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Brute The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine
By Coram, Robert
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2010 Coram, Robert
All right reserved.
Once Upon a Time
HE was never a promising young man.
From a selfish and headstrong boy who lied, falsified documents, and was guilty of moral turpitude, he grew to become the most important officer in the history of the United States Marine Corps, a man of dazzling intellect and extraordinary vision who was at the center of or deeply involved in some of the most important issues facing America during the tumultuous middle years of the twentieth century. He became a man whose contributions to his country are almost impossible to measure.
In America we believe that a person’s early years are crucial to the understanding of that person’s life, and we have common, even trite, expressions to bolster that belief: “The child is father of the man,” “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree,” and “The apple does not fall far from the tree.” In one sense, the life of Victor Harold Krulak is a stark refutation of this belief. Krulak’s icy intellect, unbending will, and extraordinary self-control enabled him to turn his back on his childhood—even on some family members—and create a life far removed from his early years.
Krulak changed, hid, or denied almost everything of importance about his childhood, and for good reason. If the great secret of his childhood—a secret not known to his wife and three sons—had been revealed, he may not have been admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy. Had he not minimized another part of his youth, he either would have been driven from the Marine Corps or would have advanced no further in rank than captain or major. He became an important historical figure only because he kept a secret and because he never looked back. “My father steered by the stars, not by the wake,” said one of his sons.
Krulak wrote three books, numerous magazine articles, dozens of speeches, and hundreds of letters. Yet those close to him over the years say that rarely did he make even tangential reference to his parents, his childhood, and his personal beliefs. They remember only that he was assertive and controlling and that he had a pile-driving personality—attributes that indicate an attempt to hide the inner man.
Krulak’s bravery in four wars—the second Sino-Japanese War, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—are well documented, as are his contributions to the Marine Corps, to the U.S. military, and to America. But the glory was never enough. Krulak was driven by a dark wind and all his life was a fabulist who craved recognition, concocted stories, and added untrue events to his highly decorated career.
Many will find it difficult to sympathize with Krulak’s duplicity—with the fact that even as a boy, he displayed such a marked lack of character. But the thirty-four-year arc of Krulak’s military life is a model of rectitude, discipline, and duty. Nothing more demonstrates this than when, at the pinnacle of his career, when the two things he wanted most—a fourth star and to become Commandant of the Marine Corps—were within reach, he risked everything by confronting a U.S. president. For that act of great moral courage, a vengeful commander in chief would deny Krulak his dream.
The story of Victor Krulak is a quintessential American story. And like many American stories, it begins elsewhere, among the Jews of Russia.
AS America entered the twentieth century, more than two million Jews flooded its ports, made their way through the confusing and often humiliating immigration procedures, and dispersed into the marrow of this still-raw country. That first generation of Jews helped fill out and make whole their adopted country.
Many of those Jews were from Russia and had experienced the pogroms, the large-scale anti-Semitic riots ordered by Czar Alexander III. They heard that the area around Denver, a town in the state of Colorado, would welcome them. By 1900, this western town was home to some 7,000 Jews, one of the largest Jewish populations in America. The Denver Jews were educated professionals from Germany and central Europe, who were fighting to become accepted by the “Sacred 36,” the families who ruled Denver’s social life. They were embarrassed by the poor and uneducated Jews coming out of Russia—a rowdy, raucous, and darker-skinned Yiddish-speaking group, many of whom would become peddlers or clerks. In many ways, Russian Jews faced more discrimination from fellow Jews than they did from the Christian business community in Denver. The president of Denver’s Temple Emanuel even sent a warning to Russian Jews to stay away from the city. Nevertheless, they came—8,167 by 1910.
Many of these Russian Jews were catootniks, a twist on the Yiddish word catooteh, which means “quarrel” and was a euphemism for “consumption,” as tuberculosis was then called. Indigent, they came to Denver in hopes that the dry mountain air would alleviate their symptoms.
