Obituaries

Gen. William Knowlton; Led West Point

Gen. William A. Knowlton fought in World War II and later served in Vietnam and Europe.
Gen. William A. Knowlton fought in World War II and later served in Vietnam and Europe. (Us Army Photo - Us Army Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008

William A. Knowlton, 88, a retired four-star general who during four decades of military duty was superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, died Aug. 10 at Virginia Hospital Center of intracranial bleeding as a result of a fall. He had Parkinson's disease.

Gen. Knowlton, a graduate of West Point in January 1943, was the 49th superintendent of the academy, a post he held from 1970 to 1974. At the time, he was the longest-serving superintendent since World War II.

His tenure there reflected the uproar of the culture as the Vietnam War was coming to a close. A cadet was discharged for lying about his marital status, and Gen. Knowlton's attempts to tighten discipline and enforce rules were met with the filing of several lawsuits.

He described his job there as "the commander of a stockade surrounded by attacking Indians," in Rick Atkinson's 1989 "The Long Gray Line," a history of West Point. In 1974, the U.S Supreme Court supported the school's ability to set and enforce high standards.

Gen. Knowlton admitted the first South Vietnamese person to the cadet ranks at West Point. Although the academy had graduated more than 100 foreign cadets since 1889, most were Latin American or Filipino. After Congress created four all-expenses-paid slots for Asians, South Koreans and a Thai took the first three.

"Everybody kind of forgot about the Vietnamese," Gen. Knowlton told journalist Christopher Scanlan in 1992. Tam Minh Pham won the slot; he later spent six years as a prisoner of war in his own country.

By the time he retired in 1980, Gen. Knowlton was the Army's second-highest-ranking four-star general, the New York Times noted then.

The Weston, Mass., native began his career as a second lieutenant in the Armored Cavalry and fought in four campaigns during World War II, beginning in Normandy. In the last weeks of the war, he was awarded a Silver Star for leading a reconnaissance mission deep behind German lines to make one of the first contacts with the Soviet forces north of Berlin.

His later commands included battalion and brigade armored cavalry and armor units, the 9th Infantry Division's multi-brigade force in South Vietnam and the Allied Land Forces Southeastern Europe in Izmir, Turkey.

He also served on the staffs of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gen. Omar Bradley at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the early 1950s.

He was on the staff of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam from 1966 to 1968, where he oversaw civil operations on Gen. William Westmoreland's staff and served as assistant division commander in the 9th Infantry Division. His work in Southeast Asia resulted in the award of a Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star and 10 Air Medals. He also received two more Silver Stars, one for gallantry at a fire support base that came under sudden attack and the other in a battle on the Plain of Reeds.

He was on the general staff of the secretary of Army for the next two years until he went to West Point, where his daughter Hollister met and married Lt. David Petraeus, now a four-star general and commander of the multinational forces in Iraq.


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