Just do a simple Google search on Major General Edward B. Giller ’40 and you’ll find an enormous amount of information about his amazing life and career. I first read his bio and thought, “why hasn’t there been a movie made about his life?” Then I realized that the only guy who could possibly play the lead was John Wayne and he has passed away. I tried to ask some questions that hadn’t been asked before that might be of interest to the ATOs.
How are you doing now… How are you feeling?
Well, I’m still here. I’ll turn 95 this year so that’s pretty good. My wife of 69 years, Mildred, passed away late last year and that was difficult. I have five children and they all get along and watch out for me. My youngest daughter, Penny lives in Albuquerque and she checks in on me and helps me with the computer. We have a large home here and I’ve decided to stay. I have a service that comes in and takes care of my needs and the house twelve hours a day and that works well. I was involved in an automobile accident last year which set me back so I have to use a walker. As long as I take things slow and careful, I can get around pretty well. I’m not in pain and I feel pretty good all things considered.
Why did you decide to attend the University of Illinois?
I was born and raised in southern Illinois. Both my mother and father had graduated from college. My father was a farmer but also a veterinarian. It was just always assumed that I would go on to college. I had an interest in Chemical Engineering. Illinois was just the natural choice being close to home and having a great chemical engineering department.
How did you happen to choose ATO?
I grew up in White Hall which is a very small town about 25 miles south of Jacksonville. I can’t remember exactly how I met the Hemphill’s but they lived in Jacksonville. Chester, the father had attended Illinois and had been an ATO. He was a very impressive gentleman and I liked the boys, Bill and Robert who were about my age. Chester must have given me a pretty good story because I joined ATO as did Bill and Robert. I must have considered some others but I don’t remember it being a difficult decision.
Do you remember any first impressions about the house or the guys?
The house was very new and nice at the time (Ed joined in 1938 when the Thomas A. Clark Chapter house at 1101 W. Pennsylvania Ave. was just 7 years old). ATO along with Sigma Nu were all alone on the south side of campus… with the cows of course.
What was pledging like? Did they call you Phrogues?
I had attended Kemper Military School for my last two years of high school and first year of college so anything the ATO’s threw at me was nothing to what I had experienced at Kemper. That was tough mostly because I hadn’t yet figured out how to deal with it. By the time that I got to ATO, I was older and had learned that anything they did was not personal. It didn’t bother me. One thing I do remember is that I wasn’t a very good singer. They used to make me “sing the phone book” to a tune of their choosing. That was hard and brought a lot of laughs. I don’t remember calling pledges Phrogues.
In the Daily Illini at the time, they listed you along with 30 other pledges including Ken Seely, also from White Hall. However, your initiation group only listed 11 guys. Do you remember what happened to all of those guys?
Yes, Ken followed me to ATO and was a good friend from home. I really don’t remember why so few actually initiated.
In an earlier interview, you mentioned that you struggled with school a little bit during your first year at Illinois. Was ATO the problem or part of the solution?
Yes, Chemical Engineering at Illinois was very challenging. In fact, the head of the department tried to talk me into switching into something else after my first semester grades came out. I had found that the military school, as good as it was, was not good preparation compared to a freshman year at Illinois for Chemical Engineering. ATO was not the problem. In fact, the older guys who had previously taken my courses helped me out and everyone at ATO encouraged me to “hang in there baby”. For me, failure was not an option. I stuck it out and got my grades in order the second semester.
I read in a Daily Illini article that referred to you as “Duck” Giller. Was that your nickname in college?
Yes, however that nickname actually followed me from high school. I had broken my ankle in a high school football game and it didn’t get set properly. My foot was slightly askew… like a duck… hence the nickname. It’s still like that today. I think Ken Seely probably brought that name for me to ATO from White Hall. I didn’t like it too much so when I left Illinois, it didn’t follow me into the rest of my life.
You were mentioned several times in the Fraternity Gossip column “The Campus Scout” in the Daily Illini linked to a Kappa Delt, Vicky Reagan. … Helping her with her studies, getting approval from her mother… pinning her… getting the pin back to give it to your brother for his initiation. That was a creative way to break up. Do you remember anything about that?
I do remember getting pinned but don’t really remember Vicky. That was a long time ago. I remember that her father worked for Westinghouse. I don’t remember asking for the pin back for my brother. I don’t remember why we broke up. I think that we just faded apart after I graduated. It wasn’t something terribly serious.
Your brother, Jeff was also an ATO. His full name was actually Jefferson Davis Giller. That name caught my eye. Is there an old confederate story in your family history behind that name?
Well the Gillers were at least three generations of farmers from south central Illinois but my mother’s family, the Davis’s. Were multi-generation southerners from Texas. Someone in the family once said that we were southerners who had the misfortune of growing up in Yankee country. I vaguely remember some story about an aunt from my mother’s side who was a gun runner for the south in the Civil War. So, Jefferson Davis was a family name for my brother.
