The VVA Veteran — January/February 2011
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Charlie Stone
Bernard Edelman

“Old soldiers never die,” General Douglas MacArthur famously said in his farewell address as Supreme Allied Commander in April 1951. “They just fade away.”

Those words resonate for Charlie Stone. An ROTC graduate of City College of New York whowanted to become a landscape architect and instead went on to become anArmy general “by chance.” Major General Charles P. Stone commanded the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968. At the apex of his military career, he was on the cusp of receiving a well-deserved third star. But he was uneasy.

“My attitude toward retiring has not changed, particularly after seeing the last two general officer assignments,” he wrote to his beloved wife Mary. One of them was “a classmate ofWesty’s and an artilleryman and one-third the officer I am, [and the other] never introduces a new thought or tactic.”
Elevation to lieutenant general would have also meant having to stay longer—a lot longer—inVietnam, and Mary’s distress at what that promotionwould mean sealed his decision to request retirement, ending a career that began in the depths of the Depression and saw him persevere through three wars and assignments across the globe.

So Major General Charlie Stone returned to Mary and Jamie, their daughter. He retired to the spacious home along the East River he and Mary had bought back in 1959 in Mathews, a quiet town in Tidewater Virginia. He became a gentleman farmer. He indulged his passion for growing flowers and plants and trees, thereby fulfilling to some measure his one-time ambition.He hunted. He fished. He assisted neighbors in need, painting houses for widows and others who lacked financial resources. He immersed himself in the affairs of his town and county.

The years passed—42 of them. Last year, his wife of 65 years died, leaving a terrible void.

Today, Major General Stone is just plain Charlie, an old man deep into the sunset of his years. His hands are gnarled, his handshake strong. His features are unlined.

He is blessed with what one gerontologist has called “long genes.” Hismemory, though, is often cloudy; there is little hint of the tough-talking, outspokenly honest, sometimes brusque maverick commander who did things his way, who sawhimself as a catalyst “with a gift of imagination” in adjusting “to newexigencies and conditions,” aswriter and historian Martin Blumensonwrote in Army magazine shortly after Charlie Stone returned fromVietnam.

“His penetrating intelligence and sometimes uncomfortable directness, as well as his clarifying analysis and refreshing candor, made him a model soldier,” Blumenson wrote. Yet in retirement, “no one, officially or unofficially, has ever asked him to advise, to give his reaction to a problem or to a proposed solution, to study a policy or a considered course of action.” That’s a shame, because Charlie Stone, who never was a yesman, is one of the finest generals to command troops in theVietnamWar.

At 95, he isVVA’s oldest member, perhaps the oldestVietnam veteran ever to belong to this organization.He has outlived just about all of his contemporaries, the military brass and civilian leaders who prosecuted the war.

On onewall of his study hang framed letters from many of these men. They laud him. “I have nothing but the highest esteem for the professional way in which you have led and directed the 4th Division,” wrote his commander, General Creighton W. Abrams, who commanded American military operations inVietnam from 1968-72.

“Regardless of what is printed”—General Stone took some heat in the press, which misinterpreted and magnified what was dubbed the “salute or shoot” directive posted on a bulletin board in Camp Enari, where the 4th had its headquarters—“it is still our responsibility to turn in the most professional performance we can. In this department you have no peer.”

Admiral John McCain, Jr., who headed the Pacific Command, expressed “my very high esteem for your dedication and professional ability.You have enjoyed a brilliant career. I have known you to be a fearless soldier and a dynamic leader.You have spent your last assignment in combat, a fitting way indeed to culminate a highly successful career.”

“You did a great job inVietnam,” GeneralWilliam Westmoreland wrote while serving as Army Chief of Staff.

They weren’t just penning kind words to an old soldier.

In a review of a book on the Tet Offensive, Erik B. Villard, a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Mili.Tary History, wrote: “While many American commanders were surprised at the scope and ferocity of the attacks, it is perhaps overstating the case to say that the offensive was ‘completely unexpected’ because a fair number of commanders all around the country had intelligence as well as gut premonitions that the enemy was going to mount significant attacks around the Tet holiday (and not just near the DMZ). In fact, some, like the commander of the 4th Infantry Division in the Central Highlands, Major General Charles P. Stone, visited his units several days before the offensive and accurately predicted where and how the enemy was likely to attack.”

