Wilson, Louis Hugh, Jr.

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Wilson, Louis Hugh, Jr.

(b. 11 February 1920 in Brandon, Mississippi; d. 21 June 2005 in Homewood, Alabama), World War II Medal of Honor recipient and U.S. Marine Corps commandant who solidified the role of the corps in the post–Vietnam War era.

Wilson was the son of Louis Wilson, a farmer, and Bertha (Buchanan) Wilson. Wilson’s father died when he was five, and thereafter his mother and her family raised him. As a boy he peddled vegetables from a goat cart to help earn money for the family. Wilson attended Millsaps College, in Jackson, Mississippi, graduating in 1941 with a BA in economics. He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve shortly afterward, to be commissioned second lieutenant in November 1941. After attending officers’ basic training, Wilson was assigned to the Ninth Marine Regiment, part of the Third Marine Division, which was sent to the South Pacific in February 1943. Promoted to captain in April 1943, he was stationed at Guadalcanal and Efate islands and first experienced combat at Bougainville Island in November 1943.

Following the landing of the Ninth Marines at Guam, in the Mariana Islands, on 21 July 1944, Wilson saw heavy action as the Marines fought to secure their landing beaches against fierce Japanese resistance. During the fighting on 25 July, Wilson led his company across 300 yards of open space and up a portion of Fonte Hill in the face of “terrific machine gun and rifle fire” and mortar shells. Wilson personally dispatched three Japanese snipers as he moved up the hill, meanwhile losing more men in an hour than he had in a month’s fighting at Bougainville. Upon gaining the hilltop, yet under relentless fire, he organized a defensive line before returning to the company command post to seek medical attention for the three wounds he had suffered that day. When the Japanese counterattacked shortly after dark, Wilson rejoined his men on the line, and in fighting that was often hand-to-hand they repelled several Japanese assaults during the night. At one point Wilson raced fifty yards ahead of his line to rescue a wounded marine; at another he clubbed to death two Japanese attackers who had reached the marines’ foxholes. On the morning of 26 July, at the head of a seventeen-man patrol, Wilson seized a strategic slope vital to the security of his regiment’s position. In the process, he lost thirteen more men and suffered his fourth wound. By the end of the two days of fighting, half of Wilson’s men were either dead or wounded, but they had killed 350 Japanese and were in possession of the crucial high ground in their sector. For “his indomitable leadership, daring combat tactics, and valor in the face of overwhelming odds,” Wilson was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S Truman on 5 October 1945. On 14 November 1944 Wilson married Jane Clark; they had one daughter.

From 1945 to 1975 Wilson held a series of increasingly significant training, staff, and line posts while rising to the command of the Marine Corps with the rank of full general. At the time the Marine Corps was coping with the strains created by seven years of campaigning in Vietnam. Its mission, personnel policies, and force structure were in turmoil, and the public’s perception of the corps as an elite force had declined because of the general ill feeling toward the military fostered by the Vietnam War. Some critics even suggested that the nation no longer needed the Marine Corps, which in their view was primarily an amphibious force that did not meet current defense requirements.

During his four-year term as commandant, Wilson worked feverishly to revitalize the Marine Corps. While not abandoning its traditional amphibious role, he broadened the corps to be a “general purpose” force ready for low- or high-intensity conflict anywhere in the world. Logistics capabilities, including the pre-positioning of equipment and supplies on cargo ships, were improved; greater firepower, through more advanced tanks, antitank missiles, and howitzers, was added; the aviation arm was strengthened with the adoption of the F-18 attack fighter and the Harrier, a vertical-takeoff aircraft that could provide close air support for ground operations in the absence of airfields; and greater emphasis was placed on combined-arms training, desert warfare, and mechanized operations.

Regarding personnel policies, Wilson rebuilt the corps’ image as an elite force that could command the public’s esteem. He raised educational standards for enlistees so that at least three-fourths would be high school graduates, instituted more stringent physical requirements to enhance the appearance and fitness of marines, discharged thousands of men who were disciplinary problems or failed to meet his exacting demands for high performance, and fostered the retention of noncommissioned technical specialists by providing for a system of unit rotation that reduced the durations of overseas tours. To counter damaging allegations of physical abuse of recruits during basic training, Wilson implemented reforms to reduce the stress of training and to provide for greater oversight of drill instructors.

The capstone of Wilson’s tenure as head of the Marine Corps was the elevation of the commandant to full membership on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Previously, the commandant attended meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff but by law could only participate in discussions relating to the Marine Corps, and while he often in fact participated in general discussions, the other chiefs saw him as speaking only as an individual rather than for the corps. By utilizing contacts he had established on Capitol Hill while serving as the legislative assistant to the Marine Corps commandant in 1967 and 1968 and by keeping his plans secret from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense until he had garnered the support of key senators and congressmen, Wilson secured congressional authorization for a measure giving the commandant the same status as the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1978. Although Wilson’s independent lobbying of Congress irked many Pentagon officials, in a symbolic way, at least, the measure ensured the continued existence of the Marine Corps as a distinct military force.

After retiring from the corps in 1979, Wilson served on several corporate boards. He died from a degenerative nerve disorder in 2005 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Known for his blunt manner, innovativeness, and political savvy, Wilson stands out historically for his guidance of the Marine Corps through its adaptation to the military environment of the post–Vietnam War era as a versatile, elite force with its own place in the defense establishment.

Wilson’s service during World War II is described in Cyril J. O’Brien, Liberation: Marines in the Recapture of Guam (1994); and Marc Cerasini, Heroes: U.S. Marine Corps Medal of Honor Winners (2002). For an analysis of his tenure as Marine Corps commandant, see David H. White Jr., “Louis H. Wilson,” in Commandants of the Marine Corps (2004), edited by Allan R. Millett and Jack Shulimson. Obituaries are in the Washington Post (24 June 2005) and New York Times (25 June 2005). An oral history is located in the Oral History Collection of the U.S. Marine Corps History and Museums Division.

John Kennedy Ohl

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