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Brutish and Short

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Robert Coram. Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine. Little, Brown and Company. 359 Pages. $27.99.

Small men were never the Marine Corps’ target audience in its recruitment drives: The world has yet to see a Marine poster calling for “a few tiny men.” But it just so happens that one of the Corps’ true legends was the smallest man ever to graduate from Annapolis. When Victor “Brute” Krulak faced the Medical Examination Board back in 1933, he measured only 5’4” and weighed some 116 pounds — two inches too short for commission as an officer. One of the stories he told of passing the examination was how he paid one of his friends to whack him over the head with a plank so that the resulting knot would add the extra inches. Other versions have him gaining height by sheer willpower. Actually, according to his biographer Robert Coram, he received a waiver, because one of his classmates had gotten one, and thus a precedent had been established.

As to his nickname, just as cynics will name their pet Chihuahua Tyson, Krulak got his when a huge upperclassman had surveyed him contemptuously and asked “Well, Brute?” Meant as an insult, Krulak instead embraced the name and set out to fill it. What he lacked in size, he made up for in ambition and energy. He failed to make commandant of the Corps only because of lbj’s vengefulness, but his impact on the Corps and the way it fights is immense, as documented by Robert Coram’s splendidly entertaining biography, Brute. Coram sees Krulak as “the most important officer in the history of the Marine Corps.”

Krulak’s leadership style was certainly colorful. Among his standard observations was, “This place needs an enema,” and the phrase became part of Marine argot. It was not unusual for colonels to take early retirement rather than serve under him. His bible was a book called A Message to Garcia. During the Spanish-American War, a lieutenant was told to deliver a message to an insurgent leader in Cuba, whose whereabouts were unknown. No further instructions were given. Undeterred, the lieutenant got himself off to Florida, landed a small boat on Cuba during the night, tracked down the elusive Garcia in the mountains and handed him the message. This was Krulak’s idea of a resourceful officer, and countless copies were handed out to his staff officers.

Occasionally, he would reveal a more human aspect: During a parade, a major accidently knocked off his own “cover,” his hat, during the sword salute. Afterwards he was ordered to pick up the sorry remains, by now ground into the dust by marching feet. Humiliated, the major did not show up at a party at Krulak’s place that same evening. A note arrived at the major’s house, stating that another officer had once had a similar experience without it harming his career. The same thing had happened to Krulak himself.

Krulak had less admirable sides, though. Throughout his life, he carefully kept his Jewish roots hidden. From a career point of view, this is understandable, given the bias against Jews and blacks at the time, but it caused pain to his family. Worse, not content with the truth, he constantly felt the need to improve on reality, which is odd, given all his achievements. Much of it was harmless, Coram notes, but as he reminds us, according to the Corps’ honor code, a Marine is not supposed to lie.

Back in 1920, a Marine Corps intelligence officer, Lieutenant Colonel Earl Ellis, published a report predicting a future war with Japan. Entitled “Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia,” it is, Coram notes, “one of the most prescient military studies ever written.” In order to gain points of support and airfields from which Japan could be reached, America would have to leapfrog its way across the Pacific. This necessitated amphibious landings on defended coasts, which ever since the British disaster at Gallipoli were deemed “almost impossible,” in the words of the influential British military theorist Liddell Hart. The Marines disagreed; in their view, Gallipoli had failed because of poor planning and lack of coordination between the services. The Corps set about developing the concept of amphibious landings, which was to prove the war winner in World War II, both in the Pacific and in Europe.

What the Marines lacked was the right kind of landing craft. While stationed in San Diego as a young lieutenant, Krulak was tasked with monitoring the trials of the various experimental craft, none of which worked. Because of their exposed propellers, they would get stuck in the sand if they got too close to the beach, which meant that the Marines would often plop in where they could not reach the bottom. The high gunwale did not make things easier.

A 1937 transfer to China brought the solution, and ironically, Coram notes, it came courtesy of the Japanese. When the Japanese during the attack on Shanghai staged an amphibious flanking movement from the sea, Krulak as a military observer got himself a U.S. tugboat and sailed it in right among the Japanese warships. From his tug, he got a good look at the Japanese landing craft, whose flat bow would open and form a ramp when hitting the beach. At a later stage, he also got a view of the bottom of the craft, which were being repaired on land, revealing how the propeller was protected in a tunnel, and how the bottom had two skegs, stabilizing it.  

Krulak’s copious notes and photographs formed the basis of his report, “Japanese Landing Operations Yangtze Delta Campaign,” which he forwarded to the Navy in the naïve belief that they would act on it immediately. When Krulak came to Washington to check on its progress, a Navy lieutenant finally locating the report in some dusty cabinet. On the cover was scrawled a note: “Prepared by some idiot out in China.” The navy still operated with versions of Atlantic fishing boats.

Resolutely, he returned to Quantico and produced a wooden balsawood model which incorporated the revolutionary Japanese features, and took it to his superior, General Holland Smith, who set up a briefing with the Marine commandant. The outcome was that Krulak became the Corps’ “boat man.” Krulak tested and suggested improvements to Donald Roebling’s Alligator, which had tracks enabling it to negotiate coral reefs, and which became known as the Amtrac. And he aggressively promoted the Higgins boat, which incorporated the drop bow and which in trials blew the Navy’s entrants out of the water.

