From the looks of him you’d never know Rufus Lazzell is a highly-decorated Airborne Ranger with two wars under his belt. He is a little guy with a matter-of-fact attitude who doesn’t spend much time talking about his military exploits in Korea or Vietnam decades ago.
Lazzell would much rather discuss the chances of the Grand Old Party – his party in the upcoming election. Or possibly the behind-the-scenes politics at Punta Gorda City Hall, where he served as mayor twice.
Asked why he never touted his 30-year military career, the fact he is a retired U.S. Army brigadier general or his many military commendations, he said, “Because I’m a civilian now. My military record is there, and it will always be there.”
“The guy is a bonified American hero,” said Brig. Gen. James Shelton, a friend of Lazzell’s and a fellow battalion officer in the 1st infantry Division in Vietnam who lives in Cape Haze. “He’s well-known for his exploits in Vietnam with the ‘Big Red 1.” He got his ass shot off over there and kept on fighting.
“Maj. Gen. William DePuy (his division commander) said Lazzell could smell the enemy out and went after him. That was the name of the game over there.”
DePuy was legendary as a demanding battlefield commander. “It was DePuy’s battalion that led the charge crossing the Mosell River in France in December 1944,” Shelton explained.
They helped breach Hitler’s Sigfried Line that resulted in Germany’s defeat a year later.
In Viet Nam, the two-star general fired Lazzell’s predecessor and brought the seasoned lieutenant colonel in as a replacement. Thirty minutes after he took command of the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Division, he was on the front lines.
In 1965, he volunteered for Vietnam as a lieutenant colonel. He began as a staff officer in the 2nd ARVIN Corps, which didn’t make him happy. He was a front line soldier who didn’t want to spend a tour in Vietnam shuffling papers back at the South Vietnamese Army’s headquarters.
“I kept sending requests to be a battalion commander to division commanders all over Vietnam,” Lazzell recalled. “Gen. DePuy told me to come down for an interview. Then he told me to report for duty the following Tuesday. When I arrived I immediately took command of the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry regiment, 1st Division.”
He’d been at the front about a month when his unit collided with a seasoned Viet Cong unit in the brush north of Saigon. The VC were considered some of the best foot soldiers in the world. They had been at it for 20 years or more when they tangled with the 1st Battalion. It was these same enemy forces that ran the French out of Vietnam in the 1950’s. That’s when the Americans first got involved again in Southeast Asia after World War II.
“When the shooting started, I was forward and the Viet Cong shot my left elbow off,” Lazzell said. “The medics gave me a lot of Novocain and that made me feel good. I got my elbow bandaged up and kept on fighting until Gen. Hollingsworth, the assistant division commander, ordered me off the battlefield.
“I went back to a MASH unit. Initially my doctor said my elbow would have to be fused together and would never work again. Fortunately for me, the MASH unit was run by an experienced orthopedic surgeon who suggested not messing with my elbow and sent me back to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. for treatment,” he said. “A couple of young doctors at Walter Reed began experimenting with my elbow. They spliced a section of sheep bone and got my elbow working again.”
Almost immediately, Lazzell convinced Gen. DePuy he was ready for combat again. Although his left arm wasn’t really working properly, he bent the truth and got the general to send him back to his old command – 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Division.
“I had a little leather thing on my elbow to protect it,” he recalled. He hadn’t returned to action on the front long when he and Lt. Col. Al Haig, commander of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, got into a major confrontation with the VC.
“Our two battalions landed together and Haig’s got surrounded by the Viet Cong. By the next morning we had killed about 150 of the enemy,” Lazzell said. “Al came out of the weeds, unshaven and looking pretty bad. I said, ‘Al did you have a good time?’ He didn’t’ seem to appreciate my inquiry.”
This is the same Al Haig who was sent to the Pentagon by Gen. DePuy and ended up being President Reagan’s Secretary of State.
Lazzell couldn’t recall either one of the two major Vietnam battles he was involved in when he received the Silver Star for gallantry under fire 30 years ago.
He did say he received the first Silver Star for continuing to fight after sustaining serious injuries to his elbow during his first major encounter with the enemy. His second Silver Star was for his actions under fire when he and Lt. Col. Haig fought the Viet Cong.
Then he said something about being shot down in a helicopter, but didn’t elaborate when he remembered he had only received a Bronze Star for valor for that incident.
Lazzell’s military career didn’t begin well. In fact, he said he got thrown out of Greenbrier Military Institute in West Virginia for his lack of decorum during his freshmen year. It distressed his mother so much she burst into tears when she got the news.
The following year he was enrolled in Kentucky Military Institute, which wintered in Venice, Fla. Lazzell managed to correct his deportment deficiencies and graduated from KMI in 1947. He went on to Virginia Military Institute where he graduated as a 2nd lieutenant in 1951.
It was the middle of the Korean War and he volunteered to go, just like he would do more than a decade later in Vietnam. He became a 2nd lieutenant in the 14th Regiment, 25th Infantry Division in Korea. He spent 14 months there, much of it on the front lines.
When Lazzell returned to the States, he went to Fort Benning, Ga. and became an Airborne Ranger and a member of the 508th Regimental Combat Team. The 508th was transferred to Fort Campbell, Ky. and became part of the 101st Airborne Division.
By that time he was a captain. Before he shipped out for England almost a decade later, he had commanded six different airborne companies. As a major, he was selected in 1963 to join the British Parachute Brigade based in Aldershot. The queen arrived for the bicentennial commemoration of the garrison’s church at Aldershop in July of that year.
