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Perishable Thoughts — Higgins Boat
Story Tells A Tale Of Perseverance

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 13, 2009

Our piece, Perishable Thoughts — Keeping Things ‘In Perspective’ For 2009, referenced a contemporary quote pointing out that for all the problems of a financial crisis, it was nothing compared to the dangers of getting out of a Higgins boat on Omaha beach. In other words, nobody is getting shot here.

The reference to a Higgins boat led to the following note:

Your mention of Higgins boats reminded me of the late Victor Krulak — recent New York Times obituary below. Note that he made one observation, which was thrown away by the bureaucracy but followed up by him when he returned to the States.

He also worked on the two defense reorganizations in the late ‘40’s and early ‘50’s, in which he helped keep the Marine Corps from being abolished. Part of the war that is fought in bureaucratic trenches. My memory of the quote is:

“Sometimes it’s more difficult establishing your right to fight than actually fighting.”

— Dan Cohen
Maccabee Seed Company
Davis, California

Dan has contributed to the Pundit before including pieces such as these:

Pundit’s Mailbag — National Marketing Orders And Agreements

Pundit’s Mailbag — Two Windows And Two Issues

You May Never Look At Spin The Bottle The Same Way Again

Now we send him a hat tip for this quote as well as for the sharp eye in making a connection to the January 5, 2009, obituary of Lt. Gen. Victor H. Krulak, who died December 29, 2008, at the age of 95. The New York Times obituary is entitled Victor H. Krulak, Marine Behind U.S. Landing Craft, Dies at 95:

In 1937, while a lieutenant in an intelligence outfit in Shanghai, when the Japanese were trying to conquer China, he used a telephoto lens to take pictures of Japanese landing craft with a square bow that became a retractable ramp, enabling troops and equipment to be dispatched quickly onto an enemy beach.

Envisioning those ramps as answering the Marines’ needs in a looming world war, Lieutenant Krulak showed the photographs to his superiors, who passed on his report to Washington. But two years later, he found that the Navy had simply filed it away with a notation saying it was the work of “some nut out in China.”

He persevered, building a balsa wood model of the Japanese boat design and discussing the retractable ramp concept with the New Orleans boat builder Andrew Higgins. That bow design became the basis for the thousands of Higgins landing craft of World War II.

“There would not have been a Normandy or an Okinawa or an Iwo Jima without that boat,” his son Charles said in an interview on Sunday.

Son Charles, by the way, did his father proud; he is General Charles C. Krulak, the Marine commandant from 1995 to 1999.

The quote actually comes from Victor H. Krulak’s book, which is a history of the Marine Corps:

“Fighting for the right to fight often presented greater challenges than fighting their country’s enemies”

First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps
By Victor H. Krulak
Published by Naval Institute Press, 1984, 1999
252 pages, pg 15

It derives from this section:

“Standing beside Marine Lieutenant General Holland Smith on the bridge of the command ship Mt. Olympus, off of Iwo Jima on the morning of 23 February 1945, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal said that the raising of our flag atop Mt. Suribachi “means that there will be a Marine Corp for the next five hundred years.” Moments later, out of Forrestal’s hearing, Smith commented, “When the war is over and money is short they will be after the Marines again, and a dozen Iwo Jimas would make no difference.”

The resolute general was voicing the frustrations of the many generations of Marines before him who had learned through hard experience that fighting for the right to fight often presented greater challenges than fighting their country’s enemies.”

The quote can be viewed here:

First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps (Google Books)
By Victor H. Krulak
Published by Naval Institute Press, 1984, 1999
252 pages, pg 15

Here is the original version of the story of the development of the Higgins boat. The best telling of the story would be from the man himself, and includes a picture of the original boat that prompted the design from 1937!

First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps
By Victor H. Krulak
Published by Naval Institute Press, 1984, 1999
252 pages, pg 90

Here are several other renditions of the story by admirers of Krulak:

From Whaleboats to Amphibious Warfare
By Anne Cipriano Venzon, J. Michael Miller

(Above link begins Krulak’s involvement, several paragraphs earlier begins Andrew Jackson Higgins story of his development, prior to meeting Krulak, of a shallow draft boat)

Leadership Embodied — The Secrets to Success of the Most Effective Navy and Marine Corps Leaders
By Joseph J. Thomas
Article on Victor Krulak contributed by Shawn P. Callahan

In troubled times, we thought this quote has a special resonance. The book goes on to explain in the sentence after the quote that:

“Viewed more philosophically, it may be said that the unending struggle for survival has done much to strengthen the Marines’ character. As in the greyhound races, every time the Corps started to coast, it seemed that the rabbit, in the form of a threat to their survival, sped up and challenged them to higher levels of performance.”

And so the struggles we endure are not solely negatives; they are the stuff that causes us, in our quest to overcome the problems, to rise to meet the challenges. If we were never challenged, we would never begin to know the depth of our own potential.

As we struggle with tough times, that is a rather uplifting message.

Of course, there is a side story to Victor H. Krulak’s life. As The New York Times obituary explains:

In the fall of 1943, General Krulak, a lieutenant colonel at the time, commanded a battalion in a diversionary raid on Choiseul Island in the Solomons that enabled a larger Marine contingent to capture the more important island of Bougainville. Although wounded, he continued to lead his marines in battle, bringing him the Navy Cross. Some of his wounded men were evacuated by a Navy torpedo boat skippered by Lt. John F. Kennedy.

In the late 1940s, General Krulak helped pioneer the use of helicopters to carry marines and supplies into battle, a maneuver employed in the Korean War, when he was chief of staff of the First Marine Division.

When Kennedy became president, General Krulak reminded him of their meeting on Choiseul. He presented Kennedy with a bottle of whiskey, something he had promised him for his rescue work back in 1943 but never had a chance to deliver. In 1962, Kennedy named General Krulak the counterinsurgency adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

General Krulak was, of course, quite well qualified for the position. Still, if he hadn’t have met JFK as a young Lieutenant, if he hadn’t remembered his promise and brought whiskey to the White House, maybe he never would have received the appointment.

So we see the paradox. The message of the quote today is to endure and persevere in the face of ridicule, for if you fight hard enough and long enough you just might show all those geniuses they were wrong. The paragraph after the quote reminds us that suffering can be redemptive and that our true mettle may only come out in response to enormous challenges. Then we have the next paragraph, which reminds us that life is serendipitous and the key is really to take advantage of the opportunities life presents.

That is an awful lot of wisdom to fit in a few paragraphs in a book.

Many thanks to Dan Cohen of Maccabee Seed Company for suggesting we read it.

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