Lewis A. Pick


Lewis A. Pick

Military Engineer – Road Building – Education – Civil Engineering

Pick’s Pike – Thule Air Base – Water Resources – Pick-Sloan Plan

Fourteenth National Honor Member Nominated by the Virginia Military Institute Chapter

In wartime or peace, the career of a civil engineer is a series of challenges that can involve triumph over almost insuperable obstacles; it can involve desperate excitement, personal danger, exhilarating success, gratifying honorific recognition, and deep, deep personal satisfaction. The life of General Lewis A. Pick typifies such a career, and one is tempted to begin in the midst of it and re-blaze the trail both forward and backward. But one must begin at the beginning to sense the elements of success in each stage.

He was born in Brookneal, south-central Virginia, on November 18, 1890. In 1914, he graduated from Virginia Military Academy with the degree of bachelor of science in civil engineering. During his college days at V.P.I, he won letters in three major sports. His achievement of throwing the discus 117 feet was a school record for several years. He played in every varsity football game on V.P.I.’s schedule for four years. In his senior year, he was captain of the team and was honored by being selected an all-conference tackle. He never saw a football game as a spectator until he had completed his college playing career.

After three years of engineering experience on the Southern Railroad, he was enlisted in the United States Army at the outbreak of World War I and was commissioned a first lieutenant, Engineers Reserve, on August 15, 1917. He first attended Officers Training Camp at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, and Camp Humphreys. His first assignment was to Washington, D.C., for duty in the Office of the Chief of Engineers, until November, 1917, when he joined the Twenty-Third Engineers, Camp Meade, Maryland. He sailed with this organization, as a platoon commander, American Expeditionary Forces, to France in March, 1918, serving in the Province of Nievre and Chatillon sur Seine, successively, and participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. His company was selected to be General Pershing’s honor guard during an inspection of the Eighty-First Division by the A.E.F. Commander. After the armistice, he served in England in the Russian Archangel Campaign. He was promoted to captain on September 16, 1918. Returning to the United States in June, 1919, with the Twenty-Third Engineers, he was stationed at Camp Lee, Virginia, until honorably discharged on September 4, 1919.

He was next commissioned a second lieutenant, Corps of Engineers, in the regular army on July 1, 1920, and on the same date was promoted to the rank of captain. His first regular army assignment was to Headquarters, Ninth Corps Area, for duty in the Office of the Corps of Engineers, at the Presidio of San Francisco, California. In January, 1921, he was ordered to Fort Mills, Philippine Islands, where he joined the Third Engineers until the following March, when he was named Property Officer, United States Engineer Department. From September, 1921, until April, 1923, he served with the Fourteenth Engineers of the Philippine Scouts, a group that he organized. They were then stationed at Fort William McKinley, Rizal, Philippine Islands. In a later year, the Philippine Engineer Regiment was destined to distinguish itself at Bataan. Returned to the United States, he proceeded to Fort Humphreys, Virginia, where he prepared Engineer Training Regulations until September, 1923. He then was detailed to the Engineer School at Camp Humphreys as a student officer. He was graduated in June, 1924, and then served with the Reserve Officers Training Corps at Camp Meade, Maryland.

In September, 1924, he became professor of military science and tactics at Alabama Polytechnic Institute, Auburn, Alabama, and performed the usual duties of an officer in the Corps of Engineers on various military and civil works projects. In August, 1925, he was assigned to New Orleans, as military assistant to the district engineer. From October, 1927, until January, 1928, he was acting engineer, New Orleans Engineer District. Subsequently named district engineer of that district, he fought the great flood on the Mississippi River. Lowell Thomas, in his book entitled “Hungry Waters,” credits “Young Captain Pick” with being the first to expound to Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, the theory of river-flood control, now accepted by all authorities on the subject. He served in New Orleans until August, 1928, when he was transferred to College Station, Texas, as a professor of military science and tactics, in the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas.

In August, 1932, he was assigned to the Command and General Staff School, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and was graduated from the two-year course in June, 1934. There he received the rank of major on August 1, 1935, having remained at this school as an instructor until detailed to the Army War College, Washington, D.C., as a student officer in August, 1938. Upon graduation in June, 1939, he became executive assistant to the division engineer, Ohio River Division, Cincinnati, Ohio. He became a lieutenant colonel August 18, 1940, and colonel on December 23, 1941. Then in April, 1942, he was named division engineer, Missouri River Division, at Omaha, Nebraska.

At the outbreak of World War II, Pick took over the direction of military construction in a 700,000-square mile area from the Canadian border to Arkansas and from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains—a program involving the expenditure of a billion and half dollars. Successful in beating schedules on his own projects, he was called upon to take over lagging projects outside his own division, and established unprecedented records for completing schedules.

In the spring of 1943, a flood harassed his division’s area, and Congress issued a directive calling for a study of the situation and the submission of recommendations for the alleviation of flood damage in the lower Missouri River region. Pick took on this additional task, at the same time pushing his military construction assignment. Within three months, he prepared and presented a plan for the control and development of the entire Missouri River watershed, comprising 529,000 square miles. It was called the Pick Plan. Later, this was combined with an irrigation program of the Bureau of Reclamation for the upper Missouri River Basin. It became known as the Pick-Sloan Plan, and was made effective by an act of Congress in 1944.

