Lieutenant Phillip J. Gilchrist is down.
Unlike Korea, where bullets and shrapnel decked him more than a
couple of times, he won’t be getting up again. Last month, the “Big C”
took him down for the final count, and he joined the almost 50,000 –
mainly World War II and Korean — vets who died during August.
I spoke to “The Lieutenant” a few days before he died to arrange a
visit. He said, “Hack, I’m not feeling too keen right now. Let’s meet
He didn’t make a big deal of his illness, telling me only, “The docs
can’t figure out what’s wrong. They’ve taken some tests, and I’ll know
the results in a few days.”
We set a new date, and before we hung up, he said, “You know, Hack,
since the winter of 1950, every day’s been a free ride. Back then, I
never thought I’d see the sun again, ever be warm again or, for that
matter, ever see another tomorrow. And here I am 73. It’s been a hell of
a good ride.”
Then, he laid out all his papers — insurance and veteran’s stuff –
and called the ambulance. Himself. His good wife, Barbara, didn’t know
the ambulance was on its way until the driver knocked at the door. A few
days later, after he had reported to his maker, she found the papers all
neatly arranged with the checklist he’d made for her.
“The Lieutenant” died as he had lived: quietly and with courage,
He was a colonel, a college professor, a great husband, the father of
four fine kids and since early 1951 my dear friend and mentor. But I’ll
always remember him as “The Lieutenant.”
I was a grunt in his rifle platoon during the Korean War, then a squad
leader and, before he was transferred to the 27th Infantry’s Easy
Company to be the skipper when proud Easy lost all its officers, his
I was with “The Lieutenant” when we were losing and when we were
winning and when it was bad and when it was good. We slept in the same
hole, dodged the same incoming and froze alongside each other on the top
of what seemed to us the steepest and coldest hills in the world. We
carried a lot of our smashed and dead brothers off a lot of those hills
I knew him as only combat grunts know each other: totally, inside and
out. Like a twin brother because battle made us one.
Gilchrist was a rock. Totally unflappable. Extraordinarily brave in
an always laid-back, pipe-smoking, joking kind of way. He loved his
soldiers and fought for them. Many a captain and many a colonel in Korea
felt his sharp bite when their orders put his troops in a main strain or
were just flat dumb.
I learned so much from this good man. Not only about leading and
fighting and keeping my soldiers alive, but also about courage. Not the
kind of courage that got him America’s second-highest award for heroism,
the Distinguished Service Cross, and a bunch of other hero awards, but
the other kind of courage, the one that’s even harder to come by: moral
From lieutenant to lieutenant colonel, he was never reluctant to tell
it like it was. I saw him in speaking-the-truth kind of firefights with
the brass not only in Korea, but also in the Pentagon and in Germany,
ripping into senior colonels and generals whenever they goofed or abused
his troops. He never suffered fools easily and would never compromise.
Right was right and wrong was wrong, and there was never any middle
ground or shades of gray where “The Lieutenant” was concerned.
With his combat savvy and great record, high intelligence, natural
leadership ability and leading-man good looks, he should have been a
shoo-in for senior general. But his sense of doing the right thing
always won over climbing up the promotion ladder and ultimately blocked
him from the stars he deserved.
As I stood by his grave with his two fine sons, I couldn’t help
thinking he’d gotten his stars, they were standing next to me. Chips off
that solid block.
Get the position ready, Lieutenant.