Manilla John

EGA BlackLess than six months after Japan’s “sneak attack” on the United States, our armed forces were on the comeback trail.  Americans were angry—very angry, and our front-line troops gave no quarter to the fanatical Japanese who confronted them.  And, truth be known, it was just as well the Japanese were more willing to sacrifice themselves to their Emperor because US Marines weren’t inclined to take prisoners.  Guadalcanal was a disease-ridden cesspool; it was here that U. S. Marines met the Imperial Japanese Army for the first time in land combat.  The contest was one of fierce determination, bullet to bullet, bayonet to bayonet, and in some cases, hand to hand.

Imperial Japanese forces occupied the Solomon Islands in April 1942.  It was their plan to capture Port Moresby in New Guinea and Tulagi in the southern Solomons.  This would extend their southern defensive perimeter and establish bases to support future advances.  Their seizure of Nauru, Ocean Island, New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa would sever supply lines between Australia and the United States; the result of this would reduce or eliminate Australia as a threat to Japanese possessions in the South Pacific.

The Japanese pushed forward two construction units, consisting of around 2,450 men.  They were originally planned to work on Midway Island when it was captured, but that didn’t happen, so the Japanese moved these construction crews to Guadalcanal on 6 July, where they began building an airfield.  When coast watchers reported this activity to the Americans, US military planners devised a scheme for the capture of Guadalcanal and use of the airfield against the Japanese.

Guadalcanal is not a small island; it extends 2,047 square miles.  The U. S. Marine Corps footprint on this island was desperately small.  Once the Marines had gained a foothold on Guadalcanal however, they were determined to keep it.  The IJA was equally determined to push the American Marines into the sea.  The battle lasted six months.  The struggle to retain possession of the air strip, which the Marines renamed Henderson Field [1], was the focus of a bloody contest.  The climax to the Battle of Lunga Ridge came on a Sunday night, 25 October 1942.

Lunga Ridge lay about 1,000 yards south of Henderson Field.  Typical of Guadalcanal at this time of year, it was raining buckets that Sunday night; Marine positions were transformed into miserable mud pits.  The Marines were exhausted; they had been battling the Japanese for two days, driving back wave after wave of fanatical assaults.  The Marines knew well enough that the Japanese weren’t through with them just yet.

Basilone John 002At about midnight, through dense darkness and rain, hundreds of screaming Japanese troops assaulted the Marine perimeter.  They threw themselves into the flesh tearing barbed wire —these first waves creating human bridges across the wire to allow their comrades access to Marine lines.  The Marines, although tired, knew that this was a desperate contest.  They were wet, undernourished, ill, and pissed off.  Among the Marines waiting to receive them was Sergeant John Basilone, who commanded two machine gun sections in Company D, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

Basilone, born on 4 November 1916 of Italian immigrants, was an experienced machine gun section leader.  He joined the US Army in July 1934, serving a three-year enlistment with the US 16th Infantry Regiment in the Philippine Islands.  He was a strapping young man who was a champion pugilist.  He reenlisted in the Army in 1937 and was reassigned to the US 31st Infantry Regiment.  He liked serving in the Philippines, where he was known as Manilla John, but the Army would not re-post him to the Philippines, and so he took his discharge from the Army and went back to his hometown, where he worked for a time as a truck driver.

But Manilla John maintained his fervor for the Philippines and figured that the best way to find a posting there was to join the Marine Corps.  He enlisted in 1940, and after recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina, he was sent to Marine Corps Base, Quantico for advance infantry training. After an assignment at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Marine Corps assigned him to the 7th Marine Regiment, which was part of the 1st Marine Division—an infantry division earmarked for service on Guadalcanal.  In 1942, Basilone had nearly eight-years of active service in the infantry.  He knew his job.

The Japanese assault on the night of 25 October was ruthless.  Marine defenders received intense grenade and rifle fire; automatic weapons shredded human flesh, splattering friend and foe alike with blood and body parts.  Buckets of blood mixed with the rain and mud.  Basilone’s men, like many others on the line that night, suffered from malaria and dysentery.  Despite these circumstances, Basilone kept his guns firing and his men focused. When the barrels became too hot, he changed them, cleared jammed weapons, directed automatic fire into the mass of attacking Japanese, and kept his men supplied with ammunition.  He steadied his Marines on the line, and gave them encouragement by word and example.

Japanese bodies piled so high in front of the machine guns that he had to constantly reset the weapons so that they could fire over the dead soldiers into additional waves of fanatics.  Eventually, not even water-cooled weapons could stop the Japanese and one section of guns was overrun.  Two of the defenders were killed, three others seriously wounded.  Basilone took up one of his weapons and ran to the breach.  He surprised and killed eight Japanese soldiers.  He then noted that two guns had become jammed by mud and water; the Japanese were setting up for yet another charge.  Basilone stripped the mud away from the belts of ammunition, fed them into the guns, cleared the jammed chambers, and sprayed the Japanese as they began their renewed attack.  The battle ran hot for two hours.

At around 0200, the Japanese assaults stopped, and the firing died down, but the Marines knew better than to relax, and as expected, the Japanese Sendai regiments renewed their attack at 0300.  It was a Banzai attack with the full weight of the assault on Basilone’s sector.  During the lull in firing, Basilone has repositioned his guns to establish a killing zone.  Attacking Japanese fell by the hundreds.  Advancing Japanese soon dropped into the mud and began crawling forward.  Basilone depressed his weapons and destroyed these determined soldiers.

At dawn, Sergeant Basilone and his men were drained.  Only three of these Marines were left alive.  During the fight, Basilone has lost his boon dockers [2], the mud having sucked them off his feet.  Their faces were filthy black from cordite and gun oil, their eyes red and swollen from lack of sleep.  The battlefield was strewn with dead and wounded Marines and Japanese —but Henderson Field still belonged to the Marines.  Many of the dead Japanese were credited to Sergeant Basilone, who killed them with anything he could get his hands on, including his .45 caliber pistol and a machete.  On 26 October 1942, John Basilone was just 26-years old.  In this battle, the legend of the fighting Manilla John was born.

Basilone Lena 001
Sgt Lena Mae Basilone

Basilone was returned to the United States in 1943, where he received the Medal of Honor and placed on a war bond tour.  The press made him into a celebrity, but that wasn’t who Basilone was.  He was a Marine who felt that his duty, his rightful place, was with forward deployed combat Marines.  He was offered an officer’s commission but turned it down.  He was offered an assignment as a combat training instructor, but he turned that down too.  What he wanted was to go back to the Pacific.  The Marine Corps approved his request in December 1943 and Manilla John was assigned to Company C, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, 5th Marine Division.  At the time, the 5th Marine Division was undergoing pre-deployment training at Camp Pendleton, California.  In 1944, Basilone married Sergeant Lena Mae Riggi, Women Marine Reserve, who was also assigned to Camp Pendleton.  After their honeymoon, Basilone reenlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps [3].

On 19 February 1945, on the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima, Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone was serving as a machine gun section leader on Red Beach II.  The Marines came under concentrated enemy fire from Japanese fortifications staged at various locations on the island.  With his unit pinned down, Basilone made his way around the side of the Japanese emplacements until he was in a position directly above their position.  He then attacked the Japanese with grenades and demolitions, single-handedly destroying the entire point of resistance and its defending garrison.

