SAN FRANCISCO --
Come early October, retired Maj. Gen. Mike Myatt is likely to have the look of a proud new papa. Fleet Week 2011 is, after all, his baby.
Myatt is the driving force behind San Francisco’s Fleet Week. He cobbled together a group of volunteers to coordinate the events, wrangled the Marines, Navy and Coast Guard to focusing more attention back on Fleet Week and turned the week from just a celebration of the sea services to one that’s helping San Francisco get ready for the next big earthquake.
He’s a rare combination of driven military man, patriotic citizen, pragmatic businessman and doting father figure. And he’s got the resume to back it up. But mostly, he’s still answering a call to service even after first stepping forward to become a Marine in 1963 and looking forward to seeing San Franciscans open their arms to their servicemembers.
“It’s heartwarming to see how they receive the sailors and Marines when they come in,” Myatt said. “A sailor or Marine in uniform can’t pay for anything. People take care of them.”
Myatt’s own story started right here in the city. He was born James Michael Myatt, to a traveling salesman at St. Francis Hospital on Bush Street. His residency in the city was short-lived, however. Six weeks later, he was on the road to Denver. There, he grew up and caught the first glimpse of what would become his life’s calling.
“I saw a parade,” he explained. “I was pretty little, but it was a parade after World War II and I saw Marines and I said if I could be anything, that’s what I want to be.”
That thought was further reinforced by a Sunday School teacher who left a lasting mark on Myatt’s character. That Sunday School teacher was a Marine and when war broke out in Korea, he left.
Myatt paused for a moment when he explained that was the last time he saw him.
“He never came back,” he said. “I always thought I’d like to be like him.”
Myatt’s college years brought him to San Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He graduated in 1963 with a degree in physics and a job offer from NASA. He turned it down, instead taking a commission as second lieutenant in the Marine Reserve, stationed in Hawaii.
“It was a terrific Marine Corps,” Myatt said. “We would be out in the field. We worked hard. There was always some kind of professional military education.”
Myatt said one of the best benefits of being a young Marine platoon commander in Hawaii was working so closely with all aspect of the Marine Corps right there. Infantry officers worked alongside aviators, giving young Marines a very real application for the unique nature of how Marines fight. It would serve Myatt well in 1965 when he was charged with loading a ship to sail for an exercise in California. Only he knew, they would never get there. The sun set one night and came up on the wrong end of the ship. Instead of steaming east, they were headed west toward a small southeast Asian country that would soon gain America’s attention.
“A lot of the people still thought we were going to Camp Pendleton, but the sun came up on the wrong end of the ship,” he said. “We actually went to Okinawa, reloaded the ship and went into Vietnam in May of 1965.”
That marked the first tour for Myatt in Vietnam. He served as a platoon and company commander as well as a logistics officer during his one-year tour. And while he’s proud of what he accomplished during that tour and a subsequent tour as an advisor to the Vietnamese Marine Corps, he had his criticisms.
“What we ended up adopting in the Marine Corps and I think (Department of Defense)-wide was an individual replacement system,” he explained. “What that allowed us to do was quickly achieve a level of mediocrity that absolutely, in many ways, was devastating.”
Myatt said the rotations meant that every unit always had someone new learning and someone who was getting ready to leave. Commanders were “punching tickets,” he said, serving tours as little six months, little time to effectively lead their units.
“I think we spent years after Vietnam to say never again,” he said. “I think we have the best Marine Corps we’ve ever had today from some of those changes.”
What followed were the “hollow years,” according to Myatt. Defense budgets dwindled and Marines were struggling to get enough training dollars for equipment and even toilet paper for the troops in the barracks. Officers and senior enlisted were buying supplies out of their own pockets out in town. Even more, the Corps was filled with the wrong Marines. That all soon changed and the Marine Corps today, Myatt explained, is still reaping the benefits.
Myatt said Gen. Lou Wilson shook up the Corps, raising the standards for enlistment and discharging those who weren’t meeting the strictest standards. Gone were drug abusers and lazy Marines. In were high school graduates, a new requirement at the time. Mental, moral and physical standards were raised. Marines were going to be Marines and Myatt said it couldn’t have come sooner.
“I’ve always said that when Lou Wilson became the Commandant, he actually saved the Marine Corps,” Myatt said. “We started discharging folks who never should have been even given the title Marine. I think the first thing the first thing we did, he said we’re going to improve the quality of Marines.
“To be able to say to be a Marine, you need to have at least a high school education,” he explained of the new policy. “What that means is the individual has some ‘stick-to-it-tiveness’ to them. They don’t give up. They’re not a professional quitter.”
More changes would soon come and Myatt said they were all good ideas that have shaped the Corps into what the nation has today. Enlistment standards were tightened, infantry skills were reintroduced at the onset of training for every Marine and education of the noncommissioned officers was emphasized.
