SMA laid to rest: Hundreds gather to celebrate life of Wooldridge
Marcie C. Wright,
Hundreds gathered at the East Auditorium of the United States Sergeants Major Academy to pay homage to and celebrate the life of the first sergeant major of the Army, William O. Wooldridge, at his memorial service Tuesday.
“In our lives there was always music, laughter and celebration,” said Patty Wooldridge during her remarks on her late husband.
This funeral service was no different than that. There was music with several hymns sung, including “Precious Lord,” which the address was themed after. There was laughter, as many found humor in stories of remembrance of the first sergeant major of the Army. And, there was celebration of the life he lived and his many accomplishments throughout his more than 30 years of military service.
Wooldridge was born Aug. 12, 1922, in Shawnee, Okla., but considered himself a Texan since he grew up on a farm in Brown County, Texas. At age 18, Nov. 11, 1940, he raised his right hand to serve after being turned away two years prior. He started off as a private and enjoyed an Army career which spanned three wars and 14 campaigns, during which he was twice decorated for gallantry in action and was adorned with numerous other decorations.
His early assignments included detached service with British Forces in Iceland, rifleman and squad leadership with 1st Infantry Division in Europe as he participated in the North Africa and Sicily Campaigns and the D-Day landings June 6, 1944. He received two Silver Star awards for service during World War II, one for the battle for the fortress city of Aachen, Germany, and another during the Battle of the Bulge, which he fought while wounded. He also earned the Purple Heart for injuries sustained during this time.
Wooldridge was first promoted to first sergeant with Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army, Seoul, Korea. His other first sergeant assignments were K Company, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, in Germany; G Co. of the 3rd Infantry (the Old Guard) and 3rd Battalion, 26th Inf. Regt., where he also served as sergeant major. After two tours in Germany holding sergeant major positions in the 24th Infantry Division, he returned to the 1st Infantry Division, Fort Riley, Kan., as sergeant major of the 1st Brigade, then onto division sergeant major and was deployed to Vietnam in 1965.
From a pool of 4,700, he was selected and appointed sergeant major of the Army July 11, 1966, and served until his term ended in 1968. He set the pace for how SMAs conduct themselves and acted as the “eyes and ears” for the chief of staff, visiting Soldiers on installations and combat zones. He chronicled his war experiences for Soldiers’ reference in an article, “So You’re Headed for Combat: How to Get Ready and What to Expect,” published in the January 1968 Army Digest.
“His ideas and his concepts are what we have here today,” said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler III, current sergeant major of the Army. “His vision is what established the academy. … He was about the people, taking care of Soldiers, quality of life, family programs and noncommissioned officer education.
“We all follow his legacy,” continued Chandler.
Wooldridge died March 5 from a lung infection at William Beaumont Army Medical Center with his wife by his side; he was 89 years old.
“One of God’s greatest blessings bestowed upon me was my husband, William O. Wooldridge,” said Patty, beginning her memories of Wooldridge. Through stories and anecdotes, she gave personality to a stream of photographs on display at the East Auditorium.
Chandler spoke of his first run-ins with the late command sergeant major.
“When I first met him, he told me I needed a haircut,” he said. “It was humiliating, but I learned a valuable lesson: never be too full of yourself.”
It wasn’t until Chandler was appointed commandant of the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy that Wooldridge said he had seen the happiest moment of his life. The groundwork laid in 1966 to instill trust in the noncommissioned officer had finally come to pass in 2009; the commandant is no longer a commissioned officer’s position.
Years after retirement, Wooldridge supported the Army and the SMAs that followed him by attending events and inviting them to his home. The 13th sergeant major of the Army, Kenneth O. Preston, was one of them. Preston said Wooldridge personally congratulated him upon his election and he visited with him whenever he came to El Paso.
Choked up, Preston told guests at the memorial, “I made a promise to him: That our Army will not fail … and that our Soldiers would remain the centerpiece of our formation.”
“He loved Soldiers,” said Chandler. “Even when he was sick, he was worried about that thing he loved so much – the Army and its Soldiers.”
Steeped in military tradition, his memorial was followed by the interment at Fort Bliss National Cemetery. The casket was brought in on a caisson pulled by horses and then carried by a host of command sergeants major. With that, the American flag was lifted and folded, taps was played, tears were shed and the coffin, holding our nation’s first, was left in its final resting place.
Wooldridge is survived by his wife Patty and four children.
In his honor, the USASMA commandant’s house will now be named the Wooldridge House, as was declared by Fort Bliss and 1st Armored Division commander, Maj. Gen. Dana J. H. Pittard.
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