|Each and every American death in Vietnam was a tragedy in its own right. If there
were a way to classify some as more tragic than others, Alex Hottell's loss would
probably be at or near the top of the list. His short, twenty-seven-year life was a series of
successes that indicted a potential that would have propelled him to the top level in any
walk of life. In Alex's case, it was the army, to which he was totally committed. His
short-term plan was to return from Vietnam and teach in the Department of Social
Sciences at West Point. In the long term, he undoubtedly would have been one of the
army's key leaders. In the words of his classmate and good friend, Waldo Freeman (At
the time of this writing, Major General Freeman is the U.S. Army commander in Japan.),
Alex "had all the marks of a senior general officer."
John Alexander Hottell III was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on Christmas Eve,
1942, the son of John II, a career army officer, and his wife, Helen. Like Clair Thurston,
Bob Serio, and Akos Szekely, Alex was an only child who was always a source of pride
and joy for his parents. And, like the other army brats in the class, he attended schools in
various corners of the world. As a youngster Alex enjoyed the army life and what it had
to offer in the way of educational, patriotic, and leadership opportunities, so it was no
surprise that he chose to attend West Point.
As a cadet, Alex quickly earned the respect of all. In the area of brilliance, he had no
academic weaknesses and ended up graduating tenth in the class. He would later become
a Rhodes Scholar.
In the area of athletics and activities, his extensive extracurricular involvements from
being the swimming team's diver to the German Club's programming chairman is solid
testimony of how well rounded and multitalented Alex was.
Waldo Freeman provides additional details: "I knew Alex in Company E-2 plebe and
yearling years. We were both in many of the same sections including advanced German.
(His German was excellent.) He was always in or near the section leader's seat. We both
came from army families and also had that in common. … He was well liked and
respected despite his excess of brains, talent, athletic ability and ambition over most of
the rest of us. More than most, he knew where he wanted to go and he had a plan to get
himself there. For example, about early yearling year he started talking about Rhodes
Scholarships. … Alex worked hard at self-improvement. He also played the guitar and
was good at singing popular songs.
"During the '63 summer we were in Germany on the same cycle of AOT.
Afterwards, he, Cal Kleuss, and I bicycled from Frankfurt up the Rhine River to Cologne,
staying in youth hostels. We went by train to Hamburg and then bicycled through Lubeck
and Travemunde to Copenhagen and even into Sweden. It was a great trip as we tried
hard to savor Europe and our brief freedom. Alex had his guitar and entertained all the
fellow student travelers (especially females) at the hostels."
It is not often that college students become good friends of their professors, but
Alex's intellectual capacity impressed all of his instructors. One of those was Colonel
Roger Nye, who would later become deputy head of the History Department. Roger
reflects on Ales: "Alex caught my attention in a European History course I was teaching
to yearlings. He volunteered that the history textbook carried a quotation from Karl
Marx's Das Kapital that was not correctly translated from the German. Our German
language faculty confirmed his observation. …
"In subsequent conversation he revealed his discomfort with the pace of his learning,
and he suggested we create a special seminar. Our first meeting of SIRS (Seminar for
Individual Responsibility in Scholarship) was in January, 1962. The one requirement was
writing 1,000 words a week into a journal, which would become the basis for seminar
discussion on history, philosophy, and military professionalism.
"A month later my 1946 classmate from West Point, the Nicaraguan dictator,
'Tacho' Somoza, came to town and the seven members of SIRS came to my quarters to
probe his mind. When Alex had the guts to ask why the Somozas continued to run
Nicaragua while the Trujillos had been overthrown in the Dominican Republic. 'Tacho'
gave him a one-sided answer. Alex included a four-page summary of that evening in his
journal, suspicious but unabashed that 'Tacho' had charmed him.
"As we grew out of SIRS, Al continued to make almost daily journal entries. The
journals focused on all aspects of his cadet life but the overriding theme was preparing to
continue his post-academy education as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. By the time of his
death in 1970, the journals had grown to ten bulging three-ring notebooks of typed and
hand written manuscripts."
