. At one time, after I read yet another inaccurate and undeserved criticism that questioned the reliability and fortitude of American soldiers, I wrote “Bum Rap,” an article that is my testimonial to their qualities, character and commitment in combat.
I have known the soldiers of many armies in three hot wars and one cold one. I have fought and trained both with and against some who have fearsome reputations as warriors, famous and infamous, and I learned to respect most of them for their dedication to their nations’ causes. When they are well-led, they are forces to be respected and reckoned with. Do not sell them short. However, I also learned that American soldiers have proved throughout our history to be a fitting match for any. I believe that in the struggles of mortal combat, Americans are more likely to survive, more likely to gain the upper hand. And beyond that, I believe that when combat demands initiative, ingenuity, immediate reaction and low-level decision-making, Americans will win in a walk.
That, to me, is an important conviction. First, for our leaders who must be confident that American soldiers, who do the heavy lifting in any war, will demonstrate the same qualities in the future that they have in the past. But it is also important that any potential enemy leader understand that questioning the quality and strength of character of American soldiers is not a factor that will offer him a battlefield advantage.
You will also find articles in the book expressing my belief in our noncommissioned officer corps, often touted as the backbone of the Army. I don’t question that characterization but I say that in fact, that backbone includes the spinal cord and therefore they control most of the nerve system of the Army. That is the system that causes automatic reactions to situations or crises just as your nerves tell you automatically to remove your hand from a hot stove or to duck when a pitcher throws at your head. It is the NCO corps that trains soldiers to know their jobs and their responsibilities, but they also develop the teamwork and the immediate responses of their units to the demands of the moment. They create the confidence among soldiers that “We know what to do and we know how to do it.”
Thirty years ago, after 200 years of expecting NCOs to learn on the job, the Army established a noncommissioned officer’s education system, NCOES. For the first time, we formalized the education and training of the NCO corps and the result has been that they are today without peer in the world.
At the end of the Cold War, the senior Russian military officer came for a visit. Our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs took him to a number of our military installations where he saw our troops in field exercises, the latest models of our weapons and other equipment, the functioning of our electronics systems and all else that we wanted to show him. At the end of his visit, he was asked about his impressions and he spoke only of our NCOs. Their initiative, their ability to give briefings, to answer questions, to demonstrate professional knowledge were far more impressive to him than the M1 tank or the Apache helicopter. He opined that his Army had nothing comparable and that he suspected at first that we had put officers in NCO uniforms for his visit.
I hope you will learn early that sergeants are a 2nd lieutenant’s best friends, perhaps the best friends of 1st lieutenants and captains as well. They will expect you to lead. That is your job, but heeding their advice and counsel, encouraging them to broaden your education, and respecting their right to make sergeants’ decisions will be essential contributions to the development of your leadership abilities. Make no mistake, they want you to succeed. If your platoon has to go to war they certainly will not want to go with an unprepared, second-class platoon leader.
And, of course, you will be joining the officer corps, that group of soldiers who serve as the brain of the Army – not the only decision-makers – I’ve already mentioned the decisions required of individual soldiers and the nerve system – but the body responsible for the overall direction of operations and all other activities in which the Army is engaged. The soundness of that direction and the quality of the execution of a commander’s will are the fundamental determining factors in winning and losing battles, winning and losing wars.
I believe you will find the officer corps a body of men and women equal if not superior to the leaders of any professional group in our society—qualified and dedicated to mission accomplishment, possessed of a can-do spirit regardless of the task, and deeply concerned with the responsibilities that accompany their authorities. They are today’s representatives of the legacy you are inheriting.
Well, so far I’ve talked about the legacy you are going to inherit only in terms of soldiers—people—and we all know the Army is more than that. It is a panoply of weapons, vehicles of all configuration, thousands of other items of equipment, worldwide communications, the largest engineering firm in the world, a training and education system that far surpasses that of any other profession, our own medical service and a management system that directs and controls an organization that dwarfs the corporations and business enterprises of our country. There is almost no limit to the diversity offered in the pursuit of a professional discipline. We create “experts” in almost all walks of life. The only thing we don’t produce is millionaires.
But the Army and the Marines are people, men and women who employ weapons and equipment and support systems to seize objectives that control land and dominate populations and win wars. The other services employ ships and planes and missiles to dominate the air and sea and provide support for the land campaigns. They are hardware oriented. Planes and ships and missiles accomplish their missions; people accomplish ours. Requirements for joint operations tend to demand singularity of purpose, but there are major differences in the philosophical underpinnings of the doctrine and practices of the different services – in my opinion, a good thing, a necessary and important difference that I wish were better understood. You need to be the best Army officer you can be in order to contribute to joint planning and joint operations. I hope we are still a long way from the purple suit that some people think we should adopt for our armed services.
There are a number of articles in the book on leadership. Each is an opinion piece, my opinion, on some aspect of the subject, but if I were to summarize them I would start with the word confidence. Leadership entails developing every soldier’s confidence in his own knowledge of his job and his responsibilities, so that he knows that he knows what is expected of him—and every soldier includes the leader himself. You must take the primary responsibility to educate and train yourself for the duties you are expected to perform.
