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Army & Navy – MARINES: Well in Hand

3 minute read

Downstairs in the carefully preserved brick house alongside the Marine Barracks in southeast Washington, where the Commandants of the Corps have lived since 1805, a new portrait will soon be hung. In keeping with Corps tradition, the picture has already been painted. It now hangs upstairs. It will come downstairs the day Lieut. General Thomas Holcomb, 17th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, takes his last look around, leaves to make room for a new Marine boss.

That day is close at hand.

Solid, spectacled “Tommy” Holcomb announced briefly this week that he was retiring as head of the Marine Corps, seven years to the day after he took com mand. His successor: 56-year-old Lieut.

General Alexander Archer Vandegrift, hero of Guadalcanal, Medal-of-Honor man and one of the Marines’ crack administrators.

Three Stars and History. Tommy Holcomb had made history. Under his command the Corps had grown from 17,000 men (Dec. 1, 1936) to more than 300,000.

The outfit had kept its character. Under General Holcomb the expanding Corps remained, as it had always been, an outfit of rifle-addicted soldiers to whom the old-timers managed to give the polish of the professional no matter how fast the recruits came.

While the oldtimers boasted of the accomplishment, and because the Marine Corps had grown to a size never reached before (its top in World War I: 75,000), Tommy Holcomb had become the first Commandant and the first Marine to wear the three stars of a lieutenant general.

The Corps now had an air arm bigger than the whole outfit had ever been before. Marine flyers manned land-based fighter stations, flew from carriers, operated their own military airline in the South Pacific. The Corps had full divisions in battle for the first time. It had all brands of field artillery, its own supply service, all the spare parts. It had put women into uniform and turned them into snappy soldiers, had broken the tradition of 167 years and taken Negro recruits. They had been made good Marines. Methodical, determined Tommy Holcomb had seen to that, too.

Ribbons, Medals, Stars. The marks of Marine training and tradition glittered in four gay ranks from the Commandant’s blouse as he welcomed the new boss this week: the Navy Cross won as a battle commander in World War I; a star-studded Victory Medal; a parti-colored array of ribbons showing service in China, Cuba, the Philippines and other odd corners of the earth where Marines served and fought while the world was technically at peace; the gold and enamel medal of the distinguished marksman.

As the outfit’s top men met, there was no need for explanations for General Hoicomb’s retirement. He was still in good physical shape, could still do his day’s stint in the field. But he had reached the retirement age of 64 last August. Tommy Holcomb had always insisted that Commandants should walk, not be wheeled out of office. Only the insistence of the Commander in Chief had kept him on the job beyond the legal limit.

Now the job was done; the new man was about ready, knew his duties inside out. He had served as assistant to the Commandant, and he had commanded Marines in battle.

But for Tommy Holcomb there was still no prospect of retirement to his Maryland farm. Another job (still secret) waited, and General Holcomb would have plenty to do. But it would not be so much fun, nor so close to the outfit in which he had soldiered and worked for 43 years.

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