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Gen. Louis Wilson, 85; Led Marine Corps' Transition to Volunteer Force

June 25, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Gen. Louis Hugh Wilson, a Medal of Honor recipient in World War II who was commandant of the Marine Corps in the post-Vietnam era -- and made it harder to join and remain in the Corps -- has died. He was 85.

Wilson died Tuesday at his home in Birmingham, Ala., the Marine Corps announced.

Moments after becoming their new leader June 30, 1975, Wilson said, "I call on all Marines to get in step and do so smartly."

He planned to raise the requirements to join -- he wanted at least 75% of enlistees to be high school graduates, because they had "already proved they can stick it through" -- and required dropouts to earn the equivalent of an A on qualifying tests. In 1975, less than 50% of Marines had high school diplomas; by 1977 the portion was 69%.

When other branches of the military were letting hair creep toward the collar and allowing sideburns, Wilson would have none of it. He placed renewed emphasis on combat readiness, discipline and personal bearing.

"If I see a fat Marine, he's got a problem, and so does his commanding officers," a fit 55-year-old Wilson told Associated Press a month after being named commandant.

Even Marines who had served for years would be forced out if they didn't shape up.

Then-Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger told of an old "gunny" who lost 13 pounds just by keeping the commandant's picture on the refrigerator door, according to a 2003 article on Wilson in Leatherneck magazine.

The rededication to what Wilson called the fundamentals of military training and deportment when the Marines were making a transition to an all-volunteer force is still felt within today's Corps, in which 98% of enlistees are high school graduates.

"Gen. Wilson was a forward-thinker who was ahead of his time," said Gen. Michael W. Hagee, present commandant of the Corps, in a statement released Wednesday. "He stressed modernization, readiness, expeditionary capabilities and integrated firepower -- areas that we still concentrate on today."

Late in his tenure, Wilson became the first Marine to serve as a full member of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Wilson had a genteel manner and a Mississippi drawl that he joked was lightened by a stint recruiting Marines in New York. Yet his reserved presence evoked authority, said Marines who worked with him, and his reputation as a judicious, firm commander helped him get the top job.

As a 24-year-old Marine captain during World War II, Wilson led his company through a bloody assault on Guam in July 1944.

On the fourth day of fierce fighting, he led a successful attack to seize a heavily defended hill. Wounded three times, he continued to lead his men throughout the night.

He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman.

The citation recounted the "furiously waged" 10-hour battle and said Wilson "repeatedly exposed himself to the merciless hail of shrapnel and bullets, dashing 50 yards into the open on one occasion to rescue a wounded Marine lying helpless beyond the front lines."

When morning came, Wilson organized 17 men for an assault on another strategic slope. He was one of only four men who made it to the top.

His battalion commander was Robert E. Cushman Jr., the general he would succeed as commandant.

Wilson was born Feb. 11, 1920, in Brandon, Miss., to Louis and Bertha Wilson.

He earned a bachelor's degree in 1941 from Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., where he played football and competed in track. He married Jane Clark, his college sweetheart, in 1944.

Wilson enlisted when recruiters came to the college. As he climbed up the Marine Corps ladder after World War II, he alternated between staff jobs and field assignments, serving in Korea and Vietnam.

In 1972, he was named commander of forces in the Pacific. Those forces eventually helped evacuate Saigon and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and rescued the captured crew of the American freighter Mayaguez.

After retiring in 1979, Wilson served on the boards of Merrill Lynch, Burlington Resources and Fluor Corp.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughter, Janet Wilson Taylor, and two grandsons, all of Birmingham.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Marine Corps University Foundation, Box 122, Quantico, VA 22134; or other Marine Corps-related organizations.

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