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First Name: Thomas

Last Name: Holcomb

Birthplace: New Castle, DE, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Marines (present)

Date of Birth: 05 August 1879

Date of Death: 24 May 1965

Rank: General

Years Served: 1900-1944
Thomas Holcomb

•  World War I (1914 - 1918)
•  World War II (1941 - 1945)


Thomas Holcomb
General, U.S. Marine Corps
(Tombstone General)

Thomas Holcomb was born on 5 August 1879 in New Castle, DE. He attended private schools there until 1893 when his family moved to Washington, DC. He graduated from Western High School in 1897.

Marine Corps Career

Holcomb was appointed a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps from civilian life on 13 April 1900 via Officer Candidate School. 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 on 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 on 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 Attaché 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. During that service, he was promoted to the rank of Major on 29 August 1916.

World War I

From August 1917 to January 1918, Holcomb commanded the 2d Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, at the Marine Barracks, Quantico, VA, in preparation for overseas duty. From February 1918 to July 1919, 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. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on 4 June 1920.

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 - 1936

From September 1922 to June 1924, he commanded the Marine Barracks, Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and on his return to the U.S. was ordered to the Command and General Staff School of the Army at Fort Leavenworth, KS. 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, Holcomb commanded the Marine Detachment, American Legation, Peking, 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 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 until November 1936.

Commandant of the Marine Corps

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

In April 1941 the U.S. Navy convened its General Board to discuss expansion of the Marine Corps. The pre-war policy of the Marine Corps was to continue its tradition of excluding Negroes. Holcomb's position on the subject of race was well-known: He said that African Americans had no right to serve as Marines. 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." Under pressure, Holcomb proposed allowing the enlistment of 1,000 Negroes for duty in the general service in a segregated composite defense battalion. This led to the first introduction of Negroes in the Marine Corps.

With Holcomb's 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 13 February 1943, Holcomb officially announced that women were eligible to serve in the Marine Corps; a date that is recognized and celebrated as the anniversary of Women Marines.

On 5 August 1943, when Holcomb reached the regular retirement age, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced he was extending Holcomb's service as Commandant of the Marine Corps in recognition of his outstanding services in that office. Holcomb continued as Commandant until 31 December 1943, when he was succeeded by Lieutenant General Alexander A. Vandegrift.

During Lieutenant General Holcomb's seven-year tour of duty as Commandant, the Marine Corps expanded from 16,000 to about 300,000 Marines.

Retirement from the Marine Corps; Tombstone General

After nearly 44 years as a Marine, Lieutenant General 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 4-star rank of General, as well as the first Marine to ever become a "Tombstone General."

* The Act of Congress of 4 March 1925, allowed officers in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard to be promoted one grade upon retirement if they had been specially commended for performance of duty in actual combat. Combat citation promotions were colloquially known as "tombstone promotions" because they conferred the prestige of the higher rank, but not the additional retirement pay, so their only practical benefit was to allow recipients to engrave a loftier title on their business cards and tombstones. The Act of Congress of 23 February 1942, enabled tombstone promotions to three- and four-star grades. Tombstone promotions were subsequently restricted to citations issued before 1 January 1947, and finally eliminated altogether effective 1 November 1959.

Any general who actually served in a grade while on active duty receives precedence on the retirement list over any tombstone general holding the same retired grade. "Tombstone generals" rank among each other according to the dates of their highest active duty grade.

Medals and Awards

Navy Cross
Navy Distinguished Service Medal
Silver Star Medal w/ 3 Oak Leaf Clusters
Purple Heart
Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal
World War I Victory Medal w/ Aisne, Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, & Defensive Sector Clasps
Army of Occupation of Germany Medal
American Defense Service Medal w/ Base Clasp
American Campaign Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal w/ 1 Service Star
World War II Victory Medal
Légion d'honneur, Knight Grade
Croix de guerre w/ 3 Palms
Naval Order of Merit, First Class Cuba
Military William Order, Knight Grand Cross
French Fourragère

Minister to South Africa

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

In Retirement

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

Following a serious illness in the spring of 1964, he returned to his native New Castle.

Death and Burial

General Thomas Holcomb died in New Castle, DE, on 24 May 1965, at age 85. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA, in Section 3, Lot 2501-1 R.

Honoree ID: 397   Created by: MHOH




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