Thomas Holcomb

Thomas Holcomb (August 5, 1879 – May 24, 1965) was the seventeenth Commandant of the United States Marine Corps (1936–1943). He was the first Marine to achieve the rank of general. After retiring from the Marine Corps, Holcomb served as Minister to South Africa (1944–1948).[1] Among his ancestors is Commodore Joshua Barney, a famous Naval hero.[2]

Thomas Holcomb
Gen Thomas Holcomb.jpg
17th Commandant of the Marine Corps (1936-1943)
Born(1879-08-05)August 5, 1879
New Castle, Delaware, U.S.
DiedMay 24, 1965(1965-05-24) (aged 85)
New Castle, Delaware, U.S.
Allegiance United States
Service/branch Marine Corps
Years of service1900–1944
RankUS-O10 insignia.svg General
Commands held2nd Battalion 6th Marines
Marine Corps Schools
Commandant of the Marine Corps
Battles/warsWorld War I
World War II
AwardsNavy Cross
Navy Distinguished Service Medal
Silver Star (4)
Purple Heart
Legion of Honor
Croix de Guerre
RelationsBGen Bankson T. Holcomb Jr. (cousin)
Other workMinister to South Africa

Early yearsEdit

Holcomb was born on August 5, 1879, in New Castle, Delaware, one of 4 children, the son of Elizabeth Hindman Barney daughter of confederate navy commander Joseph Nicholson Barney[3] and Thomas Holcomb an Attorney and Speaker of the House of Delaware. He attended private schools there until 1893 when his family moved to Washington, D.C., to work in the Treasury Department of second president Cleveland administration.[4] He graduated from Western High School in 1897.[1] His curriculum included military drills in uniform; here Holcomb learned about military discipline.[2]

First jobEdit

His father encouraged Holcomb to enter the business world. In 1898 Holcomb took a job as a cost clerk at the Bethlehem Steel works in Sparrows Point, Maryland, for two years.[2]

Marine Corps careerEdit

Holcomb was appointed a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps from civilian life on April 13, 1900.[2] Second Lieutenant Holcomb was on detached duty with a company of Marines organized for service with a Marine battalion attached to the North Atlantic Fleet from September 1902 to April 1903. Holcomb first claim to fame was winning the International long distance rifle championship in 1902 Montreal, Canada. He was promoted to first lieutenant March 3, 1903 and put in charge of the US Marine Corps rifle team bringing to championship in 1911.[2] He served in the Philippine Islands from April 1904 to August 1905, and in October and November 1906.

He was on duty with the Legation Guard in Peking, China, from September 1905 to September 1906. He was appointed a captain May 13, 1908 and from December of that year to July 1910, he again served with the Legation Guard at Peking. He continued on duty in Peking as attache on the staff of the American Minister for study of the Chinese language and remained until May 1911. In December 1911, he was again ordered to the Legation at Peking to continue his study of the Chinese language and continued in that capacity until May 1914.

Captain Holcomb served as Inspector of Target Practice in the Marine Corps from October 1914 to August 1917. While serving as such, he was promoted to the rank of major on August 29, 1916. On November 11, 1916, he married Beatrice Miller Clover, daughter of Admiral Richardson Clover. Then Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General George Barnett, and his wife hosted a luncheon for them at the Commandant's House.[5]

World War IEdit

From August 1917 to January 1918, Maj Holcomb commanded the 2d Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, at the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia, in preparation of overseas duty. From February 1918 to July of the next year, following his appointment to lieutenant colonel on June 4, 1920, he served with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France. He commanded the 2d Battalion from August 1918 and served as second in command of the 6th Marine Regiment, taking part in the Aisne Defensive (Chateau Thierry), the Aisne-Marne Offensive (Soissons), the Marbache Sector, the St. Mihiel Offensive, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (Champagne), the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (Argonne Forest), and the March to the Rhine in Germany following the Armistice.

In recognition of his distinguished services in France, he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star with three Oak Leaf Clusters, a Meritorious Service Citation by the Commander-in-Chief, AEF, the Purple Heart, and was three times cited in General Orders of the Second Division, AEF. The French Government conferred on him the Cross of the Legion of Honor and three times awarded him the Croix de Guerre with Palm.

1920s - 1936Edit

From September 1922 to June 1924, he commanded the Marine Barracks, Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and on his return to the United States was ordered to the Command and General Staff School of the Army at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Upon completion of the course as a Distinguished Graduate, in June 1925, he was ordered to Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) for duty in the Division of Operations and Training, where he remained until June 1927.

From August 1927 to February 1930, Col Holcomb commanded the Marine detachment, American Legation, Peking, China. He was promoted to colonel on December 22, 1928. In June 1930, he went to the Naval War College as a student, Senior Course. He graduated in June 1931. He was then ordered to the Army War College, graduating a year later.

From June 1932 to January 1935, prior to his appointment to brigadier general, he served in the Office of Naval Operations, Navy Department. He was promoted to brigadier general on February 1, 1935. He served as commandant of the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, Virginia, until November 1936.

Commandant of the Marine CorpsEdit

General Holcomb congratulated by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox after being awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1944. Looking on are Colonel Roosevelt and LtGen Vandegrift (right).

