When SAIC's Grady Tumlin volunteered for duty in the U.S. Army in 1944 at the height of World War II, little did he know that decision would lead to a career in the military that would span the globe for more than 37 years and land him in the middle of some of the world's most turbulent times.
"I was 19 years old when I enlisted," said the 92-year-old, who supports SAIC's joint doctrine program. "We were at war with Germany, Italy, and Japan. Like every other young American, I wanted to serve this great nation in its time of need — it was the right thing to do."
Tumlin began his military career at Camp Blanding, Florida, and after basic and advanced individual training at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, he was shipped to a replacement depot at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where he, along with hundreds of other soldiers, waited for orders. Soon, he was headed north on a troop train to the Port of Embarkation at Camp Shanks, New York, nicknamed "Last Stop USA"—he was on his way overseas.
SAIC's Grady Tumlin was awarded the Bronze Star for sustained superior performance in Korea during a time of armed conflict. The medal was presented to him at a ceremony in Okinawa, Japan, in 1952, when he was a first lieutenant.
Adventure Awaits in India
After he kept busy for a few days peeling potatoes and cutting French fries in the mess hall at Camp Shanks, Tumlin and 1,500 other soldiers boarded a troop ship. As they sailed out of New York Harbor, he recalled an exchange between two soldiers leaning over the railing:
"One fellow said, 'Is that the Statue of Liberty? It's not so hot,'" Tumlin recounted. "Another voice replied, 'Wait until you get back.'"
He, along with the other soldiers who were cramped on the ship sharing canvas cots, immediately wondered where he would end up—England, Italy, North Africa? In those days, the Army did not divulge the destination in advance, so as the ship zigzagged for 26 days across the Atlantic avoiding German U-boats, he kept wondering and predicting.
"We sailed across the Atlantic, through the Mediterranean Sea, to the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal," Tumlin explained. "We had no idea what was going on until we ended up in Calcutta, India—we never bet on that!"
Tumlin and his colleagues had been sent to the China-Burma-India Theater, which came to be known as the "Forgotten Theater of WWII" because it didn't receive a great deal of publicity.
"We soon learned that our job was to maintain the supply lines—primarily the Burma and Ledo roads—leading from the port in Calcutta through Burma to the Chinese Army fighting the Japanese who had invaded their country," explained Tumlin, who added that the vast majority of the combat was considered guerrilla warfare.
He also said that soldiers were confronted with adverse geographical, climatic, and environmental conditions. "Roads were poor to nonexistent—mainly cart trails—and there was the constant threat of dangerous animals, leeches, and poisonous snakes, not to mention the tropical diseases that attacked all with impunity.
"It was not an easy task to keep the Japanese from cutting the roads and blowing up the bridges along the two main supply routes," Tumlin said. "However, it proved to be a tougher job for the Japanese to keep the American forces, especially the combat engineers, from rebuilding the gaps in the roads and restoring the bridges."
Tumlin Cruises the World
In June 1946, Tumlin boarded a ship in Calcutta that took him back to the United States via Singapore, the Philippines, and across the Pacific to San Francisco, California. "I got a cruise around the world at the Army's expense!" chuckled Tumlin.
It wasn't exactly a luxury cruise. The ship stopped in Manila to pick up 200 American soldiers who had been convicted of various petty crimes and were returning to the United States to serve penalties.
"Three times a day when the prisoners took their meals, the rest of us were confined to our bunks so we wouldn't mingle together. It was a drag," Tumlin said.
"The hardest part was sailing into San Francisco Bay at dusk and seeing the lights of the city, but having to spend another night on board the ship because the convicted soldiers could not disembark at night. We were chomping at the bit to set foot on our beloved homeland!"
Lt. Col. Tumlin served as the battalion commander of the 2nd Combat Training Battalion, 1st Combat Regimental Training Brigade at Fort Gordon, Georgia, in 1960.
A Soldier Faces a Crossroads
After traveling by train to the Army's separation point at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Tumlin was faced with a decision: re-enlist or be discharged. Although torn, he took a discharge and headed to his hometown in Georgia, where in the fall of 1946, he enrolled as a freshman in the local college with several other veterans, only to discover that being a student was not his strength.
