To commemorate Memorial Day, here’s a salute to one of the true heroes of this country: Major General Erbon W. Wise, 90, of Sulphur, Louisiana…a man I feel extremely privileged to have been able to spend some time with (I guided him two seasons in Alaska).
General Wise has lived a life that makes me feel like I’ve accomplished absolutely nothing. He put in 29 years of service defending this country — including slogging his way ashore and up Utah Beach under heavy enemy fire as a twenty-something year-old Army Captain during the invasion of France in June 1944. He was also active during the Korean War and Vietnam. Because of guys like General Wise, we are able to live the lives we have today and for that, we are forever in his debt.
The General doesn’t like to talk much about the ugly sides of war (when I asked him what it was like on D-Day on Utah Beach, he simply replied: “There were a lot of people shooting at you.”), but get him onto subjects that don’t involve guns and dead young men and he’ll go on for hours.
A few days after the Normandy invasion, the General (then a captain) happened to be riding his bike near an impromptu airfield the allies had built after pushing the Germans back. Out of nowhere, a passenger plane escorted by two British spitfires came roaring out of the clouds and landed on the strip. When the planes finished taxing, Captain Wise noticed the two soldiers trying to open the door to the passenger plane from the inside were having trouble. He rode over to the plane and helped them get the hatch open.
Much to his surprise, Winston Churchill emerged from the plane, cigar and all. The Prime Minister ordered Wise to give him a tour of the front lines and for a second, Captain Wise smiled to himself at the thought of throwing Churchill on the handlebars of his bike. Instead, however, he borrowed a jeep and spent the entire day driving the Prime Minister around.
Before the invasion, Wise was stationed in England, where he served time with the Army Air Corps’ 91st Heavy Bombardment Group and was on the field when the B-17 Memphis Bell, shot to hell and barley flying, limped home after her historic 25th and final mission (by the way, he said that the movie “Memphis Bell” quite accurately portrayed the final mission of the plane).
As the Allies pushed eastward, Wise’s unit closely followed and supported General Patton’s 3rd Armored Division as it blazed across France. Wise and his unit arrived on the outskirts of Paris just as the Germans pulled out. That afternoon, he took a drive down the city’s famous Champs Elysses and was the first American on that famous boulevard.
The Parisians absolutely mobbed him — thinking he was liberating their city. Thousands of the city’s residents came out to greet Wise and gave him a rock star reception. He told me that he must have been kissed by a thousand beautiful French girls that day and shook more hands than he can remember. As the “liberator” of Paris, Wise was invited to parties and got to hang out with dignitaries and French film stars.
With a gleam in his eye and a wry smile, the General told me that he could have done very well for himself had he stayed in Paris…
Later, Fred Astaire was visiting France on a USO tour and Wise looked forward to going and seeing the show. Unfortunately, though he was only a few blocks away from where Astaire was playing, he was given orders to stay and guard the base. Wise figured it would be a long, boring night — until fate threw him a curve. After the show, all the women Astaire had in his troupe were escorted by officers to go out dancing and drinking, leaving the star alone and bored on base. Looking for somebody to talk to, he found his way into the tent where Wise was stationed and, the two hit it off. Wise and Astaire shared a bottle of scotch and shot the bull until dawn.
After the war, the General went on to have a wonderful career as a newspaper man in Louisiana and owned several papers until he finally sold out a few years back. He also had a philanthropic side, including a donation of $400,000 to the Northwestern State University Foundation to create the Erbon W. and Marie Wise Endowed Chair in Journalism.
And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I’d need a book — a big one — to chronicle the General’s life. His story is so amazing… and like I said earlier, it kinda makes me feel like I’ve done absolutely noting with myself so far.
General Wise, I am honored to have met you and sincerely thank you for all you’ve done for this Country! To read more about him, click HERE