Tribute to General Courtney Hodges

Thank you, Larry Walker, Pat Bartness, Colonel Butikofer, World War II veteran Crawford Hicks, Mayor Shaheen, Mayor Faircloth, Mayor Harley, Senator Tolleson, admirers of our heroes Robert Scott and Courtney Hodges --  that includes us all.  Larry, thank you for your kind words and your outstanding leadership.

It’s wonderful to be back in Middle Georgia with so many old friends honoring General Courtney Hicks Hodges – a man whose life has been a profound inspiration to Larry and to me and to so many others.  For the Society named after our beloved Robert Scott to honor Courtney Hodges is a home run since both hail from our home territory in middle Georgia. 

It is great to have so many distinguished generals with us tonight – General Rodeheaver, General Nugteren, General Goddard, General Paulk, and General McMahon – as we honor an outstanding general who helped win World War II.  I tried to hide it when I was Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, but as a former enlisted man in the Coast Guard, I confess that I get nervous around all of these high-ranking military officials.  I am reminded of the near breakdown of American Ambassador Joseph Grew many years ago.  He was presiding at a dinner to honor the retirement of General Marshall as Secretary of Defense.  General and Mrs. Eisenhower were among the noted guests at a head table full of stars.

Ambassador Grew was very effusive in his praise of General Marshall.  He stated, “General Marshall has had a distinguished military and civilian record.  He has been wartime Chief of Staff of the Army.  He helped win World War II.  He has been Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense.  There is no honor within their command which the American people would not give him if he sought it.  But he refuses any further honors.  All he wants to do, ladies and gentleman, is to go down to his beautiful little farm in Virginia and spend the rest of his days with Mrs. Eisenhower.” 

After the laughter subsided and the humiliated Ambassador resumed his seat, he passed down the table a note to Mrs. Eisenhower that said, “My apologies to you and the General.”  After reading it, Mrs. Eisenhower passed the note back, writing at the bottom, “Which General?”

So, forgive me for being a little nervous with this important crowd.   

It’s fitting that we honor Courtney Hodges here in this outstanding Museum that keeps alive our military history and urges us to imagine the future.  Colleen and I have had a passion for the Museum of Aviation from the very beginning.  I’ll always remember Peggy Young saying that we began with two airplanes, no buildings, and a roll of stamps.  That was a fact.  But if you mix in vision and hope and add one million hours of sweat equity and generosity from people like Peggy Young, Pat Bartness, Eddie Wiggins, June Lowe and many, many others, you can turn two airplanes and a roll of stamps into a great Museum.

Today, we have three major buildings, wonderful informative exhibits, and educational programs, including a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math academy, that are making an impact on more than 50,000 students every year.   A few weeks ago, Colleen and I brought our grandson, Vinson, to Young Astronauts day, a world-class program designed to inspire young people and show them what they can do, if they’ll only give it their all.  It worked on Vinson – we had quite a day.

This museum is an historic, cultural, and educational treasure that we must cherish, preserve and strengthen.  It’s up to us in Georgia and beyond to ensure that the courage and patriotism of the past are remembered and retold to inspire the young people of today and the heroic deeds of tomorrow.   Everyone who sees the faces of these young people as they soak in history and glimpse the future must inevitably support the Museum and its mission.   

In May 1945, I was a barefooted six-year-old boy living in my hometown of Perry, Georgia, when one of the great war heroes in American history came home for Courtney Hodges Day.

General Hodges was on his way home from Europe where he helped bring about the fall of Nazi Germany and en route to the Pacific, where he would participate in the surrender of Japan. 

I remember seeing our entire town covered in red, white and blue.  I remember the speakers’ platform set up in front of Perry High School.   I remember seeing my father --  the mayor and a boyhood friend of Courtney Hodges -- sitting next to the General on that platform and then rising to introduce our hero to the 3,000 people in Perry, Warner Robins and Houston County who’d come out to welcome him home.

Please allow me to read from my father’s remarks from that warm day in May of 1945: 

“In early boyhood, Courtney Hodges spun tops and played marbles and baseball in season on the school grounds.  Early summer brought battles with popguns using china berries as bullets.  Summertime meant swimming in the old swimming hole in Big Indian Creek.     

