FORT BENNING, Ga. — The Infantry’s signature icon turned 50 on Monday, and the man behind the statue returned to Fort Benning for a “birthday” celebration.
MAJ(R) Eugene Wyles made the trip from his home in Louisiana to be the featured guest at a ceremony in the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Patriot Park. In 1959, he posed for the original “Follow Me” statue while attending Officer Candidate School.
“Right now, I’m on a cloud, just floating around and everything is so serene and peaceful,” Wyles said. “A lot of it is excitement and the honor that they’ve given me. It’s hard to describe something like this.
“It’s the greatest feeling to know you’ve got all these people, a lot of them your comrades you served with, and their families … it really touches you.”
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Originally called “The Infantryman,” the statue was dedicated May 3, 1960, on Eubanks Field by then-Secretary of the Army Wilber Brucker. Wyles was flown in on a helicopter from Ranger School in Dahlonega, Ga., to attend the unveiling ceremony.
Four years later, it was moved to the new Infantry Hall and renamed “Follow Me.”
A bronze replica was built in 2004 and stands on post in front of Building 35, the former Infantry headquarters that’s now Ridgway Hall. But the original statue became part of the National Infantry Museum collection and sits atop a granite pedestal in the rotunda outside.
“What a celebration, what a birthday,” said Wyles, now 77, adding he never dreamed “Follow Me” would become the huge Infantry symbol it is today. “I thought maybe around Fort Benning, it would be well-known, but never a worldwide thing … It blows my mind.”
MG(R) Jerry White, the National Infantry Foundation chairman, said he was a new second lieutenant in Airborne School when the statue was built.
“There just wasn’t a better person anywhere to pose for it than Gene Wyles — a young, dynamic, good-looking Soldier, noncommissioned officer in OCS,” he said. “But no one knew then what it was going to mean to us 50 years later, (that) it would be the rallying cry for the Infantry … It really is that glue that holds us together.”
Wyles joined the Army at 17. A recruiter “took my cotton hoe and gave me an M1 rifle, and said, ‘Go fight for your country,’” he told the audience.
After reaching the rank of sergeant first class, the Army’s top NCO grade at the time, Wyles said he decided to enter OCS at Fort Benning. There, he was chosen among four candidates to be the model for what would become “Follow Me.”
Posing was tedious work, he said. Wyles occasionally had to stand in one place for up to a half-hour as the sculptors, PFCs Manfred Bass and Karl Van Krog, measured his arms, legs, fingers, nose, ear lobes and other body parts to make them twice the size of the young Soldier. They cast the statue in resin and steel.
“I wouldn’t even try to guess how many Soldiers stood in front of that statue for pictures with their family, and since have sacrificed their lives for us,” White said.
White said he met Wyles about two years after its unveiling, when they were at Mountain Climbing School in Alaska. But the two lost touch and hadn’t seen each other until Monday’s ceremony.
Wyles was enlisted for 10 years and spent another decade as an officer, completing one tour in Korea and two in Vietnam.
“That’s not me. That’s not me,” Wyles said of the “Follow Me” statue. “That is the Infantry. And that’s those guys that don’t get any publicity that it represents. It’s not me … It’s the Infantry and the Infantry spirit.”