Lieutenant Colonel Bill Leftwich Jr.: Remembered
The Man Behind the Trophy
By Capt. W.G. Leftwich III, USMC
March 22, 1989
[The U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association and Bill Leftwich III
gave the author permission to use this article on this website].
Nearly 20 years have passed since my father was killed in Vietnam. He
died in a helicopter crash after extracting one of his reconnaissance teams.
Since that tragic time, I have learned of his extraordinary qualities as an
officer and a man.
However, I never completely appreciated those personal and
professional qualities which so distinguished him in the memories of his
seniors, contemporaries and subordinates. In a short Marine Corps
Gazette article on the role of the aide de camp, my father wrote that one of
the aide's rewards was observing a general officer who had "solved the
complex formula for successful leadership with which the rest of us
perennially contend." (8)
I recently reflected on these words and was seized with a desire to
learn what "complex formula" my father himself had solved that made him
such a respected leader.
To understand more fully Dad's leadership qualities, I interviewed a number of his peers and juniors and examined
written accounts by others who knew him. As a basis for examining these qualities, I used the award criteria for the
Leftwich Trophy for Outstanding Leadership.
Since 1979, the Marine Corps has presented this trophy annually to the outstanding captain serving in the ground
forces of the First Marine Force. The criteria is simple yet encompasses those traits required of any successful officer.
In examining the criteria, I will explain how these standards were exemplified by my father.
"The officer should be recognized by seniors, contemporaries and subordinates alike as the officer they use as an
example of an outstanding leader."
In the course of my research, a close friend of my father's stated Dad was closest to anyone he knew to meeting
those standards required of an outstanding officer. (27) One of my father's former chaplains wrote, "He was a Marine's
Marine. So all of us would follow him anywhere. That, it seems to me, is what leadership is all about." (17)
Finally, a former reconnaissance corporal specified, "He was an impressive man, a father figure to us." (25)
If Dad were alive, he would modestly disclaim such comments with an explanation that he was an officer and
realized that while much was given, much more was required. His own view of leadership was evidenced by a quote,
sometimes attributed to him, which he kept on his dressing mirror:
"The born leader is a fiction invented by 'born followers.' Leadership is not a gift at birth; it is an award
for growing to full moral stature. It is the only award a man must earn every day. The prize is the respect of
others, earned by the disciplines that generate self-respect."
My father never felt he was a born leader. Leadership was something he worked hard at. He realized, like most
officers, that being an officer increased his obligations rather than diminished them. He was competent...he was a hard
worker who believed getting the job done was much more important than any one individual succeeding or getting
Aside from competence and hard work, the trait which endeared him to generals and privates alike and made him a
successful leader was fundamental: he treated everyone the same. He treated the Commandant and the corporal with
the same absolute respect for their opinions, without fear if he needed to contradict them. Dad's former operations
officer in Vietnam stated, "There was only one Bill Leftwich. He never took on airs and was always the same person.
We knew he was genuine. He got close to everyone--his Marines and his superiors--and always established a close
relationship that made him very approachable. It gave him a great ability to communicate what he wanted you to do."
My father worked and led without ego. He would not promote himself at someone else's expense.
"The officer must exhibit officer-like qualities that contribute to the development of esprit de corps and loyalty within
the unit in which the officer serves."
After my father's death, a reporter wrote a short article on a minor incident he had observed. A reconnaissance
patrol was returning after days in the bush. As the helicopter landed, the reporter wrote, "The first Marine stepped down
from the helicopter and his camouflage uniform was stained black with sweat and dirt. A scraggly beard marred his face
and deep fatigue was reflected in his eyes. Leftwich was standing there, waiting to greet the young Marine "Welcome
back,' he said, shaking hands, and then he handed the tired and dirty Marine an opened ice-cold can of beer. We
watched Leftwich greet each returning Marine that way." (17)
Another former corporal noted, "In (enemy) contact, he was always there. It was nothing to see him out there at
anytime." (25) Incidents like this created deep wells of loyalty and esprit de corps within Dad's commands.
Like all good leaders, he realized the individual trooper was the key to any army's effectiveness. He was, in the
words of one of his officers, "Relentless in support of his troops. He drove the staff crazy ensuring they looked after
them. Most importantly, he didn't roll over if somebody said something couldn't be done. He pursued it himself up the
chain of command. (29)
In tapes to his family, Dad repeatedly expressed his appreciation of his Marines and fretted that he shared so little of
their work and danger. (31) The Marines in turn appreciated his concern for their welfare, his confidence in them and
his own professional competence. (25)
One young lance corporal wrote to my mother, "(He) was well-liked and respected by all of us mainly because he
was somebody you could talk to. All one had to do was say, 'Sir, I have a problem I would like to discuss with you,' and
he was always willing to take the time and did his best to see the problem solved." (28)
The enlisted Marines' appreciation for my father's leadership was equally shared by his officers. An effective leader,
he was not a micromanager. He felt his officers would do what they were supposed to do. His former supply officer
observed, "He was down to earth, never overbearing. He was quiet and concerned. There was never any doubt what
he wanted. He gave us the latitude to do our job and inspired our greatest effort." (32)
Another one of his former staff officers noted, "He was always quick to say thank-you and slow to criticize. He
repeatedly conveyed his confidence in you, and you always knew where you stood with him. So you never had the
feeling he was grading you." (29)
Dad's confidence in his officers reflected his confidence in himself. Dad was very confident without being arrogant.