Do you have any fun or particularly memorable stories from your time at ATO?
Yes, I was a mischievous sort. In fact, that’s why I was sent to military school in high school. Nothing serious… just mischief. Once in the dead of winter, in the middle of the night, one of my ATO brothers and I snuck into the Sigma Nu house and turned off their furnace. They woke up in the morning to bitter cold and no hot water. There were some suspicions but we never got caught.
Did you hold any offices or jobs at ATO?
No, for me, Chemical Engineering was very difficult and I really had to concentrate on my academics. As I said before, the head of the Chemical Engineering department tried to get me out. I stuck it out. That’s an important lesson that I learned. “Don’t throw in the towel at the first bump. Don’t give up too easy.”
Did you participate in intramurals?
No, I was never into sports. As I mentioned, in high school, I tried football but broke my ankle. I tried basketball but had a bout of pleurisy so that wasn’t a good option. I was very good at shooting a rifle and was on the shooting team. I’m still not into sports.
What was social life like at that time at ATO and at the University of Illinois?
We had plenty of parties. Remember this was just a few years after the repeal of prohibition so everyone had to prove that they could drink beer. There was a lot of beer. I don’t remember any whiskey. There was a beer hall in campus town called Bunny’s that we frequented.
Do you remember any of the guys? Who were the “Characters” in the house?
I remember the Hemphill’s of course… now they were very good athletes. I remember Ralph Ehni who played on the football team. Jack Moore, who you mentioned was someone who I liked and stayed in touch with for awhile. He was a strait shooting guy. Charlie Caudle was a real character. He was into music and had that “entertainer” personality. I never did run into him while he was leading the band in the USO shows for the military. I also remember Joe Giallombaro, the gymnast but I don’t remember the story that you mentioned about him walking on his hands from the basement to the third floor of the ATO house. He may have done it and I may have witnessed it but I just don’t remember.
I have a few questions about your experiences in the military and your career after Illinois. I’m not going to repeat questions that you’ve answered in other published interviews but while I have you, I just want to take the opportunity to ask about some of these incredible things that you’ve been a part of and have witnessed.
Ask away… it’s your dime.
There was an interesting story about how you came to acquire a 1939 BMW 328 in Germany shortly after the war. Do you still have that car?
Yes, it’s in the garage. It’s for sale. Do you have $100,000? It’s an antique. After the war in Germany, I met this captain. Germany had been very technologically advanced and this captain’s job was to drive around Germany and to “acquire” technological advancements that he found and return them to the States. When I met him, he was driving this very nice BMW. He had painted it army green and put a number on it. That allowed him to get free gas whenever he wanted because now it was a “Military” vehicle. He told me a story about how he had acquired it. First, he found the car without the wheels in a German’s old barn. The Germans at the time basically did whatever we asked so he decided to take it. He asked the family where the wheels were. Someone told him that their Grandmother had the wheels. He went to see the Grandmother and she wouldn’t tell him where the wheels were until he mentioned something about sending her to Russia. She produced the wheels. He got it all put back together and running and that’s when I met him. However, he soon found that he was being sent back home. I asked him what he was going to do with the car and he said that he didn’t know. I offered him my Eisenhower jacket in exchange for the car and he took it. There’s more to the story in other interviews but bottom line, I found a way to have it shipped back to the US and when I returned it was in my garage. It has followed me from Illinois to Washington and Albuquerque and back all of these years and I still have it.
I understand you witnessed the detonation of several Atomic bombs. What was that like?
I actually witnessed 10 detonations. My team’s job was to study the after effects of the bombs. We would assess the viability of requests for different types of experiments and if they were approved, we would study what would happen. We weren’t in charge of implementing the tests… just making measurements of the results. After a detonation, there would be a period where we needed to wear dark glasses but then we’d get the all clear signal and we could take them off. The light and boiling colors that were still visible were incredible. Then the shock wave would pass us like a giant… whoosh. It was something. (note that there are much more detailed descriptions of Ed’s experiences with this testing that are a must read in some of the on-line interviews… particularly a story about testing of military uniforms which had to be done on pigs. I highly recommend reading these interviews).
You were about the same age and era as many of the initial astronauts. With your fighter pilot and chemical engineering background, it seems that might have been a natural path for you do take. Did you ever consider that?
No, I liked flying planes with a fan out front. I did fly some jets but that wasn’t my preference. My interest in space was around what were the effects of setting off a nuclear bomb in space. I did quite a bit of work on that.
I read that you were involved with the commission of the Condon Report with regard to studying the possibility of UFOs actually being extraterrestrials and whether they posed a threat. Was there anything in that research that caused you to think… maybe there is something out there?
