Head Strong

How Psychology is Revolutionizing War

A Pioneer of Military Psychology

A brief biography of Colonel Fred E. Holdrege.

Psychology has always played an important role in war. From helping the army develop aptitude tests during World War I to designing innovative strategies to build soldier resilience during the Global War on Terror, psychologists have played a critical role in selecting, training, and preparing soldiers for the challenges of combat.

Fred E. Holdrege as a cadet at West Point (used with permission)

The relationship between war and psychology is fascinating. As important as these contributions have been, we sometimes lose sight of the accomplishments of individual military psychologists.  In the past year, I have had the honor to make the acquaintance of one of the early pioneers of military psychology, one who was also a bona fide World War II hero. He is Colonel Fred E. Holdrege, and I think you will find his journey from World War II bomber pilot to pioneering psychologist interesting.

A native of Thermopolis, Wyoming, Colonel Holdrege came of age in the Great Depression. After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Colorado for a year, and then enlisted in the Army in 1936. He so impressed his chain of command that they nominated him for admission to West Point, where he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 1942. He went on to flight school and into the Army Air Corps for assignment to combat in Europe.

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Assigned to the 8th Air Force Group 467th Bomb Group Squadron 790th, Holdrege soon found himself flying bombing missions over Germany. He was promoted from first lieutenant, to captain, and then to major. His served as a squadron commander until the end of the European theater of war in May of 1945. In recognition of his valor in combat, he was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, four Air Medals, two Meritorious Service Awards, two Commendation Awards, and the Croixe de Guerre.

In a recent conversation I had with Colonel Holdrege, he told the story of how he returned from Europe and why he was so excited to get home.  During his time in combat, he was engaged to be married, but wanted to wait until he completed his combat assignment. The bombing missions over Germany were very dangerous, and many airmen did not make home alive. Happily for Colonel Holdrege, he survived his tour and could not wait to return home. In an era when most troops crossed the ocean via troop ships, Colonel Holdrege managed to obtain a ride to the United States in the bomb bay of a B-17 aircraft. In no time, he was in Chicago where he married his wife, Jane. She passed away very recently, after 67 years of marriage.

The war ended a couple of months later with the surrender of the Japanese. I asked Colonel Holdrege where he was when he learned the war had ended. He said he was on a training flight on a B-29 Super Fortress over the Grand Canyon. He was training for deployment to the Pacific theater, in preparation for a ground invasion of Japan. One can only imagine his sense of joy and relief.

That was the war hero part of the story. Now comes the psychologist part. After serving as a B-29 instructor pilot, the Air Force (by then a separate service from the Army) sent Colonel Holdrege to the Ohio State University, where he completed a doctoral degree in human factors engineering in 1953. For the rest of his distinguished career, Colonel Holdrege served as a military psychologist.  He was appointed the first department head of what is now known as the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Following that assignment, Colonel Holdrege commanded several Air Force Laboratories and held senior staff positions. Following his retirement from the Air Force in 1970, Colonel Holdrege was named Director of Evaluation of the National Laboratory for Higher Education, and was president of Colony Park Association. For 19 years, he was a volunteer for Meals and Wheels.

I came to know Colonel Holdrege because he had read an article I had published (with psychologist Angela Duckworth) on the role of grit in the success of West Point cadets. He tracked down my telephone number and cold called me. It was a fascinating conversation. I learned that my first assignment as an Air Force officer was at a laboratory he had once commanded, and he was excited to learn that I had been an instructor in the very same department at the Air Force Academy that he founded many years before. Out of the blue I had found a kindred spirit.

Yesterday (as I write this), Colonel Holdrege called to discuss a research idea he has formulated on predictors of leadership. Now age 97, his mind is as active and engaged as ever. He was a respected and productive researcher. If you search his name in Google Scholar you will get an idea of the depth and breadth of his scholarly interests and contributions. I get the sense that he could step right into a laboratory today and carry out important and meaningful research.

Too often, we fail to take time to reflect on the accomplishments of those who came before us.  Colonel Holdrege is not a household name in the history of psychology, but he exemplifies the very finest attributes of a true soldier-scholar. So, Colonel Holdrege, thank you for a job well done. Your service and that of your peers following World War II paved the way for modern military psychology.

Oh, one more thing. We had to cut our conversation a bit short yesterday. Colonel Holdrege needed to head to the pool for his daily swim. A World War II hero, a pioneer of military psychology, and a mentally and physically engaged nonagenarian – a great tale, indeed.

Note:  The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Michael D. Matthews, Ph.D., is Professor of Engineering Psychology at the United States Military Academy and author of Head Strong: How Psychology is Revolutionizing War.

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