Samuel V. Wilson, a retired Army lieutenant general who led the Defense Intelligence Agency in the mid-1970s, encouraging intelligence officers to be more “Sherlock Holmes” than “James Bond,” died June 10 at his home in Rice, Va. He was 93.
The cause was lung cancer, said his wife, Virginia “Susi” Wilson.
Gen. Wilson — he was known as “General Sam” — served for nearly four decades in military intelligence, having lied about his age to enlist in the National Guard at 16. Peter Schoomaker, a retired general who served as Army chief of staff from 2003 to 2007, said in an interview that Gen. Wilson was a “quiet giant” who did “much that nobody will ever know about” and “an awful lot of things that you see movies made about.”
During World War II, he joined the Office of Strategic Services, a wartime precursor to the CIA, and was chief reconnaissance officer with Merrill’s Marauders, a storied unit that operated in the China-Burma-India theater.
He later became a Russian specialist with influential posts during the Cold War, among them U.S. defense attache in Moscow. Joseph L. Galloway, a friend of Gen. Wilson’s and author of several books on the military, said that Gen. Wilson wore both an “Army uniform and a CIA officer’s hat” — serving secretly, while defense attache, also as CIA station chief in Moscow.
Gen. Wilson was supervisor of military attaches at 85 U.S. embassies before becoming a deputy director of the CIA and, beginning in 1976, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. After 15 months at DIA, and after President Gerald R. Ford was succeeded by President Jimmy Carter, Gen. Wilson retired in 1977. He remained widely sought after for his counsel, serving on a panel that investigated the failed rescue of U.S. hostages in Iran in 1980.
Lt. Col. Bucky Burruss, who retired as deputy commander of Delta Force, described Gen. Wilson as “instrumental in the organization” of the elite unit when it was activated in 1977. He was also a “driving force,” Burruss added, behind legislation that led to the establishment of the U.S. Special Operations Command in 1987.
Gen. Wilson once remarked that by the time he was in office at DIA, the “drama” of intelligence-gathering had moved from the field back to headquarters, where analysts pored over material streaming in from around the world and sought to draw connections.
“Intelligence’s real hero is Sherlock Holmes, not James Bond,” the New York Times once quoted Gen. Wilson as saying. Nonetheless, he told the DIA in 2009, “for intelligence to have real value, it must be acted on, sometimes quite promptly and decisively; otherwise, it can be about as useful as warm spit, regardless how romantic or dramatic it may sound.”
Samuel Vaughan Wilson was born on Sept. 23, 1923, in the central Virginia community of Rice, where his father ran a tobacco farm and his mother was a schoolteacher. After slipping into the National Guard, he graduated from Officer Candidate School.
As one of Merrill’s Marauders, he discovered and penetrated a weak point in Japanese lines, then rode 30 miles on horseback back to Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill to set the stage for what DIA described as “the first engagement of U.S. ground combat force on the continent of Asia” in World War II. He was an adviser on the 1962 film “Merrill’s Marauders” and, credited as Vaughan Wilson, played the general’s assistant.
His subsequent career took him to Vietnam in the early days of the war there. He also recalled that he “roamed the five continents and the seven seas, strolled in the market places from Marrakesh to Baghdad to Samarkand and Ulaanbaatar, browsed in the book stalls of Paris, Berlin, Moscow, [Beijing] and Tokyo, watched the sun rise out of the South China Sea and set in the Indian Ocean, the moon come up over the snows of the Himalayas and the lightning play in the peaks of the Andes.”
Gen. Wilson made those remarks in a commencement address at Hampden-Sydney College, a men’s liberal arts school in Virginia, where he was president from 1992 to 2000.
In an announcement of his death, the college credited Gen. Wilson with leading the school through a period of declining enrollment, when school officials considered becoming a coeducational institution. The board ultimately decided in 1996 to continue the school’s tradition as a college for men.
Gen. Wilson’s decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit, according to his family. His intelligence decorations included the Director of National Intelligence’s Distinguished Service Medal.
Gen. Wilson’s first wife, Brenda Downing Wilson, died in 1987 after 42 years of marriage.
Survivors include his wife of 28 years, the former Virginia Howton, of Rice; four children from his first marriage, Samuel V. Wilson Jr. of Cape May, N.J., Jackson B. Wilson of Raleigh, N.C., and David J.M. Wilson and Susan V. Wilson, both of Rice; two stepchildren, William W. Tennis II of Pensacola, Fla., and Frances Gwin Tennis of Richmond; a brother; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Gen. Wilson once remarked that, with the end of the Cold War, “all my pillars of intellectual support are pretty well gone, because the Soviet Union and the Soviet forces as I knew them no longer exist.” The importance of spycraft, nonetheless, remained.
“It is critically important, as we move into the murk and fog that lie beyond the next century, that we have our headlights on,” he told the Times in 1998. “Without intelligence, we’re traveling blind.”
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