The story of Jews in the West is largely unknown, overshadowed by that of those who settled in the East and Midwest. But Jews helped build western states and were active in politics almost from the beginning. In 1876, the year Colorado became a state, a road builder and railroad man named Otto Mears—a “Hebrew,” as the Denver newspapers referred to prominent Jews—carried the electoral votes to Washington that elected Rutherford B. Hayes president. Colorado’s Simon Guggenheim was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1906. Idaho had a Jewish governor in 1915, Utah in 1916. By contrast, it was not until 1948 that Herbert Lehman of New York became the first Jewish U.S. senator from the East, and not until 1974 that Abraham Beame became the first Jewish mayor of New York.
ON July 24, 1889, Meyer Krulak, a Russian Jew from Boslov (Bugoslav), a town on the fertile steppes east of the Carpathian Mountains and some sixty-three miles southeast of Kiev, arrived in Philadelphia aboard the SS Pennland. Two of Krulak’s brothers were already in America, Samuel in Philadelphia and Harold in Denver.
Little is known of the Krulak family in the next few years, except that Samuel and most of his family moved to Cleveland. Also, about a year after Meyer arrived, on September 17, 1890, the SS Belgenland arrived in Philadelphia carrying four of his children—Milke, thirteen; Rochel, eleven; Moschku, nine; and Jochled, seven. Upon landing in Philadelphia, Moschku (a Yiddish nickname for the Hebrew Moshe) became Morris. Though only nine years old, Morris had taken—or had been forced to take—the first step toward creating a new life.
Morris first shows up in the Denver city directory in 1908 as a jewelry store clerk; his age is given as nineteen rather than twenty-seven. He would later fill out documents describing himself as a slender man with brown eyes and black hair. The 1910 U.S. census shows him living in a boardinghouse and working as a clerk in a pawnshop. It lists his nationality as Russian and his native language as Yiddish.
It was probably through the pawnshop that Morris met Bessie Zalinsky, the daughter of Herman and Jennie Zalinsky, both Russian Jews from Brest Litovsk who had immigrated to Denver in 1888. Herman, who later changed the family name to Zall, owned a jewelry store. Bessie and Morris were married on November 27, 1910. She was sixteen.
These details, gleaned from ships’ manifests, immigration records, census records, city directories, draft registrations, and other documents, are important because in a few more years Morris and Bessie would construct a fable about their origins. Their only child would elaborate on the fable, continuing even after he became a general officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Morris and Bessie—who would soon prefer “Bess”—were living with her parents when Morris filed a declaration of intention to become a U.S. citizen on September 28, 1911. On the application, he said that he had entered the United States through the port of New York in 1898. Given that he was only nine years old and in the company of older siblings when he actually arrived, in 1890, he should be given the benefit of the doubt in misrepresenting both the year and the place of his entry. Nevertheless, considering the smoke screen he would create over the next several decades to obscure his origins, it gives one pause.
Morris and Bess had been married a little more than two years when, on January 7, 1913, their son, Victor Harold Krulak, was born. In 1915, Victor’s parents were involved in an auto accident that only bruised Morris but caused Bess severe abdominal injuries. The resulting surgery rendered her incapable of having any more children. Disconsolate, Morris and Bess showered their love and attention on Victor. They were determined that all the opportunities of America would be available to their only child.
In 1917, Morris registered for the draft. His registration form identifies him as a native of Russia. By then he and his family had moved out of the Zall house and into their own apartment. Morris, his age now listed as twenty-eight, was proprietor of his own pawnshop.
But by the fall of 1917, Morris was no longer a pawnbroker and, in fact, did not provide an occupation for the city directory. In the 1918 and 1919 city directories, his occupation is listed as watchmaker. No employer is given, so it is likely he was working for the Zall family.
In September 1919, Victor entered the first grade at Gilpin Elementary School, a block away from the Zall home. He left the school on October 24 and ten days later was enrolled at Cheyenne Central School in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
HERE we must pause to gain perspective. Morris left a relatively sophisticated city of more than 225,000 inhabitants—a city where his wife’s family was prosperous and becoming well-known—to move some hundred miles north to a rough-and-ready cow town of 13,829. The Jewish population in Cheyenne was so small that the single synagogue had trouble keeping a rabbi. There would have to have been some sort of serious precipitating incident to justify Morris’s withdrawing his son from school less than two months after he began the first grade and moving the family to another state, especially given that Morris was a thoughtful and deliberate man. Samuel Zall, Bess’s brother, moved to Cheyenne at the same time.
