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J. ARNOLD, S. SINTON, illustrated by DARKO PAVLOVIC
The beginning of World War Two found Vandegrift working as an assistant to the Commandant of the Marine Corps. In this capacity, he labored to reform the corps and make it war ready. Late in 1941, Vandegrift took command of the 1st Marine Division. Admiral Ernest King told Vandegrift that his division need not expect to enter combat before 1943. Thus, it was a major surprise for him to learn that his marines had been chosen to spearhead the first American land-sea counter-offensive in the Pacific: Operation Watch- tower, the invasion of Tulagi and Guadalcanal, islands of which he had never heard. His unready troops had a chance for only one brief rehearsal, which Vandegrift later described as "a complete bust," before they sailed for the Solomon Islands in August 1942. The night before the assault, he wrote to his wife, "Whatever happens you'll know I did my best. Let us hope that best will be enough."
The navy's premature abandonment of the landing force meant that the marines on Guadalcanal lacked ammunition and food as well as radar and radios, construction equipment, and even barbed wire. The iron-willed Vandegrift "uttered no complaint and let no doubt enter his mind that the Corps would hold Guadalcanal, with or without help from the Navy." A long, miserable campaign ensued, during which Vandegrift exhibited sterling leadership. Vandegrift's determination and persistence during the Guadalcanal campaign were key ingredients to eventual victory. If necessary, he planned to melt into the jungle with his men and conduct guerilla warfare rather than give up. Vandegrift won both the Navy Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor for his conduct on Guadalcanal. After four months of hardship on Guadalcanal, a number of Vandegrift's surviving marines were underweight, dehydrated, malarial, or shell-shocked. Many were so weak that they had to be helped up and over the rails of the ships that evacuated them. Of those who were shell-shocked, Vandegrift later said, "There but for the grace of God go I."
General Alexander Vandegrift (right) confers with Admiral Turner. Command and control struggles with Turner exacerbated the campaign's problems. Turner was Vandegrift's superior and wanted to direct the land campaign. Vandegrift believed that he should have undisputed tactical control. As a result, the marines did not receive much-needed logistical support. Vandegrift appealed up the chain of command until, finally, President Roosevelt personally intervened to order help for the beleaguered marines. (US Naval Historical Center)
Vandegrift (right) is with Admiral John McCain, who helped keep Guadalcanal's "Cactus Airforce" flying. Vandegrift's indefatigable determination to hold Guadalcanal led to victory in this pivotal campaign. A captured Japanese document underscored the importance of the struggle: "It must be said that the success or failure in recapturing Guadalcanal Island, and the vital naval battles related to it, is the fork in the road which leads to victory for them or for us." (National Archives)
Promoted to lieutenant-general in 1943, Vandegrift assumed command of General MacArthur's 1st Marine Amphibious Corps. He directed the landing operations in Bougainville in 1944 until he received appointment as 18th Marine Corps Commandant. In this capacity, he became the first active duty marine to achieve the rank of full general. He had to address serious controversies involving inter-service rivalries. The new commandant wrote from Washington to his friend and successor, Roy Geiger, "Many times have I longed ... for the peaceful calm of a bombing raid on Bougainville."
The uneasy compromise worked out on Guadalcanal, whereby navy commanders exercised undisputed control only during the actual landing, failed to solve numerous problems. Moreover, the bloody amphibious assaults against well-defended Japanese islands such as Iwo Jima, where 21,000 defenders killed 6,000 marines and inflicted 26,000 total casualties, distressed both the American public and its government. Some questioned the competence of the Marine Corps. Vandegrift energetically defended the corps, explaining that Pacific combat against a fanatical, well-fortified enemy inevitably involved heavy cost: "No one realizes more than the Marine Corps that there is no Road Road to Tokyo."
The war's end brought a new challenge to Vandegrift's beloved Marine Corps. As part of a rapid demobilization process, some influential people, including President Harry Truman himself, urged that the corps be merged into a single, unified service. Truman caustically commented that Marine Corps advocates relied upon "the world's second-biggest propaganda machine" in order to exist. Vandegrift skillfully lobbied Congress to retain the corps. His efforts helped lead to a compromise by which the corps remained a separate service within the Navy Department.
General Holland Smith on Saipan in August 1944. Behind his wirerim glasses and craggy, friendly looking features, Smith was an iron-willed marine. He believed that the marines should master the art of "doing the impossible well." (National Archives)
After almost a 40-year-long tour, Vandegrift left active duty in December 1947 and retired in 1949. He died in 1973. His place in American military history is secured by his triumph over great adversity on Guadalcanal.
Born in Seale, Alabama, in 1882, at an early age Holland Smith showed an interest in books about Napoleon and other military leaders. Although he was offered a place at the US Naval Academy, his father demanded that he pursue a law degree instead. Nonetheless, Smith later followed his dreams by enlisting in the marines and receiving a second lieutenant's commission in 1905. During a 1916 expedition to Santo Domingo, he first experienced combat. Here too he began to pay serious attention to the intricacies of amphibious warfare. Smith served with the marines in World War One and won the Croix de Guerre for courage at the Battle of Belleau Wood.
He combined battlefield bravery with brains. He graduated from the Naval War College in 1921. Between the wars, Smith developed new amphibious tactics. He also went against entrenched doctrines by predicting that the next war in the Pacific would depend upon amphibious assaults, rather than decisive clashes between battle fleets. Following a stint at Marine Corps headquarters from 1937 to 1939, Smith received promotion to brigadier-general. In September 1939, Smith assumed command of the 1st Marine Brigade. He began practicing amphibious landings. The experience highlighted the lack of suitable landing craft. Along with boat-builder Andrew Higgins, Smith designed a practical assault boat, its well as an amphibious tractor.