Marine Corps Great Leaders: LtGen Ronald L. Bailey (USMC, Retired)

by Major Michael F. Masters Jr.

Major Masters is a MAGTF Intelligence Officer with multiple combat tours to Iraq. He is currently a student at the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Major Masters personally served under LtGen Bailey’s command while Commanding General, Marine Corps Recruiting Command, as an Officer Selection Officer in Lexington, Kentucky from 2010-2013.


Introduction

Before World War II, black Americans were not permitted to serve in the Marine Corps. The Service’s view was a binary outlook that only recognized white and black skin tones and ignored the content of one’s character or abilities to contribute to the organization. Upon the United States formally entering hostilities during World War II in 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an opportunity presented itself for black Americans to support the war effort and take great strides towards racial equality within the U.S. military. Although, black Americans served in the defense of our Nation since the Revolutionary War and in segregated U.S. Army Units since the American Civil War, the Marine Corps insisted on maintaining a homogenous force under the guise of maintaining the highest standards of all the Service branches.1 It was not until 1942, one year after the issuance of Executive Order 8802, in the face of mounting pressure from both the Executive Branch and Congress to allow black Americans to become Marines, that the Service begrudgingly made preparations to allow them to enter recruit training.2 Between 1942 and 1949, approximately 22,000 black recruits were trained aboard Camp Lejeune, NC.3 The location was austere, a camp with no frills, named Montford Point. The facility was purposefully set away from the installation’s main side, so as not to co-mingle the black recruits and white Marines.4 During World War II, black Marine units continuously distinguishing themselves during combat operations and 85 percent of the men trained at Montford Point went on to serve in the Pacific theater.4 Despite their tactical prowess and dedicated service, the number of black Marines retained in the Marine Corps following World War II would sharply decline from 1947-1950 to approximately 2,000.5 Although the Service neglected to grasp the benefits of a diverse and inclusive force post-conflict, the seeds of progress were in many ways already sown by allowing these men the opportunity to prove themselves worthy bearers of the eagle, globe, and anchor.

            Many of the original Montford Point Marines would go on to lead successful careers within industry, the civil service, and a few were permitted to stay in the Corps—which aided in progressing the organization.6 The path blazed by these brave young men in the 1940s has played a pivotal role in the advancement of black Americans within the U.S. military today—specifically within the Marine Corps. Since the days of Camp Montford Point, many thousands of black Americans have earned the title of Marine. This piece profiles LtGen Ronald L. Bailey, (USMC, Retired) one of many successful black leaders of our Corps since 1942.

Early Life

            LtGen Bailey grew up in the West Augustine suburb of St. Augustine, FL, in the midst of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. Although urban areas just to the north such as Jacksonville, FL, had well established African American communities and leadership, such as A. Philip Randolph,7 leading the way for racial equality, the area West Augustine was considered by many at the time, as one local current Civil Rights Committee member puts it as “a third world country.”8 LtGen Bailey attributes much of his success to his tight-knit local community, his attendance at private Catholic schools, and the importance his father placed on his sons to be educated and patriotic.9 Regarding the prevalence of the ongoing racial discrimination of the time, LtGen Bailey distinctly recounts his white Catholic nun teachers “treating black students with dignity and respect” and his father actively explaining how the world around him was and how it could be improved.10 In the mid-1970s, with the Vietnam War coming to end, LtGen Bailey departed his native Florida on an athletic scholarship to attend Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN.11 Although, he was originally a member of the U.S. Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and had completed all the program’s commissioning requirements, because of “broken promises,” LtGen Bailey would eventually pursue the “challenge” of a commission in the Marine Corps via the Platoon Leaders Class Combined program.12 The commissioning program required one ten-week summer training session before completion of his senior year of college; however, upon reflection on his initial training, LtGen Bailey began to have second thoughts about accepting his commission as he had other opportunities available to teach and coach football.13 He credits his decision to accept his Marine Corps commission to the sage counsel of his college football coach and the tremendous level of comradery he felt while at Officers Candidate School, akin only to his experiences on the gridiron.14 In 1977, thirty-five years after the first black recruit reported to Montford Point, NC and thirty-two years following the commissioning of the first black Marine Officer, Frederick C. Branch, Ronald L. Bailey was commissioned as a second lieutenant of Marines.15

