Robert H. Lister: The Rest of the Story

What ever became of Private Robert H. Lister of the 165th Infantry?

Andrew Exum is circulating a famous letter from Brigadier General Ralph McTyeire Pennell. to United States Congressman Clinton P. Anderson, who was seeking special duty for a Private Robert H. Lister of the 165th Infantry on account of his special talents being wasted in the infantry. It was February 1942 and there was a little war on.

In this division of 22,000 men, I receive many letters similar to yours from parents, relatives, friends and sweethearts. They do not understand why the men who had a good law practice at home cannot be in the Judge Advocate Generals Department, why the drug store manager cannot work in the post hospital, why the school teacher cannot be used for educational work. They are willing for somebody else to do the hard, dirty work of the fighting man so long as the one they are interested in can be spared that duty.

If the doctors in the future are to have the privilege of practicing their profession, if archeologists are to investigate antiquity, if students are to have the privilege of taking degrees, and professors the privilege of teaching in their own way, somebody must march and fight and bleed and die and I know no reason why the students, doctors, professors and archeologists shouldn’t do their share of it.

You say, “It strikes me as too bad to take that type of education and bury it in a rifle squad,” as though there were something low or mean or servile in being a member of a rifle squad and only morons and ditch diggers should be given such duty. I know of no place red blooded men of intelligence and initiative are more needed than in the rifle or weapons squad.

It’s a powerful argument, especially when one factors in this:

Because you may think I’m a pretty good distance from a rifle squad, I should like to tell you I have a son on Bataan peninsula. All of know of him is that he was wounded on January 19. I hope he is back by now where the rifle squads are taking it, and I wish I were beside him there.

I have written you this long letter because in your high position you exercise a large influence on what people think and the way they regard the Army. It is necessary for them to understand men must do that which best helps to win the war and often that is not the same as what they do best.

My curiosity piqued, I wondered what had became of Private Robert H. Lister. Did he make it through the war? Was the potential the congressman saw in him ever realized?

It turns out that he became a pretty accomplished archeologist.  He was publishing in academic journals shortly after the war (this one is from 1946) and put out a fair number of books.  He’s passed on now, but the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center has a fellowship in his name.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Quick Takes
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    Man, he would have been useful in the whole Lost Ark episode.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    It took some balls for a lowly brigadier to write that to a Congressman. Good for him.I wonder what happened to him?

  3. sam says:

    If the doctors in the future are to have the privilege of practicing their profession, if archeologists are to investigate antiquity, if students are to have the privilege of taking degrees, and professors the privilege of teaching in their own way, somebody must march and fight and bleed and die and I know no reason why the students, doctors, professors and archeologists shouldn’t do their share of it.

    Reminds me of Paul Douglas.

    As alderman, Douglas had worked with Chicago Daily News publisher Frank Knox in fighting corruption in Chicago. Knox, who had been Republican vice-presidential nominee in 1936, had become Secretary of the Navy, thus responsible for both the Navy and the Marine Corps.

    Shortly after losing the primary, Douglas resigned from the Chicago City Council and, with the aid of Knox enlisted in the United States Marine Corps as a private at the age of 50. As a member of the 57th Street Meeting of the Quakers, Douglas recognized that joining the Marines was contrary to the traditional testimony of that group against war and offered to resign his membership; the meeting refused to release him.[2] Promoted to corporal, then to sergeant, Douglas was kept stateside, writing training manuals, and giving inspirational speeches to troops. He was told he was “too old to go overseas ‘as an enlisted man'”. With the aid of Knox, and of Knox’s assistant Adlai Stevenson, Douglas was commissioned as an officer, and was subsequently sent to the Pacific theater of operations with the 1st Marine Division.

    On the second day of the Battle of Peleliu, Captain Douglas finally saw action when his unit waded into the fray. He earned a Bronze Star for carrying ammunition to the front lines under enemy fire and earned his first Purple Heart when he was grazed by shrapnel while carrying flamethrower ammunition to the front lines.[3] In that six week battle, while investigating some random fire shootings, Douglas was shot at as he uncovered a two-foot-wide cave. He then killed the Japanese soldier inside at which point he wondered whether his enemy might be an economics professor from the University of Tokyo.[4]

    From Eugene Sledge’s book, With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa:

    “You fellows need any help?” asked a Marine who appeared from the rear.