"The classes were tough and the GI bill wasn't enough to pay for college and my room and board. I missed the Army, but there was no way I was going to be the first to drop out of college," Tumlin explained. "I persevered through January, and after a number of my buddies dropped out, I followed suit."
He soon re-enlisted in the Army and was assigned to a detachment at a private military academy in Georgia, where he became a Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor. He spent three years training high school and junior college students until he was assigned to Headquarters, Third U.S. Army (now U.S. Army Central) in Atlanta.
Then, on June 25, 1950, North Korean armed forces crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea, and Tumlin was entrenched in another war, tasked with assigning soldiers to units in Korea.
He thought to himself, "Since I'm furnishing bodies to fight in Korea, why don't I ship myself?" And so he did.
After completing the required combat refresher training, Tumlin set off for a war where there was constant heavy fighting, no front, and enemies all around. He was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division and received a direct appointment to second lieutenant from master sergeant, and Tumlin found himself leading a rifle platoon.
The initial commission was for a period of 90 days. Musing aloud to a fellow officer, Tumlin asked, "Why 90 days?" The officer replied, "That's about as long as a second lieutenant of infantry survives in combat here."
Tumlin still recalls the brutal winter weather, the tough terrain, and the guerrilla tactics of the North Koreans as his unit patrolled the Korean Peninsula "like a yo-yo."
Platoon Cuts It Close, Children Break Hearts
He shared one experience when, under cover of darkness, he led a "listening patrol" of eight men and an interpreter into enemy territory. Their mission was to get as close as possible to the enemy and record what they heard—troop or vehicle movement, voices, whatever they could pick up for intelligence purposes. They were to be back to friendly lines before daybreak.
Negotiating barbed wire down a mountainside, Tumlin and his squad stole across a small bridge on the way to their designated spot. Once situated, the squad remained hushed and motionless for hours, listening and taking notes on everything they heard. On their way back, a shot rang out and the point guard ran to the squad to tell them that the bridge was "crawling with North Koreans."
Tumlin said, "We couldn't take the same way back. That was bad. If we did not return to the point of exit at the planned time, the friendly troops could mistake us for an approaching enemy patrol and fire on us in the darkness. It was a dangerous chance to take, but we had no other choice."
Tumlin and his men traveled upstream, attempting to cross at three different locations before they found a shallow enough spot to traverse, all the while praying the friendly troops would get the word from the commanding officer that his patrol would be entering the lines at a different place.
"As day dawned, we found a crossing point, and then realized we were still between enemy and friendly lines—not exactly an ideal spot if the two forces decided to start firing at each other," Tumlin said.
"Luckily, we were recognized by our troops and they helped us enter just as the sun was peeking over the mountaintop. I never wanted to cut it that close again!"
Tumlin also experienced one of his most heart-wrenching war moments in Korea. "Besides seeing your men maimed or fatally injured, the hardest part of war for me was seeing the little children suffering with hunger or injuries," Tumlin said. "During relief breaks while the troops were moving locations, small children would descend on us, seeming to come out of nowhere, begging for food or, as they called it, 'chocolate.'
"Once, in the dead of winter, I saw this little boy who appeared to be about 10 years old with no coat, carrying a little girl of maybe three or four on his back. It was probably 10 degrees outside with five inches of snow on the ground.
"The girl had no shoes and her clothing looked like a small blouse made of nothing but one thin layer of cloth. They begged for food, and I gave him all the chocolate I had. Then they disappeared. That image is seared in my mind, and it breaks my heart to this day."
90-Day Commission Leads to Regular Army
When the war ended, Tumlin served a stint in Okinawa, Japan, before going stateside for assignments in Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas. After he was promoted to captain, he transferred from infantry to armor, where he was commander of a tank company in West Germany that would have been the first line of defense against Soviet forces in the event of hostilities.
It was during this time that Tumlin's original 90-day commission—one that had been extended from one- to three-year periods of time to an indefinite duration—became a permanent appointment to the regular Army.
"That was an honor well worth the wait," said Tumlin, who was next assigned to the faculty at the U.S. Army Armor School at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Eventually, he became the head of the leadership department, where he provided instruction to lieutenants and captains attending the basic and advanced armor courses.
While at Fort Knox, he was selected to attend the resident course at the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, graduating in 1965.
Lt. Col. Grady Tumlin received a Legion of Merit medal in 1999 for a sustained period of performance above what is normally expected or required while in a position of great responsibility from January 1977 through October 1999.
