FORT LEE, Va. — As a young African American growing up in the South during the Depression, Arthur J. Gregg was not oblivious to the inequity and injustice he witnessed under segregation.
Yet, it never drove him to stages of discontent, disillusionment or disengagement. Whenever doors were slammed in his face, Gregg circumvented or summoned the powers of an unshakeable ambition to seek out options.
“I always believed there were opportunities,” said the now 94-year-old Gregg, “and even though you realized they were limited by race to a large degree, they were still there. Frankly, I tended to dwell on the possibilities and did not become bitter.”
This from a man who lost his mother at age 11; who survived the Jim Crow South and joined a segregated Army; and who, despite it all, rose to become a three-star general, earning the respect and admiration of many. A friend of 40 years said Gregg’s ascension can be attributed to his sense of honor, humility and a gripping commitment to duty.
“He’s what I call a man’s man in that he takes responsibility for his actions and holds himself accountable, just like he does everyone else,” said retired Maj. Gen. Hawthorne L. Proctor, the first African American Quartermaster General. “When he wakes up in the morning, he is expecting to perform to the best of his ability.”
Childhood in South Carolina
Perhaps Gregg’s work ethic arose from his upbringing in rural Florence County, South Carolina. He was born a year before the Great Depression, the youngest of nine children born to Robert and Ethel Gregg.
The family subsisted on a roughly 100-acre farm where they grew cotton and tobacco for market and raised cattle, chickens and hogs.
“It was a reasonably good life,” recalled Gregg. “I felt I was loved and supported, but economically, it was a very challenging time.”
Even in the backdrop of The Great Depression, Mr. and Mrs. Gregg were firm in teaching their children the importance of education, proper conduct and personal responsibility.
“With both of my parents, they were very responsible, very caring and set high standards for all of the children,” said Gregg, “and since they were very loving, they were no-nonsense about us living up to the standards they had set for us.”
Amid those standards, Gregg said he and his siblings were expected to help with the farm and attend school. He remembered feeding hogs, chickens and cows before walking three miles to classes taking place in a wooden, three-room structure.
“The white children had a consolidated, very modern brick school and were provided with bus transportation from their homes,” remembered Gregg. “It was a different situation based on race at that time.”
In Gregg’s final year of grade school, his mother became ill with cancer and underwent surgery.
“[She] survived the operation, came home and we cheered her on for about six months before she passed,” Gregg recalled. “I can tell you those six months were very challenging for her physically.”
The Gregg household at the time of Ethel’s death consisted of Arthur, older brother Edward, older sister Cora and their father. Arthur, being the youngest, may have been most vulnerable to his mother’s absence, but it was only notional. Gregg said his family members lovingly filled the gaps.
“While I missed my mother, there was not a period in my life where I ever felt abandoned or neglected,” he said.
A year after Ethel’s passing, Arthur and Edward were permitted to live with an older brother and his family at their Newport News, Virginia, home. The brother was one of three who migrated north looking for opportunities that did not exist in Florence County. Upon his arrival, Gregg found a vibrant city with modern conveniences he was not accustomed to.
Opportunities in Newport News
“Newport News was a different experience for me,” said Gregg, who moved to the city in 1941. “Most of it was positive. First of all, it was the first time in my life I lived in a home with indoor plumbing, electrical power, telephone, and paved streets and sidewalks. … It was a great change for me.”
While living in Newport News, Gregg worked two jobs while attending the segregated Huntington High School. During Sunday afternoon drives to nearby Fort Monroe with his family, he took note of the varied uniformed personnel moving about the city heavily contributing to the nation’s defense during World War II.
“It had a powerful impression on me,” said Gregg, noting most of the military troops he saw were Black. “Two things I noticed: first, the young men were well-dressed — their uniforms fitted properly and were properly maintained — and second, their personal conduct was very responsible. You just had to admire them.”
Gregg’s young eyes also observed rare sightings of Black officers belonging to a military separated along color lines.
“They were only lieutenants, but you just had to [be] very proud of them — the fact they were officers and the way they conducted themselves,” he said.
While developing and growing in his new environment, Gregg needed to face the prospects of his future. He was interested in college, but costs were an obstacle, leaving vocational opportunities as a consideration. He received guidance from the parents of best friend Ivan B. “Sandy” McEachin Jr., who he met in his sophomore year at Huntington. McEachin’s mother Esther was especially influential.
“She was a housewife but a well-educated one, and she encouraged me to attend the Chicago College of Medical Technology (as a laboratory technician),” said Gregg.
CCMT offered a program in which students could take daytime and evening classes and earn a certificate in six months. The 17-year-old Gregg enrolled, studied hard and graduated in December 1945.
“It was my plan to get a certificate and open a clinical laboratory, serving my community with various services,” remembered Gregg.
To realize his dream, Gregg had to contend with discrimination even in The Windy City.
“I applied for and was employed by Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago,” he said. “During my first week there, I was called in by the head of the division, and he made it very clear to me that my work would be confined to the laboratory and bedside of Black patients. I was not allowed to visit the whites [receiving care]. I felt it was limiting, felt it was demeaning and promptly submitted my resignation.”
