The life and career of Command Sgt. Maj. George J. Marlett
By Fred Woods
My favorite veteran didn’t quite make it to Veteran’s Day this year. George J. “Red” Marlett died on Oct. 31, three weeks shy of his 96th birthday, see obituaries.
This time what he felt on his backside upon awakening were angel wings and the ring of feet he saw belonged to angels. His was a life well-lived. We’ll miss him.
George J. “Red” Marlett may have made Command Sergeant Major in the Alabama National Guard five years before the end of his military career, but some of us still called him “First Sergeant” or “First Soldier.” For the several thousand young men who were privileged to serve with him, in war time and peace, he was a teacher, a living example, an authority figure and a friend.
We either feared him or were awed by him at first exposure, then came respect and even love for him when we realized what he did for us. But a little awe was always there, even now.
After his beloved wife, Maxine (nee Mann [1922 -2002] and their five children, Peggy, Pat, Cathy, LeeAnne and Rusty, George J. Marlett is proudest of three accomplishments in his life: One, at the age of 54, he earned his GED (General Educational Development degree), equivalent to the high school diploma he never got. Two, by dint of study and perseverance, in 2013 he was awarded the coveted honorary 33rd degree in the Scottish Rite of the Masonic Order ( allowing him to instruct others in Masonic procedures ). Red was the first person in east central Alabama to achieve this level. Three, before he retired from the military at the mandatory retirement age of 60. Red was promoted to the highest enlisted rank, and the 12th rank of the entire U.S. Army, Command Sergeant Major (CSM).
George Marlett was born and grew up in Portage, Penn., a small coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania in 1921. His dad died, the result of being gassed in World War I, when Red was seven. Red was raised by a succession of relatives, first grandparents then a series of uncles and aunts. He says he did pretty much as he pleased. Among other things he quit school after the second grade, an event few people ever knew about.
When he was 16, he went into the coal mines to work; one of an uncle’s friends took Red on as an apprentice. In those days one had to work underground with another miner for two years to be eligible to take a test allowing one to work alone in the mine.
He completed the two years but the prospects of endless 30-inch coal seams and the increasing likelihood that America would enter WWII led Marlett and several buddies to enlist in the army on December 30, 1940. He said, “I knew there had to be a better way [ than mining] of making a living.”
After basic training in a variety of U.S. locations (New York; Ft. Devins, Mass; Camp Blanding, Fla. and Ft. Benning, Ga.—where he first visited Opelika, coming over for USO dances and events), Red was assigned to the famed First Infantry Division — the Big Red One ( what a coincidence! ) —, and shipped overseas.
Marlett and his fellow soldiers were sent to Scotland, crossing the Atlantic on the largest, most famous, ocean liner of the time, the Queen Mary. The giant ship carried the entire division, infantry, artillery support, armament and other equipment. They left New York on August 2, 1941. After rigorous and repeated training emphasizing amphibious landings, the Big Red One left Scotland for the invasion of north Africa, although they didn’t know their destination until they after they had sailed. Red recalls that, as a mortarman in a weapons platoon, he was always second man off the landing craft, carrying the heavy 60 millimeter mortar baseplate as well as mortar rounds and his individual load of equipment.
Well, the North Africa landing was relatively uneventful but Red and his mates soon found themselves assaulting Hill 523 at the Battle of Kasserine Pass, in Feb. 1943, the Germans’ last big victory in North Africa. The battle was between elite German SS troops and Panzer tanks led by Field Marshall Erwin Rommel and inexperienced and poorly led allies.
Red, believing the hill had been taken by U.S. troops, dug in near the crest and took what he considered a well-deserved rest. Shortly he was awakened by a prick in his back which turned out to be a German bayonet. As he opened his eyes he saw German boots in a circle around him. He was a prisoner. They took him to where interrogators were questioning a large number of allied POWs.
When Marlett was questioned he answered as he had been taught: name, rank and serial number. Finally the SS interrogator tired of playing the game and said, “Corporal Marlett, we know more about you than you know about yourself.” He then proceeded to tell Red his unit name, when he had arrived in north Africa, the name of the ship that brought him, and what time Red had eaten his last hot meal (4 a.m. that morning).
The Germans then returned Marlett to a barbed wire enclosed area where several hundred prisoners were being held. He immediately began piling rocks around his “space” and, when a piece of sage brush or tumbleweed would blow by, he’d grab that and add it to his “wall.” By evening, he was almost covered up.
German soldiers then began herding up the POWs and taking them to a more secure area. Red pretended to be asleep; the soldiers didn’t see him (although one nearly stepped on him) and he was left behind to return to allied lines.
At the end of the North African campaign, of Red’s original 260-man battalion, only 35 were left. They were incorporated into other units for the Sicily campaign. While in Sicily Red came down with a series of noncombat-related illnesses and was returned to an infirmary in North Africa. During his infirmary confinement it was discovered that Red had accumulated enough “combat points” to be sent home.
Over his protests (he wanted to rejoin his unit in Sicily) he was returned to Ft. Benjamin Harrison in Indiana. According to Red, he sat around a lot, but mostly played baseball, a sport for which he had considerable talent. He was, at one point, invited to try out with the New York Yankees but passed it up because he had already made other commitments. If Red said he would do something, he would. Integrity has always taken first place in Red’s life It was at Ft. Benjamin Harrison, too, that Red was promoted to sergeant.
