Richard Hyatt: The story behind the National Infantry statue

September 26, 2013 

He has weathered moves in and around Fort Benning. He survived a frightening fall from a crane, a trip to Colorado and has probably been photographed more than any landmark in town.

But after 53 years in the limelight, most of us don't know what to call the iconic symbol that stands on a pedestal outside the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center.

His given name is the Infantryman, though many refer to him as the Follow Me Statue or even Iron Mike, confusing him with a bronze cousin at Fort Bragg, N.C., who is officially called The Airborne Trooper.

It's a mess, and this morning Brig. Gen. David Haight, the commandant of the U.S. Infantry School at Benning, dedicates a new plaque that may clean up some of the blunders.

The ceremony is at 10 a.m. at the foot of the massive memorial.

Military documents have helped fuel the confusion, but Cyndy Cerbin, director of communications at the National Infantry Museum, says there was never a formal change of name.

She said the big guy should still be referred to as The Infantryman -- just as he was in 1960 when he found his first home on Eubanks Field.

Surrounding Haight will be more than 200 newly minted Infantry soldiers who will soon learn the symbolism behind the historic figure that has become the installation's most recognizable marker.

His name is debated, but his story is clear, dating back to the 1950s when post commander Maj. Gen. Paul Freeman commissioned the lifelike figure.

Former Secretary of the Army Wilber Brucker, who said the Infantryman was the Army's ultimate weapon, unveiled him.

The statue weighed 3,000 pounds and was 12 feet tall. The rifle he carried was 7-foot-3 inches long.

The sculptors were Army Pfcs. Manfred Bass and Karl Van Krog. They used Officer Candidate School's Eugene Wyles as their model, hoping the statue would reflect the attitude of a squad leader in combat.

It was moved to Infantry Hall in 1964, and while being hauled to a truck, it fell from a crane.

Damage could have been worse, but the beloved figure only suffered a chipped elbow. Bass was called in for the repairs and while he was at it he did some other touch up work.

By 2004, the statue -- in need of a facelift -- was transported to Colorado, where the original served as a model for a reconditioned version cast in bronze. Back in Georgia, it found a permanent home at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center.

Wyles came back when it was rededicated in 2010. Standing in front of the statue, he said it represented more than any single soldier.

"That is the Infantry," the Army veteran said. "It's not me. It's the Infantry and the Infantry spirit."

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-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him on Twitter@hyattrichard.

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