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Home : Press Room : Transcripts
SPEECH | April 13, 2020

On the Horizon: Navigating the European and African Theaters Episode 16

Presenter:  Admiral James G. Foggo III, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Africa; Commander, Allied Joint Force Command Naples

Guest: General (Ret) David Petraeus, Partner, KKR & Chairman, KKR Global Institute and former Director the Central Intelligence Agency Commander and U.S. Central Command

Host: LT Bobby Dixon, NAVEUR Public Affairs Action Officer

Recorded: February 27, 2020

Released: TBD, 2020


LT DIXON:  Welcome to the 16th episode of "On The Horizon:  Navigating the European and African Theaters." In this episode, we welcome General David Petraeus to discuss his father's role in World War II, the importance of the Transatlantic Bridge and how that applies in today's security environment. In addition, we will discuss the U.S. Army Defender Europe 2020 exercise and its connection to the past.


Admiral, it’s great to be back.

ADM FOGGO:  Hey, thanks, Lieutenant Dixon and great to see you again. And I really look forward to our discussion today.

LT DIXON:  Admiral, we have a special guest joining the podcast by phone from New York. Sir, with that, I will turn this over to you to introduce our guest.

ADM FOGGO:  I'm extremely privileged to have General David Petraeus join us here on the podcast today. General Petraeus, welcome to the podcast, “On the Horizon,” sir.

GEN PETRAEUS:  Thank you very much, Jamie. It's great to be with you and Bobby.

ADM FOGGO:  Hey, thank you, sir.

And one of the reasons we wanted to invite you on board, sir, is last week, the United States Navy in coordination with the new Second Fleet and Sixth Fleet, and our Military Sealift Command executed an opposed convoy, a four-ship convoy, intended to deliver 1.3 million square feet of supplies and material across the Atlantic Ocean. 

It's one of our essential naval capabilities, and we support the land forces ashore. As you probably know, we've got Defender 20 going on right now.

Big exercise with 20,000 troops coming across the Atlantic, and this Transatlantic Bridge was a vital part of our efforts in World War I, and in World War II in our combat operations in Europe.  And I think it's just as important today as it was back then.

And, sir, what I wanted to tell our listeners is we both have a family connection to convoy operations in the Atlantic, and the vital role that they played in World War II.

Before I get into the convoy piece of this and family connections, I want to tell our listeners that I was privileged as a Navy Captain, an O-6, to meet you for the first time in Fort Myer, Virginia in 2007. 

And you were the Commander of Multinational Force Iraq at the time, and you lived down the street, I lived in one of the duplex houses, worked for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and that's when I learned that our father said military careers that were connected at that critical period of time in World War II.

Before moving forward, sir, if you'll indulge me, I just want to provide our listeners with a little bit about you.

You're a 1974 graduate of the United States Military Academy. In your class, you had three future four star generals, General Martin Dempsey, General Walter Sharp, and General Keith Alexander, an extremely impressive group.

And can you tell us why you chose West Point, yourself?

GEN PETRAEUS:  Yes, I grew up literally in the shadow of West Point, seven miles north of the US Military Academy right around Storm King Mountain. Many of my high school teachers, coaches, Sunday school teacher, newspaper customers, you name it, neighbors, were all products of West Point, teaching at West Point, working at West Point.

And over time, you know, I think we do a lot of -- make a lot of choices in life, because we want to be like those we admire. And I developed admiration for those who were at West Point and products of West Point. And that ultimately led me to go there when the time came to choose a college.

ADM FOGGO:  An extremely fine institution, a lot of respect for the United States Military Academy, and thanks, General, you've accomplished so much in 37 years of service to the nation, and I just want to highlight some of that for the audience.

And following your distinguished career in uniform, you returned to service to our country once again, as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and we could go on and on about your service, sir, we'll post your biography on our website with the transcript of this podcast.

So if I may, let me just get back to the Liberty Ships and the convoys. I wanted to ask you about your dad and his contributions to World War II.

Back when I lived on Fort Myer, that's when I learned that your father, Sixtus Petraeus, came from the Netherlands. And he was a part of that relief effort and the convoys of World War II. Can you please tell us a little bit about your background, your dad's coming to the United States and how he came to be involved in the convoys?

GEN PETRAEUS:  Sure, my dad, as you noted was born and raised in the Netherlands. He went to the Dutch Merchant Marine Academy. He happened to be at sea on a ship in the late spring of 1940 when the Nazis overran Holland and the rest of Western Europe.

His ship couldn't return to Rotterdam from which it had sailed, so they went up to New York, came into New York Harbor, and took a right and turned into the Brooklyn Navy Yard. And the vast majority of them signed on with the U.S. Merchant Marine. This is of course before the U.S. had entered the war. So he had a very long war indeed.

Eventually, he was on the Liberty Ships that were making the very hazardous runs to Murmansk, in Arkhangelsk in Russia, the northwest part of Russia, north of the Norwegian Sea and so forth.

He did runs to the Persian Gulf also to help resupply the Soviet Union.  He did runs in the Pacific and many across the Atlantic to Great Britain and other locations. A lot of adventures along the way, frankly.

I am not sure how many runs he actually made because some of these such as the Murmansk run took months. They would literally come out of New York Harbor, inch their way up the coast to try to stay within air cover from wherever it was they were against the U-boats, and never trying to get too far away from some safe harbor literally.

So, they would go into a number of harbors just to get up as far as Nova Scotia, then sprint across to one side of Greenland and the other Iceland, go north oftentimes of Great Britain, but eventually they would have to sprint across either up through the North Sea or directly into the Norwegian Sea to get to Murmansk or Arkhangelsk. And of course, they can only do it a certain number of months every year.  The ice obviously couldn't be so thick that they couldn't get through.

And the challenge was, needless to say, the German U-boats. Once they got within range of a German aircraft coming out of Norway, they had that challenge, and there were even some battleships and other German ships that would get loose in the convoys every now and then, as well.

I think in the summer of '42, and that may have been the one in which they lost literally half the ships in the convoy. They essentially were told to scatter because the ships that were there to defend them – the destroyers – really couldn't deal with the German battleship, and then there was some aircraft and also the U-boats popped up.

So this is what they had to contend with. And they were very, very hazardous convoys, indeed. As I think you know, the U.S. Merchant Marine reportedly had the highest per capita loss rate of any service in the U.S. military, noting that it took some 40 plus years until the U.S. Merchant Marine was actually recognized as having been veterans for serving during World War II.

ADM FOGGO: So that's absolutely amazing testimonial to the sacrifices of your father in the Merchant Marine. And I have to tell you, that as we sat around the table here with the officers present, we're just amazed at how many runs your dad did and the resupply to the Soviet Union –both in Russia and Murmansk and also in the Persian Gulf.

Before the end of Exercise Trident Juncture in 2018, I actually had the privilege of going out on an Icelandic tug, fleet tug, a big ship, and the CHOD [chief of defense] went with me and delegation of ambassadors and we drove to the point which was the rally point for the convoys either coming from North America or going back to North America, and it was the 75th Anniversary and we laid a wreath.

And what went through my mind at the time was not only the harsh conditions that these heroes of World War II dealt with in delivering the supplies, but also if they were torpedoed, they went down in battle. They didn't have long to live. So the risks were high and that must have been incredibly intense for people like you're dad.

GEN PETRAEUS:  Yes, on that particular convoy, he had a torpedo literally -- that they saw that went under their ship and it literally did not explode. It didn't detonate. It malfunctioned. And his First Mate who actually was the one that saw it first, he was the Captain of that particular ship by that time, I believe. And he saw this and was speechless for quite some time after that because as you know, if you go into the water, you're finished pretty quickly because of the, essentially the icy nature of it even during the summer.

And I should note that when I was working for General Shelton, when he was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I was his exec for a couple of years. We actually made a trip to Russia, and it included a stop in Murmansk.

And I remember he was being briefed or interviewed by some Russians there, and I just happened to mention to somebody on the side that, you know my dad actually did one of the runs, Liberty Ship runs to Murmansk.

And all the conversations stopped as this individual repeated that, given how revered those Sailors of the Merchant Marine still are in Murmansk and how they were remembered for bringing life-saving, really, supplies, tanks, armored vehicles, ammunition, food and so forth.

And that depth of gratitude is still there. There's still, at least one monument that I saw to those heroes of the Merchant Marines who made that incredibly hazardous run. 

