The first Army general (five stars) I met was pretty well known. "Ike" had his office a football lob from my fraternity house.
It was 1964 and Eisenhower was enjoying his latter years after his presidency. We would yell over and he would flash that famous smile.
When Barry Goldwater launched his campaign against President Lyndon
Johnson, the campaign called our fraternity (Goldwater was a Sigma Chi also), and asked if we could scare up some drivers to pick up a contingency from Washington to acknowledge Ike's birthday.
I was one of them. I got the cake and three Secret Service men. We all landed on the national TV 6 o'clock news.
The second was General Lyman Lemnitzer, four stars and chairman of the Joint Chiefs. We shared the same small town and would golf together on occasion (with Masters winner Art Wall). Both generals had top command situations, but limited actual combat involvement.
Enter general number three. Four-star Gen. John Wickham Jr. invited us up to his Oro Valley home. We were greeted by a man who belied his 91 years. His wife Ann was even more remarkable.
General Wickham shared some of his views of the world with a clarity and wisdom that were simplistic and cogent. We will visit his thoughts later.
Born in New York State in 1928, John Wickham Jr. graduated from West Point in 1950. He was assigned to the 18th Infantry, then the 6th, in Berlin. Other duties followed; he was the executive officer with the 511th Airborne Regiment.
He returned to West Point for a teaching assignment and, in an unconventional twist, was sent to Harvard for further education. He received master's degrees in economics and government. From 1956 to 1960 he taught at the Military Academy. John increased his own credentials by graduating from the National War College and Armed Forces Staff College.
During this chapter of his life, Wickham met his future wife, Ann, a nurse in training. At this point, Ann flashed a smile and offered, "He was a good catch!" They married in 1955. John was sent to Korea and Ann went with him, along with their three Dalmatians.
"If we had to evacuate (Korea was still a powder keg), the dogs would be left behind," Ann said.
Heroic in Vietnam
Lt. Col. Wickham commanded the 5th battalion of the 7th Cavalry during the Vietnam War. One night, the enemy tunneled in and detonated explosives in Wickham's headquarters, seriously wounded him and killing his operations officer.
"I crawled to a fox hole, but I was raked by an AK-47, receiving many wounds," John said.
He continued to command the under-siege fire base for several hours, ignoring his life-threatening condition. His actions saved the command.
"I was near death from loss of blood," he continued, "but a voice from beyond told me I was not alone. It was a life-changing experience."
Last rites were administered. Miraculously, he made it and was sent to Walter Reed hospital where he defied the odds again. Told that he would never walk again, Wickham proved that faith and resolve can win out.
"I walked out of that place," he said.
In time, Wickham, a brigadier general, returned to Vietnam and was the Army's chief negotiator responsible for retrieving POWs, which included
a young John McCain. The negotiations did not go well, as the VC and the North Vietnam Army felt they had the upper hand and stormed out of the meeting. At a critical juncture, Wickham communicated with the forces that were un-arming the harbors of mines.
"That was solely my decision. I thought that my career would be over if they did not favorably respond," Wickham recalled. The adversaries learned of his actions and immediately returned to the table.
Ann contributed greatly as a support mechanism and cheer leader. She, while residing at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, would gather others and wave to the incoming soldiers. This gesture was more than appreciated, given the unpopularity of the war.
John weighed in, "I was spit on by a woman in New York City. I doubt that she knew the why of it."
Pensive & caring
Eventually, Gen. Wickham commanded the 101st Airborne, was director of the staff of the Joint Chiefs, and appointed as Chief of Staff of the Army by President Reagan. Wickham had a fond remembrance of the President.
"He was a thoughtful leader who sought advice, and made some hard decisions. The Granada invasion was one of them.”
Gen. Wickham presented Reagan with a plan for the invasion force on Granada.
"I told him there could be losses. He thought it through and ordered us to invade. It was a political risk for the President at the time, but he never wavered about what the right thing to do was."
Wickham's history of awards is nothing less than stunning: two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and more than 30 medals and commendations for service and heroism; 21 from grateful foreign allies. Truly, a man deserving the highest accolades.
Along with his combat heroics, there is this pensive and caring persona.
Gen. Wickham cares deeply about the plight of veterans, feeling strongly that Congress has not been diligent with their oversight.
"We are losing way too many vets to suicide," Gen. Wickham lamented.
He was circumspect about current, dangerous world situations.
"When we tore up the nuclear agreement with Iran, we closed doors to negotiation. North Korea will not relinquish their nuclear arsenal. We should recognize that and try other approaches that would inhibit their use," he said.
“We should apply the lessons learned from dealing with the Russian threat. Negotiate, verify and containment. It worked well.”
Wickham served as commander of the U.S. forces in Korea, so one might want to listen carefully to his thoughts.
No one knew the leadership in both North Korea and South Korea better than he did. He wrote a book on the perils of Korea nearly 40 years ago, "Korea on the Brink." He was instrumental in guiding two Secretaries of Defense on policy matters.
Ann Wickham offered this: "I am so proud of him!"
The General added, "I tried to do the right thing, always."
He looked over at Ann, "She has just been wonderful and my life has been blessed."
On the way home, I looked over at the editor, who had accompanied me.
"I think we just left greatness."
Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian, member of the Western Writers of America, and lecturer and researcher. He can be contacted at email@example.com