Last Combat Action Takes a Toll
In the fall of 1965, Tumlin, who was now a major, found himself in Vietnam, where he served as a staff advisor to the commanding general of the Vietnamese Command and General Staff College on a mountaintop in Dalat. The American buildup had not yet started in full force, and the 5,000-foot mountain was surrounded by Viet Cong, but Tumlin explained that a truce kept them safe—until the United States started amassing forces.
There was an airstrip atop the mountain that resupplied American troops with goods from Saigon.
"Three to four helicopters and five to six airplanes were always on the ground," Tumlin said. "The Viet Cong got tired of the buildup. On New Year's Eve, they swept through our defense forces and destroyed every airplane on the ground and blew up a house where our communications people lived. The casualties were significant, and we spent the rest of the night evacuating the wounded onto medevac helicopters."
After that incident, Tumlin never saw combat again, miraculously escaping injury during his entire military career, except for a minor shrapnel wound on his upper right arm that he sustained in Korea.
Civil Rights Upheaval Requires Military Support
Tumlin, now a lieutenant colonel, finished his tour in Vietnam and returned to the United States, where he was assigned to Headquarters, Third Army at Fort McPherson, Georgia, from 1967 to 1969. He served as the chief of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which operated 24/7 with a skeleton crew and ramped up during emergencies.
He recalled the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.
"I had just gotten home from the EOC when I heard the news on the television," Tumlin recollected. "I went right back to the office on April 4, 1968, and didn't come out until May 1.
"Our country suffered some great losses during that time," said Tumlin, whose team helped monitor the media and reported on disturbances across the nation. "We worked many long hours for days and days at a time to carry out our duties."
His next assignment as the commander of a basic combat training battalion at Fort Gordon, Georgia, was followed by a transfer to the headquarters of the Department of the Army at the Pentagon. There, he served as the executive assistant to Lt. Gen. William Peers, who was tasked with investigating the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam—the killing of hundreds of unarmed citizens by an Army unit in South Vietnam.
Traveling halfway around the world to Ankara, Turkey, Tumlin then served as the aide-de-camp to Lt. Gen. Harris Hollis, the U.S. representative to the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). The CENTO nations—Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Great Britain, and the United States—were committed to mutual cooperation and protection with the main goal of containing the former Soviet Union.
Leadership Means Serving Others
Upon returning to the United States, Tumlin was assigned to human resources for the Military District of Washington at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. He worked closely with the commanding general, Robert Yerks, who took a special interest in the welfare of the junior enlisted personnel and their families living in the high-rent area.
He recounted helping the general obtain subsidized housing for soldiers and their families and assisting them in getting grants and loans from the Army Emergency Relief Fund. He also helped establish food banks for Army families in need.
"It was a pleasure and a privilege working so closely with a commander who had such a genuine interest in the welfare of his junior people," Tumlin said.
Yerks felt the same way about Tumlin. In a hand-written note he told him, "… you have been a strength in this command, both personally and professionally. The soldiers you have served so well have been enriched with your leadership. I have not met a more genuine human being than Grady Tumlin."
No Retirement for this Soldier
His final assignment took him to the Pentagon once again, where he was a member of a study titled "Review of the Education and Training of Officers." The purpose of the study was to help produce officers with the desired level of military competency, focusing on developing the individual, the unit, and the institution of the Army—something in which Tumlin had a great deal of experience.
He had just been tasked with implementing the recommendations from the study group when his mandatory retirement date came up. "The Office of the Secretary of the Army solved the problem by letting me retire, and then voluntarily recalling me for three additional years of active duty, one year at a time," said Tumlin. "I wasn't ready to retire anyway."
Tumlin, who ultimately retired in 1981 at the rank of lieutenant colonel, said he is a better person because of the Army and that he strove to fulfill the high expectations of what a soldier and an Army officer should be.
"An Army officer has some responsibilities that are probably second only to the clergy," Tumlin said. "By that, I mean that an officer has to send young men into the jaws of death, and sometimes they don't come out. With that kind of responsibility, an officer's leadership principles must be above reproach. The code they live by must not be compromised. I enjoyed that privilege and teaching other officers about it, and I loved trying to live up to it in all that I did for the U.S. Army and our great country."