In June of 1940, a teenager from Virginia took a first step from his family’s farm, walking out into the driving rain on what would be a seven-mile trek to a National Guard recruiting station.
He was no stranger to distance- his round-trip walks to school logged him about four miles of marching in between farm work, studies and more farm work. An intensely focused sixteen year old who graduated at the top of his high school class only two weeks before, he had no idea that in two years, he progress from a private to acting First Sergeant and later, a Second Lieutenant.
Jogging through the rainy night on a landscape once swept up by the Civil War, how could he have known that one day he would become a three-star general, develop the term “counterinsurgency and help create Delta Force, the finest collections of warriors the world has ever seen?
Samuel Vaughan Wilson likely didn’t think of such things as his feet sank into the wet earth beneath him. While he is no longer around to tell us what he was thinking, one thing is for certain- he just kept going.
Born in 1923, Wilson was no stranger to hard work. Growing up on a tobacco, corn and wheat farm not far from Farmville, Virginia, Wilson spent any free time he had hunting, fishing, reading, studying and practicing music.
Two weeks after graduating high school, he set off in the night to join the Virginia National Guard. Only sixteen at the time, Wilson lied about his age and was accepted as a Private in the 116th Infantry Regiment. Within two years -thanks to the small scale of the military at the time and subsequent enlistment surge after Pearl Harbor- he had filled the roles of squad leader, platoon sergeant and even acting first sergeant before he was sent to Infantry Officer Candidate School and The Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Now an 18-year-old second lieutenant, Wilson taught unconventional warfare skills at Benning until the age of 19, when the recently-promoted first lieutenant joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and volunteered for a “dangerous and hazardous mission.”
The mission was to be carried out by the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) -better known as Merrill’s Marauders- and would require Wilson and his new comrades to be whisked to the far east’s China-Burma-India theater of operations. The chief reconnaissance officer of his unit, Wilson regularly operated behind enemy lines, where he was never wounded but contracted ailments such as malaria, amoebic dysentery, mite typhus and severe malnutrition.
By 1944, Captain Wilson made the risky choice to apply to be an officer in the Regular Army, exposing the “white lie” he told about his age- otherwise known as fraudulent enlistment. Though he got a commission, he was appointed the rank of second lieutenant at the age of 21.
Wilson would do his part for the remainder of the war before enrolling in military foreign language schools and even graduate school. Deployed to Europe for 3 1/2 years, Wilson was assigned to the State Department’s Diplomatic Pouch and Courier Service, which allowed him to travel behind the “Iron Curtain” into Soviet-held countries.
Eventually promoted to Major, Wilson returned to Washington, DC, and was assigned to General Staff (Intelligence). After a series of training qualifications were met, he became involved with intelligence matters and was a consultant on Soviet Affairs. By 1955, he was taken aboard with the Central Intelligence Agency, running clandestine operations from a cover office in West Berlin.
By the time the 1960s rolled around, Lieutenant Colonel Wilson was assigned as Director of Instruction of the US Army Special Warfare School at North Carolina’s Fort Bragg Army post. Over a short period of time, he became the authority for counter-insurgency (COIN), small wars and insurgency, respectively. By 1961, he became the Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and played a critical role during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
He was temporarily placed on loan with the State Department by 1964, where he would remain (doing sneaky stuff) until 1967, when Colonel Wilson (who seemingly had a new rank every time he blinked) assumed Command of the 6th Special Forces Group (Airborne). Eventually, he would shift to training military advisors and keeping the local units in check until 1970, when Brigadier General Wilson was handed his first star.
From 1971 to 1973, Wilson was the US Defense Attache in Moscow during the apogee of the Cold War. Speaking fluent Russian and a student of Soviet history, he was respected by all. One embassy Marine recounted that General Wilson knew each Marine by name and was referred to as “our general.” The Soviets respected him as well, given his language and love of history.
By 1973, he was assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency. By 1976, he was the new director of the DIA.
In 1977, Wilson finally hung up his uniform and settled down back in Virginia, where he taught at a boy’s college and worked as a consultant for a variety of organizations and people. By 1992, he became president of Hampden-Sydney College and was inducted into the US Army Ranger Hall of Fame the next year.
Sam Wilson never really stopped moving. From the night he stepped into the driving rain to his final steps in June of this year, he seemingly just kept one foot in front of the other- and never stopped moving upward.