General Thomas Holcomb, 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps, was born on 5 August 1879 in New Castle, Delaware. He attended private schools there until 1893 when his family moved to Washington, D.C. He graduated from Western High School in 1897 and was appointed a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps from civilian life on 13 April 1900.
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. He was promoted to first lieutenant 3 March 1903. 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 13 May 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 29 August 1916.
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 4 June 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 (Champagne) Offensive, the Meuse-Argonne (Argonne Forest) Offensive, 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.
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. He was promoted to colonel on 22 December 1928.
From August 1927 to February 1930, Col Holcomb commanded the Marine Detachment, American Legation, Peiping, China. 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 1 February 1935. He served as Commandant of the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, Virginia, until November 1936, when he was ordered to HQMC to assume the office of the Major General Commandant on 1 December 1936.
With his advancement to lieutenant general on 20 January 1942, he became the highest-ranking officer ever to command the Marine Corps up to that time.
On 5 August 1943, when LtGen 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.
During LtGen Holcomb’s tour of duty as Commandant, the Marine Corps expanded from 16,000 men to about 300,000 men and women. The general was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his outstanding work as Commandant in April 1944.
After nearly 44 years as a Marine, LtGen Holcomb retired on 1 January 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.
On 9 March 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 15 June 1948 and 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 24 May 1965 at the age of 85. He was interred in Arlington National Cemetery.
A list of Gen Holcomb’s medals and decorations includes: the Navy Cross; the Distinguished Service Medal; the Silver Star Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters; the Purple Heart Medal; the Expeditionary Medal, China; the World War I Victory Medal with Aisne, Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne and Defensive Sector Clasps; the Army of Occupation of Germany Medal; the American Defense Service Medal with Base Clasp; the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with one bronze star, Guadalcanal; the American Campaign Medal; the World War II Victory Medal; the French Legion of Honor; the French Croix de Guerre with three palms; the Naval Order of Merit, First Class (Cuban award), 1943; the Knight Grand Cross (Netherlands), 1944; and the French Fourragere.