Vandegrift —Part 1

Anyone having served their country as a United States Marine is likely to have traveled on Vandegrift Boulevard while stationed at Camp Pendleton, California. One engages Vandegrift Boulevard at the Main Gate just off I-5 in Oceanside, and after making the long trek through the Camp, exits at the San Luis Rey Gate. Vandegrift Boulevard continues into Oceanside until its intersection at College Boulevard, its terminus. Vandegrift Boulevard is named in honor of Alexander Archer Vandegrift: the Marine Corps’ first four-star general, eighteenth Commandant of the Marine Corps, and holder of the Medal of Honor and Navy Cross.

Called Archie by his close friends, Vandegrift was born on March 13, 1887 in Charlottesville, Virginia. His father, of Dutch descent, was an architect and a building contractor, but from an early age young Vandegrift expressed an interest in the military, both from reading military history and from stories of his own ancestors who fought in various conflicts. He studied at the University of Virginia for three years and the participated in a week-long competition in 1908 in his quest to obtain a commission in the United States Marines Corps. He received his commission to Second Lieutenant on January 22, 1909. Later than year, while assigned to the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, Virginia, Vandegrift penned an essay entitled, “Aviation: Calvary of the Future.” Nearly thirty years later, while serving as Commandant, Vandegrift would spearhead the use of rotor aircraft for air (vertical) assault.

Vandegrift LTGeneral Vandegrift’s service at Quantico was a shaky start for his career, however. Numerous disciplinary infractions resulted in poor fitness report evaluations, including one comment by the Commandant of Marine Corps Schools, “This officer has not shown that he appreciates the responsibilities of his position as an officer and unless there is decisive improvement, his relations will not be to the advantage of the service.” In the modern day, these remarks would most assuredly result in a lieutenant’s separation after his obligatory period. Vandegrift did turn himself around, however, and in the following year he was rated “excellent.”

After completing his studies at the Marine Corps Schools, Vandegrift attended further training at Port Royal Island, South Carolina (today, the home of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina). In 1910, Vandegrift was ordered to the Marine Corps Barracks, Navy Yard, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Between 1912 and 1914, Vandegrift was detached from the Barracks to duties at sea and on foreign shore. He first went to Cuba, and then to Nicaragua where he participated in the bombardment, assault, and capture of Coyotepe. He subsequently participated in the engagement and occupation of Vera Cruz, Mexico.

Following his promotion to First Lieutenant in 1914, Vandegrift attended the Advance Base Course at Marine Barracks, Philadelphia. He was afterward ordered to the 1st Marines, with whom he participated in combat against hostile Cacos bandits at Le Trou and Fort Capois, Haiti. After his promotion to Captain in August 1916, Vandegrift was assigned to the Haitian Constabulary at Port-au-Prince, where he remained until 1918. After returning to the United States for one year, he rejoined the Constabulary in 1919. He was promoted to Major in June 1920.

Major Vandegrift returned to the United States in 1923 and was ordered to attend the Field Officer’s Course at Marine Corps Schools, Quantico, Virginia. After his graduation in 1926, Vandegrift was ordered to Marine Corps Base, San Diego, California, where he served as an Assistant Chief of Staff. In February 1927, Vandegrift was ordered to China, where he served as the Operations Officer, Third Marines, then headquartered in Tientsin. In September 1928, Vandegrift was assigned as the Assistant Chief Coordinator, Bureau of the Budget, Washington, DC; he served in this assignment until 1932. Following this assignment, he returned to Quantico to serve at the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-1 (Manpower and Personnel), Fleet Marine Force. He was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in June 1934.

Returning to China in 1935, Vandegrift served as Executive Officer and Commanding Officer of the Marine Detachment at the United States Embassy in Peiping. Promoted to Colonel in 1936, Vandegrift was ordered back to the United States and assigned to Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington, DC. From 1937 to 1940, he served as the Military Secretary to the Major General Commandant. In March 1940 he was appointed Assistant to the Major General Commandant and in the following month was advanced to Brigadier General.

Vandegrift MajGenVandegrift was ordered to the First Marine Division in November 1941—one month in advance of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. Advanced to Major General in March 1942, Vandegrift was assigned to command the First Marine Division shortly before the division sailed for the South Pacific Area.[1] On August 7, 1942, the First Marine Division initiated the first large-scale offense against Japanese forces on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Gavutu in the Solomon Islands. In recognition of his courage and intrepidity during this amphibious assault, Vandegrift was awarded the nation’s second highest award for members of the Navy and Marine Corps: the Navy Cross.