But confidence is three-legged and the second leg is a soldier’s confidence in the unit he might go to war with, the other soldiers in his squad, his platoon, his company. He must believe that if we go to war tomorrow morning, these are the people he wants to go with, this is the unit he is proud to be part of. It is a belief that develops from his day-to-day training and other activities that demonstrate the proficiency of his unit.
The third leg of the stool is confidence in the people who give him orders, the sergeants, lieutenants and captains who direct the activities, in other words, the chain of command. A soldier has to believe that what he is told to do makes sense, is worthy of his efforts, and is achievable. If that three-legged stool is firm and steady and in balance, leadership has happened and an organization will thrive.
War is a collective enterprise. We need heroes. Audie Murphy, Alvin York and Medal of Honor winners are an inspiration. They demonstrate what individuals can accomplish, but battles and wars are won by units and organizations that function effectively over time. That three-legged stool of confidence is the foundation on which collective excellence is built.
Great leaders, like heroes, are born with a capability to rise to the demands of a particularly critical situation. They also were born at the right time and were in the right place to have to deal with a crisis. Have you ever thought that if World War II had occurred five years earlier or five years later you might never have heard the names Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur or Patton? You know the name Schwarzkopf; he led us to a smashing victory in the Persian Gulf War. How many other preceding or following CENTCOM commanders can you name?—most probably equally trained, ready and capable of doing the same job but just not there when crisis occurred.
Our leadership training is not designed to produce another Robert E. Lee or George Patton. It is designed to train ordinary men and women to function satisfactorily in positions in which their will will govern successful operations. One article in the book quotes a Columbia University professor who wrote, “…a profession is an institution for turning people who are not born [leaders] into good imitations of the real thing.” Look around you in the room. Do you realize that, considering the company you are keeping, half of you cadets present are below average? But the Army knows they can be effective leaders and the Army has confidence that our training and education system will assure that in future crises if a follow-on George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur or Dwight Eisenhower is not available, a good imitation will be. Today’s Army, overworked, over-committed is performing magnificently because of a large number of good imitations.
You are embarking on what can become a lifetime commitment to soldiering, an honorable and worthy profession that has fulfilled an absolutely essential role in the history of our nation. I envy your opportunity. I would be happy to volunteer to join you in your pursuit of what I look back upon as a most satisfying career.
I have only one more piece of advice. Be sure to find the right partner to share that life. I did; I married her over sixty years ago and she endured hardships, separations and the responsibility for raising a family when I couldn’t do my share. She is equally responsible for the career satisfaction I just expressed and for the honors I have been accorded today. I’d like you to know her. Mrs. Kroesen will you please stand and allow me to introduce you?
Now I close this talk with my thanks for your attention and for the opportunity to express these thoughts. I consign to you a responsibility to preserve the legacy while you continue to guarantee the freedom of generations to come. My generation has been called “the greatest,” a claim I’ve never made, but am willing to hear others espouse. But today, considering the threats we are facing, your generation may have to supplant mine and earn that title for yourselves. I wish you all Godspeed as you serve our nation in future years.
Born in February 1923 in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, Frederick Kroesen spent his boyhood and high-school years in that state. He had wanted to attend West Point but was unable to secure a Congressional appointment, so he went to Rutgers University where he participated in its ROTC program. Called to active duty as an enlisted man in 1943, he went through six months of basic training. He then attended the Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning and was commissioned a second lieutenant in August 1944. He soon found himself in Europe leading a platoon in the 63rd Division (“Blood and Fire”) and taking part in the campaigns that led to the final defeat of the German army.
It was the first of a long series of military assignments, a series that spanned four decades and featured commands at all levels of the Army. After two company commands in Europe and the passage of a few years of peace, he found himself in Korea, where he commanded a battalion in the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team. Fifteen years later he was serving his first of two tours in Vietnam in command of the 196th Infantry Brigade, part of the 23rd Infantry Division (“Americal”). During his second tour in Vietnam, General Kroesen commanded both that division and, later, the First Regional Assistance Command. During the post-Vietnam, Cold War years, he served as Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division in North Carolina, the VII Corps in Germany, and Forces Command in Georgia. Finally, after an assignment as Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, he took his last active-duty job, that of Commander in Chief, US Army, Europe (CINCUSAREUR) and Commander in Central Army Group (CENTAG), NATO.
He was wounded during each of the four wars in which he served, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. He sustained the last of these wounds in an assassination attempt in Heidelberg, Germany, by a Kommando of the Red Army Faction in September 1981. He was 59 years old.
General Kroesen’s style of leadership has inspired the respect and loyalty of thousands who have known him or served under him. His philosophy of command is simple and direct. In every assignment, from platoon leader to Army Commander, he issued mission orders and refused to “micromanage” his subordinates. Furthermore, he encouraged those below him in the chain of command, officers and NCOs alike, to lead in the same way.
During the more than two decades since retiring from active duty, General Kroesen has continued to serve. His speeches, including ones at the World War II Memorial and at the Holocaust Museum, have inspired listeners both in and out of uniform. His service for the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) is cited in the numerous awards he has received at the national and chapter level of that organization. His extensive writing on military subjects, especially for Army Magazine, has been insightful and wise.
He and his wife Rowene live in Alexandria, Virginia.