First Sergeant Major of the Army Reflects on 60 Years of Change
By Master Sgt. Lisa Hunter
*Originally published in the July 2004 edition
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On Nov. 11, 1940, the war in Europe filled the
pages of the newspapers and 18-year-old William
O. Wooldridge of Shawnee, Oklahoma, was
one of the many young men lining up to join the Army.
Wooldridge didn’t enlist for promises of the Army College
Fund or technical training. The Army offered neither. Wooldridge
joined with no expectations other than he would learn
to fight and someday soon he would join the war in Europe.
“War was on the horizon when I came in,” said Wooldridge,
during an interview at his club, near his Santa
Teresa, New Mexico, home. “Units like mine — a rifle
company that was authorized 180 people — had 64. All
those units were filled with draftees, who were given four
weeks of basic training and assigned to a unit. War was
looming, so we had to get ready and get ready fast.”
Wooldridge, who will celebrate his 82nd birthday
next month, talked about his Army career, a stark comparison
to today’s Army. He talked about how he and
other NCOs worked to leave a legacy that has shaped
today’s NCO Corps. Although he now walks with a
cane, it’s his only concession to age. He still remembers
with alacrity the units in which he served, the names
of his first sergeants and commanders and the dates
during which he served in each unit.
Young Wooldridge didn’t spend time preparing for
promotion boards. He didn’t think of telling the board
members of his long-term goal to become the Sergeant
Major of the Army. His reasons were simple enough: The
Army didn’t host promotion boards and there was no such
rank as Sergeant Major of the Army. Wooldridge would
be the first in 1966. He would also become one of the key
architects of the Noncommissioned Officer Education System
and centralized promotion system for senior NCOs.
Wooldridge spent his first year in the Army training
at Fort Bullis, Texas. All of his training was conducted on
little local training areas where Wooldridge reflected on
what it was like at his first live-fire exercise.
“We’d hike out there to do that. It was about 20 or 25
miles, as I recall. We’d hike out, pitch tents, do our training,
and then hike back,” he explained. It’s very different
now. I think we have a much better Army now than we
did then, because of better training, better technology
and more qualified trainers.”
In 1940, the Army only offered enlisted schools for
cooks, bakers and administrative people, he explained.
The combat arms units conducted all of their training
in-house. If the division commander wanted an NCO
school, he had to fund it out of his own training budget.
“The only school my first regiment had was a Regimental
Squad Leaders’ Course,” Wooldridge said. “You
stayed in your company, you stood all your formations.
The only difference was when the company fell out for
training, you marched over to the S3, because you were
going to squad leader school for two weeks.”
Wooldridge likened the course to today’s Primary
Leadership Development Course, with the exception
that it wasn’t as well-organized. The company first
sergeant interviewed and selected privates and privates
first class to attend the course. The course itself was
designed to teach Soldiers all the components of a squad,
Wooldridge explained. The Soldiers learned about the
squad’s weapons and formations. They learned basic map
reading and land navigation skills and bayonet training.
“The regimental commander did that because he wanted
better squad leaders. It was up to him to decide if the
regiment held the course, but he had to pay for it, too.”
By the time Wooldridge had served four years in the
Army, he was a seasoned combat veteran. Assigned to
the 1st Infantry Division in Europe, Wooldridge participated
in the division’s invasion in North Africa, where
he faced off against infamous German Field Marshall
Erwin Rommel, known as the Desert Fox for his brilliant
combat tactics in the North African desert.
Wooldridge was one of thousands of young American
Soldiers who invaded North Africa. The troops landed in
Algeria in November 1943 and fought their way across the
desert terrain against the battle-hardened German-Italian
forces. Not only were the Soldiers inexperienced, their
commanders’ tactics reflected their inexperience as well.
The American forces had no combined arms training.
“We didn’t know how to use tanks,” Wooldridge said.
“When the 1st Armored Division came on shore, [Tunis,
Tunisia] fell the next morning. Then we assembled to
move on towards Kasserine Pass. I remember leaving
town and seeing all the tanks. They didn’t go with us. The
tanks were sitting at crossroads as roadblocks, which was
sort of dumb, but we didn’t know how to use them.”
The American forces moved on toward Oran. “Oran
was defended by French and Italians, so there wasn’t
much opposition. We just surrounded the town and everybody
quit,” Wooldridge explained. But Kasserine Pass
turned out to be a different story.
“When we got to Kasserine, we got hit by German
tank/infantry teams, Rommel’s Afrika Corps. They just
ruined us. They hit us in
the high ridge,” he explained.
