Cobb County is a bit poorer today, as is our country. Retired Army Col. Frank Gleason passed away last week at the age of 98. He was a great example of the Greatest Generation.
If you follow these opinions on a regular basis, you will recall that I have written about this remarkable man on several occasions. I do so again today. He has earned it.
I knew Frank Gleason, the man, long before I knew Frank Gleason, the hero. He was a neighbor and a fellow church member. A rotund man with a twinkle in his eye who loved to tell jokes and laughed so hard he could hardly ever deliver the punch line. That was OK because chances were that the recipients had heard that same joke before — usually several times — but we laughed along with him because he had so much fun telling it.
Frank Gleason was an unrepentant and unapologetic liberal Democrat. I always told him he was the only liberal I knew with a sense of humor.
I was aware that Frank Gleason was an active member of the Vinings Rotary Club and tutored children in English and math, and he conducted seminars for senior citizens. I knew following his retirement, he worked in several managerial positions at Georgia Tech.
It was only later, however, that I learned that this kind, compassionate, good-natured man had been a saboteur in World War II, or as Frank would say, a terrorist, an honest-to-God terrorist. Not only did he not deny the appellation, he was proud of it.
At the beginning of World War II, he was a second lieutenant in the Army busy blasting rocks in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland putting the finishing touches on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s getaway, “Shangri-La” — you know it today as Camp David — when he was suddenly sent to England by the OSS to train agents there in sabotage. Thus, his matter-of-fact statement: “I was a terrorist, teaching others how to become terrorists.”
If the OSS is unfamiliar to you, the Office of Strategic Services was an intelligence agency formed during World War II and the predecessor of today’s Central Intelligence Agency.
After his assignment in England, Gleason was ordered into China to teach the locals industrial sabotage in order to hinder a Japanese army advance into the country.
When he arrived, he discovered the Chinese army had disappeared rather than face the invaders, so it was left to him, two other Americans and handful of Chinese to slow the enemy down. What they lacked in numbers, they made up for in effectiveness.
During their time there in 1944, this little band of saboteurs blew up over 150 bridges, destroyed 50,000 tons of munitions and managed to severely cripple the last Japanese offensive in southeast China while always just one step ahead of the enemy. They were lucky to get out alive.
Their efforts were the source of a novel, “The Mountain Road” by famed author
Theodore White and a motion picture in 1960 starring Jimmy Stewart. Frank Gleason served as a technical adviser for the movie.
After World War II, Gleason was Commander of the 3rd Army in West Germany and later Commanding Officer of Cam Rahn Bay Support Command in Vietnam before retiring to Atlanta.
Two years ago, Col. Frank Gleason was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian honor our nation can bestow. The medal is awarded to individuals who “performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement.” The recognition was long overdue and much deserved. OSS Society President Charles Pinck said of Gleason, he “almost singlehandedly stopped the Japanese army from advancing deep into China.”
Frank Gleason was a true Renaissance Man. He was an All-American wrestler at his alma mater, Penn State. He earned a master’s degree from Harvard. He could speak several languages, loved poetry, loved people and was dearly loved in return. He brightened every room he ever entered.
The last time I saw him was at the Salute to Veterans program at the Earl and Rachel Smith Strand Theatre this past November where he was honored along with other members of the Greatest Generation from Cobb County. When he spied me across the room, he motioned me over to his table and proceeded to tell me a joke about a farmer and his two daughters. We had a good laugh. I have already forgotten the punch line, but I will never forget his obvious pleasure in sharing the story.
For all of Frank Gleason’s many achievements, his greatest was making this a better world because he was here. He made us laugh. He made us proud. He will be missed.