When the dust settled after the TetOffensive, which began a few weeks after General Stone assumed command, the highest kill ratio registered by American troops occurred in the three highland provinces on the Cambodian border—“Charlie Stone country.” The enemy lost nearly 3,000 troops, the Americans fewer than 50, and the ARVN about 145. “I fought the war the way I wanted to,” Stone told a reporter. “If I didn’t like [something], I didn’t do it.”

“Our work proved us right,” he said. “Our people were not killed, our forces were not trapped, our supplies were where they were supposed to be, and the enemy was soundly beaten.”

He judged this as his “most important tactical accomplishment” as commander of the 4th Infantry. “The enemy came in as expected, in main-force contingents rather than small guerrilla detachments,” Blumenson wrote, “and they were clobbered.”

Yet four months into his tour, Stonewas hardly sanguine about achieving victory. In a letter to Mary, he wrote, “It is too bad to lose so many people for such a political cause and when you can’t see any viable and lasting solution.”

Mention of the “search-and-destroy” mantra of the military still sparks a snort of derision. Stone had little use for passivewaiting, for staticwarfare. He believed, rather, in what he called the “fantasticmobility” of U.S. forces which, coupled with top-shelf communications, enabled him to know“everything that happened in my area five minutes after it happened,” he told Blumenson.“I could react to it at once.”

Charlie Stone was more than a gifted tactician.He was also a soldier’s general. Just as “his superiors liked him because he always did a superior job,” Blumenson wrote, “his subordinates admired him because he was always concerned with their welfare.”

SteveWittenberg, amember ofWestchester County,N. Y., Chapter 49,was a 19-year-old RTOwith B Company, 2/8 Mechanized, during the Tet Offensive. He recalls fondly the day General Stone “came out to the field to pin Army Commendation Medals on several of us. And he sent two letters to my folks. This was worth a million bucks.”

Recently, Durant, Okla., Chapter 986 acknowledged Charlie Stone with a plaque: “In appreciation for being our leader during the most trying times of our lives:Tet 1968.

” Today, he is cared for 24/7 by two live-in caretakers as he eases out his days in his bright and airy home. No, he says, he “can’t enjoy much any more” the artifacts amassed during his postings around the world. But the shrubs and plants still blossom, and Louie the cat amuses.

Charlie Stone, in his lucid moments, can look back and nod his head at a career well-spent and a life well-lived.

A General’s Love Letter

January 3, 1968 My darling Mary,

It doesn’t seem possible that we have started this long separation. I have watched each day pass by and never really believed that someday we would reach the time when we would be apart. It shows how inevitably time goes on in its flight. It only makes it so clear that we cannot let a moment slip by or else life has too suddenly passed. Make Jamie realize this fact, although only experience and aging helps us understand how important every second is.

Now that we are apart, I realize so many things that we didn’t do. You wanted to dance and we didn’t. I had just taken my seat when I realized that I had failed to even take you in my arms and dance in our room. That will be on our Hawaiian interlude, I promise you.

Most of all I didn’t tell you often enough how very much I love you. I didn’t sneak up enough to you, grab you about the waist, and kiss your neck. Too often I slept too soundly and failed to caress you as you slept.

But no matter how many things I regret, I can remember fondly all the things I did to make you happy. The most important was to love you deeply and to let you know it was forever. We have had such a wonderful affair these last six months that perhaps it compensates for the next six months till we are together again. It proves again how we only needed each other to be completely and supremely happy.

A year from now we can retire and feel assured that the simple things done together can be the most satisfying and enduring. We will build that farm and enjoy it and grow old together… see our grandchildren… teach them to love nature, flowers… and to talk to the animals… The first song that was played over the stereo system on the plane was “Somewhere My Love.” Its tune was so appropriate to my mood— despairing over the separation but anticipating our reunion. It will be our song for the request at the Royal Hawaiian.

Bless you, my love, and Jamie. I love you both so very much.

— Charlie