AL GRAY, MARINE: The Early Years, 1950–1967, Vol. 1
Al Gray’s career from the rank of corporal to lieutenant colonel (1950–67) gives real meaning to the phrase “service beyond the seas.” In one telling vignette in Scott Laidig’s first volume of Gen Gray’s biography, then-Maj Gray returned to the United States after 22 months in Vietnam and found that his dog, a black Labrador named Lucky II, did not recognize him. When your dog doesn’t know you, perhaps you should reevaluate your life. Al Gray won back Lucky’s love, visited the families of Marines whose deaths he mourned, and returned to Asia and the war 2 weeks later.
In 30 years of active duty and Reserve service, and 22 years of Marine-watching retirement, I’ve had the opportunity to serve with or observe hundreds of Marine generals, including every Commandant from Wallace M. Green (one of my favorites) to Mike Hagee—none of whom were quite like Al Gray. I am keenly aware that although Gen Gray had a legion of admirers unfairly known as “the bubbas,” he had his fair share of critics, and many of them were also admired and effective generals. Many of us wondered how an eccentric such as Al Gray could ever become a general, let alone Commandant; Al Gray, Marine: The Early Years, 1950–1967, Vol. 1 provides many of the answers.
Like much of military experience, knowing what to do can be tough enough, but the “doing” is usually more demanding. Al Gray’s advantage was that he learned about some of the Marine Corps’ most offline and demanding missions and used his knowledge, intuitive intelligence, physical energy, and personal charm to make the innovations work. Like the late Gen Victor H. Krulak, Gray identified his career with operational innovations in their infancy. A Gray protégé and former Marine line officer and Vietnam veteran, Laidig is an information technology expert, so he appreciates and explains Gray’s travels through the world of radio communications through radio security, to the arcane world of signals intelligence, as seen through the eyes of a career artillery officer who wanted to command Marine infantry. No one will be surprised to learn that Al Gray’s Korean War combat experience (1953) came as a forward observer with 11th Marines, dueling with elusive Chinese artillery.
As a pioneer in tactical electronic warfare, Gray fused signals intelligence and more traditional reconnaissance and intelligence activities in a variety of assignments in Hawaii, Japan, and the Philippines. What may surprise some readers is that Al Gray won the respect of many senior Marine officers for his bureaucratic skills at Headquarters Marine Corps (1961–63) when the energetic captain institutionalized ground electronic warfare in the Fleet Marine Force in part by winning supporters in the Navy, Central Intelligence Agency, and National Security Agency.
Promoted to major in 1963, Al Gray followed one of his patrons, LtCol Howard K. Alberts, to Vietnam where he learned the complexities of joint electronic warfare. Vietnam absorbed Al Gray’s energies for the next 12 years, giving him an arena in which to develop and demonstrate in full his qualities as a Marine: physical and moral courage, tactical brilliance, enduring energy, sincere concern for the lives and fortunes of his fellow Marines, intellectual mastery over a clever enemy, and an ability to cope with complex operational issues in the face of inattentive senior officers. If the rank of “iron major” exists as “he who speaks truth to power,” Al Gray earned it in Vietnam. As the war intensified along the demilitarized zone in 1966–67, Gray, nominally a staff officer with 12th Marines, became the architect and de facto commander of the joint Army-Marine artillery bases at Dong Ha and Gio Linh. In 1967, Gray became Chief of Marine Electronic Warfare in the I Corps area, and he immediately focused on making “the product” available in usable time to Marine ground commanders. Gray saw the development of the North Vietnamese Army attack on Khe Sanh as a prelude for the Tet Offensive.
For a new author, Scott Laidig tells Al Gray’s story well, the result of long hours of interviews with the General and his admirers, and a sufficient amount of documentary research. More direct quotations from Gen Gray would have added punch to the story. For those who already know the intersection of Marine Corps and Vietnam War history, the book has too much context and too much tilt to the “we could have won” school of history. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether the judgments are Laidig’s or Gray’s.
When dealing with Al Gray’s career, there is one major and unaddressed issue: Al Gray could take on demanding assignments and go abroad to war for very long tours because he had no family to worry about except his dog and parents. For this, I think there is a simple reason: Al Gray married the Marine Corps with a focused commitment normally associated with religious orders. Gray is not the only Marine to take the vow, but he demonstrates the career opportunities such commitments provide. I hope Laidig and Gen Gray will address this issue in volume 2; I would like to hear Gen Gray’s thoughts on marriage and the Marine Corps in his own words.
Laidig ends his book with a judgment that I fully support: If Al Gray’s career had ended with the rank of colonel, he would have had a sound claim as a pioneer in Marine electronic warfare and as an innovator worth emulating in style and substance. There will be more to tell of the story of Al Gray, and Scott Laidig will tell it well.