As Coram notes, it is normally Holland Smith who is credited with the development of the Higgins boat, but it was Krulak who was point man in developing the landing craft.

In world war II, Krulak got his baptism by fire leading a diversionary attack on Choiseul in the Solomon Islands. The object was to trick the Japanese into believing that the main attack would come there rather than on Bougainville. As regards vegetation, Choiseul was the most inhospitable of the islands, and of course it was infested with Japanese snipers. To make it harder for the snipers, who fire on officers first, he ordered all insignia removed, and only first names used. “If any of you call me Colonel, I will reply loudly, ‘Yes, General.’ ”

Because Krulak’s targets were far apart, he had to divide his force. The second force ran into a Japanese battalion and had to be extracted at night by two pt boats, one of which was driven by John F. Kennedy — their own Higgins boats having been destroyed by mistake by friendly aircraft. Krulak’s own force fought on, destroying food and ammunition dumps. Altogether, his men racked up 72 confirmed kills before getting taken off the island. He lost only six men and was awarded the Navy Cross.

On Okinawa, he again showed great courage, coordinating attacks on the front lines. He suggested to the overall commander, General Buckner, that the Marines make an amphibious landing on the southeast coast of the island, which would force the Japanese to divert forces away from the main front; Buckner, an Army man, turned down the proposal. “General Buckner did not like the water. We liked the water. It is a very useful route to get from a to b,” Krulak observed, and he later wrote in the Marine Corps Gazette, “For the force that has the skill and the courage to use it, the ocean is an immense tactical ally.” Clearly, writes Coram, Krulak’s words were “a slap at the army.”

Incidentally, Buckner died when inspecting a Marine position on Okinawa. A Japanese artillery barrage caught him, probably, suggests Coram, because, unlike the Marines, Army officers insisted on wearing insignia.

Relations between the Marines and the other services have always been tense, and Brute is as much a book about the Marines’ constant bureaucratic battle for survival. The tension goes all the way back to Belleau Wood in World War I, the spot where the Marines blocked Ludendorff’s offensive and the German drive for Paris. Not only did the Marines block the German advance, they pushed them back. Afterwards, the Army jealously refused the Marines a memorial plaque in Belleau Wood, a situation that was not rectified until 1955.

In World War II, for the Marines, Guadalcanal became the equivalent of Belleau Wood. But though in Coram’s view General Holland Smith and his Marines achieved as much in the central Pacific as the Army did in the western Pacific, at the surrender, MacArthur could not find it in himself to invite the commandant of the Marine Corps to be present during the ceremony.

There was similar bad blood between the Navy and the Marines. Immediately after the Marines’ landing at Guadalcanal, Admiral Frank Fletcher had declared his aircraft carrier short on fuel and had left them to fend for themselves. As to when the Marines will forgive this, Coram quotes a recent editor of the Marine Gazette: “the 12th of Never.” And at Iwo Jima, the Navy had been asked for nine days of pre-invasion bombardment, but only delivered three.

A direct threat to the Corps’ existence emerged towards the end of the war, when George Marshall launched a plan for “a single department of war in the post-war period,” i.e., a German-type staff system with a single, military chief of staff controlling all branches. The proposal would weaken the controlling powers of Congress and it would reduce the Marine Corps to a mere Navy police force. As a member of the Chowder Society, Krulak was in the forefront of the successful efforts to defuse Marshall’s scheme. The society got its name from a comic strip, Barnaby, whose main character belonged to a social club called “The Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes, and Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society,” which an officer had tacked on the wall with the last six words underlined and an arrow pointing to Barnaby. Instead of Barnaby, the officer had written Krulak.

The society fought tooth and nail for the survival of the Corps. Among Krulak’s efforts was the script for a film, Bombs over Tokyo, which made it plain that Japan could not have been bombed if it hadn’t been for the Marines. An exasperated Truman at one point accused the Marines of having “a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin’s,” a comment for which the president had to apologize.

As coram notes, America’s mistrust of a standing army leaves it dismally unprepared when war is forced upon it, as the case of Korea amply illustrates. When the North Koreans attacked, MacArthur rushed in garrison troops from Japan, but getting combat-ready Army troops on the way from America would take weeks. The Marines were asked how soon a Marine reinforced battalion of 1,200 men and a reinforced regiment of 3,600  men respectively could be ready to sail. His boss being on holiday, Krulak’s answer was: “48 hours” for the battalion, while the larger force would take “five days, including a Marine aircraft group.” As Coram notes, this was a key moment in Marine history: Krulak had no idea if he could deliver, but he knew that “If we can’t, we’re dead.” The Corps needed to demonstrate its indispensability. And the Marines met the challenge. Sailing from Hawaii, they were the first troops to arrive from America.

