COLONEL (RET) BILLY "PAT" PENDERGRASS, USMA '46

September 22, 2012

Billy Pat Pendergrass ("Pat") was born near Dexter, NM, but grew up in Sweetwater, TX. He was a top student, earned his Quartermaster Sea Scout Badge (equivalent to the Boy Scout Eagle, and earned in a town with little water), and his Eagle Scout Badge, played football in a leather helmet with no face mask, and ran the 880. He was a columnist for the school newspaper and a finalist in "Ready Writing". He was swimming instructor at the municipal pool and waterfront director for all summer camps of the BSA Buffalo Trails Council. Pat graduated from high school in 1941 and set his sights on a military career.
In 1942 he entered the Army as a private earmarked for aviation cadet training after a recruiter helped him read the eye chart. While in pre-flight training, he won a competitive appointment to the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point. He finished primary flight training, then skipped a class in order to take his USMA physical. He was half way through basic flight training when he had to decided whether to accept the appointment to West Point instead of earning his wings in October '43. "The hardest decision I ever made."
Pat's high school subjects were poor preparation for USMA academics and his independent nature clashed with the system. By bearing down, his class standing improved steadily. He excelled in intramural sports and as an upperclassman coached the G-1 football, swimming and water soccer teams and was commissioned in the Army Corps of Engineers.
Pat married Anita Whitefield the week after graduation (and has been happily married every since). He attended Engineer Officer Basic and Airborne Schools, then performed mapping assignments, first in Okinawa, then as the officer in charge of a unit mapping the Northern Ryukus Islands. After two years of Pat's living on Landing Craft and jumping onto small islands and Anita living in a burned out Quonset hut on Leyte (as only one of two non-natives living on the island), they returned to the U.S. and at was assigned to the 11th Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, KY. Their first son, Michael, was born there.
When North Korea attacked, Pat cajoled a transfer to the engineer company which was being assigned to the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team (RCT) which had been alerted for Korea. He did not actually participate in the Inchon landings, since he had been parachuted in the night before to make sure the bridges at Inchon would support our tanks (he couldn't land because he was already there). He made the RCT's two combat jumps and was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for Valor returning to Fort Campbell as a company commander. He attended Purdue for a semester of courses designed to enable him to design assault airfields for inaccessible areas and served as the Operations Officer (S-2/S-3) of the 127th Airborne Engineer Battalion.
Their second son, Stephen, was born in 1954 while Pat was earning his Masters of Engineering at Texas A&M, after which Pat attended the Engineer Officers Advanced Course at Fort Belvoir, VA. In 1955, Pat was made Officer in Charge (OIC) of the Inter American Geodetic Survey's Nicaragua Project where he worked for three years before returning to the United States. It was here that Pat finally earned his wings by taking his qualifying tests as a pilot in the Nicaraguan Air Force. After some maneuvering with the Army, he was allowed to wear them on his uniform.
After Command and General Staff College in Kansas in 1959, he became operations officer and later deputy of the Kansas City District of the Corps of Engineers. From there to the Armed Forces Staff College and Military Assistance Institute in Virginia in 1961.
After that he was sent to Thailand without his family (who spent the year in Sweetwater) where he served as senior advisor to the Royal Thai Army Engineer Department and Engineer School, RTA's engineer units, their Airborne School, and various engineering and combat units. While there, he served as an advisor on a Thai combat operation in Vietnam, and afterward submitted an evaluation of that conflict, prior to any combat unit involvement by the United States.
In 1963 he became Commander of the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC. He tested the latest methods of assault airfield construction using airdropped equipment, building a landing field in record time that was later renamed "Pendergrass Field." Pat then served a brief time on the staff of the 18th Airborne Corps.
He attended the Air War College and was a Distinguished Graduate in 1964-1965 period in Alabama. This was during the time of the march from Selma, and Pat was influential in getting the elders of his church to accept integration. In 1966 he was assigned to the Army Map Service as operations officer and later deputy commander. He was responsible for many satellite-based mapping projects, including building a topographical map of the moon. In 1967 he became a member of the Chairman, Joint Chief of Staff's Special Studies Group.
