The quality of SAME’s stated mission attracted many notable leaders to serve. Its first president, Maj. Gen William Black, USA (Ret.), had served as U.S. Army Chief of Engineers through World War I. An 1877 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, from 1916-1919 he commanded the Corps of Engineers and directed all the engineering activities of the Army throughout the Great War. In 1919, as he was overseeing the drawdown of engineer troops, he appointed a nine-officer board to consider the formation of an “association of engineers” that would aim to preserve and expand upon connections formed in war and promote the advancement of engineering and its related professions across both military and civil life. This “association of engineers” became SAME.
In addition to Black (who also served as SAME President in 1921), William Barclay Parsons, founder of Parsons Brinckerhoff, was the Society’s first Vice President in 1920. In 1926, Brig. Gen. Cornelius Vanderbilt III, USAR, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt and member of the Vanberbilt Family served as SAME President. The younger Vanderbilt was an engineer who commanded New York’s 102nd Engineer Regiment in Europe during World War I. Then in 1928, Charles Dawes would serve both as SAME President and Vice President of the United States (alongside President Calvin Coolidge).
During World War I, Dawes was commissioned a major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel of the 17th Engineers (Railway). In October 1918, he was promoted to brigadier general. After the war, he held political positions, including the first Director of the Bureau of Budget in 1921. In 1923, he was appointed to the Allied Reparations Commission, and in 1925 was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Dawes Plan, which addressed World War I reparations.
Other distinguished charter members of SAME included Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, USA, then-Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy; Maj. Gen. George Goethals, USA (Ret.), Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal; and Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick, USA, who during World War I was Chief of Air Service and in 1921 was named the first Chief of the Army Air Service, which evolved under his leadership in 1926 into the Army Air Corps (the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force).
Patrick, an engineer by trade, would serve as SAME President in 1930. His leadership within the Army Air Service presaged the involvement of Air Force engineers in the Society. When the Air Force was formed in 1947, its engineers began to join SAME and would soon take on leadership roles at the Post and national levels. The first Air Force leader to serve as National President of SAME was Maj. Gen. James Newman Jr., USAF, who was Society President in 1956. Today, SAME awards the Newman Medal each year for outstanding contribution to military engineering by a civilian or military member of the Air Force.
Throughout SAME’s history, many influential American and military leaders have held the position of Society President. In 1944, Vice Adm. R.R. Waesche, USCG, was SAME President while serving as Commandant of the Coast Guard. In 1941, then-Rear Adm. Ben Moreell, USN, who is known as the Father of the Seabees, was SAME President while Chief of the Navy Bureau of Yards & Docks. Businessman and Navy veteran John Volpe was SAME President in 1952; he would later twice serve as Governor of Massachusetts, and then U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and U.S. Ambassador to Italy.
The Society of American Military Engineers is now 100. Founded in 1920, in the interests of patriotism and national security, the organization has never wavered from a vow to support the needs of the United States and strengthen the profession of engineering. As was stated in the inaugural issue of The Military Engineer a century ago: “this Society will serve no selfish purpose.”
The genesis of SAME was born from the lessons of World War I, and the realization of those who went “over there” that the engineering community was unprepared for what was confronted. That prescient leadership would prove invaluable, as “The War to End All Wars” was anything but.
During 2020, the Society is celebrating a century of service to the nation through local and national events, programs and special activities, and coverage in print and online. At Bricks & Clicks, we will be publishing information from the TME archives, capturing the growth of SAME and the emergence of engineering and technology on the world’s stage. Follow and contribute using #SAME100.