BOOK REVIEWS – Some New Looks at the Old Breed: Preparing for Victory: Thomas Holcomb and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps and Victory in Defeat: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity, 1941-1945

David J. Ulbrich, Preparing for Victory: Thomas Holcomb and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps, 1936-1943. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2011. Index, photographs, bibliography, maps, notes, 285 pp.

Gregory J.W. Urwin, Victory in Defeat: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity, 1941-1945. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010. Index, photographs, bibliography, notes, 512 pp.

Review Essay by John T. Kuehn
Major General William Stofft Professor, U. S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS

[page numbers for reference follow the particular work being discussed]

The Naval Institute Press delivers two fascinating books here that bring new scholarship to bear on the history of the United States Marine Corps in World War II (WW II). In both cases the Marine Corps being looked at consists of members the pre-war Corps who fought in WW II, sometimes known as “the Old Breed.” Dr. Greg Urwin teaches at Temple University and has an illustrious curriculum vitae that includes eight other books, numerous articles, and service as a technical advisor on a number of highly successful films, including Gettysburg based on the Michael Shaara novel The Killer Angels.   Dr. David Ulbrich, of Rogers State University, previously served as the command historian for the Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, MO and is a former doctoral student of Professor Urwin’s.   Thus it is no accident that both gentlemen are writing about the Marines.

What makes their work distinctive, and worth a review essay, are their topics. Urwin picks up where he left off in his book about the Marines’ heroic defense of Wake Island Facing Fearful Odds (1997).   He investigates the puzzle of why the 1600 Marines, sailors and (mostly) civilians who surrendered had such a high survival rate compared to other Allied and American prisoners captured during the war by the Japanese.   Ulbrich, on the other hand, eschews a standard biographical approach to look closely at the organizational leadership of General Thomas Holcomb as Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1936-1943 in the critical years before and during the early part of WW II in the Pacific. Both books might be classified as the “new military history” since they look at primarily non-combat stories either in high command in the strategic rear (Ulbrich) or after the battle in an entirely different sort of struggle against the brutality of Japanese incarceration (Urwin). The only actual connection between these two events, ironically, was that the reason the men were on Wake in the first place was partially due to Holcomb’s efforts to increase Marine defenses in the Pacific.

Both authors bring a great deal of empathy and scholarship to their tasks. Ulbrich’s book will probably be of most interest to an Army audience, since Thomas Holcomb attended both the U.S. Army Command and General Staff School (CGSS) at Fort Leavenworth (1924-25) as well as the Army War College (1931-32).   Ulbrich does a fine job of showing how Holcomb’s career path to the highest command reflected the Marine Corps’ enlightened attitude toward officer education. Holcomb thrived at CGSS, graduating with distinction in the top 20% of the class—a policy reinstituted at CGSS in 2012. (27-29, 33)   Holcomb’s education in arms, though, also included high intensity combat in command of at battalion at the grim battle of Belleau Wood in World War I. Throughout Ulbrich places Holcomb firmly within a cultural context of the Marine Corps, giving the reader as much an institutional history of the innovative Marines officer corps as well as of the key organizational leader that prepared it for World War II and laid the institutional and policy foundations for its later successes. These successes were many and included publication of key doctrines for counterinsurgency (The Small Wars Manual) and Amphibious Warfare (Landing Operations Doctrine, FTP-167). Also among Holcomb’s successes in doctrinal development and tactics included his advocacy for that portion of amphibious warfare doctrine involving advanced base defense as required by War Plan Orange (the war plan for conflict with Japan). Again, ironically, it was this doctrine that was tested first—successfully—at Wake Island when the Marine defenders repulsed the first Japanese assault on December 9, 1941.

Holcomb’s selection in late 1936 as seventeenth Commandant of the Marine Corps was the first time an officer so junior had been selected in over 80 years. Ulbrich shows how the innovative and progressive leadership of the Marine Corps, combined with a previous friendship between President Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in World War I, elevated Holcomb to the top job. (38-40) Ulbrich does an excellent job in showing how Holcomb took a Marine Corps of a little over 18,000 officers and men, smaller than the New York Police Department, and readied and expanded it for war. By the time Holcomb was relieved as commandant by Alexander Vandegrift, the hero of Guadalcanal, the Corps numbered over 385,000 and was a major component in the United States’ war effort in the Pacific Theater.   Holcomb was not without his faults.   As Ulbrich shows, he was not socially progressive and would today be termed a racist and anti-feminist, but he was in the norm for his times and exceptional in his organizational abilities—and he had a war to prepare the Marine Corps to fight.

Urwin’s book, as noted, begins with one of the United States’ rare early victories in WW II, the siege of Wake Island. Although the Japanese invaded a second time and overwhelmed the island’s defenders, the real meat of the book is its narrative account of the fate of the over 1600 prisoners captured at Wake on December 23, 1941.   Urwin’s account reads like a succession of miracles, from his explanation of the incredible job performed by Marine commander Major James Devereux in getting his “battle crazed” men “…to throw themselves at the mercy of a supposedly merciless enemy…” to his heartrending accounts of their various incarcerations at some of the Japanese Empire’s worst POW camps. (28)   Among the most valuable contributions of the book is its cataloging of the Japanese gulag through which Chinese, Americans, Filipinos, Malays, British, Australian, New Zeeland, and Dutch prisoners were moved, suffered, and often died.   Of particular interest will be his accounts of the various and different prisons camps, including the compound on Kyushu known as Fukuoka No. 18B where some of the civilian contractors ended up and known as a “virtual death camp” (319-321, 334).

Another interesting and little known story contained in the account involves the over 1100 civilians of the Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases (CPNAB) who had signed on for the dangerous but high paying duty of building up Pacific island bases like Wake before the war. Although they got more than they bargained for (some of them were in the 60s when they were captured and there was even one 70 year old), Urwin shows how the hard work, good diet, and clean living on Wake prior to hostilities probably prepared them (along with the Marines and sailors) for the long incarceration ahead.   One would have expected that these first men captured would have had a very high death rate indeed but Urwin, throughout the book and especially in his final chapter, shows how luck, esprit de corps and various other factors combined to give this group the best survival rate of any of the Allied POWs in the Pacific. Among the most important factors, though, was the really good physical condition all the men were in when they were captured after the relatively short fight on December 23rd, unlike the starved and diseased defenders of Bataan, for example.

Ulbrich and Urwin have both done stellar work in producing these “new looks” at the “Old Breed.” Both bring a professional historian’s care as well as interest and passion in the topic to create two very readable books. Students of World War II and anyone interested in man’s ability to persevere in the face of severe odds will probably prefer the Urwin book, however, in order to understand how leaders mold successful institutions, they would be well-served to consider Ulbrich’s book as well. Accordingly, both are highly recommend to a broad reading audience… not just Marines!

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)

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