Basilone then fought his way toward Airfield-1 and aided a tank that was trapped in an enemy mine field and encountering intense Japanese mortar and artillery fire.  Despite the enemy fire that surrounded him, Basilone guided the tank through the hazardous terrain to safety.  Soon after, however, Basilone was killed by Japanese fire while moving along the edge of the airfield.  Some have attributed his death to mortars, while others claim that he was killed by well-aimed rifle fire.  For his courageous actions at Iwo Jima, Basilone was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and Purple Heart.  He was also entitled to wear the Presidential Unit Citation (two awards), which equates to a Navy Cross for every individual assigned to a valorous unit.

Manilla John Basilone is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  Lena Basilone never remarried.  She passed away in 1999.

Endnotes:

[1] Named in honor of Major Lofton Henderson, killed in action during the Battle for Midway while commanding VMSB-241.  Henderson was the first Marine Corps aviator killed in this battle.

[2] Field boots used by soldiers and Marines in World War II.

[3] One wonders how much of Basilone’s story made its way into the popular John Wayne film, Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).

A Short History of the Royal Marines

US:UK EnsignWhat is a Marine?  The short answer would be a specialized member of the armed forces who participates in efforts to project naval power ashore. What makes a Marine stand out from a regular soldier and sets him apart from any other fighting organization isn’t just a matter of how they’re trained, the equipment they use, or their tactical skills.  It is the fighting spirit that lives within each Marine —and this is what drives a Marine to accept nothing less than victory in all lethal situations.  It is the determination to win, the eagerness to fight, and the high standard of excellence they demand of themselves and each other that makes a Marine unique.  Their battle record speaks for itself.

Marines are, by definition, an expeditionary force in readiness who are deployed at a moment’s notice to quickly and aggressively win their nation’s battles.  Marines have a long history of developing expeditionary doctrine and amphibious innovation that sets the standard for all other branches of military service.  In projecting naval power into a hostile environment, Marines rely on their superior training, their self-confidence, their discipline, and each other to win the day.  Toward this end, Marines are trained to improvise, adapt, and overcome every obstacle in whatever situation they encounter.  They are not only willing to engage any enemy force; they are also determined to defeat them until national victory has been achieved.  Marines have but one mission: fight, and win.

Of all Marine organizations that exist in the world today, only two stand out: United States Marines, and their British counterparts—the Royal Marines.

RM 001 BadgeThe story of the Royal Marines began on 28 October 1664 when Great Britain formed the Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot.  It soon became known as the Admiral’s Regiment. The Holland Regiment (later called The Buffs) was also raised to serve at sea on 11 July 1665.  Both regiments were paid for by the Admiralty.  John Churchill, later 1st Duke of Marlborough, was a famous member of The Buffs.  Additionally, a company of foot guards served as Marines to augment the Admiral’s Regiment during the sea battle at Sole Bay in 1672.  The Holland Regiment was disbanded in 1689 after James II was deposed during the so-called Glorious Revolution.

Two maritime regiments of the British Army were raised in 1690 —the Earl of Pembroke’s and Torrington’s Regiments, later designated Lord Berkeley’s Regiment.  These Marines participated in an opposed landing during the Williamite War in Ireland at Cork on 21 September 1690, John Churchill commanding.  The Marine Establishment was reformed in 1698.  Two existing regiments became a single regiment under Thomas Brudenell, and the foot regiments under William Seymour, Edward Dutton Colt, and Harry Mordaunt were converted to Marine regiments —all of which were disbanded in 1699.

In 1702, six regiments of Marines and six Sea Service Regiments of foot were formed to participate in the War of Spanish Succession.  While on land, the Marines served under Brigadier General William Seymour; while at sea, they fell under the authority of the senior naval commander and the captain of the ship to which assigned.  The Admiral’s Regiment first distinguished itself in 1704 when the Marines captured the mole [1] during the assault on Gibraltar.  British and Dutch Marines later defended the fortress from counterattack.  After the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, three Marine regiments were transferred to the army, where they were designated as the 30th, 31st, and 32nd Regiments of Foot.

RM 001A Uniform
Painting of an early maritime officer.

The Admiral’s Regiment was redesignated as His Majesty’s Marine Forces on 5 April 1755; fifty companies were organized into three divisions, placed under the command of the Admiralty, and stationed at Portsmouth, Chatham, and Plymouth.  Note: shown left, a painting of an early Maritime officer.

British Marines were not the first naval infantry to emerge in Europe.  They were preceded by the Spanish Infanteria de Marina (1537), Venice’s Fanti da Mar (1550), the Portuguese Marine Corps (1610), and the French Troupes de Marine (1622).  The British, in turn, established a regiment of (3,000) American Colonial Marines during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, around 1739.

In the early days, all field-grade officers of the Marines were serving officers in the Royal Navy.  Because the Admiralty believed that the top field officer ranks were largely honorary posts (which was also true in the Army), the farthest a field officer could advance was to lieutenant colonel.  It was not until 1771 that the first Marine officer was promoted to colonel, but this situation persisted well into the 1800s.  In any case, British Marines performed numerous amphibious landings throughout most of the 18th Century.  Among the more famous was the landing at Belle Isle [2] in 1761.  British Marines also served during the American War of Independence.  A company of Marines under Major John Pitcairn broke rebel resistance at Bunker Hill and took possession of the American’s redoubt.  When Royal Navy ships were becalmed, Marines often took to ship’s boats to repel attackers during blockade operations.  On the day that Captain James Cook was killed in Hawaii (14 February 1779), he had with him four British Marines: Corporal James Thomas, Private Theophilus Hinks, Private Thomas Fatchett, and Private John Allen.

In May 1787, four companies of Marines under Major Robert Ross accompanied the First Fleet [3] to protect a new colony at Botany Bay (New South Wales).  Due to a gross oversight, the First Fleet departed Portsmouth without its main supply of ammunition, cartridge paper, and flintlock tools.  The oversight was noted early in the voyage and a dispatch sent back to England that the missing supplies be urgently forwarded to the fleet.  Captain William Bligh was assigned this mission while in command of HMS Bounty.  Ten thousand rounds of ammunition were obtained from Rio de Janeiro, but these stores were still inadequate and in time, the Marines would find themselves in difficult circumstances.  A full measure of stores was never sent to the First Fleet.

In total, the Marine contingent of four companies included 212 Marines; of these, 160 privates.  Marine strength was based on the advice of Mr. Joseph Banks, who counselled the British government that local Aborigines were few and retiring by disposition.  Upon their arrival at New South Wales, Captain Arthur Phillip, Royal Navy, found that the natives were populous and aggressive.  Within a year, Aboriginals had killed 6 of the First Fleet and wounded scores of others. Marines were ordered to expand the initial settlement area at Sydney Cove and organize farming operations at Parramatta.  When Aboriginals contracted smallpox, some journalists claimed that the British Marines deliberately spread the disease.  Most modern scholars regard this as uncorroborated bunk, however.

At the instigation of Admiral John Jervis, 1st Earl of St. Vincent in 1802, His Majesty’s Marine Forces were titled Royal Marines by King George III.

Up until 1804, the Royal Artillery Regiment had provided artillery support to the British Marines.  A lawsuit by a Royal Artillery Officer led a civil court to declare that Army officers were not subject to Navy regulations or the orders of Naval officers.  Accordingly, Royal Marine Artillery was added to the Royal Marines in that very same year.  They were referred to as “Blue Marines” because these forces retained the blue coats of the Royal Artillery Regiment.  In contrast, the Royal Marines dressed in scarlet coats (as did the British Army).  They were called “Red Marines” or, more derisively, Lobster backs by the unenlightened naval ranks.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Royal Marines took part in every notable naval battle on board Royal Navy ships, executed amphibious raids, provided security aboard ship, maintained discipline among the crew, engaged enemy crews with long rifles, and led boarding parties.

