Monthly Archives: August 2016

Bob Christenson – The Last Battery Commander – Part One

1st Lieutenant Bob Christenson 7/70 - 6/71
1st Lieutenant Bob Christenson
LZ Sherry 7/70 – 6/71

The Highest Lowest

I graduated from Officer Candidate School a 2nd lieutenant in 1969. My first assignment was at Ft. Sill in a Pershing Missile training battery. As a training officer I taught M60 machine gun, M79 grenade launcher, M72 LAW (light anti-tank weapon, shoulder fired) – all that fun stuff.

When I got orders for Vietnam I had no tube artillery experience at all. So I signed up for a gunnery refresher course at Ft. Still. Before I could begin training the battery commander called me in said, “How come the only lieutenant in our whole battalion who is not a member of the AUSA wants to take this course?” (The Association of the United States Army is its professional association.)

I said, “I understand.” So I sent my $25 into the AUSA and got my gunnery course.

I was made a 1st lieutenant on my one year anniversary of graduating from OCS, which would have been in July of 1970, the same month I arrived in Vietnam

When I got to Vietnam I was assigned to First Field Force artillery in Phan Rang, and of course the question then was where you were going from there. At that point I still had not figured out all this artillery stuff. I was terrible at math, my worst subject ever. But they had a gunnery course in Phan Rang, about a week long, for all the new lieutenants plus the fire direction enlisted guys.

A funny story. So I took this course, and I’m a quietly competitive guy, and said to myself: I’m going to get the high grade. You got a Zippo lighter with your name, the battalion crest and High Scorer in Class engraved on it. The night before the test I took all the guys out and got them roaring drunk. And I got roaring drunk too, but I knew that I could function drunk and I didn’t think they could. And I was right. I got the highest score on the test, which I was told was the lowest highest score in the history of the course. I just remember the gunnery instructor shaking his head at all of us during the test – our breaths must have smelt awful. I got my lighter.

They sent me up to Dalat to meet Colonel Richard Tuck, the Prov Group commander, because being the academician that he was, he wanted the guy who had the highest score. I don’t think he knew it was the lowest ever.

I couldn’t believe the place existed…after a Huey ride from the heat in Phan Rang, Dalat was cool, lush and totally un-Vietnamese.  It didn’t even smell like a Vietnamese city. It was the Eurasian half French and half Vietnamese girls that caught my eye.  Some of them were stunners, dressed to the teeth just walking around. There were great French restaurants. And the first thing I was told when I got there was don’t worry about the VC because this place is off limits for both sides in the war.

Colonel Tuck had been a French professor at West Point, but as an artillery officer he had somehow been sent to Vietnam to get combat experience on his resume.  He made Dalat his headquarters because it was so French and had the great restaurants. He was a great guy, very classical almost 19th century in his approach. But he cared deeply about his men. I remember when I first met him he had someone take a black and white polaroid picture of the two of us. I think he did that with all of his officers so he could remember them. He sent me a copy afterwards. He spoke in what sounded to my untrained Midwestern ear as an upper crust, up-Eastern accent. I never met anyone else like him in the Army. He had this strange refined existence in the middle of a war in a beautiful mountain city that seemed totally oblivious to the destruction raging around it. He never married. I exchanged Christmas cards with him for years afterward, until his death in 2002.

Colonel Tuck assigned me to the 5th of the 27th Artillery, and specifically to B Battery at LZ Sherry. At the time I knew nothing of Sherry or its history. I rarely saw Colonel Tuck after he assigned me to Sherry, but after my first six months in the field he called to tell me that he could get me posted to a general’s staff in the Philippines for the rest of my tour.  I eventually turned him down because for some weird reason I felt like I had to stay in the field to get my year in Nam behind me. I felt like leaving before my time was up would be a cop-out.

1st Lt. Christenson and Col. Tuck
1st Lt. Christenson and Col. Tuck

Colonel Richard Cabell Tuck, a direct descendent of Patrick Henry and graduate of West Point, was an assistant professor in the French Department at West Point for three years. Colonel Tuck was a graduate of the Armed Forces Staff College and the Ecole Superieure de Guerre, Paris (the French War College). He served in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and in command and staff positions in Europe and the Pentagon. He holds the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star and nine Air Medals.

