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Albert Coady Wedemeyer, of German-Irish descent, was born in Omaha, Nebraska on July 9, 1897 into a family with strong roots in the military. His father, Albert Anthony Wedemeyer, was born on November 29, 1859 at West Point, New York, where his grandfather, who had emigrated from Germany in 1848 and was soon to be a non-commissioned officer in the Confederate Army, was Army Bandmaster. Albert Anthony later served as a captain in the Quartermaster corps, retiring from active service in 1902 after serving again as a bandmaster at Fort Omaha after moving to Nebraska. He died of a heart attack on February 26, 1931, and was survived by his widow, Margaret Maggie (nee Coady), and his two sons, then Lieutenant Albert C. Wedemeyer, who was stationed at the time in China and unable to attend the funeral, and the older son, Fred (1895-1968), who resided in Omaha. A female sibling had died in early childhood.
On the maternal side, Wedemeyer's grandfather Coady was born in Cashniel, Tipperary, Ireland, emigrated to America at the time of the potato famine, and served in the Union army during the Civil War as a noncommissioned officer. He was a well read man, raised Catholic, and left the Church to become a 33rd degree Mason. Albert C. speculated that his grandfather was a distant cousin of "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who often visited him in Omaha.
War Department records still erroneously record that Albert C. was born in 1896, because in 1914, without the knowledge of his parents, he enlisted underage in the National Guard with hopes of seeing military service in Mexico in pursuit of the army of Pancho Villa. His brother, whom he idolized, was already a Lieutenant in the Nebraska National Guard.
Wedemeyer's youth was spent in Omaha, where he attended two years at the Central High School, then two years at the Jesuit-sponsored Creighton Preparatory School. Though Albert's father was a Lutheran, he was brought up Catholic by his mother. His brother Frederick remained a Catholic his entire life, but Albert became skeptical of the Jesuit priests in his late teenage years and joined the Protestant Episcopal Church.
At the turn of the century, Omaha had a population of just over 100,000. A typical Midwestern community, most denizens had little interest in international developments, as they enjoyed the fruits of the industrial revolution that swept the country in the 1880's. The only other person of Wedemeyer's Omaha contemporaries who achieved worldwide distinction was Fred Astaire, and the two men's parents were friends.
Omahans were typically patriotic, energetic, and mostly Caucasian. The north side of town was residential and the south was predominantly industrial and commercial. Meatpacking was the principal industry, with bounding stockyards for the cattle raised in the Midwest. It was also a railroad center, boasting smelting works and a thriving dairy industry. After leaving home, Wedemeyer kept up on the hog receipts and the bank clearances in his hometown and was disappointed as they gradually fell behind its neighbor and rival to the southeast, Kansas City, Missouri.
Small town cultural opportunities were limited; however, the city did have the fine Mendelsohn Choir, made up of local musicians, created by and supported in no small measure by the senior Wedemeyer. A highly anticipated annual event was a visit by the renowned Thomas Orchestra of Chicago, which performed in conjunction with the local choir in the city auditorium. The city's public theater was modest in size, and there were two small art museums.
Music played a large role in Albert's childhood. His mother played the piano, his father the flute, and both children the violin. The family often played together. He was accomplished enough to give a solo performance of Dvorak's "Humoresque" at his grammar school graduation, but his musical pursuits soon took a back seat to his interest in athletics, where he "was not so good in football" but lettered as a pitcher on the baseball team, surely facilitated by his extremely tall and lanky six-foot-five-inch frame. He also took up boxing at the local YMCA and suffered a broken nose that intermittently caused him breathing difficulties in later life, especially during his China tour.
Wedemeyer recalled his upbringing in a happy "typical middle-class Christian home" in an attractive residential area, with an active social and athletic agenda, including tennis on the backyard court that his father had built, and skating in the winter when it was flooded and frozen over. There was plenty of outdoor recreation, and the family took long walks together. His father exercised strict supervision over both work and play. This often met with typical adolescent opposition, but in later life he described his father as a man of compassion and stature, and he fondly remembered him for his role in instilling an appreciation of history and honorable moral values.
The affluent Wedemeyers had a negro cook, who lived over the garage with her husband, the family chauffer. They were one of the few families in town to own an automobile. Albert recalled the dusty roads that Eddie Rickenbacker, the famous racer and future World War I flying ace, competed on in races in the area. Years later, when Wedemeyer met Rickenbacker, he told him how he watched him in one particularly exciting race. Rickenbacker confided "Al, if I hadn't won that race, I would have been ridden out of town on a rail; I owed the boarding house lady, the mechanic and the grease monkeys who were taking care of my car. I didn't have a cent of money. I had to win."