The number of Marines assigned to Royal Navy ships depended on the size of the ship, but Marine strength was usually maintained at a ratio of one Marine per ship’s gun, plus officers commanding.  A “first rate ship of the line” would have a compliment of 104 Marines; a 28-gun frigate would have 29 Marines.  Between 1807 and 1814, a total of 31,400 men served in the Royal Marines but given the size of the Royal Navy during this period, and the missions assigned to the Royal Navy, British Army detachments frequently served aboard Navy ships to augment the Royal Marines.  Seaborne operations frequently included blockading French ports and conducting amphibious raids against French signal communications stations and other operations designed to harass the enemy.

In the Caribbean, freed French slave volunteers formed the 1st Corps of Colonial Marines to help bolster the ranks of Royal Marines.  This practice was repeated during the War of 1812, when escaped American slaves were formed into the 2nd Corps of Colonial Marines.  These men were commanded by Royal Marine officers and fought alongside their regular Marine counterparts at the Battle of Bladensburg (August 1814).  During this battle, a detachment of Royal Marine Artillery under Lieutenant John Lawrence deployed Congreve rockets [4] with telling effect against American militia.  A battalion of Royal Marines augmented the 21st Regiment of Foot during the burning of Washington.  They did not torch the U. S. Marine Corps Barracks at 8th & I Streets, however.

During the War of 1812, Royal Marines frequently operated in the Chesapeake Bay, including operations up the Penobscot River.  This was a composite battalion, formed from several ship’s detachments, serving under Captain John Robyns [5].  A smaller organization of Royal Marines, numbering around 100 troops, served under captains John T. Wilson and John Alexander Phillips that augmented the British Army force of 700 men under Major Thomas Adair, who successfully led an attack against the west bank of the Mississippi River.  This was Britain’s only success at New Orleans.  These same Marines later helped to capture Fort Bowyer in Mobile Bay —the last action of the War of 1812.

In 1855, the Royal Marines were renamed the Royal Marines Light Infantry (RMLI).  A slight modification to this designation was affected in 1862: Royal Marine Light Infantry.  After 1850, the Royal Navy saw limited service at sea until 1914.  During this time, Naval planners became more interested in the concept of Naval Brigades, which is to say Royal Marines, augmented by artillery, who would make amphibious landings ahead of naval infantry and conduct skirmishes —a traditional function of light infantry.  For most of their history, the Royal Marines have functioned as fusiliers (riflemen).  In this capacity, they served with distinction during the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-1860) in China.  Every engagement in China was successful save one: when British Admiral Sir James Hope ordered the Marines to make a landing across a wide expanse of mud flats.  I will forego any comment about Admiral Hope’s leadership ability.

RM 002 Boxer Rebellion
Royal Marines during the Boxer Rebellion

Royal Marines, along with their American counterparts, played a prominent role during the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900.  See also: Send in the Marines!

Pursuing a career in the Royal Marines was considered “social suicide” through much of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Royal Marines had a lower standing than their counterparts in the Royal Navy [6].  In 1907, the British government reduced professional differences between the Royal Navy and Royal Marines.  In time, the Royal Marines were elevated to a position of respect within the British forces, although sharing a pint of ale with British Army veterans, one might come away with an entirely different point of view.  What British soldiers have never understood, however, is that ARMY stands for “Aren’t Ready to be Marines Yet.”

During the first part of the 20th century, the role of the Royal Marines remained traditional, that is, providing shipboard infantry for security, boarding parties, and amphibious raids.  The Marines’ other traditional role while aboard Royal Navy ships was manning gun turrets on battleships or cruisers.

During World War I, Royal Marines landed with the Royal Navy Division in Belgium in 1914 to defend Antwerp.  They later participated in the amphibious landings at Gallipoli in 1915 and conducted the Zeebrugge Raid in 1918.  After this “war to end all wars,” Royal Marines took part in the allied intervention in post-Revolutionary Russia.  In 1919, the 6th Battalion mutinied and was disbanded in disgrace.

RM 002In 1922, during post-war demobilization, the Royal Marines were reduced from a strength of 55,000 to around 15,000.  To further reduce the costs of maintaining this force in readiness, Royal Marine Artillery (RMA) and Light Infantry units were consolidated in June 1923.  Even so, tremendous political pressure was applied to disbanding the Royal Marines altogether.  As a compromise, opposing politicians agreed to a Royal Marine organization of 9,500 troops.  To accomplish this, the RMA was deactivated; henceforth, the title Royal Marine would apply to the entire Corps.  Artillery organizations would be part of the force structure, but on a much smaller scale.  After consolidation, the Royal Marine full-dress uniform became dark blue and red; Royal Marine officers and SNCOs continue to wear scarlet uniforms as part of their mess dress kit.  The rank structure was also modified.  The private of infantry and gunner of artillery were replaced by the rank of Marine.

In World War II, Royal Marine shipboard detachments continued to make amphibious raids with limited objectives, such as accepting the surrender of French Axis forces.  Initially, Royal Marine infantry units were organized as Mobile Naval Base Defense Organizations (which were similar to U. S. Marine Corps’ Advanced Base Defense Battalion).  The MNBDO’s took part in the defense of Crete, Malaya, and Singapore.

RM 004 WW IIIn 1942, Royal Marine infantry battalions were reorganized as commando units.  The Division command structure became a Special Service Brigade command.  In total, four Special Service (Commando) Brigades were raised during World War II.  Nine RMC battalions were created, numbered from 40 Commando to 48 Commando.  Brigades were task organized, which means that Royal Marine commando organizational structure depended on their assigned mission.  In the early years, British Army units served alongside the Marines within Commando Brigades.  Support troops served as landing craft crew and saw extensive action on D-Day in June 1944.  In January 1945, an additional two RM brigades were formed, both organized as conventional infantry.  Of these, only one saw any action during World War II.

Several Royal Marine officers served as pilots during the World War II, one of these leading the air attack that sank the German warship Konigsberg.  Eighteen RMOs commanded fleet air squadrons, and after the formation of the British Pacific Fleet, Royal Marine aviation assets were well-represented in final operations against Japan.  Squadron commanders were usually captains and majors.  Lieutenant Colonel R. C. Hay commanded an air group on board HMS Indefatigable.  Meanwhile, Royal Marine detachments continued to serve aboard Royal Navy cruisers and battleships.

During World War II, the Victoria Cross [7] was awarded to only one Marine: Acting Corporal Thomas P. Hunter, aged 21 years, of 43 Commando, during combat operations at Lake Comacchio, Italy.  On 2 April 1945, Hunter commanded a Bren gun (light machine gun) section.

RM 004 T P Hunter
Corporal Thomas Peck Hunter, RM

According to the citation for this award, 43 Commando was advancing to its final objective and was within 400 yards of an east-west canal.  Corporal Hunter observed that the enemy was entrenched around a group of houses south of the canal and realized that his troops, who were following in trace of his advance, would soon be exposed to enemy fire in an area devoid of cover or concealment.  Seizing his light machine gun, Hunter charged alone across two hundred yards of open ground.  The Germans engaged Hunter with no fewer than nine automatic weapons.  Attracting enemy fire away from his men, and demonstrating a complete disregard for his own safety, Corporal Hunter assaulted the German position while firing from the hip, changing magazines as he ran, killing several of the enemy and clearing houses of all enemy troops.  Six German soldiers surrendered to him, while the remaining enemy fled across a footbridge to the north bank of the canal.  Taking a position atop of pile of rubble, Corporal Hunter engaged the enemy’s new positions with deadly accurate fire while encouraging his men to take up secure positions within the cluster of houses.  It was then that Corporal Hunter received the bulk of enemy’s fire and he was killed.  Corporal Hunter is remembered at ten separate locations throughout the United Kingdom.