“Home-made boats and canoes were used to navigate the almost unnavigable waters of Big Indian Creek.  An occasional trip to Houston Lake was a great event in those pre-automobile days.  These experiences resulted in Courtney becoming quite proficient in swimming, diving and aquatic sports.

“At the age of 10, the boy Courtney became fond of hunting and spent a great deal of time with his air rifle shooting jaybirds and woodpeckers in his neighborhood.  Later, with his .22 rifle, he developed into an expert shot and was known among the boys as the best shot in the community.

“In early life, Courtney Hodges manifested a deep interest in military affairs.  With other boys of his age and younger, he played often the game of soldier.  The boys would divide into two armies -- with Courtney as the leader or the commander of one. These armies would drill, scout in the woods, make camp and occasionally meet in conflict, more by accident than intention.  Courtney’s army was not always victorious, but defeat did not daunt his spirit or diminish his love of the military.

“This love for soldiering led young Courtney to enlist in the Perry Rifles, the local military company, before he was really old enough to be a member.  He never missed a drill and became one of the best soldiers in the company, acquiring a military bearing which has remained with him through life.  As a school boy, he decided that his definite ambition in life was to be a soldier.”
That was how my father recalled the young General Hodges that day 68 years ago.   He was clearly a leader in his youth.   But it still might have been hard for the world to predict military greatness for Courtney Hodges, in part probably because the world hadn’t yet seen how he redoubled his determination in the face of adversity.

Even with his early success as a marksman and the promise that heralded, he was still surprised and delighted to be admitted to West Point in 1904 as a 17-year old.  Then, one year later, he was forced to leave the Academy after failing geometry.  Geometry!?  

I find it hard to believe that the man who came to be universally regarded as the ablest infantry tactician in the American Army couldn’t understand all the angles.  Perhaps because I flunked Mechanical Drawing at Georgia Tech, I believe that his failure was caused by faulty instruction.

No matter what the reason, that reversal would have ended the military career of a lesser man.  But it didn’t deter Courtney Hodges.  He didn’t change his goal.  He just changed his path.

After West Point, he came back down to Perry and clerked in a grocery store for about a year.  I’m sure that he and my father spent many hours together talking in that span, and I only wish that I had a record of their conversations.  Whatever they said, Courtney Hodges joined the Army in 1906 as a private.   He became, four decades later, one of only two people at the time ever to enlist in the Army as a private and become a four-star general.

As a young man, Hodges served under Colonel John J. “Black Jack” Pershing in Mexico and became part of the first rescue mission in U.S. military aviation history when he rescued a stranded aviator.  

He was a battalion commander in France in World War I, where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross “for extraordinary heroism in action.”  

After World War I, when Douglas MacArthur was named Superintendent of West Point, he called on Courtney Hodges to teach military tactics.   It was the first time that someone who had flunked out of West Point had been invited to come back and teach -- setting a great precedent for me at Georgia Tech. 

In the 1930s, Hodges was designing courses for National Guard generals at the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning when General George C. Marshall sent him a personal note of praise.

Hodges was shortly promoted to Major General, made Chief of Infantry, and then given a frontline command.   In 1943, he was sent to England to serve under General Omar Bradley.   General Hodges was Deputy Commander of the First Army during the D-Day invasion.   Two months later, he took command of the First Army.  Later that month, he took Paris. 

General Hodges was one of a small number of top US commanders of World War II who had seen war down at the level where men do the dying.
He never lost his desire to get down to the foxhole level to see how a battle was progressing.  Nor did his admiration for the average GI ever falter.   He once said:  “I love the American soldier…. he is my work.  And I don’t think he has any equals.”

Throughout the First Army’s campaigns in Europe during World War II, Hodges was constantly seen in the front lines, talking with soldiers and sharing his rations with them.  He was truly a soldier’s soldier.   On one occasion, following the vicious battle of Huertgen Forest, an engagement that left 70,000 soldiers dead and that General Eisenhower called “one of the most bitterly contested areas of the European theatre,” Hodges directed his jeep driver to halt.  He then got out of his jeep to stand by the road in silent admiration as trucks sloshed past carrying cold, bearded, grimy, bone-tired American infantrymen.  Tears in his eyes, he said softly: “I wish everybody could see them.” 

That was the kind of commander he was:  “I wish everybody could see them” – instead of thinking, “I wish everybody could see me.”  

