‘Brute': A legendary U.S. Marine

At 5-foot-4 and 116 pounds, Victor Krulak, Annapolis plebe, was not an imposing sight. While he would remain short in stature, his legend would become colossal.

The portrait of this diminutive giant in “Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine,” by Atlanta writer Robert Coram, shows us the man he considers the most influential Marine to wear the eagle, globe and anchor – and, perhaps, the most conflicted.

He devised tactics to win wars, stood up to a president and, most importantly, saved the life of the Marine Corps, fending off attempts by the Army to absorb the smaller branch.

But Krulak also had a secret life, revealed only after Coram hired genealogists to hunt down the general's roots.

The child of Russian Jews, Krulak turned himself into an Episcopalian upon arriving at Annapolis, and kept his Jewish background hidden from the famously anti-Semitic Naval Academy and the Corps.

“I know that had he openly been Jewish he would have been the butt of a lot of discrimination and I don’t think he’d have advanced past captain,” Coram said. “Becoming an Episcopalian allowed him to do a lot of things that he couldn’t have done if he’d remained Jewish.”

Thursday is Veterans Day, when Coram is scheduled to speak about Krulak at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. He'll address a group particularly sensitive to this story of assimilation. In all likelihood, he will urge his listeners to refrain from judging.

"I think history will remember him not for the indiscretions of his youth, but because we owe this man," Coram said. "He created a new life and became one of America's great heroes, and that’s what America was all about: A second chance."

Coram demonstrates Krulak's impact best during a section on World War II. Amphibious attacks were not a priority for the military, Coram writes, until Krulak foresaw Marines making “hard” landings in Europe and the Pacific, and went about finding a boat that could do it.

While stationed in Shanghai in 1937, Krulak carefully observed (and photographed and drew) the highly effective landing craft that the Japanese used to harass the Chinese settlement there. Krulak then launched a relentless campaign to get the Navy to redesign American troop carriers. The model he promoted – the Higgins boat – made it possible for the U.S. to succeed during the D-Day landings and throughout the island-to-island slog in the Pacific.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower said the drop-bow Higgins boat “won the war for us.”

Krulak's views about waging the Vietnam war were less willingly embraced. When he complained directly to President Lyndon Johnson, in Johnson's office at the White House, he was (in Krulak's telling) forcefully escorted to the door. Coram points out that after that meeting, Krulak was passed over for his fourth star and for the position of commandant.

"He confronted Johnson, he did the right thing, and when you do the right thing you pay the price," Coram said.

(While Krulak would retire in 1968, his son Charles C. "Chuck" Krulak would become commandant from 1995-99.)

Coram balances Krulak's achievements with his tendency to inflate his own accomplishments and his cold and sometimes cruel treatment of his family. In one vignette his wife, Amy, walks to the hospital at Quantico to deliver their second child, William, because she can't reach Krulak on the phone. "I was busy at the office," Krulak explained.

This is Coram's 13th book and third military history, a specialty that is unusual considering that the writer was court-martialed three times in a brief undistinguished career in the Air Force. After biographies of pilots Bud Day and John Boyd, "Brute" is an unapologetic praise song to the U.S. Marines. "They are a national treasure, as much as the Statue of Liberty," Coram said. Yes, part of the Marine story is mythology, but, he said, "The Marines have told themselves for so long how great they were that I think they’ve become as great as they’ve said they were."

Event preview

Author Robert Coram discusses "Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine." 11 a.m. Thursday. Part of the center's 19th annual book festival; free, open to the public. Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, Zaban Park,  5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody.  678-812-4002, www.atlantajcc.org/