In the memory of one senior officer, he was "low key. But everyone in his presence knew obviously who was the leader.
He just seemed to exhibit it without fanfare." (35)
His self-confidence was further reflected in his sense of priorities. One officer wrote, "I recall a worried executive
officer...pacing around a jeep with the motor running...the colonel was talking with a young lieutenant on his first
patrol...the general could wait, the lieutenant couldn't..." (17, 34)
Dad's priorities were basic--his mission and his men. He would have been very comfortable with the current
maneuver warfare doctrine. My father was always careful to ensure that everyone knew his intent and his way of
thinking. His former operations officer noted that his instructions were the "epitome of mission type orders." (29) In
combat he was always thinking of moving forward.
This confidence in others and in himself and his concern for others all combined to create a strong bond of unit
esprit de corps and loyalty. As one of his company commanders told a reporter after Dad's death, "Our morale was
fantastic. Our battalion was like a bunch of athletic teams, each one outdoing the other...We hadn't lost a man to hostile
fire since he took over. He planned for everything." (20)
"The officer, through personal example, must set the standards that all other officers seek to emulate."
A former midshipman remembered my father when Dad was his company officer at the U.S. Naval Academy: "Of all
the officers I have come in contact with in the service, he still stands out as the one I most want to emulate. He left a
mark on us that was more than winning the colors. He taught us what it means to be an officer and a gentleman..." (30)
Another Marine officer stated, "He was the epitome of integrity." (33) My father always strove to live up to the ideals
inherent in the phrase "an officer and a gentleman." Key amongst these ideals were honor, duty and self-discipline.
Honor was paramount. My father simply would not compromise his integrity for anything. He would not say
something unless he knew it was true. One of his former officers stated, "He stood on principle. He was not willing to
sacrifice character for career. If he felt strongly about something, he made the issue." (29)
He was ambitious, yet one friend observed, "He was ambitious in the highest sense of the word. He wanted to
succeed because he wanted to do things right." (27) The oft-stated problem of careerism was foreign to him. He
wanted good jobs, but he wanted them so he could do more for the Marine Corps.
My father had a tremendous concept of duty. As a captain, he wrote, "As a serviceman, I can do my duty, Robert E.
Lee's 'most divine word,' and do it cheerfully with a common sense seasoning and a serene spirit." (22)
He was a perfectionist who always expected more of himself than he did of others. In all of his commands, he felt it
was important for leaders to see and be seen. He very much set the follow-me example.
One former corporal remembered him as "an active leader. He did not sit at the desk." (25) Another former sergeant
told a reporter, "When one of our teams gets in a tough spot out in the boondocks...The colonel would grab a M-16,
climb aboard a chopper and go into the boonies to help them himself." (16)
He felt, as a commander, that his place was up front where he could provide guidance, assistance or inspiration to
his Marines. Dad refused to spare himself and never held himself back in the execution of his duties. A few months
before he was killed, my father was wounded while visiting a company position when his vehicle hit a land mine.
Refusing evacuation from the field, he was bandaged up and was back in the bush seeing his Marines in a day or so.
Therefore, it was not surprising that he was killed going to the aid of one of his reconnaissance teams.
Dad was simply discharging his duty as he understood and practiced it. After his death, a fellow Marine wrote,
"Leftwich lived--and as things turned out, died--by the soldier's principle: 'Never send a man where you won't go
In addition to a strong sense of duty and a firm conception of honor, my father had a great deal of self-discipline.
This was outwardly manifested in his personality.
"He was quiet and calm," remembered one officer. "You never saw big swings in his personality. He never seemed
Another friend noted, "He was very patient with people. For him it was dysfunctional to get impatient." (33)
Dad exuded self-control. His presence of mind in combat was such that his Marines always felt he was in control of
a situation even when he was really not. And then when he was not, he had control of himself. He did not make "knee-
jerk" decisions when uncertain situations or demands arose. He always thought things through.
This steadiness extended itself beyond the battlefield to his dealings with both superiors and subordinates. "I never
heard him yell at a man," related one officer, "but when he talked, generals actually listened." (20)
His self-discipline was manifested in other ways. He was a good listener and paid attention to details. Profanity was
abhorrent to him. Always striving to stay informed, Dad continually thought and read about his job and the nature of his
Finally, he was "humble in his glory." A modest man, my father did not, in the words of one contemporary, "believe it
was necessary to be loud and self-promoting. His satisfaction was in the accomplishment of the job." (27)
The power of Dad's example as he strove to grow and meet his ideal of "an officer and a gentleman" created an
atmosphere in which others were encouraged to do the same. His actions and his traits sent a stronger message than
any words could.
