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Brute Krulak: The Most Important Marine


The name of US Marine Corp General Victor Krulak is legendary. The General died here in San Diego a couple of years ago at the venerable age of 95. His career spanned World War two , Korea and the Vietnam wars. Brute Krulak wrote a comprehensive book on the Marine Corps, called "First to Fight" and was celebrated for his bravery and the respect he engendered in his men.
A new biography explains why some call him the most important officer in Marine Corps history.

The name of US Marine Corp General Victor Krulak is not as well known as General George Patton or General Dwight Eisenhower. But in the Corps the name of Victor BRUTE Krulak is legendary. The General died here in San Diego a couple of years ago at the venerable age of 95. His career spanned World War two , Korea and the Vietnam wars. Brute Krulak wrote a comprehensive book on the Marine Corps, called First to Fight and was celebrated for his bravery and the respect he engendered in his men.

A new biography reveals the complex personality and varied accomplishments of General Krulak and explains why some call him the most important officer in Marine Corps history.

Guest: Robert Coram, author of "Brute: The Life Of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The name of marine corps general Victor Krulak is not as well known as general George Patton or general Dwight Eisenhower, [CHECK AUDIO] [CHECK AUDIO] call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS.. first, Robert, before we get into the life and career of general Victor Krulak, would you first 28 us about his relationship with San Diego? How long did he spend in San Diego during his career as a marine and after?

ROBERT CORAM: I think he was out there for a year or so as a child in Coronado. But the relationship was anchored during the years 1960 to 62, when he was a commanding general at MCRD, and while there, he brought San Diego to MCRD, and he took MCRD to the city. By that, I mean he invited for the first time, business leaders, civic leaders, newspaper, media people, out to the base to hear concerts and participate in various events. And he took himself to the city. He was a speech making machine.


ROBERT CORAM: He was on the go all the time. And he always talked about the Marine Corps. That was his one topic. So his love affair, his relationship with San Diego started then. And of course, when he retired in 1968, he lived in San Diego for some 40 years before he died. So for 34 years, he worked to make the Marine Corps strong and then for 40 years, he worked to make San Diego strong.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, how did he get his nickname, Brute?

ROBERT CORAM: It was meant in sarcasm and derision on the first day that he entered the U.S. naval academy in Annapolis. He was 5 feet 4 and weighed a hundred and 16 pounds, and a midshipman looked down at him and said, well, brute. And it was sarcastic. And Brute loved the name, and forever after that, he introduced himself as Brute Krulak. And after a few years, people forgot the origins of the name, and they thought it had to do with his personality. Because he was one tough marine. And people assumed it was because of his personality and the hard edged manner he had about him that was the recently of the nickname.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Robert Coram, he is the author of Brute, the life of Victor Krulak, U.S. marine. I want to invite our audience once again, if you have heard of general Brute Krulak, or perhaps you remember his time here in San Diego, give us a call with your questions, your memories, your comments, 1-888-895-5727. Tell us a lot bit, Robert, about his background. Where did his family come from originally?

ROBERT CORAM: Born in Denver, the family were Jewish immigrants. They came over around the turn of the century. Settled in Denver. For most of his early life, he lived in Cheyenne. He went there in the first grade and stayed there until he moved to Annapolis. Then the family moved back to Denver. So he left the west and found a new life in the east.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, did Victor Krulak identify himself as Jewish when he was young.

ROBERT CORAM: No, he did not. He's -- he was told me that he grew up Episcopalian, and he may have, but he never joined the church. No, he never attended Temple, never had religious introductions, never had a bar mitzvah, so he was not at all Jewish when he was a boy.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, one of the things that's really sort of extremely interesting, and notorious about general Krulak, is that he was known for not telling the truth about his background. In fact, he embellished stories about -- just about everything. What stories did he invent?

ROBERT CORAM: He created a new life when he went to Annapolis. And the confusion and the contradictions and the things that simply weren't true were immensely confusing to me. And I finally had to take all of my data collected over some two and a half, three years, and I took it to a psychologist, and I said I want to retain your services for a couple of hours, and I told him everything I knew about the general, and then I said, now tell me what you can deduce about him that you can tell me. And the essence of what he said was that when you create a new life, everything about it has to be bigger and better than the old life. So I think for much of his life, general Krulak kept embellishing his life story. And he really didn't need to do so, because he was a highly decorated marine officer. And the thrust of my book is that he was the most important officer in the history of the Marine Corps. His contributions accrued not just to the Marine Corps, not just to the U.S. military, but to America. Of he was a hinge of history. He changed the destiny of this kitchen. So if there's been -- ever been anybody who didn't need to embellish their background, it was Brute Krulak.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And yet he did. And that's such a remarkable aspect of this very complex man. Let's talk about his appointment to the naval academy. Why did he want to go there.

