In World War II, “Lucky” Gayle served in the 1st Marine Division. He took part in all the division’s campaigns from the struggle for Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in 1942-43, an epic chapter in Marine history, to the bloody capture of Peleliu in the Palau Islands in 1944.
During that time, the division was awarded three Presidential Unit Citations, and Gen. Gayle received the Navy Cross, the highest naval award for heroism after the Medal of Honor.
He was a young captain when he boarded a troopship in Norfolk in May 1942 to sail for the Pacific and the war against Japan. By the time he was ordered back to the United States at the end of 1944, he was a lieutenant colonel who had commanded an infantry battalion of 1,000 men in two amphibious assaults.
At Peleliu, he was awarded the Navy Cross for organizing a force of tanks and infantry that repulsed a Japanese attack aimed at driving the Marines from a newly captured airfield and into the sea.
A Time magazine correspondent described the island as “a horrible place,” with temperatures rising above 100 degrees: “The heat is stifling and rain falls intermittently — the muggy rain that brings no relief, only greater misery.”
The Navy Cross award citation said Gayle, then a major, led his Marines “across fourteen hundred yards of open ground, swept by intense enemy mortar, artillery and machine gun fire.”
As he led the assault, “his courage and gallantry were an inspiration to his men and enabled his battalion to seize and hold the major portion of the airfield against fanatical enemy resistance.”
Gen. Gayle was wounded, but he refused to be evacuated from the field of battle.
He always believed, however, that his most important contribution to the war effort was made during an incident on Guadalcanal in which he disobeyed an order. It occurred on Aug. 8, 1942, the day after the landing, when the Marines captured an airfield and discovered a powerful radio that the retreating Japanese had left behind.
Gen. Gayle was ordered to destroy it because of the possibility that it was booby-trapped. Finding no evidence of sabotage, he left the radio intact. That night, in the first of a series of bloody sea engagements, a Japanese naval force attacked the allied ships covering the landing. Marines on shore watched in awe as shells exploded and flashing guns and searchlights lit up the sky. In the end, one Australian and three U.S. cruisers had been sunk. Only one Japanese cruiser had been hit.
The next day, the task force commander, Vice Adm. Richmond K. Turner, withdrew his ships from Guadalcanal, including the transports that held much of the Marines’ equipment and many of their troops. Until the Navy returned and resumed unloading supplies several days later, the only means of long-range communication available to the Marine force was the radio that Gen. Gayle had taken.
His peacetime career included several tours of duty in the Washington area. In the 1950s, he served as officer in charge of the Marine Corps history program at the Washington Navy Yard and as head of tactics and operations instruction at the Marine Command and Staff College at Quantico. In the early 1960s, after graduating from the National War College, he held a joint staff position in Japan.
In the late 1960s, he was commanding general of the Landing Force Training Command at Little Creek, Va. Before retiring in 1968, he was assistant chief of staff for training and operations at Marine Corps headquarters.
Gen. Gayle spent the next three years at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University, and he later taught mathematics at the old Harker Preparatory School in Potomac.
From 1963 to 1965, Gen. Gayle chaired a long-range study group at Quantico whose task was to plan for missions that the Marine Corps might face 20 years later. The resulting proposals called for better training and assignment guidelines for recruits, increased use of technology on the battlefield and the acquisition of vertical-takeoff-and-landing jets, which could operate without standard airfields.
One of the study's central proposals was that the relationship between infantry and other military units be reversed under certain circumstances. In the traditional view, the infantry played the central part in military operations. Aircraft and artillery might have important supporting roles, but in the end, infantry wins the war.
Gen. Gayle's study envisioned air and sea power, including missiles, sometimes playing the lead role in destroying the enemy. The key to the plan was taking advantage of advances in communications, guidance systems, lasers and similar technology to turn riflemen into target-spotters who would call in strikes by planes and missiles.
The study was a catalyst in forming a coherent Marine Corps vision of its future. The plan has undergone numerous revisions, but many of its recommendations have become settled parts of Marine doctrine, influencing the conduct of the Persian Gulf War and later military engagements.
Gordon Donald Gayle was born Sept. 13, 1917, in Tulsa. His father was in the oil-field equipment business, and he grew up in Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma. He graduated from high school in Dallas at 16 and enrolled in Southern Methodist University. In 1935, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He graduated in 1939 and was commissioned in the Marine Corps.
In addition to the Navy Cross, Gen. Gayle's military decorations included two awards of the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart.
He was a member of the Army-Navy Club and lived in Washington before moving to Virginia’s Northern Neck.
His wife of 63 years, Katherine Frank Gayle, died in 2004. A son, David Donald Gayle, died in 1971.
Survivors include three children, Susan Needham of Washington, Dr. Robert G. Gayle of Norfolk and Michael A. Gayle of Colorado Springs; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Gen. Gayle, who wrote the Marine Corps’ official history of the Peleliu battle, was one of 69 Marines awarded the Navy Cross for their actions there. Eight others received the Medal of Honor, five of them posthumously.
J.Y. Smith, a former obituaries editor of The Washington Post, died in 2006. Matt Schudel contributed to this report.