“I mean corporals and sergeants today are making decisions that were reserved for lieutenants back in my day,” he added.
Myatt’s career continued to carry him forward. Just days before he assumed command of the Corps’ oldest, largest and most decorated Division, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Myatt knew where he and his Division of Marines would be.
“We already had a brigade of Marines from Twentynine Palms moving, flying to Saudi Arabia…” Myatt said. “God loved us a little bit on that whole thing because I had a whole new staff.”
Myatt’s key advisors and planners were all new to the command, just as he was. Still, the time Saddam Hussein took holding his ground before the mandated deadlines gave Myatt the time he needed to organize his command. He was soon joined by Brig. Gen. Thomas Draude, with whom, he explained, he shared a Lewis and Clark-style command relationship.
“It was very unusual,” he said. “They never really disagreed on anything… they just operated so that they could make decisions independently of each other and they would never countermand each other. That’s the way General Draude and I worked in the 1st Marine Division.”
The deadline passed that Myatt stepped his division into the fray of battle, tearing through the Iraqi defenses in less than 100 hours of combat.
“It was the capstone professional experience,” Myatt said. “I had the best group of officers and staff noncommissioned officers that I think have ever been assembled in one place.”
Still, his challenges leading the 1st Marine Division were far from over. He brought his Marines home and less than a year later, was gearing them back up for action. This time, he’d be going to Los Angeles. The Rodney King verdict was released and the city fell victim to riot. Myatt took a task force from Camp Pendleton, backed by aircraft, and posted Marines alongside police fighting to gain control of the area.
The response to armed Marines was imediate.
“I still think today… people that really quelled those riots, were Marines,” Myatt said.
Myatt said it was part of the no-nonsense approach by Marines but also because of Marine sense of aggression.
“Because when they were told to cover a police operation on a building, to them that mean giving covering fire,” he added. “They said, wait, wait, wait, we never meant that. But the signal that it sent to the rioter, you don’t screw with Marines. I still think the Marines saved the day.”
It also gave Myatt a glimpse in the nature of military serving alongside of civilian authorities during crisis response. He said police departments had their own sets of equipment, with neighboring departments unable to communicate over incompatible radios. Training between all entities had never really occurred. These were lessons that were never far from Myatt’s mind.
Myatt finished his career out with a tour in Korea and later at the Pentagon before retiring and taking a job working for Bechtel Corporation, which brought him back to San Francisco and the Marines Memorial Association. For five years, he spent much of his time traveling, overseeing the construction of a high-speed rail from Seoul to Pusan and later in London. He did some work with the Marines Memorial Association, but wasn’t able to dedicate too much time.
It was also during this time, he was called back to public service, taking appointments from San Francisco’s Mayor Willie Brown in 2002, where over the next few years, he would focus elected leaders to prepare for earthquakes. He even served an appointment from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission Council.
But the Corps still beckoned, and he took over the Marines Memorial Association after taking a leave of absence from Bechtel Corporation. He’s currently the president and chief executive officer for the association, boasting a membership exceeding 25,000. And when he’s not doing that, he’s planning Fleet Week, a job he took on in January of 2010.
“We inherited a debt of about $112,000,” he said. “Fleet Week is not paid for by the government, it’s paid for by us. With some reservations, I took it over. I then contacted my friends who now form the committee and the board for Fleet Week.”
On top of it, Fleet Week in San Francisco the year before dwindled to one ship and just six Marines. It was just an air show. Myatt said he was approached by two key government officials – Sen. Diane Feinstein and former Secretary of State George Schultz – who both wanted to bring Fleet Week back to its meaning and make it something from which the city and the military would benefit. Myatt knew that the “big one” is never far from area reasidents’ minds and when it happened, they’d need help.
“We don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s going to happen,” Myatt explained of his approach. “Why don’t we try to get better at it because if we are totally victims here, the agency, the best humanitarian assistance and disaster response organization really is the United States military. They’ll come to our rescue when it happens.”
That led to last year’s event, where 2,200 Marines joined thousands of sailors and Coast Guardsmen. Firefighters trained military members on urban search and rescue and Marines showed off how they could make water right from the San Francisco Bay.
“Why introduce yourselves on the battlefield,” Myatt said of the Fleet Week exercises. “Get to know each other before.”
And that’s exactly what they’re planning for this year. A seminar is being held for area mayors and their staffs to talk over what the plans and priority would be in an earthquake. Military planners will be showing area officials what they could bring and how they could support.
And through it all, Myatt will be balancing his roles… that of chairman of the event, president of a veterans’ organization, citizen San Francisco and Marine leader.
“It’s really heartwarming to see the people, the smile on their face when they realize, “Hey, this is a real capability and these people can really help us out. We’re glad they’re here.”