Enlisting in the Army
Returning to Newport News with some measure of disappointment, Gregg reconnected with his friend, McEachin, then a student at Howard University. Their friendship was still strong, despite its unlikeliness.
“He and I couldn’t have been more different,” Gregg said of McEachin, who retired as a chief warrant officer 2 and who he remained friends until his death in 2011. “He came from a very economically privileged family (his father was a physician), and I was a farm boy from South Carolina, so we were very different.”
The two shared high levels of ambitiousness, however. Despite their career aspirations, they knew their individual plans would be secondary to the military draft. They were required to register following their 18th birthdays. To better control their destinies, the pair received parental permission and enlisted as Soldiers in 1946.
Gregg, specifically, held hopes of landing a laboratory technician position after receiving orders for West Germany.
“Once I arrived, I was told there were no medical facilities operated by the U.S. Army staffed with Black Soldiers. So, I could not get a job as a medical laboratory technician in Germany.”
President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 integrating the military in 1948. In practice, however, it took time and effort. The Army did not become fully integrated until 1954.
While Jim Crow had once again wedged itself between Gregg and opportunity, others emerged at the same West German location. One came in the form of the 3511th Quartermaster Transportation Truck Company, a Black unit to which he was assigned in lieu of losing the lab tech position and one with “outstanding leaders.”
“They supported me becoming supply sergeant of that unit,” said Gregg, remembering he was “comfortable and proud” as a member of the company and the Quartermaster Corps.
The truck company assignment — which some might view as a consolation — became the anchor for a stellar career in logistics. Gregg went on to attain the rank of staff sergeant at the age of 18 — and after returning to the states in 1949 — completed officer candidate school when he was 22.
A career as an officer
A year later, Gregg became an instructor at Fort Lee’s Quartermaster Leadership School, forerunner of today’s noncommissioned officer academy. In 1966, he commanded one of the largest battalions in Vietnam and earned the Meritorious Unit Citation as a result.
Gregg reached the general officer ranks in 1972 and earned a second star in 1976. Pinning his third star in 1977, Gregg was subsequently named director of logistics, Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was the first African American to reach lieutenant general in the U.S. Army.
Gregg finished his career as chief, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, Department of the Army. He was the branch’s highest-ranking minority at the time of his retirement in 1981.
Ironically, Gregg’s retirement ceremony took place at the Fort Lee officers’ club, a facility that was still off limits to he and other African Americans when he became an officer in 1950.
Of his many career accomplishments, Gregg said he is most proud of his deployment to Vietnam where he commanded the 96th Quartermaster Direct Support Battalion as a newly promoted lieutenant colonel.
“It was a great assignment, and I felt we were doing a great job for the United States of America and for the world,” he said in a heighted tone of voice.
When Gregg took command in late 1965, the battalion lacked personnel and equipment, and thus, was not deployment ready. Through much work, it readied itself in a few months, deployed on time and conducted its mission accordingly.
“We became a battalion of 18 companies, eight detachments, 3,600 officers and men,” he said, earlier noting the unit acquired several other elements. “It was four-times the normal battalion size, and I’ll tell you, those young people worked their fannies off to build a logistical base and provide logistical support to our forces in Vietnam. I was so proud of them.”
Gregg’s success in Vietnam propelled him down a path to further advancement and eventually the Army War College, a qualifier for promotion to general officer.
“I’ve had big jobs, but I still look upon the command of that battalion in Vietnam as the most significant point in my career,” he said.
A legacy of "People First" leadership
In 2016, Gregg’s military legacy was cemented. That year the Army created the Lt. Gen. Arthur J. Gregg Sustainment Leadership Award and honored its namesake as the first recipient.
While his skills as a logistician were lauded, Gregg espoused a “People First” philosophy long before its contemporary application, said Proctor.
“He treated Soldiers with dignity and respect, provided them with responsibilities commensurate with their rank, held them accountable, and expected them to perform,” he said.
Gregg also can be described as a “quiet warrior,” added Proctor, someone who is unfailingly persistent with an ability to motivate and inspire without any hints of aggression.
“I’ve been around general officers and others who would pound the table or use different types of language,” said Proctor, chuckling with incredulity, “but I have never in 40 years seen Gen. Gregg raise his voice.”
Retired Col. Chris Stevens, who attended the Command and General Staff College with Gregg in 1964, said it is Gregg’s humility and compassion that places him above so many others.
“He gets along well with people and goes out of his way to help,” he said. “When anyone gets in trouble, they call him.”
Deflective about his record of achievement, Gregg said his work represents his parents, his late wife Charlene S. Gregg and their two children, the late Sandra R. Gregg and Alicia Collier, and the efforts of thousands of military personnel who put the country before themselves.
Lastly, Gregg said he is thankful the Army provided a platform that allowed him to “dwell on the possibilities” and realize all that he is.
“I always enjoy doing jobs to the best of my ability,” he said, “but I also felt the Army was always watching my back and helping me along the way.”
This from a man who has never lost faith in the institution, even when it did not have his best interests at heart.
Editor’s note: Retired Lt. Gen. Arthur J. Gregg is a resident of the Northern Virginia area. When he is not supporting the Army Logistics Corps or the activities of the Quartermaster Foundation here, Gregg spends his time reading, walking and staying in touch with family.