General L.F. Chapman, 86, Dies; Former Marine Commandant 

 

By Elizabeth Becker,, January 11, 2000

 

WASHINGTON, Jan. 10 -- Gen. Leonard F. Chapman Jr., the former commandant of the Marine Corps who guided the service through the height of the Vietnam War and the social and racial upheavals of that era, died of cancer on Thursday, January 6, 2000, in suburban Virginia. He was 86.

After his retirement from the military in 1972, General Chapman served as commissioner of immigration and naturalization.

When he was appointed commandant by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, General Chapman was known for his organizational achievements. His sons, Leonard F. Chapman III and Walton F. Chapman, were both marines who served in Vietnam.

An artillery officer who fought in the Pacific in World War II, General Chapman regularly visited Vietnam where two of the service's three divisions were fighting, encouraging his troops with confident statements that the North Vietnamese "can't force us out."

After the war, with racial tensions and an increase in drug and alcohol problems threatening all the services, General Chapman pointedly refused to follow the Army or the Navy in agreeing to changes like allowing beer in military barracks or longer hair styles and beards.

Instead, he defused racial tensions, including a near riot at Camp LeJeune, N.C., with programs to enhance cultural awareness and eliminate discrimination.

"He was a gentleman and a leader and he epitomized everything it means to be called Marine," said Gen. James L. Jones, the present commandant. "His many contributions kept the Marine Corps on the right path and brought us to where we are today."

The son and grandson of Methodist ministers, General Chapman was born in Key West, Fla., on Nov. 3, 1913. He spent most of his childhood in DeLand, near Orlando, and graduated from the University of Florida in 1935.

He joined the Marines and was a captain when the United States entered World War II, taking part in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway.

Later, he fought with the First Marine Division on Peleliu and Okinawa, receiving the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star.

After the Korean War, he served in Japan, and, in July 1956, became the commanding officer of the Marine Barracks in Washington, where he introduced the Friday night retreat parades that have become a familiar tourist attraction.

In 1964, he was elevated to the rank of lieutenant general and named chief of staff of the Marine Corps. In this position he promoted more efficient methods of management, which he described in The Marine Corps Gazette as "changes in the techniques which we use to manage, commit and control" the strength of the service.

President Johnson skipped over two other candidates in 1968 to name General Chapman commandant of the Marine Corps. Known as "an organization man," his organizational skills were immediately tested in the Vietnam War and subsequent withdrawal. He was determined to bring back his two Marine divisions with all their equipment, telling his troops, "Don't leave anything behind worth more than five dollars."

In the latter years of the war, the Marines faced problems of racial hostility and violence like those rocking the rest of the United States.

After the violence at Camp LeJeune in 1969, General Chapman issued a 1,000-word order to all commanders to take positive steps to eliminate discrimination in promotions, assignments and in social activity on the bases.

"Every marine must understand that the Marine Crops does guarantee equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal protections, without regard to race," he wrote.

The changes included a full review of recent promotions to ensure fairness and allowing black marines to use the clenched-fist salute for black power.

Underpinning this order was General Chapman's insistence that change would not mean relaxing the service's spartan standards.

"These high standards breed pride," he said, "and pride, in turn, builds the kind of discipline that is essential to battlefield success with minimum casualties."

When he retired as a four-star general in 1971, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by President Richard M. Nixon. He served as commissioner of immigration and naturalization from 1973 until 1976, promoting a curb on illegal immigration that he said was costing the country billions of dollars a year.

General Chapman was married to Emily Walton Ford Chapman, who died in 1992. His son Leonard died in a scuba diving accident in 1979.

Besides his son Walton, of Shelburne Falls, Mass., he is survived by a daughter-in-law, Gayle Chapman Harmes, and a granddaughter.

 


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