“He was a person you would follow through hell because you just had so much faith in him.”
That’s how retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 Bill Nelson described the late Brig. Gen. Kenneth Dermann, a former 67th Infantry Brigade (Mechanized) commander and Nebraska Army National Guard assistant adjutant general who died Feb. 7 at the age of 89.
A World War II veteran who served in the Pacific Theater Operations as a U.S. Navy Sailor aboard an American minesweeper ship, Dermann would go on to serve in the Nebraska Army National in a variety of leadership roles that culminated in his assignments with the 67th Infantry Brigade and as the Nebraska Army National Guard assistant adjutant general in the mid-1980s.
According to those who served with Dermann, the retired brigadier general was a consummate professional military officer and caring gentleman.
“He was a great leader,” said retired Brig. Gen. Dayle Williamson, who followed Dermann as commander of the 67th Infantry Brigade in 1983. According to Williamson, he first met Dermann in the mid-1950s. “We had a number of World War II veterans when I came in and we used to kid Ken because he had served in the Navy. But, we were extremely lucky to have gotten him into the Nebraska Army National Guard. He was really a Soldier’s Soldier. He would talk to anyone and he truly took the time to get to know people and to get to know the issues closely.”
Dermann was born on June 15, 1927, on his family’s farm near Talmage, Nebraska. After graduating from Nebraska City High School in 1944, he attended the University of Nebraska where he lettered in football before enlisting in the U.S. Navy on April 28, 1945. He served in the Pacific Theater aboard the USSS Harrier minesweeper until July 18, 1946, and then served in the U.S. Navy Reserve until May 1, 1947.
Dermann’s National Guard career began on June 10, 1947, when he enlisted into Nebraska City’s Company A, 134th Infantry, as a private first class. Between 1947 and April 1951, Dermann served in various capacities within the unit, ultimately reaching the rank of platoon sergeant before being appointed as a second lieutenant in Co. A.
During the next decade-and-a-half, Dermann served in a variety of leadership roles both within Co. A, as well as Beatrice’s Co. C and the 2nd Battalion, 134th Infantry, headquarters.
Along with his military career, Dermann worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service for 26 years before finally taking a fulltime position with the Nebraska National Guard in 1973.
According to Williamson, who believes he first met Dermann while he was working at the Soils Lab, the future general was an impressive person to be around.
“I probably got to know him best when he served as our company commander,” Williamson said, adding that the Nebraska Army National Guard of the 1950s was vastly different than the Nebraska Army National Guard of 2017. “The Guard at the time was poorly supported.”
Williamson said he was amazed at the old equipment and manuals that the Nebraska Soldiers were using when he returned to the state following his stint with the active Army, and this continued to be a problem throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.
“Between the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Pentagon lost interest in the Guard,” Williamson said, adding that members of the Guard simply had to do the best they could to keep up to date on current tactics or weapon systems.
Retired Brig. Gen. James Murphy, who would one day succeed Dermann as the Nebraska Army National Guard’s assistant adjutant general in the late 1980s, echoed those comments.
According to Murphy, who served as an aide to a former brigade commander, Brig. Gen. William Bachman, during the 1960s, attitudes about the Guard began to change with the designation of the 67th Infantry Brigade as “Selective Reserve Force.”
In 1965, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara created the Selective Reserve Force (SRF), which allowed him to focus on preparing a core group of 150,000 Guardsmen for immediate overseas deployment, if needed. SRF organizations were to be authorized at 100 percent strength and receive priority training funds and modern equipment. Nebraska’s 67th Infantry Brigade (Mechanized) and Kansas’ 69th Infantry Brigade (Mechanized) were part of the SRF.
Training increased from 48 two-hour training periods per year to 72 four-hour drills, six per month. Some companies began holding back-to-back drills on weekends (where the term Multiple Unit Training Assemblies or MUTAs was born.)
Nebraska’s SRF units’ strength rose from 50 to 80 percent. Training opportunities, supplies, new facilities such as the old Atlas missile sites at Mead and Arlington, and more realistic training opportunities were all benefits of the SRF.