In 1946, British Army Commandos were disbanded, leaving the Royal Marines to continue the commando role (with supporting army elements).

Drysdale 002
LtCol Douglas B. Drysdale, RM

At the outset of the Korean War, 41 Commando was reformed for service with the United States Navy.  After the landing of the X Corps at Wonsan, 41 Commando joined the 1st U. S. Marine Division.  41 Commando formed the nucleus of Task Force Drysdale under Lieutenant Colonel Douglas B. Drysdale, Royal Marines, with one US Marine Corps rifle company and one US Army rifle company, and attachments of rolling stock and fought their way from Koto-ri to Hagaru-ri after the Chinese erected blockades along the north road.  It then took part in the epic Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.  41 Commando subsequently implemented several raids against Communist Chinese forces.  The Royal Marines were withdrawn from the Korean conflict in 1951.  For its service in the Korean War, 41 Commando was awarded the United States Presidential Unit Citation and Colonel Drysdale received the Silver Star Medal for valor.

Between 1948 and 1960, elements of the Royal Marines participated at various times and places in the Malayan Emergency [8].  In 1955, 45 Commando was dispatched to Cyprus to undertake anti-terrorist operations against Greek Cypriot insurgents.  In 1956, 3 Commando Brigade with 40, 42, and 45 Royal Commando took part in the Suez Crisis. This event marked the first time the Royal Marines employed helicopters in vertical assault operations.  British and French forces ultimately defeated the Egyptians, but US diplomatic activities helped to defuse the crisis.  40 and 41 Commando were sent to Borneo at various times to help defuse tensions between Indonesian-Malayan belligerents.  In January 1964, elements of the Tanzanian Army mutinied.  The United Kingdom responded by dispatching 41 Commando from Devon and landing Royal Marine elements from HMS Bulwark.  The Tanzanian revolt was put down rather quickly, but it took another six months to disarm rebel elements of the Tanzanian military.

Royal Marine units regularly deployed to Northern Ireland to help contain that conflict.  Referred to as “the Troubles,” the Northern Ireland conflict lasted from 1969 through 1998.  In total, 24 Royal Marines died as a result of protestant snipers and bombers.

Between 1974 and 1984, the Royal Marines undertook three United Nations peacekeeping tours of duty in Cyprus.  The first was operation took place after the Turkish invasion in November 1974.  41 Commando took over responsibility for the Limassol District from the 2nd Battalion Guard’s Brigade.  41 Commando was the first Royal Marine unit to wear the light blue beret of the United Nations Command.

RM 003 Falklands
The Battle for Stanley

When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982, the United Kingdom dispatched a task force to recapture them, which given the necessity for an amphibious assault, included the Royal Marine Commando.  British troops landed at San Carlos Water on East Falkland and moved across the entire island to the capital city of Stanley.  In Royal Marine parlance, the troops “yomped” across the Falklands, which means a long-distance force march in full kit.  Stanley fell to the Brits on 14 June 1982.  Major General Jeremy Moore, Royal Marines, commanded the land forces in the Falklands Conflict.

During the 1991 Gulf War, 24 Marines from Kilo Company, 41 Commando served as six-man raiding teams aboard Royal Navy destroyers and frigates.  They were mainly used as ship boarding parties.  Elements of 3 Commando Brigade were deployed to provide aid and protection to Iraqi Kurds in Northern Iraq as part of Operation Safe Haven.

RM 007
Royal Marine Commando, Helmand Province

After the turn of the century, Royal Marines began converting from their light-infantry role towards an expanded force-protection role.  The British refer to this reorganization as Commando-21: the establishment of two battalion-sized commando units (which included 40 Commando and 45 Commando.  Each organization consists of six company sized units, and these organized into “troops,” (platoons).  The change has given the Royal Marines more firepower, greater mobility, better access to intelligence, and more operational flexibility.  The size of each commando is roughly 692 of all ranks.  41 Commando has taken on a specialized maritime mission since 2017 under the auspices of 3 Commando Brigade.

Now approaching the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, Royal Marines and their American counterparts have never been closer.  They share a tradition, a similar mission, and the title Marine goes a very long way in defining who they are.  To cement this tie, British flight officers have begun training alongside Marine Corps aviators; US Marine officers serve in exchange billets in the United Kingdom, and lately, junior Royal Marine officers (three so far) have begun serving 18-month tours within US Marine Corps ground units.  US Marine Corps lieutenants have not yet started serving in similar capacities in the United Kingdom, but it is likely that this will happen in the future.

Sources:

  1. Ballantyne, I. Strike from the Sea.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2004
  2. Chappell, M. Wellington’s Peninsula Regiments.  Oxford: The Oxford Press, 2004
  3. Moore, J. The First Fleet Marines.  Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1989
  4. Mountbatten, L. Combined Operations: The Official Story of the Commando.  New York: Macmillan Company, 1943
  5. Poyntz, W. H. Per Mare, Per Terram: Reminiscences of Thirty-two Years’ Military, Naval, and Constabulary Service.  London: Print & Publishing Company, 1892
  6. Thompson, J. The Royal Marines, from Sea Soldiers to a Special Force.  London: Pan Books, 2001

Endnotes:

[1] A mole is a massive stone structure constructed to serve as a pier, a breakwater, or causeway between bodies of water.

[2] The operation at Belle Isle was an amphibious expedition intended to capture the French island off the Brittany coast during the Seven Years’ War.  The initial attack was repulsed, but a second landing forced a beach head.  After a siege of six weeks, the French surrendered (as they almost always do) and this gave the British total control of the island.  Belle Isle was returned to French authority after the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

[3] The First Fleet consisted of eleven ships that departed from Portsmouth, England on 13 May to establish a penal colony that became the first European settlement in Australia.  The fleet involved two Royal Navy vessels, three store ships, and six convict transports carrying between 1,000 to 1,500 convicts, Marines, seamen, civil officers, and free people.  From England, the fleet sailed to Rio de Janeiro, east to Cape Town and then to Botany Bay … arriving between 18 to 20 January 1788.

[4] The Congreve rocket was designed and developed by Sir William Congreve in 1804; it was an adaptation of the Mysorean rockets used against the British in India.  By 1813, there were three classes of Congreve rockets: heavy, medium, and light.  Heavy rockets consisted of between 100 and 300 pounds but were generally regarded as too cumbersome to use in the field.  Medium rockets were between 24 and 42 pounds, and from two to four feet in length.  Light rockets were between 6 and 18 pounds and from 16 to 25 inches in length.  Medium and light rockets could be case shot, shell, or explosive.

[5] Major General John Robyns, Royal Marines, (1780-1857) served with distinction during the Napoleonic Wars, including Martinique, and the War of 1812.  In America, Robyn faced off against the U. S. Marines at Bladensburg, Washington, Baltimore, and New Orleans.

[6] This was true in the United States, as well.  My grandmother was devastated when I joined the U. S. Marine Corps in 1962.  Every member of my family up until then had served in the Army.  It wasn’t until 1965 when my uncle (my grandmother’s son, a career army NCO) was able to convince her that the Marines was the right choice for me.  I was, at the time, a very proud and somewhat cocky corporal of Marines.  By the time I received my commission in 1975, Grandmother had fully embraced my service and bragged to her few remaining friends that her grandson was a United States Marine.

