ONE GREAT MARINE
Ken Elmendorf was an outstanding Marine. A natural leader and motivator, he was a superb commander and a fine friend. Confident and aggressive, he put his troops at ease with humorous comments. He strutted and swaggered and thoroughly enjoyed leading his Marines, who likewise enjoyed his swashbuckling style of leadership. I served as Lt Colonel Elmendorf's Executive Officer in the mid 1980's, when he Commanded Marine Wing Communication Squadron – 48 (MWCS-48). He did a terrific job leading the Squadron, which was selected as the Squadron of the Year in large part because of his efforts.
Ken commanded the Marine Wing Communication Squadron-48 at the Glenview Naval Air Station when he was still a Lieutenant Colonel. His first drill weekend was also the change of command for the Marine Air Control Group. Each Squadron marched in review before the incoming and outgoing regular Commander of the Group. Lt Colonel Elmendorf and the troops practiced until they were perfect. But there was a problem. The active duty officers did not like the large gold bracelet that the Colonel wore on his arm. They asked me to ask him to take it off. I did so. "Oh they want me to take off my bracelet, do they?” said Ken Elmendorf. “My wife NJ gave me this bracelet. I am going to wear it. To hell with them." And wear it he did, with the bracelet sliding up and down his arm as he raised and lowered his sword in the parade, strutting in front of his Squadron and the entire Marine Group.
Lieutenant Colonel Elmendorf assumed command of the unit at a time when the Squadron was suffering from a morale and attendance problem. Colonel Elmendorf seldom raised his voice, but just expressed confidence that his officers and Staff NCO's could solve the problem. And following his direction they did.
Colonel Elmendorf was famous for his ventriloquist dummy, Elmer. The troops loved to be entertained by the irreverent dummy. Elmer was dressed in a Lance Corporal Marine Dress Blue Uniform, with a very non-Marine like long hair cut. Elmer was salty and cocky and not afraid to insult anyone. He insulted senior officers, which was not politically correct, and a bad overall career move. Lt. Colonel Elmendorf always pointed out that it was not him but rather Elmer who was the wise ass culprit. LtCol Elmendorf also called the Executive Officer (Me) of the Squadron an asshole when the XO told Elmer to get a haircut. The troops loved that.
No one pushed the Dorf around. He was surrounded by aggressive and tough Chicago Marines, but he was the Bull Marine. He could dominate people with wit and humor and just a hint of good natured menace. And he thoroughly enjoyed doing it.
Colonel Elmendorf commanded a unit exercise at Cherry Point, North Carolina. It was one of the most difficult operations ever undertaken by the Squadron, with a large Naval Task force. Everything went badly. Communications were poor, and the top leadership lost their confidence. The morning briefings were embarrassing – downcast senior officers mumbling and shuffling and hoping things would get better. Into the fray charged Dorf. His Communication Squadron was just a small part of the exercise, but he started giving aggressive, dynamic, confident briefs. He took over the entire briefing and was the only positive and upbeat force in a defeated group. "Everything is coming around", said the Colonel. "It is all working now. Everything will work and work well." His briefing was not accurate – things were terrible – but his confidence and dynamism were contagious. Everyone became more confident. Things started to work. Lt. Colonel Elmendorf's leadership and positive attitude were contagious, and the situation turned around and the exercise became a success.
Another Lt. Colonel, a pilot and commander, was bad mouthing our unit and its performance. Word got back to Elmendorf. "I am going to hunt him down and kill him" said Dorf. I did not know Ken well at that point – I thought his comments were just braggadocio. Dorf met with the officer and then reported back that he had threatened him and reported that the officer would cease to criticize us. And he did. It was not until the next year that I met the infamous Marine Officer in California. He said, "Your boss is Lt. Colonel Elemdorf? I thought he was going to kill me. He is huge guy, and he was really pissed off. I thought I would not get out of there alive". After this our unit began to call Ken Attila-Dorf, or just Dorf for short.
Dorf took care of his troops and they took care of him. He made sure they worked hard, but also made sure that they had fun on liberty. He worked hard to ensure that all members of the unit got along. And he did not let any outsiders harass his troops. He liked to refer to his twelve Marine Officers as the "Dirty Dozen". He led a number of legendary escapades that involved doing unseemly things to and on the Admirals Cannon with some of his Dirty Dozen.
Dorf did not talk much about his experiences as a Lieutenant in AMTRAKs in Vietnam where he earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, but he did tell us a few humorous war stories. His favorite was when he survived a near miss in the field and noted to his Commanding Officer that "I could have been killed out there." Dorf reported that the Colonel dryly commented that, "Well, Lieutenant, there is a war going on, you know."
As a young Lieutenant he commanded an AMTRAC Platoon in Vietnam, and spent considerable time on patrols. Dorf was wounded when the AMTRAC (Amphibious Tractor) he was commanding was destroyed in combat.
Colonel Elmendorf had a safe, draft deferred job, but gave that up to become a Marine. He was always proud of that decision.
Dorf was proud of his sons and his beautiful wife, NJ. He talked about them a great deal, and was very proud of all of them. He told us that his wife was a camp follower and enjoyed bringing his family to training exercises. He was also happy to take his family to Annapolis when he returned to active duty to teach at Annapolis, to give them a look at the wider world.
Colonel Elmendorf was an outstanding Marine, a great Commander and a fine friend. He is remembered and missed by all his Marine Comrades.
Colonel Craig Hullinger
On 7/6/05, NJ (Mrs. Ken) Elmendorf wrote:
Wow, what a nice gesture. I received your letter and promptly sent it to Brett, Dirk and Beth for Father's Day. Thanks loads! We have lots of memories and laughs and fully recognize your "tales" of the swarthy Marine who made life better for us all.
We can hardly believe that it is more than six years since Ken left us......the boys have truly grown up and the grandson who was not quite six months is now six years old and coming to stay with us for a week at "The Big E Ranch" for "camp" with another six year old named Jack.
The grandson - Grant, has his room decorated in military colors and attire, so maybe he'll grow up to be more like Grandpa. He has the personality to handle "Elmer Duff", so we're watching to see how it goes. So far he's a storyteller and jokester.
No we don't really live on a ranch, but in a house in town.....we got it in 2000 but this was my first full winter here as I hadn't sold out of Indiana until last Aug. Several years ago I had some friends visit from Indiana and they thought everyone who lived in Texas had a ranch so we
decided to oblidge them.......it's an Elmendorf thing I guess....
Anyway, we have guest rooms so you are welcome to show up anytime you come this way...it's a great place to live or visit. We're 10 minutes from the airport.
Dirk came here to college and stayed and started a business (Rackspace Managed Hosting) with two friends, then got some investors, hired his brother Brett, began the process to go public, backed off before the dot com crash, and now they have 600 employees. I had planned to have us retire here, so looks like I got my wish......we are happy here. Dirk will be getting married next April 8th to Annie and setting up his home here.
Brett and I live in the same house, so far so good, we have a deal to give each other 6 months notice if our lives change.....so far nothing on the horizon.
I hope you and Beth are well and are enjoying the fruits of your labor with your family.
Thanks again for sharing with us.
* No corrections other than NJ never has dots......that was my 40th birthday present from Ken to go to court and become NJ no dots so computers would accept my name as they wouldn't initials.....it's an Elmendorf thing.....
I am glad you enjoyed the letter. Dorf was a super guy, and I always wanted to write it.
And he very much loved you and the boys.
Glad that you and your family are doing well.