Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Alfred M. Gray Jr., who shook up the Marines as commandant, dies at 95

Gen. Gray, commandant of the Marine Corps, talks to a private at Parris Island, S.C., on Feb. 26, 1988.    (CPL JONES/Department of Defense/National Archives)
By Dan Lamothe Washington Post

Retired Marine Corps Gen. Alfred M. Gray Jr., a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who helped lead U.S. forces during the evacuation of Saigon and became a transformational leader of the Marine Corps as commandant from 1987 to 1991, died March 20 at his home in Alexandria, Virginia. He was 95.

The Marine Corps confirmed his death in a statement without providing a cause.

With a booming voice, gruff demeanor and a relish for swapping stories with enlisted Marines, Gen. Gray endeared himself to rank-and-file troops. His bravado and colorful persona complemented a deep desire to shake up the service intellectually and encourage curiosity and problem-solving as the institution charted a long, uneven comeback from the defeat in Vietnam and the 1983 terrorist attacks that struck a U.S. military compound in Beirut.

Gen. Gray, as a two-star general overseeing 2nd Marine Division in North Carolina, was alerted shortly after midnight Oct. 23, 1983, of the attack in Lebanon, which killed 241 American service members, mostly Marines. He spent hours working quietly before dawn, preparing for the chaos that was to come as families realized what happened, he later recalled. He attended more than 100 funerals.

The bombing angered Americans and lawmakers and exposed the precariousness of the mission in Beirut. A subsequent Pentagon investigation faulted officers on the ground and more senior commanders for various missteps. Gen. Gray, who had no direct responsibility over the mission, was one of only a few officers who offered to resign, the Chicago Tribune reported in 1987. His request was declined.

Gen. Gray took the deaths “very personally,” said retired Sgt. Maj. David W. Sommers, who worked alongside the general at the time and went on to serve as the top enlisted Marine during Gen. Gray’s tenure as commandant. Sommers told the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies that “it took us a while to get our feet back under us after Beirut,” and that Gen. Gray helped pull the Marines back together.

“General Gray vowed to never again allow Marines to be placed in harm’s way without a purpose, a mission, and an intent clearly stated,” Sommers said in the institute’s publication “Grayisms,” which explored the general’s thinking.

The general’s leadership impressed Jim Webb, a fellow Marine and Vietnam War combat veteran then serving as a senior Pentagon official in the Reagan administration. When it was time to select a new top Marine in 1987, Gen. Gray was not considered a top contender for the job. But Webb, by then the Navy secretary, nominated him anyway over the objection of the outgoing commandant, Gen. Paul X. Kelley, who was pulling for a different candidate.

“He had a vision, and he could inspire people,” Webb said in a 2021 oral history for Marine Corps University. “When he would talk about different issues, there was a harmony there in terms of how the Marine Corps needed to move forward from where it was.”

Retired Gen. John “Jack” Sheehan, who worked for Gen. Gray in several assignments and became a close friend, said that Gen. Gray was widely seen in the service as their best operational commander, but Kelley thought he lacked the polish to lead the service in Washington.

Indeed, Gen. Gray stood out at the time for his distinct lack of polish. He had enlisted in the Marine Corps as a private in 1950 and had no college degree. He spent years at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Okinawa, and Quantico, Va., and was an expert in electronic warfare, but he had limited time in the kind of Washington staff positions that mark one for advancement to the highest level. He had an abundance, even an overabundance, of field experience, including two years fighting in Korea and five years in Vietnam, where he received the Silver Star for helping save fellow Marines who wandered into an enemy minefield.

Rather than focusing on management studies, Gen. Gray said he planned for wars. “The only way that I know that you can fully prepare yourself for battle,” he liked to tell his officers, “is to know what the hell you’re doing. This requires study, this requires thinking, this requires talking to each other, this requires learning over a long period of time.”

Sheehan said of Gen. Gray: “There were a lot of people who were politically smarter. But in those days, the Marine Corps needed someone who was operationally competent.”

After then-Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger supported Webb’s choice, Gen. Gray huddled with Webb and made plans for change. About 18 of 67 generals were ushered out of the service within Gen. Gray’s first year as commandant, and he replaced them with people who shared his urgency for change, Webb recalled.

