VETERANS DAY: Witness to history

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 10, 2022

Ironton native was on hand for MacArthur speech

LEXINGTON, Ky. — As commander of the South Pacific Area for the Allies during the bulk of World War II, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was one of the most consequential figures in American military history.

Two years before his death, he was invited to West Point Military Academy to receive the Sylvanus Thayer Award on May 12, 1964, where he gave what would come to be known as his farewell address.

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The speech, titled “Duty Honor, Country,” has become known as one of the great moments of American oratory and one young Lawrence County native was in the audience for that moment of history. 

Richard Plymale, of Ironton, was attending West Point as a cadet when MacArthur was honored by West Point and recalls the impact the general’s words had on him.

“It was an amazing speech,” Plymale said, recalling the setting, in which the general spoke on a poop deck before 2,700-3,000 members of the corps and invited guests in a mess hall.

“He acknowledged the head of alumni association, and Gen. William Westmoreland, then he looked at his notecards and threw a kiss to his wife,” he said. “And, when he began the speech, he put the cards in his pocket and spoke for 40 minutes without notes.”

Plymale said, the next day, the speech was reprinted verbatim in the New York Times and other outlets from the event and there were no errors in grammar to be found.

“American politicians have lost the ability to articulate great thoughts,” he said. “I think there’s a thirst for it now.”

Plymale said the speech was particularly aspiring, as “Duty, Honor, Country” is the motto of West Point.

“There have been songs and poems written around it since West Point was founded more than 200 years ago,” he said.

Plymale said MacArthur told of the sacrifices of soldiers in American conflicts, both through his own memory and retelling history.

“He took you through history with vivid descriptions of the men he led in battle in World War I and II,” he said. “You relived it and could visualize these ghastly men in olive khaki.”

He said the speech was important for the cadets because, at that point in their lives, “the motto did not mean a lot for a young man.”

“But, for a moment, the words made you relive history,” Plymale said of the message of sacrifice and service. “In retrospect, you felt you heard the most
reverent sermon about the American soldier ever written or spoken.”

He said he could see many men in the crowd “with tears in their eyes.”

“You felt like you were in church and heard
a reverent message that honored and
worshipped the American soldier,” Plymale said.

He said the speech made an impression on the young cadets, and that the senior show at the academy, which is put on with a Broadway-esque feel, incorporated its messages with songs around its themes.

Plymale said his brother Gary, who became a dentist, was attending the University of Indiana after the speech and his professor had assigned the speech as an
example of great American oratory.

“He wrote an essay on what it meant and he interviewed me for it,” Plymale said.

Plymale was a champion pole vaulter at West Point and one of the top collegiate vaulters in the nation in 1963, setting a record of 15 feet 9 ¾ inches.

After graduating West Point, he served in the U.S. Air Force. In Vietnam, he was briefing officer for command staff.

“I briefed Gen. Westmoreland about the air war from 1968-69,” he said. 

Following his time in the military, he went to law school at The Ohio State University, where he said he felt out of place with the mood of the students in the late ‘60s and that veterans did not receive many accolades at the time.

“There were three of us in law school who were veterans,” he said. “It was an unpopular war.”

Plymale, now retired, had a long career in the legal profession, workign first in California as an assistant U.S. Attorney, before moving to Kentucky, where he worked in private practice for decades and also served 10 years as general consul for the University of Kentucky.

Plymale said his time at West Point and in the military “defined his life.”

He says, for him, Veterans Day is a time of “reverence and remembrance.”

“As a West Point graduate, I had 18 classmates die in Vietnam and 155 injured,” he said. “It is a day to remember the ultimate sacrifice many dear friends made. It always means a lot.”