BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. As a writer who tells the stories of our nation’s military heroes I seldom get the chance to talk with them face to face. Most paid the ultimate price and are no longer with us. Fortunately for me, Lieutenant General Rienzi was one whom I did get to talk to. We had a couple of things in common, both of us had served our country in the U.S. Army. Secondly we both had a strong faith based on the Catholic tradition. Working at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific brought me into contact with Lieutenant General Rienzi often as he never failed to attend any ceremony that was honoring veterans. I remember talking with my supervisor and telling him my time spent talking with the General was like talking to living history.
Born in Philadelphia in 1919, Thomas Matthew Rienzi attended Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. In May of 1942 he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His imposing size helped him to be one of the West Point football teams’ all time great tackles.
Rienzi served in India, China and Burma with the 96th Signal Battalion as a company commander throughout World War II. At the end of the war Rienzi went back to school, earning his master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois. With his fresh master’s degree in hand, Rienzi was assigned to the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project at Sandia Base, New Mexico. For the next four years, he worked with the atomic weapons planning and implementation program, participating in more than 40 detonations.
In 1952, Rienzi was posted to the Department of the Army, War Plans Division in Washington, D.C. Following this posting he returned to his old Alma Mater, West Point, as a troop leader and instructor with the Tactical Department.
After his posting to Washington D.C. he attended the Army War College and in 1957 was appointed commander of the 51st Signal Battalion Korea. At the completion of his tour of duty in Korea he was assigned to Joint Planning and Army Logistics at the Senior United States Headquarters in Hawaii.
From 1961 to 1963, General Rienzi was appointed Signal Officer for Eighteenth Airborne Corps. At the time this was the only the only airborne corps in the western world. His next assignment from 1963 to 1965 was as Executive Officer to the Chief Signal Officer and Chief of Communications-Electronics, United States Army.
As a psychologist and having spent time with Rienzi I am reasonably confident in saying he was a type “A” personality.
In May 1966 he was promoted to Brigadier General and assigned as Commanding
General and Commandant of the United States Army Signal Center and School,
Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, the largest United States Army School. During
this period, General Rienzi also received a Master of Arts Degree in
International Affairs from George Washington University and a certificate in
Business Management from Pittsburgh University.
In September 1968, Rienzi became the deputy commanding general of the 1st Signal Brigade in Vietnam. He subsequently became its commanding general in February 1969, leading 23,000 soldiers in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand while also serving as the deputy chief of staff for communications and electronics in Vietnam.
Rienzi returned to Hawaii in June 1970 and assumed command of the Strategic Communications Command Pacific, consisting of more than 30,000 personnel. He served concurrently as the assistant chief of staff for communications-electronics at Fort Shafter.
In June 1972, he became the Director of Telecommunications and Command and
Control, Department of the Army, as planner, programmer, and policy maker
for all of the United States Army’s Command and Control and Communications
He was promoted to Lieutenant General in August 1977 and assumed duties as
Deputy Director General, Chief of Staff, and Chief Engineer of the NATO
Integrated Communications System Management Agency in Brussels, Belgium.
He was an Army parachutist, an Army General Staff Officer, an electronics
engineer and has authored a book on “Communications in Vietnam.”
General Rienzi was married to the late Claire Moore of Long Branch, New
Jersey. They had two children, their daughter Claire (Sherri Bulkley) and
their late son Tom. He is a grandparent to three children and great-grandparent to four.
While in the military, General Rienzi studied at Catholic seminaries in
Washington, D.C. and Louvain, Belgium in order to become an ordained Deacon
of his Catholic faith. In April 1979, Terrence Cardinal Cooke ordained him
in Heidleberg, Germany.
After retiring from active duty in July 1979, General Rienzi returned to the
Hawaiian Islands to serve the Catholic Diocese of Hawaii. He served in
parish ministries including the hospital ministry at Tripler Army Medical
Center for thirteen years.
In addition, he served for many years as Chairman of the Army’s Retirement Council of Hawaii, and was the State Recruiter for the United States Military Academy, and Commander of the Hawaii Basha (Chapter) of the China, Burma, India veterans.
General Rienzi was presented the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics
Association International Meritorious Service Award. He was a life member and
an active member of the Hawaii chapter of this organization. He was a member
of the Pearl Harbor Rotary Club, and the Outrigger Canoe Club. As a Knight
of the Holy Sepulchre, he was active in their worldwide activities. He also
was awarded the Medical Corps Award of Merit for his pastoral work as a
Catholic Deacon for the hospital staff..
A veteran of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam, Rienzi was a supporter of veterans’ rights in Hawaii and was credited with pioneering the effort to enact a dental plan and lifetime medical care for retirees at military hospitals and clinics. He was also instrumental in establishing the Department of Veterans Affairs facility at Tripler Army Medical Center.
For many years, Rienzi served as chairman of the Veterans Council of Hawaii and the Friends of Tripler Medical Center.
Max Cleland, former Veterans Administration chief and a U.S. senator from Georgia and now Secretary of the American Battlefield Monuments Commission, told the Star-Advertiser that Rienzi was “the most unique leader in the U.S. Army and one of its best,” adding, “He had an uncanny ability to find out the strength and weakness of the people and the units he commanded.”
Cleland described his first meeting with Rienzi in 1966 when, as a second lieutenant, he reported to Fort Monmouth, N.J., to become Rienzi’s aide.
“It was not just a meeting, but an encounter,” said Cleland.
At 6 feet 6 inches, Rienzi towered over Cleland, a mere 6 feet 2, he recalled.
“He was the best leader I ever came across,” said Cleland, who lost both legs and his right forearm in Vietnam, where he earned the Silver Star and Bronze Star. Cleland said he last saw Rienzi in November, when he had dinner with his family after Cleland delivered the Veterans Day address at Punchbowl.
Said Rienzi’s son-in-law, Bob Bulkley: “It was like the last hurrah for Max and my father-in-law.”
Cleland noted that after his Army service, Rienzi could have made “big bucks,” but instead spent three years studying to be a Catholic deacon.
Another colleague, Brigadier General William Scott, commanding general of 311th Signal Command at Fort Shafter, said: “Lieutenant General Rienzi was truly a pioneer in the communication technology business. He helped develop what we rely on today insofar as our advanced electronic technology is concerned. Moreover, he remained engaged throughout life. He loved to mentor and teach young soldiers and they flocked to him because of his openness and integrity. He was an inspirational leader who will be missed by many people.”
Retired Lieutenant General Thomas Rienzi, author ,electronics engineer and ordained Catholic deacon in Hawaii, passed away Wednesday December 15th 2010 at Tripler Army Medical Center. He was 91.
In the short time I spent with Rienzi, I was both inspired and humbled. It was a honor to have known him. Seldom in our lives are we able to spend time with a giant.
Lieutenant General Thomas Rienzi is interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, section U, grave 473.
The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.