In examining and researching my father's leadership and personal qualities, I have found that his "complex formula"
for successful leadership is not complex at all. It is merely the consistent application of fundamental traits which we, as
professional officers, have been taught since The Basic School. Simply put, leadership is work. Dad was a successful
leader because he worked at it. He subscribed to the historian Douglas Southall Freeman's famous maxim for an
effective leader, "Know your stuff; look out after your men; and be a man." (26) .
Today, he is remembered by the trophy which bears his name and by various other memorials. Yet his legacy lies in
none of these things. Rather, it lives in his example which challenges us to always strive for excellence and service to
our profession, to our men and to our country.
1. "Boyhood Dreams of Military Glory Led Straight and True to Destiny," The Commercial Appeal, (Memphis, TN),
November 20, 1970.
2. "Brinkley Receives Leftwich Trophy," HQMC Hotline, October 1979.
3. "Colonel Leftwich," Editorial, Memphis Press-Scimitar, (Memphis, TN), November 20, 1970.
4. Cosmas, Graham A., and Lt.Col. Terrence P. Murray, U.S. Marines in Vietnam: Vietnamization and Redeployment
1970-71, Washington: History and Museums Division, HQMC 1986.
5. Heinl, Col. Robert D., Jr., "Marine was Heroic in Life and Death," The Detroit News, November 23, 1970.
6. "Helicopter Crash Kills 15 Marines on Viet Mountain," The Daily Republican, Phoenixville, PA, November 19, 1970.
7. "Hero Sneezes at Draft Protestors," The Commercial Appeal, (Memphis, TN), January 23, 1966.
8. Leftwich, Maj. William G., Jr., "Scrapbook," Marine Corps Gazette, August 1965, pg. 15.
9. Leftwich, Maj. William G., Jr., "Decision at Duc Co," Marine Corps Gazette, February 1967, pp. 35-38.
10. Leftwich, Maj. William G., Jr., "Management by Suggestion," Marine Corps Gazette, November 1968, pp. 24-25.
11. Leftwich, Maj. William G., Jr., "An Afternoon with Bernard Fall," Marine Corps Gazette, February 1969, pp. 25-27.
12. Leftwich, Maj. William G., Jr., "Vietnamization Marine Corps Style," Shipmate, November 1970, pp. 8-9.
13. Leftwich, Maj. William G., Jr., "...And a Few Good Marines," Naval Proceedings, Special Reprint 1968.
14."Marine Hero Killed in Vietnam Action," The Commercial Appeal, (Memphis, TN), November 19, 1970.
15."Memory of War Invades Lazy Afternoon," The Commercial Appeal, (Memphis, TN), February 27, 1966.
16. Murphy, Jeremiah V., "Colonel Killed...A Day in Da Nang Recalled," newspaper unknown, November 1970.
17. Rupp, Lt.Cmdr. Lloyd, "Leftwich Trophy Revisited," Jet Stream, MCAS Beaufort, SC, September 12, 1980.
18. Shulimson, Jack and Maj. Charles M. Johnson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Landing and the Buildup 1965,
Washington: History and Museums Divisions, HQMC 1978.
19.”Taps” Marks Fallen Marine Hero: 'Always Faithful' Describes Him," The Commercial Appeal, (Memphis, TN),
November 28, 1970.
20. Tate, Don, "It's No 'War without Heroes' to Bravo Company," Washington Daily News, December 3, 1970.
21."Turn of the Tide," TIME, October 22, 1965.
22. Leftwich, Capt. William G., Jr., "What Can I Do for Freedom," an unpublished essay.
23. Leftwich, Capt. William G., Jr., "The Role of the Advisor in Counterinsurgency," an unpublished thesis submitted to
Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Quantico, VA, 1967.
24. U.S. Marine Corps Order 1650.32C, "Leftwich Trophy for Outstanding Leadership," Washington: HQMC December
25. Combs, SSgt. Tommy A., Personal Interview, March 1, 1989.
26. Freeman, Douglas Southall, speech to the U.S. Naval Academy, Fall, 1949.
27. Gray, Lt.Gen. D'Wayne, (USMC, Ret.), Personal Interview, January 3, 1989.
28. Grimes, LCpl. Kerry E., Letter, June 28, 1971.
29. Grinalds, Maj.Gen. John S., Personal Interview, January 27, 1989.
30. Ibach, Lt.Cmdr. James, Letter, December 24, 1970.
31. Leftwich, Lt.Col. William G., Jr., Tape, October 20, 1970.
32. Leonard, Lt.Col. John E., Personal Interview, February 27, 1989.
33. Maloney, Lt.Gen. William R., (USMC, Ret.), Personal Interview, December 28, 1988.
34. Rupp, Lt.Cmdr. Lloyd, (USN Ret.), Letter, March 6, 1989.
35. Wieseman, Lt.Gen. Frederick L., (USMC, Ret.), Letter, March 10, 1989.
36. Wilson, Col. Tyson, (USMC, Ret.), Letter, January 15, 1989.
© Copyright Michael Dan Kellum 2010