LTG(R) John Caldwell came to West Point in 1963, on the eve of turbulent times. Inspired by his father’s WWII service, he chose to attend the Academy rather than remaining home in Alabama because he thought the “world was bigger.” He remembers heading to English class in Thayer Hall when he heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated, and thinking it was a joke. Later he felt that it was the death of idealism. At West Point, he valued the Honor system and the relationships the Academy formed. Cadets became increasingly aware of the war in Vietnam as more instructors wore combat patches on their right shoulder. He commissioned as an Armor Officer and married two weeks after graduation. Following Ranger School, he was assigned to the 6th Armored Cavalry Regiment at Ft. Meade, Maryland, and deployed to Washington, D.C., during the riots following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. His next assignment was in Vietnam with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, where he felt that he was led by some of the best leaders in the Army. In Vietnam, he served as a Platoon Leader and Troop Commander, equipped with the Sheridan and M113 ACAVs. After returning to the United States, he completed the Armor Officer’s Advanced Course, earned a Master’s Degree at Georgia Teach, and reported to West Point to teach. After his time as an instructor, he rejoined the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Germany. In the 1980s, following the “Training with Industry Program,” he began working on power-train development for the M1 Abrams tank. He then worked in the Pentagon, commanded a Tank Battalion, and served on the Joint Staff before becoming the project manager for the Abrams tank in July 1990. Desert Storm provided many lessons learned that were implemented in subsequent upgrades to the M1. He was then promoted to Brigadier General, assigned to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, and worked on Army digitization, including developing the Blue Force Tracker. After an assignment in Army Material Command, commanding the U.S. Army Tank and Automotive Armaments Command, his career culminated as the Director of the Army Acquisition Corps as a Lieutenant General, a post he held until retiring on January 1, 2004.
In this interview, he talks about his father’s influence, his West Point experiences, and his service in armor and in acquisition. He recalls the Riots of 1968, and the diversity of his Soldiers. He discusses Operation Texas Traveler in November 1969, designed to counter NVA advances towards Saigon, and other operations he participated in with the 11th ACR. He contextualizes his work with acquisitions within the framework of the times, highlighting various aspects of tank development. Finally, he reflects on his class and what West Point has meant to him through the years.