Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Sidney Berry led units as large as a brigade. He led units as large as a division. It also said that his mother died in childbirth when he was 7 years old. This version has been corrected.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Sidney B. Berry, a highly decorated combat veteran of two wars who led the U.S. Military Academy at West Point during a turbulent period of the mid-1970s that included a massive cheating scandal and the admission of women, died July 1 in Kennett Square, Pa. He was 87.
Lt. Gen. Berry, who had Parkinson’s disease, died at a Quaker-run retirement home near Philadelphia, his son, Bryan H. Berry, said.
Lt. Gen. Berry spent more than three years in combat and, in time of war, led Army units as small as a platoon and as large as a division. He was wounded twice and was four times awarded the Silver Star.
His rise was swift and assured. In 1970, Life magazine profiled him under the headline “The Case Study of an Army Star,” describing his near-certain future as Army chief of staff and noting his “air of exuberant self-confidence,” born of his status as “warrior hero.”
His most difficult assignment, as he described it, began when he was nominated in 1974 to serve as the 50th superintendent of his alma mater. He was one of the youngest major generals in the Army when, at 48, he was asked to take over the military academy.
Steeped in tradition and admired for its standards, West Point had, through the course of U.S. history, become known for the rigors and demands by which it shaped the future leaders of the Army and the nation.
Yet it seemed that not even so revered an institution could insulate itself from the swift and strong currents of change that ran through the United States and its Army in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the counterculture undercurrents of the 1960s.
“There has been great discussion about integrity in the Army itself, most of it arising out of My Lai,” he told Time in 1976, referring to the massacre of civilians in Vietnam. “Frankly, this is a terribly difficult time for the academy.”
If West Point was a pillar of the nation, one of the pillars of the academy was its honor code. Not only were cadets not to lie, cheat or steal, they were forbidden from tolerating those who did. But a study group Lt. Gen. Berry had appointed called the code’s strictures unrealistic, describing it as a statement of “unattainable human behavior.”
That was not Lt. Gen. Berry’s view. If the cadet code could not be upheld, then, he asked himself, what was the academy for?
Amid the debate, the biggest cheating scandal in the academy’s history erupted in March 1976, stemming from a take-home electrical-engineering exam.
“I’ve never been in more of a combat situation than I am now,” the superintendent told Time. “There are things that make me heartsick in the whole situation — so many young men may have violated the honor code. But, by God, I’ve been heartsick in battle and done what I have to do.”
Lt. Gen. Berry said he would do what was demanded of him, even if it meant removing the Class of 1977. Eventually, more than 150 cadets resigned or were expelled in the scandal, although 98 were subsequently reinstated.
Then, in the same year as the cheating scandal, the first class of women arrived. Lt. Gen. Berry had not found the idea of admitting women to be congenial. In fact, the plan had led him to contemplate resigning.
“It was rather adolescent on my part,” he later said. “But I got over it and decided to do what a good soldier does — get on with the job.”
After his three-year tour as superintendent was over, Lt. Gen. Berry was replaced by Army Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster, who was summoned from retirement. Goodpaster was also credited with easing the transition of women into the school by telling resistant staff members he would “escort them to the door with a handshake” if they failed to make the women feel welcome.
Lt. Gen. Berry’s final active-duty assignment was commanding the Army’s V Corps in Europe. Retiring from active service in 1980, he became Mississippi’s public safety commissioner, a post in which his accomplishments included admitting women into the state Highway Patrol.
Sidney Bryan Berry was born Feb. 10, 1926, in Hattiesburg, Miss. His father, a country lawyer, used to take him hunting and fishing and infused him with a sense of discipline and hard work.
He told Life magazine that one of the greatest conflicts he faced came at 18 when he received a draft notice and a letter about his appointment to West Point. He said that if he went to college, he would likely miss a chance to serve in World War II like many of his peers, who had already been sent off and died in combat.
“The others had gone, and I was feeling like a slacker,” he said, noting it was the era of ticker-tape parades for veterans. His father’s advice was to attend West Point, as no generation of graduates had missed a chance to serve in battle.
He graduated from West Point in 1948. Two years later, he and the platoon he commanded were among the first U.S. troops sent to South Korea in the desperate attempt to stem the tide of communist invasion. He was awarded the Silver Star twice for service in Korea and was twice promoted on the battlefield, rising from first lieutenant to major.
He earned a master’s degree in international relations at Columbia University in 1953 and was military assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara from 1961 to 1964. During the Vietnam War, he was an adviser to the commander of a South Vietnamese division and then commander of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division.
Later, he qualified as an Army aviator and went back to Vietnam as assistant operations chief of the 101st Airborne Division. Subsequently, he commanded the division at Fort Campbell, Ky., where he organized an Air Assault School.
Around the time he took over West Point, he told People magazine that the United States could never have won in Vietnam. “The political understanding and the staying power of the Communists,” he said, “were greater than those of our forces.”
After moving to Arlington in 1985, he became a defense and management consultant, remaining there until he moved to Pennsylvania in 2004.
Survivors include his wife, Anne Hayes Berry; three children, Bryan H. Berry, Nan Berry Davenport and Lynn Berry Bonner; and 12 grandchildren.
In many ways, Lt. Gen. Berry seemed to fit the image of a by-the-book officer. But he was not jealous of the prerogatives of rank and was known to be fond of spending time with the privates and sergeants who served under him.
Additionally, he was regarded as a reflective man. Although he could have chosen to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery or at West Point, he chose otherwise, his son said.
He was married in 1949, in a Quaker ceremony, to the daughter of a college professor. Not himself a Quaker, he nevertheless decided that he should be laid to rest among the Quaker members of his wife’s family, near Philadelphia, at the Romansville Friends Burial Ground.