Here they found MacArthur and his troops about to be pushed into the sea at Pusan, and their first feat was to stabilize the Pusan perimeter. Subsequently the First Marine Division led the assault at Inchon, and pushed north. The war looked as good as won, when the Chinese hordes came pouring across the border, something MacArthur had said would not happen and which left the First Marine Division completely surrounded. In the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir — about which their commander, General O.P. Smith, stated that the Marines were not retreating, they were just attacking in a different direction — the Marines again proved their mettle, killing more than 37,500 Reds, against 4,418 casualties of their own.

In all three places — at Pusan, Inchon, and Chosin — Krulak distinguished himself. He was all over the battlefield in his helicopter, issuing orders left and right and reporting back to headquarters. As Coram notes, the helicopter introduced a new element in warfare: It performed reconnaissance duties, dropped supplies, and evacuated the wounded; most significantly, the war saw the first helicopter assault in history in October 1951.

This was very much a result of Krulak’s vision back in 1948, when the helicopter was still in its infancy. Kulak saw its potential to add an extra dimension to the attack, as “a cavalry of the sky” that “would carry men into combat from all directions.” “The evolution of the set of principles cannot wait for the perfection of the craft itself, but must proceed concurrently with that development,” he wrote, and he set about creating the doctrine for what was to become known as “vertical envelopment.”

The 1950s also saw the two most embarrassing cases to hit the Marine Corps. One was the Schwable case: Colonel Frank Schwable’s plane had been shot down in 1952 by the North Koreans, and in order not to give away the nuclear targeting details, to which he had had access when working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he instead said the U.S. had conducted germ warfare, a real propaganda windfall for the North Koreans. To make pows less susceptible to brainwashing techniques, Krulak instituted training reforms with particular emphasis on American history and values.

The other was an exercise at Ribbon Creek in 1956, where a drunken Parris Island drill instructor ordered a bunch of recruits out on an unauthorized night march and six of them drowned in the creek. The drill sergeant had made no attempt to recover the bodies. Unwisely, the Marine Corps tried to downplay the incident, with the predictable result that the media went into a frenzy. (By comparison, after a freak accident on Okinawa under Krulak’s command, in which eleven soldiers drowned during a typhoon, he laid out the facts immediately.) Krulak started the long process of reforming recruit training methods by issuing new guidelines for drill instructors and seeing to it that several got fired. You want tough hombres as drill instructors in the Marine Corps. You do not want sadists.

Under john f. Kennedy, Krulak became special assistant for counterinsurgency and special assistant for special activities, i.e., covert action. These were key positions, given the administration’s emphasis on guerilla warfare, which meant he wielded influence way beyond his two-star rank. From a variety of sources, he put together the country’s counterinsurgency doctrine — how it was essential to gain the trust of the population, and where the protection of the locals is priority one.

During the presidential campaign, he shamelessly puffed up his relationship with jfk, telling how Kennedy had rescued him with his pt boat in the Pacific; how after the rescue he had promised Kennedy a bottle of Three Feathers, the rotgut whiskey consumed by World War II troops; and how, after Kennedy had won, he had dropped in on the new president in the White House with a bottle of the stuff. All this was pure invention. “The truth is that Krulak and Kennedy never met in the Pacific,” Coram writes, as it was the other part of his force Kennedy had rescued, and he refers to an addendum to Krulak’s oral history at the Kennedy Library where Krulak admits they never met until after Kennedy became president. The addendum was to be read only after Krulak’s death.

As the Vietnam War intensified, Krulak’s clashes with General William Westmoreland, the commander in chief in Vietnam, were unavoidable. As a conventional army general, trained to fight in Europe, Westmoreland did not buy any of this newfangled counterinsurgency stuff: Forget about hearts and minds, Westmoreland preferred raw firepower. What was particularly
hard to accept for Krulak was Westmoreland’s use of the Marines in a traditional battle of attrition at Khe Sanh, a place of no strategic value. So as regards counterinsurgency, Coram rates Krulak’s efforts to get his message across “an abject failure.”

Krulak’s run-ins with journalists David Halberstam, Stanley Karnow, Peter Arnett, and Morley Safer over their strong anti-military bias were equally bitter. Safer’s famous sequence with the Marines setting fire to a hut with a Zippo lighter particularly angered Krulak. What Safer conveniently left out, Krulak noted in a subsequent internal paper, was that the Marines had been under automatic fire from the village, which was crisscrossed by trenches and booby traps. Coram cites Chicago Daily News reporter Keyes Beech, who was present at the time, in support of Krulak’s version.

In the end, Kulak’s outspokenness was his downfall. Kulak told Lyndon Johnson to his face how men were being needlessly killed because of his approach, the only senior general with the guts to do so, Coram writes. A photograph shows Krulak lecturing Johnson with pointed finger and Johnson looking hugely uncomfortable. The meeting ended with Johnson propelling him out of the Oval Office. As a result, Krulak did not get the appointment as commandant of the corps for which he had been regarded as a shoo-in. He was not fired either, just left to dangle, in a classic example of lbj’s vindictiveness. But while Krulak never made commandant, his legacy outweighs most of those who did.