John Russell was born in California to an eventual admiral and like those before him followed the Naval Academy to sea duty to Marine commission, which he received in 1894. He was aboard the battleship Massachusetts during the Spanish-American War. This ship joined in the bombardment of Spanish forts at Santiago, Cuba. However due to the fact that his ship was refueling during the final battle, he missed out.

After the Spanish-American War, Russell served aboard in several different positions, including Guam and Peking. During World War I, Russell was in command of a regiment in Santo Domingo, which kept him out of the fighting. In 1922, Russell became the high commissioner of Haiti and served for nine years.

In 1933, Russell became the assistant commandant under Ben Fuller. It was under his command as assistant that he helped with the conversion the Expeditionary Forces, both East and West into the Fleet Marine Forces, Atlantic and Pacific. The Marine Corps practiced many amphibious landings during his assistant time period, including a joint-exercise with the British at Gallipoli, in 1915.

It was during his time as commandant, he continued to expand the role of the Marines in amphibious assults, through regular landing exercises. His exercises became the subject of many studies at Quantico. Russell also extended the Commandant's House adding on to the east wing.

The biggest change that took place was a replacement of the seniority for promotion and replaced with selection boards. This reform was approved with great support from President Roosevelt. Based on this reform, some people call him the strongest commandant of the last three to hold that office.

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