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Saluting The General

June 2024
2min read


EIGHT MONTHS BEFORE WORLD WAR II began , I was sent—a young recruit whose most recent equestrian experience had been as a five-year-old in an amusement park—to Fort Myer, Virginia, one of the country’s last cavalry posts. After showing myself to be a woefully inept horseman, I was selected as a member of the guard. I would be carrying an enormous revolver, a .45, that I had never aimed or fired, but which, I was told, could blow a man’s head apart. The post I was given to patrol circled the houses of the highest brass, including that in which General Marshall, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, and his wife lived. At about five o’clock on a lovely June afternoon I started out, walking carefully so as not to have my fearsome weapon detonate itself by banging against my hip.

I walked around the homes of the major and lieutenant generals. Very good; no saboteurs at cellar entrances, no spies signaling raiders in wait behind the nearby Arlington Cemetery wall. Finally I arrived at the back lawn of the Chief of Staff, checked my necktie, adjusted my cap, and walked through the gate.

The general and Mrs. Marshall were just starting a quiet backyard supper together, seated in comfortable old lawn chairs. I remembered to wait until I was 20 paces or so away from them and then threw my best salute. Mrs. Marshall smiled. The general put down his drink, stood up, returned the salute, and reseated himself. I disappeared around the side of the house, as my instructions mandated.

Fifteen short minutes and I was back. The homes of the lesser generals were still safe. I opened the Marshalls’ gate for the second time.

The general was just finishing a bite of potato salad. I saluted. Marshall stood up and returned the salute, just as snappily as he had the first time.

I went around the side of the house, and in 20 minutes I was back. This time Marshall had finished eating, but I saw his face change ever so slightly into what might have been the beginnings of a grin. Just as I raised my hand, he raised his and gave a slight wave.

“I think that will be enough for tonight, soldier,” he said. “Carry on.”

I went around the house again, thinking that I hadn’t done too badly in this, the only time I would ever see that great soldier face to face.

Six months later, on a cold afternoon, word reached our barracks that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, wherever that was. I was ordered out to the reservoir with my revolver to protect an exposed water main and then called back to Fort Myer at 5:00 A.M. to stand guard at the Arlington Gate, through which all the brass would pass on their way into a Washington shining frostily that early morning across the Potomac River.

An hour later the chauffeured command cars began to pass, one by one, each with a general in the back seat. I saluted them all, but every passenger was already hunched over his morning paper or notes for the meetings to come that day, and no salute was returned.

Then the largest staff car yet appeared, coming on fast. I was sure I knew who would be the passenger in that car, no doubt like the others studying the papers in his lap.

I saluted.

The figure in the back seat straightened suddenly, looked directly in my eyes, and returned the salute. It was, of course, Gen. George C. Marshall, with all of World War II suddenly on his hands but still finding time to return a half-frozen cavalryman’s salute.

I watched the car speed down toward the Potomac, blew on my hands, and decided then and there that they had chosen exactly the right man for the job.

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