In 1969 he became District Engineer of the Omaha District of the Army Corps of Engineers. During his tour, Omaha became a "super district". Military construction from the five states of the Chicago District and the two from the Kansas City District became the responsibility of the Omaha District. Postal construction in thirteen states was transferred to Omaha from the General Services Administration. Protective construction projects and design of dams Corps-wide became Omaha's responsibility. Omaha also pioneered "urban studies" and formed "citizen environmental advisory groups" in each of the six states in its civil works area. In 1972 the Rocky Mountain Center for the Environment named Pat Environmentalist of the Year.
As his tour as District Engineer neared an end, local business and political leaders urged him to retire from the Army and head the downtown Omaha redevelopment effort. Pat couldn't resist the challenge and made "The second hardest decision I ever made."
He retired from the Army in 1972 and received his third Legion of Merit to go with his Bronze Star for Valor and his three Army Commendation Medals. His career had spanned 26 years and 34 moves, with Anita's support "All The Way."
Having told his son several times that he had an ambition to "build a city," he accomplished that in developing a plan for redesigning Omaha and its riverfront through the Riverfront Development Program (RDP) and later the Riverfront Development Foundation. They continue to build in Omaha, using his plans: rail yards relocated, old warehouses demolished and replaced by corporate campuses, the Quest Center incorporated, a walking path along the river with memorials and the 100 foot high Friendship Foundation being the largest changes. Pat's community involvement was not restricted to the RDP. He was on the Executive Board of the Mid-America Council of the Boy Scouts and chaired the Advancement and Metro area Explorer Committees. He was on the Governor's Committee to Keep Nebraska Beautiful, Chairman of the Metropolitan Arts Council and the Administrative Board of St. Luke's United Methodist Church.
In 1978, with the RDP plan complete and enthusiastically supported by the public and private sectors, Pat accepted an offer from the DR Intl to be resident manager for projects in the Middle East. Anita was on the payroll as secretary and hostess. They lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Major projects included a health sciences center at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Queen Alia hospital in Amman, Jordan and a new residential city in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. They were welcomed and respected wherever they went, whether working, marketing or vacationing. Their two year contract extended to seven and on-half years and they loved it all. They took time to travel large parts of the world by themselves and with good friends.
In 1986, they returned to the U.S. and settled in Austin, Texas. There, Pat and Anita led a full life: Austin Country Club golf, bridge and dinner with guests; season tickets to opera, symphony, ballet and playhouse; Friends of LBJ Library and council on Foreign Affairs; PEO for Anita and Rotary for Pat (Where he was very active in the Education and Mexican-American Friendship Committees). Their worldwide travel continued but was increasingly focused on friends and families, especially their grandchildren. Their seventeen years in Austin were Golden Years, indeed. In 2003 they moved to the Army Residence Community in San Antonio "for the rest of our lives."
Throughout his careers, Pat was noted for his "aggressiveness" and "determined, energetic, forceful, imaginative and positive approach" to all his assigned duties and functions and achieved positive results. "All the above taken from his efficiency reports.) His first choice was always for tough jobs on one's own "a long way from the flagpole."
His family and friends knew him for his analytical thinking about society, politics and the environment and his willingness to discuss those topics at length. He loved poetry and could quote Service and Kipling at length, and could break out into snippets of song unexpectedly. He had an unflagging work ethic and an intense focus. What he was really known for was his dedication and support of friends and family, and for his ready smile.
His love of family was intense and unwavering. His love for Anita continued from the day they were married until the day he died, 66 years later. His and Anita's two sons, five grandchildren and one great grandson were always their number one priority and their pride and joy. Pat often joked that "No engineer with a second career in regional planning should live in Texas and have his family scattered from California, to Canada, to New York and New Jersey." Pat and Anita were kept on the go by visiting family and friends, and loved it all. Pat is certain the world will be a better place because of his progeny. His family and friends know that their world is better because Pat shared with them his dream and his time.
As his grandsons said, "he lived and extraordinary life."
Well done, Pat! Be thou at peace.

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