Smith, Holland McTyeire (1882-1967)

Photograph of General Holland M. Smith

National Archives #80-G-287225. Cropped by author.

Holland M. Smith was one of the more controversial figures of the war.  The acknowledged American expert on amphibious operations, he personally led many of the Pacific invasions.  However, he had a fierce temper, earning him the nickname “Howling Mad”, and his combat career ended in controversy prior to the final invasions of the war.

Early Life. Smith was born at Hatchechubbee, Alabama, the oldest son of a successful lawyer prominent in local Democratic politics. His mother was a "steel magnolia" (Venzon 2003) equally at home hosting polite society or wielding a pistol against the occasional trespasser. Both were somewhat strict and distant parents, the father more than the mother. Holland early showed a stubborn streak combined with scrupulous honesty. This ensured he took the blame for every youthful misdeed, since he refused to "fib" to avoid punishment. He attended the local one-room school, which had a remarkably solid curriculum, and soon developed a love for history and military biography, Andrew Jackson and Napoleon were among his particular heroes.

Remarkably, the adult Holland was closest to during his childhood was an African-American servant named John Milby — "Uncle John" to Holland — who hired himself out to the Smith family after being thrown out by his own wife. When he was not tending the family's prize-winning race horses, Uncle John took Holland hunting and fishing and taught him to chew tobacco. This gave Holland an unusually egalitarian outlook for a Southern American of his day, which was later manifest in his skillful dealings with the local population in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere.

Holland's parents expected him to become either a lawyer or a minister. Holland was much more interested in the tales told by his grandfathers and neighbors who had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. However, the last thing his father wanted was for him to join the still-hated Yankee army, and Holland dutifully enrolled in Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburne) in September 1898. This was a military institute where students were called cadets and wore gray uniforms modeled on those of West Point. Holland later claimed he came to be "'nauseated' by all things military" (Venzon 2003) except military science. He excelled in track but had an undistinguished academic record. Offered an appointment to the Naval Academy in his junior year, he declined under pressure from his disapproving father.

Marine Officer. Following his graduation from Alabama Polytechnic Institute, Smith entered the law school of the University of Alabama, graduating in June 1903 and joining his father's firm. After practicing law for a year and never winning a case, he headed to Washington, D.C., to seek a commission in the Army. Finding there were none available, Smith was encouraged to take the examination for a Marine Corps commission instead, since the top Marine leadership were concerned that their officer corps was too heavily dominated by Easterners and welcomed any Southerners. Smith passed the examination and was sworn in two months later as a second lieutenant.

After completing the course at the School of Application (the Marine's Officer Candidate School) Smith served in the Philippines, where his tour was cut short by a severe case of malaria, and participated in the Nicaragua intervention of 1909-1910. After his return, he and his newborn son fell seriously ill with dysentery. A senior Marine officer arriving at about that time was entitled to Smith's quarters and refused to wait, forcing Smith to move his family during their illness. His son did not recover, and Smith never forgave the officer who refused to delay his exercise of privilege of rank. The stress of his son's death seems to have caught up with him on 14 July 1912, when Smith became ferociously drunk on a Northern Pacific Railroad train. Smith was saved from court-martial and the end of his career only because of the intervention of his father and the Marine Corps' fear of adverse publicity. However, he received a blistering letter of reprimand. This experience may account for Smith's occasional show of unusual leniency to junior officers later in his career.

Smith participated in the Dominican Republic intervention in 1916. Here he had his first experience of being under fire and having one of his men badly wounded by a sniper. Following the ceasefire, Smith became one of the two military governors of the Dominican Republic, where he showed remarkable diplomacy and tact in his dealings with the Dominicans. His relations with other Americans were not as good: When Culgoa was nearly wrecked in the harbor on 10 November 1916, Smith blamed Lieutenant Howard Stone for sending an inexperienced pilot to guide the ship in, insisting on a formal investigation that found no particular fault with either officer.