Alex's widow, Linda, sent the journals to Roger Nye in 1995 for incorporation into
the West Point Library's Special Collections. Some of the countless topics discussed in
them are as follows: "The duty of man is to fulfill his own nature," "Why officers should
be honest," "What did I learn from West Point?" and "When do I get married?"
Thus Al's journals record a young man's struggle to find intellectual and a spiritual
guidance for meaningful leadership in the U.S. Army during the chaotic decade of the
sixties. Despite the expressed criticisms and uncertainties, Linda had noted that, in his
life, Alex was driven by the idea that "You can if you think you can."
In December of firstie year, Al suffered "the worst defeat of my life" when he was
turned down for the Rhodes scholarship. That momentary failure motivated him to work
harder and reapply the following year. So, Alex spent his two months of graduation leave
sharing a dumpy apartment in Greenwich Village with Martin Green and Mike Leonard
while attending the New School for Social Research.
After Airborne and Ranger Schools, Alex reported to the 101st Airborne Division at
Fort Campbell. Shortly there after he passed his Rhodes interviews and was granted the
scholarship. Alex's stay at Fort Campbell, although brief, was most significant, for it was
there that he met two people who became paramount in his life—fellow second
lieutenant, Mike Sierra, and his future wife, Linda Brown. Mike recalls those days and
subsequent times: "Alex and I were friends. We met at Fort Campbell in 1964 and I was
at his funeral in 1970. During those six years we tried to solve most of the world's
problems. At least I tried to help. It was quite clear to me from the outset that Alex had an
agenda that was intended to solve most of the world's problems—only he was going to
begin with something simple, like the U.S. Army.
"I was always impressed with Alex. He was poised and confident, and he had a
swagger about him that could be terribly offensive to some people. I wasn't offended
though; I was eager to be part of that whole scene. After all, we were the 101st Airborne
Division. Only the best, we were told, were assigned to this elite unit. And we all
"Alex arrived at Fort Campbell well prepared to begin a long career of dedicated
service. He had studied the great battles and reviewed the lessons of enlightened
leadership. Now, after what seemed like entirely too many years of preparation, Alex was
ready to make his place in the annals of our history. He had so many things to
accomplish, so much to do. Alex couldn't waste time and had little of it for people who
did not share a vision of what was possible for our army. You see, Alex was filled with a
great deal of zeal and enthusiasm, fed by a characteristic sometimes lost all too soon in
our lives—idealism. He was an idealist, an idealist with a vision who challenged all he
came in contact with. It was his sword but also his anvil. Perhaps time would have caused
one to overcome the other. For the moment, he questioned all that his assessment deemed
not to fit the model of what was possible for the army that he and his peers would inherit.
This included senior officers mired in World War II doctrine and self-aggrandizement;
NCO's with a disdain for the new leadership of a more prepared junior officer; peers with
less than a full commitment to what was possible. But Alex was not alone. He was part of
a distinct group of many such young, proud idealists who wanted to make a difference.
"As such, many people meeting Alex for the first time would fit into one of two
groups—those who liked him and those who did not. Like everything else in his life,
there was no middle ground. Alex sought and seized the moral high ground. His intellect
would be cause for discomfort among the unprepared and for applause from the many
who shared his view. This aside, few of his contemporaries who agreed with him shared
the same willingness to project their views as vocally as Alex did.
"It was in that context that we met and began our friendship. Alex was fresh from
West Point, filled with the pride and professionalism that institution imbues in its
graduates. I was a Distinguished Military Graduate from the Infantry Officer's Candidate
School at Fort Benning. In my mind, I was as good as Alex and possessed the experience
he was still seeking. His poise and confidence only fed mine and provided a special
energy between us. Alex had great ideas and views that lasted until his death. Over the
next six years I was fortunate to be with Alex at Fort Campbell, in Europe, in Vietnam, at
Fort Knox, and finally, in a chapel at West Point to listen to his words describing his life
and death. If he were not able to talk, he wrote letters, long powerful letters.