            Of note, in the year of LtGen Bailey’s commissioning, there were only 145 minority officers accessed (accounting for 7.2 percent of the total officer accessions), making his accomplishment even more significant.16 While at The Basic School in Quantico, VA, for initial officer training, 2ndLt Bailey was steered toward applying for selection as an Infantry Officer by his Staff Platoon Commander (a coveted specialty of the Corps which still today is dominated by white males) because of his perceived leadership potential.17 He would heed his instructor’s advice and eventually submit the Infantry as his top MOS choice and be selected to attend the Marine Corps’ prestigious Infantry Officers Course.    

Marine Corps Career

            During LtGen Bailey’s forty-one-year career in the. Marine Corps, he commanded Marines at every rank, most notably including 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 3rd MEB, 1st MarDiv, and Marine Corps Recruiting Command.18 His postings would take him to traditional Marine bastions such as Quantico, VA, for military education (e.g., The Basic School, Infantry Officers Course, Basic Communication Officers Course, Amphibious Warfare School) and later for assignment as a Headquarters Marine Corps, Manpower Management office as the ground Lieutenant Colonels Monitor, Okinawa, Japan, for his Lieutenant tour, Paris Island, South Carolina for his drill field tour, and Camp Lejeune, NC, for his Company Command time.19 He was also posted at the highly revered 8th and I Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., as Department Chief, Professional Military Education and marched as the Parade Commander. While assigned to Kings Bay, GA, he activated the Security Forces Company and served as the Guard Company Commander.20

            While in command of the 2nd Marine Regiment (referred to as Task Force Tarawa), during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, he and his subordinate battalions took part in the famed “Battle of Nasiriyah to secure a pair of key bridges across the Euphrates River.”21 There, “the fighting there was later dubbed “Ambush Alley” and was the most intense urban warfare seen by the Marine Corps since the Battle of Huế in 1968. Additionally, elements of the 2nd Mar also supported the rescue of Army prisoner of war Jessica Lynch.”22 This would prove a formative experience for LtGen Bailey as he recounts the losing of twenty-one Marines during Iraq combat operations.23 He credits his success in combat primarily to his superb battalion commanders and staff but also underscores the importance of “knowing one’s self” and being an “adaptable leader” as no plan typically survives the first contact with the enemy.24 As the fighting intensified and causality reports mounted, LtGen Bailey knew his own self-discipline was key to others remaining calm and forward mission-focused.25 He had the utmost confidence that his regiment had the requisite expertise, training, and leadership in place to succeed; thus, he perceived his main role was to enable and motivate his team.26

            LtGen Bailey admits that he had a unique situation upon reporting to the FMF, in that in his first three assignments, he would be commanded and evaluated by black Marine officers that would all go on to become general officers.27 This did not alleviate the fact that he was very often the “only black Marine in the room”; however, it impressed the importance of “building relationships up, down, and across the chain of command” to be an effective leader.28 Although LtGen Bailey made an impact wherever he was assigned through his larger-than-life personality and congeniality, perhaps LtGen Bailey’s most notable posting in the Corps is his historic appointment as the first African American Commanding General of the famed 1st MarDiv in 2011. Most fittingly, his chain of command ceremony aboard Camp Pendleton, California was attended by a contingent of original Montford Point Marines sixty-nine years after they took their oaths of enlistment as the first black men to support and defend the U.S. Constitution as Marines.29

Leadership Philosophy 

            In Jim Collins book, Good to Great, he describes, “Level 5 leaders” as—personnel that is “fanatically driven, infected with an incurable need to produce sustained results.31 The future USAFRICOM Commander and former I MEF Commanding General, Gen Thomas Waldhauser, would agree that LtGen Bailey embodies this description, as he stated upon his LtGen Bailey’s assumption of command of the 1st MarDiv, “Ron Bailey is a tremendous leader who has been an infantry and regimental commander … He brings a lot of energy and superior knowledge to the job.”32