ADM FOGGO:  Wow. That's a compelling story, especially the story of the torpedo. I can't imagine actually watching that and you know, having those thoughts go through your head of what happens if it goes off, and thank goodness it didn't, sir.

GEN PETRAEUS:  I wouldn't be here, myself, needless to say, so -- but again, these are just among the many hazards that they dealt with. In addition, of course, just to the sheer hazards that a seaman encounters going through the North Sea, the Norwegian Sea, literally at any time of year, given the challenges of the weather, and so forth.

ADM FOGGO:  Absolutely, an essential part of the mission, then, as it is today and delivering all of the people and the material that we use to deter and defend in the Euro-Atlantic Theater, which is kind of our mantra now.

About the time that your dad was making those runs, my father joined the military through the Canadian Armed Forces. I'm actually a naturalized American citizen, and he was commissioned in Bexhill in England around -- I think it was around 1941 by King George VI.

He started as a Winnipeg Grenadier and was repurposed as a Lake Superior Motor Regiment officer. And he was one of, I think, eight of the original officers that left Canada for the training to come across the channel for the invasion of Normandy and my dad was always very upfront.

He would say, well, I didn't land on the 6th of June, I landed on D-Plus 45, which was July 19, but the combat at the time -- and I have his war map in my office -- was pretty intense, because Rommel was in charge and the SS Panzergrenadier that surrounded the beachhead there and I saw that when I was up in Normandy for the 75th last year.

So, he fought his way up the beach and it wouldn't happen without the supplies and the material that men like your father delivered because they needed that bridge of steel, and the gas and the beans and the bullets in order to move forward.

So, I think if he were here, he passed away many years ago, he'd be very grateful for the sacrifice of your family and I'll thank you for that here in the year 2020.

GEN PETRAEUS:  I thank you for what your dad did during that time and all those who were with him from all the countries that were part of the liberation of Europe, and many of whom actually were also transported across the Atlantic on Liberty Ships and a variety of other ships that were repurposed for that particular task, and my dad did some of that, I believe, as well.

I know he shipped just about everything over the years in these extraordinary boats, the Liberty ships, you know, relatively modest in size, I think about 14,000 tons in displacement, 140 feet or so, and relatively slow. You know, sailed at 11 to 12 knots, which made them pretty good targets.

And of course, they generally only had some kind of gun on the front, some kind of gun on the back, and depended on escort vessels for their survival. And occasionally those escort vessels got outgunned by the enemy, or just completely overwhelmed by U-boats, or, in some cases, the fighter aircraft when they were close to land.

LT DIXON: And General I have to ask, did you have a chance to ever visit any of these Liberty Ships that your dad deployed on during World War II?

GEN PETRAEUS:  There were some of them, when I was growing up in the Hudson River Valley. We obviously did a lot of sailing on the Hudson, and down – like tens of miles, I guess, down towards New York, again, we were 50 miles north of it. There were mothballed ships and some of those actually were Liberty Ships.

And I remember seeing those when we took an annual trip down to New York and sailed around Manhattan and that kind of stuff.

ADM FOGGO:  Yes, I guess they towed them away. 

GEN PETRAEUS:  Yes, all the gray hulls that were sitting there.  I think there might be one or two still in service somewhere, I am not sure where.

LT DIXON:  And General did your dad talk much about the war, was there any other stories that really stuck with you about his time on Liberty ships?

GEN PETRAEUS:  There's another story -- my dad didn't talk a great deal about his service until after he retired and then joined the U.S. Merchant Marine Association somewhere around then, the Merchant Marine were finally recognized as veterans, again, I think, some 43 or so years after the end of the war in the late 1980s.

And then they would get together, of course, and remember the good old days or the challenging old days as the case may have been. But there was one other story that I remember he told me and it also reflects just sort of the Dutch approach to life.

But he was -- his ship was in port. Again, I think he was by this time captain of a Liberty Ship, which he was at in his late 20s. So he wasn't even 30 years-old and he was already the captain of a Liberty ship, basically because they were losing crews faster than they could replace them.

They could build the ships, I think on average over the war years, it took them over 40 days to construct a Liberty Ship. But again, they couldn't build crews that quickly.

And so, as they lost officers, promotions were much more rapid than they otherwise would have been.