These were years of rampant anti-Semitism in America. A man named Leo Frank was lynched near Atlanta. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan reached four million. Henry Ford would soon take over the Dearborn Independent, make it the second-largest paper in America, and fill it with such virulent anti-Semitic articles that it would eventually be shut down by legal action.
But national events rarely inform personal actions. Whatever Morris’s reason for uprooting his family, it is almost certain it was immediate and personal. He may have wanted to start a new life in Cheyenne. He may have wanted to break away from his in-laws and go into business for himself. Surviving family members do not know. When Victor Krulak was ninety-five, he said that the sole reason his father left Denver was “to make my life a success.” He would not elaborate.
THE West is the part of America that gave us our origin myth, and few places better represented that myth—the chance to create a new life—than Cheyenne, Wyoming. When the Krulaks arrived, they found a town on the make.
Cheyenne was created by the Union Pacific Railroad and was a major stop on the first transcontinental route. It would be a refueling stop for pilots flying mail from the East to San Francisco. There had once been an opera, and people boasted that the town had “culture.” But steam locomotives would fade away and long-distance aircraft would mean that planes could overfly Cheyenne, and eventually the town would return to its cowboy heritage.
In 1919, Cheyenne still had more horses than cars, and horse manure dotted the main street. The town thrived on its history of cowboys and Indians and the Johnson County range war, fought between cattlemen and farmers. Tom Horn, the legendary detective-assassin, had been hanged only a few decades earlier, and people still talked of him. During Frontier Days, a weeklong celebration at the end of July, cowboys raced horses up and down the main street.
James Montgomery Flagg, the artist who created the World War I recruitment poster of Uncle Sam leaning forward and saying, “I Want You,” went through Cheyenne a few years later and reported that the town was shabby and dusty and that all the citizens talked about was Frontier Days. He said local post cards featured just one subject: “a horse giving an imitation of interpretative dancing.”
If Cheyenne was a town on the make, Morris Krulak was a man on the make, for himself and his son. In the 1920 census, he no longer identified himself as a Russian Jew. Instead, he now said that he had been born in Pennsylvania, and that is what he told his son. Perhaps because his “official” birthplace was now Pennsylvania, he allowed his citizenship application to lapse. He never became a U.S. citizen.
Victor knew that his parents were Jewish, but they never spoke Yiddish in their home or elsewhere. “I never heard my father use a foreign word,” Krulak said. “He always spoke simple King’s English.” Bess Krulak, however, sprinkled her conversation with Yiddish words, and it is difficult to imagine that her son never heard his parents use the language.
Nevertheless, Morris was a secular Jew, and his desire for assimilation was so strong that Victor never received any religious instruction, never attended synagogue, and, as far as can be determined, never had a bar mitzvah. In this way, Morris paved the way for his son later to minimize his Jewish background. “It is not who you were or where you were from, but it is what you do that is important,” he told Victor. “If you study and if you succeed, it will not matter what you were.”
Victor later said that when he moved to Cheyenne, he began attending St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, the only Episcopal church in town. He may have attended—although his three sons doubt it—but he never became a member. On his admission form for the Naval Academy, however, he wrote that he was “Jewish,” showing that he still self-identified as a Jew. When he said, “I grew up Episcopalian,” he was telling the story he wanted to be true.
Morris became manager of the Hub Shoe & Clothing Store, a dry goods store at 210 West Lincoln Highway, a short block from the imposing Union Pacific train station and across the street from the Atlas Hotel and the Atlas Theatre. The train station, hotel, and theater were the epicenter of Cheyenne’s business, political, and social life. Senator Francis Warren, the political muscle of Wyoming, had a mansion around the corner, and when he was home, he walked the streets visiting local businesses. Cheyenne remained a small town—everyone knew everyone—and it was the seat of Senator Warren’s national political power. Morris met the distinguished senator and was also on good terms with Vincent Carter, the state’s sole congressman.