ROBERT CORAM: Part of this is supposition on my part. But his father ran a clothing store in Cheyenne, and I don't think he would have afforded to send Brute to college had he not gotten that appointment. The first appointment was he tried for the U.S. military academy, and that was full. And people in Cheyenne didn't know much about the ocean or about the naval academy. So it was easy to get an appointment there. And it was a free education, and it gave him automatic entree into the board rooms and the drawing rooms of America. And his family was very proud of him when he was accepted at Annapolis. This was a really big deal for the family back in Denver.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, you talked just a little bit about the fact that general Krulak was a short man. And when he did actually enter Annapolis, he also was very small. He was not only 5-foot 4 inches but a hundred and 16 pounds. That has got to be very daunting for someone to have to face, you upon, when you're trying to get into the military, trying to make the military your career. How did that affect him.

ROBERT CORAM: Tell be easy to get into cheap psychology here, and I'm reluctant to do that.


ROBERT CORAM: I will say that if God gave him a small, slight body, he gave him an outsized intellect. He was one of the most brilliant men ever to wear the uniform in this kitchen of he may have been short, but he could look over the horizon. He could look into the future that few other people could. He was audacious, he was bold, he was not afraid to make the big decisions. He was not afraid to give his bosses unvarnished advice. He made his bosses look good. So if all of that was compensation for being short, I say bring on more short guys.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Was he himself sensitive about his heighty this.

ROBERT CORAM: I have heard stories about it, that marines were always told not to look down at him, to look straight ahead, and there are stories about a photographer who was told to take pictures from a lower angle. In the 3 or 3 and a half years I spent with him, I never saw any indication of that. Of it might be because I'm ape short guy too. And he and I got along.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Before I leave this subject, there is one, I guess, it's an apocryphal story about how he made himself taller so he could qualify -- I forget what it was, so he could receive a commission, or he had himself hit on the head.

ROBERT CORAM: That's an apocryphal story. It never happened. [CHECK AUDIO] so he could meet the legal minimums of but that's just a story. He was accepted because he got a waiver on the height requirements.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Robert Coram, he is the author of Brute, the other of Victor Krulak, U.S. marine. So let me pursue that statement that you make. That general Victor Brute Krulak is the most important officer in the history of the Marine Corps, or at least you can make a good argument in that direction. That really is quite a statement. Tell us -- break it down to us. Tell us why you could that is.

ROBERT CORAM: Well, first of all, there are a number of other marines whose names always come up when I make that statement. But what people forget is that if the name Chesty Puller, for instance, a great combat leader, and I am not taking one thing away from Chesty Puller, his five Navy crosses, when you say he's a great comb at leader, but beyond that, what did he offer? Or to General Lejeune who was so instrumental in the early Marine Corps in and the list goes on and on. My position regarding general Krulak is that -- oh, and another thing, he was only a thee star, and only four stars have the godlike ability to change the universe. So therefore a three star couldn't do all that much. But my point is that -- and I said this earlier, is that the contributions of these other officers accrued primarily to the Marine Corps. Or in certain instances to the U.S. military. But general Krulak changed the- of America. And I don't know of any of those other officers who did. So from that standpoint alone, it would justify saying he's the most significant most important officer in the history of the corps. But then if you break it down and look at his contributions. And they are many but let me just talk about one.


ROBERT CORAM: And that is putting the drop by on the Higgins boat in World War II, as a brand-new, first Lt. In China in 1937, he sailed into the midland -- the Japanese invaded China in the Sino-Japanese war, part of the operation was an amphibious operation at the mouth of the yang see, he sailed into the middle of this amphibious landing force. Guns were going off, airplanes dropping bombs, the cacophony that always surrounds an amphibious landing. He took copious notes and photographs of the Japanese landing craft. And the short version is, he stole the design of the Japanese landing craft and put the drop bow on the Higgins boat, which general Eisenhower later said won the war for America. Without that boat, we could have had to change our entire strategic vision for World War II. We could not have landed in the Pacific, in north Africa, in Sicily, in Italy, and at Ddiwithout the drop bow Higgins boat. That boat mutt more men on the beach than all the other boats combined. And it was because of a first Lt. 24 years old, named vicar Krulak.


