Lex J. Byers was born on December 20th, 1926 in San Francisco, California. His mother was a housewife and his father was a comptroller for a brokerage firm. Byers drew some of his inspiration for joining the military from his family; Byers’ father served during World War I and he had another relative who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Byers was a man who always looked ahead into the future. When attending Galileo High School in San Francisco, the conflict of World War II was peaking. He recalls, “I was in my last six months of high school and they came up with this program that sent certain students with a certain grade point average to college….It was an opportunity and I took it.” Byers saw the Army as the best fit for him because he states, “They were sending me to college…. Nobody else was.”
Byers’ first assignment was attending Washington State College where his only duty was to do the best he could as a student. At college, students were broken into sections of about 18 people and they would go to typical college classes. There were three regular meals a day. Byers’ college experience was very organized. There were hours prescribed for doing homework, doing calisthenics and all else that was needed. He lived in a large dormitory where there were three men per decent sized room. Byers’ dormitory was communal with a shared bath down the hall. This is where he spent much of his time studying and horsing around. Despite horsing around, Byers’ campus was isolated and he emphasized that there was “Damn little to do.” He remembers going to the lab to look at the animals for some enjoyment as there was a cow with a hole in it. For the most part he appreciated his college experience with his fellow classmates, but would have liked a little more entertainment. Byers got injured for college, but luckily for him it was far from the end of world. Byers was playing around in a room one night with a group of guys throwing GI shoes and actually caught one in the testicles. As a result, they put him in the hospital for three days and that was the end of that.
Byers’ college experience went about in a weird pattern. After being sent to Washington State and studying what the Army had determined appropriate for approximately six months, like his fellow classmates, he was sent to the infantry because the Battle of the Bulge was on and the Army decided to cut the college program. From there, he went to basic training at Camp Roberts, California and found it quite fatiguing. At camp he learned to march, to shoot, to perform tactical movements and got some training in heavier weapons. He vividly remembers marching in the mud and when referring to the experience stated, “I wish to soon forget it.” Even at the time Byers knew that the training was a necessity and he used this knowledge to help him get through the tough experience. Now he uses the fact that he is still alive after 22 years of service as evidence to show just how effective his training was.
After basic training, Byers received special OCS (Officer Candidate School) training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He stated, “In 90 days I went from private to lieutenant. The training I went through at OCS theoretically qualified me. I say theoretically because the knowledge was there, but how to employ it was not necessarily fixed in my brain.” This is where Byers became a Major Generalist Infantry Officer. He then proceeded to Camp Robinson, Arkansas where he became a basic training officer. For the most part he was used to what he did except now he oversaw it as an officer. Again showing his sense of humor he described the worst trouble he could recall, “One day, I didn’t get dinner or breakfast and I was hungry so I killed a rabbit and heated it over a fire and ate the rabbit. My only complaint was that I had no salt.”
Byers then left Camp Robinson and was ordered to Panama. Byers isn’t sure why he was sent to be stationed in Panama as he thought it was odd that the rest of his OCS company all went to Europe. Nevertheless, he first traveled from Camp Robinson to Camp Pickett, Virginia which was the staging area for the mission. He was there for three months waiting for the barracks to fill up. After all the people that were needed were retrieved, Byers got on a ship headed for Panama. The ship was a World War I hospital ship. Nothing worked, the bathrooms stopped working, and Byers would eat on a rail of the ship as there was no dining hall. The trip to Panama lasted four to five days. Once he landed in Panama, he became a Jungle Platoon Leader. Byers describes the situation, “There were two: one on the landing and one on the pacific side of Panama, which coincidentally is only 60 miles away. Our function was to search for downed pilots and we had about three missions where we went out and searched for the pilot where the airplane had gone down. It’s not an easy task to say the least because Panama is one mountain after another. According to Byers, “When you go over two miles horizontally, you may go over two mountains vertically. We trained to operate in country like that. Our training was to go out in the jungle and go out and move and work and learn to navigate and when we started a search, if I had three companies in the search I would put a squad with each company and they would be the guides to show the other people how to live. We also taught survival to the companies and took them along for them to see what it was.” Although Panama may have been some distance from the continental United States, food and other resources were not a problem. Byers recalls, “ I used to go out in the jungle and cut a stock of bananas and hang it on the back of the building and anyone who wanted fresh bananas was there. There was plenty of food in the jungle and good food.”
Byers’ stay in Panama was quite nice, but when he got back to the U.S., he decided to leave the Army. This was due to the fact that he got married to one of the girls he had met in college who had followed him to Panama. While out of the Army, Byers went back to finish college. This time around, Byers knew how to forge his own destiny as he had already had experience doing so. He “maxed” all his classes, digesting them thoroughly and was also an excellent public speaker as a result of his military experience. Byers was set on engaging in a life outside of military service until he realized the major mental gap between the kids he went to school with and himself. He had seen the world from a completely different perspective, and this led him to rejoin the Army.
