Robert B. Simpson: A hero worthy of the word

November 10, 2013 

Upon the approach of Veterans Day, we often hear even more of the frequently abused and misused word "hero." My objection to this is not because military heroes should not be honored, but because not everyone who dons a uniform is thereby a hero, nor is everyone so designated deserving of the appellation, and because many true heroes go unrecognized and unsung. For instance, there is the case of Edward P. King Jr.

Edward King was born in Atlanta in 1884. It was expected that he would become a lawyer, and he did earn a law degree but abandoned the profession to engage in the one he'd always admired. He acquired a Regular Army commission and became an artillery officer. By all accounts, an excellent one, highly decorated in World War I and continuing to excel in peacetime. By the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and triggered our entry into World War II, he was the third ranking ground officer in the Philippines. After General Douglas MacArthur was ordered out of the Islands to Australia, Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright assumed overall command, based on Corregidor, while Major General Ned King commanded the "Filamerican" force being pushed back into the Bataan peninsula by the invading Japanese.

General King was a devout but not obtrusive Christian, and he was known for treating everyone, officer and enlisted, with courtesy and respect. Aware of and sensitive to the overwhelming hardships being undergone by his threadbare troops, he nevertheless led them in a series of successful delaying actions, ruses, and counterthrusts that threatened to stall Japanese General Masaharu Homma's massive drive. But three months of desperate struggle, with troops in rags and reduced to starvation rations, had left no doubt as to the outcome. An assessment of the troops' effectiveness, which King defined as the ability to carry one's weapon 100 yards without resting and still shoot, revealed it to be about 15 per cent. Bedeviled by idiotic counterattack plans devised worlds away from the action, King made his own painful final assessment, well aware that the policy, propounded by no less than the President himself, was "no surrender." The 75th Article of War proclaimed that any officer who, in combat, surrendered his command "shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct."

With his troops no longer a viable fighting force, with no outside help possible, with thousands of hospital patients, refugees, and soldiers facing eminent slaughter, General King came to what he believed to be the only remaining honorable conclusion. At midnight on April 8, 1942, he gathered his staff and told them that he did not want their advice or their opinions. His decision, which he fully believed would, if he survived the war, lead to his court-martial, was to be solely his. At 6 a.m. the following morning, he would surrender the 75,000 American and Filipino troops on Bataan to the Japanese. Ironically, it was the 77th anniversary of General Lee's surrender to General Grant.

Protecting the reputation of his commander as he had his subordinates, King waited until the surrender had begun, following a chaotic night of destroying whatever the invading force might otherwise use, before calling General Wainwright's headquarters on Corregidor. He asked the chief of staff to tell General Wainwright, not at the moment available, that he, and he alone, had decided to surrender Bataan. If he did not, he said, Bataan would be known as "the greatest slaughter in history." Not yet aware of the incredible brutality of the Japanese army, he could not have suspected that only a third of the American troops he surrendered would survive their imprisonment.

General King had no doubt that to continue useless resistance would have simply sacrificed all his troops for no gain. He also had no doubt that his reputation was destroyed, and that he would be court-martialed at the end of the war. But the country was more forgiving than that, even if General MacArthur was not. The famous general was in part famous, at least within the Army, for his aversion to credit and decorations being awarded to his subordinates. He tried, unsuccessfully, to block the award of the Medal of Honor to General Wainwright. But there were no awards for King. When MacArthur addressed a joint session of Congress in 1951, King was there. He went up to greet his old commander, whom he had steadfastly defended, but MacArthur professed not to know him. Ned King, true to his character, accepted the rudeness without complaint. He would spend the rest of his life quietly, doing endless volunteer work.

The word "hero" is used too freely. It ought to be reserved for true heroes. Like Major General Edward P. King Jr.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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