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General Edwin Simmons; called memory of Marine Corps

WASHINGTON -- Edwin Howard Simmons, a brigadier general who wrote a well-received military history and was considered the collective memory of the US Marine Corps, died of heart ailments May 5 at his home in Alexandria, Va. He was 85.

General Simmons, director emeritus of Marine Corps History and Museums, served in the Marines for 53 years: 36 in uniform and 17 as a civilian. He was a veteran of three wars, a prolific writer, and skilled enough in bureaucratic battles to create a single command from the scattered records, history, and museums units.

He fought on Guam during World War II, participated in the Inchon landing and the Chosin Reservoir campaign in Korea, and served two tours in Vietnam.

Because of his longevity and reputation, newly promoted generals often sought him out for consultation, said Charles Melson, chief historian of the Marine Corps. Melson said General Simmons was respected as the "collective memory" of the service, someone who experienced a significant portion of its history and researched the rest.

"He wasn't the broken-nose, crew-cut, vaguely profane Marine," Melson said. "It's a hackneyed phrase, but he was an officer and a gentleman."

General Simmons's most significant work, "The United States Marines: A History" (1974), is a standard reference text and remains in print in its fourth edition. He was also editor in chief and principal contributor to a large-format illustrated history, "The Marines" (1987); a pamphlet history, "Over the Seawall: US Marines at Inchon" (2000); and a book written for the 50th anniversary of the Korean War, "Frozen Chosin: US Marines at the Changjin Reservoir" (2002).

He also wrote a novel, "Dog Company Six" (2001), which Leatherneck magazine called "the best autobiographical novel to come out of the Korean War."

The year before, in a ceremony at the US Navy Memorial marking the 50th anniversary of the Chosin Reservoir campaign, General Simmons addressed those who insist on calling the Korean War forgotten.

"Forgotten by whom? Certainly not by those who were there," General Simmons said. As a 29-year-old major, he had commanded a weapons company and assisted in the defense of Hagaru-ri at the southern tip of the reservoir.

He recalled the enormous Nov. 27, 1950, Chinese attack in sub zero temperatures on the First Marine Division and the Army's 31st Regimental Combat Team, which were positioned around the reservoir: "We remember the night of the 27th. . . . We remember the terrible fate of the 31st RCT. . . . We remember the rows of grotesquely frozen corpses. . . . We remember the breakout from Hagaru- ri. . . . We remember the rescue of 100,000 refugees. . . .

"There's a great deal to remember," General Simmons concluded. "It's not the forgotten war, for us."

He was born in Paulsboro, N.J., graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in journalism, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He accepted a commission as a Marine second lieutenant in 1942 and served in the Pacific Theater, fighting on Guam and later serving in Okinawa, Japan, and China.

After World War II ended, he served as managing editor of the Marine Corps Gazette. After completing amphibious warfare school, he was ordered to Korea, where he was a weapons company commander, battalion operations officer, and executive officer.

In 1955, he received a master's degree in journalism from Ohio State University.

He was in Vietnam from mid-1965 to mid-1966 and returned in 1970 for another year's tour as assistant division commander of the First Marine Division, then as deputy commander of the Third Marine Amphibious Brigade.

In 1971, he became director of Marine Corps History and Museums, an organization he put together on a shoestring, Melson said. General Simmons retired from active duty in 1978 and became a civilian employee in the same position.

Upon his retirement as director in 1996, he was named director emeritus. He was working on a history of Marines in World War I.

General Simmons wrote more than 300 articles and contributed to histories and books such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Dictionary of American History.

His military awards include a Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, three awards of the Legion of Merit, two awards of the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal, and a Purple Heart.

He leaves his wife of 45 years, Frances G. Bliss Simmons of Alexandria; four children, Edwin H. Simmons Jr. of Hanover, Va., and Clark V. Simmons, Bliss Robinson, and Courtney Simmons Elwood, all of Alexandria; and five grandchildren.