The story of the United States Marine Corps in the Pacific Theatre in the Second World War is no doubt quite familiar to our listeners. Less well known, however, is the story of how the Marine Corps readied itself for the challenges of amphibious warfare during the interwar period. No less obscure is the record of the Corps’ first commandant, Thomas Holcomb. Generally overshadowed by the combat narrative of the Marines’ first year in the South Pacific and the subsequent tenure of his successor, Alexander Vandegrift, Holcomb has long been skipped over by scholars and students.
Historian David Ulbrich remedies this oversight in his Preparing for Victory: Thomas Holcomb and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps, 1936-1943 (Naval Institute Press, 2011). This well-received book presents its subject as a model of the Progressive Era officer who shepherded the American military into the modern era. Despite his mild demeanor, Holcomb – a combat veteran of the First World War and an experienced “China Marine” – exercised total control over the Marine Corps at a critical stage in its history. While the organization had long shed its role as the chief agent of American policy in the Caribbean and Latin America during the “Banana Wars” of the 1920s, the effects of that experience lingered. Looking ahead to the possibility of a conflict with a major naval power, Holcomb guided the Marine Corps to its new mission as an amphibious expeditionary force, capable of waging war across long distances. Thanks to Holcomb’s insight and leadership, Ulbrich concludes, the Marine Corps was well on its way to becoming an essential component of the American war effort in the Second World War.