Albert took pride in the respect in which his parents were held in the community. He learned their lesson of fiscal responsibility and was indoctrinated with a strict sense of never purchasing anything he could not pay for in cash. Purchasing anything on credit was severely frowned upon. When he bought his first new car and financed the balance of four-hundred dollars, his parents expressed vigorous disapproval, and he never again bought anything on credit. While in grammar school Wedemeyer took a job delivering papers after school and got an early lesson in human nature when he found that some of his customers did not pay him promptly. He recalls this as an "eye opener," learning how people pinched pennies by not paying the newspaper delivery boy while living in lovely homes. Wedemeyer later worked in the local bank as an assistant teller in the summer months. His spare time was devoted to reading, which was an early passion that stayed with him his entire life. "Rags to Riches" Horatio Alger stories were among his favorites.
Wedemeyer was always near the top of his high school class and originally aspired to follow in the footsteps of a number of his close relatives with a career in medicine, encouraged especially by his mother. While he loved the sciences in his early schooling, at an early age he was rooted in sophisticated intellectual thought by his father, who:
... first awaked my avid interest in history, which has remained my favorite study and has provided background for strategic thinking. Father's discussions with friends prior to our entrance into the First World War concerning its origins and German guilt had stimulated my thinking, made me immune to crude and unscrupulous war propaganda, and encouraged me to study what that mellow ironist, the historian Gibbon called "the record of follies, crimes and cruelties of mankind." Hence came my interest not only in military but also in political, economic and social theory.
From high school on, Wedemeyer was keenly interested in military history. While studying the development of European empires, dukedoms, republics, and democracies, he was impressed by both the creative and destructive influences of the military and the remarkable degree of influence that religion played on it, observing that the Crusades and many other early European wars had strong religious overtones. With the understanding that the military was seemingly the most exciting experience at that time, he pondered the willingness to readily kill and be killed by cultures that hardly knew each other rather than by settling disputes through diplomatic negotiation and compromise.
Wedemeyer's first introduction to the formal military came when he joined the high school Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) where he learned the manual of arms, developed deep pride in wearing the uniform, and became a cadet Captain. His interaction with the Regular Army officers sparked his interest in West Point. One of his parent's friends had a son at the academy, George Wooley, who while home on a furlough saw Wedemeyer pitching for the local baseball team. Wooley suggested Wedemeyer apply to West Point, pointing out that his athletic prowess would be an asset to the application. Senator George W. Norris recommended Wedemeyer, who then sat for the competitive examination and was accepted.
Although Wedemeyer's parents were justifiably proud of their son's acceptance into the United States Military Academy, as well as his military career, they harbored some disappointment in his decision to pursue a military career in lieu of medicine. Although he took a different path, he never lost his interest in the healing sciences and read widely, especially so after his oldest son became ill with lymphatic cancer.
In high school, prior to the time he expressed an interest in pursuing a military career, his course of study emphasized science, not mathematics. While at West Point, Wedemeyer realized that his poor mathematical skills put him at a disadvantage and he struggled mightily with math. He sought to mitigate it by stressing historical study but was admittedly less than highly motivated academically at the time. Consequently, he did not fare well in the class standings, a widely accepted standard of competence employed by superior officers that could potentially hamper his future military advancement.
At West Point, his athletic career was quite successful. As predicted by George Wooley, he became the pitcher for the West Point baseball team and had fond memories of the influence of his baseball coach, Hans Lobert, a former professional infielder. At West Point he played against future greats, including Lou Gehrig of Columbia, and Frankie Frish, the "Fordham Flash," carrying a scar on his ankle throughout his life from one of Frish's famous flying spikes.
Wedemeyer was a man of undying principle and integrity, and he considered the Honor System the most important lesson he learned at West Point. By virtue of his strict adherence to the discipline, he was elected to the cadet committee empowered with enforcing the code of honor. While he wasn't a top student, his ethics were noted by the tactical officer and he was recommended for Cadet Corporal.
In his own words:
Aside from technical instruction, the cadet is taught the importance of discipline, humility, and respect for others regardless of economic or social status. West Point training inculcates a sense of honor and personal integrity which in my judgment are the invisible guaranty of America's future.
Wedemeyer's intolerance for those who "lie, steal, or cheat" was a guide he looked to for direction throughout his career in every important decision he made, and he later admitted that it sometimes caused him to alienate himself from some persons of high stature and influence, both military and civilian, often to his ultimate disadvantage. His own list included Harry Truman, Omar Bradley, Averill Harriman, and Henry Luce. One he didn't cite, who clearly belongs near the top, was Winston Churchill.
