Old soldiers never die – Venice resident among oldest West Point grads

This is James Stephenson when he graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1929. Photo provided

Col. James Oliver Stephenson of Venice, at 93, may be the oldest West Point graduate in southwest Florida.

However, he is far from the oldest living graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. At 103, Brig. Gen. Sherman V. Hasbrouck of Stone Ridge, N.Y., holds that honor.

According to a West Point spokesman, there are 56 other living graduates of the Point older than Stephenson. In addition to Hasbrouck, there is a 102-year-old graduate, two at 101, three at 100, six at 99 and 18 who are 94, a year older than Stephenson.

West Point celebrates its bicentennial today. Hasbrouck may be an honored guest, if he’s well enough to attend the affair. Stephenson has also been invited to attend, along with a group of other old soldiers who were part of “The Long Gray Line” decades ago.

The U.S. Postal Service is now issuing a 34-cent stamp honoring West Point. It’s a reproduction of the school’s crest, which features an eagle with spread wings perched atop a red, white and blue shield.

Stephenson joined the corps of cadets in 1925. He was a Missouri inductee. Born in 1907 in Falls City, Neb., his family moved to Jefferson City, Mo., where he grew up.

Col. Frank Dow Merrill was one of the most famous members of Stephenson’s West Point class of 1929. He lead “Merrill’s Marauders,” 3,000 volunteer commandos, behind Japanese lines during World War II.

“Frank was an “ivy,” one of the smarter members of the class,” Stephenson recalls. From 1938-41, Merrill served as a military attaché at the American embassy in Tokyo. He retired from the service a major general after the war and died in 1955. He was 48.

Also in their class was Lt. Gen. James Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division during the Normandy Invasion. His paratroopers dropped behind the beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Later, Gavin became American ambassador to France in the Kennedy administration, serving from 1961-63.

Gen. Fred Smith was the star of the class of ’29, as far as rank is concerned. He retired a four-star general. At one point, he was the commander of the 8th Air Force.

Then there was Col. Thomas Boylen Smothers Jr., father of Dick and Tommy Smothers of “Smothers Brothers” TV fame.

“His two boys were born at Fort Benning, Ga.,” Stephenson recalled. “We used to go to the movies with Tom and his wife. When Tom was at West Point, he was a varsity baseball player.”

After graduation, almost three-quarters of a century ago, 2nd Lt. Stephenson was posted to Jefferson Barracks on the south side of St. Louis, Mo.

“It was the policy of the War Department — it wasn’t called the Defense Department in those days — to send new West Point graduates to the closest military station to their hometown,” he said. “After two years at Jefferson Barracks, I was sent overseas.”

Army officers were rotated overseas on a two-year tour of duty. In Stephenson’s case, he spent three years abroad in Manila at Fort William McKinley in the Philippines.

In 1935, he returned to the Army’s Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga. After that, he also attended the Army’s tank school and learned tank warfare.

When WWII began, he was a major serving with the 1st Armored Division at Fort Knox, Ky. Stephenson was detached from his stateside assignment and sent to join Gen. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in Burma.

“He was the commander of the China, Burma, India Theater. He wasn’t much of a diplomat, but he was a fine general,” Stephenson said.

“Stilwell assigned me to Ramgargh, a town in Bihar Province in India,” he explained. “I was put in charge of a tank school for Chinese soldiers.

“The Chinese had been run out of their country by the Japanese. They retreated into India. It was my job to regroup their disorganized units and develop a Chinese tank unit.”

Stephenson’s assessment of the Chinese troops he commanded was that they were “magnificent in the performance of their duty.” He was second in command of a tank battalion that crossed the Burma Road, shortly after it was completed over the Himalayas. This unit attacked the Japanese air base at Myitkina in Northeastern Burma.

“We engaged the enemy at Myitkina, a memorable battle,” he said. “We rendezvoused with Merrill’s Marauders at Myitkina.

“I was in the field with our battalion of Chinese tanks when our tank took a hit from a Japanese artillery shell. Fortunately, the shell didn’t explode or I wouldn’t be here. The shell was a dud. It just put a dent in our turret,” he said.

Stephenson credits Merrill, his old classmate, and his troops with doing a “magnificent job behind Japanese lines” at Myitkina. When the fighting was over, the Japanese had been run out of the area and the Marauders controlled the enemy’s all-weather air base.

This is the base that had been used by Japanese fighters to attack Allied cargo planes flying “The Hump” — the Himalayan Mountains, between India and China — to supply Stilwell. Now that the Americans were in control of the field, it would be possible to supply Stilwell’s army by way of the Burma Road using trucks instead of flying over the treacherous Hump in all kinds of weather.

In 1944, Stephenson returned to the United States to become a senior instructor at the Infantry School at Fort Benning. He was a colonel by then.

“Thinking I would never be promoted any further after the war, I resigned my commission,” he said. “I returned to Jefferson City and opened a Nash car dealership.”

He moved to Bradenton in 1954 and lived there for years after selling his Missouri car business. Later, he was also involved in the savings and loan business in the Bradenton area. In 1988, he and his wife retired to Venice.

James Stephenson takes a look at his 1929 West Point yearbook. At 93 he is one of West Point’s oldest grads. Sun photo by Don Moore

Remembering the United States Military Academy and his 75-year connection to “The Long Gray Line,” Stephenson said: “It made a man of me. It gave me a wonderful career.”


Col. Stephenson ranks 57

Col. James Stephenson of Venice ranks 57th when it comes to the oldest member of the Long Gray Line. Following is the breakdown of the oldest living West Point graduates by age:

1. 103 years old — Brig. Gen. Sherman V. Hasbrouck, Class of 1920, New York.

2. 102 years old — Col. Otis McCormick, Class of 1924, No Address.

3. 101 years old — Col. George J. Smith, Class of 1924, Florida.

4. 101 years old — Col. William F. Steer, Class of 1925, Hawaii.

5. 100 years old — Col. Harold Doud, Class of 1926, California.

6. 100 years old — Col. Paul Al Pickhardt, Class of 1924, California.

7. 100 years old — Col. David G. Erskine, Class of 1924, Virginia.

8. 99 years old — Col. Michael Buckley Jr., Class of 1923, California.

9. 99 years old — Brig. Gen. James B. Burwell, Class of 1926, Texas.

10. 99 years old — Col. Herbert T. Benz, Class of 1924, Florida.

11. 99 years old — Col. Benjamin Whitehouse, Class of 1927, Massachusetts.

12. 99 years old — Brig. Gen. Robin B. Pape, Class of 1924, Texas.

13. 99 years old — Col. Albert H. Dickerson, Class of 1927, Florida.

14. 98 years old — Lt. Col. Silas W. Hosea, Class of 1924, No Address.

15. 98 years old — Col. Pierre B. Denson, Class of 1925, California.

16. 97 years old — Col. Maury S. Cralle, Class of 1928, Virginia.

17. 97 years old — Col. Henry E. Royall, Class of 1930, North Carolina.

18. 97 years old — Col. Everett D. Peddicord, Class of 1928, No Address.

19. 96 years old — Col. Howard H. Hasting, Class of 1928, Texas.

20. 96 years old — Lt. Gen. Andrew T. McNamara, Class of 1928, Virginia.

21. 96 years old — Col. Alexander M. Miller, Class of 1927, District of Columbia.

22. 96 years old — Col. James F. Oliver Jr., Class of 1928, No Address.

23. 96 years old — Mr. Charles A. Lynch, Class of 1929, No Address. **

24. 96 years old — Brig. Gen. Richard L. Scott, Class of 1929, California.

25. 96 years old — Lt. Col. Everett C. Hayden, Class of 1929, No Address.

26. 96 years old — Mr. Harry C. Anderson, Class of 1930, No Address.**

27. 96 years old — Col. Thomas I. Edgar, Class of 1930, No Address.

28. 95 years old — Col. Hubert D. Lewis, Class of 1930, Texas.

29. 95 years old — Mr. Walter Simon, Class of 1928, California. **

30. 95 years old — Maj. Gen. Mercer C. Walter, Class of 1928, Virginia.

31. 95 years old — Brig. Gen. Alfred R. Maxwell, Class of 1928, Virginia.

32. 95 years old — Col. Leo W. Cather, Class of 1931, Texas.

33. 95 years old — Col. Thomas J. Wells, Class of 1928, Hawaii.

34. 95 years old — Brig. Gen. Christina F. Dreyer, Class of 1932, California.

35. 95 years old — Col. Daniel A. Cooper, Class of 1930, Washington.

36. 95 years old — Col. Emil F. Klinke, Class of 1930, California.

37. 95 years old — Brig Gen. Lester S. Bork, Class of 1929, South Carolina.

38. 95 years old — Col. George C. Duehring, Class of 1930, Maryland.

39. 94 years old — Col. Paul W. Steinbeck, Class of 1929, Florida.

40. 94 years old — Gen. Andrew P. O’Meara, Class of 1930, Virginia.

41. 94 years old — Maj. Gen. Harold H. Bassett, Class of 1929, Texas.

42. 94 years old — Col. Orrin C. Krueger, Class 1931, Virginia.

43. 94 years old — Col. Theodore R. Kimpton, Class of 1930, Pennsylvania.

44. 94 years old — Col. Huston P. Houser, Class of 1931, Georgia.

45. 94 years old — Maj. Gen. Sidney C. Wooten, Class of 1930, Maryland.

46. 94 years old — Brig. Gen. Milton W. Arnold, Class of 1931, Florida.

47. 94 years old — Brig. Gen. Miller O. Perry, Class of 1931, Michigan.

48. 94 years old — Brig. Gen. C.C. Smith, Class of 1931, Washington.

49. 94 years old — Col. Walter E. Kraus, Class of 1929, California.

50. 94 years old — Maj. Gen. Dwight B. Johnson, Class of 1932, Colorado.

51. 94 years old — Lt. Col. Adam A. Koscielniak, Class of 1930, Virginia.

52. 94 years old — Lt. Gen. William H. Wright, Class of 1930, Virginia.

53. 94 years old — Col. Edson D. Raff, Class of 1933, Kansas.

54. 94 years old — Mr. Donald R. Neil, Class of 1933, New Jersey. **

55. 94 years old — Col. Arthur H. Hogan, class of 1931, California.

56. 94 years old — Maj. Gen. David H. Baker, Class of 1930, Florida.

57. 93 years old — Col. James O. Stephenson, Class of 1929, Venice, Fla.

** People listed as Mr. were those who did not serve at least 20 years and retire from the service. Source: West Point Association of Graduates

*Col. Stephenson passed away in Venice, Fla. on April 13, 2008.

This story was first published in the Venice Gondolier newspaper, Venice, Fla. on March 16, 2002 and is republished with permission.

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