By Alex McVeighJanuary 29, 2009
ARLINGTON, VA - In life, former Sgt. Maj. of the Army William G. Bainbridge worked to improve the lives of noncommissioned officers under his command. In death, he left a legacy of service to his country, his family and his Soldiers.
Bainbridge is remembered by Army leaders during this "Year of the NCO" as a pioneer proponent of the current non-commissioned officer education system. After Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Bainbridge said: "World War II was won in the pre-war classrooms at the Army War College and the Command and General Staff College. The conflict in the Persian Gulf was won by the NCO Education System."
Bainbridge passed away in November 2008, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery Wednesday. In a ceremony attended by his colleagues from across the five branches of the military, Bainbridge's life and legacy were celebrated.
As the bell signaled 9 a.m., Soldiers from The Old Guard carried the casket into the Old Post chapel at Fort Myer, Va., for a brief memorial service. The U.S. Army Band "Pershing's Own" played as mourners entered the building.
Bainbridge's career began when he volunteered for the draft in June 1943. His unit was captured in the Battle of the Bulge, and he spent almost four months as a prisoner of war.
Upon his discharge from the Army in 1945, Bainbridge returned to his native Illinois to become a farmer, though a member of the Army Reserve. When the Korean War broke out, Bainbridge returned to active duty in 1951, and he soon decided to become a career Soldier.
In February of 1963, Bainbridge was promoted to sergeant major, and was deployed to Vietnam two years later. He was chosen to become one of the first command sergeants major in the Army in February of 1968, serving in that position at Fort Meade, Md., Fort Shafter, Hawaii, and Fort Benning, Ga, among others.
Then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Frederick C. Weyand selected Bainbridge to be his sergeant major of the Army in July of 1975. During his tenure, Bainbridge visited troops all over America and the world every year.
"Sergeant Major Bainbridge was well liked and respected," said retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie W. Spencer, director of NCO and Soldier programs for the Association of the U.S. Army. "I often heard it said that the next person who said something bad about him would also be the first."
Bainbridge retired on June 18, 1979, in a ceremony at Fort Myer. After his retirement, though, he was still active in the Association of the United States Army and the Noncommissioned Officers Association.
After the service Wednesday, a procession of more than 20 cars made their way through Arlington National Cemetery to section 59. As a fine mist fell from the sky, the Soldiers carried the basket over the icy ground to its final resting place.
As the flag draping the casket was folded for Hazel, Bainbridge's wife of 63 years, the Army Band played "America the Beautiful."
"In life, he honored the flag," Chaplain Lt. Col. Harry A. Rauch III said. "In death, the flag honors him."
Secretary of the Army Pete Geren was there as well as Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston and several former sergeants major of the Army.
After the service, Geren, Preston and the retired sergeants major offered their condolences to family members of the man who left such an enduring legacy.
"He left a lasting effect on Soldiers and noncommissioned officer education, his fingerprint is all over many of the programs we have today," Spencer said. "His influence will be left for generations to come.
(Alex McVeigh writes for the Pentagram newspaper at Fort Myer, Va.)