Yes, I was asked by my superiors to see if I could “Lay this UFO business to rest”. I had the idea to hire and pay an independent agency, the National Academy to do the study. They said they would take our money as long as they were allowed to stay independent. The contractor that they hired to do the work was Condon. Bottom line, they studied the military and civilian sightings and determined that nearly 90% could be attributed to things like meteors, shooting stars and the reflection off known airplanes. We all agreed that there were some that could not be explained – UFOs. However we also agreed that none that were extraterrestrial threats. AND… I assure you there are no conspiracies and the government and the Air Force are NOT hiding UFOs from the public. (You’ve heard it now direct from the horse’s mouth!)
You had mentioned spending some time with the CIA in the “James Bond equipment department”. What was the coolest technology that you were involved with?
We did some pretty interesting work in interpreting the indications of missile launches and very advanced overhead reconnaissance.
After you retired from the military, you spent some time as a consultant doing arms negotiations. What was it like negotiating with the Russians?
They had some very smart people. The head of their delegation at the time that I was involved spoke better English than the interpreters. As we were negotiating along with the British, one time he opened a meeting asking us if we wanted to use British or American English in the discussion. He could do either one. Our role was an in-between and we had to put forward a proposal and convince the other side to accept it. Then, they would tear it apart. We would do the same with theirs. The Russians had a way of putting a lot of positive emotion behind their proposals. It wasn’t just logic or technology. It was emotion. They drank a lot of vodka too. Once the respective negotiations teams came to terms, we each had to go back and negotiate with our respective countries to get them to accept the negotiated proposals. That was often just as difficult. It was another world.
You must have encountered some really interesting and strong leaders along the way. Who are some of the guys who stood out as particularly strong leaders?
Albert “Bud” Wheelon was someone who I really admired. He was very sharp and a helluva good leader. He didn’t just demand others to do things but he actually was able to inject himself into helping his teams find solutions to their problems.
Bud Wheelon was the first Deputy Director of Science & Technology (DDST) for the Central Intelligence Agency (1962-1966) and then an aerospace executive. He was a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (1983-1988). He is particularly known for his contributions to reconnaissance technology.
He joined Hughes Aircraft Company in 1966. While newly Executive Vice President, he served on the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident in 1986. He became Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board in 1987, and retired in 1988. Wheelon became a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he had received his doctorate in theoretical physics in 1952.)
Did you come across some men who were just “Bad”… guys who chilled a room when they entered?
No, all the guys who ever got into the “Classified Box” were reasonable men and 1st class citizens.
Who were some of your most important mentors along the way?
Bud Wheelon was a mentor and Lt. General Sam Donnelly. I’ve always been interested in personnel development and the traits that were common in strong leaders. I’ve had strong mentors and I’ve always been interested in helping younger people who reach out to me. In fact, I did a speech for a group out here on the Characteristics of Leadership and the Development of the Best people. I think that is very important.
What final message would like to send to the undergrad ATOs about how to be a strong leader?
- Don’t take yourself too seriously.
- Don’t speak down to anyone.
- Try to provide examples of what you are trying to get across to your team.
- There is a need for honesty.
- Never reprimand a junior in the presence of others. Save it for later.
- Lead by example
- Admit mistakes and draw lessons from them.
- That’s nine and a half decades of pretty good experience and wisdom sorted down to seven points. THANKS!! It’s been an honor.
“General Giller and is Air Force friends are/were some of the most interesting, intelligent, and industrious people who I have had the opportunity to meet and spend time with. The Hemphill family has a cabin outside of Durango, Colorado that we built to join the Gillers and other Air Force friends for summer vacations. Ed and his compatriots at the Los Alamos Labs outside of Santa Fe, discovered this area outside of Durango and we have had many visits over the years.
One summer I was there and we learned that our water pipe to our cabin had broken. Before I knew it there were 5-7 65+ year old guys hanging around, helping me dig and toss rocks out of the hole and then they repaired the pipe. They could have been sitting at home having coffee or doing something else, but there was a problem to be solved so they jumped in. I remember one of Ed’s friends coming back with a PVC pipe cut in half, smeared with epoxy glue and he sat in the hole and held it together. I am surprised that he got his hands free.
Ed and his wife have known me for 60 years and it is a link to my past as he was a life-long friend of my dad who passed away in 1976. One of the neat circles of life is that our youngest son Kevin is now in his second year at the Air Force Academy and we tried this fall to arrange a visit with Ed but his wife Millie was near the end. To have my grandfather encourage Ed to become an ATO, to my dad and uncle, my brother Jamie, and now the Air Force connection with my son is a great feeling.
Ed Giller is a real American hero.”
Scott Hemphill 1975
April 15, 2013