Finally the army sent Red to Ft. McClellan on an assignment as a training instructor (or drill sergeant), a position for which he was not really qualified. But by the time the army realized its mistake, Red had found a calling for his life: teacher, trainer, leader and mentor to younger, less experienced men — a calling that would remain with him the rest of his life, even after his regular U.S. Army career.
Marlett noticed how the young recruits hung on his every word in lectures and how they gathered around his bunk after duty to ask him questions about his combat experiences. He thought, “Hey, I can make a difference in these men’s lives, maybe even save some of their lives.” This calling was to be a guiding principle for the rest of his life: in the military (regular army, army reserve and Alabama National Guard) and in civilian life (his working career with the telephone company and his beloved Masonic Order). Another principle was that he never asked anyone to do something he, himself, had not done or was willing to do.
So, by the time, an officer came around to discuss another assignment, Red asked, and was allowed, to complete that training cycle.
The officer gave Red several options, including the opportunity to go to Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning (recall that George “Red” Marlett’s formal education ended at the second grade). Red respectfully declined this “opportunity,” reflecting later than he knew a second lieutenant’s survival rate in combat.
Other options included the Prisoner of War Camp at Opelika. Marlett picked that one since he knew and liked Opelika from his army training days at nearby Ft. Benning.
POW Camp Opelika had five prisoner compounds: four for regular German citizen soldiers/draftees and one for the professional SS troops. Since Red had fought against SS troops in north Africa, he was assigned as First Sergeant to this one, working with an SS First Sergeant and Company Clerk. All other prisoners were allowed to work outside the camp except the SS. But Red said that once they agreed they (he and the Germans) were professional soldiers and that the war was over for them, they got along well and there were few problems.
The assignment also led Red to meet Maxine Mann who was to become his soulmate for 57 years until her death in 2002.
In July 1945, after WWII’s end, Marlett was sent back to Ft. Benjamin Harrison where he was discharged. After several years of moving around and working in Ohio, Minnesota and North Dakota, he and Maxine returned to Opelika where, soon thereafter, he went to work for the telephone company. Red worked there until his retirement. For many years he was assigned as installer/technician at Auburn University.
In 1952 Red was asked by another Opelika icon, then Army Reserve Capt. Richard W. Teague, to help organize an Army National Guard unit in Opelika and Marlett became First Sergeant of Battery B, 104th AAA Battalion (AW) (SP), 31st Infantry Division, Alabama-Mississippi National Guard. And Red Marlett went back to leading, teaching, training and mentoring.
One of Red’s rules was when you put on the uniform, you acted like a soldier in all respects. He wanted all your pockets buttoned and had a Battery policy to remind everyone of this. If you saw someone with an unbuttoned pocket, you stuffed a cigarette butt or any handy scrap of waste and buttoned the individual’s pocket for him.
One especially hot, frustrating day on the gunnery range at summer camp at Ft. Stewart, Ga., one of the platoon sergeants, Clarence Depositer (or De-Pot as we called him) had an unbuttoned pocket and, as Red cheerfully deposited a butt in the pocket and buttoned it up, exploded. “Dammit, I’ve been too busy to think about buttoning my pocket. You ought to cut me some slack.” Red replied, “It’s a rule for everybody, I would expect you to do it to me if mine was unbuttoned.”
The division commander, Brig. Gen. Lewis Sides was scheduled to inspect us the next day, so the Sgt. said, “I’ll bet you wouldn’t do it to the general.” “I damn sure would,” was Red’s reply. The wager was set at $20, with neither man thinking the general would ever have an unbuttoned pocket as he was noted for his neatness.
The next day came, Gen. Sides arrived at the battery perimeter, and, lo and behold! His pocket was unbuttoned! Red gulped, stepped up, inserted the always-present cigarette butt and rebuttoned the pocket. As soon as Red explained his actions, the general laughed, said he thought it was a good little policy, patted Red’s shoulder and proceeded with the inspection. The assortment of officers accompanying the general blanched. They’d never seen anything so audacious. Wait until they got that first sergeant back to camp!
The rest of the day our spirits were high as a kite. Our first sergeant enforced our rules against everybody! But when we got back to camp that evening a runner was waiting. The First Sergeant was to report to battalion HQ IMMEDIATELY! But before Red could get there, Gen. Sides had called and ordered that no disciplinary action was to be taken against Red.
Author’s note: Several years later I met Gen. Sides at Ft. McClellan, Ala. Upon ascertaining that I was in the Opelika Guard unit, he asked if we still had that red-headed First Sergeant. After I assured him we did, the general said,” Be sure and tell him ‘hello’ for me, will you?”
George Marlett went on to have many more years as a citizen soldier telephone technician and leader in the Masonic Order. In retirement he travelled extensively and is a fixture at Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day observances, dressed out and standing tall in his military uniform which still needs no altering to fit him.
So there you have him: George J. “Red” Marlett, adopted Opelikan, soldier, father, telephone technician, leader, teacher, mentor and a foremost living example of what it means to be an American. We are so very proud of you and all you stand for.
We salute you!