Giants Of The Corps: Alexander Archer Vandegrift
Originally Published December 1975
In 1909, Alexander Archer Vandegrift left the campus of the University of Virginia, located amid the hills of his hometown in Charlottesville, Va., to begin a Marine Corps career which would span more than four decades. It was also a colorful career. Major General Smedley D. Butler, a colorful Marine himself, once described Vandegrift as the "feudin'est, fightin'est hillbilly not still makin' corn likker."
Vandegrift's "time in the Corps" was marked by a steady rise in rank and responsibility, with assignments at most of the Marine "hot spots" of the era.
A Medal of Honor winner during World War II, he was cited for his leadership of the First Marine Division in the Solomon Islands from August 7 to December 9, 1942. He was also awarded the Navy Cross for his actions on the first day ashore on Guadalcanal on August 7th.
Before Major General Vandegrift led the First Division to the South Pacific to kick off the island-hopping offense against Japan, he spent more than four years in Washington, D. C. His assignments as Military Secretary to the Major General Commandant and then as Assistant to then-Commandant, Major General Thomas Holcomb, prepared him for his eventual tour as Commandant.
Vandegrift became the Commanding General of the First Marine Division in November 1941. After the first large-scale offensive action of the war in the Solomons, he assumed command of the First Marine Amphibious Corps in mid-1943 for the landing at Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, in the northern Solomons.
Upon establishing the initial beachhead, he relinquished command and returned to Headquarters Marine Corps to become the 18th Commandant on January 1, 1944. Succeeding Holcomb, General Vandegrift began a four-year tour in which he became the first four-star Marine general on active duty.
In February 1948, Leatherneck staff writer Sgt Vernon A. Langille wrote the following, in-depth "salute" to General Vandegrift's tenure as CMC during which time the Corps passed the 600,000-man level.
During many of those hot and humid days and purple nights, the general could be seen sitting on the rough packing box bench with the Japanese inscriptions on the back of it, or reclining in his rickety canvas-backed chair. Usually in the evening, shells from the "Long Toms" loped over his command shack, whispering their missions of destruction; speaking in a sort of swish-like the sound of a stiff broom sweeping clean.
Wherever the general moved to keep up with the progress of battle, the deck chair and bench went with him. There was something in the very discomfort of the improvised seat that made it easier to think, and for long hours he used to sit gazing in the direction of Savo Island and Tulagi where his old friend General Rupertus had landed. It was inexplicable that the Japanese had not raided Tulagi more than they did. He often wondered what kind of a time his comrade was having of it over there. In the more comfortable curve of the chair, he could sometimes relax; close his eyes and imagine himself back in quiet Virginia, the war over, retired and living out the autumn years of his life on a small acreage with his wife and family.
In those early days of the war, he occupied a ringside seat in this jungled amphitheater of invasion. There were times when his CP was not more than a scant 300 yards from the Japanese front lines and perhaps that was what softened the ear-splitting thunder of the Toms as they talked to the Japanese, laying down an impenetrable barrier of steel between himself and the enemy. At such times the mighty explosions could be music to a man's ears, like the booming hush of kettledrums.
The Toms were the pride of "Pete" del Valle's batteries, and well did General Vandegrift remember the night they came in. He had just retired, pacing his movements to the steady cracking of the howitzers, when this new voice added its lusty growl to the 105's and the "Packs." It continued all night long and the first thing he did next morning was call his artillery officer. The colonel told his chief that the big boys had come in at last and had made their first replies to the enemy six-inchers in the hills.
"What were you shooting at, Pete?"
"The Japanese," the voice replied.
"Well, what for?"
"Harassing fire," he had been told.
"Well, for God's sake, knock it off for a while, Pete. It's harassing me more than them."
Colonel del Valle found his CG had something a fellow couldn't put his finger on. He wasn't particularly dynamic, nor was he the rough-tough Marine commander the writers might have wished him to be. If he had color at all, it was a neutral color; nothing dashing, nothing flashy; but still an inner something was always there, a ready strength that imparted itself freely to others.
There were the many staff meetings when he called to one table all the brain power of his organization-regimental and artillery commanders, clever young Jerry Thomas, William James, his chief of staff, Colonels Twining and Murray. Beneath the sputtering light of a kerosene lamp, he confided to these men the innermost problems of his command; the outlines of battles to come, intelligence and strategy. Then they, each in turn, took into their confidence the junior officers-battalion, company and platoon-until the battle plan was known right down to the last man; the man upon whose shoulders the success of the campaign ultimately rested, the private in the field.
