What Colin Powell Learned About Army Leadership After Losing His Pistol


In 1958, the Cold War was in full swing. The Soviet Union had just launched Sputnik I in 1957, and NATO troops and Russian soldiers clashed along the German border. Nuclear weapons have been stockpiled and pointed at major cities across Europe, and both sides braced for the prospect of all-out war. The late Colin Powell, who died of complications from COVID-19 on Monday, had also just arrived in his first unit.

After completing the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at City College of New York and the Basic Officer Training Course at Fort Benning, Ga., Powell traveled to Gelnhausen, Germany, and was assigned to the 3rd Armored Division in December 1958, as he recounts in his 1995 book “My American background. “Just 70 kilometers from the Soviet lines, the 21-year-old ‘butter bar’ took command of a platoon of 40 soldiers from B Company, 2nd Armored Rifle Battalion, 48th Infantry Regiment on the” front lines “of the cold War.

US Army tanks clash with Soviet armor at Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, October 1961 (Photo via US Army Military History Center)

The mission of these units was quite simple: if the Soviets invaded, they had to hold out as long as possible before the nuclear weapons began to fly. To help them slow down a potential invasion, the military had a Atomic cannon M65, popularly known as “Atomic Annie”. The relatively new weapon, which was just introduced in 1956, fired a 280mm 20 kiloton atomic shell up to 20 miles away and was carried by two trucks, one at each end.

What Colin Powell Learned About Leadership After Losing His Handgun
The M65 performing its first and only atomic test on May 25, 1953. (Photo via the US Army)

The guns never stayed in one place for very long and were moved into the woods around Germany for the Soviets to guess their location. They were so vital that each was guarded by an infantry platoon, this is where 2nd Lt. Powell ended up when his career nearly derailed as soon as it began.

In “My American Journey”, he recounts how his company commander, Captain Tom Miller, tasked Powell’s platoon with the mission of guarding one of the Atomic Annie M65s, which they called a “280” due to the caliber of the shell fired. . Powell was eager to begin his first mission, so he strapped his caliber 1911 .45 handgun in its holster, got into a Jeep and headed for battalion headquarters for its briefing in the forests around the Vogelsberg mountains.

Somewhere along the way, the future chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state leaned down to feel his handgun in the holster and his heart sank in his stomach. It sort of broke down, a mistake that could mar his career and make his time in the military short and dull.

What Colin Powell Learned About Leadership After Losing His Handgun
Colin Powell in 1959 as a young second lieutenant. (Photo via US Army 3d Armored Division)

Misplacing a weapon is a major military offense and in many cases an outright career killer. That sudden fear of not knowing where your gun is grips almost every military person at least once in their career, though it’s usually only a few feet away and out of sight for a fraction of a second, rather than completely lost. Although sometimes weapons go missing, and the consequences can be serious. The battalion commander and the sergeant major of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment were relieved in 2020 after a pair of rifles went missing in their unit, even though they were not even directly responsible for the firearms. lost.

That day, in December 1958, when the new 2nd Lt. Powell realized his handgun was missing in action, his mind probably raced before stopping. Powell stopped the Jeep, wondering whether to search for it or inform his commanding officer of what had happened. He radioed to his commanding officer, Captain Miller and informed him that he had lost his handgun, then continued his mission statement without it.

After the briefing, Powell began his journey back to his platoon, but as he passed a small village, he saw Miller who stopped him and said “I have something for you”, before moving on. return the missing handgun. According to “My American Journey,” Miller told Powell that “Some of the village kids found it where it fell from your holster. Luckily they only fired one shot before we heard it. shot and they came to take the weapon from them. ”

After surrendering the gun Miller turned to Powell and while he could easily have taken it out on the young officer, he simply said, “For goodness sake, son, let this not happen again.” more. Having made his point, Captain Miller left, leaving the young lieutenant with his thoughts and his recovered pistol.

Powell checked the magazine, and finding it full, he realized that the story Miller told had been concocted. The goal? To sow just enough fear in the young officer to leave him with an indelible lesson in leadership which he describes in this excerpt from his book:

“Miller’s example of human leadership that doesn’t always conform to the book has not escaped my notice. When they fall, pick them up, dust them off, pat them on the back, and walk them forward. I gave Miller and my other senior officers plenty of opportunities to pick me up, for example when I lost my platoon train tickets on my way to Munich and my men and I got stranded in the Bahnhof in Frankfurt. I have never spoken of these embarrassments until now. Perhaps they will help young officers learn a lesson: No one has ever reached the top never having been in trouble. “

Miller could easily have given the mission to another platoon, sending another young lieutenant, who would not lose his handgun, to be briefed at headquarters. He could even have taken Powell’s platoon away from him – other lieutenants had certainly lost command for less serious slippages. Instead, he picked it up, dusted it off, patted its back, and moved it forward.

Colin Powell would go on to have one of the most successful careers in recent U.S. military history, reaching the rank of general. He would become the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as the first black secretary of the State Department. However, her story may have been quite different without a simple display of “human leadership” from her first company commander, and the lesson she passed on to the young second lieutenant.

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