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The Generals MacArthur

by David Westheimer


On April 19, 1951 , before a joint session of Congress, General Douglas MacArthur said, “Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.” And that’s what he sort of did in 1964, dying peacefully in bed.

But his father, Lt. Gen. Arthur MacArthur, didn’t just fade away. He shed his earthly ties in a blaze of glory. Douglas exceeded or excelled his famous father in every military field, although seldom at as tender an age, but Arthur’s passing put his son’s in the shade. Arthur did it on stage, in the presence of 100or so other old soldiers. Civil War comrades-in-arms.

It was in Milwaukee on September 5, 1912, at the 50th anniversary reunion of the 24th Wisconsin Volunteers, “the Chamber of Commerce Regiment,” in the University Building. The general was on the speakers platform with the regiment’s flags and banners about him. The 100 old veterans listened with pride and respect — he was the ranking general in the United Stats Army and they’d known him at the very beginning of his career — as he told an anecdote of their exploits at Peach Tree, a few miles out of Atlanta.

“Your indomitable courage,” he was saying when suddenly he stopped speaking. After a pause he said, “Comrades, I am too weak to go on.”

And sank back into his chair and died.

Then, in the first account of that tumultuous evening that I read, General Arthur MacArthur had collapsed in full voice amid the shouts and cheers of the fellow veterans he had been spurring on with his oratory, and then Edward B. Harris, a retired Army captain who had been the general's regimental adjutant, rushed to him and crawled across MacArthur's body, losing consciousness himself, and died a day or so later in a hospital.

This is not the version published in The New York and Los Angeles Times of the period. Actually, Harris suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right side but was expected to survive. What Gen. MacArthur died of was “an apoplectic stroke.” Dr. William J. Cronin, the attending physician at the scene, said a blood vessel had burst at the base of his brain.

Even though the actual event is less colorful than the way I remembered it, I wouldn’t be surprised if the son wouldn’t have preferred the flamboyant death of his father to his own quiet demise. The father had set an example in his military career that no one could have expected his son to equal and certainly not to surpass. But it was recognized early on that Douglas had inherited some of his father’s qualities. An officer who knew them both said, “I thought Arthur MacArthur was the most vain, arrogant difficult man I’d ever known. Until I met his son.”

Both won the Medal of Honor, Arthur when he was only 18, “for seizing the colors of his regiment at a critical moment (he had snatched it from a fallen comrade) and planted them on captured works on the crest of Missionary Ridge.”

The MacArthurs shared legendary, even notorious, courage. Both had distinguished careers in the Philippines in both war and peace and both of them reached the highest rank obtainable in the US Army in their day. Douglas achieved two more stars (five) on his shoulders than his father because in Arthur’s day lieutenant general (three stars) was as high as you could go. And for a while an officer couldn’t even achieve three-star rank. In 1907, the year Arthur got his third star, Congress passed a law abolishing the rank of lieutenant general to become effective when the senior MacArthur retired. After which he became known as “the last of the lieutenant generals.” He’d had another title years before at the beginning of his military career, when he was known as “the boy adjutant.” By the time he was 19 he was a major. He never went to West Point, as Douglas did. At an age when other young men entered the US Military Academy, he was already a seasoned combat solder. Before he was 21 he had been twice wounded and seen three years of bitter Civil War fighting

Douglas’s career was not as meteoric as his father’s but it soared higher in a vaster war than his father had waged. He graduated from West Point first in his class, and did not make major until he was 25 (and even 25 was young for a major). When he entered the US Military Academy, his widowed mother, Mary Pinckney Hardy MacArthur, moved to the West Point area and during his first year at the Point she lived in a hotel across the street from the campus. He was promoted to the rank of General of the Army (five stars) in 1944. After World War II he virtually ruled Japan, and helped restore a semblance of order to that conquered nation. But in death he could not equal his father’s dramatic demise. He just faded away.



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