John (Jochled) Krulak, Morris’s younger brother, who served as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army, flitted in and out of Cheyenne during these years and may have lived with Morris and Bess for a while. The Cheyenne school census of 1923 and 1924 shows Victor living with “J,” which would have been his uncle John, a mystifying entry. In later years, when Victor spoke of his uncle, it would be with scorn.
A few doors down from the Hub, Bess’s brother Samuel, who was three years older than Morris, worked as a jeweler. Despite what Victor would later say, the Krulaks were open about being Jewish, about Samuel being Bess’s brother, and about most of their close friends being Jewish. But those people, too, were secular Jews.
Not long after moving to Cheyenne, Morris told his son, “Nobody ever learned a bad habit from a horse.” He went out to nearby Fort D. A. Russell, until a few years earlier the largest Army cavalry post in America, and bought a horse for Victor. (The gentle old animal was retired and came at a good price.) Named Jim, the horse stood at sixteen hands, so tall that Victor had to climb up on a fence to mount him. He rode bareback until he was a skilled horseman, then Morris bought him a pony named Beauty, a spirited animal who threw Victor countless times. One year his Christmas present was a small western saddle. Learning to ride a horse, a common skill in Cheyenne, would later stand Krulak in great stead.
School census records in Cheyenne present strong but inconclusive evidence that Victor spent at least part of the seventh grade in Coronado, California. If he did go to California, records indicate that Morris and Bess did not. Why Victor went, whom he stayed with, and why the stay was so short are not known. All his life, Krulak talked about how important Coronado was to him in his youth, but he never disclosed precisely how he ended up there.
In 1928, when Victor was a freshman at Cheyenne High School, he became a member of the two-person debate team. The next year, he joined the Dramatic Club, the newspaper staff, and the Boys’ Pep Club. In retrospect, these four activities foreshadowed crucial aspects of a career in which he would become a feared advocate with a pronounced flair for the dramatic.
As a sophomore, Victor stood a little over five feet tall and weighed about 110 pounds, a size that indicates he would have had a tough time in the cowboy culture of Cheyenne. But photographs in The Lariat, the school yearbook, show him standing, feet apart, with a self-confident, even cocky, expression on his face. Genetics had given him a small, slight body but, almost in compensation, an outsize intellect, a dominating personality, and far more self-confidence than reposes in most boys.
Victor took part in no athletics at Cheyenne High School, and surprisingly, given his career, he did not join the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). The latter is significant for two reasons. First, pictures of the Cheyenne High ROTC unit indicate that almost every boy at the school joined. Second, Victor was about to apply for a nomination to the U.S. Naval Academy, and the ROTC training would have been of considerable benefit to him. Perhaps he did not join ROTC because of his involvement in so many other school activities. Or perhaps it was because of a budding cerebral bent. “I was thinking about things that boys that age don’t usually think about,” he later said.
When Victor was a freshman in high school, Morris asked Senator Warren to nominate his son as a candidate to the U.S. Military Academy. Warren would have been happy to accommodate Morris’s request, but his nominations to West Point were filled. However, landlocked Wyoming lads had little interest in the Navy, and there was an opening at the Naval Academy for the class entering the next summer. In a December 15, 1928, letter, the senator offered Victor the chance to take the entrance exams in April 1929. Victor was one of the senator’s last military academy nominations, as Warren died in November 1929.
THE Naval Academy would be a pivot point in Victor Krulak’s life. Thus it is important to understand why he wanted to go there and how he got there. The why is the more important question. Why would a short, scrawny boy from Wyoming want to enter the harsh physical world of the Naval Academy? Why would a boy from a Jewish family want to enter a place then infamous for its anti-Semitism and overt racism? Why would a boy with a Jewish background want to leave the relatively tolerant environs of the West and move to a part of America where hotels and restaurants bore signs saying “Christians Only” and “No Dogs or Jews”? Why would Morris want his only son to go to a service academy when Russian Jews, because of the pogroms, generally loathed the military?
The answers are complex. First, Morris Krulak did not have the money to send his son to college. Second, he knew that graduates of a U.S. military academy were afforded automatic entry into the boardrooms and drawing rooms of America. Being a military officer was a shortcut to the American dream. What better way for a Jew to show his allegiance to America than by joining the military and fighting for his country? It would be a matter of immense pride in the Jewish community back in Denver that a second-generation Jewish boy was accepted at the Naval Academy. Victor’s cousin Ronnie Zall, Samuel’s son, would later say, “That was a big deal. He was the hero of the family. We were all proud of him.”
