For this retired Marine general, when it comes to his heroics and distinguished career, modesty is the best policy
By William Campbell
November 11, 1999
Within the San Marino home of retired Marine Corps Gen. Louis H. Wilson, two portraits paint decidedly different pictures of the highly decorated officer.
One picture, painted in 1975 and hanging behind his desk in a sunlit sitting room that opens onto the backyard shows the four-star general for the proud and determined leader he was: hands on hips, jaw squared, piercing gaze focused decisively to the side.
In the living room is the other painting, completed in the late 1970s. In it, Wilson is outside at the rear of the Commandant’s house, Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C. Resplendent in his dress uniform, over his shoulder is a star-spangled evening sky and behind him in the distance are Marines marching on the parade grounds. He’s almost at ease, and there’s almost a smile on his face.
It is a painting his wife, Jane, commissioned, and her favorite because it captures more than Wilson the Medal of Honor recipient, more than Wilson the career Marine officer, more than Wilson the top brass. It captures Wilson the gentleman — and gentle man.
“You can see his kindness,” she said.
Jane Wilson holds the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to her husband, Gen. Louis H. Wilson, for heroism during combat in Guam during World War II.
Photo by Michael Germana
Now 79 and 20 years retired since his four-year appointment by President Gerald Ford as the 26th Marine Corps commandant ended in 1979 and capped a glorious career, Wilson is the epitome of soft-spoken modesty when it comes to his illustrious 38 year in the Corps.
Case in point: his actions July 25 and July 26, 1944, as commanding officer of Rifle Company F, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, at Fonte Ridge, Guam. To hear him tell it, the 24-year-old captain was just doing his job.
“We accomplished our mission and took the hill,” he said. “I did as much or no more than anybody else did.”
His Medal of Honor citation provides a bit more detail.
“Ordered to take that portion of the hill within his zone of actions, Wilson initiated his attack in mid-afternoon, pushed up the rugged open terrain against terrific machine guna nd rifle fire for 300 yards and successfully captured the objective. Promptly assuming command of the other disorganized units and motorized equipment in addition to his own company and one reinforcing platoon, he organized night defenses in the face of continuous hostile fire, and, although wounded three times during this five-hour period, completed his disposition of men and guns before retiring to the company command post for medical attention.”
He wasn’t finished.
“Shortly thereafter, when the enemy launched the first of a series of savage counterattacks lasting all night, he voluntarily rejoined his beseiged units and repeatedly exposed himself to the merciless hail of shrapnel and bullets, dashing 50 yards into the open on one occasion to rescue a wonded Marine lying helpless beyond the front lines.”
And more still.
“Fighting fiercely in hand-to-hand encounters, he led his men in furiously waged battle for approximately 10 hours, tenaciously holding his line and repelling the fanatically renewed counter-thrusts until he succeeded in crushing the last efforts of the hard-pressed Japanese early the following morning.”
Had enough? Hope not.
“Then organizing a 17-man patrol, he immediately advanced upon a strategic slope essential to the security of his position and, boldly defying intense mortar, machine gun and rifle fire which struck down 13 of his men, drove relentlessly forward with the remnants of his patrol to seize the vital ground.”
On the White House lawn in October 1945, Wilson was presented with the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest tribute to heroism in combat, by President Harry Truman. “I’d rather have this medal than be president,” Truman told Wilson as he presented it to him. And though Wilson readily admits to the pride he felt in being awarded the honor, don’t call him a Medal of Honor winner.
“Medal of Honor holder,” he said decisively. “We don’t like the term winner. It sounds like a lottery.”
Then the modesty returns. “I just happened to be there at the right time,” he said.
ON THE HOMEFRONT
Married in November 1944, there’s a date infinitely more important to the general and his wife than today’s Veterans Day. This Sunday marks their 55th wedding anniversary.
We grew up together, went to college together,” he said.
The life of a Marine officer’s wife is one of keeping the home fires burning, Jane said. “Marine wives wait and take care of the dogs, cats and children while they do whatever they’re supposed to do,” she said. But she wouldn’t trade one proud day of it.
“I know one thing,” she said, “he was dedicated to the Corps from the very beginning.”
It was at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., that his military career began — all because the uniform caught his eye. “A recruiter came around one day and had the red stripes down his trouser legs,” he said.
After signing up, he took Jane out for a hamburger, telling her he joined the Marine Corps. She asked him, “What’s that?”
“Damned if I know,” he replied.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics in June 1941, it was straight to Officers Candidate School in Quantico, Va. He was commissioned a second lieutenant just five weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and his rank rose rapidly during World War II. By March 1945 he was Maj. Wilson.
Assignments stateside were separated by a tour of duty in Korea — where he was commanding officer of 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division — and two tours in Vietnam where he commanded the 3rd Marine Division and the 1st Marine Amphibious Force.
He was commanding general, Fleet Marine Force Pacific until May 1975, and became a four-star general and Marine Corps commandant in July 1975. As commandant Wilson was charged with the task of turning around a Marine Corps deeply demoralized by Vietnam. As with any of his missions, he accomplished it.
“I think the quality of the Marine Corps had deteriorated considerably after the war. So we got rid of a lot of Marines who were nonqualified,” he said. “We discharged about 8,000 who were not qualified to be Marines.”
In other words, he cleaned house.
“That’s what I’m credited for. I think I got more credit than I deserved.”
Again the modesty, prevalent even with what his wife considers his greatest triumph, that of adding the Marine commandant as a full member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When Wilson dismisses his role in making th Marine Corps what it is today, Jane pipes up.
“Well, I don’t know who would’ve gotten full status on JCS,” she said. “I don’t believe anybody else would’ve taken that step.”
Wilson does admit that was something he pushed for, and it became a reality on his watch in October 1978.
“The commandant became a full member,” he said, “and it happened while I was commandant.”
Originally published in the Pasadena Weekly
Four days after its publication I received a gracious note from Mrs. Wilson stating “Louis wanted you to know he appreciated the article” and that “prayers for better health for the General” were needed after he suffered a fall and a severe cut to his arm.
Thankfully he recovered from his injuries and sometime after I left the Pasadena Weekly I found out that the General and Mrs. Wilson had moved back to their home state of Mississipi. General Wilson died June 21, 2005, at the age of 85. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.