On a wall in the study of the retired Army brigadier general is a picture of him marching at the head of his British troopers as the commanding major. Under a canopy along the side of the street is Queen Elizabeth II reviewing the troops as Lazzell and his men march by.
From there, Lazzell was transferred to Heidelberg, Germany as a NATO staff officer for the secretary of the American commanding general. In 1964 he was sent back to the States to attend the Armed Forces Staff College. A short time later the Vietnam War heated up and he volunteered for duty in Southeast Asia.
When he returned from Vietnam, he attended the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. for a year. Then he was sent to the Pentagon to work for Gen Creighton Abrams, the Army’s Chief of Staff, as inspector general for a special branch that only inspected combat battalions. He did that for a couple of years as a full colonel.
In 1974, he went back to Germany as a brigadier general and assistant division commander of the 3rd Infantry Division. He held that position for three years. That was the same outfit that formed the backbone of the ground attack in Iraq several months ago.
Then he spent a couple of years in charge of plans for NATO’s South Region Headquarters in Naples, Italy. When he returned to the States in the late 1970s he became the general in charge of plans for the American Defense Board that includes most all the countries in the Western Hemisphere.
After almost 30 years of military service, Lazzell retired from the Army in 1981. A couple of years later he and his wife, JoJac, moved to Punta Gorda Isles. Over the last two decades he has served four, two-year terms on the Punta Gorda City Council from 1988 to 1996, including four years as mayor. Over the years he also served on 23 other local and regional governmental boards.
What kind of guy is Rufus Lazzell?
The kind of guy who took a job as a clerk at Scotty’s Hardware when he first came down here to retire in 1983.
“I was a sales clerk with a little red vest selling paint and commodes.
I must have worked there until 1987,” he said. “I wanted to learn the hardware business and find out how to fix things. I never had to do much of that in the Army.”
Name: Rufus Lazzell
Age: 73 (at time of interview)
Hometown: Huntington, W.Va.
Current Address: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: June 1951
Discharged: June 1981
Rank: Brigadier General
Unit: 1stBattalion, 16th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division
Commendations: Purple Heart, Army Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of Silver Star for gallantry in combat, three awards of the Legion of Merit, three awards of the Bronze Star Medal (to include the ‘V’ device for Valor), Defense Superior Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, four awards of the Air Medal and two awards of the Army Commendation Medal. He is also a qualified Army Ranger and has been awarded two Combat Infantryman’s Badges, the Army Aviator’s Wings and the British Parachute Wings.
Married: Jo Jacqulyn Pond
Children: Victoria and Linda
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida February 2000 and is republished with permission.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.
Click here to view the War Tales fan page on FaceBook.
A legacy of service
Rufus Lazzell, former mayor and brig. general, dies at 86
By SOMMER BROKAW
PUNTA GORDA — Rufus Lazzell, a retired brigadier general who served as Punta Gorda’s mayor and was involved in many community organizations, died Saturday. He was 86.
“His life was one of a gift of himself in love to the people he served, whether it was the military or the community of Punta Gorda,” said Jo Jac, his wife of 64 years.
Following a 30-year career in the U.S. Army in which he was a highly decorated Airborne Ranger with two wars (Korea and Vietnam) under his belt, Lazzell retired to Charlotte County in 1983 and decided to get a job in the civilian world. The former brigadier general became a sales clerk at Scotty’s Hardware.
“I wanted to learn the hardware business and find out how to fix things,” he told the Sun in 2000. “I never had to do much of that in the Army.”
He also turned his attention to government, serving on the Punta Gorda City Council for eight years (19881996), including four years as mayor. He was instrumental in the revitalization of the city’s downtown and redevelopment of Laishley Park. He also championed the preservation of the historic Charlotte County Courthouse, served as a founder of the Military Heritage Museum, and was president of the Cultural Center of Charlotte County.
“He was someone that got involved all over the community,” said Marilyn Smith-Mooney, who served on the City Council from 1996-2008. “It wasn’t just the City Council he got involved with. He decided we should go and re-brick all of the streets in the historic residential area.”
She added the volunteers who did the work were called “Rufus’ Raiders.”
Military Heritage Museum Executive Director Kim Lovejoy said he was the first veteran to be inducted into the museum’s “Wall of Warriors.” As she was preparing a slide show for the banquet honoring him, she said there were pictures showing him “as this wonderful man dancing in the kitchen with his wife and playing with his kids. It was so neat to get to know him through all these photographs.”
She added: “I’m sure that as a general, he was rough and tough, but he was just a neat and fun guy.”
As involved as Rufus was in the community, Jo Jac said she always saw herself as a “soldier’s wife.”
“I was here to be his base camp, his sanctuary, and to support him in whatever he did,” she said, “and I tried to do that, and he was an extraordinary person, larger than life.”
Jo Jac added that she liked dancing with her husband. He was a participant in “Dancing with the Charlotte Stars,” with proceeds going to the arts community. “And he was a great jitterbugger too,” she said.
Rufus, who had suffered declining health following a stroke about two years ago, is survived by his wife, two daughters, Victoria and Linda, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. March 23 at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, 401 W. Henry St., Punta Gorda.
Burial with full military honors will be held at a later date in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va. Memorial contributions in lieu of flowers may be made to the Vietnam Wall of Southwest Florida Inc., P.O. Box 494186, Port Charlotte, FL 33949; http://www.vietnamwallofsouth westflorida.org; or the Animal Welfare League of Charlotte County, Inc., 3519 Drance St., Punta Gorda, FL 33980, www. awlshelter.org. Friends may visit http://www.roberson fh.com to extend condolences to the family. Roberson Funeral Home, Punta Gorda Chapel, made the funeral arrangements.