Of all the Dutch American military men, no one has reached as high a pinnacle in terms of rank and military service during wartime as Alexander Vandegrift. Vandegrift retired as a four star general, a feat only achieved by fellow Dutch American General David Petraeus. But in terms of military service, he outranks General Petraeus through his active and meritorious service during the Pacific operations in the Second World War.
General Alexander Vandegrift earned the Medal of Honor in the Second World War, served as the eighteenth Commandant of the Marine Corps, commanded the First Marine Division, Reinforced in the crucial battle for Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Gavutu in the Solomon Islands, and commanded the First Marine Amphibious Corps in the landing at Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville. The above four events by themselves would have been enough to cap the career of any successful military personality. But the above are only the more important of Vandegrift’s many achievements and contributions to the defense of his country.
Alexander Archer Vandegrift was born in Charlottesville, Virginia on March 13, 1887. He received his elementary and high school education in Charlottesville, and then enrolled in the University of Virginia. He apparently never graduated, but in January 1909, he entered the U. S. Marine Corps as a second lieutenant. Marine recruits do not enter the Marine Corps at the officer level, so we must surmise that he had been involved in military training during his two years at the University of Virginia, prior to his enlistment in the Marine Corps.
Apparently Vandegrift never saw active service in the European theater during the First World War, but he did see active service in the Caribbean and Central America during the period from 1912 to 1923. He participated in the capture of Coyotepe, Nicaragua, and the occupation of Vera Cruz, Mexico in 1914, and was also involved in the pacification efforts in Haiti beginning in 1915.
During the period 1927 to 1937, Vandegrift was quite regularly involved in China, initially as Operations and Training Officer of the Third Marine Brigade in Tientsin, China. Later he served as Executive Officer and Commanding Officer of the Marine Detachment at the American Embassy in Peiping, China. During this period he also for some time served as Assistant Chief Coordinator, Bureau of the Budget, in Washington, D. C.
In March 1942, Vandegrift was promoted to major general and sailed for the south Pacific area as commanding general of the First Marine Division, Reinforced. Between August and December of 1942, as commander of the First Marine Division, Reinforced, he led it ashore in the first large-scale military operation against the Japanese in the Pacific theater of war. This historic battle will go down in history as the Battle for Guadalcanal, but it also involved Tulagi and Gavutu, all part of the Solomon Islands. For the successful occupation and defense of the targeted areas, Vandegrift was awarded the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor.
Six months following the successful operations in the Solomon Islands, in July 1943, Vandegrift was put in charge of the First Marine Amphibious Corps, and commanded it in the successful landing at Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, in the northern part of the Solomon Islands later that year. A beachhead was established by the end of October 1943. Vandegrift then received orders to relinquish his command of the First Marine Amphibious Corps and report back to Washington, to take over as Commandant of the Marine Corps.
On January 1, 1944, Vandegrift, by then a lieutenant general, was sworn in as the Eighteenth Commandant of the United States Marine Corps. The following year, Vandegrift was recommended for promotion to a four star general. The U. S. Senate approved, and as of March 21, 1945, he became the first Marine Corps officer on active duty to attain the four star general rank.
During his tenure as Commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps, the Marine Corps faced institutional threats, following the end of the Second World War. There were proposals put forth, to greatly diminish the mission and size of the Marine Corps. These proposals were supported by President Truman and General Eisenhower. In its power struggle to survive, the Marine Corps aligned itself with Congress, and warned against the encroachment on civilian oversight, within the Marine Corps restructuring proposals. To obtain congressional support, Vandegrift went directly to the U. S. Congress to appeal for its support in early 1946. Vandegrift’s defense apparently worked, and the Marine Corps remained intact. However, it appears that his opposition to the proposal also resulted in the end of his Marine Corps command. His tenure as Commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps ended on June 30, 1946. He left active service on December 31, 1947, and officially retired from the military on April 1, 1949.
Vandegrift began his military career, as a second lieutenant in January 1909. He was promoted to first lieutenant in December 1914, to captain in August 1916, and to major in June 1920. He apparently remained a major for quite a period of time. In June 1934, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, to colonel in September 1936, and to brigadier general in March 1940. So it took him over 20 years of military service to reach the lowest level, the one star level, of general. In March 1942, after the start of the Second World War, he was promoted to major general, the two star level of general. When Vandegrift was appointed to command the U. S. Marine Corps, on January 1, 1944, he was a lieutenant general, a three star general. A little over a year later, on March 21, 1945, he received the rank of a four star general, a rank he would retain until his retirement.
Historic military men like Vandegrift, receive numerous awards for their meritorious service, and so did Vandegrift. The highest award Vandegrift received was the Medal of Honor. It was awarded to Vandegrift with a citation by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He also received the Navy Cross for outstanding services as Commanding General of the First Marine Division, Reinforced, during the attack on Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Gavutu in the Solomon Islands on August 7, 1942. And for the subsequent occupation and defense, from August 7 to December 9, 1942, of Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Gavutu, Vandegrift was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Other medals Vandegrift received include, among others, the Presidential Unit Citation with one Bronze Star, the Navy Unit Commendation Medal with one Bronze Star, the American Defense Service Medal, 1939-1941, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with four Bronze Stars, Solomon Islands, 1942-1943, the American Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.
Vandegrift had developed such a positive reputation as a military genius during the Second World War that several foreign countries, especially those who had benefited from his leadership during the war, awarded him with high military honors. Great Britain honored Vandegrift by naming him Honorary Knight Commander, Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. The Netherlands awarded him the Knights Grand Cross in the Order of Orange-Nassau with Swords. And France awarded him with the Legion of Honor [Grand Officer].
Several Universities honored Vandegrift, by awarding him with an honorary degree. He received an honorary degree of Doctor of Military Science from Pennsylvania Military College. He also received honorary Doctor of Law degrees from Harvard University, from Colgate University, from Brown University, from Columbia University, from the University of Maryland, and from John Marshall College.
In 1982, a frigate, the USS Vandegrift was named in his honor. Also the main street in Camp Pendleton is named Vandegrift Boulevard.
General Alexander Vandegrift passed away on May 8, 1973 at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland following a long illness. He had reached the advanced age of 86. He was interred on May 10, 1973 at Arlington Military Cemetery. Following his burial in Arlington, the following family members were buried alongside him: his first wife, Mildred Strode Vandegrift [1886-1952]; his son Alexander A. Vandegrift [1911-1969], who had been badly wounded on Iwo Jima in World War II; and his second wife, Kathryn Henson Vandegrift [1903-1978].
Alexander Vandegrift, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Archer_Vandegrift
Alexander Vandegrift, http://www.answers.com/topic/alexander-vandegrift
General Alexander A. Vandegrift, USMC [1887-1973], http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/pers-us/uspers-v/aa-vandg.htm
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