John A. Lejeune: True Soldier
by Robert B. Asprey - published April 1962
"Surely this [acting as an Advance Base force] is a mission which is woth while, and one which furnishes a spur to energetic effort and zealous labor in time of peace, so as to attain the true soldier's Elysian state, 'preparedness for war.'" -Col J. A. Lejeune Marine Corps Gazette, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 1916
The bombardment began at 0100, 12 September 1918. For nine days soldiers and Marines of the 2nd Division of American regulars had hidden in French woods to shiver in icy rain and curse the mud and slime and stench of war on the western front.
Now their hour was at hand. As thousands of cannon threw lethal surprise at the entrenched enemy, the American units formed into long columns and with 12 other divisions-some 300,000 men-began the march forward into the black night.
On a hill above, a bulky figure watched the exploding shells, heard the muted movements of the troops, now and again listened to a hovering staff officer. This man was MajGen John A. Lejeune, USMC. He commanded the 2nd Division.
To Lejeune and to his staff the strain of the moment was immense. This would be the first time he led his division into battle, the first time an American Marine commanded a division in combat, and the first time an American Army fought in Europe under an American CinC. To history the battle would be known as the St. Mihiel offensive. On this night, though, Lejeune and his officers knew only that the 2nd Division was spearheading an attack against a massif the Germans had been fortifiying for four years.
Whatever his thoughts, Lejeune looked calm. A man of medium height, he stood with wide shoulders braced against the wind. Now and again he slapped massive hands together against the cold. Occasionally the shaded light of a messenger's lamp emphasized the long prominent ears that flanked a large head, or gleamed on a spot of jet black hair that fell in a wide bang over his forehead. Soft but alert brown eyes relieved some of the fatigue suggested by a seamed face. When he spoke, a soft deliberate voice that left little doubt of its Southern origin fell easily on the listening group.
Despite the moment, Gen Lejeune had some reasons to be confident-or as confident as a man can be when so much is at stake on the poker table of war. The 2nd Division was a hot outfit. By the time he took command it had fought at Belleau Wood and Soissons; its ranks had been twice decimated and twice refilled; its deeds were famous throughout France and its fighting qualities were recorded in stunned words in more than one German diary.
All well and good. But when Lejeune took over in late July he had to fit 8,000 replacements into the business of war, had to reshape and train and inspire the Division for the rugged fighting ahead. In 28 years of soldiering half-way around the globe, the 51-year old commander had faced some difficult tasks. That this was the most difficult, he knew only too well. Using the lessons of the past, he had accomplished a great deal in six weeks. But six weeks was a short time to impose one man's will on the minds and souls of 28,000 men. Well, in a few hours he would know if he had succeeded. Until then, there was little to do but stand quietly by.
John A. Lejeune came from a good Louisiana family whose fortunes were shattered by the Civil War, which his father had fought on the Confederate side. Although he grew up amid the fires of reconstruction, his mother's teachings of tolerance and humanity and his father's prideful conduct in the worst years prevented the fires from burning scars on the young mind. Instead, from family and home and land he gained a pride of heritage he was never to lose. And later, when he used words like honor and duty and courage and love of country, people suddenly found themselves listening and believing in them, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
The Army almost got him, but in 1884 when his Senator ran out of West Point appointments young Lejeune went to the Naval Academy. By 1890 the newly-commissioned ensign had served as captain's clerk, had been cited for bravery during a disastrous hurricane at Samoa, had participated in an Hawaiian revolution, and, from working with Marine detachments aboard ship, had fallen completely and hopelessly in love with the Marine Corps. At this point the Navy summarily placed him in the Engineer Corps.
Not wanting any part of the Engineer Corps, the 23year old officer shyly but persistently approached various seniors until he had exhausted without success the Annapolis chain of command. He now displayed a polite tenacity, a personal flag that was to fly over his entire career. In this case he went to Washington, called on Senator Chandler, and asked his aid. In short order Ensign Lejeune was talking to the Secretary of the Navy who, favorably impressed, rang a ranking officer and concluded the proceedings with, "Commodore, I want this young man assigned to the Marine Corps."
The Lean Years
Lejeune found himself in a 2,000-man Marine Corps, "all field officers and a large proportion of the captains being over fifty years of age." At Norfolk the Marine Barracks consisted of,
"a wretched wooden building containing, in addition to the mess hall, kitchen, etc., one big squad room in which all the men slept in two-storied iron bunks. Sacks stuffed with straw constituted all that the government furnished in the way of bedding, and barracks chairs were about the only articles of furniture. The ration cost only 14 cents a day."
