The Greatest of All Leathernecks Cover

The Greatest of All Leathernecks

John Archer Lejeune and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps

Joseph Arthur Simon

Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2019, 368 pages

Book Review published on: December 12, 2019

The U.S. Marine Corps’ rich history includes countless legendary marines. Among them, John Archer Lejeune is considered the greatest of all ”leathernecks.” In The Greatest of All Leathernecks: John Archer Lejeune and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps, Joseph Arthur Simon examines the life and contributions of Lejeune and the making of the modern Marine Corps. Lejeune is credited with reorganizing, revitalizing, and modernizing the Marine Corps by developing its renowned amphibious warfare capability.

The Greatest of All Leathernecks begins with Lejeune’s upbringing in Louisiana. Simon describes Lejeune’s distinguished lineage and how it forged the character of the greatest marine. Lejeune would take the Marine Corps from small detachments guarding naval vessels and installations to the world’s premier amphibious force. His contributions are even more noteworthy given that on the eve of World War I, the Corps numbered 13,725 marines who served around the world in numerous detachments no larger than a battalion. Lejeune, along with a handful of other progressive-thinking Marine Corps officers, was instrumental in developing the concept of offensive amphibious operations to project naval power ashore.

Simon does not sugarcoat in describing the politics, the intraservice rivalry, and the challenging environment faced by the Marines during Lejeune’s career. The existence of the Marine Corps was tenuous at the beginning of the twentieth century as President Teddy Roosevelt, no fan of the Corps, happily incorporated a Navy request into Executive Order 969 that removed marines from naval vessels. Removal of marines would rescind their purpose with a transfer to the Army as an eventual outcome. Army Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, a friend of Roosevelt and enemy of the Marine Corps, proposed to incorporate the Marine Corps into the Army. Roosevelt supported the proposal. However, Rep. Thomas S. Butler, chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee and father of Marine Capt. Smedley Butler, recommended to the House the restoration of Marine Corps guards to naval vessels. The U.S. Senate voted fifty-one to twelve to restore the Marine guards, and newly appointed secretary of the Navy George von Lengerke issued an order to place Marine guards back on naval vessels. Lejeune became the first head of the Marine Corps Association, an organization dedicated to professional advancement in the Marines.

Army Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, wanted an “all-Army show” in France during World War I, but Marine Corps Commandant Maj. Gen. George Barnett used his political connections in Congress to gain support of President Woodrow Wilson in authorizing the incorporation of two Marine regiments into the Army. The Marine regiments would form the 4th Marine Brigade of the Army’s 2nd Division. Lejeune became the brigade commander when he replaced Brig. Gen. Charles Doyen. Just two weeks later, Lejeune was selected by Pershing to command the 2nd Division. Lejeune’s 2nd Division distinguished itself in the battles of Saint Mihiel, Blanc Mont, and the Meuse Argonne. The division advanced sixty kilometers, more than any other American division, and it captured more prisoners, 12,026, and more cannons, 343, than any other division. Despite the 2nd Division’s success, Lejeune received a negative fitness report from his superior, V Corps commander Gen. Charles Summerall, who viewed Lejeune’s attitude toward higher authority and eager acceptance of difficult tasks as lacking. Simon informs the reader that Summerall, a toxic leader by today’s standards, ordered Lejeune during the Meuse-Argonne to attack into I Corps sector so it could be the first to enter Sedan. Despite rumors of an impending armistice, Summerall ordered attacks in the waning days of the war, resulting in thousands of unnecessary casualties.

Lejeune’s foresight, knowledge, and intuition that any future war with Japan would include amphibious warfare challenged contemporary military analysts and historians who cited Gallipoli as example that assaulting a well-defended shoreline was no longer possible. Lejeune and the Marine Corps conducted an in-depth examination of the Gallipoli campaign; its lessons became part in the study of landing operations and helped developed the Marine Corps’ 1934 Tentative Landing Manual.

Lejeune was promoted to major general and appointed commandant of the Marine Corps on 1 July 1920. Lejeune’s tenure as commandant was marked by an increase in the size and scope of amphibious training with the Navy, an increase in the size of the Marine Corps, and greater professionalism within its ranks. Maybe his most enduring legacy as Marine Corps commandant was Marine Corps Order Number 47 (Series 1921), which designated 10 November as the official Marine Corps birthday in recognition of the establishment of the Marine Corps at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia on 10 November 1775.

The Greatest of All Leathernecks is more than the life story of John Archer Lejeune; it is the story of the making of the modern Marine Corps. Lejeune’s contributions are immeasurable. It is no surprise that the Marine Corps honored the greatest of all leathernecks by naming Camp Lejeune in his honor. This book is a must read for marines of all ages as well as anyone interested in littoral combat operations.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas