General Kingston's Eulogy

By John Collins

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General Robert C. Kingston

16 July 1928 - 28 February 2007

General Robert Charles Kingston and I were best friends for 50 years. Long, long ago he asked me to write his eulogy, because he believed he’d outlive me and wanted to get it on paper before it was too late. Here it is

Bob began life 78 years ago as a “blue baby,” baptized in the delivery room because he wasn’t expected to live, but he fooled everybody, dedicated his adult life to duty, honor, country, and became a role model for Army leaders at every level. He expressed his philosophy perfectly with these words: “I called every shot the way I saw it, regardless of personal consequences, because I have to look myself in the eye every morning when I shave and live with my actions every waking hour of every day.

Barbwire Bob got his nickname at Fort Bragg in 1956, when he seeded the lawn around his orderly room, unrolled concertina wire, and planted a sign that said, “You WILL keep off the grass.” He was a lucky man, whose professional dreams all came true. He lived a charmed life in uniform and wouldn’t have done anything differently if God had said, “Hey, boy, how’d ya like to start all over again?”

Bob enlisted as a 20-year-old Army private in November 1948, then served 29 of the next 37 years with troops, including nine campaigns during combat in Korea, seven more during combat in Vietnam, and miraculously walked away without even one Purple Heart. He exercised command with great competence for 15 years at every rung on the commissioned officers’ promotion ladder from gold bars to four stars.

 Robert saw a lot of history in the making during five tumultuous decades before and after retirement:

        Lieutenant Colonel Kingston helped test and evaluate heliborne assault concepts at Fort Benning before the 1st Cavalry Division put principles into practice in Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley.

        Lieutenant General Kingston and Air Force General Willie Y. Smith, who were President Reagan’s personal emissaries, both ducked bullets that sprayed the reviewing stand in 1981 when Islamic fanatics assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

        Retired General Kingston justifiably took great pride when General Schwartzkopf, atop Central Command, quickly defeated Iraqi armed forces during Operation Desert Storm, using politico-military instruments Bob designed as CENTCOM’s first commander.

        Retired General Kingston later took repeated trips to Hanoi with former JCS Chairman General John Vessey to expedite accurate accounting for POWs and men missing in action during the Vietnam War.

Four stories about Robert’s remarkable career are well worth repeating. One enshrined him in military history books as a lieutenant; the second demonstrated audacity and ingenuity, his hallmarks; the third featured puzzle-solving staff work; and the fourth put him center stage when the Cold War intensified in the Middle East. 

            Task Force Kingston, with cherubic Bob’s under strength rifle platoon at its core, on 21 November 1950 reached the frozen Yalu River, which marks the border between North Korea and Manchuria. The temperature was more than 20 degrees below zero. That 32-mile trek remains unique, because no other 2d lieutenant before or since in any country ever amalgamated under his command infantry reinforcements, tanks, artillery, antiaircraft and machine guns on half tracks, heavy mortars, engineers, and a tactical air controller. Shavetail Kingston’s subordinates included 1 major, 3 captains, and several 1st lieutenants when his 300-man task force departed the battalion command post with just one hand-drawn strip map. He and his men covered the last 22 miles through hostile territory with no map at all. Instructions to attack aircraft pilots simply said, “You can see us on the only road. The bad guys are in the bushes 500 meters ahead of us on our right flank. Go get ‘em.” Bob always wanted to be taller than his older brother John, who ate all of his veggies, but when a bullet creased his helmet, he was grateful that God never granted that wish, because otherwise it would have hit him between the eyes. 

            Major Kingston commanded a rifle company in Britain’s 16th Independent Parachute Brigade Group at Aldershot during the early 1960s, the first American ever accorded that honor. The Security Officer at nearby U.S. Lakenheath Air Base accosted Bob in a bar one evening when both were in their cups and challenged him to test that installation’s defenses, which included a double perimeter fence topped with razor wire, flood lights, roving patrols, guard dogs, the works. All hands were told to expect intruders on a particular night. Twenty-five red berets from Bob’s company went over the fence at 0200 hours while he, his command sergeant major, and three privates wormed their way through an abandoned sewer. Defenders quickly captured 16 troopers after they ignited a diversionary fire, but the remaining 14 slapped simulated sticky mines on most of the aircraft, pretended to crater concrete runways using precisely calculated charges, faked the destruction of base communications with dummy satchel charges, and positioned themselves to assault the nuclear weapons repository, which remained OFF LIMITS for obvious reasons. Two privates, at Bob’s behest, banged on the Commanding Officer’s door just before daybreak. “Sir,” they said, “you’re a prisoner of war.” His surly response was, “Get lost. I’m not about to play your silly games.” “Well, in that case, we’ve been told to kill you.” “Okay,” he said, “I’m dead,” and went back to bed. Big mistake. Superiors sacked him three days later.

            Bobby avoided staff work like a pestilence throughout his career, but  became an unbeatable sleuth when SOG’s chief, Colonel Jack Singlaub, handed him Op 34, which was dropping unproductive teams into black holes in North Vietnam. Robert first replaced five incompetent case officers who didn’t know squat about their missions then, in concert with a CIA colleague, began to analyze commo checks. Evidence soon indicated that savvy enemies routinely captured or killed most of SOG’s infiltrators, some shortly after they landed, and were transmitting phony messages to make it look like all teams remained active. Tell-tale indicators included senders whose Morse Code keying techniques were unfamiliar, backtracked signals that emanated from Hanoi instead of operational areas, and inability to recover even one agent, much less a whole team.  Bob soon told Singlaub he could send Ho Chi Minh any message he liked, because all or most teams north of the DMZ had been doubled. The groundwork he laid in that and several other regards led to triple cross operations that made paranoid communists believe SOG had seeded many more teams than actually existed.  

            Finally, fast forward to 1981, when our Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force possessed the Free World’s main abilities to deter and, if necessary, defend against possible Soviet aggression anywhere in the Persian Gulf region. The key question was: Who should replace its departing commander, Marine Lieutenant General P.X. Kelley? Plans called for amphibious assaults to seize footholds if required, but Pentagon computers confirmed that no active duty Marine flag officer had ever landed under enemy fire, whereas Kingston had hit the beach at Inchon on Korea’s west coast in September 1950. Bob got the job and pinned on three stars.

      Nobody ever was neutral about Barbwire Bob. Go-getters cheered when he swaggered in the front door, while sluggards who couldn’t or wouldn’t meet his high standards ran out the back door like rats abandoning ship.  He had a split personality full of contradictions. Captain Kingston very nearly engaged in a fist fight during a dining-in at Fort Bragg, because some clown refused to stand while the 82d Airborne band played “The All American Soldier.” North Vietnamese propagandists called Robert “the cruel General Kingston,” who fought to win without much regard for Marquis of Queensbury rules, but close friends call him an SOB - - Sweet Ole Bob - - a sentimental Irishman with a soft-hearted side who wept tears as big as horse turds on sad occasions (those are his words, not mine).

      Robert often delivered leadership lectures that opened with two slides on the screen - - Private Kingston on the left, four-star General Kingston on the right - - then asked his audience, “How do you get promoted from private to general?”  His answer always was, “Luck.” Let me tell you a secret that I wouldn’t share with anyone else. Bob surely was lucky, but dedication to duty, courage, skill, high standards, great organizational abilities, and superlative leadership were what made him special.

Retired Marine Lieutenant General Mick Trainor described Bob’s current situation best: “Now he’s been welcomed into Valhalla by legions of long dead warriors who will welcome him. He'll have a grand time.” God bless, Robert. You were a class act from start to finish. Your family, friends, and secret admirers will miss you immensely. I salute you one last time for all of them.