African-American Ascends from Private to Four-Star General
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 19, 1998 When 17-year-old Johnnie E. Wilson enlisted in the Army in 1961, he had not the slightest inkling he'd still be wearing Army green 37 years later. He was just trying to earn money and GI Bill help for college.
He couldn't have fathomed leading the major Army command responsible for acquiring the latest sophisticated military weapons. Nor did he possess the clairvoyance to foresee ascending from buck private to four-star general.
Wilson, 54, is part of a history-making trio of African-American four-star officers. This marks the first time the three military departments have had African-Americans at their ranks serving at the same time. The other two are Gen. Lloyd W. "Fig" Newton, commander of the Air Education and Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas; and Adm. J. Paul Reason, commander of the Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk, Va., and the first African-American naval four-star officer.
A college education had been one of Wilson's childhood dreams. "I wanted to go to college, but my family couldn't afford it," he said.
The Wilsons -- parents and 12 children lived in a three-bedroom unit in Lorain, Ohio, housing project. They had moved from Baton Rouge, La., in 1944 seeking a better life. The general's father got a job in a steel mill. While raising four girls and eight boys, his mother worked part-time in a movie theater.
"We had each other. We were a family," he said. "We respected each other. We paid attention. Paying attention meant listening and learning from others in the family." Wilson said it's a habit he continues as an Army leader -- listening and learning from soldiers and civilians.
As a teen-ager, Wilson said, he was walking downtown one day and saw an Army recruiting poster. "I went home that night and talked to my parents about joining the Army," Wilson said. They gave their blessings.
Earning money and benefits for a college education were his paramount goals, but not his only reasons for enlisting. "You have to keep in mind what was taking place in the nation when I joined the Army in August 1961," he said. "People of color were fighting for basic human rights that should have been given us as spelled out by the Constitution."
He noted the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was intensifying. African Americans were struggling to attain voting rights, access to public accommodations and better educational and economic opportunities.
The Army afforded African Americans opportunities they couldn't get anywhere else, Wilson said, but even in the military, blacks had to work much harder than their white counterparts to ensure they received the same kind of treatment and opportunities.
And work hard he did -- and studied. After six years as an enlisted supply man, Wilson rose to staff sergeant and applied for Officer Candidate School. Graduating in 1967, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Ordnance Corps and went to Vietnam.
Wilson said he was the first in his immediate family to serve in the military. About 35 years after he enlisted in the Army, Wilson found out that his grandfather had been a military veteran.
"I was unaware of any member of my family having served in the military until after my father's death a couple of years ago," the general said. "When I went to the cemetery in Baton Rouge to bury my father, I saw a tombstone for my grandfather who served in World War I."
Wilson attained his childhood educational aspirations in 1973 through dogged persistence in night school and the Army Bootstrap college completion program. That year he garnered a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He earned a master's in logistics management from Florida Institute of Technology in 1977.
His military education includes the ordnance officer basic and advanced courses, Army Command and General Staff College and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.
It all paid off.
The youngster from the Lorain, Ohio, projects now heads one of the Army's largest, most far-flung organizations -- the U.S. Army Materiel Command, in Alexandria, Va.
Wilson's responsibilities encompass overseeing the development, testing, procurement and distribution of nearly everything soldiers eat, wear, shoot, drive or fly. Some of the command's products are also used by the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
Wilson manages 10 major subordinate commands that direct the activities of numerous depots, arsenals, ammunition plants, laboratories, test activities and procurement operations. The organization is at 285 locations in more than 40 states and a dozen foreign countries.
Wilson has a goal for 1998 -- encouraging the military services to recognize the 50th anniversary of the integration of the armed forces.
"Look back to 1948 when President Truman signed the [executive order] to integrate the armed forces. We have come a long way," he said. "We shouldn't miss an opportunity to educate the nation and highlight this through a series of editorials and articles. [We] should tout successes that have taken place during the last 50 years.
"If it were not for Truman's [order], the nation wouldn't have people like Colin Powell," Wilson noted.
He said he polished his unique brand of leadership during his years an enlisted soldier. Wilson said he created a model of support and consideration for others that reflects his background. He knows how far he has come, and he tells others they can do it, too. Then he offers to help them.
"All of us in the military, and civilian employees, have to be in charge of a system designed to take care of people," he said. "We have to create an environment that's for all people. It's our system and if we don't control it, we're going to lose all we've accomplished over the past 50 years."
Wilson said the military services have experienced some embarrassing and unfortunate events. "But we've got to stop and ask, 'What happened?' Then do something to correct our shortcomings," he noted.
"The military is a great organization, and in spite of our imperfections, we're still a model for the nation," he said. "But we still have work to do."
When he speaks to groups of young people, Wilson emphasizes the military is not perfect, "but it offers every person an opportunity to develop an occupation. It gives you a chance to be all you can be. We're all different, but we're one as Americans."