"Alex had arrived at Fort Campbell unattached. After getting to know him, my then
future wife, Kaye, linked him to her charming and witty friend, Linda, from Clarksville,
Tennessee. 'Perfect,' Kaye said, 'Just what he needs.' One of their first dates was to a
skating rink where Alex, as was his wont to do, proceeded to instruct Linda on the finer
skills of skating. Alex was an excellent athlete, and though skating was not his forte, he
thought he could certainly go around a rink and impress a southern gal. Linda watched
and listened to Alex as he went over the basic routines. Finally, she smoothly skated a
choreographed sequence of moves, spins, and turns, finishing with double jumps and the
applause of a gathered audience. Kaye turned to Alex and whispered that Linda had been
a state champion. 'Why didn't you tell me?' asked Alex as Linda approached. 'Because
you never asked,' replied Linda.
"Kaye and I got married in the spring of 1965. Alex and Linda were in our wedding
as I prepared to leave a few weeks later, full of excitement and great expectations for my
new venture in Southeast Asia. Alex departed for Oxford that fall and we timed our
arrival back to Fort Campbell in 1966 so that Kaye and I could be in their wedding. Kaye
was a bridesmaid and I was the head usher. Colonel Hottell was the best man. What a
wonderful sight—the proud colonel and his gracious wife, beaming at the marriage of
their only child, who was their life."
Linda joined Alex after their wedding and the happy couple spent their free time
exploring Europe in "Melvin the Mustang." On one trip Linda stayed with Kaye and
Mike in Bad Toelz, Germany, while Al spent a week at the German Army Airborne
School earning his German jumpmaster qualification. Jumpmaster School is tough
enough in English, so Al's German really had to be good. The two couples often traveled
together, guided by Europe On $5 A Day.
Oxford was an adventuresome three years for Alex and his reaction was stated again
and again in just four words: "I love it here." In addition to satisfying the academic
demands, he wrote poetry, played guitar in a local combo, "The Turn of the Pooh," and
continued adding to his journals, which he admitted had become "…an integral part of
my personality. I can't have an interesting experience or stimulating thought without an
accompanying compulsion to put it down." Some of the journal entries he made during
that time were: "We are doing well in Vietnam; my country, right or wrong," "…our job
in Vietnam may take ten years," "If I do not believe in eternal life, how can I send
soldiers to their death?" Halfway through the program, some of the other Rhodes
Scholars wrote a letter to President Johnson, urging settlement through negotiations in
Vietnam. Alex opposed the letter, maintaining that those who were military should not
give aid and comfort to the enemy. Along with several other U.S. military scholars at
Oxford, Alex began to project a vision for the army that would serve it well into the
twenty-first century. Once again, he was the idealist with a vision and he preached it to
anyone who would listen and to many who wouldn't.
Toward the end of his sojourn in England, he began focusing on his own future
possibilities as he knew he would soon be participating in his country's increasing effort
in Southeast Asia. A journal entry discussed his possible demise: "…it is precisely
because life is so precious to me that I am prepared to die, and there is no paradox in this.
The meaning I found in life is embodied in West Point; not just the place or the people, or
even my four years there, but the total concept of the place. Its history reeks of nobility,
its sons personify duty and honor, and that other great source of meaning, our country. It
is the poetic words of MacArthur, gloom period, football weekends, 'Ladies and
Gentlemen, the United States Corps of Cadets.' It is the pride in wearing your country's
uniform and giving the troops something to believe in; it is the embodiment of the history
of the American fighting man and, by damn, if I die taking part in that, I die happy and
satisfied. Of the possible meanings of death, it is the best."
Alex successfully completed his study requirements in July 1968 and was sent to
Fort Bragg for some army "re-greening" before going to the combat zone. (He had hoped
to go directly to Vietnam with Mike Sierra but the higher-ups said he had been away
from the troops too long.) For nine months he commanded "The Cobras," Company C,
Third Battalion, 504th Infantry of the Eighty-second Airborne Division. He and his
troops developed a mutual admiration society and the company was transformed from an
also-ran into a top-notch unit of team players. "Captain Cobra" was ready to go to
Vietnam. Mike helped get him assigned to the First Air Cavalry Division where Al's
clear and directed vision would fit in perfectly with the division's revolutionary concept.
