THE JOURNEY OF A WARRIOR: The Twenty-Ninth Commandant of the US Marine Corps (1987–1991): General Alfred Mason Gray
When the last U.S. Marine departed from Saigon in the 1975 evacuation operation from Vietnam, the Marine Corps was perhaps at its lowest point since the end of the Civil War. Drugs were rampant, racial unrest swept the barracks, and readiness was at a 20th century low point. Few then could foresee that just 16 years later, the Corps would enter its next major conflict with the best trained and most combat-ready force that it had ever taken into the first battle of any war in its illustrious history. This accomplishment was due mainly to the efforts of four truly remarkable commandants.
Gen Louis Wilson probably saved the Corps by purging its war bloated ranks of the druggies, malcontents, and racial agitators with an expeditious discharge program and a promise that he would have a quality Marine Corps if all that was left was the Commandant, the Sergeant Major, the flag, and the Bible. Gen Robert Barrow was the architect of the Marine Corps of the future and a new regimen of tough and realistic training. Gen P.X. Kelley was the programmer for the 21st century. Under his stewardship, virtually every weapon system from the basic rifle on up was modernized. But it was Gen Alfred M. Gray, Jr., who would craft the doctrine and vision that would make the Corps’ magnificent performance in Operation DESERT STORM, Iraq, and Afghanistan possible. Col Gerry Turley has written a tribute to Gray designed to ensure that future generations of Marines do not forget his legacy.
Al Gray came from a stable and hard-working family background. His father was a railway conductor during the depression and he brought home discarded magazines and newspapers from the trains which began young Al’s lifelong habit as a voracious reader. Gray would care for his mother to the end of her life. A talented high school athlete, the future Commandant dropped out of college to enlist in the Marine Corps, and his talents would be recognized with a commission from the ranks. His superb combat performance in Korea would be the beginning of his reputation as a “Marine’s Marine.”
Although an infantryman by MOS, Gen Gray followed an unconventional career path, blooming where he was planted in assignments ranging from tours with artillery to special communications, and from electronic warfare to reconnaissance. This probably con-tributed to his lifelong distaste for conventional careerism. In combat in Vietnam, he distinguished himself on several occasions by saving other Marines from mine fields. He truly made his mark as a colonel by being the primary tactical organizer and executor of Operation FREQUENT WIND, the evacuation of Americans and others from Saigon in the waning moments of the war in Vietnam. Those actions probably earned him his first star, and from there he began his drive to impart his vision and sense of innovation on the rest of the Corps.
As Commanding General, 4th Marine Amphibious Brigade (later MEB), 2d MarDiv, and finally as commander of the entire “Carolina MAGTF,” Gen Gray began the innovations that he would institute throughout the Marine Corps when he became Commandant. These ranged from making MAUs (later MEUs) special operations capable, to the take down of oil platforms, and pushing the Marine Corps to acquire the light armored vehicle. Perhaps his greatest contribution was the eventual institution of maneuver warfare as the Marine Corps’ fighting doctrine.
Gray was a dark horse for Commandant, but then-Secretary of the Navy James Webb saw in the tobacco chewing maverick the kind of leader the Marine Corps would need to take it to the next level. As Commandant, Gen Gray broke some crockery, particularly at Headquarters Marine Corps where he totally disrupted the hated colored routing system and fiercely resisted attempts to manage his schedule. In the field he challenged those of us who were his commanders, but made command fun again. All of this paid off handsomely in the run up to the Gulf war when MEU(special operations capable)s and special purpose MAGTFs validated Gray’s special operations capable vision with noncombatant evacuation operations, deception operations, and other nontraditional missions. In Operation DESERT STORM, his maneuver warfare concepts were first validated under fire as they would be again in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Col Turley states at the beginning of the book that he did not set out to write a standard academic biography. This is a tribute to Gen Gray and should be read in that spirit. The book deserved better editing than it got, and pickers of nits will have a field day. Whoever the editor is, he can probably expect an ironic note from the General congratulating him on an “interesting” proofreading job. The Marine Corps owes Gen Gray and his three immediate predecessors a debt of gratitude that it can never fully repay; Col Turley, however, has submitted a down payment on that bill.