A Rude Introduction

The trip down to Sherry was unfortunately eventful. I had just gotten to LZ Betty at Phan Thiet, at Alpha battery, and I was sitting there eating lunch with a bunch of other people when there was a loud shot outside. Somebody had shot and killed himself in the chow line right outside the door. Some guy took his rifle and put it to his head and pulled the trigger. I thought: Holy shit what in the world is going on here? That was my introduction to the field

Later that night Sherry got hit and I watched, and heard, the whole firebase open up in response. The next morning I was there.

How He Earned His Chops

I came into Sherry as the XO. Within a week or two after I got to the battery I got into a shoving match with the XO I was replacing because I had countermanded an order he had given to run the FADAC artillery computer eight hours a day. This thing was the size of a small car, and was placed inside the confined space of the fire direction center. It sounded like a loud vacuum cleaner with issues, You could go deaf listening to that thing and it was driving everyone in the Fire Direction Center nuts.  Headquarters told us to run it to keep it dry in the Vietnam humidity, but we never used it for actual fire missions.

I remember going into the FDC, and it was Charlie and Jenkins and maybe Paul, and these guys were not exactly shy about speaking to officers. I came in and said, “If you guys could change anything what would you change?”

The first thing they said was to get rid of FADAC.

Charlie Snider and Paul Stagg in FDC
Charlie Snider and Paul Stagg in FDC              
Jim Jenkins with his perpetual toothpick
Jim Jenkins with his perpetual toothpick








I said, “You’re right. Absolutely.” My feelings about orders from the rear were: What the hell, they’re not here. I’m here, my ass is here, and I’m going to do what I think is necessary under the circumstances.

So I turned off the FADAC, and that’s when the old XO got on me. He was kind of tight assed. I recall he wanted to be a lifer, or at least acted like it. We had had a few beers and I told him: Fuck you basically, we’re not going to turn it back on. And we bumped a little bit, and that was it.

I didn’t know it, but one of the enlisted guys – it might have been Paul – overheard our conversation when I told the lieutenant to take his FADAC and REMF orders and shove them, and saw the pushing. So I guess I became a champion of the enlisted guys early on, but didn’t know it until someone told me about it later. And that’s how I got my chops with the guys.

Joseph DeFrancisco – Battery Commander – Part Eight

The Power of Service

 I previously mentioned that I commanded the 7th Infantry Division Artillery at Fort Ord, California. While there, 1988-89, there was a junior enlisted guy down in B Battery, 6th Battalion, 8th Artillery Regiment – there must be something about Bravo Battery – who recently contacted me. He has organized reunions of the people in that battery. Because I was the division artillery commander he includes me as an honorary member. He’s going through all this trouble to organize reunions, based on two years of service twenty-eight years ago.

The letters I get from him to his fellow soldiers! He keeps saying it was one of the most fulfilling periods of his life. But this is not something unique or unusual in the men and women who have served in the military.

My father passed away at the age of ninety-two. He knew he was going to die and my two brothers and I had lots of talks with him. We asked him, “Besides your name what do you want to put on your tombstone?”

He told us:

Mario J. DeFrancisco

Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corp

1944 to 1945

He lived to be ninety-two years old, and what’s the only thing he wants on his tombstone? The two years he spent serving his country.

It’s an amazing thing. Go into any local cemetery and look at what’s engraved on the tombstones of people who served, WWII especially, but also WWI, Korea and Vietnam as well. Just look at what’s engraved on those tombstones. You will see Private First Class, U.S. Army – Petty Officer First Class, U.S. Navy – Seaman, U.S. Coast Guard – Captain, U.S. Army Air Corps. It could have been just a little sliver of their lives, but it was a defining moment for them.

It’s the power of service. You’re serving others, something larger than yourself. It was a feeling that came across strong and clear from the great soldiers of LZ Sherry. They would rather have been at home, but they did their duty, had pride in their unit and themselves and took care of one another. It was a great place to soldier. It is not surprising that so many have responded to Ed’s call to share information and thoughts from so long ago on that small island of America so far from home.

Joseph DeFrancisco – Battery Commander – Part Seven

Lt. Gen. Joseph DeFrancisco, USA, Ret.

