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Utley Presentation to 7th Cavalry

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Presentation 7th Cavalry, Ft. Hood, Texas

Webmaster's Note: On October 2, 2003 Friends' Director, Robert Utley was the keynote speaker at the annual formal ball of the First Squadron, Seventh Cavalry, at Fort Hood, Texas.

Utley told me, "These guys are still gung-ho. When saluting, they say 'Garryowen.' I got a thorough tour of one of their 16 big tanks and 16 Bradleys converted  for recon purposes. The sophistication is awesome, the shock probably  would be too, against a conventional enemy. As they are the first to concede, however, their kind of power is not well suited to what is happening in Iraq. They deploy early next year. Some 700 officers and EM with spouses turned out in formal attire. They don't wear the usual dress-uniform cap but the old wide-brimmed cavalry hat with cross sabers and the regimental crest. I even saw some sporting spurs and asked the Command Sergeant Major about them. He said they were not an affectation. You had to earn them with a two-day course in horsemanship."

Thank you, Colonel Salter, for that generous introduction. Even so,  I’m going to have to get a bit autobiographical, as background for some of the things I want to say.

But for Errol Flynn, I would not be standing here. I would be a judge somewhere, like the grandfather whose steps I meant to follow.

None of you were even born when Errol Flynn played General Custer in “They Died with Their Boots On.” Maybe you’ve seen it on TV. I was twelve years old, and the time was a month after Pearl Harbor. In his portrayal of General Custer, Flynn gave me my hero for an adolescent in wartime America.

I no longer see Custer in such a simplistic image, but he did turn me from the law to history, and he has lived with me ever since.

In my little Indiana hometown, I scooped ice cream and earned 25 cents an hour. In the summer of 1946, with the war over, I tapped my meager savings and bought a bus ticket to Montana. From Billings I rode a train down to Crow Agency, three miles from the Custer Battlefield. The park superintendent had agreed to meet me on his mail run.


Cap Edward S. Luce

When I got off the train, there on the platform was a big, beefy man in the uniform of the NPS. He had a red face and hawk nose and spoke in a command voice with a heavy Boston accent. What immediately attracted my attention was his watch fob, a chain bearing the regimental crest of the 7th Cavalry.

His name was Edward S. Luce, and at some time around 1906 he had been 1st sergeant of Troop B, 7th Cavalry.

What Errol Flynn had started, Cap Luce continued–he had retired after WW I as a captain. He had ample opportunity because beginning the next summer, 1947, he hired me as a seasonal park ranger, stationed on Custer Hill to tell the story of the battle to all who came. I did that for six summers, all my collegiate years from 1947-52, before canceling my educational exemption from the draft and letting the army try to make me into an infantry rifleman.

For six years, with a hero worship of Custer equal to my own, Cap Luce steeped me in the history and traditions of the 7th Cavalry. He was not one to see the complexities or nuances of history. Never a negative word did I hear about either Custer or the regiment.

Cap Luce told many wonderful stories of his military service. I want to share my favorite with you.  

He was the scion of a family of Boston bluebloods who got tossed out of Harvard Medical School for engaging in professional boxing. So, to his family’s dismay, he went off and joined the 7th Cavalry. After his first enlistment he went back to Boston and got a job as assistant motorman on a street car running in front of the home of the family to whom he was the black sheep. One day as he reclined near a window in the car barn, an organ grinder came down the street, pumping out the lilting strains of Garryowen. As Luce told it, a monkey jumped in the window with a cup, he threw a nickel in it, and rushed off to sign up for another hitch in the 7th.


The Boy General

I’m not going to tell you the story of the Little Bighorn, still less Wounded Knee, also a 7th Cavalry operation. But there are a couple of points I want to make about the regiment’s frontier service.

We talk about General Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Generals usually don’t command regiments. The explanation is this: He had ended the Civil War a major general of volunteers at age twenty-five. When the volunteers were mustered out, he reverted to his regular army rank of captain 5th Cavalry. His mentor, General Phil Sheridan, saw to it that Custer was appointed lieutenant colonel of one of the four new cavalry regiments added to the regular army in 1866, the 7th.

In the Civil War, instead of medals, deeds of valor were recognized by promotions in brevet grades, and Custer held brevets in every grade up to major general. So for ten years, he signed his name as lieutenant colonel 7th Cavalry, brevet major general USA. And custom required an officer to be addressed by his brevet rank. That made for tremendous confusion, with colonels commanding companies and majors lacking a brevet commanding battalions.

For ten years General Sheridan kept the colonel of the 7th on detached service, which meant the 7th was Custer’s regiment. That’s how the public and the army looked on it, and that’s how posterity looks on it. Actually, other than serving as a lightning rod for factional squabbling, he had little to do with the military qualities of the regiment. The companies were scattered all over the plains in little one- and two-company posts. That meant that the officer who shaped the caliber of the company was not Custer but the company commander. Good captains had good companies–e.g. Captain Yates’s so-called “Band Box Troop.” Bad captains had bad companies. The Little Bighorn was the first time in ten years of history that all twelve companies had been brought together.

Custer had excelled as a combat leader during the Civil War. He led his entire brigade, later his entire division. And he led them–up front where they and the enemy could see his glittering uniform, his personal flag, and his mounted brass band tootling “Yankee Doodle.” That was where he gained well-merited fame as a combat commander. On the frontier, he had no such chance, for only twice before the Little Bighorn had he led even a part of the 7th in an Indian fight.

Throughout history, I suspect, it has been more or less true that a unit’s quality owed more to the captain and lieutenants than to the distant guy with an eagle on his collar. It was true in my time, and I’ll bet it is true today.


The 7th -- Military History

At the Little Bighorn, Custer won immortality for himself and the 7th Cavalry. It is a strange paradox that the pride and spirit that characterized the regiment to this very day rose from a catastrophic  defeat. Yet there was always this special quality that animated the 7th through the rest of the frontier years, in the Philippines at the turn of the century, along the Mexican border during the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, and even during the dispirited interwar years, when the entire army told stories about Tommy Tompkins, the profane, hard-drinking old horseman with the forked beard who served the 7th in every grade from second lieutenant to colonel.

So powerful was this identity that in WW II the 7th Cavalry and its parent First Cavalry Division were allowed to keep the historic designations even though operating as conventional infantry divisions.

I well recall while at Custer Battlefield how Luce and other veterans boasted over and over that the 7th was the first in Manila, the first in Tokyo, and first in Seoul.

In 1950, at the battlefield, I met an officer who would become a friend until his death: Colonel Brice C. W. Custer. All but one of the Custer brothers died at the Little Bighorn, so the descent has been from farmer Nevin Custer, who stayed home in Michigan. Brice was the finest looking officer I have ever known, handsome, ramrod erect, and with a chest full of ribbons, including the Croix de Guerre, beneath his Combat Infantryman’s Badge. The irony here is that Brice had just returned from occupation duty in Japan, where he had served as a lieutenant colonel in the 7th Cavalry and at times its commanding officer.


"Wild Bill" Wins Korea

In 1951, at the 75th anniversary of the Little Bighorn, I met another colonel who would become a friend until his death. This was Colonel William A. Harris–“Wild Bill” they called him. He was just back from Korea.

In the late summer of 1950, with the army clinging precariously to Korea’s Pusan Perimeter, the 7th had not been doing well. Maj. Gen. Hobart Gay, First Cavalry Division commander, replaced the colonel with Harris, previously commanding officer of an artillery battalion. With the breakout from the perimeter, Harris organized two swift-moving armored task forces and launched the drive toward Seoul.

Much hard fighting lay ahead, but the 7th now acquitted itself with high distinction. The explanation lay in the new leadership.

Harris did what Custer did: made himself conspicuous. I call this “cultivated eccentricity.” General Patton did the same thing. For Harris, as a sort of unconventional swagger stick, he carried a walking cane. The bumper of his jeep bore a large plywood cutout of the regimental crest. And somewhere his sergeant major had found an old McClellan cavalry saddle and mounted it on the hood of the jeep.

Also, Harris paid scrupulous attention to the welfare of his men. He made certain they had ample rations, warm clothing, and weapons and ammunition. On Thanksgiving Day 1950 he personally visited every company mess.

Something of Harris’s unorthodox style is glimpsed in a message flashed to division headquarters 0300 on September 27, 1950. General Gay had promised a bottle of champagne for every enemy tank knocked out. Harris’s message read as follows: “Send 7 bottles of champagne to CO Task Force 777. Put three more on ice. I’ll get them later. Will continue on mission.”

I’ll mention another indication of Harris’s leadership. After he retired a major general and settled in San Antonio, I used to visit with him when my travels took me there. We would dine at his club, and he would regale me with recollections of Korea. One I recall in particular. When he took command, he said, he found an outfit with plummeting morale and little taste for combat. They had been told they were fighting to save the world from communism, and they could not relate to that abstraction. Harris said that’s not what you are fighting for. You are fighting for the honor and traditions of the 7th Cavalry and all it has meant in American history. That, he told me, they could relate to. Under Harris, they fought their way northward with a courage and skill and ultimate triumph that added a splendid page to the history of the regiment. As one of many signs scattered around Korea proclaimed: “You are now crossing the 38th parallel, courtesy of 7th U.S. Cavalry. Garryowen.”


The Battle of Ia Drang

During the 1960s I was with the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. We watched the Vietnam War unfold on color television. I was a hawk in those days, before I came to see the folly of our adventure in Vietnam. I have a vivid memory of the excitement and pride I felt in November 1965, when we learned of the Battle of Ia Drang, doubly so on learning that the chief unit involved was the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry.

Only later, in the early 1990s, did I come to understand the valor, tactical skill, and almost indescribable horror of that clash in the Vietnamese highlands. The book that recounted the battle in detail was We were Soldiers Once . . . and Young. Maybe most of you have read it. It was jointly authored by retired Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway. At Ia Drang Moore commanded 1/7 and Galloway was a journalist covering the fight. Together they reconstructed the battle and even returned to Vietnam to interview the Vietnamese commander on the battlefield.

As a brief summary, about 450 men of 1/7 under Moore, a lieutenant colonel,  were dropped by helicopter into a small clearing in the Ia Drang Valley. They were at once surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. Three days later, a couple of miles away, 2/7 dropped into a landing zone and were chopped to pieces.

The 7th won the three-day battle against overwhelming odds but at a cost of 230 dead in the two battalions and the support units that got them in and out. I can only repeat what General Norman Schwarzkopf said about this book: “a gut-wrenching account of what war is really all about.” And Colonel David Hackworth, who usually tells it like it is: “the best account of infantry combat I have ever read.”

In the Vietnam War, I think there was no bigger, more violent clash that can be termed “battle” in the usual sense than Ia Drang. I think there has been none since, certainly not in Iraq. The battle streamer for Ia Drang on that standard behind me does not begin to convey what took place in that fight.

If the 7th Cavalry today possesses the same courage, skill, and ability to take devastating punishment and still win, you are a truly elite, crack outfit.

I salute you and wish you high success in Iraq.


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