            During his time in the Marine Corps, LtGen Bailey addressed many diverse groups along with inspiring his Marines. During a speech at Hillsdale College in early 2017, he clearly laid out to the faculty, staff, and students gathered the guiding principles on which successful organizations are set upon that include knowing one’s history, fostering a culture of hard work, remaining humble despite successes, having heart against all circumstances, maintaining and promoting the health of those around you, and the importance of habits of action and thought.33 During this engagement, he further elaborated on his own three-pronged command philosophy: 1) Leadership (Influence and Relationships) 2) Attitude (Understand your team); 3) Warfighting Skills (Be the best in your profession).34 Also, known as “Bailey’s Law” leaders are challenged to: know thy self—have strong relationships up, down, across the chain of command; stay connected their people—ensure they feel nurtured through providing opportunities for personal growth;  be the best at your skillset—increase your professional competence. Further, LtGen Bailey asserts, “If a leader has the right attitude, they have the ability to succeed. A consistent positive mental attitude is a force multiplier in any organization. I ask all leaders to be proactive, take the initiative and get rid of the word ‘can’t’.”35

Impact & Legacy

            Marines and military historians, along with the people of St. Augustine, FL, will always remember their native son LtGen Bailey in much the same way as his historical marker planted at the intersection of North Holmes Boulevard and West King Street reads, “General Bailey was assigned to Camp Pendleton, California as the Commanding General (1st Marine Division)-becoming the first African American to command the oldest and most decorated division in the Marine Corps.”36 However, along the way to this momentous distinction and thereafter, he served his country and Corps with relentless dedication and afforded those around him his fiercest loyalty and admiration. Marines that have served with him will all attest to his contagious levels of motivation, gregarious nature, and compassion. In fact, LtGen Bailey asserts that his most rewarding and defining accomplishment while in the Corps was mentoring and helping his Marines to be successful and the pride in knowing that everywhere he served he made those units more capable.37

            There exist a multitude of tangible artifacts of his four decades of service to our Nation such as from his time at Marine Corps Recruiting Command when he facilitated closer partnerships with historically black colleges/ universities, black fraternities, and associations and made increased minority officer accessions goals a national priority of effort for the service’s recruiting force. Further, as the Deputy Commandant for Plans, Policies, and Operations securing crucial funding from Congress to modernize the Marine Corps and maintain a “competitive advantage” by enhancing information-related capabilities, increasing crisis response capabilities, and reintroducing Marines to theaters such as Norway, Afghanistan, and USINDOPACOM after substantial lapses or force reductions.38 Even in retirement, LtGen Bailey continues to impact America’s youth through his position as the Vice President for the Office of External Affairs, Austin Peay State University.39 Additionally, his decision to serve on the Board of Directors for the Travis Manion Foundation, an organization that espouses to “empower veterans and families of the fallen, and then inspire them to pass on their values to the next generation and the community at large”40 speaks volumes to his character and a deep sense of responsibility for the future.

Regarding the need to continue to increase diversity within the officer ranks of the Marine Corps, LtGen Bailey notes there is much work still to be accomplished. He views the problem of the homogenous make-up of today’s officer corps as three-fold.41 First, there is a propensity to be overly concerned with the number of black officer candidate accessions.42 While it is important to maintain a steady flow of minority candidates, it is equally important to retain diverse talent within the organization by demonstrating a culture of mentorship to value an individual’s commitment to remain in the service.43 Lastly, there remains unspoken institutional impediments for minority advancement within the Corps that need to be addressed which filter out qualified black leaders from postings required for continued promotion.44

Conclusion

            The success LtGen Ronald L. Bailey has enjoyed over the span of his more than four decades of military service is directly attributable to the original Montford Point Marines that volunteered to serve in the newly opened but highly segregated Marine Corps of the early 1940s. He is the first to say that he stood on the shoulders of giants such as SgtMaj Huff and Johnson, Capt Fredrick Branch, and the first African American Marine General, LtGen Frank Petersen. Without these pathbreakers, his accomplishments wouldn’t have been possible. Because they dared to serve and sought out the coveted eagle, globe, and anchor so many have benefited, including the organization itself. Although Marine Corps Recruiting Command’s espoused goal is to represent the nation in which we defend, the reality is minority applicants still today face impediments to join and be successful within the Marine Corps, particularly in the officer ranks. There is much more to be accomplished before the phrases “first” and “African American” stop preceding black Marines’ accomplishments.


