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VAN STOCKUM: 30 Years in the Marines: The Rest of the Story (1942-1967), Part 24: A Long Shot – Director, 4th Marine Corps Reserve and Recruitment District, Philadelphia 1961-62

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By Ron Van Stockum

In this duty assignment in Philadelphia, I had command over the reserve units and recruitment stations in the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.

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Marine Corps Headquarters, unaware as yet of my performance of duty as Chief of Staff of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune a month before, would have considered it unlikely that I would be promoted and that this would be my final duty station before retirement.

By coincidence, the colonel whom I had replaced after he had been fired as Chief of Staff by Major Gen. Phil Berkeley, was now Commanding Officer of the Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, Philadelphia. While he had no authority over my command, he was charged with providing necessary logistics support.

Following traditional protocol, I called on him at his office. His attitude was frosty; obviously he thought I had sought his job when he was Chief of Staff, but such was not the case.

The Marine Corps Board for selection of colonels to the rank of Brigadier General was meeting almost simultaneously with my arrival at my new station in Philadelphia. The Corps during my career promoted officers based on their performance of duty as evaluated by a selection board made up of officers of more senior rank. This had facilitated promotion based on the officers’ records, rather than simply being based on longevity.

The Board consisted of seven officers of the rank of Major General, three of whom, including Major General Berkeley, were strong supporters of mine. Only six of the 42 colonels in the selection zone would be selected for promotion.

‘You were not exactly

a shoo-in, Van.’

Col. Joseph L. Stewart, my highly regarded Basic School classmate (1937-38), was just a number or two above me in the selection zone. He was a graduate of Auburn University where he had been quarterback and captain of the football team. From Basic School, he was assigned duty in San Diego where at age 23, he coached the Leatherneck football team.

Subsequently his record of assignments, and performances was absolutely tops, over-shadowing mine significantly. He was a prime prospect for promotion. The actions of a board of selection are secret so one will never know how the board argued, even anguished, over their choices. But in the end, I got the votes and was included on the selection list of six.

Joe Stewart’s failure to be included on the list was a great surprise, causing utter dismay among many senior officers. One member of the selection board, who was not a supporter of mine, remarked to me later “You were not exactly a shoo-in, Van.”

While I had been selected for Brigadier General, I had to wait almost a year, until July 1, 1962 when a vacancy occurred, to pin on my stars. I would then, at age 45, be the youngest general officer in the Marine Corps.

The Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. David M. Shoup, did not approve of “frocking,” the practice allowing an officer selected for promotion to wear the insignia of the higher rank immediately, rather than waiting for a vacancy to occur.

As a result, I remained In Philadelphia as District Director for nearly a full year, during which I traveled a great deal to visit the many organized reserve units in my District.

I was then ordered to report to Marine Corps Headquarters in Arlington Virginia, within sight of the Pentagon. Here I became Director of the Marine Corps Reserve, nation-wide.

Marine Corps Commandant,

pins on my stars

On July 2, 1962, Gen. Shoup, hard-bitten winner of the Medal of Honor on bloody Tarawa in World War II, along with my wife Susanne, pinned on my stars. Shoup declared that my promotion to Brigadier General would demonstrate that second-raters were not being assigned duty with the reserves. (I had previously served as Inspector-Instructor of two Organized Marine Reserve battalions, as well as Director of a Marine Reserve and Recruitment District.)

A stern taskmaster

Gen. Shoup could be a stern taskmaster. On one occasion, in my presence, he expressed his great dissatisfaction with a staff proposal by ordering the writer, a major general, out of his office, followed by flying papers. The bewildered officer survived the experience, later becoming, himself, Commandant of the Marine Corps!

I managed to avoid Shoup’s wrath. On a number of occasions in mid-afternoon the squawk box would convey a message to join Gen. Shoup on the first tee at the Army-Navy Country Club. Orders were orders and I happily complied. My deputy, Col. Owen Hines of Louisville, an accomplished golfer, usually joined us. A canard was prevalent that, having observed my backswing, golfing companions would reach for their wallets. Shoup usually doubled the bet with me on the last hole, a par three, and, compensating for his controlled slice, would place his ball in the middle of the green.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

However, Gen. Shoup had more serious challenges. Later in 1962, a crisis of the greatest magnitude developed. While I have written in detail about The Cuban Missile Crisis in a previous column, the event was so climactic that it seems appropriate to describe it again.

On October 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy was briefed regarding photos taken by high-flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft that revealed that missile bases were being established in Cuba, obviously constructed and manned by the Soviet Union.

Threat of nuclear war

Shortly thereafter a top secret conference of general officers was called by Gen. Shoup, who showed us enlarged aerial photos that clearly revealed these installations. It had also been determined by our intelligence that they were being armed with nuclear warheads.

Gen. Shoup immediately increased the staffing of the Command Center at his headquarters and added a general officer to the watch list. This center was similar to a command post in combat, available to accumulate information and take appropriate action. I took my turn on the watch along with my fellow generals. While this Soviet threat had not yet been revealed to the public, those of us involved had great concern for our families living in the area. The threat of a nuclear missile falling on Washington was real, almost imminent.

On October 22, the president on TV and radio, publicly announced the presence of missiles in Cuba. He further declared that “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union upon the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

Castro recommends nuclear strike

against the United States

On October 26, unknown at that time to Kennedy, Fidel Castro, Prime Minister of Cuba, in a private letter, urged Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to initiate a nuclear first strike against the United States in the event of an American invasion of Cuba. On this same day, President Kennedy ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba.

On October 27, the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, about 1,500 Marines, sailed from the West Coast for the Caribbean, via the Panama Canal.

In the meantime, there were urgent exchanges of messages and frantic diplomatic meetings between representatives of the United States and the Soviet Union.

Negotiation trumps annihilation

Early on Sunday, October 28, I drove from my home in Falls Church to nearby Marine Corps Headquarters in the Naval Annex, Arlington, Virginia. I arrived at my destination in a serious and sober mood, ready to assume the general officer watch in the Command Center. However, to my surprise, upon entering the gate, I found a completely relaxed atmosphere, the diametric opposite of what I had encountered before.

The night before, in a secret meeting between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Union had agreed to withdraw its missiles from Cuba in exchange for an American pledge not to invade Cuba. In an additional secret understanding, the United States agreed to eventually remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

I resumed my routine duties, administering the Marine Corps Reserve and visiting my units, nationwide.

Next: Training Our Allies in the Far East

In addition to his numerous columns and magazine articles, Brig. Gen. Ron Van Stockum has published six books: Kentucky and the Bourbons: The Story of Allen Dale Farm, Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers, Remem-brances of World Wars, Coming to Kentucky: Heaven is a Kentucky of a Place, My Father: British Sergeant Reginald Bareham (1894-1916) and the Battle of the Somme, and his latest La Maison de Charette de la Contrie. Copies can be obtained at Amazon.com by searching RON VAN STOCKUM, at Terhune’s Style Shop in Village Plaza, or by contacting him at ronvanstockum@mac.com.