But the ship was in port. They were loading ammunition on it and a bunch of other ships that were also moored there. And a fire broke out on his ship. And I guess, understandably, an awful lot of the crew hopped on to the dock and started running. And my dad and a few others stayed and fought that fire and ultimately extinguished it.

And I asked him later, you know, dad, what were you thinking? And he said, well, I didn't think we could outrun it, so we figured we might as well try to fight it. And he was later recognized.

There weren't many medals for the Merchant Marine in those days, but there was one for meritorious service, which this was certainly and he was awarded that for that particular episode.

ADM FOGGO:  That's amazing and courageous, and, you know, it takes a leader to lead men into a dangerous situation like that. 

My dad didn't talk much about the war. He would always tell me, you never want to fight a war because it's horrific, so you want to try to prevent a war.

My dad went, all throughout Northern Europe. He used to say he crawled across Northern Europe.  After he hit the beach and he moved into Belgium, he was part of the Canadian Force that liberated Bruges, which was an incredible story.

And part of that is told in "The Monuments Men" about what the Germans did and how the Germans did not want to flatten the city. The Canadians were ready to just flatten the city with artillery and thankfully, they didn't. It is, as you know, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

But my father said that was the best night of the war because the Belgians had hidden all their beer and wine from the Germans and when the Germans were gone, and the Canadians came back in.  They broke it all out and it was probably the first drink he had in a while and well-received.

And then he moved on up into the Netherlands, and Arnhem, crossed the Rhine River, Operation Schultz, and up to the end of the war, in May 1945, where they demobilized and went back to Canada. He kept a little book with all of the – he was in a regiment and regiments were important because everybody was from the same hometown.

And what struck me, and I didn't find this until last year, when I went to the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, he had written in pencil, his script, I recognized it immediately, and I couldn't believe that I'd never seen it before. I had this thing in my possession for a long time.

And he noted each set of brothers that died during combat, and that was significant to him. I could tell it hurt him. It's almost like you know, the story of "Saving Private Ryan" in a regiment when two brothers are taken out, the whole family is you know, that's a generation devastated, and I think it was the last day of the war. Another thing that really bothered him, the last guy killed was the Chaplain. 

And then of course, he went back to Canada and back to Europe and as I tell my Italian friends here, "NATO a NATO," which is Italian for I was born into NATO, so that's why I love my job.

LT DIXON: Thank you Admiral, and General, it is my understanding that you have served in NATO yourself a few times since the 1970s. What can you tell us about the NATO alliance’s evolution from the Cold War to a resurgent Russia in 2020? And what do you see as one of the biggest threats to the alliance?

GEN PETRAEUS:  It's an extraordinary alliance, I've been privileged to serve in a number of occasions, beginning with my first assignment to an Airborne Infantry Battalion in Vicenza, Italy where it was part of the Allied Command Europe Mobile Force Land with a lot of exercises throughout Europe. That was of course the Cold War Europe. I returned as a Major to be a speechwriter for the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe then served in Infantry Battalion as a Battalion and Brigade Operations Officer.

Then served as a one-star general in the NATO Stabilization Force in Bosnia. Three-star general, dual hatted, as the U.S. Commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq, and also the NATO Training Mission Iraq. And then as a four-star Commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

I have an enormous respect and abiding admiration for the Alliance and for what it has done over the decades. And, frankly, it has been great to watch the Alliance respond to the latest challenge.  The first really significant challenge in Europe since the end of the Cold War, and that is, of course, the Russian challenge that has reemerged, if you will, and demonstrated in the invasion of part of Ukraine, threatening the Baltic States that are NATO members.

A variety of activities in cyberspace, designed to undermine our democracies and to influence our elections and so forth. And again to see the new changes to NATO as a result of that, the deployment of forces to the Baltic States, to Eastern Poland, the return of the U.S. Armor Brigade to European soil and the creation of the two new commands, one in Germany, of course, to ensure the logistics of forces going all the way out to the Eastern and Northwestern parts of the Alliance.  And then also the new command at Norfolk, built on the Second Fleet, to once again focus on the security of convoys from North America to Western Europe – returning again to the importance of that particular maritime lifeline.

ADM FOGGO:  You know sir, I couldn't agree with you more. It's an incredible perspective to hear of your journey, you know, throughout the '80s through commands and to present and hear your respect and admiration for the NATO Alliance, like myself.