Notes

1. Melton A. McLaurin, The Marines of Montford Point: America’s First Black Marines, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

2. Ronald K. Culp, The First Black United States Marines: The Men of Montford Point, 1942 – 1949, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2007).

3. The Marines of Montford Point; and Jesse J. Johnson, Roots of Two Black Sergeants Major; Sergeants Major Edgar R. Huff and Gilbert H. “Hashmark” Johnson, Profiles in Courage, (Hubert, NC: Ebony Publishing, Inc., 1978).

4. Roots of Two Black Sergeants Major.

5. The Marines of Montford Point.

6. Ibid.

7. Staff, “Montford Point Marine Association,”Wikipedia, (n.d.), available at https://en.wikipedia.org.

8. Staff, “A. Philip Randolph,” Wikipedia, (n.d.), available at https://en.wikipedia.org.

9. Jeff Valin, “Local Marine Gets Historical Marker in West Augustine,” First Coast News (June 2020), available at https://www.firstcoastnews.com.

10. Personal telephone conversation between the author and LtGen Ronald L. Bailey (USMC, Retired) on 22 January 2021.

11. Ibid.

12. U.S. House of Representatives, “Official Biography of LtGen Ronald L. Bailey, USMC,” (Washington, DC: 2017).

13. Hillsdale College, “Lieutenant General Ronald Bailey (USMC) on Leadership at Hillsdale College,” YouTube video, February 23, 2017, 69:02, https://www.youtube.com.

14. Ibid.

15. Personal telephone conversation between the author and LtGen Ronald L. Bailey (USMC, Retired) on 22 January 2021.

16. “Montford Point Marine Association.”

17. Alphonse G. Davis, Pride, Progress, and Prospects: The Marine Corps’ Efforts to Increase the Presence of African-American Officers (1970-1995), (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 2000).

Of note, minority officer accession data from 1977 includes both Black and Hispanic officers, the USMC’s minority accessions goal that year was 185 officers, they fell short of that goal the year LtGen Bailey was commissioned by 40 officers.

18. Personal telephone conversation between the author and LtGen Ronald L. Bailey (USMC, Retired) on 22 January 2021.

19. “Official Biography of LtGen Ronald L. Bailey, USMC.’

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Staff, “2nd Marine Regiment,” Wikipedia, (n.d.) available at https://en.wikipedia.org.

23. Ibid.

24. “Lieutenant General Ronald Bailey (USMC) on Leadership at Hillsdale College.”

25. Personal telephone conversation between the author and LtGen Ronald L. Bailey (USMC, Retired) on 22 January 2021.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Mark Walker, “MILITARY: Maj. Gen. Ronald Bailey takes command of 1st Marine Division,” San Diego Union-Tribune, (June 2011), available at https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com.

31. Jim Collins, Good to Great, (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001).

32. “MILITARY: Maj. Gen. Ronald Bailey takes command of 1st Marine Division.”

33. “Lieutenant General Ronald Bailey (USMC) on Leadership at Hillsdale College.”

34. Ibid.

35. Personal telephone conversation between the author and LtGen Ronald L. Bailey (USMC, Retired) on 22 January 2021.

36. Staff, “Our Native Son Lieutenant General Ronald L. Bailey,” The Historical Marker Database, (n.d.), available at https://www.hmdb.org.

37. Personal telephone conversation between the author and LtGen Ronald L. Bailey (USMC, Retired) on 22 January 2021

38. “Lieutenant General Ronald Bailey (USMC) on Leadership at Hillsdale College.”

39. Staff, “External Affairs,” Austin Peay State University, (n.d.), available at https://www.apsu.edu.

40. Staff, “About Us,” The Travis Manion Foundation, (n.d.), available at https://www.travismanion.org.

41. Personal telephone conversation between the author and LtGen Ronald L. Bailey (USMC, Retired) on 22 January 2021.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

Comments