Army Associations

  • Army Historical Foundation – Board Member
  • Association of the United States Army (AUSA) – Senior Executive Associate and former President of the George Washington Chapter
  • West Point – Served on the transition team for four successive Superintendents, leading the last two transitions
  • Association of West Point Graduates – Board Member, Chair of several committees
  • West Point Society of Washington, DC – former President for seven years
  • Army Distaff Foundation – Board Member
  • Army Aviation Association of America – Senior Executive Associate
  • Army-Air Force Mutual Aid Association (now American Armed Forces Mutual Aid Association) – Board Member
  • National Defense Industrial Association – former Board Member
  • USO – former Board Member
  • Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army for four Secretaries


  • Son Eric graduated from West Point in 1989
  • Daughter Laura has worked at the Pentagon as civilian employee of the Army since college, and is now a student at the National War College in Washington
  • Married to Lynne since 1965
  • In 2013 named a Distinguished Graduate of West Point 


  • Lockheed Martin
  • Honeywell
  • Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) – today Leidos
  • Private Consultant

The Army Since Vietnam

The Army has changed dramatically over the course of my thirty-four years of active duty and subsequent involvement with Army related organizations.

An Army In Crisis

I’ve already talked about the shock at what I found in Germany on my first assignment out of West Point: low troop morale and preparedness, poor to nonexistent leadership, and denuded officer ranks. It was not until I went to Vietnam with the 1st Cav that I found some really good units and good officers.

Then after my first Vietnam tour I went to Ft. Sill as a training battery commander and encountered many of the same problems I saw in Germany, only this time marked by the larger societal problems of racial tension and drug use.

Then at LZ Sherry it looked like things had turned around again. Sherry was totally different. I think the world of the people there, the quality of their training, the quality of their character.

To this point in my career I experienced the men in the field in Vietnam to be more than just skilled, they were dedicated to their jobs and proud of the work they did, even though a lot of them would have chosen to be somewhere else. The same goes for the young officers and NCOs. Among the older career officers and sergeants the picture was mixed. Many were excellent, and many were not up to the task, because they were poorly selected for their jobs, poorly trained, or poorly led during their early years in uniform.

Right after my second Vietnam tour, which included time at Sherry, I went to graduate school. Understand that during this two year program I am not really “in” the Army. I’m just reading about things and watching TV news. It was not until I got to Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth in 1973, eight years into my active duty career, that I had a chance to know a large group of other officers and see another side of the Army.

At Leavenworth I came to realize how disastrous the aftermath of Vietnam was for the Army as an institution. There was a real crisis in confidence in the Army itself of itself, and in the American people about the Army. There was the Calley affair and controversy over body counts. There was controversy over careerism and the integrity of senior leaders. Many said officers did not care about anything but their own careers and would do anything to enhance their careers.

It was so much a crisis that the Army Chief of Staff, who was now General Abrams, convened special panels at Leavenworth to talk to us. We were the Army’s up and coming mid-grade officers, senior captains and majors. This group was nearly in revolt over the quality of leadership in the Army. Add in Watergate (1972) around that time, which also eroded confidence in our political leadership. Add in race riots in our major cities. With all this turmoil in the country and in the Army it was a real low point.

The Rebuilding Years

The following year Nixon ended the draft, just before his resignation, so now there is no more forced conscription. General Abrams decides that without a draft we are not going to war again without the reserve component. He believed part of the problem with Vietnam was that the American people were not with us, we did not have the reserve component involved. We had draftees and volunteers, but not the reserve component. He saw this as one of the reasons for the split between the Army and the people we were serving.

So you had a number of things happening at once. The end of the draft and beginning of the all volunteer Army, and you had the Army Chief taking a large portion of combat service support out of the active force and putting it in the Army Reserves and the National Guard. So now it would be impossible to deploy and impossible to fight again without the reserve components, and consequently without the involvement of communities across the nation.

Slowly, very slowly, we start to come out of this low period. It is turned around because of a bunch of lieutenant colonels, colonels and young generals who are determined to make the Army into a professional force again. There was a great emphasis on the all volunteer Army bringing in good people and a re-emphasis on training.

In Vietnam we lost our ability to do anything except fight in Vietnam, and toward the end we lost that ability too. There was a great drive toward enhanced training. It was at this time that the foundation was laid for what is today our network of Combat Training Centers. The National Combat Training Center at Ft. Irwin in California was the first. Today there is a light combat training center at Ft. Polk, LA, a center in Germany and another centered at Ft. Leavenworth designed to train senior staffs and commanders. So now we’ve got four .

The training center at Fort Irwin, California, trains primarily mechanized brigade level combat teams. The Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, trains infantry brigade level teams. The Joint Multi-National Readiness Center at Hohenfels, Germany trains all brigade combat teams assigned to Europe. The Battle Command Training Program at Fort Leavenworth prepares leaders for corps, division, and brigade command.

