Samuel Vaughan Wilson (93) died June 10, 2017 of lung cancer at his home in Rice, Virginia.
A revered and beloved figure, and known affectionately as “General Sam,” Lieutenant General Wilson served 37 years in the U.S. Army, retiring in 1977. In June 1940, at 16, he walked seven miles through the nighttime rain from his family’s tobacco farm in Rice to the Army National Guard Armory in Farmville, VA, where he lied about his age and signed up. When he graduated from OCS at the age of 18, he was the Army’s youngest second lieutenant.
General Wilson became a living legend in intelligence and special operations. During his military career, he co-authored legislation establishing the U.S. Special Operations Command and helped create the Delta Force — the Army’s premier counterterrorism unit. Fluent in Russian, he was designated the first general officer to serve as defense attaché to Moscow. An expert in “counterinsurgency,” he coined the term, writing the Army’s first program of instruction on how to do it and fight it.
General Sam was an early recruit to the Office of Strategic Services in 1943. Later, his commanding officer termed him the best lieutenant fighting in Burma with the renowned “Merrill’s Marauders.” During his career he saw service variously in Russia and Vietnam, ran CIA Cold War operations in Berlin, served as Assistant Division Commander for Operations of the 82nd Airborne Division, and commanded the Sixth Special Forces Group. He played a key staff role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. In addition, he served as Deputy to the Director of Central Intelligence for the Intelligence Community, and as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Following his military career, he joined the faculty of Hampden-Sydney College as a professor of political science. He went on to become president of the college for eight years, and after founding Hampden-Sydney’s Wilson Center for Leadership was named to its first Wheat professorship. A longtime member of the Hampden-Sydney board, when commending General Sam’s “great wisdom,” described him as “one of the most significant presidents in the school’s history; he led and inspired every man he met to be a better man.”
Over the years many in the nation’s military and civilian leadership, and notably in its intelligence community, have held soaring opinions of General Sam — among them at least six Presidents as well as George Allen, Charles Robb, Paul Trible, Alexander Haig, David Petraeus, Richard Helms, John O. Marsh, Bobby Ray Inman, and Edward Lansdale.
— Former CIA Director Richard Helms said General Sam “never hesitated to take on the secret jobs which entail no reward.”
— Pete Schoomaker, former Chief of Staff of the Army, said of him: “I think of General Sam as the ideal polymath Renaissance Man…warrior, scholar, diplomat, leader, and sage.”
— Lynn Novick, Florentine Films said: Early in our project, Ken Burns and I were extremely fortunate to be introduced to General Sam Wilson, one of the most brilliant, honest, and authentic human beings we have ever encountered. We will be forever grateful to him for sharing his deep insights into the Vietnam War, one of the most divisive and complex events in our history. We feel his loss most acutely."
—Joseph Galloway, war correspondent and co-author of “We Were Soldiers Once and Young,” found General Sam “a prince of a man and officer and thinker and doer. He lived the words Duty, Honor, Country every day. His like shall never pass this way again."
—Novelist Charles McCarry said of his life-long friend "General Sam Wilson may well have been the ultimate citizen the founding fathers had in mind when they created our country. In dangerous times, he rose from the people to positions of high influence but all his life remained one of them. His deeds on the world stage were great and their effect on history was by no means small. His fame was quiet, as Sam, for whom duty was its own reward, wished it to be."
—LTG Patrick Hughes, former DIA Director said of his predecessor "It one thing to have been a great man for a brief period of time. It is another to have a sustained history and character of such esteem that one can call you among the greatest of the Greatest Generation."
— LTG James Williams, former DIA Director: "He was first and foremost, a gentleman. It followed then that he was also a scholar and a soldier, cited for heroism, who truly inspired his men and his officers. No challenge was too great and no obstacle too severe."
Among General Sam's various other honors, he was a member of the U.S. Army Infantry Hall of Fame, the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame, the U.S. Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, and the U.S. Attaché Hall of Fame. He was a recipient of: the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star (Gallantry) (twice), the Legion of Merit (twice), the U.S. Army’s Distinguished Service Medal (thrice), the Office of National Intelligence's Distinguished Service Medal (twice), the U.S. Special Operations Distinguished Service Medal, the CIA Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the William Oliver Baker Award (Intelligence), the Arthur D. “Bull” Simons Award (Special Operations), the National Defense Industrial Association’s Rylander Award for Special Operations, and the Military Intelligence Corps Association’s Knowlton Award. General Sam also held an Honorary Doctorate in Laws from Hampden-Sydney College, an Honorary Doctorate in Letters from Longwood University, and an honorary doctorate in Strategic Intelligence from the National Intelligence University. In 1992, the Virginia Cultural Laureate Foundation named him its Cultural Laureate for Public Service.
Samuel Vaughan Wilson was predeceased by his parents, Helen Vaughan and Jasper D. Wilson; his brothers John D. and William L.; his sister Virginia W. Druen; and by his wife Brenda Downing Wilson. He is survived by his brother James B. Wilson; his sons Samuel V. Wilson, Jr. (Jane Carol), Jackson B. Wilson (Jane), David. J. M. Wilson, and William W Tennis II; by his daughters Susan V. Wilson, and Frances Gwin Tennis (Jason); and by his wife Virginia H. Wilson.
Memorial services for General Sam will be held at College Church, Hampden-Sydney College June 23 at 1:00 PM. The family asks that donations in his memory be made to the Samuel V. Wilson Scholarship Fund or The Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest at Hampden Sydney, VA, 23943.