On December 1, 1936, Holcomb returned to Headquarters Marine Corps to assume the office of the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

In April 1941 the US Navy convened its General Board to discuss expansion of the Corps. Holcomb said that African Americans had no right to serve as Marines.[6] He said, "If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites."[7] In 1948, he passed Letter of Instruction 421, which restricted African-American Marines' ability to be promoted and prevented them from serving as non-commissioned officers in charge of whites.

With his advancement to lieutenant general on January 20, 1942, he became the highest-ranking officer ever to command the Marine Corps up to that time.[8]

On August 5, 1943, when Lt Gen Holcomb reached the regular retirement age, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced he was continuing LtGen Holcomb as Commandant of the Marine Corps, in recognition of his outstanding services in that capacity. Holcomb continued as commandant until December 31, 1943. He was succeeded by LtGen Alexander A. Vandegrift.[8]

During Lt Gen Holcomb's seven-year tour of duty as commandant, the Marine Corps expanded from 16,000 to about 300,000 Marines.[8] Also, on February 13, 1943, he officially announced that women were eligible to serve in the Marine Corps; a date that is recognized and celebrated as the anniversary of women in the Marine Corps.[9]

On April 12, 1944, Holcomb was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his outstanding work as commandant.[10]

Retirement from the Marine Corps; 4-star generalEdit

After nearly 44 years as a Marine, LtGen Holcomb retired on January 1, 1944. Because he had been specially commended for his performance of duty in actual combat, he was advanced one rank on the retired list in accordance with a newly passed Act of Congress. He thus became the first Marine ever to hold the rank of general.

Orders, decorations and medalsEdit

1st Row Navy Cross Navy Distinguished Service Medal Silver Star with three oak leaf clusters
2nd Row Purple Heart Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal World War I Victory Medal with five battle clasps; Army of Occupation of Germany Medal
3rd Row American Defense Service Medal with Base clasp American Campaign Medal Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with one 3/16 inch service star World War II Victory Medal
4th Row Légion d'honneur, Grade Chevalier French Croix de guerre 1914-1918 with three palms Order of Naval Merit (Cuba), First Class Military William Order, Knight Grand Cross
Marine Corps Distinguished Marksman Badge

Navy Cross citationEdit


The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Holcomb (MCSN: 0-436), United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism while serving with the Second Battalion, 6th Regiment (Marines), 2d Division, A.E.F. in action in France. As Commander of the Second Battalion, and later as second-in-command of the 6th Regiment (Marines), Lieutenant Colonel Holcomb performed all of his duty in a most commendable manner, proved himself a brave, active, resourceful officer by his zealous and intelligent attention to duty as well as personal courage and fearlessness in the face of the enemy.[11]

Minister to South AfricaEdit

On March 9, 1944, President Roosevelt nominated Gen Holcomb for the position of United States Minister to the Union of South Africa. He resigned from this position on June 15, 1948.


In retirement, Holcomb lived in St. Mary's City, Maryland, where he managed the family farm until 1956. He then moved to Chevy Chase, Maryland. In 1962, he moved to Washington, D.C.

Following a serious illness in the spring of 1964, he returned to his native New Castle. General Holcomb died in New Castle, Delaware, on May 24, 1965, aged 85. He was interred in Arlington National Cemetery.[12]

See alsoEdit


  This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the United States Marine Corps.

  1. ^ a b "Gen Thomas Holcomb". US Marine Corps History Division. US Marine Corps. Archived from the original on 29 May 2016. Retrieved 14 May 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d e Smith, Gibson B (1988). HISTORY AND MUSEUMS DIVISION HEADQUARTERS, U.S. MARINE CORPS WASHINGTON, D.C. Washington DC: US Marine Corps History and Museums. p. 241.
  3. ^ Monocle, Volume 17, Number 9, 2 March 1944
  4. ^ Runk, J.M. (1899). Biographical and Genealogical History of the State of Delaware, Volume 1. Chambersburg PA: JM Runk and Company.
  5. ^ "Gen. and Mrs. Barnett Luncheon Hosts". Evening Star. Washington, D.C. 10 November 1916. p. 8. Retrieved 22 September 2015.
  6. ^ Goldberg, Dan (25 May 2020). "The Forgotten Story of How 13 Black Men Broke the Navy's Toughest Color Barrier". Politico. Retrieved 2 June 2020.
  7. ^ MacGregor, Morris J. (1981). Center of Military History, U.S. Army (ed.). Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940–1965. Government Printing Office. pp. 100–102. ISBN 0-16-001925-7.
  8. ^ a b c "Well in Hand". TIME. December 6, 1943. Retrieved 2007-12-11.
  9. ^ "Anniversary of Women in the Marine Corps". Women Marines Association. 2002. Archived from the original on 2003-12-07. Retrieved 2006-07-05.
  10. ^ "Photo #: 80-G-K-14076". Naval Historical Center. Retrieved 2007-12-11.
  11. ^ "Thomas Holcomb". Military Times.
  12. ^ "Thomas Holcomb, General, United States Marine Corps". December 9, 2006. Retrieved 2008-02-19.
Military offices
Preceded by
Maj. Gen. John H. Russell, Jr.
Commandant of the United States Marine Corps
Succeeded by
Lt. Gen. Alexander Vandegrift
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Leo J. Keena
United States Ambassador to South Africa
Succeeded by
North Winship