[7] The Victoria Cross is the United Kingdom’s highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

[8] Following World War II, British authorities attempted to form the Malayan Union.  Their goal was to create a state wherein all citizens (Malay, Chinese, and Indian) would have equal stature, but many ethnic Malayans, along with regional rulers, rejected this scheme.  Armed insurgency first occurred on 16 June 1948 when three of four targeted plantation managers were assassinated.  The ensuring guerrilla war involved pro-communist, anti-British forces who engaged in terror tactics like those employed by the Viet Cong during the Viet Nam War.  Nearly 12,000 people lost their lives in this 12-year conflict.

Jarhead Adventures

By Cliff Judkins [1]

Chu Lai AB 1966At the time [in 1966], there was only the expeditionary field of 4,000 feet of shifting metal.  All takeoffs were with Jet-Assisted Take Off (JATO) bottles (lots of things went wrong with these —especially at night) and all landings were arrested.  One day we taxied in to VMA-223 from a mission and noticed an Air Force C-123 parked at the main ramp.  It had made an emergency landing at Chu Lai.

That night at the club, the only passenger from the C-123 was there.  He was an F-100 pilot in his flight suit on crutches and with two broken legs.  Of course, we wanted to know how he broke his legs.  He told us that he was an F-100F (two-seater) Misty Fast FAC (Airborne Forward Air Controller).  The aircrew took turns flying front and back seat.  He said that it was his day to go up North in the back seat.  They found the target for the F-105s and marked it with 5″ white phosphorus (WP) rockets.  Then, after the 105s were done, they were supposed to fly low and fast and take an after-action picture of the target.  He was the guy with the hand-held camera.

Of course, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) knew the routine and began shooting the shit out of them.  The front seat guy did a lot of jinking and somehow, the lens came off the camera and disappeared.  The aircraft safely got “feet wet” and in-flight refueled for their return trip home down south to Tui Hoa. Our guy said that he kept looking for the lens but the front seater said to forget it.  They would find it after landing.  Upon landing and taxi back, the front seater called “Canopy Clear” and raised the canopy.  The lens had landed near one of the actuators for the ejection seat.  The back-seater said that he heard this tremendous explosion and realized what had happened when he got seat separation about 250 feet up at the top of the arc and, looking down saw a miniature F-100 below him missing a canopy.  He said that it was like a “Wily Coyote” cartoon.

There was a point where you stop going up, a pause, and then a rapid going down thing.  The F-100 didn’t have a zero/zero seat either (needed 100 knots and 100 feet).  So, he said that he had always heard that in a long fall, one dies of a heart attack before one hits the ground.  So he said he kept shouting: “Come on heart attack.”

The drogue chute had deployed and that kept his feet straight down.  It was real steep near the taxiway, they had been doing a lot of excavating, and it had rained.  He hit feet first.  The un-deployed chute saved his back and kept it straight.  He skidded down the embankment into a large pool of water. He had two simple fractures. Needless to say, he couldn’t buy another drink that night.

This next story is from a pilot who was in VMFA 314 at Chu Lai in ’69.  Vietnam era F4 guys will appreciate this story.  Here’s another ‘bad day’ from Chu Lai:

F-4B Phantom II VMFA 323I was one of a half-dozen replacements who checked-in with MAG-13 on August 2.  We were not all assigned to VMFA-314 though.  There were two other combat squadrons in the Air Group: VMFA-115 (the Able Eagles), and VMFA-323 (the Death Rattlers).  All three squadrons flew the McDonnell Douglas F4B Phantom II and shared common living areas.  Although we may have been in different squadrons, eventually we all got to know each other very well.

The first thing we six rookies did was attend an Air Group briefing in an underground bunker protected by a thick layer of sandbags.  This bunker served as our group intelligence center.  (When I was there in `66, we used a house trailer. I guess things got hotter when the gooks realized that I left and started flying for Delta).  Suddenly, an urgent radio call interrupted our briefing. We listened as one of VMFA-115s aircraft radioed-in to report a problem.  The aircraft had been hit by enemy ground fire and could not lower its landing gear.  The pilot was going to attempt a belly landing on the runway.  At that news, we all raced outside near the runway to grab a good spot from which to watch the crash landing.

Crash crews raced to cover the runway with a layer of fire retardant foam while the damaged F4 circled overhead, burning down its load of fuel.  Two arresting cables were strung across the middle of the runway.  The cables were anchored on each end by a chain made with heavy, 40-pound links.  The plan was for the F4 to lower his tail hook, to belly-land in the foam, to catch one of the arresting wires, and to come to a screeching halt.

It did not quite happen that way.

After burning off most of his fuel, the pilot gingerly lowered the airplane onto the foamed runway.  A spark set off the fumes in the jet’s empty wing tanks and they erupted into flames.  All one could see racing down the runway were two wingtips protruding from an orange and black ball of fire heading toward the arresting cables.  The F4 hit the first arresting cable. We watched the cable snap and hurl its 40-pound chain links skyward.  Then the plane hit the second arresting cable.  It also parted and flung its chain links.  The aircraft was now just a ball of fire heading toward the end of the runway.

Then we heard, Boom!  Boom!

The pilot had lit his afterburners.  He was attempting to takeoff without wheels!  As the aircraft roared toward the end of the runway, it slowly struggled skyward.  It got airborne and began to climb nearly vertically.  Then, both the pilot and his back-seater, the radar intercept officer (RIO), ejected.

We stared in wonder as the aircraft crashed into the nearby ocean.  The two crewmen slowly floated down in their parachutes.  The wind carried them over the ocean and they too soon splashed down.  A rescue helicopter was on the scene immediately.  Both of the F-4 crewmen, treading water, raised their right hand.  This was a signal to the chopper that they were unharmed.  The helicopter slowly lowered itself and plucked the pilot out of the water and into the safety of the helicopter.  The helicopter then turned its attention to the RIO.  As the helicopter slowly lowered itself over the RIO, the helicopter pilot suddenly lost control of his chopper, and he crashed into the water on top of the RIO.  As soon as the chopper hit the water, its pilot regained control, got airborne again, and yanked the RIO from the water.  Although the RIO was rescued safely, his leg was broken when the helicopter crashed on top of him.

That night at the Officers Club, the RIO sat with his leg elevated and encased in a full-leg cast.  As he imbibed a few, he related his story: “First, we got the shit shot out of us.  But, hey, that’s okay —we weren’t hurt.  Then, we survived a belly landing.  But, that was okay too, we weren’t hurt.  Then the pilot decided he’d take off without wheels, but that worked out well too.  Then we survived an aircraft ejection [2] and water landing, but that was also okay, we weren’t hurt.  Then the damn rescue helicopter crashed on me and broke my leg!”

Endnotes:

[1] In 1963, (then) First Lieutenant Cliff Judkins experienced an in-flight fire while refueling during a trans-Pacific flight.  After he ejected from his aircraft, his parachute failed to open.  He fell 15,000 feet into the Pacific … and survived. You can read about it here.

[2] The F-4 B was fitted with the Martin-Baker ejection seat.  Powerful rockets launched the pilot and RIO seats out of the aircraft, propelling them clear of a disabled aircraft.  Most everyone who ejected experienced significant back trauma, including broken back.

