The enlisted Marines’ commandant: the personal touch of Al Gray

by Tommy Grant

Known widely as “the enlisted Marines’ Commandant” and by some as “Papa Bear,” Gen. Al Gray served in a Corps that had to rapidly change through major conflicts, the end of the draft, the rise of terrorism and advanced technology.

But at the center of those decades of change and in retirement, Gray continued his focus on taking care of Marines and challenging them to take risks and innovate.

Gray, the 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps, died Wednesday in his home following an extended period of hospice care, confirmed retired Lt. Gen. George Flynn, who serves as his power of attorney.

Flynn met Gray in 1989 when he served as the commandant’s junior aide.

“He taught me how to truly love the Marine Corps and to understand what it is to truly be a Marine and I think he tried to teach everybody that,” Flynn told Marine Corps Times.

The current Commandant Gen. Eric Smith shared a message Wednesday on Gray’s passing.

“He was a ‘Marine’s Marine’—a giant who walked among us during his career and after, remaining one of the Corps’ dearest friends and advocates even into his twilight,” Smith said. “His contributions are many, including the development of our maneuver warfare doctrine, Warfighting, which remains, to this day, the philosophic bedrock of how we fight as Marines. Although he will be missed by all, his legacy will endure and his spirit will continue to live among us.”

All Marine Corps installations will half-mast the National Ensign, the designation of the American flag when flown on maritime vessels or facilities, until sunset April 28. The 29-day period is in honor of Gray’s service as the 29th commandant.

A quote attributed to Gray during his time as 2nd Marine Division commanding general in the 2015 book “Grayisms,” published by the Potomac Institute Press sums up the balance of drive and care he had for his Marines.

“I don’t run a democracy. I train troops to defend democracy and I happen to be their surrogate father and mother as well as their commanding general,” Gray said.

The 95-year-old New Jersey native rose from private to four-star general, leading the Corps during the fall of the Soviet Union and the Persian Gulf War.

Gray served as commandant from 1987–1991, retiring after 41 years of military service.

Retired Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, who served with Gray and retired as head of Combat Development Command, said, “Behind Gen. Gray’s hard-bitten exterior and his plain speech were a brilliant and well-informed mind and a deep love for the Marines he served.”

“The Corps has lost a Marine for the ages.”

Secretary of the Navy James Webb, a Marine veteran, had advocated in 1988 for Gray’s to take the top post, which sparked controversy. Gray had not served in Washington, D.C., posts as a general officer, having spent his time in operational commands.

In a 1988 “60 Minutes” interview, Webb said he saw Gray’s service and tough demeanor as crucial to the Corps, which had seen its funding, training and ranks dwindle along with the other services in the 1970s.

“I think at this point in the history of the Marine Corps they needed someone who was what we call a warrior, a warfighter,” Webb said.

Gray inherited a Marine Corps that had seen its share of struggles in recent years.

Top Marine officials had undergone withering criticism over the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut that killed 241. In 1987, Marine embassy security guards in Russia had been charged with espionage, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North faced criminal charges for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair.

Gray had earned his no-nonsense reputation many decades earlier.

Retired Gen. John Sheehan commanded Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, under Gray’s leadership as the battalion commander in the early 1970s.

Sheehan told Marine Corps Times those were difficult days for the Corps at the end of the Vietnam War. Rampant drug use, discipline, morale and racial issues plagued units.

“There were two schools of thought in the Marine Corps, at least from my perspective as a captain, those who wanted to make excuses for Marines who were not performing and those who said they needed leadership,” Sheehan said.

Gray quickly showed his perspective.

Gray took over the battalion and immediately instituted stricter standards and discipline. He would hold office hours in the field, sometimes reducing Marines in rank over infractions in front of battalion formations.

“Which obviously made an impression,” Sheehan said.

At the same time, he would give his Marines tremendous latitude in training and missions.

“Company commanders would organize training; he’d sit down with us and say, ‘what do you want to do?’” Sheehan said. Then Gray would push them to the “edge of the envelope” in that training.

Sheehan would become Gray’s battalion operations officer. Gray would stop by Sheehan’s off-base housing to sit at his dining room table and sketch out maneuver warfare ideas and ways to change Marine Corps training post-Vietnam.

“He created this environment where you could experiment,” Sheehan said.

Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni was a fellow captain and friend of Sheehan’s when he started hearing about this battalion commander.

In 1971, he had dinner with Sheehan and Gray at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, officers’ club.

“He had this most remarkable ability to connect, from privates all the way up to generals,” Zinni said. “A personal touch and charisma that was incredible.”

Van Riper, Zinni and others noted that Gray was a voracious reader who studied various texts, especially Sun Tzu’s “Art of War,” often pushing books on fellow Marines and encouraging them to write papers and debate their ideas.

In 1989, during his tenure as commandant, the Corps published “Warfighting,” the foundational volume on the Corps’ shift to maneuver warfare.

At Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, the Alfred M. Gray Marine Corps Research Center bears his name.

Gray officially established the Commandant’s Professional Reading List in 1988. He directed the creation of Marine Corps University in 1989.

In addition to his intense focus on tactics and ambitious standards, Gray had a softer side, friends said.

Years after Gray retired, Flynn was on duty in Okinawa, Japan, when he got news that his mother had died. He flew home to New Jersey for the service.

“When I walked out of the church, I walked into Gen. Gray,” Flynn said. “If there was something to show up for, he would be there.”

The general rarely turned down an invitation to a Marine mess night, birthday ball or awards ceremony. He spoke repeatedly at commemorations of the Beirut barracks bombing over the years.

Gray married Jan Goss in 1980, as a 52-year-old major general. Goss died in 2020.

There were three things that Gray loved, Flynn said — Jan, the Marine Corps and his dogs.

Gray was fond of black Labradors, but also owned poodles and Portuguese water dogs. His wife was known to carry a teacup poodle in her purse to Marine events.

Sheehan remembered getting calls from Jan Gray about the dogs when Al Gray was busy.

“Jack, the labs have escaped,” she’d tell him. “So (Zinni) and I would go chase the labs down.”

Gray enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1950 at age 22 and commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1952, according to his official biography. His early tours were with 11th and 7th Marine Regiments, 1st Marine Division in Korea.

He later saw service in Vietnam where his actions on May 14, 1967, resulted in his being awarded the Silver Star Medal.

Gray was serving as the commanding officer of the Composite Artillery Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, according to his Silver Star citation. That night three Marines on their way to a listening post entered a heavily mined area by mistake.

One of the Marines was killed when he detonated a mine, which also injured his fellow Marines. Maj. Gray and another Marine rushed to the mined area, cleared a 40 m path through the unmarked field. Gray guided stretcher-bearers in as he moved one of the injured Marines and began rendering first aid.

While serving as deputy commander of 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade, Gray directed evacuations of U.S. personnel from Vietnam in 1975. He later commanded 2nd Marine Division, Fleet Marine Forces, Atlantic and Fleet Marine Forces, Europe.

Even in retirement, the former commandant remained closely tied to Marine initiatives, programs and organizations such as the Marine Corps Association and Foundation, the Potomac Institute and various Marine unit functions and events.

“His entire focus, his entire life was the Marine Corps,” Sheehan said.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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