All these training centers feature exercises in the field against a skilled opposing force that uses the enemy’s tactics, techniques and procedures.

Then the Army developed training focused on sergeants, called the Non-Commissioned Officer Education System (NCOES). Remember in Vietnam I told you we were making captains in two years. We were making NCOs in a very short period of time as well, Shake and Bakes we used to call them. You’d come out of school an NCO without any of the background and experience you needed. We developed the NCOES program that said, If you want to get promoted you’ve got to meet these certain criteria and go to these certain leadership schools.

These schools teach leadership and technical skills at four levels: primary, basic, advanced and senior.

This system did a great service to the re-professionalization of the NCO corps. We sent officers to senior courses, so we said to our senior sergeants, You have to go too if you want to become a sergeant major.

Sergeant Major holds the rank of E-9.They serve as either staff Sergeants Major or Command Sergeants Major (CSM). A CSM supports commanders from battalion to four star general, including the Army Chief of Staff whose CSM is called the Sergeant Major of the Army. CSM positions are now highly competitive. Regardless of the level at which they serve they all hold the rank of E-9, but prestige and amenities differ according to position.

By the time I became a battalion commander in 1981 senior officers were centrally selected by a board. I think central selection began in about 1977. Up until that time you had to get to yourself into the right position so that an individual senior commander would pick you to be a battalion commander or even higher. The Army said, No more of this stuff. If we want the best we have to have a rigorous selection system. We are going to have a board and we are going to look at the files of all the people eligible and we’re going to centrally pick the best. That process applied to battalion up to brigade commanders. I believe we also select sergeant majors centrally now. I know there is a board for command sergeant major.

The end result of all this is the re-professionalization of the Army – not only in training, but also regarding professional demeanor and character. For example, there was a drive to de-glamorize the drinking of alcohol. When I first came into active service in 1965 all the way up until after Vietnam, you’d have almost mandatory happy hours in the officers clubs. It was a big deal to say you got drunk. I cannot drink enough to get drunk, because I tend to get sick first, which is probably a blessing. But you had people thriving on drinking and bragging about being drunk. I remember the unapologetic alcoholics I served with in Germany, superior officers and sergeants both, and how awful it was. All that ended in the early 80s. We had a parsimonious guy become Army Chief of Staff, General John Wickham who took the show girls out of the clubs and corrected all sorts of unsavory things like that. He did a lot of good for the Army.

So there was this great drive toward professionalism in the 70s and 80s, with very rigorous training, tighter selection of officers and senior sergeants, and an elevation of the professional environment of the Army. I was certainly the beneficiary of this new environment. I went through three Command Training Center rotations as a Battalion Commander, as a Brigade Commander and then as a Division Commander. And without the central selection of senior officers, I may not have been considered at all for the senior positions I was privileged to hold.

During the Reagan years in the 80’s we had a plus-up in military budgets and got all this new equipment, which by and large we still have today because of funding constraints. That plus-up also fueled our new training programs, which we also still have today.

The Payoff

The culmination of this new higher level of professionalism took place during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Operation Desert Shield, August of 1990, was the operational name for the buildup of U.S. forces for defense of Saudi Arabia following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Desert Storm, January of 1991, was its combat phase.

 I had just returned to the Pentagon as executive officer to the Secretary of the Army, Michael Stone. The forces we put into the field were the result of all the great battalion and brigade commanders from Vietnam who had stayed on active duty and who had worked to revitalize the Army over the prior fifteen years. We wiped out the Iraqi army in a hundred hours. We did that because of the high level of training instilled in all those units. We had practiced fighting the Russians to a fare thee well, and unlucky for us the Iraqis they were using Russian tactics and a lot of Russian equipment. They never had a chance.

We continued this training and elevation of the Army after Desert Storm. Twelve years later we got involved in Iraq with a professional, all volunteer force. When we were called upon to do what we were trained for, which was the initial invasion, everything went great. But then … but then … when that conventional war turned into a counter insurgency, we were not ready for it psychologically or training wise.


So where are we now? We have a highly trained Army, a highly disciplined Army with great soldiers. Still I am not one of these guys who says this is the greatest Army we’ve ever fielded. No, I think at their best the troops in Vietnam were as good as anybody we ever had.

In that Army, due in large part to the draft, we had a mixture of talent we do not have any more. Today in the all volunteer Army you don’t have the guys in numbers like we used to have: ambitious guys with the ability to do lots of things, who come with varied backgrounds from around the country, who have lots of talent, are very smart, and who are every bit as dedicated and patriotic as anybody we have today. I may be an outlier in this opinion. Of course by now I’m an old guy; I’m not one of the young guys anymore.