Gen. Gray, in an interview with the New York Times published a month after he became the service’s 29th commandant, said that “standards of excellence” in the service needed to be raised, and he had rejected assertions from some in the service that the status quo was acceptable.

He said he saw too many examples of recent history of events that cast the Marine Corps as incompetent or in a negative light, including the 1983 bombing in Lebanon, charges of espionage against Marine guards at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and the central role of Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North in the Iran-contra scandal.

“People have been trying to tell me it’s not broke,” Gen. Gray told the Times. “That’s wrong.”

In a segment that aired on the CBS News program “60 Minutes” in 1988, he told assembled Marines that there were “tough, hard decisions that have to be made now, and they cannot be made if your commandant wants to run a popularity contest.” The segment showed him puffing on a cigar and carried the headline “Papa Bear” – a reference to his radio call sign.

Within his first two years as commandant, Gen. Gray launched several efforts that have endured. Among them were the creation of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, based at headquarters in Quantico, and envisioned as a new “brain” for the service; the establishment of Marine Corps University, which now oversees the service’s professional military education at Quantico; and the commissioning of “Warfighting,” a doctrine that pressed Marines to shift from old-school training and concepts to a style that was more nimble and creative.

“Warfighting,” written by then-Capt. John F. Schmitt and published in 1989, is still widely taught in the Corps and has been published in numerous languages. Gen. Gray also created a service-wide reading list for the first time and assigned different books to members of each rank.

“Anybody can be ready to get on a ship or get on an airplane,” Gen. Gray said in a 2015 panel discussion exploring the changes he made. “It’s are you prepared to win or be successful? That takes study and thought and ‘what if’ games. That’s how you get better.”

Like other senior Marines at the time, Gen. Gray objected to fully integrating women in the Marine Corps. In 1988, he declared it a bad idea to make women pilots or embassy security guards, according to a wire service report at the time. Women are now widely accepted in both roles and more recently joined the infantry and other combat roles in limited numbers.

- – -

Heroism in Vietnam

Alfred Mason Gray Jr. was born June 22, 1928, and grew up in Rahway, N.J., and Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. Several of his mother’s relatives moved in with the family when they lost their jobs during the Depression, according to a Marine Corps history. His father was a railroad engineer.

Gen. Gray entered Lafayette College in Pennsylvania on an athletic scholarship but left after three years for what he described as financial reasons. After doing construction and other jobs in manual labor, he enlisted in the Marines at the start of the Korean War. He rose rapidly, becoming a sergeant within about two years and then commissioning as an officer.

Deployed to Vietnam, he served as the commanding officer of an artillery unit. On May 14, 1967, he oversaw three Marines who stumbled into a minefield at night, with one detonating an explosion that killed him and wounded the other two.

Gen. Gray and another Marine “calmly and skillfully probed a cleared path forty meters through the unmarked minefield to the side of the wounded men,” according to his Silver Star citation. He directed the evacuation of the wounded Marines on stretchers through the path they had cleared in the minefield, and then eased his way to the mortally wounded Marine.

His other decorations included the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Legion of Merit with “V” device noting combat, four Bronze Stars with “V” device and three awards of the Purple Heart.

In 1975, as Saigon fell to North Vietnamese soldiers and the United States evacuated, Gen. Gray oversaw a regiment of Marines in the mission that – under intensely stressful circumstances – deftly helped remove more than 7,000 people by helicopter on April 29 and 30.

Retired Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, who was selected by Gen. Gray to be the first president of Marine Corps University, said they were among a generation of officers who “were disillusioned with the whole war” and looking to effect change when they returned home.

“We loved the Marines – they had performed superbly,” Van Riper said. “But we came back disgruntled and unsure of what had happened. We just knew that what we had been told had not worked out.”

Gen. Gray was married to Jan Goss from 1980 until her death in 2020. He has no immediate survivors.

After his military retirement in 1991, Gen. Gray received a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York system, served on boards of nonprofit organizations, led conversations at think tanks and universities, and regularly visited with rank-and-file Marines. He became known for wearing a distinctive sport coat fashioned out of the Marine Corps camouflage pattern. It was another effort, said Lt. Gen. George Flynn, a former aide, to highlight the rank-and-file who wear it the most.