By Kevin S. Giles
I was a young newspaper reporter in Helena, Montana, when a friend’s father tipped me off that the nation’s last living five-star general was seeking relief for his arthritic knees in a nearby radon mine.
I knew enough about World War II history to understand that Omar Bradley was a big deal. He was the “soldiers’ general,” a leader known for his compassion toward his troops. In 1945 he led four armies into the heart of Germany, destroyed the remnants of Hitler’s war machine, and declared: ”This time we shall leave the German people with no illusions about who won the war and no legends about who lost the war. They will know that the brutal Nazi creed they adopted has led them ingloriously to total defeat.”
Bradley subsequently became chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff during President Harry Truman’s administration. He won his fifth star in 1950 – the last of five generals to receive it – sustaining an everlasting image as a humble and humane man who saw no practical purpose in war:
Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.
I got to remembering my brush with the famous general toward the end of a book I’m reading about Truman’s controversial firing of another five-star general, Douglas MacArthur, during the Korean war. In The General vs. The President by H.W. Brands, it’s documented that MacArthur ran afoul of the president, the Secretary of Defense and the joint staffs when he issued public statements contradicting U.S. policy – and his military orders. MacArthur returned home to huge parades in San Francisco and New York City. He was, after all, a World War II hero who had defeated imperialist Japan.
After a grateful nation dropped tons of confetti fell on his parade entourage, MacArthur appeared before a combined session of the U.S. Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees to answer questions about Korea. Another World War II general, Defense Secretary George Marshal, followed. Then the plain-talking Omar Bradley testified.Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot
Bradley told the senators that MacArthur’s stubborn determination to invade China, presumably countering a surge of Chinese troops into North Korea, could have encouraged Russia to enter the conflict. Russia had 500,000 troops within striking distance, he said. “Through the Chinese they have the possibility of and even capability of taking over Indochina, Siam, Burma and maybe even India,” Bradley said, as related in the book. “In addition to that, they could take over Hong Kong and Malaya.”
Bradley’s somber assessment did much to expose MacArthur’s faltering judgments and reduce him to a mortal man.
I knew little of Bradley’s far-reaching military and political influence when I stepped into an elevator at the radon mine with my friend’s father one summer morning. As we descended, the air felt cool and clammy, like a root cellar. I remember wishing I had brought a jacket.
The doors slid open into a mine tunnel, braced with beams. My friend’s father gestured to a man in a wheelchair. An orange blanket covered his lap. I recognized the famous five-star general right away. He was more than 30 years past destroying the German army but he sat ramrod straight. The gentle bulge in his lower lip, resembling a man chewing tobacco, was unmistakable.
“General Bradley?” I inquired. A barrel-chested man rose from the shadows. He identified himself as a major and had the countenance of a bodyguard. A second large man, a colonel, stepped in front of Bradley. I wondered why they perceived me as a threat. I was a young man, somewhat trembling from being in the presence of Omar Bradley, the man who had commanded 1.3 million troops in Europe. Surely, he wasn’t afraid of me. Surely, he would see the merit in giving a young reporter a story.
Our conversation was brief. I politely explained to the major that I wanted to interview Bradley. He politely explained that “the general” (erasing any doubt) appreciated his privacy and wouldn’t consent to an interview. Bradley stayed quiet, watching me.
I had nothing else to do but investigate the tunnel. It stretched to an uncertain conclusion far into the gloom. The farther I walked, the more people I saw in this underground gathering of the desperate and dying. A string of light bulbs illuminated people hoping for miracle cures from the radon gas. I saw bent and broken people, coughing people, others shrouded in blankets who stared at the earthen walls.
Toward the end, I found my friend’s father and sat with him as he completed his “treatment” for a tumor in his chest that would kill him a year later. We talked about the general. Everyone in the tunnel knew about Bradley; evidently, everyone but me left him alone. Only years later would I know that Bradley’s knee problems, traced to his football days at West Point, stuck with him until he died in 1981.
When we stepped into the elevator to leave the mine that morning, somebody called, “Hold the door.” To my surprise, the Army officers wheeled Bradley aboard. In the brighter light, it was evident he was old and brittle, nearing the end and reduced to that humble station of aging where the ribbons and stars of a roaring man’s life fall second to the wasting of his body. I thought of what MacArthur famously said, that old soldiers don’t die, they just fade away.
When Bradley coldly commanded, “I don’t want to talk to that reporter,” the major and colonel stood between us, reassuring him in quiet tones that it would be alright. It was a hard lesson that journalism represented an institution bigger than me and that I should learn to tolerate rejection in pursuit of a story.
The elevator rose into the sunlight. I stood back, fighting the urge to salute, as Omar Bradley rolled away.
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. He published One Woman Against War in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)