The Pick-Sloan Plan provided for the building of more than one hundred dams and reservoirs on the Missouri River and its tributaries, the backbone of which are the six main stem dams—Fort Peck, built in the 1930’s, and incorporated into the system, Garrison, Oahe, Bug Bend, Fort Randall, and Gavins Point. The plan also involves agriculture levees and flood walls along both sides of the Missouri River, from Sioux City, Iowa, to the mouth above St. Louis. It is a multiple-purpose program designed primarily for flood control, irrigation, navigation, production of hydroelectric power, municipal and industrial water supply, water quality control, conservation of fish and wildlife, and public recreation.

Benefits accruing from the program are already staggering. In one year, for example, the six hydro-power units on the Missouri River produced 8.6 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, 2.6 million tons of cargo moved on the navigable channel, and the dams on the main stem had a combined storage of 54.9 million acre-feet and had prevented more than a quarter of a billion dollars in flood damages. The “Muddy Mo” is controlled and running clear blue water in many long reaches. The shoreline of the man-made lakes attracts about ten million visitors annually. North Dakota and South Dakota today stand on the threshold of giant irrigation development from Oahe and Garrison dams. The bank stabilization program protects about two million acres of agricultural and urban lands against the erstwhile whimsical river which, without provocation, used to change its course capriciously and wreak havoc and destruction on man, beast and property. The Pick-Sloan Plan has been the basic blueprint of progress for the Missouri River Valley.

Called overseas in October, 1943, Pick assumed command of the Advanced Section, Army Service Forces, on the Ledo Road project in the China-Burma-India area. Progress on the construction of the road was hopelessly stalled in a maze of densely jungled, precipitous mountain. Many said that the job could not be done. Pick went to work and, with his staff, accomplished the mission in record time, despite almost impossible conditions.

Winding southward from Ledo in the Province of Assam, north-eastern India, this 478-mile road was pushed through 270 miles of virgin jungle and 102 miles of mountainous territory rising to a height of 5000 feet above sea level. The road crosses ten major rivers and 155 secondary streams. During seven months of the construction period, 175 inches of rain fell in the valley section. The supply source of equipment for the American troops that built the road was 12,000 miles away. This work did not carry the highest military priority. Much of the work was done in areas in which the Japanese were fighting allied troops. One seven-mile stretch required two hundred hairpin curves. Also, if all the culverts required for this work were laid end to end, they would extend a distance of 105 miles, almost one-fourth of the length of the entire road. In addition to the engineering difficulties encountered, there were jungle infections and malaria to overcome.

The first forty-two miles of the road had been completed in the ten months prior to October 13, 1943, when General Pick assumed command. During the next fifteen months 436 miles were constructed, an average of a little less than one mile per day. The completion of the project was truly a remarkable accomplishment. In recognition of his work on this project, General Pick was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and the Chinese Order of the Banner and Cloud.

Returning to the United States, Pick was re-assigned to the Missouri River Division to initiate the river basin control and development plant that he had devised. Thus, he supervised more than one billion dollars worth of military construction in the vast Missouri Basin, which is one-sixth of the total area of the United States. Five great multi-purpose dams and other flood-control structures were placed under construction before he was called to Washington on March 1, 1949, to become Chief of Engineers. His final responsibility in the Missouri River Division was the direction of the spectacular “Operation Snowbound” for the Fifth Army. This army relief operation—opening 115,000 miles of snow-blocked roads, liberating 200,000 people from snow-locked homes, and making food accessible to 450,000 farm animals—was without precedent in type or scope.

On March 1, 1949, General Pick became Chief of Engineers for a four-year term by presidential appointment. On June 25, 1950, South Korea was attacked by North Korean Communist forces. United States armed intervention was ordered on June 27 by President Truman. During this conflict, the Corps of Engineers, under the command of General Pick as Chief of Engineers, speedily rehabilitated old camps, built new camps, and designed and constructed industrial plants to strengthen the national defense. Under his leadership, the Corps also built air fields throughout the world, including Thule Air Base in Greenland and bases in the Middle East and North Africa.

On February 26, 1953, he retired from active service after an illustrious career of thirty-five years. Among his many decorations, in addition to those previously mentioned, he was given membership in Great Britain’s Royal Order of the Bath. He was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Society of American Military Engineers, and Theta Chi Fraternity at Blacksburg, Virginia, in 1948.

He died at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C., on December 2, 1956. In his tribute to General Pick, Lieutenant General Emerson C. Etschner, then Chief of Engineers, declared that he was one of the ablest men of the Corps “who exemplified in striking degree the vision, aggressiveness and tenacity that have characterized the achievements of the Army Engineers in peace and war.

“General Pick displayed this invaluable spirit in a leader when upon arrival to begin the job of building the Ledo Road, he was told at somewhat extensive length all the reasons why it could not be built, he rose from the conference, tightened his belt, and snapped: ‘All right men. I’ve heard all the reasons why the road cannot be built; let’s go out now and build it.’

“This was the same spirit General Pick displayed when during Christmas week, 1950, in another critical period of the nation’s history, Secretary of the Air Force Thomas K. Finletter called him to his Pentagon office and told him the Air Force had an urgent requirement for an air base in Northern Greenland—the most northerly point on the planet where Americans had ever been called upon to build a permanent air base. Faced with tremendous problems of construction on frozen land midway between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole, and equally formidable problems of transportation to that remote area, General Pick tackled the job with characteristic vigor and the next year the great Thule Air Base was operational . . .”

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