First World War. Smith was recalled to the Philadelphia Barracks following the American intervention in the First World War and shipped out to France on 8 June 1917. He so distinguished himself during training with the Chasseurs Alpins that he was made an honorary private first class with the Chasseurs. Promoted to temporary rank of major, he was ordered to the Army Staff College at Langres, where he learned to appreciate the importance of good staff work. He then served as communications officer for 4 Regiment during the Belleau Wood campaign, where he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and developed a conviction of the importance of fast and accurate communications. He later served on the I Corps staff at Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne. Though he was a team player, he never went along to go along; on the day of the armistice, he was ordered out of I Corps headquarters when he adamantly opposed a final offensive that he considered "an inexcusable waste of humanity on both sides" (Venzon 2003).

Smith graduated from the Naval War College in 1921 and served on the Joint Planning Committee in 1921-1922. Here he studied amphibious doctrine in depth, helped refine Plan Orange, and pushed the need for proper landing craft. During this time he went as far as to rummage through wastebaskets to seek information that would help him promote the Marine's interests on the Committee. According to legend, he was able by such means to tip off Lejeune to a surprise exercise to see how quickly the Marines could muster a force of 3000 men. So forewarned, Lejeune met the challenge instantly. After a succession of brief assignments, Smith was brought back to Washington to assist with the winter maneuvers of 1923-1924.  These proved crucial to further development of the Marines' future amphibious capability; in particular, two prototype landing boats were tested, one of which became the forerunner of the LVT. The exercises revealed many areas for improvement in training and equipment.

After a quiet tour in Haiti and nine months attending the Field Officers Course, Smith made the difficult decision to request a four-year tour as Post Quartermaster at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. This was risky for Smith's career but allowed Smith's son, John V. Smith, who had lacked decent educational opportunities in Haiti, to attend the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. This decision was indicative of Smith's deep devotion as a father. As turned out, the hiatus did Smith's career no lasting harm and it paid off for John, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1934 and retired as a vice admiral in 1973. Smith later considered the assignment valuable as an opportunity to develop a better understanding of logistics. In light of his wartime reputation, it is of note that younger officers acquainted with Smith during this period describe him as "a kind, gentle person" (Venzon 2003).

Following a posting to Long Beach as Fleet Marine Officer, Battle Force, and postings at Washington and with the Department of the Pacific, Smith was promoted to colonel and posted as director of operations and training for the Corps in March 1937. Smith was named as assistant to the Commandant of the Corps in 1939. He was given command of 1 Marine Brigade in time for FLEX 6, the fleet exercises of January to March 1940, where he impressed William Upshur with his ability to instill his subordinates with a sense of initiative. He oversaw the transformation of 1 Marine Brigade to 1 Marine Division and was promoted to major general in February 1941. Believing that "the special role of the Marine Corps within the military establishment was to provide a small, well-trained amphibious assault force to seize and occupy overseas bases for fleet operations" (Tuohy 2007), he made major contributions to developing amphibious doctrine. The concept of the Marines as specialists in amphibious assault originated with John Lejeune before the U.S. intervention in the First World War, but Smith was one of its most vocal and effective champions.

FLEX 7, the fleet exercises of January-February 1941, showed considerable improvements in Marine doctrine, training, and equipment, particularly in landing craft. However, Atlantic Fleet commander Ernest King insisted on commanding the Marines ashore. This led to a shouting match in which King threatened to relieve Smith and Smith stubbornly stood his ground. Just who commanded what in an amphibious operation would continue to be a point of contention until well into the Pacific War. However, by the end of FLEX 7, the two men were seen walking arm-in-arm on deck, and King became something of a champion of the Marine Corps within the Navy.

Pacific War. Smith was commander of the Fleet Marine Force at the outbreak of war. He was transferred to the West Coast to organize the Pacific Fleet Amphibious Force in September 1942.

On 5 February 1943 Smith was arrested for hit-and-run and drunk driving, but the charges were promptly dropped. Smith was observed sideswiping another car about three miles from where a jaywalker had had his leg broken by a hit-and-run driver, and it is not clear either that Smith was that driver or that he had been drinking excessively. Smith rarely drank heavily, and the combination of wartime blackout and Smith's fatigue seem sufficient to explain the accident. 

