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Gone, But the Legacy Continues

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I knew Major General Kenneth Houghton, USMC, for about six months in late 1955 and into the spring of 1956. I never forgot him or what he taught me and a couple of hundred other, very young, earnest and eager second lieutenants attending Marine Corps officer training at Quantico, Virginia. We were 22 and 23 years old.

Last month the Times printed a few paragraphs about him in the Obituary section. That’s when I picked up the final report on “Kenny” Houghton. The short article said he died in late March of natural causes at the age of 85. The Kenny Houghton that I knew had nothing about him that was natural…he was larger than life.

When I met him in the fall of 1955 he was about 35 years old with a chest full of medals earned in World War II and later in Korea. He was the real deal. He had an open face and a reasonably open mind. He was in charge of the Tactics Department in our training. He was everywhere—always teaching, coaching, challenging us, correcting us and boosting our confidence.

He was relentless in making sure we understood what our jobs were. He was hard nosed, but patient. He wanted to know what our thinking was during our practice missions. He dissected each move and asked about a million questions. Sometimes, after we received our assignment objectives, he would ask us what our plans were. He seldom commented in advance of the maneuvers but it wasn’t difficult to read his body language. We had to learn the “school book” techniques and then the Kenny Houghton way of doing things. Believe me, he was something else.

He learned our first names as best he could. He called me Geno as did most of my friends. After one practice mission in which I was the company commander, we had a critique of the exercise, which was our usual routine. He began by asking me questions about the mission and if I understood the objectives. He carried on for about 10 minutes and finally said, “Geno, I shouldn’t be speaking to you because you’ve been dead since the first 30 seconds into the mission—not to mention the rest of your company who you managed to lead into an obvious trap!” I got the message.

He made sure that all of us understood that our jobs weren’t just to lead enlisted men. We were charged with training them so that their chances of survival were high. He told us that everyone facing battle is scared. “So be sure your troops are prepared to instinctively move when you, the lieutenant, give the order to get up and charge. There is no time to think and there is no place for hesitancy.”

I don’t know what Kenny would think of the generals who have recently been critical of the war effort in Iraq. I didn’t know his politics. I never saw him again after we left Quantico in the spring of 1956. My guess is that he would have preferred that the generals kept quiet and not be outspoken. He knew it was the enlisted men that waged the wars along with the junior officers. In the Marines, the officers lines up for chow after all the enlisted men have been fed. I think this recognition of who is really important on the battlefield would have prompted Kenny Houghton to tell his general pals to keep quiet and not to undermine the spirit of the fighters facing a ruthless enemy.

My favorite Kenny Houghton story was about a company commander he had in Korea. Kenny told us that this commander insisted that his officers never use the word “problem.” Rather he ordered that the word “opportunity’ be substituted in place of problem.

One day when Kenny was scouting the enemy, way in front of his front line, he radioed to his CO as follow ” hello six, this is scout three. Do you copy? Yes, three, we copy. What’s your report? Six, we have spotted about 15,000 North Korean opportunities advancing toward our lines! Standing by for your orders, sir, as to how take advantage of these opportunities. Three out.”

I have many more Kenny Houghton stories but space doesn’t permit me to list them. I know that every person who served in the military has insightful and meaningful experiences they could share. I’m sure that my memories could be matched by many other former servicemen and women. But, I had to write these words about a genuine American hero. Our country owes these kinds of men and women great thanks.

I owe the Marine Corps more than I can ever repay. I became accountable and responsible. I got much more than I gave. Esprit de Corps, hard to describe in just a few words, was driven into us each hour of every day. We took care of each other. Long before the expression, “I’ve got your back” became street popular we all had each other’s back…and front as well.

Kenny drilled into me and my classmates, and no doubt thousands of other Marines, what our real jobs were once we were assigned commands: accomplish your assigned mission by killing the enemy, train and protect your enlisted people, always bring back your wounded and dead from the battlefield and never forget who has gone before you in our beloved Corps.

Thank you Major General Kenny Houghton. You taught us well. I will never forget you.

Semper Fi.

Gene Pepper Consulting
Your Common-Sense Consultant

Gene has extensive experience in strategic business planning, business coaching, turnarounds, and exit strategies. His common-sense approach leads to highly successful business transactions.

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  • Posted On January 13, 2007
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