In practically everything you wished to accomplish, you had to consider these men of the lower pay grades, the privates, Pfc's, hashmarked corporals and sergeants. They formed the broad base of a pyramid upon which the chain of command rested. They were at the bottom, and at no time could the bottom be allowed to fall out. If it did, everything else above was likely to fall through the same hole. It was among his most firm military beliefs that these men had to be considered.
He had many times been especially emphatic in insisting this knowledge be early implanted in the minds of his officers-especially the young officers, the shavetails who had not yet learned to use their bars as magnetic symbols of leadership and unity rather than simply emblems of rank. Having worked through the commissioned ranks himself, the general sometimes went for weeks without remembering his own high position of number one Marine, top man on the island. And then, when he did, it often came as a surprise, an awakening of the memory over decades-to Parris Island in 1909, the School of Application and the days when he was a shavetail himself.
The basic knowledge of what he knew about handling junior officers he liked to credit to those 12 months of indoctrination under the tutorship of the Corps' real old-timers. This knowledge, seasoned by 30 years of experience that had taken him to practically every Marine post, both at home and abroad, and in practically every campaign the Corps had fought since the turn of the century-the Banana Wars, Mexico, the disturbed Caribbean during World War I, Haiti and China, in and out of the offices of Marine Corps Headquarters, the Legation Guard, the Mail Guard under General Smedley Butler, and finally, Assistant Commandant. All these places and the people he had met were locked in his memory and when he thought of them it was hard to believe that he had seen so much.
He had once remarked to a reporter that the soldier had not yet been born who went into battle unafraid, and when asked if he had ever been afraid, he answered that he had. Many times. The difference between being afraid and frightened into helplessness was discipline. That alone would keep up a man's fighting spirit; that alone kept armies from being mobs and good men from turning into cowards. He often wondered what the men in the ranks thought of him, and never had he been given reason to believe that it was anything but good. An officer's popularity among the men was in inverse ratio to the degree which he used his rank to improve his personal comfort, and no good leader could afford to forget it.
In action, he had always been a front-line general. He kept his CP as close to the combat area as possible and once three banzaiing Japanese had nearly got him. A staff sergeant tackled one of them and an officer shot another. The third scurried back into the jungle. One of his regimental commanders remarked that some morning the general would awake and find a Japanese looking down his throat. He was not afraid of that and he told the colonel so.
"As long as your CP is between mine and the enemy, I don't worry," the general had said. "You'll be sure to protect it."
Of all the military evils in the world, the one he hated most was negligent incompetence. He would readily forgive mistakes, but incompetence was something else again. In an incompetent man, one could expect little more than mistakes, and the smartest thing was to be rid of him. Willful disobedience was equally bad. He had been forced to dismiss one of his best senior officers because he had taken it upon himself to withdraw when he had been ordered to attack. Individual initiative was something to be exercised within the scope of an order. But it had no place in countermanding it. Even a poor plan, executed with force and vigor by all hands, had more chance of success than a brilliant maneuver sloppily carried out.
Although his problems were many on the Canal, the general had only to look down through the pages of history to find company. And when he compared his own military plight to the plight of another famous Virginian, the foxhunter from Mt. Vernon, it was almost like walking out of the darkness into the light. This man had walked in desperation among his troops, and everywhere he looked he saw the shadow of defeat. He could compare his own trained troops to this bedraggled citizens' army of starving, frightened souls; his semi-automatic rifles with their muzzle-loading muskets; his 155's with Knox's rough cannon stuffed full of keg powder, nails, wire and sweepings from a blacksmith shop. And when he pondered over these comparisons he was mighty thankful for the little he had and he could not fail. At such times he could not even think of defeat for it would have seared his soul in shame.
He often thought of his favorite historical military figure, Stonewall Jackson, a man whom he admired because he could do so much with so little. It was indirectly through Jackson that he first became interested in military history and tactics. The famous soldier was also the favorite general of his grandfather, Capt Carson Vandegrift, who told him firsthand stories about fighting under Longstreet and charging with Pickett. He guessed it was his grandfather who had awakened in him the desire for a military career.
