“A Baptism Of Fire”: Fighting In Three Wars Abroad And Ushering In Constructive Disruption At Home

Bill DeGraf


Bill DeGraf was born in January 1926, and grew up in San Francisco, California, during the Great Depression. He remembers his father working several different jobs to make ends meet. On December 7, 1941, Bill was working in the yard when his parents called him into the house to listen to the radio reports of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He remembers one of his friends from high school, a Japanese boy, being forcibly relocated, and Bill’s father, a California State Guard Captain, guarding the Golden Gate Bridge with the first unit in the United States activated for WWII. Bill was in Junior ROTC (JROTC) all four years in high school, eventually serving as Battalion and Brigade Commander. In August 1943, Bill enlisted and was assigned to Company A, 143rd Infantry in the 100th Division. His unit landed in Southern France and participated in campaigns in the Rhone Valley and Vosges Mountains. On January 17, 1945, he received a battlefield commission at nineteen-years-and-seven-days old, making him the youngest American officer in WWII. He was subsequently transferred to the 36th Infantry Division, participating in the attacks on the Siegfried Line and being wounded by a grenade in March 1945. He was in the hospital recovering from his wound when the war in Europe ended. His unit was slated to go to the Pacific, and they were transiting America when the war ended. By that time, he had been accepted into West Point (for the second time) and had resigned his commission to attend the Military Academy. After taking leave to visit his family and meeting his future wife, he reported for R-Day (Reception Day). He recalls a Major and two Captains reporting for R-Day as members of the Class of 1950. The Cadet Cadre had the Major take off his uniform before they started hazing him. Bill notes that it was all “part of the game,” and something you just had to go through if you valued a West Point education and commission. During a parade as a Plebe, he was awarded the Bronze Star for making contact with a cut-off American unit and bringing them back within friendly lines, and found the attention “embarrassing.” While at West Point, he was on the championship-winning Army Rifle Team, but since rifle was governed by the NRA and not the NCAA at the time, his championship is not recognized. He was married four days after graduation at Chapel Point at Camp Buckner, and was forced to cut his Niagara Falls honeymoon short when the Korean War started. He arrived in Korea and was assigned to a recoilless rifle platoon in M Company, 21st Infantry Regiment in the 24th Infantry Division in the Pusan Perimeter. From the southern tip of Korea, his unit advanced to within fifteen miles of the Yalu River and had Thanksgiving Dinner near the border between Korea and China. Once the Chinese attacked, his unit retreated south of Seoul. He left Korea on June 10, 1951. After a brief assignment to Camp Roberts, California, where new Non-Commissioned Officers were being trained for service in Korea, he was accepted into grad school at Purdue University, where he took Nuclear Physics prior to returning to West Point to teach in the Electricity Department. Following his teaching assignment, he was assigned to the 1st Battalion of the 48th Armored Infantry in Worms, Germany, during the height of the Cold War. During the Vietnam War, he commanded 1st Brigade in the 1st Infantry Division before becoming a Division Advisor to the 7th ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Division. After his service in Vietnam, he joined the faculty of the National War College, where he recommended changes to modernize the curriculum and practices. After retiring in 1974, he designed and built the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, California, and is proud of the intense training the rotational units receive there. He has been recognized as a Distinguished Graduate of the United States Military Academy. In this interview, he talks about his childhood, memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor and its aftermath, and his experiences in high school JROTC. He describes his service in World War II, and receiving a battlefield commission. He discusses attending West Point, and some of the experiences he and his fellow combat veterans had on R-Day and throughout their time at the Academy. He reflects on his combat service in Korea and Vietnam, and in Germany during the Cold War. He recalls his time teaching at the Academy and being an Officer Representative for the Rifle Team. Finally, he talks about helping to bring about change at the National War College and developing the rigorous training at the National Training Center. At the end of the interview, he highlights what West Point means to him.


name Bill DeGraf
institution USMA
graduation year 1950
service Infantry
unit 100th DIV; 36th DIV; 24th ID; 1st ID; 7th ARVN
specialty WWII Battlefield Commission
service dates 1943 1974