The steely gaze and craggy facial features of Alexander Archer Vandegrift gave him the look and bearing one would expect to see in a U.S. Marine Corps general.
But beneath the grizzled exterior beat the heart of a shy, sensitive man who also happened to be one of the nation’s greatest military leaders. His compassion allowed him to encourage a young Leatherneck with a gentle pat on the shoulder, and his courage helped secure one of the first victories against the Japanese during World War II.
The man destined to become the first Marine to hold the rank of four-star general was born in Charlottesville on March 13, 1887, to Sarah Archer and William Thomas Vandegrift. It was in the family’s house at 112 E. High St. where he first learned of war.
Vandegrift’s grandfather, Robert Carson Vandegrift, had served as a captain under Confederate Gen. James Longstreet during the Civil War. On many evenings the young grandson would sit at the feet of the old soldier and hear his eyewitness accounts of the horrors of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg or the heartbreaking surrender at Appomattox.
“From the time I was a youngster listening to his stories of the war, I wanted to be a military man,” Vandegrift said in later years.
Vandegrift’s father was a prominent architect, and his grandfather a building contractor and deacon in the Baptist church. Neither of these professions appealed to the future general, who spent much of his youth traipsing through the countryside with his dog, Mike.
A voracious reader, he particularly enjoyed the historical novels of British author G.A. Henty. As he got older, he showed a bent for hard work.
As soon as a snowstorm would pass, young Vandegrift would be out shoveling sidewalks in his neighborhood. While attending the old Charlottesville High School, he had a part-time job working in a cigar factory owned by his cousin C. C. Wertenbarker.
The busy youngster found time to quarterback the high school football team and also play basketball and tennis. While attending the University of Virginia from 1906 to 1908, he spent his summer breaks working as a reporter for The Daily Progress.
Vandegrift later termed his venture into journalism as “happy days.” Although he enjoyed gathering news and writing it up, that wasn’t his calling.
In late 1908, the young man took the first steps toward realizing his dream of becoming a soldier. He wanted to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but the senator who would have to nominate him already had reached his quota.
The Army’s loss was the Marines’ gain. Vandegrift took and passed the officer’s examination for the Marines and, on Jan. 21, 1909, was sworn in as a second lieutenant.
No soldier ever had been more proud of the uniform than Vandegrift. When he visited his grandfather, he was wearing his dress blue uniform, which included a blue cape with red lining.
The old soldier eyed his grandson up and down, before speaking.
“Well, Archer, I guess you look all right,” the grandfather remarked. “But I never thought I’d see the day when a grandson of mine would be wearing a blue uniform.”
Vandegrift’s life became complete when he met and fell in love with Mildred Strode. She taught school in Lynchburg, and the two met when he was a student at UVa.
They married and, on May 27, 1911, celebrated the birth of their son, Archer. A year later the young officer was off on the first of many foreign assignments.
Vandegrift experienced combat for the first time in 1915 while engaging rebel forces in Haiti. He still was in Haiti when the United States was drawn into World War I.
The Charlottesville native was constantly pleading with his superior officers to send him to the big war in Europe. But he was caught in the ancient dilemma that has plagued many military leaders.
Vandegrift was such a good officer that his commanders were loath to lose him. For that reason, he never saw action in World War I.
By the time World War II erupted in December 1941, he had earned his first star. Nothing on Earth was going to keep him from this war.
On Aug. 7, 1942, Vandegrift led the First Marine Division in the invasion of Guadalcanal. It’s the largest island in the Pacific Ocean’s Solomon chain and was a Japanese stronghold.
The last letter Vandegrift wrote to his wife before the invasion included these words:
“Remember that I am coming back at the end of this and that together you and I will live out the late autumn of our lives — in Virginia — in peace and quiet.”
During some of the fiercest fighting of the war, the Marines managed to hold on. Day after day, despite staggering losses, the Japanese attacked Marine positions with unrelenting fury.
Vandegrift often was in the thick of the fighting. At one point a Japanese officer swinging a samurai sword charged toward the general.
The enemy officer was shot dead, his body falling just feet from Vandegrift, who was unarmed at the time. By the time the island was secured on Feb. 9, 1943, the fighting had taken the lives of 1,592 Marines and U.S. Army personnel and an estimated 24,000 Japanese.
For his heroic leadership, Vandegrift was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Franklin Roosevelt in a White House ceremony on Feb. 4, 1943. The following July he received his third star.
One of Vandegrift’s proudest moments came Jan. 1, 1944, when he became the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. On April 4, 1945, he made history when he received his fourth star.
After four decades of sacrifice and service, Vandegrift retired Dec. 31, 1947. The couple moved to Lynchburg, but, sadly, the retirement they had looked forward to was short-lived.
Vandegrift’s beloved wife died in 1952. Not much later, he moved back to his hometown to live in a beautiful house at 1446 Rugby Road.
Although the brave and brilliant Marine had risen to unprecedented heights in his profession, his retirement dream had been a simple one. He had wanted to “retire to a farm somewhere between Charlottesville and Lynchburg and raise hogs.”
The dream was never realized. After a short illness Vandegrift died May 9, 1973, at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
In the summing up of his life Vandegrift wrote the following about the town of his birth.
“To me, Charlottesville will always be a little town sitting quiet at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the home of some 8,000 people, dirt streets lighted by gas lamps, a yellow glow that on a winter evening peeped comfortably through the drawn drapery of a red-brick house on East High Street — my route when I was hurrying to explain to my parents why I was late for dinner.”