The Mascot’s Suicide

Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina is a spit-n-polish duty station.  Thousands of visitors pass through the main gate at PISC every year. They are mostly the families of newly minted U. S. Marines who make the journey to see their sons and daughters graduate from recruit training (also known as boot camp) [1].  There is a sign at the entrance to the base that reads, “We Marines do two things really well: we win battles, and we make Marines.”

PISC 001The term “spit-n-polish” means that the base grounds and its many buildings and facilities are maintained in top-notch condition.  Neither do Marine officers and NCOs allow any slouching, hand-warming, spitting, chewing gum, ear buds, umbrellas, or hand holding with the ladies while in uniform. The island is well guarded, and all permanent personnel are constantly on the lookout for some crybaby who thinks that recruit training is too tough and attempts to swim off the island in shark, barracuda, and snake infested waters.  Consequently, after hours, in addition to the military police, each battalion has a duty officer, usually in the grade of First Lieutenant, a duty staff noncommissioned officer, and a duty clerk.  The Recruit Training Regiment also employs a duty officer —the regimental commander’s representative after duty hours, usually in the grade of Captain, and a staff NCO and a clerk assistant.their

While the likelihood of terrorists or die-hard Japanese soldiers attacking MCRD is remote, Marine Corps units are 24/7 operations.  Battalion and regimental duty officers have their “special orders,” which occasionally cause them to leave their post and make periodic inspection tours through recruit training area.  When these officers are making their rounds, the staff duty NCO takes charge and listens for the phone to ring.  If it does, it usually means that something is going on that requires his or her immediate attention.

Now, what follows may be a Marine Corps sea story; I have no personal knowledge of it.  And, for clarification, the only difference between a Marine Corps sea story and a fairy tale is in the telling of it.  Fairy tales begin with “Once upon a time.”  Sea stories begin with, “Now this ain’t no shit.”

USMC BulldogOne late afternoon, the regimental duty officer, who was a very fine young captain, executed his first order of business upon assuming his post at 1600.  He directed the duty clerk to take the regimental mascot, a bulldog named Smedley, outside to the rear of the headquarters building.  Smedley led a charmed life.  He had a spiffy doghouse with his name stenciled on it, it was painted in the Marine Corps’ official colors, and it had a fine roof.  Taking the dog out was an everyday occurrence, needed of course to keep the animal from laying land mines all over the regimental headquarters.  Bulldogs are not known for their self-discipline.  The regimental commander liked his dog, but he didn’t like having to clean up after him.

According to this story, the Regimental Duty Officer’s (RDO) special instructions required that while out of doors, Smedley was to be fed, watered, and then brought back inside the headquarters building at or about 2200 hours, which is the official hour of Taps.  Why this was necessary when the dog had his own house is a mystery.  However, at about 2130, the RDO received a telephone call from one of the battalions on a matter that demanded his attention, and he shortly departed his post to attend to the problem, whatever it was.  Before leaving the command post, the RDO reminded his staff duty NCO bring Smedley in from outside at 2200 hours.

The issue that required the RDO to leave his post turned out to be a serious one, and the captain was busy for several hours.  No one had given much thought about the dog until somewhere between midnight and 0100 hours.  Sitting at his desk, the Captain turned to the NCO and said, “Damn, we forgot to bring the dog in!”  The duty clerk was sent to get the regimental mascot.  After a few minutes, the corporal came back inside the building and said that he couldn’t find Smedley.  Shit.  Breaking out a flashlight, the Captain his staff NCO went outside to look for the dog.  Eventually, they found Smedley — dead.

The animal had a history of chasing after things —typical of bulldogs, who in addition to lacking self-discipline, aren’t very bright.  What apparently happened was that the dog jumped up on top of his doghouse, and while seated there, spotted a car traveling on an adjacent road.  Smedley leaped from his doghouse, over a nearby chain-link fence, and promptly ran out of chain. Cause of death, strangulation.

Promptly at 0800 the next morning, the RDO made a report of his watch to the regimental executive officer (XO).  The XO was not pleased, of course, but the regimental commander was livid.  By 0815 the captain imagined that he’d seen his last promotion.  In time, the captain’s predicament would take a turn for the worse. The regimental commander directed his XO to press charges against the captain for negligence of duty.  With charges preferred, the captain had but two choices: he could either accept regimental nonjudicial punishment, or he could demand a court-martial.  After consulting with a civilian attorney in the nearby town of Beaufort, the Captain demanded a court-martial.

After evaluating all the facts surrounding Smedley’s death, along with those of the “incident” that called the RDO away from his usual post, the civilian attorney made an appointment with the regimental commander to see if he could persuade the colonel to drop the charges.  The CO could not be persuaded, and the matter progressed to scheduling a Special Court-martial.  Before the court convened, however, the civilian attorney (a southern gentleman) made another appointment with the regimental commander.

“Colonel,” said the civilian attorney, “my purpose in requesting this meeting is to again ask that you reconsider your actions this case.  I am asking once more that you drop all charges against my client.”

“Dropping the charges is off the table in this discussion, sir,” said the Colonel.

“Well, now Colonel,” continued the attorney, “before you make a hasty decision, let me acquaint you with the facts of this case, as I intend to present them to the court and to the press.”

“The press?” asked the Colonel.

“Indeed, suh.  This is a very stringent action you’ve taken against a very fine Marine Corps officer, and I intend to defend him as best I can, including, as I said, in the court of public opinion.”

“Well, you’re entitled to do as you see fit,” said the Colonel, “but press involvement is not going to persuade me in this matter.”

“That is as I suspected, Colonel,” said the attorney. “But let me just take a moment of your time, as I said, to acquaint you with the facts of this case —as I intend to present them.  We believe, and I shall argue this strenuously, that the dog . . . his name was Smedley?”

“Yes, that’s right,” the Colonel answered.

“That’s an odd name for a dog, don’t you think?”

“It’s a tradition,” said the colonel.

“Well, in any case, we believe that Smedley, being unhappy here at the regiment, and being unable to communicate that melancholy to you, began exhibiting a pattern of disturbing behavior.  Chasing automobiles, loose bowels … things of that sort.  We believe that in his final days, Smedley was a very unhappy mascot, not of sound mind, and possibly, clinically depressed.  I will argue that he committed suicide by throwing himself over the fence, thereby hanging himself to death.”

“What?” said the Colonel.  “That is preposterous!”

“Well, preposterous as it may sound, that is what we intend to argue before the court.  I have witnesses that will attest to the dog’s aberrant behavior.  And as I said, suh, the press is going to love this story.  I daresay people will be talking about this case up and down the entire East Coast of these United States.  And, uh, I do believe your Marine headquarters is located on the east coast, isn’t it suh?”

The charges filed against the captain were dropped that very day.

Endnote:

[1] There are two recruit training centers: Parris Island, South Carolina and San Diego, California.

Remembering the Ladies

Adams A 001
Abigail Adams

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency.  And by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.  Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.  If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Abigail Adamsin a letter to her husband John, 31 March 1776.

Johnson OM 001
Opha May Johnson (1878-1955)

Opha May Jacob was born on 4 May 1878 in Kokomo, Indiana.  She graduated from the shorthand and typewriting department of Wood’s Commercial College in Washington, D. C. at the age of 17.  In 1898, she married a gentleman named Victor H. Johnson. Victor was the musical director at the Lafayette Square Opera House and Opha worked as a civil servant for the Interstate Commerce Commission.

