Integrity in battle
On a crisp morning of an Autumn solstice, Julius led his men towards their adversary not knowing how the next day would unfold. Under intense pressure from the enemy, Julius and his men battled fiercely while forging up steep hills. It was a strange, dangerous place. Julius aimed to do what’s right when everything around him told him to do the opposite. The battle forced him to confront his fears. He was faced with hard moral choices in circumstances without the usual external restraints. Julius relied on his own inner resources to not quit and to continue on.
Julius was injured early in the battle, but he ignored the pain and fought on. His men forced their opponent to withdraw from their position. The rest of Julius’s army, tasked with backing up his charge, was stopped by the enemy on a nearby ridge and unable to advance. Despite being cut off from the remainder of his army, Julius urged his men forward, inflicting heavy casualties on their foe.
Upon reaching a position with favorable terrain, he stopped to set up a stronghold. For the next 10 hours, Julius and his men defended their position, repelling several attempts from the enemy to overrun their small force. Julius was injured an additional three times during the fight. He refused to give in and stubbornly held his ground through the night, expecting the rest of his army to advance and offer support. Once he realized that relief was not in sight, Julius chose to fight the battle another day to win the peace. He directed his men to withdraw under cover of darkness in the early morning hours.
Despite Julius’ forces being unable to break out of the enemy’s perimeter that day, his initiative, integrity and able leadership prevented their opponent from making a counter-attack. His efforts allowed his army to take up an advantageous position in which they would later drive the enemy from the entire area.
First battle, but not the last
This fight was not the first battle that Julius fought in his lifetime, and it would not be his last. Julius continued to lead his troops with integrity and achieved many firsts in the world. He would one day become one of the finest generals in the most powerful army in the world. Much like the Roman General Julius Caesar, Julius W. Becton, Jr. would lead his men to many victories. Becton would fight in three wars and become the first Lieutenant General in the U.S. Army who was African-American.
World War II Service
Julius W. Becton, Jr. entered the Army in 1944, late during World War II, and served in the Pacific Theater. His first sergeant immediately recognized his leadership potential to become an officer and encouraged him to apply to Officer Candidate School (OCS). His commanding officer endorsed the recommendation and selected Becton as one of the first black men for OCS. Becton completed OCS, and the Army commissioned him as an officer in 1945. After the end of the war, the Army assigned Becton to a segregated unit in the Philippines. He quit the Army when his unit returned home in 1946 due to his frustration by what he called “the old habits of segregation.” Second Lieutenant Becton returned to civilian life while he continued to serve in the Army Reserve.
Korean War Service
President Truman signed executive order 9981 in 1948 which abolished racial discrimination in the United States Armed Forces. Second Lieutenant Becton returned to active service to fight in the Korean War. General Becton recalls, “ We had senior officers who did not think that the black man could fight,” he says. “Once you get in a battle or in a foxhole, you couldn’t care less what the race or color of that person is on your right or left. You’re going to watch his back; he’s going to watch your back.” The Army awarded Second Lieutenant Becton for his valor with a Silver Star, the second highest award, for his actions attacking, being injured and defending his position through that Autumn night in Korea. It would be one of two that he would earn during his career.
Vietnam War Service
General Becton’s career continued to blossom. His integrity in building teams and gaining knowledge by adhering to moral principles is the foundation to his success. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics at Prairie View A&M in 1960 while serving as the Assistant Professor of Military Science. He completed key developmental positions along the way. Most notable among them is his service in Vietnam. In 1967, he assumed command of the 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division. Soon after arriving, his squadron fought running battles for 60 days through the Tet Offensive in 1968. Unusual at the time, his unit was made up of an all-volunteer force and not draftees. They were well trained, and he led them by empowering his men to make decisions based on integrity even at the lowest level of command.
Cold War Service
General Becton’s career continued with increasingly challenging duty positions despite skepticism from critics because of the color of his skin. His reputation for integrity grew as the trust of his superiors grew. He completed a Master’s degree in Economics and advanced military education. Becton accomplished this while growing his family with his high school sweetheart. He was one of only six African-Americans at the time to earn the rank of Brigadier General (one star) in the Army in 1972. The Army promoted him to Major General (two stars) in 1975 and Becton took command of the 1st Cavalry Division.
In 1978, the Army promoted Becton as the first African-American to the rank of Lieutenant General (three stars). He took command of the Seventh Corps, America’s largest force stationed in Cold War Europe. Once again, he met skepticism regarding the capability of African-Americans in the Army, this time from German Chancellor Helmut Schmitt. As before, Becton earned respect and admiration of his skeptics, leaving Europe four years later with the Knight Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of Germany.
Life of Service
Becton retired from the U.S. Army in 1983, after nearly 40 years of service. However, his public service career was far from over. He served as the Director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance in the United States Agency for International Development. Becton also served as the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He later served as President of Prairie View A&M University (alma mater) and Superintendent of Washington DC public schools.
General Becton is a pioneer whose service helped prove that it is a person’s character and ability that matters and not the color of their skin. Another general from another time, Roman General Marcus Aurelius stated, “Because a thing seems difficult for you, do not think it impossible for anyone to accomplish.” General Becton is a prime example of one who lived that truth. Highlights from General Becton’s command philosophy are lessons for us as we live out our daily lives. These are the key takeaways from General Becton’s leadership philosophy.
Integrity is non-negotiable.
Keep things in perspective.
Innovate- seek a better way.
If you want to learn more about Lieutenant General Becton, see his autobiography, Becton: Autobiography of a Soldier and Public Servant.
You can also find a link to a tribute video by clicking HERE.