Preparing For Victory
General Thomas Holcomb served as the Commandant of the Marine Corps during the critically important years, 1936-43. He is remembered as a transformative figure who took the Depression-era Marine Corps of a meager 18,000 officers and men to a wartime strength in excess of 385,000 Marines.
Gen Holcomb oversaw the growth of a Marine Corps that would become the most effective amphibious-based combat force in the world. “Preparing for Victory” is a well-researched and detailed Naval Institute Press book in the Leatherneck Original series that tells of the challenges and successes during Gen Holcomb’s time.
In the foreword, the director of Marine Corps History Division, Dr. Charles P. Neimeyer, comments, “A thorough study of World War II era Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General Thomas Holcomb, has long been overdue.” Now David Ulbrich’s “Preparing for Victory,” a masterfully written book, provides quality insight into this little-known Marine leader and his decisions in a crucial time of Marine history.
Born in 1879 in New Castle, Del., Gen Holcomb was a descendant of an American Colonial-era family, including, on his mother’s side, a distinguished Revolutionary War and War of 1812 naval hero. Apart from many Marine officers, and most of the 20th-century Marine Commandants, Gen Holcomb never received a baccalaureate degree. Passing a required entrance exam, he received his commission at the turn of the 20th century, and 1903 found Holcomb serving as an “Old China Hand” in the Far East.
When America joined the fight in the Great War, Holcomb commanded the 2d Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment. The 6th Marines, along with the 5th Marines, fought in the fabled 4th Marine Brigade in the touchstone Battle of Belleau Wood. Holcomb’s Marines secured the village of Bouresches while suffering 50 percent casualties. In coming actions, the 6th Marines participated in all the legendary battles of the Meuse-Argonne campaign. Besides being awarded a Purple Heart, Holcomb’s combat awards include the Navy Cross, a Silver Star with three oak leaf clusters and several celebrated French decorations. By 1928, he was promoted to colonel and served directly under the “reform-minded” Gen John A. Lejeune.
Thomas Holcomb received his first star in 1935 and became the Commandant of Marine Corps Schools (MCS). Alongside some of the Corps’ brightest thinkers, he assisted in the development of the “holy trinity” of Marine Corps documents: the “Tentative Manual for Landing Operations,” “Tentative Manual for Defense of Advanced Bases” and the “Small Wars Manual.” These three manuals set the stage for the development of the modern Marine Corps, which foreshowed the Corps’ mission in the swiftly approaching war with Japan.
As World War II approached, Thomas Holcomb became the 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps. Ulbrich describes him as a progressive manager and capable Washington insider, who meticulously reviewed the Corps’ existing policies and procedures before making improvements. The author notes that Holcomb’s efforts focused on developing policies, procuring equipment and readying the Corps for operations in the Pacific, particularly the seizure and defense of island bases. The development and testing of reliable ship-to-shore vessels became a main objective.
In August 1942, when the First Marine Division, commanded by Major General A. A. Vandegrift, successfully landed on Guadalcanal, Americans toasted their beloved Marines, and their first taste of victory. Ulbrich points out that Commandant Holcomb toured the contested battlegrounds and helped work out important operational command details with the new theater commander, Admiral Chester Nimitz. Importantly, this high-level conference forever shaped and clarified the modern Marine/Navy relationship.
Under Gen Holcomb’s leadership, innovation and organizational improvements drove the Corps. A Marine Raider and parachute regiment came and went, but as progressive as he was, the general’s attempts to hold the line against the enlistment of both blacks and women fell short. Before war’s end, the Corps effectively included both women and black Marines.
In December 1943, after a distinguished career, Gen Holcomb retired. He was succeeded by his personal selection: a Guadalcanal Medal of Honor Marine, MajGen Vandegrift. After retirement from the Marine Corps, Gen Holcomb served for a short time as the U.S. Minister to the Union of South Africa.
The author has successfully portrayed Gen Holcomb as a visionary leader, shrewd publicist, progressive thinker, meticulous planner and a courageous combat leader. Due to his facility for “staying out of the limelight,” he often is overlooked as a transformative figure in the Marine Corps. This classically crafted biography will go far toward gaining Gen Holcomb his rightful place in the history of our Corps.