“We got knocked
back several miles before
we could even understand
what was going on. But
the withdrawal was very
well done because of the
discipline of the unit.
We fell back as we were
trained to do. Fall back on
the left; take positions. Fall
back on the right. We just
walked right out of there.
“We lost quite a few
people. We lost our entire
artillery battalion because
it was overrun. But then
Gen. Harmon, who was
a tanker, brought some
tanks up and put a stop
to that and drove the
Germans back into the
pass. We went back to
take it a few days later, the
tanks went with us. And
they went with us during
the rest of the war. That
was the first experience of
combined arms. Now it’s all part of our basic doctrine.
It’s not a matter of getting up here and saying, ‘send me
some tanks;’ they are already with you.”
As soon as the 1st Infantry Division finished their
missions in North Africa, they moved onto their next
objective: the invasion of Sicily.
On July 10, 1943, Wooldridge and his fellow Soldiers
took part in the second largest invasion of the war, the largest
being the D-Day invasion at Normandy, France. During
their campaign in Sicily, the American forces took many
Italian prisoners of war. The invasion was the precursor to
the fall of Italy’s leader, Benito Mussolini, on July 23, 1943.
Wooldridge knew that he would not return home until
the war was over. On June 6, 1944, he waded ashore on
Omaha Beach as a member of the 26th Infantry Regiment,
1st Infantry Division, the only combat-experienced unit
that landed at Normandy that day. Wooldridge attributes
his survival to his experience and training.
“We’d invaded North Africa in ’42 and Sicily in ’43.
We still had about 40% of the Soldiers at Normandy,” the
SMA explained. Wooldridge said the seasoned platoon
sergeants and squad leaders provided sound leadership
that was vital to their success, along with the fact that
his unit hit the beach about two hours after the invasion
began, so they faced lighter opposition.
He explained that during the invasion, each Soldier
carried a 64-pound pack
of equipment tied into a
horseshoe shape in addition
to his weapon and
basic load of ammunition.
The Soldiers had learned
from the North Africa invasion
that the pack was a
hindrance, making it more
difficult for the Soldiers to
run, maneuver, fall down
out of the line of fire and
get up quickly.
“The orders from the
regiment was when the
front of your landing
craft drops, throw your
horseshoe pack overboard,”
he explained. “We
never took it with us, so
we weren’t burdened with
the extra weight.”
“The D-Day invasion was
only the first of many battles
to come. Wooldridge
earned two silver stars for
gallantry in action in 1944.
The first he received for
combat in Aachen, Germany,
where he was wounded. The second he earned during
the Battle of the Bulge Campaign later that year.
Wooldridge finally left the European theater in May
1945. He continued his career, getting promoted if he
happened to be in the right place at the right time. At the
time, promotions were decided at the unit level. If a Soldier
happened to be in a unit when a promotion became
available, he would be considered for the promotion.
As an E-6 platoon sergeant, Wooldridge permanent change of stationed (PCSd) to
Germany to serve with the same company with which
he had served during World War II, Co. K, 26th Infantry
Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, but he was not assigned as a platoon sergeant. Instead, he was assigned as the
platoon guide, subordinate to the platoon sergeant, even
though he was the senior NCO.
“Even though I was senior to the guy running the
platoon, I became his assistant because he was there before
me. Fortunately, it didn’t last long; the first sergeant moved
him. So, I moved right back in as platoon sergeant and
then three or four years later, I became a first sergeant,” he
explained. Wooldridge remained in Germany throughout
the Korean War and returned to the United States in 1954.
In 1965, he was appointed division sergeant major of the
1st Infantry Division and deployed to Vietnam with the
division in August 1965. A year later, in June 1966, Wooldridge
was appointed to a new position the Army had just
established: Sergeant Major of the Army.
Wooldridge hosted the first Sergeants Major Conference
at the Pentagon in November. The Army Chief
of Staff, Gen. Harold K. Johnson, issued his guidance
to improve the NCO Corps and left it in the sergeants’
major hands to make it happen.
“He said we need to improve the Noncommissioned
Officer Corps. We’ve got to make it better educated, more
functional, and give it more responsibility,” Wooldridge
said. “He wanted it to work. He knew what he wanted,
and he was going to kill everybody to get it.”
From that sergeants major conference, the top recommendation
was the need for an NCO education system.
“I told the Chief of Staff that we had been wanting
that all of our careers; the Army just never saw a need
for it. They thought we learned everything we needed
to learn in the unit.