The Battle for Guadalcanal raged for several months, during which time the Marines of the First Marine Division suffered reduced rations, malaria, constant shelling from the Imperial Japanese Navy and aerial bombers, and a determined Japanese infantry consisting of 32,000 troops.[2] Vandegrift and his Marines were withdrawn from Guadalcanal and sent to Australia for rest, retraining, and refitting. While in Australia, President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded Vandegrift our nation’s highest decoration citing, “With the adverse factors of weather, terrain, and disease making his task a difficult and hazardous undertaking, and with his command eventually including sea, land, and air forces of Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, Major General Vandegrift achieved marked success in commanding the initial landings of the U.S. Forces in the Solomon Islands and in their subsequent occupation. His tenacity, courage, and resourcefulness prevailed against a strong, determined, and experienced enemy, and the gallant fighting spirit of the men under his inspiring leadership enabled them to withstand aerial, land, and sea bombardment, to surmount all obstacles, and leave a disorganized and ravaged enemy.”

In July 1943, Vandegrift assumed command of the I Marine Amphibious Corps. Within a few scant months, the I MAC landed at Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, Northern Solomon Islands. After establishing a beachhead, he relinquished command of the Corps and returned to Washington, DC to assume the duties of Commandant, United States Marine Corps.

On January 1, 1944, Lieutenant General Alexander A. Vandegrift was sworn in as the 18th Commandant. He was advanced to General in March 1945—the first Marine Corps officer to achieve four-star rank. It was a stressful time. During Vandegrift’s service as Commandant, numerous institutional threats were initiated by the Department of War, the US Army, and President Harry S. Truman. It was Truman’s intent to disestablish the Marine Corps. The Naval hierarchy was sympathetic to Vandegrift, but the Navy was facing serious attacks from the Truman bureaucracy as well. Threatened with losing Naval aviation to the newly emerging US Air Force, the Navy decided it would be to their benefit to sacrifice the Marine Corps in exchange for keeping naval aviation from being consolidated with the Air Force.

Vandegrift CMCJoining with Truman, General Dwight D. Eisenhower argued that the US Army could easily absorb the roles and missions of the United States Marine Corps. What ensued was a power struggle of pro-Army interests over a much smaller post-war Marine Corps, and the Naval Establishment. Vandegrift aligned the Marine Corps with the Congress of the United States. To clinch the support of Congress, General Vandegrift presented his views to the United States Senate Committee on Naval Affairs on May 6, 1946.[3] The entire content of this presentation will appear here next week. Historians and those interesting in knowing more about our history will be fascinated by Vandegrift’s presentation.

General Vandegrift was awarded the Naval Distinguished Service Medal in recognition of his service as Commandant of the Marine Corps. General Vandegrift retired from active duty on December 31, 1947. Afterward, he co-authored a book that chronicled his experiences during World War II: Once a Marine: The Memoirs of General A. A. Vandegrift, Commandant of the Marines in World War II.

General Vandegrift passed away on May 8, 1973 having achieved the age of 86. His foreign awards included: Companion of the Order of the Bath, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Orange-Nassau, and Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour.

General Vandegrift’s son was Colonel Alexander A. Vandegrift, Jr., (1911 – 1969) who also distinguished himself while serving on active duty during World War II and Korea.

Notes:

[1] The First Marine Division was the first Marine Corps division to leave the shores of the United States as a fully organized infantry division.

[2] Japanese killed in action during this campaign numbered 31,000. A total of 60,000 US troops served on Guadalcanal at various times. The Marine division consisted of only 20,000 men.

[3] General Vandegrift was correct; Truman, Eisenhower, other high ranking Army brass were proved wrong when, on June 25, 1950, the US Army was unable to hold a massive assault of North Korean Army forces. Not only was the post-war Army unable to launch an effective counter attack, they were nearly pushed into the sea near Pusan, South Korea. It was the Marine Corps, not the Army, that gave Douglas MacArthur an amphibious assault at Inchon, effectively cutting off the North Korean Army, which by then were far south on the Korean Peninsula.

Next Week:  Part II —General Vandegrift’s address to the Naval Committee of the United States Senate

4 comments

  1. Another superior job. Mustang may not be the oracle of Delphi, but the oracle often seeks mustang’s advice and mastery of a host of topics.

  2. Sad that after all his struggles and triumphs he succeeded his son in death.

  3. “Joining with Truman, General Dwight D. Eisenhower argued that the US Army could easily absorb the roles and missions of the United States Marine Corps.”

    Seems like that would be tasking the Reserve Natl. Guard to step in as Army Rangers.

  4. I have gained historical insight to what Forrestal said to Howlin’ Mad Smith offshore at Iwo Jima:” Holland,” he said, “this means a Marine Corps for another 500 years.”

    I had no real idea Truman et al wanted to do away with the Corps so soon after so many young men lost their lives. I look forward to Part II.

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