Vandegrift, Alexander Archer (1887-1973)

Photograph of Alexander A. Vandegrift

Naval Historical Center #NH 97767

Alexander “Archie” Vandegrift was born in Virginia, the grandson of a Baptism deacon who had been twice wounded fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1908 after failing the physical exam for West Point, receiving his commission the next year.  Much to his frustration, he sat out the First World War in Haiti and Norfolk and continued to serve in South America and the Caribbean until 1923, where he experienced his first taste of jungle warfare. However, he became acquainted with acting Navy secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt during the latter's tour of Haiti in 1914. Vandegrift alternated teaching assignments with China duty until the late 1930s, when he became secretary to the commandant of the Corps.  He helped develop the Tentative Manual of Landing Operations, which largely established the tactical amphibious doctrine for the Pacific War, and was promoted to brigadier general in 1940.

Vandegrift was assistant commander of 1 Marine Division when war broke out and became commander in April of 1942.  He promptly began weeding out ineffective officers, relieving one colonel whom he described as "nothing but a damn old school teacher" (Hoffman 2001). Vandegrift led his division on Guadalcanal, for which he received the Medal of Honor. He also developed a close friendship with Bill Halsey. He was given command of I Marine Amphibious Corps upon its activation in July 1943.

When Thomas Holcomb, commandant of the Corps, began to prepare for his retirement in 1943, he recommended Vandegrift over Smith as his successor. Though senior to Vandegrift, Smith was a close friend and expressed no disappointment over not receiving the promotion himself. Vandegrift's promotion was delayed when he was forced to take command of I Marine Amphibious Corps after the accidental death of its commander, Charles D. Barrett. After leading his corps on Bougainville in November 1943, Vandegrift finally assumed his new post as commandant of the Corps on 1 January 1944.  He became the first active duty Marine to become a full general, in March of 1945. He retired in 1947 to devote himself to travel and charitable causes.

Vandegrift was also known as "Sunny Jim", a name first applied to him in Haiti by the legendary Marine, Smedley Butler, after Vandegrift came back smiling from an assignment to sit on the cowcatcher of a locomotive and watch for mines on the track. His optimism and his quiet, gentlemanly manners ("resembled a schoolteacher more than a Marine Corps general", Smith 2000) concealed his toughness as a gifted leader. His cheerful personality was sorely tested at Guadalcanal, and Vandegrift never forgave Fletcher for withdrawing his carriers on the night of 8 August 1942, declaring that he was guilty of "Running away twelve hours earlier than he had already threatened during our unpleasant meeting" (Lundstrom 2006). Vandegrift's own record in the battle was not spotless: Though his courage and leadership were crucial, he was slow to recognize the Japanese threat to his southern perimeter, which nearly cost the Americans the Battle of Bloody Ridge.

Service record


Born at Charlottesville, Virginia
Second lieutenant     
Graduates from Virginia Military Institute and is commissioned in the Marine Corps
First lieutenant
Haiti Expedition

Haitian Gendarmerie
Major Marine Barracks, Norfolk

Haitian Gendarmerie

Battalion commander, Quantico

Staff, Marine Corps Base, San Diego

Service in China
Lieutenant colonel

Executive officer, Marine Detachment, Peiping
Secretary to the Commandant of the Corps
Brigadier general

Assistant commander, 1 Marine Division
Major general
Commander, 1 Marine Division
Lieutenant general     Commander, I Marine Amphibious Corps

Commandant of the Corps



Dies at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Maryland


Boatner (1996)

Dupuy et al. (1992)

Hoffman (2001)

Larrabee (1987)

Lundstrom (2006)

Naval Historical Center (accessed 2008-3-1)

Smith (2000)

Venzon (2003)

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