ROBERT CORAM: Well, they were -- you have to remember that in the late '40s, the helicopters were not unlike fixed wing aircraft in World War I, that is they were flimsy, slow, low performing and a bit treacherous, in fact. And they were more amusement upons and toys than serious military pieces of equipment. And general Krulak, and this is what I meant by his ability to see over the horizon, at a time when helicopters could fly 80 miles an hour, he envisioned the day when they could travel 200 miles an hour. At a time when helicopters could carry two people, he could see the day when they could carry 20,, 40 50 people. And the list goes on, and he pushed the Marine Corps to create an experimental helicopter squadron, and if you saw the movie, we were soldiers, you left there thinking that Mel Gibson and the U.S. Army brought helicopters into war in Vietnam. Vietnam was the helicopter war. That's nonsense. The Marines did it in Korea 15 years earlier, and they did it because of Victor Krulak.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, General Krulak's military exploits, you've just given us a Taste of what he did in World War II and Korea, they're legendary certainly in the corps, but it's his strategy in Vietnam that really cost him dearly. Tell us about that.

ROBERT CORAM: He believed in what today is a counter insurgency warfare, and we hear a lot about that from Afghanistan today. And it was his belief that pacification and it was called a combined action platoons or combined action program at the time, that that was better than the army program of attrition, of standing toe to toe, and slugging it out, and the last man standing wins of and the data that has come to be gathered since the end of the war tends to prove that general Krulak was right. But that was not what army heredes or Lyndon Johnson wanted to hear. And in 1968, of his own volition, when he had everything in the world to lose, and absolutely nothing to gain, general Krulak went to Washington and went to the oval office and in effect said to Lyndon Johnson if you don't release these stultifying restraints that you've placed on the military, if you don't let us do our job, bomb the harbor at high fog or take away the sanctuarers of the north Vietnamese, you're gonna lose both the war and the election. It took an act of great moral courage to do that. And of course, Lyndon Johnson literally threw him out of the office. And at the time, Brute Krulak was a number 11 tender -- number one candidate to be a commandant Marine Corps to receive a fourth star. He did not become a commandant, and he did not get a fourth star. But he's remembered as a man of probity and rectitude and great morality strength. Which I might add is not something one remember ares Lyndon Johnson for. So I would say even though Victor Krulak did not achieve his great dream, history will remember him in a higher way than it does Lyndon Johnson.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I also want to get in the story as he is remembered as being perhaps the man who single handedly kept the Marine Corps from being disbanded after World War II. What did general Krulak do about is it.

ROBERT CORAM: Maureen, that's a wonderful story. Not many people know the constant unrelenting effort it is of army over the years to diminish or to do away with the Marine Corps. And this happened even while marines were dying on Guadalcanal, the U.S. Army was planning how to get rid of the Marine Corps after the war. [CHECK AUDIO] and basically the plan would have reduced the Marine Corps to a state of servitude, to a small, 50, 60000 people whose job would be essentially to be a Navy police force. And even in war time, their numbers would not rise appreciably. Of the army has been jealous of the Marine Corps going back to World War I, to bella wood, and to the Marines' great victory there. Brute Krulak who was only a colonel, a relatively junior officer in a small group of men who came to be known as the chowder society. And there were 2 or 3, a dozen, it fluctuated in and out. It was not a normal group. But Brute Krulak was there in the beginning and in the end, and what these -- generals Marshall and Eisenhower, even brother marines because they believed that, A, the Marine Corps was worth preserving [CHECK AUDIO] [CHECK AUDIO] that it plays a unique role in the American military. And B, the plan also sought to subvert A basic American principle, and that is civilian control of the military. And I want to keep it as simple as I can, and what general Marshall envisioned would have created a army leader who would have military powers that no military man has had since George Washington. It would have created this all powerful man on horse back, which is a great fear that you and I and most meshes have with the military. So Krulak preserved a fundamental American principle, civilian control of the military, and by the way, he saved the U.S. Marine Corps from being diminished to a print of being useless.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In the final minute or so we have left, Robert, perhaps, you know, we've talked about the Marine Corps with our frequent guest, LA Times reporter Tony Perry. He makes a point of telling us how the corps honors its past and its heroes perhaps more than any other branch of the military. So my question to you is how much of a presence is the legend of general Victor Krulak among today's marines?

ROBERT CORAM: He is considered a legendary marine. He's part of that long line of heroes who contribute to that unique Marine Corps ethos and sense of integrity and sense of duty. The sense of being the most ready when America is least ready. General Krulak is known as a giant of the corps. And very few marines have that honor. And I will say that among those who are considered giants of the corps, his name is first and it shines the brightest. He is a legendary marine, and it was my honor to spend three and a half years with him and to write his life story.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It sounds as if you really did spend three and a half years with him and got to know him quite well in the writing of this book.

ROBERT CORAM: My respect for him turned into great affection. I was very fond of him.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, let me tell everyone that Roger Coram has written the book called Brute, the life of Victor Krulak, U.S. marine. And Robert, thank you for being with us.

ROBERT CORAM: I've enjoyed being with you Maureen. Bye-bye.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And if you would like to comment, please go on-line Kpbs.Org/These Days.

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