A week before leaving Linda, Alex learned that he was to become a father and
pondered the coming sadness over not being able to be with her at her due time. That
concern was added to the other normal pre-combat uncertainties.
In the First Cav Alex took over B Company, First Battalion, Eighth Cavalry, the
"Pigirons," a unit of mostly draftees. His first reaction was, "By God, they're all
CIVILIANS!" But, it didn't take long for him to realize that they were fine, young, red-
blooded Americans who were also answering their country's call. He wrote, "People
know what they should do and they have the courage and confidence in each other to do
it. … They will do anything even though they feel that life and society have dumped all
over them; they can still drive on and fight like demons, march like Jackson, and soldier
like the very dickens when they have to…it fills me with inspiration. They are truly the
great people of this war…the forgotten civilians who will probably never receive their
due for their valor on the fields of battle." The company flourished and on one of its
numerous successful operations Alex won the Silver Star for leading his company in a
counter-attack rescue of a friendly ambushed unit. In addition to freeing the beleaguered
unit, he personally carried three wounded men through the heavy fire to the rear. The
only low point of Alex's command tour came when he received a letter from Linda
stating that she had had a miscarriage.
In the meantime, Mike Sierra returned from Vietnam to the Armor Advanced Course
at Fort Knox. "Alex wrote frequently. Whenever his unit enjoyed a pause in the day, he
would write. How did he find the time? He had so much to say—on tactics and logistics,
on the merits of employing leap-frogging artillery batteries with sweeping infantry
platoon units, on the folly of a rotational policy that caused everyone to relearn valuable
lessons gained with the lives of soldiers, on the value of strategic bombing and the need
to use military power far more wisely than our leaders realized. He wanted to share this
vision and I soon realized that he was not selecting just me to share this with. He was
reaching out to as many people as would listen. He wanted to make a difference."
The division commander cut short Al's company command after four months and
made him the division historian so that he could write about the effectiveness of the air
cavalry. That mission accomplished, he then was assigned as a G-2 (Intelligence)
Operations desk officer on the division staff. By that time he had become so well
respected that Major General George Casey, then the assistant division commander,
asked Alex to be his aide when he took over the division in June 1970. Of course that
meant Alex would have to extend his tour for at least six months, which he did. He went
home for a month's leave, visited his parents and friends with Linda, and continued to
demonstrate idealism, fire, and passion for his work. At one point he called Mike Sierra
aside to tell him of a letter he had left with Linda, to be opened only if "something"
Alex returned to begin his new job in late April and by July the monsoon rains had
arrived. On the evening of Saturday, the sixth, Al and his classmates in the division area,
Jed Brown (who had been in Linda and Al's wedding four years before) and Jim Carson
(a former roommate who was also at Fort Campbell with Al) decided to have a beer in
the Officers Club tent. After about two hours of chatting, Al invited Jed to accompany
General Casey and himself the next morning on their weekly Sunday visit to the
division's wounded soldiers at the Cam Ranh Bay hospital. Although Jed's outfit, the
Eighth Engineer Battalion, had several soldiers hospitalized, he declined the offer, stating
that he'd probably better stay around and help break in his newly arrived battalion
That decision saved Jed's life, for the next mooring en route to Cam Ranh Bay the
general's helicopter, descending through the clouds to refuel, crashed into the side of a
mountain, instantly killing all on board. It was several days before a massive search
found the crash site. In the States, Kaye and Mike rushed to Linda's side. Mike recollects:
"The funeral at West Point was a 'Who's Who' of our army at the time. It was profound
and moving and emotional and fitting. And it was sad. Linda received the American flag
and was left with the memories of the too short marriage and the images of what was to
be. Colonel and Mrs. Hottell greeted everyone with a smile and a thank you and
internalized their grief. Colonel Hottell died a few years later and his wife soon after.
