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In 1958 the Cold War was in full swing. The Soviet Union had just launched Sputnik I in 1957, and NATO troops and Russian soldiers were squaring off along the German border. Nuclear weapons were stockpiled and pointed at major cities all across Europe, and both sides braced for the prospect of an all-out war. The late Colin Powell, who died of complications from COVID-19 on Monday, had also just arrived at his first unit.

After completing the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program at the City College of New York and the Basic Officer Training Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, Powell reported to Gelnhausen, Germany, and was assigned to the 3d Armored Division in December 1958, as he recounts in his 1995 book “My American Journey.” Just 43 miles from the Soviet lines, the 21-year-old “butter bar” took command of a platoon of 40 soldiers in Company B, 2nd Armored Rifle Battalion, 48th Infantry Regiment on the “front lines” of the Cold War.

US Army tanks face off against Soviet armor at Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, October 1961 (Photo via U.S. Army Center of Military History)

The mission of these units was pretty straightforward: If the Soviets invaded, they were to hold off as long as possible before the nukes started flying. To help them slow down a potential invasion, the Army had an M65 Atomic Cannon, popularly known as “Atomic Annie.” The relatively new weapon, just introduced in 1956, fired a 280mm 20 kiloton atomic shell up to 20 miles away and was hauled around by two trucks, one on each end.

The M65 performing its first and only atomic test on 25 May 1953. (Photo via the U.S. Army)

The guns never stayed in one place for very long and were kept moving in the woods around Germany to keep the Soviets guessing their location. They were so vital, each was guarded by an infantry platoon, which is where 2nd Lt. Powell found himself when his career was almost derailed as soon as it began.

In “My American Journey,” he recounts how his company commander, Capt. Tom Miller, assigned Powell’s platoon the mission of guarding one of the Atomic Annie M65s, which they referred to as a “280” because of the caliber of the shell fired. Powell was eager to begin his first mission, so he strapped his 1911 .45 caliber sidearm into his holster, got in a Jeep, and started toward the battalion headquarters for his briefing in the forests around the Vogelsberg mountains.

Somewhere along the way the future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State reached down to feel his sidearm in the holster and his heart sank to his stomach. It had somehow fallen out, an error which could stain his career and make his stay in the Army a short and lackluster one. 

Colin Powell in 1959 as a young second lieutenant. (Photo via U.S. Army 3d Armored Division)

Misplacing a weapon is a major offense in the military and in many cases an absolute career-killer. That sudden fear of not knowing where your weapon is grips nearly every service member at least once in their career, though usually it’s just a few feet away and only out of sight for a fraction of a second, rather than completely lost. Though sometimes weapons do go missing, and the consequences can be severe. Both the battalion commander and the sergeant major of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment were relieved in 2020 after a pair of rifles went missing from their unit, even though they weren’t even the ones directly responsible for the misplaced firearms.

On that day back in December 1958, when fresh-2nd Lt. Powell realized his sidearm was missing in action, his mind likely raced before crashing to a halt. Powell stopped the Jeep, pondering whether to search for it or to let his commander know what had happened. He radioed his commanding officer, Capt. Miller and let him know he lost his sidearm and then proceeded on to his mission briefing without it. 

Following the briefing, Powell began his trip back to his platoon, but as he passed a small village he saw Miller who stopped him and said “I’ve got something for you,” before handing over the missing sidearm. According to “My American Journey,” Miller told Powell that “Some kids in the village found it where it fell out of your holster. Luckily they only got off one round before we heard the shot and came and took the gun away from them.” 

After returning the weapon, Miller turned to Powell and though he could have easily laid into the young officer, he simply said “For God’s sake, son, don’t let that happen again.” Having made his point, Capt. Miller drove off, leaving the young lieutenant with his thoughts and his reclaimed pistol.

Powell checked the magazine, and finding it full, he realized that the story Miller told had been concocted. The purpose? To strike just enough fear in the young officer to leave him with an indelible lesson in leadership which he outlines in this excerpt from his book:

“Miller’s example of humane leadership that does not always go by the book was not lost on me. When they fall down, pick ’em up, dust ’em off, pat ’em on the back, and move ’em on. I gave Miller and my other superior officers plenty of opportunities to pick me up-for example, when I lost the train tickets for my platoon en route to Munich and found myself and my men stranded in the Frankfurt Bahnhof. I have never spoken of these embarrassments until now. Maybe they will help young officers learn a lesson: nobody ever made it to the top by never getting into trouble.”

Miller could have easily assigned the mission to another platoon, sending another young lieutenant, one that would not lose his sidearm, to be briefed at headquarters. He could have even taken Powell’s platoon away from him — other lieutenants had certainly lost command for less severe slip-ups. Instead, he picked him up, dusted him off, patted him on his back and moved him forward. 

Colin Powell would go on to have one of the most successful careers in recent U.S. military history, reaching the rank of general. He would become the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as the first Black secretary of the State Department. However, it’s possible that his story might have been much different were it not for a simple display of “human leadership” from his first company commander, and the lesson it imparted on the young second lieutenant.

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