I like to say, in this great power competition that we're in, part of our national security strategy that you know, we've re-entered the fourth Battle of the Atlantic, it's pretty sporty out there. The Russian submarine force is a very capable force and they challenge us every year and we rise to that challenge, and we maintain the competitive edge both in our submarine forces and we also have four Burke-class Destroyers forward deployed in Rota, Spain, which is a wonderful place to operate from.

I just had the Supreme Allied Commander and all the component commanders out there for the EUCOM [European Command] Commanders Conference. We've got the two new Aegis Ashore facilities in Europe, one in Romania and one in Poland, Marine Corps rotational force in Norway,  and the number of exercises that we're doing now has increased significantly from the past few years.

Trident Juncture was a great example with 50,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. And Defender 20 is another great example with over 20,000 Americans coming over and showing our solidarity with the NATO Alliance.

So as we have many times, the U.S. military team here, the combined arms team, the joint team, and I mean all of us, the Marines, Air Force, Navy, even the Coast Guard, and of course, the Army, are America’s away team, that's the way we like to talk about it in this headquarters. We protect the homeland and we also take care of our allies and partners.

LT DIXON: Before we close, General as our guest on the show, we would like to give you the final word. Anything else you want to share with our audience?

GEN PETRAEUS:  Well, I've been very impressed to watch the evolution of various NATO capabilities in recent years. I happen to be in fact, also on the Board, the Advisory Board of the NATO Cybersecurity Initiative that is based in the Baltic States in Estonia, pronounced that way because of course, it's the most connected country in the world and go out at least every year. And then continue to visit a variety of other locations where there's a lot of ongoing initiatives, even out into Eastern Ukraine, right up to the front lines on the Donbass and getting the perspective from Ukrainian leaders and also NATO contributors out there on how important it is that the U.S. and the other Alliance countries are supporting Ukraine at a time when it appears to the rest of the world that this is a "frozen conflict."

But where the reality on the front lines is still one in which several Ukrainian soldiers are being lost every week. That's a significant threat. And as you well know, history has taught us that threats like that have to be dealt with firmly, not provocatively. We certainly don't want to begin World War III, but the best way to avoid that, to deter that, is obviously to have capabilities that are clearly demonstrated through exercises, and that are backed by a sense of will, that the Alliance would indeed use these capabilities as required.

And of course, this is not just manifest in the various initiatives that you have mentioned, and then like I highlighted earlier, it's also manifested in a whole new domain of warfare, that of cyberspace, where the NATO nations are being attacked on a daily basis, innumerable times every day in seeking to have both national and coordinated Alliance responses.

And again, the initiatives in that regard have been as impressive as those on the ground, in the air, and sea, and so forth.

But at the end of the day, I think NATO is, as former Secretary and my former shipmate Jim Mattis used to observe, the most successful alliance in history. And in many respects, it has been given a new reason for living given the threat from Russia, and also the other challenges to our allies in Europe in particular, whether it is massive refugee flows, Islamist extremism, or a variety of other security issues that can best be dealt with by an Alliance rather than by countries acting individually.

Again, it's an extraordinary gathering of countries. It does collectively what obviously no individual country could do. It is very, very important today, and I hope that the support for NATO on your side of the Atlantic and on our side of the Atlantic can be sustained, and indeed, increased in response to the challenges that face our common countries.

ADM FOGGO:  We hope so too, sir. I really want to thank you, General Petraeus, for taking the time to speak to us. In that last session there, we were all taking notes. We appreciate your support, not just for the U.S. military, but for the NATO Alliance. And thank you for your kind words. And again, thank you for your time.

And Lieutenant Dixon and I wanted to leave you with one final thought, sir:  Go Navy. Beat Army.

GEN PETRAEUS:  Nice try, guys. Thank you very much. It has been a privilege to be with you. Beat Navy.

ADM FOGGO:  All right, sir. Thank you very much.


LT DIXON: “We hope you have enjoyed this episode of “On the Horizon; Navigating the European and African Theaters.” Please share the Podcast with your friends and family. And don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Linkedin. 

Join us next time to hear about what the U.S. Navy is doing throughout Europe and Africa. Until next time, thank you.





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