It is interesting to note that when Byers left the Army, he lost all benefits that went with it; he was now a normal civilian. In fact, Byers had to register for the draft like any regular person of his age. Byers then set his eyes on dodging the draft which he coincidentally did by choosing to rejoin the Army himself.
Next for Byers, there was an administrating period where he prepared for going overseas to Japan. He started at Camp Stowe and traveled by ship from there to Japan. He arrived there about six days later. Byers, happy upon his arrival, joined up with the 31st infantry at a brand new camp for American troops. In addition to training in Hokkaido, Japan, he spent his time having fun just experiencing the country that they were stationed to occupy with a group of officers that like Byers himself, were all in their early 20’s. He had a relaxing time stating, “Weekends, my roommate and I both rode horses and there were a dozen horses that belonged to the emperor up there that we’d confiscated. There was one horse only two people on the island could ride: the commanding General and myself. I had a horse in civilian life here… We were having fun. What do you want?” Byers later, described this time as, “delightful.”
About a year and a half into his stay at Hokkaido, the Korean War broke out and the U.S. immediately activated units and troops for Korea. Byers (First Lieutenant) and his unit (short on men) were moved to Camp Fujiyama staged to go over to Korea. This is the beginning of when Byers would face one of his toughest challenges. To kickstart this adventure, he was immediately challenged by dreadful weather and living conditions. He recalls, “While we were there, there was a hurricane. We were in the field living in tents. We sat there and knocked tents down. The hurricane blew over us. We got up and put up the camp again. We moved on to Korea. We landed and immediately headed south. The first night they put us in a baseball park. The ground was harder than hell to dig a foxhole in.” Right after coming up against life threatening weather, he then faced actual people with guns that wouldn’t hesitate to take the land they believed to be theirs. Byers proceeded to state, “Then we moved down to Sewan. I was a point of the regiment and we ran into enemy tanks in a building. I personally knocked out a tank and then we moved the position back a little and got down. Discovered there were four more tanks in the area three more I fired at the second one with a rocket launcher and it went short and they had not boresighted the weapon. The reason I got the first one: I was 15 feet from it when I fired. The second one was 150 feet. The weapon had not been correctly sighted so it would shoot at it. After I told the individual that he should have bore-sighted his weapon before we got there. We then proceeded to fire. About that time a tank regiment from our Army came up from the south. We made a linkup between forces: we came down from the north and they came up from the south. It was a fortunate timing because they got the other tank.” In what was one of Byers’ many life-threatening experiences, he acted properly, decisively and saved many men by completing a successful linkup mission. The troubles didn’t end there; however, as he soon found that the South Korean civilians acting as soldiers were incompetent soldiers. Byers even jokingly stated, “It was quite an experience there with getting them so they at least use the latrines.” Despite feeling quite important in regard to the U.S’s involvement in the Korean War, Byers mentioned that he had little confidence in his commanding officers. I was point platoon leader of the regiment going into the village where we encountered a tank. When I was going to place my forward squadrunner. The road, I was walking down there and I ran into my regimental commander. He was lost. Of all the places to be lost, in front of the regiment is not one of them. So I had the additional burden of getting him safely back out of my way. He was standing, together we were talking when the gunner came down and said there was a tank in the building with us. I told him, ‘the ammunition bearer had left the ammunition in the building.’ The gunner brought the 3.5 rocket launcher, but the ammunition was sitting back by the tank. I told him, ‘go get the goddam ammunition.’ He started back up the street and they cut him down with a machine gun. So I took the gunner, went through the back alley and so forth and got into the building. Without the people in the tank knowing it, we recovered the ammunition, then knocked out the tank.” In this adrenaline filled experience, Byers proved courage, patience and loyalty to his commanding officer which led to his much cherished Silver Star. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite have the same respect for the officer above him.
Back in Japan, while the men were sent off to Korea, all the women were evacuated including Byers’ wife. This didn’t stop Byers from fulfilling his duties. Still struggling in Korea, Byers stated, “Yeah, it was winter. By this time it was winter, snow on the ground. Back in Japan we had been in a winterized outfit in Hokkaido. We had parkas and warm hats and so forth. We didn’t have any of that. It was cold. We had the old type field jacket and that was it man, it was cold. We had trouble with frostbite. Guys sitting around a foxhole, get your feet frozen.” From there, Byers stated, “Well, we then move down to the southern part of Korea. In December we made the landing up in Inchon. Went north, to the Chosin River. We had one battalion on the Yalu River. One in between and one where I was. Three battalions were deployed up north when the Chinese entered the war. Two officers that officiate men of one of the battalions and 15 officers and 23 men of another battalion were all that came out.” Byers then continued on as an Army Liaison Officer for the First Marine Regiment. His battalion was Division Reserved. With two battalions decimated totally, only his battalion and the First Marine Regiment remained on Chinese soil this time. Byers went back to General Macarthur’s headquarters and gave him the information about how the Chinese had entered the war. Indicating that he knew already, General Macarthur sent Byers and another man back into the lines. This man followed Byers and his driver about 700 yards behind according to Byers expecting them to get knocked off at any moment. Byers then spent 11 mind-shredding days surrounded by the Chinese. Byers stated, “I became a little discouraged at the end. I wrote a letter to my wife. Crap about I love you and so forth and I may not make it home.”
