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November 10, 2012

Walter Price says ‘great people help make a life’

Courage Under Fire

STILLWATER, Okla. — Duty. Honor. Country.

The West Point motto to develop leaders of character embraced Walter Price throughout his military service and civilian career as a moral and ethical code for life.

Silver Star, Bronze Star, Vietnam Gallantry Cross, Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Combat Infantry Badge with a star, Senior Parachutists Wings, Ranger Tab . . . yet his most cherished reward is serving with the greatest people in the world.

“People — the best people around — in the military and community are what make a life,” Price said.

Price graduated from Oklahoma Military Academy, a cavalry ROTC secondary school and junior college in Claremore which is now the site of Rogers State University. Cadets were issued a horse and trained in cavalry tactics. Springfield rifles, the old bolt action models, were part of their gear, but once World War II started, the Springfields were picked up and delivered to the active forces. In college at OMA, World War II transformed the country and the lives of its citizens so he felt it was his duty to volunteer.

“We never had a feeling of fear,” Price said. “We knew we had a job to do, but I do not remember any concern over our ultimate victory.”

After boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., and training at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Fort Benning, Ga., during the last legs of the war, he earned an appointment to the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. While young people were coming home from the war to end all wars, Price was off to become a career officer. During his senior year at West Point, he was selected to be one of three mule riders who represent USMA at athletic events, parades and ceremonies. Price was right in the thick of the action after watching football games from the stadium where there was once three Heisman trophy winners and seven All-Americans on the field at Yankee Stadium when Army faced Notre Dame, he said.

World War II had a significant effect on West Point with virtually every officer an experienced combat veteran. Sixty percent of the class were veterans and the national administration was stressing no more wars with a plan to just maintain the armed forces structure.

“The West Point classmate bond is the strongest bond in the world,” Price said, explaining the honor system in place enables everyone to totally trust each other. Earning a commission as a second lieutenant after his USMA graduation in 1950, Price headed to parachute school. However, Price’s classmate, astronaut Frank Borman, pointed out in a reunion speech once that the West Point Class of 1950 was on wartime footing their entire careers after North Korea erupted on the world scene trying to spread communism.

 “Before graduation leave was over, classmates were being called off of leave to go to Korea,” Price said.

Unlike previous conflicts, the Korean War did ot disrupt class graduation schedules. More than half of the Army leadership during the war was composed of academy graduates. As a result, 157 alumni perished in the conflict.

“Blind luck,” is how Price escaped death in the hilly, cold country where he commanded a ground rifle company. He didn’t see action in World War II so he was ready to get over to Korea.

By the time he arrived “the North Koreans were beaten down and we were pretty much fighting the Chinese to stabilize the main line of resistance,” he said. “I was anxious to get there — but I realized they were using live ammunition — and it was serious.”

Price said he was at that age when he thought he was tougher than anyone in the world but a combat zone parlayed a dance with destiny for ground soldiers. A respected major once grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him saying “do everything you can do to keep these soldiers alive — but when they’re gone, they’re gone.”  The great sacrifices of the soldiers and their families were always a concern as a commander in combat, Price said. When he made it back stateside safely, he returned to West Point to teach military psychology and leadership after earning a master’s degree from Columbia University. Price graduated from the Army Command and General Staff College and served on the ROTC staff at Oklahoma State University. From OSU, he was sent to Vietnam.

As a battalion commander in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division he served with the elite — the best of America who had volunteered for jump school and went to Vietnam at the bidding of their country. This division was known as the Band of Brothers during World War II and “two wars later — still the greatest group that ever lived,” Price said. “I commanded a bunch of heroes.”

The unit was air mobile doing everything by helicopter in the jungles of Vietnam. The Viet Cong were experts at guerrilla warfare but the elite platoons were up to the challenging engagements with Price escaping many close calls.

He spent six months later in Saigon assisting the State Department with civilian missions in re-establishing city governments and farming village enterprises. Although he was not in direct combat in Saigon, there were Viet Cong all around throwing bombs from motorcycles creating constant danger. His family sat out his war years in Stillwater – and he came to think of the city as home — and there’s no place like home for a soldier.

After retiring from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, the end of the rainbow led him to his own Yellow Brick road on the west side of Stillwater.  Price entered state government serving in the Office of the Governor and on the State Board of Public Affairs. He was elected a city commissioner and worked as director of Downtown Stillwater Unlimited, along with managing many other business endeavors. Oklahoma Military Academy named Price a distinguished alumnus for his civic and military achievements.

Price and his wife Jane raised four sons with three of them working at Oklahoma State University now. They have five grandchildren. He thought his wife should be included in his veteran picture since “she’s been with me through it all.” Price has always known when the soldier serves so does his family as a man who has fulfilled the duties of citizenship for the commonwealth — both in battle and public service.

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