Book Review: Preparing for Victory: Thomas Holcomb and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps, 1936-1943


by David J. Ulbrich

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 286. Illus., maps, notes, biblio, index. $35.95. ISBN: 1591149037

The life and work of Thomas Holcomb, perhaps the most important U.S. Marine in the twentieth century.

Holcomb led the Marine Corps from the end of 1936 through 1943, but is today largely forgotten in accounts of World War II because of the fame attained by other Marines during the war, notably his successor, Alexander Vandegrift, who had commanded the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal and succeeded him as Commandant.  Ulrich, an historian at the Army Engineer School and Norwich University, opens with a chapter on Holcomb’s early life, including his experiences on the Western Front in World War I.  He then uses two chapters to examine Holcomb’s work as Commandant from December of 1936 through Pearl Harbor, when the Corps finalized its amphibious doctrine and began preparations for war.  There follows a chapter on Holcomb’s role in mobilizing the Corps during the first seven months of the war, and then a chapter on Guadalcanal that has a rather unique slant, being rather more critical of Vandegrift and his campaign than is commonly found.  We then get a chapter on Holcomb’s last 18 months as Commandant, followed by one one that wraps up his career, since he served through the end of the war as a recalled retiree doing staff work, and later undertook some diplomatic assignments until his final retirement.  Ulrich clearly demonstrates how important Holcomb was to the creation of the Marine Corps that fought its way across the Pacific, battling over budgets and autonomy, identifying and developing new war fighting concepts, building the divisions that would fight the war, and overseeing operations through the end of 1943. 

Preparing for Victory is a very valuable look at how leadership can influence institutions, the process of reforming military organizations, and, of course, the creation of the modern Marine Corps.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close