Lew Williams

 

Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Williams was the commander of the 339th Engineer Battalion during the time I was there at Ft. Lewis.  Col. Williams had been the captain of the 1952 West Point football team and he looked the part straight out of central casting.  He was an Engineer officer as were all of us in the 339th.  That was a problem for him even with his excellent military pedigree.

 

Lew, as I came to know him, reported to a brigade commander named Knopka who was an Infantry officer.  Col. Knopka despised Engineers for being “not really soldiers”.  He was constantly giving Lew a hard time, which was quite common among Infantry officers who felt the Infantry was superior to all other branches, calling it the "Queen of Battle", a ridiculous term befitting their ridiculous attitude toward the rest of us.

 

In the spring of 1969 there were many war protests on college campuses and in cities in the Sixth Army's area of responsibility, the West Coast.  The Army was ordered to stand prepared to provide riot control.  Col. Knopka gave Lew the assignment of preparing our battalion for that eventuality, something at which Knopka was sure we'd fail.  In fact, he told Lew he would monitor our training for the assignment, and if he found it lacking he would relieve Lew of command.  Lew was under a lot of pressure.  At the time I didn't know any of that.

 

I was one of the newest and most junior officers in the battalion.  As such it fell to me to make the opening two-hour presentation to launch the two weeks of training we officers were to deliver to the whole battalion.  I was told to design my talk so as to set the tone for the whole training.  No pressure there.

 

I found out later that Lew was resigned to failure.  He'd decided since I was so new and so junior it would be no great loss if I was a casualty of the wrath of Knopka.  I was a pawn in this game.

 

Lew assigned one of his staff officers to oversee the design and delivery of my opening session.  That officer told me I had one week to write my script and then he would spend a week coaching me on the recitation of my lines.  He would be the judge of everything that would be said to the troops.  I told him I'd get right on it.

 

In truth, I had no sense of what I should say, what the Army would consider appropriate to set the tone of riot control training.  I could find nothing in Army publications that would give me even the slightest clue.

 

But, what the heck, I had plenty of time, right?  A whole week to work on it.

 

Days went by....  I had nothing, not a clue as to what I was going to say.  Each day my keeper, the staff officer, would catch me and ask how it was coming.  "Great.  It's almost done.  Finishing touches.  Polishing it up."  He'd ask if he could see what I had and I'd tell him it was at home and I'd bring it in tomorrow.  This went on for over a week.

 

Finally, with two days to go to the start of the training my keeper cornered me and demanded to see my work.  I told him the script was finished, it was in good shape, he didn't need to worry about it.  I said responsibility for the presentation was all mine and if he needed me to, I'd tell the colonel the same thing, that it was all on me and the staff officer was off the hook. 

 

In actuality I had made a rough outline of what I wanted to talk about, enough to provide high points for maybe the first hour, but it was skimpy at best and there was no fill.  My plan, such as it was, was to see how the first hour went and then either continue in the direction of the outline or change course significantly.  Hardly solid preparation, but no matter what I was going to have to call on my Irish heritage to fill the time with words, lots and lots of words.

 

The training was held in a large theater attended by the 570 enlisted men in our battalion.  After they were all seated I began my talk in front of a lectern but found that I didn't need the mic and felt more comfortable pacing the stage.

 

I was twenty minutes into my presentation when the doors at the back of the theater opened and Col. Knopka and his staff came down the center aisle and took their seats in the first row right below me.

 

At the time I had just finished introducing the broad schedule of the two weeks of training and had begun talking about the approach we should take toward the concept of riot control in our own country.   


As I made the statement that we should always approach the people on the street—even if people were rioting and doing damage—as our fellow citizens and that part of our job was to protect everyone's rights at all times, I glanced at Knopka to try to get a sense of how he'd received that statement.  I couldn't get a reading, couldn't see any reaction in his poker face.

 

I then recounted my personal experience living in Detroit the previous summer during the riots there.  I pointed out that in the city the 82nd Airborne Division was stationed on the east side and because of their professionalism and discipline they were able to keep the situation calm on that side of the city the entire time.  The mention of the 82nd Airborne brought cheers from the audience.


I said the west side was covered by the National Guard—"weekend warriors" I called them, and the audience laughed derisively—and the west side was where all the disasters happened.  I spoke of two of them:

 

As I was making the point that we have to be better than that, Knopka stood up and headed for the exit followed by his staff.  My thought in that moment was, "Well, my military career just ended after only two short months."

 

I don't remember much about the rest of my presentation, except that afterward a number of soldiers went out of their way to thank me and congratulate me on an excellent talk.  I felt badly that I couldn't receive their appreciation—I was consumed with the image of Knopka, the Infantry commander, getting up and leaving after I, an Engineer, had made an appeal to the battalion's humanity.

 

As I was leaving the theater the staff officer who had been my warden came running across the street waving.  When he caught up to me he said, "Colonel Williams wants to see you right away!"  The way he said it, the message I received was You're gonna get it now.  Told ya.

 

By the time I stepped into LTC Williams' office and saluted, I found myself nervous to the point of shaking and my "Lieutenant Willis reporting as ordered Sir" came out pathetically weak.  He returned my salute and then told me to close the door.

 

"You should know that Col. Knopka has been riding my ass about this training.  He told me he was going to be tracking it every step of the way, and if he wasn't satisfied he was going to relieve me of duty and appoint one of his own people to take over this battalion.

 

"Now I don't know what you said because I wasn't there, but whatever it was, you just saved my career.  When Knopka left you he came in here and said that if the rest of our training was as high quality as what he'd just witnessed, then he was calling off the dogs with the confidence that we had this handled.  He actually shook my hand and congratulated me on a job well done.  That's never happened."

 

From that day forward, whenever there was anyone around us I was Second Lieutenant Willis with him, but for the rest of my year, when it was just the two of us he was Lew to me.  I was continually amazed at how comfortable he made me feel when he called on me for advice, and that happened several times.

 

He never asked for my opinion about any person; he kept his own counsel there.  His concern was always about improving any work with which his construction battalion was tasked.  We'd mostly talk engineer-to-engineer, but in the course of our conversations I learned a lot from him about how, as an officer, I should handle both responsibility and discipline with a light but firm hand.