For half a century, the likeness of MAJ(R) Eugene Wyles, known as the iconic “Follow Me” statue, has symbolized both the spirit and the Home of the Infantry. On July 31, Wyles passed away of natural causes at his residence in Columbia, La. He was 77.
Wyles was born in Gilbert, La., Sept. 27, 1932, to Benjamin Franklin and Mary Isabell Coody Wyles.
He joined the Army at 17 and after reaching the rank of sergeant first class, the Army’s top NCO grade at the time, Wyles entered Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning. There, he was chosen among four candidates to be the model for what would become “Follow Me.”
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.
On his trip to Fort Benning May 3 to commemorate the 50th birthday of the statue outside the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Patriot Park, Wyles showed his humble nature in describing his feelings about the likeness.
“That’s not me. …” he said. “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.”Wyles was enlisted for 10 years and spent another decade as an officer, completing one tour in Korea and two in Vietnam.
According to his obituary on the Riser Funeral Home’s website, Wyles’ awards and decorations included the Purple Heart, Bronze Star Medal, Army Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with five campaign stars, Vietnam Campaign Medal with 60- Device, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Parachute Badge and Ranger Tab.
He was preceded in death by his parents; his brother, Benjamin Wesley Wyles, and sister, Odell Phillips. Survivors include his wife and longtime companion, Jeanette Wyles; three sons: Kenny Wyles of Wyola, Mont., Ceivert Laforge of Prior, Mont., and Robert Byrd of Denver; three daughters: Linda Andrews and husband, Robert, of Dayton, Wyo., Rickee Faddis of Denver; and Terri Johnson and husband, Shannon, of West Monroe, La.; a sister; Imogene Powell, of Swartz, La.; 21 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and his beloved dog, Sam.
Memorial services will be held at 2 p.m. Aug. 7 at the chapel of Riser Funeral Home in Columbia, La. Visitation will be at the funeral home from noon until the time of the service.
Editor’s note: John W. Peeler and Vince Little contributed to this report.