I look back on those troops I was with on my first tour with the 1st Cav, what those troops did in battles like Ia Drang Valley; what troops of the 101st Airborne did at Dak To and Hamburger Hill. I look back on my second tour commanding Bravo Battery at LZ Sherry. Those were among the finest field soldiers I saw during my career. And toward the end of the long war in Viet Nam they suffered the ravages of poor leadership – based on too rapid expansion of the Army, too rapid promotion at the unit levels, and careerism and politically motivated actions at more senior levels – and maybe even worse, the erosion of support from the American people. How did guys in the field maintain a level of commitment when the people back home didn’t believe in what they were doing, calling them murders and worse? Somehow they did until a combination of social conditions (war protests, drug culture and racism) and the loss of national commitment became overwhelming.

The bottom line is yes, we have a great Army now, but I take nothing away from the troops I was with in the 1st Cav and my B Battery troops at Sherry.

Below is a link to a five minute interview with Lt. Gen. Joseph E. DeFrancisco (Ret.) on Retaining Talent in the Army. Released April 3, 2015. In it he draws lessons from his own career, and most notably to his decision to stay in the Army following his command of LZ Sherry.

Highlight the entire link, right click, choose ‘open link in new window’

Joseph DeFrancisco – Battery Commander – Part Six

A Dream Fulfilled

Again the Army was good to its word in sending me to graduate school right out of Vietnam. I went to Rice University in Houston, a very good small school noted for engineering, but I went there for military history. Rice was one of the schools West Point used to train history instructors, all based on the presence of Dr. Frank Vandiver, one of the nation’s top military historians of the day and then Provost of the University. So I went there to study under him. I just had a marvelous time.

It was a two year masters program and I met lifelong friends in the program. There were five of us Army guys, all just out of Vietnam and all with two tours. There were two infantryman, two armor officers and me, a field artilleryman – we were all studying various phases of military history.

Dr. Vandiver was in the process of writing a biography of General John J. Pershing (commanded American forces during WWI). We each wrote a thesis on some aspect of Pershing’s career. My grades at West Point were not all that good except for history, but I won a prize for my masters thesis, which was a great source of pride for me.

From Rice I went to Ft. Leavenworth for the Army Command and General Staff College for a year.

The United States Army Command and General Staff College develops leaders for full spectrum joint, interagency and multinational operations. It serves as the first of the leadership programs leading to senior command.

From there I went directly to West Point to teach military history in 1974. I taught a seventy-five minute course twice a day, six days a week to seniors … and it was a blast. I taught a lot on the Civil War, the two World Wars, some on Korea, a big block on Napoleon, and what we called the “Great Captains” before Napoleon: Alexander the Great, Caesar and Hannibal.

When I said I had to go prepare for class, my wife Lynne would say, “No, you’re just going to read that stuff you love. You’re not working, you’re having fun.”

It was very fulfilling and very rewarding. I taught at West Point for three years and then spent a year in the Office of the Dean. After four years at West Point I was ready to move on.

Rapid Fire Promotions

One of the beauties of the Army is you get to do a lot of different things.

I had been promoted to major the year I went to West Point. In order to progress you had to have “troop duty as a major,” and I was running out of time. I was fortunate that on my next assignment in Germany I had three echelons of command in a three year period. First I was on an artillery brigade staff, and then I went to a battalion as XO (executive officer second in command), and then I served on the VII Corps Artillery staff. (The entire VII Corps deactivated after Desert Storm). As a result, out of Germany I went to Ft. Lewis, Washington where I commanded an artillery battalion, which was another intermediate goal of mine and another great assignment.

From there I went to the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, which is another one of those important steps you have to take in order to progress.

From there I went to the Pentagon as Chief of Army War Plans, then to another job in the area of strategy and policy, whose title had a string of letters too complicated to describe. These were wonderful jobs and a great two years at the Pentagon. During this time I got promoted to full colonel.

From Teaching History To Making It

Joseph DeFrancisco now becomes a high level participant in the major military events of his time.


I left the Pentagon in 1988 and went to Ft. Ord, California to take command of the 7th Infantry Division Artillery. At the time the 7th Infantry Division was the Army’s only light infantry division. My division artillery had three direct support battalions, and one general support battalion.

