KILLEEN, Texas - Silas “Si” Duncan III was raised in the small farming community of Floydada, Texas, in the 1950s, where he was ingrained with a ferocious work ethic that would eventually place him as an eyewitness to American history on many occasions, but when he joined the Army in February of 1960 his motives were purely nutritional.
“I was going to Texas Tech and only completed one semester,” he said. “I was very hungry. I knew the Army would feed me, so I joined and they fed me. It was a win-win situation.”
It was a practical beginning to an extraordinary career.
The first chapter was spent as a communications center operations specialist at Fort Gordon, Ga. As he approached the end of his three-year contract, he wasn’t sure what to do next.
“To that point nobody had said anything to me about re-enlisting, so I thought I was going to have to slide out of the Army. I had no clue they would ask me to stay.”
To his surprise, he was told that if he would give the Army some more of his life, they would give him a position in the White House.
He still shakes his head when he thinks about it.
“I had no clue that would ever, ever happen.”
Not too shocked to think straight, he happily accepted the offer.
“I already had top secret clearance, so I signed and they brought me right up to the White House.”
He arrived in Washington in February of 1963 and served under President John F. Kennedy as part of the White House Army Signal Agency (later named the White House Communications Agency).
Kennedy was assassinated 10 months later.
Si is a good-humored man, with an easy smile and spry energy that belies his 72 years, but his eyes lower and his shoulders drop when he talks about those sad but very important days in the White House.
“When Lyndon B. Johnson became president, we served under him. It was a very, very busy time, but President Johnson needed protection, and his family needed protection, so I was detailed with the secret service to provide certain types of security.”
Si served in the White House under President Johnson for more than two years, as a government reeling from the cruel death of its leader struggled back to its feet.
Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam was escalating by leaps and bounds, and Si was itching to help. His frustrations intensified while the Army balked at sending him overseas because of his unique qualifications and clearances.
“I wanted to go to Vietnam because I considered myself a soldier, and I did not want to miss being a soldier,” he said. “I volunteered every month for a year, and they finally said OK.”
In late 1966, Si left the White House to go to war.
“I got there and had so many weird clearances, it was deemed I should not go outside a secured perimeter, not that we didn’t take plenty of attacks inside,” he explained. “I was assigned to work for Gen. [William Childs] Westmoreland in his staff office.”
Si served for two years with Westmoreland, who commanded all military operations in Vietnam at its peak (1964-1968), until Westmoreland was appointed the U.S. Army chief of staff in 1968. Duncan followed the general back to Washington, but only after spending two weeks as a transition aide for his replacement, Gen. Creighton William Abrams (after whom the Abrams tank is named).
By the time Si returned to Washington in 1969, he had served under two presidents and two of the most notable general officers in history. It’s hard to believe his life could get any more interesting, but it did.
In 1970, Si was recommended for an assignment as an aide to Omar Nelson Bradley, the last five-star general of the Army and a living legend in the military establishment. At the time Bradley was in his late '70s and serving mainly as a statesman - but still serving.
“Five-star generals never retire,” explained Si. “The are always considered to be on active duty and subject to the president’s call, until death.”
Si had attained the rank of sergeant first class at this point, and was promoted to the rank of warrant officer for the job. He moved to California, where his place of duty would be Bradley’s home in Beverly Hills.
The two men hit it off right away.
“We became very good friends,” said Si, who still gets emotional when speaking of the renowned general. “He was a great, great guy. He would go to Fort Gordon under the pretense of playing golf, but he would head straight to the mess hall to talk with the troops. He had an affinity for soldiers, and he showed that in war too. He believed that if there was a problem, you asked a sergeant – not a commander – and he would give the straight scoop, and a way to remedy it. It worked for him many, many times.”
Life as Bradley’s aide was a unique experience for a soldier. When he wasn’t helping Bradley gather information for his memoirs or escorting him to functions, Si was managing meetings with a steady stream of politicians and celebrities.
Bradley, who had helped guide the U.S. military to victory in World War II alongside generals George S. Patton, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George C. Marshall, was now spending his days networking with the likes of Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and Jane Wyman.
One day, Si answered a knock at the door to find “The King” standing there.
“Elvis came by when the Bradleys were in New York,” he recalled. “He said, I’d really like to see the general, because I brought him a present. He opened up this box and it was a gold-plated WWII .45 pistol! When the Bradleys got back I called Colonel Parker [Elvis’ manager] and set up an appointment. Elvis visited two or three times after that.”
Interacting with the rich and famous became commonplace, and it was exciting in its way, but one person Si met while working for Bradley would immediately - and permanently - outshine them all.
Charlotte “Charlie” Bailey was a specialist in the Women’s Army Corps stationed with the 6th Army in San Francisco when she got the assignment that would change her life.
“Gen. Bradley’s secretary went on leave, and I had been an executive secretary before I was in the Army, so I was sent to fill in,” she explained.
The pretty, spirited brunette immediately attracted attention among the general’s aides.
“Another staff member saw her before I did and said, oh my god she’s beautiful! So I turned around and saw her and my heart went bumbumbumbum,” laughed Si. “Later that evening I introduced her to Mr. and Mrs. Bradley.”
Seventeen days later, Charlie and Si got married in Las Vegas.
“He never did ask me out,” laughed Charlie as she explained their brief courtship. “He said, 'Get your coat we’re going to dinner!' He pulled rank.”
The rest is history. Forty-one years later, the two still hold hands and flirt like a couple of lovebirds while being interviewed at their home in Killeen.
“I am so proud of him,” said Charlie. “He was always at the top, and he’s done things no one else has done.”
The couple left Bradley’s service in 1971, and Si was promoted from chief warrant officer two to captain later that year, making him one of the few soldiers to have served in all three ranking capacities: enlisted, warrant officer, and commissioned officer. He was stationed at Fort Hood in 1979 and retired as a major here in 1986.
As to how he was able to land so many prestigious assignments, Si said it’s no secret.
“You don’t necessarily volunteer for positions - everybody has hard chores in the military - but when you’re selected to something you do it to your best ability. I worked really hard, and I happened to be around other people who were hard workers too, so we – we – made a success of what we were doing.”
Si and Charlie remained friends with Bradley until he died in 1981, but they never missed the glitz and glamor of working for him.
“Remember, we were young soldiers,” said Si. “It was really expensive living in Hollywood, and I had to buy all the expensive uniforms and so forth, so it was kind of tough, really.”
“It was very nice to have experienced that lifestyle,” Charlie reflected. “But it’s even nicer to have our own lives.”