Victor later gave researchers various reasons for why he wanted to go to the Academy, one of which was that while he was in Coronado, the sight of warships in the bay had excited his interest in the Navy. He also said that his uncle John had awakened his interest in the military. And he had still another reason, this one probably true: “I had a friend whose father was in the military, and that influenced me.” The friend was Doris Macklin, daughter of Major Walter F. Macklin, an Army physician stationed at Fort Russell. Doris was in the Dramatic Club with Victor, and she was more than a friend.
Sometimes Krulak said that his father wanted him to go to Harvard and become a lawyer, while his mother wanted him to go there and become a doctor. There may have been conversations along these lines, but given that Morris was a clerk in a clothing store, he probably couldn’t afford the tuition to Harvard. In addition, Jews were far from welcome at Harvard. The truth is that had it not been for his appointment to the Naval Academy, Victor Krulak may not have received a college education. Krulak recalled, “I was the apple of my mother’s and father’s eye. They spoiled me.” Beyond that, and noting that every Christmas his mother made little sugar cookies called kiffles for him, he had little to say about his parents. “My childhood was too boring for me to remember much about my parents,” he declared. In 2007, when Krulak was shown the family genealogy going back to Russia, he was amazed—particularly that Morris had never become a U.S. citizen. “I thought my father came from Philadelphia. I must study this for several days before I can discuss it,” he said.
A few days later, Krulak said more. His choice of words was revealing in that when he talked about his parents, he could not force himself to utter the words “Jew,” “Jewish,” or “Yiddish.” “My father never talked of his spirituality. It was always about hard work. My father was a very serious man. He was very quiet about his background, about everything, almost silent. I learned from him that life is serious, that sometimes you have only one chance. My father always talked of my future.”
He paused and added, “I would hope that this book not dwell on my father’s spirituality, but rather his lessons of hard work.”
If he and his father never discussed their religion, what of importance did they discuss?
“He told me, ‘You will be short, and you will be bald. But you don’t have to be fat.’ ”
There was but one addition: “He told me the way to get along with a new acquaintance is to express genuine interest in the day-to-day affairs of the other person.”
And that is all Victor Krulak would say about his parents.
ON March 23, 1929, when he was sixteen, and only a few weeks before he was to take the entrance examinations for the Naval Academy, Victor assumed the name Donald V. Merrell and boarded a train for Boulder, Colorado. Accompanying him was Doris Macklin, age fifteen, who assumed the name Virginia D. King. The young couple went to the county clerk in Boulder, affirmed that they were twenty-one and eighteen, respectively, and obtained a marriage license. Then they went before a justice of the peace in Longmont, Colorado, and were married. Nine days later, the marriage was annulled, and Doris resumed her maiden name. (The annulment is not surprising. Because Victor and Doris had married under assumed names, the marriage was invalid. Immediately after the annulment, Major Macklin obtained an emergency transfer to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Three years later, he was ordered to Fort McPherson in Atlanta, where Doris met and married an Army lieutenant.) Given that the Naval Academy does not accept students who are married or who have been married, Morris Krulak was no doubt outraged that his son would jeopardize his opportunity to attend Annapolis. Everything Morris had planned for his son was now at risk.
When I asked Krulak why he married at sixteen, he threw his arms wide and said, “Goddamned if I know.” The most likely explanation is that Doris was pregnant, which Krulak vigorously denied. Another explanation would be affirming the obvious: sixteen-year-old boys are devoid of sound judgment.
Applicants to the Naval Academy are expected to have judgment beyond their years, so Krulak hid this marriage when he applied to Annapolis. Legally, of course, the annulment meant that the marriage had never happened. But such an argument is sophistic, as Victor violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Academy’s regulations. In so doing, he failed to meet the standards of the Academy, whose mission is to imbue students with the highest ideals of duty and honor.
