Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series.
“All my life I have been a soldier and nothing else,” was the modest claim from one of America’s most determined generals. A decorated veteran of three wars, Texas native Walton Walker was respected by his superiors and by the men under his command. Though he was only 5-feet-5-inches tall, Walker was a stout figure known for his bravery. He would serve 38 years in the army, fighting in some of the nation’s most difficult wars before he ultimately gave his own life for his country.
Walton Harris Walker was born in December 1889 in Belton, a small community south of Waco. The future general had an older brother who died in infancy. He could trace his ancestry to veterans of both the American Revolution and the Civil War. His father, Sam Walker, was a civic-minded store owner who co-founded the public library in Belton. He was close to his father as a youngster, and his father told him heroic tales of Texas history. And his father made sure he had the best education possible, sending him to private schools as a youth and to the Virginia Military Institute after his 1907 high school graduation.
From his youth, he had dreams of being a soldier. In 1908, he earned an appointment to the United States Military Academy and quickly transferred over from VMI. He was a popular cadet, picking up the nickname “Johnnie Walker.” He graduated from West Point in 1912.
As a new lieutenant, Walker was assigned to the 19th Infantry, based in Illinois. With the Mexican Revolution spiraling out of control, Walker was often part of army efforts to contain the chaos. In 1914, he was sent to Veracruz to help protect American business interests in the area. In 1916, in response to Pancho Villa’s raid on the border town of Columbus, New Mexico, Walker was made part of Gen. John J. Pershing’s expedition to capture Villa. During this expedition, he served with young officers George S. Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower, both to become life-long friends. After the expedition’s inconclusive end, Walker was stationed in Texas until the United States entered World War I.
In 1917, now a captain, he was assigned to the 13th Machine Gun Battalion and sent to France. He saw action in many intense battles and was cited for his bravery under fire. He served with the Allied occupation of Germany before returning to the United States.
During the interwar years, Walker served in a variety of posts. He married in 1924, and the couple’s son, Sam Sims Walker, named for Walker’s father and deceased brother, eventually became an army general himself. Walker served as an instructor at Ft. Benning, Georgia, for a time and also underwent further tactical training by the army. From 1930 to 1933, he also commanded an army force in China. In 1936, now a lieutenant colonel, Walker commanded the 5th Infantry Brigade under Gen. George Marshall, who would serve a pivotal role in World War II as Army Chief of Staff.
When the nation entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Walker asked Marshall to serve under Gen. Patton as he organized America’s tank forces. Walker was promoted to general and commander of the 3rd Armored Battalion where he worked with Patton to perfect fighting techniques with tanks.
Patton had established the Desert Training Center, which stretched across portions of California and Arizona, to simulate conditions American troops would face in North Africa. After Patton’s transfer to North Africa in 1942, Walker took command of the center and modified it to include infantry and artillery in addition to tanks. Ultimately, the Desert Training Center would train more than one million troops during World War II.
By 1944, he and the XX Corps were assigned to Great Britain in preparation for the Allied invasion of France. Ultimately serving under Patton’s Third Army, Walker would help deliver the crippling blow to the Nazis that would lead the Allies to victory.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.