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History Corner By Pat Ross & Fran Snead

June 01, 2018

“Two Brothers, Two Generals:  From Pemberton to the Pentagon”

By Skip Prillaman and Fran Snead

The Bassett Historical Center is always a beehive of activity!  One never knows who is going to walk in the door or what interesting story is going to be shared.  Since Memorial Day is celebrated in the month of May and because we are also working on the Vietnam Veterans monument (deadline to bring DD 214s to the Center is June 7 at 5:00) this story seems very fitting to share.   Three boys were born in Pemberton, West Virginia in the late 1920’s and 30’s.  Their family moved to Martinsville where the three boys grew up and went to school.  All three brothers attended Virginia Military Institute and this is the story of the two older brothers written by their younger brother, Skip.  

“It all started in Pemberton, West Virginia, a small coal mining town near Beckley.  My brothers, Richard Lee, John Paul, and I, Charles Lewis (Skipper), were all born in Pemberton to John Henry and Gladys Lewis Prillaman.  Later on, we would joke about living at the bottom of a slate dump, but, at the same time, it was anything but funny especially for our mother, who spent most of her time keeping us and the house clean of the ever-present coal dust.  Since we had no yard to speak of, when the three of us went out to play it didn’t take long until my brothers and I looked like we had just come out of the coal mines.  During this time, our father held one of the most coveted jobs in the coal fields.  He was manager of the Lillybrook Coal Company’s company store.  It was a good, clean job that did not require him to go down into the mines and it also had its perks.  For instance, when a fresh shipment of meat would arrive he would get first choice.  And at a discount!

It wasn’t long before tragedy struck.  Our mother’s father, Charles Yost Lewis, passed away with what we now know as black lung disease.  Our mother was very distraught because she worshipped her father and began to see where our lives in the coal fields were headed.  She didn’t like what she saw.  She saw that if we stayed at Pemberton it was most likely that all three of her boys would end up in the coal mines.  What else was there for us?  Our father and she began looking for options.  Finally after much head scratching and searching, he found a job at the Martinsville DuPont plant in 1942.  We moved soon after and, even though it was a cut in pay for him, it signified a new beginning and a new life for the entire family.  Richard and Paul adapted to the new town and the new school immediately.  It was if Pemberton never existed.  They played football for Martinsville High School, joined various clubs, and went on to graduate in 1945 and 1949 respectively.  What was to come next was a real life change for them.  During a high school field trip up the Shenandoah Valley, the bus passed through Lexington, Virginia.  Richard looked up on a hill and saw these magnificent and impressive buildings.  He asked the bus driver what those buildings were.  The bus driver, probably watching the road said, “VMI.”  When Richard got home he told Daddy that he knew where he wanted to go to college, VMI. All the arrangements were made and Richard was accepted for the school year beginning in September 1949.  On the way to VMI, Richard cried out, “Daddy, you just passed it.”  The answer would change everything forever.  “No, Son.  That’s W and L.  VMI is up ahead.”  Richard was a terrible cadet but a good student.  He graduated in 1949 as a PFC in the Corps of Cadets.  John Paul entered VMI in September of 1949 and was a model student and cadet.  He graduated in 1953 with the second highest rank in the Corps, First Battalion Commander.

Soon after each had graduated from VMI, they married.  Richard was first and married Jackie Hale from Fieldale.  They had two children, a boy and a girl.  Paul was next and married a Martinsville girl, Barbara Davis.  They had four children, three girls and a boy.

Their military careers began as commissioned officers with the rank of Second Lieutenant.  Richard was already in the Army and Paul was still at VMI.  In 1950, he was sent to participate in a “police action” called Korea.  He served well and after eighteen months came home as a decorated First Lieutenant.

After that, military life resumed a “normal” pace with each brother being sent to various military assignments such as Fort Knox, Fort Meade, Fort Benning, etc.  Then in 1967 there was a war between Israel and the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria called The Six Day War.  Israel, thought completely outnumbered, emerged victorious.  The Pentagon sent Paul to Israel to evaluate the strategy and tactics that helped Israel win the war in such a dramatic fashion.  His report was so well done that the Israelis and the Pentagon named the report “The Prillaman Papers”. 

Once again back to normal until a mean little war called Vietnam popped up.  Both brothers served there but at separate times.  Richard was there for three tours (two of which were voluntary) and Paul was there for one.  They both distinguished themselves in battle and were highly decorated for it.  Paul received the Silver Star for heroism during the Battle of Loc Ninh Air Strip in which he led the Second Squadron to victory with a confirmed body count of 156 Viet Cong.  

After the war, things again returned to “normal”.  In 1977, Paul was appointed Commander of Cadets at VMI, a role he cherished and saw it as a return to his military roots.  His time there was cut short when he was promoted to Brigadier General and was reassigned.  During this time, Richard had received his first and second stars and had been Post Commander at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and Fort Hood, Texas.  Upon receipt of his third star, Richard was assigned to the Pentagon where he helped orchestrate the Granada Invasion.  It was to be his final assignment.  After announcing his retirement in 1985, he was offered a fourth star and an assignment to VMI as Superintendent.  He turned it down and retired to his farm in Nelson County.

Paul retired shortly thereafter and moved to Amherst, Virginia in part to be close to Richard and his family.  They were the only two brothers to serve in the U.S. Army as Generals at the same time since the Civil War.  Those brothers were George Armstrong Custer and his brother Thomas Ward Custer.  My brothers are gone now but what a wonderful legacy they have left for their children and grandchildren.  Paul is buried in the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery in Lexington.  Richard’s ashes were spread over his beloved farm of Tye Bend.  (Tye Bend was named after the Tye River which flows at the foot of the farm where there is a bend in the river.)  But, you know what?  I still miss them.”

On 30 April 1966, 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment (also known as the 1/2 Infantry) of the First Infantry Division led by Richard Prillaman, engaged the enemy near Lo Go, Vietnam and captured a large quantity of black cotton cloth which was used by the Viet Cong to make their pajama-like uniforms.  At the direction of the battalion commander, the cloth was made into scarves to be worn by the battalion’s soldiers.  LTC Prillaman wanted to make his soldiers distinctive and provide something more appropriate than the green towels the men often wore around their necks.  The embroidery on the scarves was a different color for each company:  HHC- yellow; Company A – red; Company B – white; Company C – blue; Company D – green.  So was born the Black Scarf Battalion.  The battalion continued this tradition until they redeployed to the United States in 1970.  LTC Richard Prillaman went on to command an Armored Division during the 1980s and retired as Lt. General.

  Gladys Lewis Prillaman was a nurse at Shackleford Hospital and at Martinsville General Hospital and would walk from her home on Ellsworth Street for her scheduled shift.  Her nurse’s cloak, along with a display of the Black Scarf Battalion, is on display at the Bassett Historical Center.  Skip Prillaman married Lois Gale Cockran of Bassett and they reside in Martinsville.

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