Smith observed the Army's Attu landings in May 1943 before arriving at Hawaii on 5 September 1943 to take command of V Amphibious Corps and begin planning for the Tarawa landings. He nursed a deep suspicion of the Navy, and the relationship between him and "Terrible" Turner grew so argumentative that Spruance had to decree that Turner was in command of everything until Smith was ashore; then Smith would take command of everything ashore. However, the legendary shouting matches between the two officers somehow resulted in splendid operational plans, and Turner acknowledged that Smith was "a marvelously offensively-minded and capable fighting man" (Venzon 2003).

The invasion force for Tarawa consisted of 2 Marine Division under Julian Smith. Julian Smith planned to land artillery on Bairiki to cover the main landings, but Holland Smith insisted on holding 6 Marine Regiment in reserve, forcing Julian Smith to commit his two remaining regiments to a direct frontal assault. On the other hand, Holland Smith argued furiously with Turner for an increased allotment of LVTs to carry the Marines over the fringing reef in case the tides proved unfavorable. Although the number allocated was still insufficient, and most of the Marines would still have to go in aboard conventional landing craft, the increased allotment of LVTs would prove crucial in the battle.

Smith got along poorly with the Army, and it did not help that he was shot at by jumpy Army troops when he went ashore at Makin to see why the operation was taking so long. The controversial Army historian S.L.A. Marshall, who was a close friend of Ralph Smith, commander of 27 Division, was present at their meeting and took an instant dislike to Smith. He concluded that Smith "was clearly a bully , something of a sadist and, I guessed, tactically a chowder head" (Venzon 2003). Marshall's unofficial report to Robert C. Richardson, commander of Army forces in the Pacific, likely fed the latter's resentment that a Marine was being permitted to command Army troops. However, Marshall's claim that Charles Corlett threatened to arrest Smith if he came ashore in 7 Division's sector on Kwajalein is uncorroborated by any other source and may be a fabrication.

Richardson began a campaign to dissolve V Amphibious Corps, arguing that it was an unnecessary command echelon and barely disguising his opinion that Smith lacked tactical ability. Nimitz refused to accept Richardson's recommendations, but the feud continued to fester. Matters came to a head when Holland Smith relieved Ralph Smith on Saipan for failing to advance his division as quickly as expected.  The resulting “war of the Smiths” still rages today.  The Marine side argues that the Army troops were badly trained and led and unnecessarily exposed the flanks of the more rapidly advancing Marine divisions.  The Army side argues that the Army troops were up against stiffer opposition than the Marines.  Probably both sides are right.  The casualty statistics support the claim that the Army troops were up against stiff opposition; the record of 27 Division in other actions supports the claim that it was not the Army’s finest division. Smith quoted Richardson in his memoirs (Tuohy 2006):

You had no right to relieve Ralph Smith. The 27th is one of the best-trained divisions in the Pacific. I trained it myself. I want you to know you can't push the army around the way you've been doing. We've had more experience in handling troops than you have, and yet you dare remove one of my generals. You marines are nothing but a bunch of beach runners anyway. What do you know about land warfare?

Turner replied with a blast of his own when Richardson came aboard his flagship. However, Smith, who probably realized at that point that he was in serious trouble, exercised considerable restraint. The Army subsequently convened an investigative board under Simon Buckner that included no Marine or Navy officers in its investigation and refused to allow Holland Smith to be present during questioning of witnesses. Perhaps predictably, the Buckner Board judged Ralph Smith's relief unjustified. However, the Board also acknowledged that Holland Smith had the authority to relieve Ralph Smith and that Ralph Smith had not measured up as a division commander. The Army's own official history, published well after the war, concluded that (Crowl 1959):

No matter what the extenuating circumstances were--and there were several--the conclusion seems inescapable that Holland Smith had good reason to be disappointed with the performance of the 27th Infantry Division on the two days in question. Whether the action he took to remedy the situation was a wise one, however, remains doubtful. Certainly the relief of Ralph Smith appears to have done nothing to speed the capture of Death Valley. Six more days of bitter fighting remained before that object was to be achieved.
In the end, Holland Smith got the worse of the exchange, being kicked upstairs to an administrative command. Harry Hill thought him a different man afterwards, morose and full of bitterness. Spruance wrote during the Okinawa campaign that "There are times when I get impatient for some of Holland Smith's drive, but there is nothing we can do about it." Smith was badly disappointed that he was not invited to the surrender ceremony at Tokyo, the Marines being represented by Roy Geiger instead.