The one sergeant-major in the Corps drew $25 a month, privates $13, and the ranks were filled with foreigners, some of whom could scarcely speak English.
Still, the old service was not a bad place to learn. Early in his career the shy lieutenant fell under the influence of SgtMajor John Quick who,"perhaps of all the Marines I ever knew approached most nearly the perfect type of non-commissioned officer... I never knew him to raise his voice, lose his temper, or use profane language, and yet he exacted and obtained prompt and explicit obedience from all persons subject to his orders."
A few years later he found his model of a commander in Adm Watson who deeply impressed him "by his courtesy, his kindness and his simplicity-qualities which I have learned to be the attributes of true greatness."
On the surface the early years of Lejeune's career differed but slightly from those of his contemporaries. Serving in a variety of posts and stations at home and abroad, he fought in the Spanish-American War, was promoted to captain, then to major and to lieutenant colonel. Underneath the surface, however, a marked difference appeared. Lacking the eccentricities of such fabulous old-timers as Cols Pope and Meade, the flamboyance of "Tony" Waller, or the showmanship of young Smedley Butler, the quiet Louisianian nonetheless made his mark on those with whom he came into contact. And invariably he made this mark because somehow his actions centered not on himself nor on his career, but on the good of the service.
Typical was his behavior as a very young officer aboard USS Cincinnati. At the time, a small group in the Navy hoped to abolish Marine detachments from service with the fleet - thus eliminate the Marine Corps. After the ship's executive officer refused to assign his detachment to a battery, Lejeune wrote the commanding officer, presented his case, and asked for "an increase in duties rather than a decrease." His request granted, he then and there decided that only by constant, outstanding service could the Corps continue to claim its place in the sun. Outstanding service meant "united, industrious, intelligent and conscientious performance of duty" until the efficiency of the Corps and thus its usefulness could not be questioned.
Leadership in Panama
Although this became his credo, he never lost sight of the human factor. When he took a battalion to Panama in 1903 the place was a hell-hole of yellow fever, malaria, dysentery and smallpox-a jungle nightmare of mud giving way to occasional liberties in wretched towns built on booze, prostitutes, and gambling. Working closely with the brilliant Col Gorgas, Lejeune held disease to a minimum (although he himself caught malaria). He established a vigorous, highly competitive athletics program, arranged hunting parties, and otherwise kept his troops busy providing an increase in their own comforts. Yet, when men did return intoxicated from liberty, he turned a blind eye so long as they went quietly to their tents.
Lejeune's professional performance, enhanced by genuine humility and a brain like a faultless machine, brought him more and more to the notice of his seniors, a fact shown by his frequent trips to Washington for duty on special boards. His contacts there culminated in 1909 with an appointment to the Army War College, a rare honor and an experience he later judged to be the turning point in his career. His success was noted in a letter from the President of the College to CMC:
"... LtCol Lejeune has not only shown painstaking industry and steady application but has displayed marked ability and a high order of military intelligence in the work of the College course.... I consider him fit for high command or for duty as Chief of Staff of a department or division in the field and commend him to your consideration."
The Marine Corps owned no division. In fact, its highest field commands consisted of hodge-podge regiments and understrength brigades scratched up from depots and barracks and mounted out from Philadelphia and New York. While commanding the Marine Barracks, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Lejeune led several of these forces in various Caribbean expeditions. Such was his continued performance of duty that in 1913 he very nearly became Commandant. Although Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels finally selected Col Barnett, the incident began a lifelong friendship between Lejeune and Daniels that would have a lasting effect on the future of the Marine Corps.
Lejeune's importance was now established-there remained a matter of exploiting his potential. After another year of field service, including command of the Marine regiment at Vera Cruz and promotion to colonel, he was called to Washington as Assistant to the Commandant. There he played a vital role in the preparation and execution of war plans in the years that saw the Marine Corps begin expansion to 75,000 men in 1918.
Off to France
Until America's entry into the war in 1917, Lejeune remained uncomplainingly in Washington. But now, as one regiment after another shipped out, he fought his own campaign to get sent overseas.