Chester Puller was the regimental commander. Byers remembers, “Quite a colorful character. He had told everybody to get out of their tents because they didn’t know exactly where it would come down. It came down on a tent – I don’t have much respect for marines. A marine was in his bunk and it fell on him. He chose not to get out of his bed and we lost him. The engineers managed to put the bridge across a gap in the cliff road that the Chinese had been kind enough to blow up. We got the bridge on. Put everybody on vehicles, moved out.” Byers continued to state, “This was still at Chosin Reservoir. I was one of the last people out. I was on the ridge watching engineers put in landmines. Chinese had rounded up a bunch of civilians to clear the minefield by forcing them to walk ahead of them. That was not to my liking.”
Although Byers got out of Chosin Reservoir relatively unscathed, he did manage to receive a Purple Heart for an injury that he received in combat. Byers recalls with a surprise “We were going into Chosin Reservoir. It was just getting dark. Half the battalion got in and half of them didn’t and so they stayed out. The following morning, the marines had a tank company. So I got the tanks and I went out to get these two companies. I was just riding on the back of the tank and we were surrounded and we started receiving small arm fire. The tank commander was right in front of me. I tapped him on the shoulder and was pointing up at a machine gun that was sitting on the hill. I said, ‘there is a machine gun there’ and he swung his cannon, raised it and fired, but the machine gun was firing at us too. I got hit in the ear, right there. I got a purple heart for that. I’m thankful I wasn’t turned sideways. I went to my first physical after getting out there and I put down gunshot wound left ear.” The bullet just nicked his ear, it didn’t ruin it. Never again, Byers said did he ever put that down as a health issue.
Even though Byers’ Korean War service may have ended, he decided to work another 15 years with the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel at the Presidio in San Francisco. The headquarters Sixth Army was there at the time. Byers was in the G1 section which is personnel. He learned to trade at the Presidio and in general he had a good time there. Byers retired from the Presidio about 22 years after his initiation into service on the 11th of March, 1944.
When asked about any awards or citations he received for his service, Byers responded, “I got a Silver Star before I went to Chosin Reservoir, I got the Purple Heart at the Chosin Reservoir. The rest of them are aren’t worth mentioning, except that one which is the Good Conduct for an officer. Oh… that one. The Combat Infantry Badge, I’m very proud of that.”
Lex Byers was discharged from the Army at the age of 39. Although he could easily get a civilian job working for the Army in the Bay Area, he wanted to do something different. Byers declined a job working for a retired General who handled the water department of San Francisco due to the fact that he would have been doing the same thing he did in the Army. Byers then found the opportunity he was looking for. He recalls, “The President of the Chamber of Commerce of San Francisco came out and talked to the commanding General about getting a retired officer to work for him. I heard about it 30 minutes after he left the General’s office. I called him and gave him enough time to get back to work two hours later. I told him why I was interested in the job. He said, ‘fine, come on down’ and I said, ‘I would be down tomorrow.’ I went down. I listened to the man talk about the job for about an hour. He asked me no questions. After he described it for an hour, he said, ‘Can you do the job?’ I said, ‘of course I can do the job, what do you pay?’ He named a price and I said, ‘alright,’ and he said, ‘be in here Monday.’ I was home and started figuring the taxes and everything I wanted and decided I couldn’t afford to go to work for him. So I called him and he wasn’t in his office, but the guy who was introduced as his assistant I talked to and said, ‘I’m terribly sorry, I don’t think I can take the job. He doesn’t pay enough.’ Got the call from him Monday morning that said, ‘how much money do you want?’ I told him what I could take and he said, ‘alright, come on to work and I got my job with the Chamber.’”
Byers’ work at the Chamber was different from any work he had ever done before. He describes, “I started out selling memberships in the Chamber. Second year I had sold over a million dollars in new memberships for the Chamber. That was pretty good. I’d met most of the important people in San Francisco. I took on more work at the Chamber. Eventually I became the Economic Development Manager. Which was bringing new buildings, new businesses to San Francisco. I was quite successful at that. I then became an Assistant Vice President – the Vice President. I was Chamber number two then. This took me about 14 years.” He applied for the (at the time) open spot at the Oakland Chamber of Commerce simply seeing if he could get the job and have more of a role in his city. He was hired that year and finished his career in Oakland, retiring at the age of 55.
After his service Byers joined veteran organizations MOAA, which is the Military Officers Association of America national chapter and the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
During our interview, I asked Byers, “Based on your military and life experiences, do you have any advice or wisdom you wish to pass on to future generations: non military advice?” He responded to me by saying, “Yeah… My wife and I have been married – we had our 50th wedding anniversary last week. A family is very important. When you get married, get married to a person you like. I didn’t say love, I said like because from friendship love can be, but from love friendship doesn’t always occur.”
Interview by Jacob Bruner on October 11th, 2015