It was during that time that Operation Just Cause occurred just before Christmas of 1989. The U.S. essentially invaded Panama to capture the strongman dictator Noriega and put him in jail.

Noriega did not have a real Army, he had a bunch of thugs. These were not pitched battles. Still the US suffered 23 killed and 325 wounded. As I recall we lost the better part of a Navy Seal unit that was killed trying to capture Noriega. They just landed at the wrong place at the wrong time. As far as artillery is concerned, we used artillery more for intimidation than for indirect fire. We fired on checkpoints; we fired illumination; we also direct-fired into a couple buildings to entice the occupants to surrender, which they did.

It was a wonderful operation that took only a couple of months. Operation Just Cause was the first time in my experience that the U.S. military did a lot of things right: a multi-service, multi-unit operation that included airborne, mechanized and light infantry, Air Force and Army helicopters all brought together from different places in the U.S. to converge on Panama at the same time.

The real value of artillery during that operation was fire support coordination, which was more of an asset than actual firepower. As usual our artillery guys – our forward observers, our recon NCOs and specialists (MOS 13 F) – had a better communications link than the infantry. We called in the vast majority of the Army helicopter air strikes because our artillery guys knew how to do it and had the connectivity. The Panamanians, the bad guys, did have mortars so we had counter mortar radar, upgraded versions of what we had at Sherry and very effective. The outstanding thing was that everything worked when we got in there. We did the job quickly and we got out quickly.

In addition some of my battalion commanders took on non-artillery roles in what we call non-standard missions, such as force protection of installations and running convoys. This was nothing new to artillerymen, who are versatile, smart guys. They did a great job on non-standard missions in addition to the artillery fire support. It was no different in Vietnam, and would be the same in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Return To The Pentagon

Right after Panama I was selected in late 1991 to be XO to the Secretary of the Army, another stepping stone job and highly competitive. As it turns out my commander in the 7th Division had that job when he was a colonel and he recommended me for it. That’s how my name got funneled up. I had to go for an interview, was fortunate to be selected, and subsequently received my first star (promotion to brigadier general).

The Secretary of the Army is the highest ranking person in the Army, the top guy in command, even senior to the Army Chief of Staff (the highest uniformed officer in the Army). He’s a civilian political appointee, who has to be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

The Army Secretary at that time was Michael Stone, a wonderful person, a successful businessman, and a very wealthy guy. He decided he wanted to give something back to the country that had given so much to him. So he went into government service. He became one of our top officials in Egypt as the representative for the Agency for International Development, a job he held for a number of years. Then he came to the Army where he held a number of Assistant to the Secretary of the Army positions. He was ASA for financial management; then Under Secretary of the Army, and finally became the Secretary under President George H. W. Busch.

Mr. Stone was Army Secretary for the whole First Bush administration, meaning he was there for Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In fact I went to work for him the day before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. So I did not participate on the ground, but I participated seven days a week out of the Pentagon. I spent two years as his XO, another wonderful job that was supposed to be for a year, but Secretary Stone asked me to stay another year. I say, “He asked me.” But when the Secretary of the Army asks you to stay another year there is really only one answer.

Half The Battle Is Knowing What You Want

The Other Half Is Sticking To It

After two years as his XO Secretary Stone asked me what I wanted to do next. He said, “I’ll give you whatever job you want.”

I said, “I want to be an assistant division commander.” (This would be an infantry unit command with multiple support units from other branches.)

As an artilleryman I figured that I was best suited for that job because I had a lot of experience in maneuver units. I had been with and around the infantry since Vietnam. My first tour with the 1st Cav put me in combat with the infantry during fighting around Hue, the relief of Khe Sanh and the A Shau Valley Incursion. Then my battalion was with the 9th Infantry Division at Ft Lewis, Washington – so I was with infantry guys again. I did not command them, but lived with them and worked closely with them. Then I commanded the 7th Infantry Division Artillery at Ft Ord, California for the Panama operation, again in close proximity to the infantry. I had been at every level with the infantry, so it was a natural progression to be an assistant commander to an infantry division.

Instead I was offered the Corps artillery assignment at Ft. Sill, but I did not want to do that. I thought it would be too narrow a job, still all artillery and I wanted a broader job. So I said again I wanted to be an assistant infantry division commander.

Fortunately the Army listened. I became one of the two assistant division commanders of the 24th Infantry Division at Ft. Stewart, Georgia. This was the first time I was in the direct chain of command of infantry troops. This was something I wanted to do, because ultimately I wanted to be a Division Commander, and I knew this job would better my chances. I held that job for a year.

South Korea

Then in 1993 I was promoted to two star (major general) and went to Korea as Operations Officer for all forces in South Korea.

The organization was a collection of joint commands, so involved that its new Operations Officer needed an hour and a half briefing just to explain its structure. General DeFrancisco’s comments are here presented in outline form for purposes of clarity.

It was a complex set of four different organizations:

  • A United Nations Command (UNC) composed mainly of U.S. and Korean forces but included also small contingents from other nations
  • A Combined Forces Command (CFC) of Korean and U.S. forces
  • U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) was a joint command of U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine forces
  • And the Eighth Army composed solely of U.S. Army forces

UNC, CFC, and USFK were all commanded by the same Army four star while the Eighth Army was commanded by an Army three star.

I was operations officers for all four of those organization, each of which had a deputy commander reporting to me. I had:

  • A two-star Korean general as my deputy for the UNC and CFC
  • A Marine colonel for USFK
  • And an Army colonel for the Eighth Army.

This was another really interesting job. Kim Il-Sung was still in charge in North Korea. We had nuclear crises; we had border incursions; we had the North shelling the disputed islands. We had emergency after emergency. All a lot of excitement, and all due to the great people I worked with.

A Call To Return

While I am in Korea I get a call to return to Ft. Stewart to become the commanding general of the 24th Infantry Division, where I had been an assistant commander. My hope to put myself in line for a division commander position seemed to have worked; I never guessed it would be back with the 24th and that it would happen so quickly. I had been gone less than a year, so there were still a lot of people I knew and had worked with.

Major General De Francisco Commander, 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) Interviewed at Hunter Army Airfield
Major General De Francisco
Commander, 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized)
Interviewed at Hunter Army Airfield

During my command of the 24th we executed a number of overlapping deployments. I sent troops to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for about five months, and deployed a battalion plus for the Haitian Incursion.

The Haiti operation was sanctioned by the United Nations to restore the deposed president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. As the invading force was in route the Haitian leadership capitulated. Commanding general Hugh Shelton’s mission changed in an instant from military invader to diplomat, whose task was now to work out a peaceful transition of power.

I sent troops to Guantanamo Bay, which at the time was not the prison it is now. It was primarily a holding area for Cubans and Haitians fleeing their countries for the U.S. I sent mess personnel and Military Police, in another of those non-combat roles we so often were called on to perform.

At one point I had people in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Haiti and Guantanamo Bay, in addition to the deployments in the U.S. It was a very exciting and very enjoyable assignment.

Enough Fun

I’m getting ready to leave the division, then I got selected for a third star (lieutenant general) and assigned as the Deputy Commander in Chief of Pacific Command in Honolulu, Hawaii. This was 1996. The CINC (commander in chief) at the time was a four-star Navy Admiral and I was his deputy. It was a huge command with Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine forces deployed from the west coast of the United States, including Alaska, all the way through Hawaii, Korea, Japan and Thailand. It all came under the command and control of CINCPAC – Commander in Chief, Pacific Command.

Following this assignment it was time to leave active duty. There were only about thirty-five three-star generals in the Army and maybe ten or eleven four-stars. Things either worked out or they don’t at that level. There were no opportunities at the time enticing enough for me to stay, and I had thirty-four years worth of active duty. Lynne and I essentially had had enough fun in uniform. It was time to retire.

Joseph DeFrancisco – Battery Commander – Part Five

Settling In

After only a night at Phan Rang they flew me down to Sherry. If we had a Change Of Command ceremony I don’t remember it. I think I just walked in after Captain Heindrichs had already left.

Right away an old friend from my first Vietnam tour greeted me. He was a lone tree on a prominent ridgeline that I had used as a reference point for air missions out of Phan Thiet. At that time I was with the 2nd/7th Cav and we lived just off the Phan Thiet air strip. As the artillery liaison officer one of my principal jobs was to coordinate, execute and adjust fires on landing zones, called LZ preps, prior to inserting our troops. Many of our missions involved inserting troops into the hills and mountains, so I was always looking for reference points to help with my map navigation and LZ prep locations. This lone tree on a prominent ridge line was an ideal guide for many missions, and still there I was happy to see.

