BOOK REVIEW by Brig. Gen. John S. Brown • U.S. Army retired
Learning From Smokey Joe:
A Memoir of Mentorship

Former U.S. Ambassador and Lt. Gen. Edward L. Rowny takes a unique course of action in his recently published book, Smokey Joe & the General. He writes a simultaneous biography of his mentor, Brig. Gen. John E. (Smokey Joe) Wood, and an autobiography of himself over the quarter-century that their lives intersected.

Wood distinguished himself in France during World War I, commanded an expedition into Liberia in 1942, and rose to the command of the 92nd Infantry Division in Italy. Rowny served with Wood through World War II, served on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s planning staff, commanded an Infantry regiment during the Korean War, and pioneered the use of armed helicopters and “Sky Cavalry” in Vietnam. Wood took an active interest in Rowny’s professional development from the day Rowny reported to the 41st Engineer Combat Regiment in July 1941, and the two remained close over the years. Their story provides a fascinating case study of how mentorship could ideally work.

In addition to exploring how experienced officers can bring up the Army’s “new blood” and present them with opportunities to succeed, the book also strings together gripping vignettes of adventures Wood and Rowny encountered en route. The 41st Engineer Combat Regiment and the 92nd Infantry Division were black units in a fiercely segregated nation and Army. This situation presented them with challenges most other units did not have. Rowny particularly evokes the critical role played by seasoned NCOs drawn from the revered Buffalo Soldiers. The expedition to Liberia took place when the war was still going the Axis’ way, and it resulted in the construction of a pivotal air base that soon tied into operations in North Africa, the Middle East and lend-lease to Russia. Rowny commanded in a bitter battle against the Germans at Cinquale, was inside the planning for the Inchon counterblow, served as secretary of the joint staff for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe during the Suez and Hungarian crises, and played a vital role in the Howze Board developing air mobility. These and many other accounts enrich the narrative while providing grist for the continuing interplay between Rowny and Wood.

The book progresses through 25 succinct chapters and an epilogue. Each chapter provides background on Wood and Rowny before they met, a dozen chapters carry the action through World War II, and 10 chapters cover the period between World War II and Wood’s death in 1963. One noteworthy chapter draws on history and personal exposure to assess the generalship of a half-dozen Army giants of the mid-20th century.

Similar assessments appear in other chapters as Wood and Rowny encounter critical figures. Such analyses are central to Wood’s technique. He encouraged Rowny to learn everything he could from those who had gone before him. The book barely touches on events since 1963, when Rowny rose to the rank of lieutenant general and ambassador and served as a chief negotiator in arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union. He served Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald W. Reagan and George H.W. Bush in elevated capacities and earned the Presidential Citizen’s Medal as an architect of peace through strength. For a more detailed account of these later years, one would need to read Rowny’s It Takes One to Tango.

I highly recommend Smokey Joe & the General to all who study our profession. Mentorship has become a popular buzzword in our discourse on leadership development. This book shows how it can be done. Along the way, it also tells a gripping tale and offers fascinating insights into the experiences of our Army from 1940 through 1963. As Wood so often pointed out, we must learn from those who have gone before us.

Brig. Gen. John S. Brown, USA Ret., was chief of military history at the U.S. Army Center of Military History from December 1998 to October 2005. He commanded the 2nd Battalion, 66th Armor, in Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf War and returned to Kuwait as commander of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, in 1995. Author of Kevlar Legions: The Transformation of the U.S. Army, 1989–2005, he has a doctorate in history from Indiana University.