The country lost a storied Marine when retired Lt. Gen. Victor “Brute” Krulak died in his sleep on December 29 at the age of 95. Krulak was a thinker as well as a fighter, and in both capacities, he left his imprint on the Corps.
Krulak was not universally loved throughout the service. Asked to describe his leadership style, he replied that cultivating a reputation for being “a son of a bitch” has its advantages. Even so, many Marines were surprised when Lyndon Johnson did not select Krulak to be commandant in 1968. Perhaps it had to do with his persistent criticism of the strategy the U.S. was pursuing in Vietnam. (Krulak was, of course, immensely pleased when his son, Charles Krulak, became the 31st commandant of the Marine Corps in July of 1995.)
Krulak’s cadet nickname, “Brute,” was given to him in mockery of his diminutive stature: At 5’4” he had to petition for special dispensation to receive a commission. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1934, he served aboard the battleship Arizona, and then with the 4th Marine Regiment in China from 1937 to 1939. During the latter assignment, Krulak — at the time a first lieutenant and an intelligence officer — made one of his first and most important contributions to the Marine Corps: observing and clandestinely photographing a Japanese amphibious operation against Chinese positions.
Based on his observations, Krulak prepared a report with photographs of shallow-draft Japanese landing craft capable of transporting men and heavy equipment directly onto the beach. He forwarded a copy of his report to the Navy Department in Washington, where it was at first dismissed as the “work of some nut in China.” With the help of another legendary Marine, Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, Krulak got a model of what he had seen in China in front of the commandant. The result was that the Department of the Navy eventually deployed a landing craft similar to that observed by Krulak, the venerable “Higgins Boat” that delivered troops to beaches across the globe during World War II.
During the years before World War II, Krulak suffered two embarrassing setbacks that could have been career-enders. The first one occurred on the Arizona when the anchor chain came loose and the anchor itself was lost. The second happened in 1940 when Krulak, who had by then risen to the rank of captain, persuaded an admiral in dress uniform to inspect one of his projects — only to end up stranded on a coral reef some distance from shore, in three and a half feet of water. The two had to wade ashore, and the admiral was livid, asking Krulak, “Captain, have you ever considered a career as a civilian?”
Fortunately, Krulak’s career survived both incidents.
During the Second World War, Krulak commanded the 2nd Marine Parachute Battalion and in November 1943 led a diversionary action on the island of Choiseul. Krulak was wounded but refused to relinquish command of his battalion and be evacuated. After the diversion had achieved its intended effect, Krulak was transported away on a PT boat skippered by a young lieutenant named John F. Kennedy, whose path he would cross again years later. Krulak was awarded a Navy Cross for his actions on Choiseul. He also served on the staff of the Sixth Marine Division during the battle of Okinawa.
After the war, Krulak played a major role in the inter-service battles that characterized the period. Although the services still frequently disagree about roles, missions, and budgets, people today may not appreciate how vicious those earlier fights were. The Marine Corps was especially vulnerable: Despite its performance during the war, many players — including Harry Truman — wanted to abolish the service. Because many Marines naively believed that their war record would ensure the survival of the Corps, the day-to-day struggle for its future was waged by a small group that came to be known as the Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society. Krulak was an integral part of that effort.
Having helped secure the survival of the Marine Corps, Krulak served in Korea as chief of staff of the 1st Marine Division. During the 1950s, he played a role in the development of the use of helicopters to transport Marines from ship to shore as part of amphibious operations. During this period he also contributed to the Marine Corps’s reinvention of itself as a “force in readiness.”
In 1962, former PT boat skipper President Kennedy directed the services to emphasize counterinsurgency training, and Krulak played a central role in implementing the president’s directive. During this period, Krulak met several times with Sir Robert Thompson, the architect of the British victory over the guerrillas in Malaya. From Thompson he absorbed a set of basic counterinsurgency principles that the Marines subsequently sought to apply in Vietnam. As Krulak observed, “The more [aware I became] of the situation facing the Vietnamese government and the Vietnamese Army, the more convinced I became . . . that our success in the counterinsurgency conflict would depend on a complete and intimate understanding by all ranks from top to bottom of the principles Thompson had articulated.”