    We hadn’t noticed him before he spoke. He wore green dungarees, leggings, and cloth-covered helmet like ourselves and carried a .45 caliber automatic pistol like any other mortor gunner, machine gunner, or one of our officers. … What astonished us was that he looked to be more than fifty years old and wore glasses….When he took off his helmet to mop his brow, we saw his gray hair….I heard a buddy ask, “What’s that crazy old gray-headed guy doing up here if he could be back at regiment?” Our NCO growled, “Shut up! Knock it off, you eightball!l He’s trying to help kuckleheads like you, and he’s a damned good man.”

    Sledge goes on to say that Douglas was a legend in the First Marine Division for his age and his courage under fire.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: Interesting question! He’s remembered to Google only for this letter, it seems.

  5. ptfe says:

    A quick history:

    Ralph McTyeire Pennell was given rank of Major General in November 1942. He became commandant at the Field Artillery School in Fort Still, OK, and retired in 1946 (born in 1882, so he would have been 63 or 64 at the time). While there, he was apparently an early believer in the trainability of soldiers to adapt to wartime conditions and understood that there were some who were not suited to duty in the firing line (c.f. Pvt. Eddie Slovik).

    Pennell died May 17, 1973, 2 months shy of his 91st birthday.

    I can’t find anything to fill his time between 1946 and 1973, but it seems he lived a pretty long and full life.

  6. ptfe says:

    Strike that note about not finding anything. Rather interestingly:

    Concurrent with the closing of the wartime Treasury Department banking facility, the new Fort Sill National Bank opened for business at Fort Sill on July 1st. Authorized as a national bank, all deposits are protected under the FDIC. Maj. Gen. R. McT. Pennell, Rtd., former FAS Commandant, is President.

    (Also rather circularly, Pennell was the first secretary of the School of Fire [later the Artillery School he headed] at Fort Sill.)

  7. James Joyner says:

    @ptfe: Odd. I was searching for him as “McPennell,” which is how it’s signed in most of the online versions. You sure it’s the same guy?

  8. ptfe says:

    Sure as I can be without having been there. There’s no record of a BG McPennell, just this guy, who happened to be in charge of the Hawaiian training facility at the time of the letter — I suspect someone saw the listing (as is common) of “Ralph McT. Pennell” and just moved the Mc to the other side.

  9. ptfe says:

    In case you’re curious about his son, Robert Pennell was given the Silver Star after being wounded in Bataan (note the 19 Jan reference in the letter, as well as in the citation). Lots more here. He was eventually taken prisoner, survived the Bataan Death March, and was held at Rokuroshi. After the war, he was promoted to Major, attended the Artillery Officers Course at Fort Sill in 1948 (when his father was no longer in charge), then went to the Command and General Staff College. He stayed in the military for a while, moved around to various posts, and eventually graduated from the Army War College (1961).

    A road in Fort Sill is named after him (Bob Pennell Rd).

  10. michael reynolds says:

    A rather impressive family.

  11. Southern Hoosier says:

    ….somebody must march and fight and bleed and die and I know no reason why the students, doctors, professors and archeologists shouldn’t do their share of it.

    My, my, how times change.

    Celebrities & Movie Stars Profile Page Of WW II And Later!

    http://www.82ndengineer.net/id61.html

  12. ptfe says:

    Actually, JJ, I take back the comment about Ralph McT. Pennell being in Hawaii at the time of the letter: “The lead elements of the 27th embarked from San Francisco, California on 28 February 1942 with the preponderance of the division arriving 10 days later…”

    So that implies that they were in CA around the time of the letter, which comports with the reference to Fort Ord.

  13. The Q says:

    Those damn socialists back then destroying America with their “everyone is in it together” Marxist rhetoric…

    Perhaps this explains why whiners like jwest and his cohort of “me first – f*ck everyone” was not allowed to flourish in the 30s 40s 50s and 60s since this childish anachronistic mentality was responsible in the minds of the Greatest Generation for the utter breakdown of capitalism and the wild enthusiasm for the New Deal which killed the gilded age for good.

    Unfortunately as this voter cohort passed away, it was the idiotic conservative mantra of selfish trickle down led by a vacuous actor Reagan which now has shackled the political debate for the past 30 years, much to the detriment of the middle and poorer classes.

  14. tom p says:

    From Eugene Sledge’s book, With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa:

    GREAT book, if you haven’t read it, you need to.

  15. tom p says:

    It turns out that he became a pretty accomplished archeologist.

    Good for him. All of my uncles (and father) made it thru but my Uncle Joe was killed 6 mos after the war when his C-47 cracked up on landing.