Their grief was overwhelming. Alex, you see, was their life."
Countless soldiers, friends, and family members were deeply saddened by this
multiple loss. Alex, like his twenty-one classmates who had already fallen, had been
doing his best in the service of his country. And, like Jim Kotrc almost a year before, he
died after having been selected for advanced promotion and was promoted posthumously
Alex's family established the Major John Alexander Hottell III Memorial Award, (a
military saber) which is annually presented to the graduating cadet with the highest
standing in European History (Until 1987 the award was for the Modern History course.).
Until his death, Alex's dad traveled to West Point to present the award each year. While
Jed Brown was assigned to the Department of History in the early seventies he served as
his escort officer.
Among the many extraordinary accomplishments of Alex Hottell was the
premonitory letter (mentioned above) to his beloved Linda, written in the event of his
death in Vietnam, which became part of his obituary and was published in the New York
Times. He wrote:
|I am writing my own obituary for several reasons, and I hope
none of them are too trite. First, I would like to spare my friends, who may
happen to read this, the usual clichés about being a good soldier. They
were all kind enough to me and I not enough to them. Second, I would not
want to be a party to perpetuation of an image that is harmful and
inaccurate: "glory" is the most meaningless of concepts, and I feel that in
some cases it is doubly damaging. And thirdly, I am quite simply the last
authority on my own death.
I loved the Army: it reared me, it nurtured me, and it gave me the
most satisfying years of my life. Thanks to it I have lived an entire lifetime
in 26 years. It is only fitting that I should die in its service. We all have but
one death to spend, and insofar as it can have any meaning it finds it in the
service of comrades-in-arms.
And yet, I deny that I died FOR anything – not my Country, not my
Army, not my fellow man, none of these things. I LIVED for these things,
and the manner in which I chose to do it involved the very real chance that
I would die in the execution of my duties. I knew this, and accepted it, but
my love for West Point and the Army was great enough – and the promise
that I would someday be able to serve all the ideals that meant anything to
me through it was great enough – for me to accept this possibility as a part
of a price which must be paid for all things of great value. If there is
nothing worth dying for – in this sense – there is nothing worth living for.
The Army let me live in Japan, Germany, and England with
experiences in all of these places that others only dream about. I have
skied in the Alps, killed a scorpion in my tent camping in Turkey, climbed
Mount Fuji, visited the ruins of Athens, Ephesus, and Rome, seen the town
of Gordium where another Alexander challenged his destiny, gone to the
Opera in Munich, plays in the West End of London, seen the Oxford-
Cambridge rugby match, gone for pub crawls through the Cotswolds, seen
the night-life in Hamburg, danced to the Rolling Stones, and earned a
master's degree in a foreign university.
I have known what it is like to be
married to a fine and wonderful woman and to love her beyond bearing
with the sure knowledge that she loves me; I have commanded a company
and been a father, priest, income-tax advisor, confessor, and judge for 200
men at one time; I have played college football and rugby, won the British
National Diving Championship two years in a row, boxed for Oxford
against Cambridge only to be knocked out in the first round and played
handball to distraction – and all of these sports I loved, I learned at West
Point. They gave me hours of intense happiness.
I have been an exchange
student at the German Military Academy, and gone to the German
Jumpmaster School, I have made thirty parachute jumps from everything
from a balloon in England to a jet at Fort Bragg. I have written an article
that was published in Army magazine, and I have studied philosophy.
I have experienced all these things because I was in the Army and because I
was an Army brat. The Army is my life, it is such a part of what I was that
what happened is the logical outcome of the life I lived. I never knew what
it is to fail, I never knew what it is to be too old or too tired to do anything.
I lived a full life in the Army, and it has exacted the price. It is only just.
Alex gave back to West Point that which he had found; and to those who knew and
loved him, much more. His life encompassed, transcended, and personified not only
"Duty and Honor and Country," but also vision and idealism.
~ Fallen Warriors The West Point Class of 1964 by John Murray