Seventy-five years ago, two future Marine Corps giants were in dire straits. In the Central Pacific, Colonel David Shoup and Combat Team 2 were pinned down on the beaches of Tarawa Atoll’s heavily defended Betio Island. Meanwhile in the South Pacific, Japanese defenders were closing in on Lieutenant Colonel Victor Krulak and his outnumbered Paramarines on Choiseul.
Daniel Rogers describes Shoup’s abrupt ascent from Tarawa assault planner to the plan’s chief executioner in “Combat Leadership Amid Chaos.” Ten days before the Betio landings, Shoup learned he would command all Marines ashore during the crucial early hours of the desperate battle. In the event, his tenure in charge stretched to 36 hours, during which he led by example—at times using the saltiest of language to implore reluctant Marines to follow him into the fight. Amid the Tarawa maelstrom, Shoup established a degree of order while pushing his men to establish and maintain momentum.
“Raid on Choiseul,” by John Prados, recounts how Krulak’s 2d Parachute Battalion pulled off a diversionary operation to mislead the Japanese on the eve of landings on Bougainville. The battalion arrived at Choiseul Island by sea—not air—and fortunately, Krulak had trained his men hard in raider tactics. Vastly outnumbered by the island’s Japanese defenders, the Marines raised enough hell to imply a much bigger force was ashore while inflicting sizeable personnel and matériel losses on the enemy. Aiding in the U.S. force’s disengagement was PT-boat skipper Lieutenant John F. Kennedy.
As with most Marine officers who fought in World War II and continued to serve in the Corps into the 1960s, the Vietnam War had an enormous impact on Shoup’s and Krulak’s later careers. After rising to Marine Corps Commandant, General Shoup became a confidante of President Kennedy. The general had deep reservations about U.S. involvement in a war in Southeast Asia, and some people credit him with influencing Kennedy to decide shortly before his assassination to change course to reduce U.S. engagement there.
Shoup retired from the Corps when his tenure as Commandant expired on 31 December 1963. Three months later, Krulak was appointed commander of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, and promoted to lieutenant general. Over the next several years he would clash with General William Westmoreland, chief of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam—as well as with President Lyndon Johnson—over the conduct of the Vietnam War. Krulak favored more vigorous U.S. action, including expanded bombing of the North. The Marine general’s biographer, Robert Corum, claims Krulak’s opposition to Johnson’s war constraints resulted in him being passed over for Commandant in 1967. Krulak retired the next year.
After he left the Corps, Shoup became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, making newspaper headlines and testifying before Congress. His actions alienated many of his old Marine comrades, some of whom thought he had lost his mind. Krulak, on the other hand, is still a revered figure among Marines. His book, First to Fight: An Inside Look at the U.S. Marine Corps (Naval Institute Press, 1984), is on the Commandant’s Professional Reading List.
Elsewhere in the issue, retired Navy Captain Dale Rielage’s article, “The Chinese Navy’s Missing Years,” examines the first few decades of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Rielage’s piece earned him first prize ($5,000) in the Naval Institute’s Naval History Essay Contest, which is sponsored with the William M. Wood Foundation. This year’s theme was “The China Challenge.”
Navy Commander Mark L. Metcalf earned second prize ($2,500) for his essay, “Using the Past to Serve the Present: Historical Narrative in China’s Maritime Strategy.” And third prize ($1,500) went to Dr. Jonathan D. T. Ward for “China’s Vision of Victory: Military Geography and Maritime Power from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping.