Frank Besson passed away at Portland, Oregon on July 19, 1956, after a long illness, accompanied by much suffering, distressing to his family and friends, but accepted uncomplainingly and courageously by Frank.
Frank was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on May 12, 1886, and lived there until about the beginning of his high school career. Then the family moved to Ambler, Pennsylvania, where his father opened a general mercantile business. While at Ambler High School, he played considerable football and gave evidence of his later ability as a good student. After graduating from High School, he spent a year at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia where he played center on the football team and engaged in the track activities of shot-put and hammer-throw.
Frank was the first member of his class to report at West Point in June 1905. As has happened to many other Pennsylvanians he was promptly dubbed “P.D.” As a cadet he worked hard to achieve success in all that he undertook. A diligent student, he also found time to engage in various athletic activities and extra-curricular tasks. As a member of the football squad he spent two years in being buffeted about before becoming a regular member of the team his last two years. One coach remarked, “If I could just manage to have Besson get mad, he'd make a great football player."
He participated in both outdoor and indoor meets each year in such events as shot-put, hammer-throw, horizontal bar and wrestling, and established a new Academy record in throwing the 16 pound hammer. He captained the wrestling team and won the Academy heavy weight competition in his first class year. He played on the hockey team for three seasons.
Small wonder he received at graduation, the sabre awarded to the outstanding member of each class in general athletic ability and participation.
Frank will also be remembered for his many drawings in various Howitzer's and other cadet or class publications. He served as an art editor for his own class Howitzer.
On June 11, 1909, he graduated from the Military Academy, standing number 13 in a class of 103. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of the Corps of Engineers, In which corps he spent his entire commissioned service, serving in all grades to include Colonel.
While on graduation leave he married Virginia Koehler. Following graduation leave, he spent, with his Engineer classmates, a year in study and observation of the works of the Corps of Engineers on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, the Panama Canal, the Great Lakes, and the Ohio River and US tributaries. The following year was spent at the Engineer School of the Army. While at Detroit, Michigan on Great Lakes duty, his son Frank, Jr., the class cup boy, was born. Subsequently, while a student at the Engineer School, a second son Robert was born.
Upon graduation from the Engineer School he served for a few months with Engineer troops at Fort Leavenworth, followed by four years in Hawaii, with troops and as an assistant to the Department Engineer. While on duty with the Engineer battalion, he organized and coached a company football team which won the championship of the Islands. For this service the members of the team presented Frank with a watch, which he prized highly. While playing with the team in the championship game he suffered a recurrence of previous head injuries, originally experienced in his pre-West Point days, which was the basis, according to medical authorities, for the nervous tremors, known as Parkinsonism, which plagued his late years. During the Hawaiian period Frank wrote a manual on the physical training of the soldier, which emphasized physical fitness as a prime attribute to success in war.
Returning from Hawaii in late 1915, he did company and staff duty with the 1st Engineers at Washington Barracks, Forts Sam Houston and Brown, Texas, and again Washington Barracks. In 1916 Frank married Jean Sharp who became the mother of his daughter, Jean. In August 1917, as Adjutant of the 1st Engineers, Frank accompanied the regiment to France. He saw combat service in the Toul, Cantigny, and Soissons sectors with his regiment of the First Division and reached the temporary grade of Colonel.
Returning to the United States in August 1918, he became Camp Executive of Camp Humphries, Virginia (now Fort Belvoir), then as now the principal training center of the Corps of Engineers. He served there until January 1919, when he was appointed Assistant Engineer Commissioner of the District of Columbia, serving in this capacity to July 1923. In this period he wrote a book, “City Pavements". Some ten or more years later, Frank, Jr., then taking a post-graduate course at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was asked by the Dean of Civil Engineering if he were related to the Besson who wrote “City Pavements,” and then asked why a man who had written what at the time of publication had been a most advanced engineering analysis had failed to keep it up to date. The answer was, of course, that the author had ventured into new fields.
The new fields included duty as a student at the Command and General Staff School, where he became a Distinguished Graduate of the class of 1924. He remained as an instructor at the school for the following four years. In this duty Frank established an enviable reputation as an instructor, as so many students and instructors of the period recollect. While at the school he continued his literary endeavors, publishing a pamphlet “Elements of Tactics”, which for some years served as a helpful guide to students at the Command and General Staff School and other service schools.
Following a year as student at the Army War College (1928-29), he served 4 years as District Engineer of the Nashville, Tennessee District; 4 years in the Office, Chief of Engineers, Washington; 3 1/2 years as District Engineer, Galveston, Texas District, and about 16 months as Division Engineer of the Missouri River Division with headquarters at Kansas City, Missouri.
Frank’s World War II duties included Command of the 8th Engineer Training Group and the Engineer Replacement Training Center, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, April 1942 to January 1943; organization and command of the Engineer Replacement Training Center, Camp Abbot, Oregon, February to December 1943; then his final duty at Fort Lewis, Washington, where he commanded the Engineer Training Section of the Army Service Forces Training Center.
Frank was retired for physical disability in September 1945. His disability had been creeping up on him for over a year.
The Decorations and Awards for his active service included; Commendation Ribbon with Metal Pendant; World War I Victory Medal with three (3) Battle Clasps for Montdidier-Noyon, Aisne-Marne, and Defensive Sector; Mexican Border Service Medal; American Defense Service Medal; American Campaign Medal; World War II Victory Medal.
Retirement opened a completely new life for Frank. Establishing a home in Portland, Oregon, Frank and his beloved Jeanie rapidly made many friends. But his retirement disability, serious though it was, was shortly dwarfed by the discovery of cancer. His first operation for this condition was performed in May 1946; and he had numerous other operations for cancer prior to the time of his death.
Despite these difficulties, Frank's retirement years were happy ones. While his condition precluded much physical activity, his two doctor brothers, their families, and the ever widening circle of friends were the basis for a full and satisfying life. In addition, there were intermittent but happy opportunities for visits from his children and an ever increasing number of grandchildren. And life-long Army friends, with any of whom he loved to, in his idiom, “shoot the breeze” dropped by at intervals. During this last period of his life he maintained his reputation for uncomplaining acceptance of his lot and for uncompromising respect and sympathy for others.
Frank was always a loyal friend, generous and unselfish; outspoken, he had ideas always; he was never content to blindly follow a groove, but was an independent thinker. He held high his standards of duty and conduct. He left his children an invaluable legacy in the love he gave them. His many friends will always remember his quiet humor, his staunch character, and his genuine and sympathetic interest in people.
Frank requested to be and was buried at the West Point he loved so well. He is survived by his wife Jean, who took care of him until the last few days when he was taken to the hospital; by his son Frank, class of 1932, now a Major General; by his son Robert, class of 1937, now Lieutenant Colonel Infantry; his daughter Jean, married to Colonel Milton B. Adams, class of 1939, U.S.A.F.; his brother, Dr. John Besson of Portland, Oregon; and eleven grandchildren.
—E. H. Marks