And then, World War I came along.  Women have always been involved during times of war.  For centuries, women followed armies—many of whom were the wives of soldiers who provided indispensable services to their men, such as cooking, laundry, and nursing wounds.  World War I involved women, too … albeit in a different way than at any previous time. Thousands of women in the United States formed or joined organizations that worked to bring relief to the war-torn countries in Europe even before America’s official entry into the war in April 1917.  American women weren’t alone in this effort; thousands of women in the United Kingdom followed a similar path —the difference being that Great Britain had been engaged in World War I from its beginning.

After the United States entered World War I, women continued to join the war time organizations and expand the war effort.  They were highly organized groups, much like the military, and this helped women to gain respect from their fellow citizens and have their patriotic endeavors recognized and respected.  The key difference between the efforts of women during World War I and previous wars was the class of women involved.  Typically, women who followed the armies in earlier times were working-class women, but during World War I, women from all classes of society served in many different capacities.  So-called upper-class women were primary founders of war time organizations because they could afford to devote so much of their time (and money) to these efforts. Middle and lower-class ladies were more likely to serve as nurses, telephone operators, and office clerks. And for the first time in American history, women from every part of the social spectrum stepped up to serve in the military.

The first women to enlist in the United States Marine Corps on 13 August 1918 was Opha May Johnson.  She became the first woman Marine because when the recruiting doors were opened to enlist women for the first time, Opha Johnson was standing first in line —the first among 300 women accepted for enlistment in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Given her background as a civil servant, Private Johnson’s first duty was clerical at Headquarters Marine Corps. Within one month, Johnson was promoted to sergeant and therefore became the Marine Corps’ first female sergeant and the highest-ranking woman in the Marine Corps.

Streeter RC 001At the end of World War I, women were discharged from the services as part of general demobilization.  Opha May Johnson remained at Headquarters Marine Corps as a civil service clerk until her retirement from in 1943.  She was still working at Headquarters Marine Corps in 1943 when the Marine Corps reinstituted the Women’s Reserve for World War II service.  At the time of her enlistment in 1918, Opha May Johnson was 40 years old.  In 1943, the Marine Corps appointed its first Director of the Women Reserve, a lady named Ruth Cheney Streeter (shown right).  At the time of Streeter’s appointment as a reserve major, she was 48-years old.  In those days, the age of the applicant would not have affected enlistment or appointment eligibility because, with few exceptions, women did not perform their duties at sea or foreign shore.

As Abigail Adams admonished her now-famous husband, we should always remember the ladies and give them due credit for their patriotism and service to the United States of America. Women have been an integral part of the United States Marine Corps since 1948 when the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act gave them permanent status in the regular and reserve forces. During World War II, twenty-thousand women served as Marines in more than 225 occupational specialties.  Eighty-five percent of the enlisted jobs at Headquarters Marine Corps in World War II were filled by women; two-thirds of the permanent personnel assigned to Marine Corps posts and stations in the United States were women Marines.

Womens Reserve USMCThe first woman Marine to serve in a combat zone was Master Sergeant Barbara Dulinsky, who served on the MACV Staff in Saigon, Vietnam in 1967 [1].  Since then, women Marines have taken on new roles, from combat aviators [2] to rifleman.  In Afghanistan and Iraq, women Marine officers commanded combat service support units in combat zones and served on the staffs of forward deployed headquarters. By every account, these women acquitted themselves very well.  Still, the issue of women serving in the combat arms, while authorized and directed by the Department of Defense, remains a contentious issue.  Prominent women Marines have spoken out about this, with more than a few claiming that while women do perform well in the combat environment, such duties have a deleterious effect on their physical health —more so than men— and that it is therefore unnecessary to employ women in the combat arms in order to maintain a high state of readiness in combat units and organizations.

Endnotes:

[1] American women have served on the front line of combat since the Revolutionary War, primarily as nurses, medics, and ambulance drivers, and provisioners.  The US Army Nurse Corps was established in 1901, and the Navy Nurse Corps was created in 1908.  Prohibitions of women serving aboard navy ships (excluding hospital ships) resulted in most Navy nurses serving in field hospitals ashore and not within a battle area; Army nurses similarly served in field medical hospitals on foreign shore.

[2] See also: Wings of honor.

7th Motor Transport Battalion

7thMTBn 002It isn’t just about driving and maintaining rolling stock. It’s about providing sustainable combat service support to front line troops; without the motor transportation community, there would be no way to push forward to the battle area much-needed combat supplies: bullets, beans, and band-aids.  Without a steady flow of logistics, there can be no success on the battlefield.  Motor transport is a tough job; there’s a lot to know about moving men and equipment forward under all weather conditions and terrain features.  It’s also dangerous work, because motor transport units are primary targets of enemy air and ground forces.  If an enemy can interrupt the supply chain, really bad things start to happen.  It is for this reason that Marines assigned to motor transport units are, in fact, combat Marines.

The Marine Corps activated the 7th Motor Transport Battalion (now known as the 1st Transportation Battalion) to support the 1st Marine Division during the Korean War.  Its Korean War service began in October 1950 and lasted through December 1953.

Twelve years later, in May 1965, forward elements of the 7th Motor Transport Battalion began their service in the Vietnam War.  Company A (Reinforced) arrived in Indochina as an attachment to the 7th Regimental Landing Team (RLT-7).  By July of that year, the 7th Motor Transport Battalion consisted (on paper) of H&S Company (-), Company B, Company C, and Company D.  The battalion commander was Major Louis A. Bonin[1].

Almost immediately after arriving in Vietnam, ninety percent of the personnel assigned to the 7th Motor Transport Battalion in California received orders moving them over to the 1st Motor Transport Battalion, which was at that time assigned to Chu Lai. The reason for this shift of personnel was combat necessity —but along with this decision, 7th Motors became ineffective as a combat service support organization pending the arrival of newly graduated Marines from recruit training and basic motor transportation schools (in the United States) and pending the arrival of additional equipment. Combat operations were intense during this period —so much so, in fact, that much needed battalion-level (second echelon) maintenance simply wasn’t performed because Company A was detached from the battalion.  This resulted in a significant reduction in motor transport operational capability.  By the time these vehicles received their much-needed attention, vehicle readiness was around 50%.  As an example of why proper vehicle maintenance was (and is) important:

In May 1966, Colonel Bonin and his Marines executed 3,744 combat support missions involving 22 tactical convoys over 129,961 miles.  During this month, there were eight separate enemy attacks that involved the detonation of enemy mines, incoming mortars and small arms fire, and on the 24th of that month, a Viet Cong sympathizer tossed a poisonous snake into the bed of one of the trucks.  The Marines riding in the bed of that truck were not happy campers.  Moreover, the battalion lifted 24,061 tons of supplies on 1,623 pallets and a total of 33,923 combat personnel supporting forward units.  The battalion served in Vietnam for five years; to appreciate their service, multiply the foregoing statistics by a factor of sixty.

7thMTBn Convoy RVN
Marine combat convoy operators from 7thMTBn, located in Quang Tri, prepare for a run over the dangerous Hai Van Mountain Pass into Da Nang Vietnam. Trucks shown are M52 tractors with semitrailers and M54 5-ton cargo vehicles.

In effect, the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion were constantly on the road, constantly exposed to enemy action, and constantly involved in such programs as Medical Civil Action (MEDCAP).  When the Marines weren’t moving personnel or equipment, or seeing to the needs of local Vietnamese, they were cleaning their weapons and getting a few hours rest. After weeks of sustained operations, hardly anyone knew what day it was.  See also: Personal Memoir by Corporal Chuck McCarroll, USMC.