He never sought attention.  It had nothing to do with performing his duty.  When he passed away, one obituary read:  “General Hodges was neither a back-slapper nor a seeker of publicity.  As a result, he usually came off second-best in headlines, overshadowed by such colorful generals as George Patton and Britain’s Bernard Law Montgomery.”
He once said, “Some people just naturally attract attention -- and all my friends tell me I look more like a school teacher than a general.”

He was plain-spoken, not long-winded.  When he was asked by reporters in May of 1945 whether he thought the Japanese were better fighters than the Germans, he said: “I haven’t met the Japanese” -- a line not likely to lead the evening news.

When he was asked if establishing a beachhead in Japan would be harder than establishing one in Normandy, he said:  “Whether a thing is tough or not depends on what’s in front of you.”   Hard to make a front page headline in The New York Times out of that.  This man was all substance. 

He was a painstaking commander, with exquisite attention to detail, both in planning and in keeping his finger on the pulse of a situation once an attack began.   A former officer who served in corps headquarters under both Hodges and Patton once said:  “When you did a situation report for Patton, you showed the positions of the regiments.  When you did one for Hodges, you had to show platoons.”  

General Omar Bradley once said:  “Hodges successfully blended dexterity and common sense in such equal proportions as to produce a magnificently balanced command.  I had implicit faith in his judgment, in his skill and restraint.  Of all my Army commanders, he required the least supervision.”

Courtney Hodges never displayed the flamboyance of George Patton, the outspokenness of Mark Clark or the dramatic flair of Douglas MacArthur.  He was a quiet, unassuming man who looked, as he said, more like a school teacher than the commander of one of the finest American armies ever to set boots on a battlefield. 

Yet, in terms of military achievements, General Courtney Hodges must be regarded as one of the most accomplished battlefield leaders America has ever produced.

I will admit that it is tempting for me to overplay the accomplishments of a favorite son.   Knowing that, a few years ago, I asked a military historian originally from the west coast named Jeff Record to take an objective look at Hodges’ record.  He was surprised himself when he reported to me that: 

  • It was Courtney Hodges and his 1st Army which first hit the beaches at Normandy.
  • It was Courtney Hodges and his 1st Army which broke out of the Normandy beachhead.
  • It was Courtney Hodges and his 1st Army which liberated Paris.
  • It was Courtney Hodges and his 1st Army which bore the brunt of the famous German attack in December of 1944 which later became known as the Battle of the Bulge – the last fierce effort of Nazi forces to blunt allied momentum and turn back the tide of the war.
  • It was Courtney Hodges whose tenacity, grace under fire, and brilliant reshuffling of troops under extreme pressure transformed that potential disaster into one of the greatest defeats suffered by the German Army on the Western Front during World War II.
  • It was Courtney Hodges and his 1st Army which first entered Germany.
  • It was Courtney Hodges and his 1st Army which crossed the Rhine ahead of any other Allied unit.
  • It was Courtney Hodges and his 1st Army which cut Nazi Germany in two by linking up with westward advancing Russian forces.
  • And it was Courtney Hodges and his 1st Army which was first selected by General George Marshall for redeployment to the Pacific theater once Germany had fallen.

That is the objective record of our favorite son.  I hope that this record will become more widely known, and I am sure, Pat, that this Museum will do its part to make that happen.   

We honor Courtney Hodges this evening in his home territory, because he was one of the most successful commanders in military history and because he had a God-given gift for inspiring the common soldier.  That inspiration came because he cared deeply about each soldier and cared very little for patting himself on the back. 

When Courtney Hodges was honored in Perry that day in May in 1945, he asked that the honors bestowed on him instead be a tribute to “those still fighting overseas, to those who will never return, and to those who stand ready to finish the job in the Pacific.”  Courtney Hicks Hodges always deflected credit to the fighting man.

That’s the kind of humility he had, and that’s the kind of love he inspired.  These lessons of his life are especially appropriate at the conclusion of Memorial Day week as we honor those who sacrificed so much for our nation.

So I thank you for honoring General Courtney Hodges tonight and for allowing me to talk about his life.  His story still captures the best of our country and inspires us to reach for the best in ourselves.

May God bless this heritage and its lessons for the future as we pass them on to the next generation.

June 6, 2013

Senator Nunn paid tribute to U.S. Army General Courtney Hodges, whom he called “one of the great war heroes in American history.”

Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Co-Chair, NTI