“He said, ‘You’re going to get your education
system. Not immediately, because all of the monies
are going to Vietnam.’” The funding for noncommissioned officer education system (NCOES) was
approved in 1969. The system was set up much as it
is today. NCOs went to school to prepare them for
the next level of responsibility, squad leader, platoon
sergeant, first sergeant, and sergeant major. The first
class of NCOs graduated the Sergeants Major Course
in 1972, the year Wooldridge retired.
this was just
to be changes
way,” he said.
thinking, and abilities
It’s made us what
we are today.” Not
only has NCOES
training, it has improved
said.“ In my time,
officers never considered
you as part
the decisions and
they issued the orders. It was very rare to find an officer
who would consult a noncommissioned officer on those
decisions before he made them.”
Out of that same conference came the recommendation
and decision to centralize promotions for senior NCOs.
“In my time, you just shipped out and went to a unit
and that unit did with you what they wanted to. If they
didn’t have a slot for your MOS, they put you doing
something else,” he explained. At the time, Department
of the Army would issue allocations to the units and
the unit leadership selected whom they wanted. At the
conference, the sergeants major proposed establishing an
office that would control assignments, promotions, and
training for E-8s and 9s.
“It just changed the whole world for us. It got us out
of the old business that you got promoted if you were
lucky enough to be in a unit that had an allocation.
Otherwise, you didn’t get anything. A lot of people
would lose when allocations were issued because they
were enroute to a new duty station, because they weren’t
considered,” he said.
“If we changed the system, then we would promote the
best, not just those who happened to be in place. I think it
was one of the best things we did for the senior NCOs.”
“Anything you do is temporary. Changes are necessary.
The Army’s mission is to be ready to fight wars; it
doesn’t have any other mission. It does a lot of things between
wars, but its mission is to be ready to fight. When you have to go to fight, it changes everything, particularly
all of the administrative procedures that are in effect.”
During his tenure as SMA, Wooldridge helped build an
NCO Education System, centralized promotion system,
and witnessed the establishment of yet another new rank:
command sergeant major. Wooldridge left the Office of
the Sergeant Major of the Army in August 1968. He again
returned to Vietnam as the Sergeant Major of the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam. He returned to the United
States a year later and retired on Feb. 1, 1972.
More than 30 years after his retirement, Wooldridge
still plays an active role in the NCO Corps as an unofficial
mentor to sergeants major of the Army and
Sergeants Major Course students. He frequently visits
the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy, where he has
become something of a grassroots celebrity. Sometimes a
faculty advisor will invite him to be a guest in one of the
student group rooms; other times he just stops by to get a
haircut and visit with today’s noncommissioned officers.
Ironically, he doesn’t live in the past. He is up-todate
on policies, regulations, and anything that impacts
the NCO Corps. His pride in how the NCO Corps has
evolved is evident. He has been happy to watch the seeds
he planted nearly 40 years ago grow. He seldom gives
advice, unsolicited or otherwise. When he does offer his
opinion, it’s often based off of his personal experience and
yet what he says seems to hold true today as much as it
did 60 years ago, because while training and doctrine may
change, the means to motivate Soldiers and lead them
successfully in combat has not changed over the years.
“It’s very different now. I think we have a much better
Army now than we did then, because of better training, better
technology and more qualified trainers,” he said. “American
GIs are very independent. They’re sort of rascals in that
way. They make very good Soldiers if they have the proper
leadership and training. You have to teach them what their
mission is and how they’re going to accomplish that.
“You are dealing with people. We give units numbers
and talk about how great they are, but numbers don’t
mean anything. People make a unit. If a unit is worth
a damn, it’s because it has good people. If it’s not very
good, it’s because it doesn’t have good people.”
Wooldridge travels to Fort Bliss occasionally. He may
pause to watch a company formation or change of command
along the way. He often remarks on how proud he
is of today’s NCO Corps, but he’s concerned that today’s
NCO Corps is getting away from some of the basics that
have made them so successful in past wars. And, while
he’s happy to see the NCO Corps evolve and grow in
their leadership and training responsibilities, he still believes
in the basic tenets that make it possible for America
to win wars, particularly leadership and discipline.
“If you can’t lead them, you can’t fight them. Discipline
makes a great difference when you’ve got nothing between
you and an enemy but your rifle; it takes discipline to
manage that,” he explained. “The discipline is necessary to
determine whether they are going to lean forward in the
foxhole or if they are going to follow you over the edge.”
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