Looking for Sam Damon

By Byrne, Sean J. | Military Review, May/June 1998 | Go to article overview

Looking for Sam Damon


Byrne, Sean J., Military Review


AM DAMON IS ARGUABLY the greatest officer that "never lived." Since introduced in 1968 as the principal character of Anton Myrer's novel Once an Eagle, he has been the standard by which a generation of officers has measured all others.1 A proven combat leader, he understood the human costs and terrible price of battle. Dedication and selfless service, along with a unique grasp of the battlefield and a compassion for his soldiers, were the benchmarks of his life. Although a firm and charismatic leader, he was not afraid to challenge the "establishment" when necessary.

Damon's fictional career spanned enlisted service in the years just before World War 1, to service as a general officer during the first years of US involvement in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. The "Damon" character appears to be the composite of a number of officers who served during the years between World Wars I and II. During this period, most officers had similar career patterns and were faced with many of the challenges confronting the Armed Forces today-downsizing, decreasing budgets and support from a government increasingly focused on domestic situations. Officers were faced with career stagnation and had few opportunities for realistic training. Attendance at military schools was key for officers with potential because there "they learned to deal with large-scale administrative and organizational problems while serving as school secretaries, executive officers, quartermasters and the like."2

From this background came World War II's leaders and "great captains." Names such as Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton are familiar to even those who have little interest in the military or history. However, in researching this article, I did not look to officers at that level because they have become so familiar and well known over the years that readers generally have preconceived notions about their character and attributes. Rather, I examined the careers and characteristics of many officers from the period who, although not as familiar as the war's great captains, exhibited many of the same qualities as Damon. During my research, I found an officer, Clarence Huebner, who not only had a similar career pattern as Damon, but also had a similar background and possessed many of Damon's characteristics. This article provides career summaries of both officers and compares them using the Army's Core Values and the traits identified in the US Army War College's (AWC's) "A Ride With Some Captains" course as its criteria.

Sam Damon

Sam Damon was born in 1898, a Nebraska farmer's son. His father died when Sam was just a boy, leaving him to help his mother support the family. Although recognized as the top student and athlete in his high school, he had to work as a hotel night clerk during his school years. While still a teenager, Damon believed his destiny was to enter the Army and that he would be called on to do great things for his country in its time of need. He initially felt his calling was to attend West Point and was the local congressman's alternate appointee to attend the US Military Academy (USMA) after graduation. However, even though he had a "guarantee" that he would be the nominee the following year, he enlisted in the Army in 1916 based on family financial concerns. He was initially assigned to a cavalry unit on the Southwest US border. Smart and athletic, he was soon recognized by his chain of command as a young man with a future. During this period, his unit deployed to Mexico as part of a US show of force against Mexican rebels who had violated US border integrity and wreaked havoc on several US border towns. Although he did not see actual combat, he saw firsthand its effects and the pain and suffering it brought.

Barely a year later, as a young sergeant, he deployed to France to fight in World War I. Only 19 years old, he was already a proven "old timer" and responsible for a platoon of new recruits as they prepared to go into battle. …

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