Regarding Barry Saunders’ column “ How do you pronounce Lejeune? It’s up for debate”: In our recent Senate campaign, a debate on the pronunciation of Gen. John Lejeune’s name provided a brief but much-needed comic relief. The name is important; the military base bearing his name employs 42,000 Marines and sailors and pumps $2.6 billion in salaries into our state. But Lejeune’s legacy far surpasses the issue of Lah-joon v. Luh-jern.
For decades, Marines have known him as the “greatest of all leathernecks.” As commandant from 1920 to 1929, he helped establish a Marine Corps persona that has been its trademark since. After World War I, Lejeune turned the Marine Corps into a mobile force that could conduct small-unit operations in distant places. The Corps’ doctrine for amphibious operations, also developed on his watch, became the calling card of Marines during the island hopping campaign in the Pacific during World War II.
A Naval Academy graduate, Lejeune intuitively understood the significance of leadership. He established training programs for junior Marines that remain in place today. He knew that if lieutenants and NCOs could understand a commander’s intent and inspire subordinates, everything else would follow. Having commanded a division in combat, Lejeune knew that confidence in the person in the next fighting hole was critical.
While the Corps had adopted “Semper Fidelis” as its motto in 1883, Lejeune developed faithfulness into a guiding principle. After World War I, the Marine Corps was reduced from 70,000 to 20,000. As politicians considered eliminating the Marine Corps, its esprit de corps was similarly reduced. To counter that loss, Lejeune established the tradition of a birthday message in 1921.
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Directing that his four-paragraph message be read to every Marine every year, he helped rejuvenate the Corps’ identity at a time when it had lost its swagger. “On Nov. 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was created by a resolution of the Continental Congress. ... The record of our Corps is one which will bear comparison with that of the most famous military organizations in the world’s history. ... [G]eneration after generation have grown gray in war in both hemispheres and in every corner of the seven seas, that our country and its citizens might enjoy peace and security.”
Monday is the Marine Corps’ 239th birthday. We may quibble about his name, but Lejeune’s legacy is beyond dispute. His contributions have been as significant and enduring to the Marine Corps as Camp Lejeune’s impact is to North Carolina today.
The writer retired as a colonel in the Marine Reserve in 2011. He served as a field historian in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The length limit was waived.