His father was an architect, and although he did not object to a service life for his son, he made no special effort to encourage it. As far as he knew, the military tradition had not been established in his ancestral family so there was no old custom to fall back on. The name was Dutch, spelled Van de Grift in family Bible records dating back to 1749, and what people in Europe of the 18th Century were less military minded than the jolly, peace-loving, commercial-wise Dutch? That was no doubt the reason why his decision to enter West Point after two years at the University of Virginia was regarded as something of a departure from family tradition.
Then came one of his earliest disappointments. He had studied so hard to pass the Academy's entrance examinations that it temporarily weakened his eyes and he was turned down on the physical requirements. A year later, his vision improved, he entered the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant.
Still fresh in his mind was the memory of his first trip home from South Carolina: the mixed feeling of embarrassment and pride as he walked into his grandfather's house wearing his new dress blue uniform with the red-lined cap and scarlet-striped trousers. The old ex-Confederate Army officer looked at him for a long time without speaking. Then he made one of the family's classic parlor remarks:
"Well, son," he said with dignity, "I have seen a lot in my time but never did I expect to see a Vandegrift wearing the Union blue."
Times were when he looked back upon those early days and he could hardly remember all the things that had happened in between. His first and longest standing boss had been the barbed-tongued Butler. He still carried a visual image of the gaunt, sad-faced, long-nosed Pennsylvanian whom he came to know like a father at Leon and Coyotepe. Butler had seen him through his baptism of fire and later they fought off enraged natives from the open windows of an ambushed train. He landed with him at Vera Cruz in 1914 and helped subdue the wild Cacos of Haiti. He stayed on after his boss had left, organizing the Haitian Gendarmerie, and when the Marine Corps was being booted about at home for alleged brutal treatment of natives abroad, he was riding mule 15 hours a day supervising the construction of new roads, initiating sanitation methods, improving agriculture, redoing market places and revamping corrupt village political administrations.
Much wiser for his experience as soldier and diplomat, he joined his old boss again in China during the Shanghai and Tientsin Nationalist riots in 1927. He had come to know Butler as he would probably never know any other man, and during these years of service he was the apple of "Old Gimlet Eye's" eye; the shavetail whom Smedley nicknamed "Sonny Jim" and liked to kid about being a Virginia hillbilly.
There was the long period of grooming which put him in line for the Commandant's chair: The Field Officers' Course at Quantico; chief of staff duty at San Diego; operations and training officer for the Third Marine Brigade at Tientsin; back to Washington again as assistant chief of staff, FMF; then back to China in '35, first as executive officer and later CO of the American Embassy Marine Detachment, Peiping. He became Military Secretary to the Major General Commandant, Thomas Holcomb, in 1937 and then Assistant Commandant.
His old friend, Major General Phillip H. Torrey, asked for him as assistant division commander for the First Marine Division, then training at New River, N.C. Finally, he fell heir to the "Fighting First" which sent him on the greatest adventure of his career-an attack that even "Old Gimlet Eye" might have been doubtful about.
Here he was with a handful of men set down on an island most Americans had never heard of, let alone seen; an island that was by its very nature an enemy in itself, infested with insects and drenched in rain; cut up by rivers, ravines and spined down the middle by precipitous mountains with sloping saddles between their crests; an island which presented myriad contrasting sights of beauty and decay, life and death, order and disorder. Around the Lever Brothers' clean and ordered stands of plantation palms swarmed the impenetrable jungle, broken here and there by fields of razor-edged switch grass growing higher than a man's head. And from the commanding height of the teak and Banyan trees, tangled, twisted, thorny vines hung like defensive wire.
Somehow he and his men had managed to carry off the campaign with the maximum amount of success involving the minimum amount of casualties.
Oft-times, while inspecting his front lines after a battle, walking in that short, jerky step with the tommy gun slung loosely over his shoulder, he tried to decide in his own mind what it was that had beaten the enemy and each time he remembered back to the attitude of the Japanese during his China days; the arrogant egotism, the gross underestimation of America as an opponent.
After completing the tour as CMC on December 31, 1947, General A.A. Vandegrift was placed on the retired list in 1949.
He was a patient at the Bethesda Naval Hospital for a year and a half before he died on May 8, 1973, at the age of 86. The general was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.