Slice of LIFE: LIFE magazine veteran shares story
May 26, 2011
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Fort Jackson supports about 46,000 retirees who make their home in the Midlands. And while the post provides numerous opportunities for retirees to gather, such as last week’s Retiree Appreciation Days event, it is sometimes difficult to capture each of their unique stories.
Retired Col. Bobby Bacon is just one such retiree who has a story to tell; a story that led him to being in one of the world’s most famous photographs to the hills of Fort Jackson.
In 1964, as a captain, he was sent on his first tour of duty in Vietnam, where he served as an adviser to a South Vietnamese battalion. While leading troops through the Mekong Delta in the spring of that year, famed war photographer Larry Burrow took a photo of Bacon that soon after graced the cover of LIFE magazine.
Later, during a stint as protocol officer for Army chiefs of staff Gen. Harold Johnson and Gen. William Westmoreland, he was involved in organizing the funerals of Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968 and former president Dwight Eisenhower in 1969.
One of his most influential assignments though, may have been as commander of Fort Jackson’s 2nd Infantry Brigade from January 1976 to July 1977. His brigade was selected by TRADOC to pilot a program to test the possibility of gender-integrated Basic Combat Training. Up to that point, the Army trained women separately and Army trained women separately and differently from men.
Bacon recalled that some of the drill sergeants and cadre were not initially enthusiastic about the prospects.
“It was kind of interesting. There were pros and cons. One of the things was that all the women were high school graduates when they came in. And (a lot of) the guys were Category 4s (without high school diploma),” he said.
“You’d have things like assembly and disassembly of a rifle, ... verbal tests and things like that " we had all the women acing these tests, and (some of) the guys just weren’t equipped to get it all. ... But on the other side, the physical side of it, a lot of women who came in were having difficulty with the physical fitness.”
The Army deemed the pilot a success and started implementing integrated basic training in February 1977.
“It was a real smart move, a real good move. And I think both genders benefit from it,” Bacon said.
Bacon’s first memory of Fort Jackson dates back to 1942 when he was 8 and his father was training to deploy to World War II Europe.
“(The country) was so great in so many respects, because everybody was totally focused and gave everything they could to the war effort, to the Soldiers. I would go with my mother to the Red Cross and wrap bandages for hours and hours and hours,” Bacon said.
He said he remembers riding his bicycle on the installation and going for a swim in what is now Heise Pond.
“The lifeguards were German prisoners of war,” he said. “Fort Jackson would remind me of what a summer campground would be for kids these days.
Bacon’s father and brother both attended the Military Academy at West Point, and for Bobby Bacon, following their footsteps was a logical choice.
“I never thought about doing anything else or going to any other college,” he said.
He graduated West Point with a bachelor’s of science in communications in 1956, and was a classmate of Norman Schwarzkopf, who later obtained the rank of general and served as commander of U.S. Central Command during the Gulf War in 1991.
Today, Bobby Bacon’s primary connection to Fort Jackson is through his wife, Sun, who works at the post’s Clothing Initial Issue Point.
Robin Bacon, one of Bobby’s three sons, said he believes his father was offered assignments that would have advanced his career further, but instead chose to keep his family rooted to allow his children to stay in the same schools. Robin, who works as a teacher and football coach at Spring Valley High School, said he wanted to uphold the family tradition and serve in the Army, but was unable to do so because of vision impairment.
He said that even though growing up as a military child included moving a lot and leaving friends behind, he is proud of his father’s service.
“We really need to reflect on all the positive things the military has done. ... The many things we’ve been granted are based on the blood of our service members overseas,” he said, adding that he appreciates events, such as last weekend’s Retiree Appreciation Days and Armed Forces Day, to honor the military. “I think it’s fantastic. ... The sacrifices these people make " if you’re a military brat you understand these things.”