The corps was small and intimate, numbering about 800. Student life at the academy was notably Spartan. The cadets lived in poverty and did not even have pockets on their uniforms, having to carry their handkerchiefs up their sleeves. Only under the most extreme circumstances were they permitted off the grounds, and a ledger was kept of their whereabouts and activities outside the barracks.
Wedemeyer did passively object to some of the petty restrictions imposed. For instance, cadets were not permitted to receive packages of food from family or friends. His superiors would advise him when one arrived, "You are not authorized to get it. I will enjoy the candy or cookies or whatever just myself." With mature understanding, he blamed the system rather the "officers in charge" who were the beneficiaries of the rule.
Wedemeyer's class at West Point was unique. There were 383 cadets from all 48 states with a wide variety of backgrounds. They entered in June 1916, were graduated, and commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants, after only a year and a half of compressed study in anticipation of being mobilized for the European war to fight against the "terrible Hun." Newspapers incited their readers' anger by publishing lurid and provocative stories of alleged German atrocities, such as cutting off the hands of children in Belgium and France. After the war, Wedemeyer learned that the photographs in the New York Times were faked by a British major, who later admitted it in a book, much to the dismay of British authorities. This experience fueled later skepticism of the pro-war factions in the United States after the outset of hostilities in Europe in September 1939, and had a marked influence on his sympathies for the isolationist movement in America prior to Pearl Harbor.
EARLY MILITARY CAREER
After the Treaty of Versailles ended hostilities on June 28, 1919, the former students were ordered back to West Point to complete the schooling cut short by the war. It was an awkward time for them, as well as the instructors and other underclassmen, being "neither fish nor fowl." Members of the faculty and administrative staff did not recognize them as officers, and they were not allowed to use the officers' club, yet as commissioned officers they were not permitted to fraternize with the cadets. After completing the extra year at West Point, his class was sent back to Europe where they toured the battlefields and were lectured by the officers who had commanded the Allied Expeditionary Force.
Wedemeyer's most distinguished classmates were Al Gruenther, Chief of Staff to Dwight Eisenhower and later Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (1953-56); General Anthony "Nuts" McAuliffe, who stubbornly refused to surrender to the Nazis at Bastogne; and Nate Twining, who became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When he graduated, no one, least of all Wedemeyer himself, would have dreamed that he would be the first member of his class to achieve the rank of General. Peacetime promotions were rare, and quite typically it took over a quarter of a century of service to achieve that distinction.
Long after retirement, Wedemeyer was appointed to the academy's President's Board of Visitors that included three college Presidents, four Senators, and six Congressmen, charged with annually inspecting the curriculum, quality of instruction, training methods, appropriations, and physical plant, and rendering a comprehensive report. At age 75, he lamented that the caliber of the corps was not "up to snuff," and that in too many instances students were coming from homes where there is "an environment of at least drug toleration—heroin, LSD and marijuana." The staid and conservative old soldier noted that "these were not problems at West Point years ago."
Wedemeyer's first official assignment after the European tour was at Fort Benning, Georgia, an infantry training post where he spent three-and-a-half years primitively quartered in a tent. His tour in Georgia was unfortunately punctuated by a February 1921 disciplinary action for being drunk and disorderly and "conduct unbecoming an officer," especially in the age of prohibition! He pled guilty, was fined $50 a month for six months, and confined to base for a similar period. Viewing his military career as irreparably tainted, he submitted his resignation. Serendipitously, he was told it could not be accepted until his penalty was completed, during which time he obtained an offer for a civilian job, but some of his superiors dissuaded him from resigning and he withdrew the request.
After Fort Benning, Wedemeyer spent most of the next ten years in the Philippines and China, the latter, in 1929, in lieu of a position as an instructor at West Point. On the trip to the Philippines in 1923 he met his future wife, Elizabeth Dade Embick. They were married on Corregidor in 1925 [pic. 4], and had two sons, Albert, in 1925 and Robert in 1928 [pic. 3]. The new Mrs. Wedemeyer also came from a military background, being the daughter of Colonel, later General, Stanley Dunbar Embick, a military scholar who loaned his son-in-law many books and had numerous discussions with him that broadened his knowledge of world events, history, and economics. Embick rose to prominence as a close confidante of General George Marshall and was one of the highest ranking pro-isolationists in the American military. His guidance and perspective had a profound influence on Wedemeyer's career and personal philosophy. The two men remained close and intimate friends their entire lives [pic. 10].
Excerpted from General Albert C. Wedemeyer by John J. McLaughlin. Copyright © 2012 John J. McLaughlin. Excerpted by permission of Casemate Publishing.
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Posted October 10, 2014
Posted October 17, 2014
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