The SRF era also saw a change in the organization’s annual training program as the 67th Infantry Brigade shifted its focus to Fort Carson where it worked alongside active Army Soldiers.
“That’s when the active Army started taking a lot more interest in us,” Williamson said. “We became attached to the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson and they would assign mentors who were people of equal ranks to the ones in the Guard that were receiving mentorship. They would come up and spend a lot of time with us at drills and throughout annual training.”
“I got to know (General Dermann) during the SRF era,” Murphy said, adding that as a general’s aide, he had a chance to be around many of the organization’s senior and up-coming leaders.
“He was the kind of guy who never got in trouble. He taught me a lot about how to treat people,” Murphy said about his interactions with Dermann. “I think it went back to the fact that he had started out as an enlisted Soldier, so he knew to treat people at every rank because he had done many of the jobs that they were now doing. It was just a pleasure to watch how he spoke to people and how he treated them.”
Murphy added that Dermann’s leadership was always present.
“He was definitely squared away from his uniform to his conduct,” Murphy said. “He was very important to the role of the Guard in that day. You could tell which units were squared away and his were always at the top of the list.”
Following an assignment as commander of the 2nd Battalion, 134th Infantry, Dermann was reassigned to the 67th Infantry Brigade as the executive officer, then deputy commander. After several additional assignments within the state headquarters, Dermann returned to the brigade as its commander on Feb. 15, 1980, and was promoted to brigadier general on Aug. 31, 1980.
By this time, the SRF era had ended, but the brigade, now a “separate” brigade, still had a significant relationship with Fort Carson and the 4th Infantry Division.
According to both Murphy and Williamson, Dermann was the perfect commander for that period of time.
“It was extremely important that General Dermann served in the position that he did,” Williamson said. “We didn’t want to be overcome by the active Army; we wanted to be on equal footing with them.
“General Dermann had the ability to go in and speak with the active leaders on equal footing,” Williamson said, adding that this particularly the case with one Brig. Gen. Colin Powell, 4th Infantry Div. assistant commander, who worked closely with Dermann during annual training. “He had developed a lot of respect and that was really important in the development of the brigade.”
“He was as near to perfection as you get. He was always honest, direct and always in control. He was a superb officer. He was an unusual straight arrow in that he really knew his stuff and he really knew how to treat people.”
Retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 Bill Nelson was one of those Soldiers. As the brigade’s fulltime unit support specialist, Nelson had frequent interactions with Dermann.
“He was a no-nonsense leader, but he also gave everyone the latitude to do what they needed to do,” Nelson said. “He wasn’t a micromanager. He would back you 100 percent, but if you made a mistake he always made sure that he would counsel you in private instead of in front of other Soldiers.”
That level of professionalism, Nelson added, went a long way in developing the relationships that Dermann created with the active Army leaders he came into contact with.
Dermann left the brigade on Nov. 1, 1983, when he became the Nebraska Army National Guard’s assistant adjutant general. Once again, he left his mark on the organization.
“Probably one of the most significant things he did was really putting focus on making sure that people were recognized for their accomplishments,” Nelson said. “Up until then, we didn’t put in many people for military awards. I think he deserves a lot of credit for changing that focus.”
Williams said that Dermann also continued to be a role model for the Soldiers he led.
“Everyone really looked forward to talking to him. He was just so thorough and knowledgeable about the issues we were dealing with,” Williamson said. “He was really a good leader in that he excelled as a tactician, as an administrator and as a strategic thinker. Often you find people who are really good in one area, but not so good in the others. General Dermann was extremely good in each of those aspects.
“You were always assured that you would get your questions answered and that they would be the right answers… and that you would be backed up by them when you made a decision.”
“He was just a solid individual,” Murphy added. “He was kind of person we need to see more of today.”
Following his retirement from the Nebraska Army National Guard on June 1987, Dermann would be inducted into the Nebraska National Guard Military Academy Hall of Fame in 1995.
Dermann was also a long-time volunteer at the Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln where he served as a member of the volunteer board of directors. He was also a long-time volunteer at his church and served in numerous other volunteer activities.
Dermann was buried at Lincoln Memorial Park with full military honors on Feb. 11. He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Shirley; two sons and their wives; three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.