My initial impression of Sherry was that it was a well organized firebase. My first priority was to meet everyone and learn about the operation. I went around and met the two radar crews, I met the Quad-50 and Duster guys, I spent time talking to each of the gun crews, talked to the Chief of Smoke and to the maintenance sergeant, both good NCOs. I remember going around at night checking out guard towers and bunkers, even the beer bunker.

Spent a lot of time with the Fire Direction Control crew, learning gunnery from them. Remember I never went to the basic artillery course. I had just come out of the advanced course, where I learned about tactics and deployment of artillery forces, but nothing about firing the howitzers themselves. So I’d go into FDC in the afternoon and say, “OK guys, show me what you are doing here,” and they’d give me an impromptu course in gunnery.

I remember we had to go into Phan Thiet on convoys for our supplies because our air support had largely pulled out (along with the the 1/50th Mechanized, the last of the U.S. infantry). That’s how I got to know the motor sergeant so well. I’d go down there and say, “OK, how are we going to do this convoy, what have we got? We have to make sure we have enough spare parts because we don’t want trucks breaking down out there in the middle of nowhere.” I knew from my first tour with the 1st Cav that convoys could be hazardous, even though we would be in daylight both going and coming.

I spent a lot of time with First Sergeant Stollberg, a big guy and a godsend. We talked about what needed to be improved to keep things on an even keel, to make sure the troops were well cared for, that attitudes stayed positive, and to make sure nobody got hurt.

Capt. DeFrancisco and First Sergeant Stollberg
Capt. DeFrancisco and First Sergeant Stollberg

I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the troops at Sherry, having just come from Ft. Sill where I had only handful of good guys in the whole battery, or what I encountered in Germany on my first assignment out of West Point where the battalion was lacking in morale, skill and quality of leadership. It was just the opposite at Sherry. Most of the people, although nobody wanted to be there, were very good and proud to have mastered whatever job they had. The gun crews and FDC were especially good. I was very, very happy with what I saw. This was a real tribute to Captain Heindrichs and all those who came before me and built this place. I was lucky to inherit it, and I was determined to make it better than I found it.

One example: The battery already had gun crew competitions when I arrived, but I spent a lot of time on these competitions in order to keep the crews sharp and to give them meaningful ways to occupy their time. Gradually these competitions grew more complex as the Chief of Smoke and First Sergeant began adding more tasks. Rivalry among the crews for bragging rights became intense. The results included highly trained and disciplined crews with neat, orderly gun pits, and just as important with greater pride and purpose.

Bragging Rights on Barbarella - Gun 5
Bragging Rights on Barbarella – Gun 5

The Argument

Toward the end of Captain DeFrancisco’s time at Sherry his executive officer was First Lieutenant Bob Christenson, a graduate of Officer Candidate School with clear ambitions outside the military. The two had a high opinion of one another, leading DeFrancisco to encourage a promising young officer to remain in the Army, and Christenson to make the argument for his battery commander to leave.

I thought the world of Lt. Christenson. We had this talk probably before or after one of my visits to FDC. I don’t know how it started, with me suggesting he stay in the Army, or him telling me to get out. But I do remember the exchange. He would say, “What are you spending your time in the Army for? This is crazy. There are a lot of other things you could do.”

Of course at the time I had the next couple of years very well laid out for me. I was already accepted into graduate school at Rice University in Houston, and I already had a teaching assignment at West Point when I graduated. I also knew I was in good shape to go to Command and General Staff College, even though it was a board selection. Back then it was a big deal. It still is a big deal, but back then bigger and competitive. So there was no way I was going to get out, especially having convinced my wife I ought to go to Vietnam again. Bob was going to loose that part of the argument.

I also lost my end of the argument with Bob. He was pretty sure what he wanted to do. He had served his time and he thought it was appropriate to leave the Army and get on with life.

Today Bob Christenson says of his battery commander, “Captain DeFrancisco was a great guy. This was his second tour in the same area of Vietnam, and he used to point out a tree that stood out on top of a distant ridgeline that we used as an aiming reference. He said he remembered that tree from his first tour.

“I thought I had Joe talked into getting out of the Army after our tour, but he stayed and I am glad he did.  He was a great officer and person, and I’m sure he played an important role in getting the Army back on its feet after the Vietnam debacle.”


Captain DeFrancisco left Sherry in March 1971. He would serve another twenty-seven years in the Army, retiring a three-star general in 1998 with thirty-four years of active duty. Bob Christenson succeeded DeFrancisco as battery commander. Now a captain he left Sherry three months later, earned a law degree, and today is a practicing labor attorney.