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Medal of Honor Monday: Marine Corps Gen. Alexander Vandegrift

Dec. 9, 2019 | BY Katie Lange , DOD News

The Medal of Honor is often given for one act of valor, but service members can also earn it for many acts over time. One of the more prominent names to have done that was World War II Marine Corps Gen. Alexander Vandegrift, whose command during the Guadalcanal campaign in the South Pacific led to a critical U.S. victory.

An early 1900s official photo of a Marine officer in dress uniform.
Marine Corps 1st Lt. Alexander Vandegrift
Marine Corps 1st Lt. Alexander Vandegrift in the early 1900s.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 191206-M-ZZ999-691

Vandegrift was born March 13, 1887, in Charlottesville, Virginia. He went to the University of Virginia before being commissioned into the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant in 1909. 

Vandegrift didn't see combat during World War I, but he did serve overseas later in Cuba, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti and China. By 1942, when the U.S. had entered World War II, he had risen to the rank of major general. 

A handful of Marines work on a massive 155 mm gun surrounded by jungle
Guadalcanal 1942
Marines work a 155 mm gun position on Guadalcanal in 1942.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 170125-O-ZZ999-231

Buildup to Guadalcanal

That summer, U.S. military leaders had learned that the Japanese were building an airfield on Guadalcanal, an obscure island in the Solomon Islands chain. It marked Japan's furthest advance toward the eastern half of the South Pacific, which was a great concern to the Allies. If Japan remained in control of the island, it could have imperiled vital U.S. supply lines to Australia and isolated that Allied nation. 

An older Marine looks over his shoulder at the camera as he sits at a work station in a tent.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Alexander Vandegrift
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Alexander Vandegrift in his command tent on Guadalcanal in 1942.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 191206-M-ZZ999-932C

So, Guadalcanal became the focus of the first major U.S. offensive against the Japanese. For six months, Marines, sailors and soldiers took part in Operation Watchtower. Marines accounted for the largest part of the fighting force. 

Holding the Line

Vandegrift commanded the 1st Marine Division -- the only trained amphibious assault troops available in the Pacific at the time. On Aug. 7, 1942, U.S. naval forces fired on a surprised enemy, driving the Japanese away from the airfield they were building and allowing Vandegrift's men an easy landing. U.S. Marines finished building the airfield and, on Aug. 20, the first Allied air units landed there. 

Marines on the ground put out a propeller airplane fire as two men stand on its wing to take a look. A hangar is in the background.
Guadalcanal Fire
A fire in this fighter plane was quickly extinguished by Marines at the Guadalcanal airport after a Japanese bomb hit the hangar shown in the background. The plane was not seriously damaged.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 191206-O-ZZ999-137C

Over the next few months, Marines and U.S. soldiers held their position against repeated enemy attacks, despite low supplies, malnutrition and malaria. By November, the Allied land, air and sea assault had crushed the Japanese forces.  

On Dec. 9, Vandegrift turned over command of the forces to Maj. Gen. Alexander M. Patch. With that, the 1st Marine Division was relieved.

The Japanese remained on Guadalcanal for another two months, pretending to bring reinforcements when they were actually evacuating surviving troops, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But the damage was done. Japan officially surrendered the island on Feb. 8, 1943. 

Four Marines stand in a row on what appears to be an airfield. The two men in the middle are wearing Medals of Honor.
Marine heroes of Guadalcanal
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Alexander Vandegrift, left, 1st Marine Division commander, stands with men of his command after decorating Marine heroes of Guadalcanal at an Allied base in the Pacific.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 191206-O-ZZ999-803C

The U.S. victory set the stage for the ultimate defeat of the Japanese Imperial Navy. 

Honorable Leadership

Vandegrift's tenacity, courage and resourcefulness were crucial in keeping his troops' spirits up during those months of fighting. For his inspiring leadership, he was given the Medal of Honor on Feb. 5, 1943, at a ceremony at the White House.

Vandegrift is one of only three men to earn the Medal of Honor during the Guadalcanal campaign; Capt. Joe Foss and Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone also received it. Vandegrift was also the first Marine to earn both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. 

Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Alexander Vandegrift head shot.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Alexander Vandegrift.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Alexander Vandegrift.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 191206-M-ZZ999-816

In November 1943, Vandegrift commanded the 1st Marine Amphibious Corps in Bougainville, another battle in the Solomon Islands. When he returned in January 1944, he became the 18th Marine commandant. During that time, he rose to the rank of four-star general, making him the first four-star general to be commandant while still on active duty. 

Vandegrift retired in 1948 after serving in the Marine Corps for nearly 40 years. In his retirement, he co-authored a book about his experiences during World War II. 

Several sailors in dress blues stand at the rail of a large, docked guided missile frigate. In small letters you can see the ship’s name, USS Vandegrift FFG 48.
USS Vandegrift
Navy sailors man the rail aboard the guided missile frigate USS Vandegrift during a 1982 ceremony dedicating the vessel to Marine Corps Gen. Alexander Vandegrift, Medal of Honor recipient and 18th commandant of the Marine Corps.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 900125-O-ZZ999-022

Vandegrift died on May 8, 1973, in Bethesda, Maryland, after a long illness. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. 

The general's service to our nation continues to be honored. In 1982, the Navy frigate USS Vandegrift was named after him. The main street running through Camp Pendleton, California, also bears his name. 

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.