Galesburg's "Top Sergeant"

by Terry Hogan

Galesburg's Sergeant Major of the Army, William G. Bainbridge, was born at St. Mary's Hospital on April 17, 1925. During his 43-year career in the Army, Bainbridge was to advance to the top non-commissioned officer (NCO) position which he held for about four years. Based upon his writings, and my limited experience of very senior Army NCOs, he, like most senior NCOs, seemed inclined to be very self-confident and outspoken.

William's father was James Lyle Bainbridge, and not surprisingly for Galesburg, James worked for the CB&Q railroad. William's mother was Beatrice (Wells) Bainbridge. His grandfather was also a James Bainbridge, reported to have been a coal miner. James Lyle Bainbridge was born in Soaperville. William's mother, Beatrice Wells, was born in Iowa.

One of William G. Bainbridge's ancestors was Manuel Trout who was a private in Company B of the 102nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry that fought during the Civil War. The 102nd was largely comprised of volunteers from Galesburg and other nearby communities. (See Jottings from Dixie edited by Philip Reyburn and Terry Wilson for more information on the 102nd.)

Bainbridge lived in the Galesburg area (Knox, Warren and Henry counties) until he joined the Army. His father became a farmer after suffering an injury in a railroad accident. His father died when he was five and his mother remarried when he was seven. In 1937 or 1938, the moved to Dahinda, on to his grandfather's farm. He learned to swim in the Spoon River. Attending grade school at Dahinda, he met his future wife. He attended grade school at a one-room schoolhouse at Trenton Corner. He attended High School at Williamsfield.

Upon graduation, he volunteered and on June 7, 1943, he was in the Army. He took a train from Galesburg to the Chicago induction center. He was inducted for ''Šthe duration of the war plus six months.'' He was sent to Camp Grant, near Rockford, for inoculations, uniforms, and general processing. After two days at Camp Grant, he was sent to Camp Wallace, Texas, an antiaircraft training center. He received training to become a pilot but was reassigned before finishing training. He finally ended up at Camp Atterbury, located about 30 miles south of Indianapolis in April, 1944. He was later deployed to Europe and became a prisoner of war, held by the Germans.

William G. Bainbridge became Sergeant Major of the Army in July, 1975, serving with the Frederick C. Weyand, Chief of Staff of the Army through September 1976. Bainbridge also held that position with Weyand's replacement, Bernard W. Rogers until July 1979.

Bainbridge spent 43 years in the Army before retiring. He records much of the details in his book ''Top Sergeant, The Life and Times of Sergeant Major of the Army William G. Bainbridge'' (1995, Fawcett Columbine, New York). Although it is intended to be an autobiographical piece about how he succeeded in Army life, I found it more interesting in showing the type of personality it takes to have that success in the professional army culture. His personality showed through more in the way he wrote than in what he wrote about. It was expressed in the frequent stories of how he corrected this and that and how he forced changes, overcoming a bully here and being a bully there.

One example will suffice. In Vietnam, he writes of a officer who was wounded and a CBS cameraman was promptly filming the wounded man. Bainbridge reports that he told the cameraman ''Don't take that picture: Hell, his wife's gonna see it in the next couple of days, and you don't want that to happen!'' Bainbridge writes that the cameramen refused, indicating that this was why he was in Vietnam. So Bainbridge writes that he responded ''You are either gonna get rid of that film or I'm gonna take it away from ya.'' Bainbridge notes that ''He got rid of the film.''

I suppose for purposes of honesty, I should confess my bias. With two years active duty as an Army officer (1969-1971), I found that I much preferred the drafted, enlisted and middle-rank career NCOs and the ROTC and other non-career officers to the senior career NCOs and senior career officers. Generalizing just a little, it was my experience that the natural selection process for advancement to senior rank levels in both the NCO and officer ranks tended to promote egocentric, overly self-confident, brash, and often abrasive individuals. Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way. Needless to say, I was pleased to leave the Army after two years, and as they said at the time ''I got out the day before I made Captain.'' (Vietnam made for fast promotions of company-grade officers).

So, I will have to leave it to those who know William Bainbridge -- or those who choose to read his autobiography -- to evaluate whether my impressions are correct. But one can clearly say, that within the framework, the culture of the professional military, William Bainbridge was very successful and filled a necessary niche. To use his own description, he was a ''hog farmer'' from Galesburg who reached the top NCO slot that the US Army has to offer.

Some publications by William Bainbridge:

Top Sergeant: The Life and Times of Sergeant Major of the Army William G. Bainbridge.

''First and Getting Firster.'' Army (Oct. 1975: pages23-24

''Quality, Training and Motivation'' Army. Oct. 1976: 27-29.

''We Have Met the Challenge.'' Army. Oct. 1977:26-28.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online February 29, 2000

Back to The Zephyr