Finally, in June 1918, he reached France. The 4th Marine Brigade was fighting now in Belleau Woodit had stopped the Germans, Paris was saved, and the globe-and-anchor was suddenly familiar to the world. Although Gen Pershing would have preferred to assign Lejeune to rear-area duty, the superb action of the 4th Marine Brigade, combined with Lejeune's own professional reputation among senior Army officers, forced the CinC to change his mind. After a short tour as observer in a front-line division, Lejeune took command of the 64th Brigade. Three weeks later Pershing gave him the Marine Brigade. He had no more than taken over when Gen Harbord, commanding 2nd Division, was transferred. With that, BrigGen Lejeune was given the Division and another star.
The artillery bombardment continued for four hours in that September night in 1918. Then at 0500 the barrage rolled forward, a tight computation of 110 yards every four minutes, the signal for attached tanks to roll out and hit the barbed wire that over years had been groomed into hideously effective defenses. But the tiny tanks failed to cross the trenches. As their sprockets clanked aimlessly beneath their stranded bodies it was up to the infantry, as it generally is, and the infantry moved on in front of the armor.
Success in Battle
Soldiers and Marines of the 2nd Division smashed against the wire, flung themselves on it while others clawed their way through. They surprised the German, captured and killed him, and sent him running until by early afternoon they had reached the second day's objective. They were out in front, but not yet finished. For two days, battle surged fiercely around them. Then in a final effort they pushed through to their last objectives, altogether a superb fight accomplished with remarkably light casualties.
The St. Mihiel success dictated the 2nd Division's role for the rest of the war. After refitting, it spearheaded the French offensive that ended in the battle of Blanc Mont and the German withdrawal to the Aisne. For the final offensive of the war it spearheaded the American First Army's drive through Meuse-Argonne. On 11 November 1918, its forward units were fighting on the other side of the Meuse. In all, it suffered over 24,000 casualties, about 10% of the AEF total, and earned one of the most enviable combat records in military annals.
Lejeune's part in the Division's accomplishments was enormous. In less than two months he had kept 28,000 men capable of spearheading three complicated offensives, each decisive and two very costly in casualties. This was one of the greatest leadership feats in WWI and surprised American and Allied officers nearly as much as it did the Germans. Lejeune himself explained it as a triumph of unity and spirit, and it certainly was that. Achieving the unity and spirit was something else again.
Tactically, Lejeune recognized at once that a coordinated offensive on a narrow front was the only way to beat the Germans. When he took command of the 2nd Division he immediately concentrated on developing a solid punch of infantry, artillery, and engineers. He rehearsed his units from platoon to division level and was not satisfied until every man in every unit realized what he was supposed to do and then did it. He demanded such perfection from his gunners that his infantry would not hesitate to follow a barrage at almost suicidal distance. This was called "leaning on the artillery" and meant that before an enemy recovered from a bombardment he was looking down the wrong end of the infantryman's rifle.
Not wanting, not permitting foolish mistakes, he took great pains to lead his officers away from them. He wrote about leadership later, and it would not hurt anyone today to read the rides given on pp. 307-309 of his book, The Reminiscences of a Marine (Dorrance and Co., 1930). Above all he demanded and gained esprit because,
"there is no substitute for the spiritual in war ... if each man knows that all the officers and men in his division are animated with the same fiery zeal as he himself feels, unquenchable courage and unconquerable determination crush out fear, and death becomes preferable to defeat or dishonor."
The basis of esprit was tactical ability sufficient for the individual infantryman to believe himself the best fighting man in the world. To give him identity Lejeune authorized a division patch-a star surmounted by an Indian head-the first time in France that this was used. Henceforth, the 2nd Division became known as the Indian Head Division, its commander, Old Indian.
Old Indian was a soldier's general and as such he stood at odds with the habitual aloofness practiced by senior officers of that day. Although the jet black hair was said to stand on end and the soft brown eyes to shoot fire upon seeing a needless error, the same eyes could manage humor and understanding which in war can sometimes replace hot food and reduce pain and discomfort and fear. Once during an inspection he noticed a young replacement's unbuttoned uniform. Casually repairing the damage, he remarked, "You ought to keep these things buttoned, young fellow. Gen Pershing would give me the devil if I went around that way."
