United States Marines (Retired)
(As related by his great grandnephew, Hunter “Bunk” Mann)
When Bunk Mann was a young boy in 1954, he was not very interested in World War II. Bunk and his dad were visiting Uncle Archer at his home in Charlottesville, Virginia that year, and, although the Four Star General was as much a hero as any American soldier before or after him, Bunk Mann was only interested in spinning the propeller on the Japanese war trophy which adorned the wall over the fireplace. It made little difference to Bunk that his Uncle Archer was the recipient of the highest military honor bestowed on any individual in the United States Armed Forces: the Medal of Honor.
Eight year old Bunk Mann did not want to look at the “medal of whatever”; all he wanted to do was to spin that propeller. Just as Bunk’s dad was to the point of frustration, General Vandegrift said to his nephew, “If Bunky wants to spin that propeller, we will help him do that.” Bunk spun the propeller. The memory is a lasting one for Bunk who has a great fondness for the old warrior.
Bunk Mann states that his Great Uncle Vandegrift was the ideal southern gentleman in speech, manners, dress and genteel comportment. Bunk was impressed although he could not understand why people called his uncle “General”. Bunk always thought a general had to be in uniform with all the trappings of the service, but he remembers the man only in fine civilian attire. Even a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway called for a three-piece suit and a fine hat; nothing less as far as Uncle Archer was concerned. To Bunk, his great uncle must have appeared as dapper in civilian clothing as in his first uniform standing before his grandfather five decades earlier. Uncle Archer was always a gentleman of breeding long before his journey into fame and glory.
General Alexander Archer Vandegrift was born in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1887, the son of an architect and the grandson of a Confederate soldier. His grandfather, Robert Carson Vandegrift, ended the Civil War as a sergeant after service in the 19th Virginia, Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee. Carson, as he was called, had served in America’s most brutal war surviving the horrific battles of Antietam, 2nd Manassas and the 3-day carnage that was Gettysburg. At Gettysburg, the 19th Virginia participated in what is popularly called “Pickett’s Charge”. For the future Marine Corp General, Archer’s early days must have included his grandfather’s stories of a war whose scars and memories were still vivid. Archer attended the University of Virginia, and in January 1909, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps.
Newly commissioned and wearing his dress blues, Alexander Archer Vandegrift proudly stepped in front of his aged grandfather to ask the old soldier’s opinion of him in the new uniform. Bunk Mann reported that the old Civil War trooper looked hard at his grandson and stated: “It looks like you are in shape but I never thought I’d see the day when a grandson of mine was wearing a blue uniform.” The older man could not help but be proud of his grandson as the young man stood there in the present, asking advice of the past, and looking forward to the future. By 1940, Alexander Archer Vandegrift had so distinguished himself in the Marine Corps that he earned his first star and was promoted to Brigadier General in April of that year. Nine months later, the United States was fighting for its very existence, and the new Marine General was embarking on a path that was to confirm his creed: “God favors the bold and strong of heart.” It was those words he used to address his Marines of the 1st Marine Division which he commanded in the Solomon Islands at a place called Guadalcanal. He had been chosen to lead his new command against the Imperial Japanese forces in the first large-scale offensive of the war in the Pacific.
Guadalcanal was an extended battle, but rather than detail its horrors, let us read the Citation that accompanied the presentation of the Medal of Honor to General Vandegrift:
For outstanding and heroic accomplishment above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding officer of the 1st Marine Division in operations against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands during the period 7 August to 9 December 1942. With the adverse factors of weather, terrain, and disease making his task a difficult and hazardous undertaking, and with his command eventually including sea, land, and air forces of Army, Navy and Marine Corps, Major General Vandegrift achieved marked success in commanding the initial landings of the United States Forces in the Solomon Islands and in their subsequent occupation. His tenacity, courage, and resourcefulness prevailed against a strong, determined, and experienced enemy, and the gallant fighting spirit of the men under his inspiring leadership enabled them to withstand aerial, land and sea bombardment, to surmount all obstacles, and leave a disorganized and ravaged enemy. This dangerous but vital mission, accomplished at the constant risk of his life, resulted in securing a valuable base for the further operations of our forces against the enemy, and its successful completion reflects great credit upon Major General Vandegrift, his command, and the United States Naval Service.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
General Alexander Archer Vandegrift was promoted and recalled to Washington D.C. to become the 18th Commandant of the Marine Corps. He was sworn in on the first of January, 1944, as a Lieutenant General (three stars). Because of his valiant efforts in the war, he was later promoted to four-star General, the first active duty Marine Officer to attain that rank. This was certainly an accomplishment unimagined when the pup lieutenant stood before his civil war grandfather.
In the post war years, General Vandegrift was instrumental in preventing the Marine Corps’ merger into the Army. He worked for the passage of Public Law 416 which preserved the Marine Corps and its historic mission as a distinct and integral part of the Armed Forces of the United States. His official retirement came on April 1, 1949 following forty years of active duty.
The General lived 24 years beyond his retirement from the military and died in 1973 at Bethesda Naval Hospital. His burial was with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery located on the grounds of the pre-civil war home of General Robert E. Lee. As the caisson and the riderless horse proceeded to the burial site, Archer Vandegrift was recognized as a son of America, a valiant hero, a gentleman, and a man of honor loved by many, especially by Bunk.
Many years after the medal was presented, and years after the death of General Vandegrift, Bunk Mann visited Gettysburg and its battlefield. Bunk was interested in history now that he was older, and he reflected on the days be had spent with the “General”. Bunk said, “I didn’t realize the great history I had.” During this visit to Gettysburg, Bunk spoke with a gentleman who had fought as a 19-year old Marine on Guadalcanal. The conversation led to General Vandergrift whom this gentleman had met in a rather unusual manner: During some of the most desperate days, the island frequently came under air bombardment. Naturally, all the Marines would dive for cover, and this Marine was not going to be left standing during this rain of death and destruction. He dove into the nearest hole, falling on top of several other persons already there. As the young Marine became situated in the hole, he noticed that the man upon whom he had fallen wore the two stars of a Major General.
At this point the storyteller’s eyes filled with tears, but he continued relating how he apologized to the General for diving into his foxhole. He was almost ready to leave when the General spoke softly to the boy, “Son, when the bombs are falling, we’re all Marines and the dugouts are for all of us.” There was no pretension about this General for he knew his men, he cared for them, and he knew who was doing the fighting and dying. The grandson of a Confederate soldier knew that every man was important to the success of the battle and so he treated them equally.
~ J. LEE HARLOWE