Old Soldiers Never Die, They Just Fade Away

Douglas MacArthur was a national figure, the hero of two wars, who loomed as large to Americans as Julius Caesar did to the Romans. Yet the real MacArthur was other things as well: a devoted family man, a conservative who had some liberal views and a career officer who hated war. He was a man who made enemies when necessary and was born into a military family. He will always be remembered for his famous “old soldiers never die, they just fade away” speech.

The general was a man who hated to acknowledge errors, had a will of iron and was a soaring intellect. Although he never went to church he read the Bible daily and regarded himself as one of the world’s greatest defenders of the Christian religion. He was a brave soldier who received 22 medals, 13 of them for heroism, and was one of the most gifted military men ever to serve this nation. His number one goal in any war was to do what was necessary to win it.

The Army was MacArthur’s entire life yet at the end of it he said that he was 100 percent against war. He appeared to need enemies the way other men needed friends. Those who really knew him either admired him or disliked him. There was no neutral. He was not a modern man and in some ways was like Julius Caesar. The two generals were bold, aloof, egotistical, willful, loved history, possessed first class brains and had phenomenal memories. Both remained abroad for long periods of time.

During a planning conference in 1945 for the invasion of Honshu a briefing officer said the turf on a certain beach was treacherous. “Certainly, I remember seeing it in 1905 when I was in Japan with my father,” the General said. Then he reeled off all the details that were later checked and found to be correct. A yearning for adulation was his greatest flaw. His complete lack of humility was like a deep fissure at his very core and in the end it destroyed him.

On his deathbed at Walter Reed Hospital he begged President Lyndon Johnson to stay out of Vietnam. MacArthur recognized a bad risk when he saw it, for if he was the most infuriating member of his profession he was also among the wisest. And there was more to him than being a soldier. He showed Americans how a champion’s life should be lived, and brought new meanings to the concepts of honor, intrepidity and idealism. The five stars that rode on his shoulders, like the stars in the Southern Cross that shone over the green Pacific hell in which so many served, witnessed deeds which should eclipse the pettiness and self centeredness of the general at his worst. He deserves to be remembered at his best because he provided us with a legend. We need Generals today like Douglas MacArthur.

The Korean War was MacArthur’s Waterloo. He scored strategic successes notably at Inchon where he visited his men but differed with President Truman over policy. Truman wanted to confine the war but MacArthur wanted total control. The discord grew after the two met at Wake Island and Truman fired the General who had served his country for more than fifty years. After MacArthur’s dismissal freshman senator from California Richard M. Nixon said, “The happiest group in the country will be the Communist and their stooges.” He was fired “simply because he had the good sense and patriotism to ask that the hands of our fighting men in Korea be untied.”

MacArthur knew he was approaching the end in 1962 so he began putting his affairs in order. He arranged for his burial and the deposit of his papers in Norfolk his mother’s home. His last goodbye was at West Point where he addressed the corps of cadets where his text was taken from the academy’s motto: Duty, Honor, Country. Speaking without a note he closed with words that no one on the Plain will ever forget. “Today marks my final roll call to you. I want you to know that when I cross the river my last thoughts will be of the Corps. I bid you farewell.”

The great General MacArthur whose first and only goal while in war was to win passed away on April 5, 1964 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He was given three funerals, in New York, Washington and Norfolk, Virginia where he was finally laid to rest.

“Old soldiers never die they just fade away” will be attached to his memory forever. The General faced death many times during his 52 year military career and it finally caught up with him as it will each of us. A fitting column for Armed Forces Day which is May 15th.