Gen. Louis H. Wilson Jr., 85, who received the Medal of Honor for taking and holding a key position on Guam during World War II and later served as commandant of the Marine Corps, died June 21 at his home in Birmingham. He had a degenerative nerve disorder.
On July 1, 1975, Gen. Wilson became the 26th commandant of the Marine Corps. He was the first commandant to serve full time on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, providing the corps with a greater say on defense matters.
During his four-year tenure, he was credited with shaping a post-Vietnam corps of strong expeditionary units ready for "high mobility and high-intensity combat." He made personnel changes to raise morale and address disciplinary problems.
He increased academic enlistment standards (he wanted 75 percent of recruits to have high school diplomas); ordered the discharge of thousands of Marines with discipline problems; and offered tougher directives on weight requirements. "Obesity must vanish," he said and set for himself a daily jogging regimen.
As commandant, he had a reputation for being blunt, thoughtful and refreshing. He publicly acknowledged the brutal treatment of recruits by some drill instructors and tried to change the policies that granted drill instructors "too much autonomy."
In 1975, he told an interviewer that the Vietnam War had been fought in vain from a military viewpoint.
He also castigated draft laws that "had been gerrymandered so that only the poor, the blacks and disadvantaged were really drafted. A great many fine young men came in. But many draftees, thrown in with them, were the dregs of society [and] many with continuing dissatisfaction with the war."
"It's not like the old days," he added, "when you could leave your wallet on your sack."
The Mississippi native was an effective witness on Capitol Hill, prepared and authoritative in his bearing. Earlier, he had been a corps liaison to Congress. He was a favorite of Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.), head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who became his advocate for full membership on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October 1978.
Previously, Marine Corps commandants attended meetings of the Joint Chiefs only when there was business of pressing concern to the corps.
Louis Hugh Wilson Jr. was born Feb. 11, 1920, in Brandon, Miss. His father was a farmer who died when Louis was 5. He was raised by his mother, and her large, extended family helped them through the Depression.
As a young man, he sold vegetables from a goat cart. He later studied economics at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., where he played football and was on the track team. A Marine Corps recruiter who came to campus persuaded him to enter the service after his graduation in 1941.
He landed at Guadalcanal, Efate and Bougainville and received the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valor, while fighting Japanese forces at Fonte Hill, Guam, on July 25 and 26, 1944. At the time, he was a captain and the commanding officer of a rifle company.
Launching a daylight attack against massive machine gun resistance, he pushed his men 300 yards across open terrain and captured a portion of a hill that contained the enemy command post. That night, he took command of other disorganized units and motorized equipment and fortified defenses while risking exposure to enemy fire.
Wounded three times within five hours, he briefly sought treatment before volunteering to return to duty to defend against counterattacks that lasted through the night.
At one point, he dashed 50 yards through flying shrapnel and bullets to rescue a wounded Marine beyond the front lines. That was followed by hand-to-hand fighting over a 10-hour span, repelling Japanese troops that sought to overrun the Allied lines through 11 full-fledged attacks.
His Medal of Honor citation continued: "Then organizing a 17-man patrol, he immediately advanced upon a strategic slope essential to the security of his position and, boldly defying intense mortar, machinegun, and rifle fire which struck down 13 of his men, drove relentlessly forward with the remnants of his patrol to seize the vital ground."
He was credited with a pivotal role in the victory, which included the deaths of 350 Japanese troops. President Harry S. Truman presented him with the Medal of Honor on Oct. 5, 1945.
After the war, he held recruiting and command assignments, graduated from the National War College and served as assistant chief of staff to the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam during the war there.
He was promoted to brigadier general in 1966 and, after being appointed lieutenant general in 1972, assumed command of the Marine force in the Pacific. His decorations included three awards of the Legion of Merit.
After retiring from the military in 1979, he served on the corporate boards of such businesses as Merrill Lynch, the financial services company, and Fluor Corp., an engineering and construction company.
Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Jane Clark Wilson, and a daughter, Janet Taylor, both of Birmingham; and two grandsons.