Lejeune celebrates 70 years of being Marine Corps base

2 May 2011 | Cpl. Jonathan G. Wright

He gritted his teeth as he trudged through the dense jungle, his feet sinking into the thick marsh as he progressed forward. His rifle was at the ready, vigilantly scanning the area for the enemy while being aware of the Marines to the right and left of him. As he instinctively looked down to see if his path was clear, he stopped as a thin, black snake lazily glided by. He wiped the sweat from the brow and muttered to himself, “If this place had any more snakes, it would be just like New River.”

Before being dedicated in 1942 in honor of Lt. Gen. John A. Lejeune, 13th commandant of the Marine Corps, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune was called Marine Barracks New River for two years after its initial construction. MB New River was officially established on May 1, 1940, with construction beginning a month before, and has come a long way to get to its 70th birthday.

“In 1940, then-Commandant Maj. Gen. (Thomas) Holcomb ordered Maj. John McQueen to take a plane and find a suitable area on the East Coast for a training area,” said retired Lt. Col. Lynn Kimball, consulting historian for the Camp Lejeune. “During World War II, in response to possible German attacks on the East and West Coasts, the 1st and 2nd Marine Brigades, expanded into divisions, which were to be quartered on their respective shores in defense.”

McQueen and his pilot, Capt. Verne McCaul, flew from Norfolk, Va., to Corpus Christi, Texas. As they reached the Onslow County area of North Carolina, they spotted 14 miles of unspoiled beach. Upwards of the New River, there were vast amounts of forest devoid of major development save the small town of Jacksonville. This area was then decided to be the site of MB New River.

For the first time in the Marine Corps’ development, MB New River proved to be large enough to train a division-sized unit as well as providing realistic conditions to those seen in the Pacific Theater in WWII. Over the next two years, from April 1941 to the end of 1943, most of the WWII construction of the barracks was finished, while halfway through the construction in 1942 it was renamed in honor of the 13 commandant of the Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. John Lejeune.

“From there, the base has made leaps and bounds in terms of progress to support the following wars and the demands it put on the base,” said Col. Daniel Lecce, commanding officer of MCB Camp Lejeune. “Right now, there’s an unprecedented $3.35 billion in construction being put to work to further update and improve the base for the future.”

Throughout the following decades and international conflicts, Camp Lejeune has continued to thrive and expand, reaching its current strength of 47,000 Marines and a number of tenant commands such as the II Marine Expeditionary Force, 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Marine Logistics Group and the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, including a multitude of training centers.

What was once an installation meant to house one division-sized unit to train Marines and fend off German attacks has now doubled in size and has increased war-fighting capabilities ten-fold. From the widening of roads, construction of new Bachelor Enlisted Quarters and improvement of a main gate to the constant cross-training with foreign troops and seeing a never-ending cycle of deployments in support of various peace-keeping missions, Camp Lejeune has come a long way from its humble Marine barracks beginnings, but has never lost focus of the overall mission.

“This installation is critical to the Marine Corps – it always has been,” said Lecce. “As one of the three major installations with constant training, readiness and the ability to at any time project combat power anywhere in the world, this base is critical to the future of the Marine Corps.”