George S. Prugh Jr. – Major General, United States Army

Thursday, July 13, 2006:

Retired Army Major General George S. Prugh Jr., a Bay Area resident who was credited with helping to save the lives of American prisoners of war in Vietnam, died July 6, 2006, at the age of 86.

Major General Prugh, in his role as an Army lawyer, persuaded the South Vietnamese ambassador to grant POW status to Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War. The U.S.-backed designation gave the enemy combatants international protections and set humane standards for their treatment under the Geneva Conventions.

“Prugh realized that if the South Vietnamese continued to treat the Viet Cong as criminals and dealt with them in their own way that there was no way the captured Americans would survive,” said retired Col. Fred Borch, a historian with the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the legal arm of the service.

Another time, Major General Prugh, who from 1971 to 1975 served as Judge Advocate General — the top Army lawyer — stood up to President Richard Nixon. The case involved the 1968 My Lai Massacre in which U.S. soldiers, under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, killed hundreds of apparently unarmed civilians in a South Vietnamese village. In a military trial, Calley was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Nixon, under political pressure, wanted to decide Calley’s appeal himself, but Major General Prugh held firm that the president didn’t have the authority to make that decision, and the case remained within the judiciary.

Major General Prugh began his military career during World War II and served during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Trained at UC’s Boalt Hall School of Law in Berkeley and Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. He served as battery commander in the Coast Guard in New Guinea and the Philippines.

He returned to the Bay Area to resume his law studies in 1945. A year before he received his law degree, he accepted an Army commission. His first assignment was to the Army’s Military Affairs Division in San Francisco’s Presidio, not far from where he spent part of his boyhood years playing baseball on Marina district sandlots with Joe and Dom DiMaggio.

During his military career, he had stints in Asia, in Europe and at the Pentagon. At one point, he was legal adviser to General William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. troops during the Vietnam War. One of his chief interests was to professionalize the Army’s legal corps and to assure that soldiers accused of crimes and dereliction of duty had adequate representation, Borch said. Upon retirement from the Army in 1975, he taught law at Hastings until 1982.

Throughout his life, he was a student of history and carried on written correspondences with others over points of law, a passion one of his daughters described as Jeffersonian. He even penned a musical about the life of Swiss humanitarian Jean-Henri Dunant, the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who founded an organization later to be known as the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Major General Prugh was born in Norwalk, Virginia, on June 1, 1920. He died in Moraga from complications related to Parkinson’s.

He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Katherine, and two daughters, Stephanie Beach and Lt. Col. Patt Prugh, who followed her father into the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He also leaves behind five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

He is scheduled to be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on September 1, 2006.

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