Some Basic Qualities
During the Meuse-Argonne drive he approached a group of his men who started to snap to. "Sit down," he ordered. "It is more important for tired men to rest than for the Division Commander to be saluted." On another occasion he was talking to an Army chief of staff who because of the late hour refused to awaken the Army commander for a vital decision. Lejeune bluntly told him, "It is better to wake up one general than to have 25,000 sick and exhausted men march 35 miles, and I will do so myself."
The same basic qualities appeared in his relationship with seniors. When Gen Gouraud, commanding the Fourth French Army, suggested breaking up the 2nd Division for the attack on Blanc Mont, Lejeune looked hard at the one-armed veteran and said,
"General, if you do not divide the 2nd Division, but put it in line as a unit on a narrow front, I am confident that it will be able to take Blanc Mont Ridge, advance beyond it, and hold its position there."
He won this round only to have Gen Naulin, his corps commander, order him to a frontal attack. Lejeune refused, instead persuaded Gouraud to let him attempt an enveloping action. Not only did the flanking move work, but it caused Marshal Petain, never over-generous with praise, to call Lejeune "a military genius who could and did do what the other commander said couldn't be done."
Certainly some of Lejeune's ideas were foreign to standard operating procedures. After Blanc Mont he found his artillery and engineers detached. When First Army chief of staff sought to answer his objections by attaching other artillery and engineer units to 2nd Division, Gen Lejeune delivered a tactical lecture -one that, with the new dimension of airpower incorporated, would be repeated by other Marines for many decades to come:
"The key to combat effectiveness is unity-an esprit that characterizes itself in complete, irrevocable, mutual trust. Now my infantry trusts my artillery and engineers, and my artillery and engineers know this so they will go through hell itself before they let down the infantry. My infantry believe that with such support they are invincible-and they are."
The chief of staff was not very impressed, but LtGen Hunter Liggett was. He commanded First Army-Lejeune got back his own artillery and engineers.
By the end of the war Maj Gen Lejeune was one of the most famous commanding generals in France. Honors, awards, and decorations rolled in. Allied generals voiced their praises, his own officers and men worshipped him. In Lejeune's own mind his major achievement was the contribution he felt he had made to the Marine Corps. Never again, he believed, would the American government doubt the need for this fighting service. Here Lejeune proved wrong. Because he did prove wrong he returned to a battle rather different from but just as important as the one he and his Marines had fought.
By the time Secretary Daniels brought about Lejeune's appointment as Commandant in mid-1920, a revulsion to all things military had arisen throughout the country. Externally, this meant a falling off of enlistments and a sharp decrease in Congressional appropriations. Internally, it meant a loss of veteran enlisted men, and apathy among those enlisted and officers who stayed in.
In the new Commandant's mind, internal reforms were necessary to restore esprit, while strategical thought and planning were vital if the proper mission of the Corps were to emerge. While these problems were being treated he somehow had to preserve the very existence of the Corps, not an easy task considering the in-fighting for appropriations that had become a daily feature of Washington political life.
While commanding officer at Quantico, Lejeune already had launched a Corps-wide scheme of education that perhaps was the most imaginative self-improvement program ever designed in America's armed forces. Now, under the impetus of BGen Smedley D. Butler, assisted by Col Harllee, this was to grow into the Marine Corps Institute and the Marine Corps Schools.
Lejeune himself simultaneously employed the full power of his amazing personality in three different directions. By a series of informal letters to his officers, he effectively put across many of his desires and ambitions for the Corps. By making hundreds of civic addresses, he won the active support of large segments of public opinion for the Corps' continued existence. And by building and maintaining friendships with Presidents, cabinet officers, and congressmen, he often induced them by irrefutable logic and plain common sense to ignore the arguments of the more powerful services when they tried to benefit by cutting down the Marine Corps.
The Commandant was a dedicated man in these years-and for a very good reason. One of his staff officers anil close friends, an extraordinary and tragic major named Earl (Pete) Ellis, for some time had been contemplating the peace of Versailles and finally had drawn certain drastic conclusions. With the former German islands in the Pacific mandated to Japan, Ellis believed a future collision between America and Japan was inevitable. To fight this war, an amphibious war, would be the real task of the Marine Corps. Ellis' final operation plan and his sad death are too familiar to discuss here except to note that his forecast remains one of the most remarkable ever made, and that Gen Lejeune bought his reasoning and conclusions lock, stock and barrel. (See "The Unsolved Mystery of Pete Ellis" by LtCol P. N. Pierce, GAZETTE: Feb '61).
An Important Speech
The standard of the Marine future was raised on a day in 1923 when the Commandant addressed officerstudents of the Naval War College at Newport. Thirtyfive years of service, a couple of bouts of fever, and the hard fighting in France seemed to have aged him but little. At 56 Gen Lejeune was still a robust man with wide shoulders and enormous chest; his face was perhaps a trifle more seamed but the brown eyes had lost none of their sparkling quality. From the first his words impressed the audience out of all proportion to their softness. This hinged on no trick of the lecture platform, no histrionic ability nor explosive dramatics -rather, it was a quality of compelling humility mixed with intense pride: a man talking to men about a subject he knew particularly well.
The Marine Corps mission, he said,
"was to support the United States Fleet, and to aid the Navy in carrying out that part of the policy of the government which had been or may be assigned to it."
Of the numerous tasks involved,
"the major war mission of the Marine Corps ... is to support the Fleet by supplying it with a highly trained fully equipped expeditionary force for . . . the seizure and defense of temporary or advanced naval bases in the theatre of operations."
With a figurative eye cocked on Adm Mahan's teachings and another cocked 20 years to the future, the man of the present continued:
"The geographical isolation of the United States with respect to the other powerful nations will, in any great war in which we may become involved . . . necessitate our Navy operating in regions quite remote from our shores and from our few inadequate bases. If we then contemplate a naval advance or progression over great sea distances, the possession and occupation of naval bases becomes an essential part of the plan."
To prepare a mobile, flexible, and ready Marine force for the dual function of seizing and defending a base calls first for a basic training that,
"embraces practical experience with the arms and equipment of the force and a study of the manner of its best employment. This should be followed and supplemented by actual experience with the Fleet and actual embarkation and disembarkation under conditions as near actual war conditions as possible . . . cooperation between the landing force and ships supporting must be complete."
The Marine Corps would continue to fulfill its other tasks inherent in the overall mission, but,
"the maintenance, equipping and training of its expeditionary force so that it will be in instant readiness to support the Fleet in the event of war, I deem to be the most important Marine Corps duty in time of peace."
Here is the genesis of what later became the Fleet Marine Force, and henceforth Gen Lejeune devoted a large part of his time to translating theory into practice. Even on that day in 1923, Col Dunlap at Marine Corps Schools was encouraging his student-officers "to write up items of sound technique on what later became known as the 'Ship-to-Shore Movement'." The way was to prove long and hard, of course. Not only did no amphibious doctrine exist, but throughout the 'twenties the Corp was kept hopping by both domestic and international crises. Still, progress was made-enough so that by 1926 the Commandant could point to two expeditionary forces-one at Quantico and one at San Diego-complete with airplanes, and could write in Naval Institute Proceedings,
"The Marine Corps as a whole is now better prepared to carry out its mission than for many years. The intensive program of professional education, which has been carried out consistently since the year 1920, has greatly increased the military attainments of our commissioned personnel. The enlisted force has settled down after the upheaval of the World War and is now well disciplined, well trained, and well equipped. Finally, the part the Marine Corps will be expected to play in the next war, the tasks it will be assigned and the duties it will perform, are clearly set forth, and well understood; it follows, therefore, that our preparation in peace for our duty in war can be, and is more intelligent and more effective than ever before."
This was Gen. Lejeune's legacy to his Corps and it is fitting that after he retired in 1929 he lived to see it honored by practice. After a long second career as Superintendent of VMI, Gen Lejeune died at 75. The exact date of his death was 20 November 1942. A few weeks earlier the 1st Marine Division had won the battle of Guadalcanal.
By the Numbers
I was OD when the Barracks ExecO arrived to inspect the 12-to-4 relief. Our rounds were uneventful until we approached Post 7, manned by Willy Lumplump. Suddenly, Willy's voice commanded, "Halt! Who goes there?"
"The OD and Executive Officer of the Marine Barracks."
"Officer of the Day, advance to be recognized!"
As I moved forward, Willy emerged from the shadows, halted, saluted, and reported:
"Sir, Private Lumplump reports Post . . ."
At this point he was interrupted by the Exec, "Marine, are you going to keep the Executive Officer of the Barracks standing at attention all night?"
"Willy paused in his report, glanced frowningly over my shoulder in the colonel's direction, and barked:
"No, sir! Executive Officer of Marine Barracks, PARADE, REST!" $15.00 to Capt R. J. Lyons