Indeed, not only did he hide the marriage from officials at Annapolis, but he also hid it from his second wife and from his three sons. About that marriage, he would say only, “It was a moment in time that went nowhere. I have not thought of her in decades. I don’t see this as a significant factor in my life.” He would talk no more about it, except to say, “This should not be included in the biography.”
This cold dismissal of Krulak’s first love is indicative of the hard-edged pragmatism and lack of emotion he would display most of his life. It was also indicative of his propensity to revise information that was not in accord with the biography he wanted.
KRULAK flunked the entrance exams to Annapolis. By then news of the marriage and annulment had no doubt made the rounds in Cheyenne. As soon as the school year ended, Morris and Bess took Victor back to Denver, where he enrolled in the summer session at Denver’s East High School. He lived with the Zalls, whose home was only a few blocks from the school.
Morris now appealed to Congressman Carter to give Victor another chance at attending the Academy. He said that his son would attend a preparatory school and would do better on the next admission tests. The congressman agreed to make Victor his principal nominee for entrance in 1930, but now there was some fear that the Academy might reject Victor because of his size. Although he had grown, he was still only five feet four inches tall and weighed 116 pounds. On August 28, 1929, Carter wrote a letter to the superintendent of the Academy asking for a preliminary physical examination by Navy doctors “in order that Mr. Krulak may correct any minor physical defects, if any.”
AFTER Victor spent three months at East High School, he and his mother boarded the Union Pacific and headed to Annapolis, where Victor enrolled in the Bobby Werntz Preparatory School, the sole purpose of which was to enable young men to pass the entrance exams to the Academy. Tuition for the October–May term was $125.
About the time he arrived in Annapolis, he took a physical examination at the Academy and was deemed physically acceptable. Officials there believed that he would grow during the four years of tough physical conditioning.
In his application, Victor said that he had completed twelve years of school when in fact he had completed only the tenth grade. He studied hard for the exams, and on May 23, 1930, Congressman Carter notified him that he had passed and that his appointment had been confirmed. With a grade of 4.0 being perfect and 2.5 considered passing, Victor had scored 3.4 in geometry, 3.8 in algebra, 3.6 in English, 3.7 in history, 3.9 in ancient history, and 3.9 in physics, for an average of 3.7. Carter ended his letter by saying that Victor’s father knew many people in Cheyenne and he hoped the Krulaks would help in Carter’s upcoming reelection campaign.
For Victor, it was not enough that he had been accepted to the Naval Academy. He later told people that his grades had placed him first among all the plebes entering Annapolis that year. The Academy, citing privacy constraints, would not confirm this. Nevertheless, a 3.7 average was more than respectable. Victor Krulak was ready, physically and academically, for the U.S. Naval Academy.
THE year that Victor entered the Academy, Morris told U.S. census takers that his parents were from England, while Bess claimed that her father had been born in Switzerland and her mother in Poland. Morris and Bess had created a new life in the American West. Their son, who would show that in family matters the apple did not fall far from the tree, would create another new life in the East. Although he had been appointed to the Academy as a resident of Wyoming, Cheyenne quickly became a footnote. He was now the man from Denver with deep roots in America. Krulak told people that his great-grandfather had served in the Confederate army, that his grandfather had moved from Louisiana to Colorado to homestead 640 acres of land, and that his father had been born in the Colorado capital. Krulak added that his father had graduated from the Colorado School of Mines and had “started off in silver” before doing “engineering work.” Sometimes, even years later, he claimed that his father was “a scientist” and hinted of material success by saying, “My father had capital,” and “I spent my summers on a ranch.” He told one researcher that his father retired to San Diego in 1928 but lost all his money in the stock market collapse of 1929 and had to return to Denver. The baby book kept by his mother included a diploma from Coronado Elementary School in San Diego showing that Victor graduated on June 10, 1927, and a program of the 1930 Cheyenne High School graduation showing that Victor was a graduate. The provenance of the first is doubtful; the second is a fabrication.
Victor Krulak would tell his own version of his life story until the day he died. To his Jewish relatives in Denver, it was a story that caused immense pain.
Excerpted from Brute by Coram, Robert Copyright © 2010 by Coram, Robert. Excerpted by permission.
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