Postwar. Smith retired as a full general in August 1946. He created further controversy with his memoirs, in which he castigated pretty much everyone but the Marines and claimed that the bloody Tarawa and Iwo Jima invasions were unnecessary.  Historians have tended to conclude otherwise. However, Smith's career was marked by "a combination of fierce independence, concern for his men, and his insistence on an offensive role for them" (Venzon 2003) that must have made the bloodbaths at Tarawa and Iwo Jima difficult for him to accept. He was also prone to carrying grudges, and he had been at odds with the Navy ever since the Nicaraguan intervention in 1909, where he felt that the crew of the Dixie had gone out of their way to harass the embarked Marines.

Smith was deeply religious, though not committed to any particular denomination. He carried a St. Christopher medal blessed by Pope Pius X into combat, but attended Presbyterian and Episcopal churches in retirement. The rector of one of these churches remembers that Smith would catch his eye and start pointing to his watch if he went over time with his sermon. Smith was also fond of children and children's causes, particularly Kiwanis. He played himself in the John Wayne film The Sands of Iwo Jima and narrated a television documentary series, Uncommon Valor.

Smith was an extremely private person in the sense that he carefully concealed his deepest emotions. His biographer (Venzon 2003) believes that the wartime "Howling Mad" persona, so at odds with recollections of him as a "calm, quiet, lovely gentleman" by friends before and after the war, was a reaction to the reality of lives being at stake. His friend Victor Krulak, Sr., quoted Smith as saying that "The greatest weapon one can have is controlled anger, and the greatest defeat that one can have is uncontrolled anger." Krulak added that "He was a terrifying man if he elected to be mad and he never lost his temper. He just elected to be mad." This selective temper was combined with self-confidence approaching hubris. Smith considered himself, with some cause, to be the expert on amphibious warfare, and he did not suffer fools gladly.

Service record


Born at Hatchechubbee, Alabama

Awarded B.S. from Alabama Polytechnic Institute

Awarded law degree from University of Alabama
1905-3-20     Second lieutenant    
Commissioned in the Marine Corps

School of Application, Annapolis

1 Marine Brigade, Philippine Islands

Instructor, Annapolis
First lieutenant


Expeditionary Brigade, Nicaragua

Marine Barracks, Puget Sound

1 Provisional Marine Regiment

Officer in charge, Marine Corps recruitment office, Seattle

1 Marine Brigade, Philippine Islands

Commander, Marine Detachment, CL Galveston

Navy Yard, New Orleans
Captain 4 Marine Regiment, Dominican Republic

Military governor, Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic

Commander, 8 Machine Gun Company, 5 Marine Regiment, France
Army General Staff College, Langres

Adjutant, 4 Marine Brigade

Staff, 1 Corps

Commander, Officer's School, Norfolkand

Naval War College

Joint Planning Committee

Fleet Marine Officer, Scouting Fleet

Marine Headquarters

Chief of staff, Marine Brigade, Haiti

Chief of staff, 1 Marine Brigade

Marine Corps Field Officers School5-15

Port Quartermaster, Marine Barracks, Philadelphia
Lieutenant colonel      Force Marine Officer, Battle Force

Commandant, Marine Barracks, Washington D.C.
Colonel Chief of staff, Department of the Pacific

Director of operations and training, Marine Corps

Assistant, Commandant of the Corps
Brigadier general
Commander, 1 Marine Brigadeand
Major general Commander, 1 Marine Division

Commander, Amphibious Force, Atlantic Fleet

Commander, Amphibious Forces, Pacific Fleet

Commander, V Amphibious Corps
Lieutenant general     


Commander, Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific

Commandant, Marine Training and Replacement Command, Camp Pendleton

Dies at San Diego


Boatner (1996)

Crowl (1959; accessed 2011-1-13)

Dupuy et al. (1992)
Pettibone (2006)
Tuohy (2007)

United States Marine Corps Historical Division (accessed 2008-3-1)

Venzon (2003)

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