In the infantry, Marines train to fight.  In the combat service support arena, Marines perform real-world support on an ongoing basis. Their daily missions in times of peace are the same as those performed in actual combat, less people shooting at them, of course.  And, given the deployment and training schedules prevalent in the Marine Corps since the end of the Vietnam War, the pace is fast and furious.  Marines who drive medium to heavy-lift vehicles must know how to complete their combat service support missions.  Supplies, materials, and men must always get through —and they do, in times of peace and in times of war.  In order to accomplish these things, the vehicles must be maintained —and they are.  It’s a tough job —made tougher when higher headquarters assigns unusual tasks.

1988 was a busy year. Long reduced to three companies (H&S Company, Truck Company, and Transport Company), the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion were “turning and burning.”  Beyond their mission to support the two Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs), additional requirements reduced manpower levels to a point where Combat Service Support Elements (CSSEs) could barely complete their missions.  Worse, personnel shortages increased the likelihood of serious mishaps.  Operating heavy equipment is dangerous work.  What additional taskings?  Under mandated fleet assistance programs, motor transport companies experienced personnel reductions by as much as 20% in order to satisfy the demands of host commands … that is, sending combat Marines to base organizations to staff “special services” billets.  It was a waste of well-trained and much-needed operators/mechanics, particularly when the host commander assigned these Marines to rock-painting details.

This was the situation at 7th Motor Transport Battalion in 1988.  As already stated, personnel shortages make dangerous work even more so. Marines would return to the battalion after one six-month MEU deployment and begin spooling up for a second.

Between May and August 1988, 250-forest fires broke out within the Yellowstone National Forest —seven of these caused 95% of the destruction. At the end of June, the National Park Service and other federal agencies had mobilized all available personnel. It wasn’t enough … the fires continued to expand.  Dry storms brought howling winds and lightening, but no rain.  On 20 August —dubbed Black Saturday— a single wildfire consumed more than 150,000.  Ash from the fire drifted as far as Billings, Montana —60 miles northeast of Yellowstone. More land went to flames on this one day than in all the years since the creation of Yellowstone National Park.  Among the worst were the Snake River Complex and Shoshone fires.

Yellowstone wasn’t the Western United States’ only fire.  In that year, officials reported more than 72,000 fires.  Firefighters and equipment were stretched to the limit. To help fight the fire, US military personnel were tasked to provide support to the front-line firefighters.  Before it was over, more than 25,000 personnel participated in efforts to quell these fires.  Crews worked for two or three weeks, send home to rest, and returned for another tour on the line.  The task involved digging trenches, watering down buildings, clearing undergrowth near structures, and installing water pumps.  The front line extended more than 655 miles.  Hundreds of men worked on engine crews and bulldozing equipment; much of their efforts involved protecting existing structures.  Men received injuries requiring medical treatment for broken bones, skin burns, and lung damage due to noxious fumes.  One firefighter and one pilot died in an incident outside the wildfire area.

USMC 5-ton truck7th Motor Transport Battalion received its warning order: within 48 hours, provide a detachment of Marines to support to the national firefighting force.  The Battalion Commander, LtCol William C. Curtis[2], tasked Transport Company with the mission, Captain Greg Dunlap, commanding.  Within 24-hours, Dunlap had mobilized 50 trucks and 175 Marines.  Operational control of Transport Company passed to the 7th Engineer Battalion, placed in overall command of the Combat Service Support Element mission.

Captain Dunlap and his Marines Departed Norton Air Force Base aboard C-5 aircraft.  The combat service support element landed at the Wester Yellowstone airstrip, which at the time was serving as the Federal and State Firefighting headquarters and where, ultimately, the 7th Engineer Battalion established its command post.  Upon arrival, Dunlap assigned one transport platoon with five-ton trucks in direct support of a Marine infantry battalion further inside the park.

The Marine Corps mission was to relieve civilian firefighters by following up on the fire-line and extinguishing any smoldering areas.  Transport Company provided the lift for infantry Marines to operationally sensitive areas inside Yellowstone.  The overall commander of the U. S. Forest Service assigned daily missions to the Marines via the 7th Engineer Battalion command element, who in turn passed them on for execution to Captain Dunlap.

While serving in Yellowstone, 7th Motor Transport Battalion personnel dined on field rations (officially referred to as Meals, Ready to Eat[3]) and meals provided by US Forest Service caterers.  West Yellowstone Base Camp personnel could walk to the small town of West Yellowstone. Local restaurant owners offered free chow to firefighters and military personnel; few of Dunlap’s Marines partook of the freebies because of the financial impact on local citizens.  Dunlap’s Marines didn’t see any reason to make it more complicated for them than it already was.  Local hotel owners offered billeting to the Marines, but they preferred to live in tents.  The Forest Service provided showering facilities.

Captain Dunlap’s company returned to Camp Pendleton, California two weeks later.  The citizens of West Yellowstone loved “their” Marines and invited them to march in their town parade on the Fourth of July, an invitation that Captain Dunlap accepted.  Town elders also invited the Marines to attend the local high school prom … an invitation that the Marines did not accept.

Marines of the 7th Motor Transport Battalion excelled in this mission.  It’s what these Marines have always done since the beginning of the Korean War.  It’s a tough, thankless job.  In 1988, the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion were ready, their equipment was ready, their attitudes were positive, and they excelled in the completion of their mission.  Seventh-motors Marines shined in the face of unusual adversity, and in doing so, they brought great credit upon themselves, the Marine Corps, and the United States Naval Service.  They continue to do this today as the 1st Transportation Battalion.

It was my privilege to serve alongside the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion from June 1987 to June 1989.

Endnotes:

[1] Promoted to lieutenant colonel on 12 May 1966.  I served under Colonel Bonin while a member of the 3rdMarDiv staff in 1972.

[2] Lieutenant Colonel Curtis retired from active duty in 1991, completing more than 34 years of continuous honorable service.  He has written several essays for this blog beginning with Combined Action Platoon, Part I.

[3] Also referred to as meals rejected by Ethiopians.

Guadalcanal: First to Fight —Part IV

Between 5-9 November, the Tokyo Express delivered additional soldiers from the 38th Infantry Division, including most of the 228th Infantry Regiment.  General Hyakutake send these fresh men to reinforce the IJA perimeter at Point Cruz and Matanikau.  Allied and Japanese forces continued to face one another along a line west of Point Cruz for the next six weeks.

After their defeat at the Battle for Henderson Field, IJA headquarters decided to make yet another attempt to oust the Americans from Lunga Point.  Hyakutake needed additional troops, however.  Admiral Yamamoto was asked to assist the Army (again) to deliver reinforcements and provide support for the next offensive.  Yamamoto agreed to provide 11 large transport ships to carry the remaining 7,000 troops from the 38th Infantry Division, their ammunition, food, and heavy equipment from Rabaul to Guadalcanal.  He also agreed to provide a warship support force that included two battleships equipped with special fragmentation shells.  The plan called for the IJN to bombard Henderson Field on the night of 12–13 November and destroy it and any aircraft stationed there.  This would ensure that the slow transports reached Guadalcanal and unload safely the next day.  The warship force commander was Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe.

However, in early November, Allied intelligence learned about these Japanese ambitions and responded by sending Task Force 67 to Guadalcanal on 11 November.  Under the command of Admiral Turner, the task force included much-needed Marine replacements, two US Army battalions, ammunition, and food stores. Two task groups provided protection for Turner’s ships, one commanded by Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan, and the other commended by Rear Admiral Norman Scott.  Japanese aircraft attacked Task Force 67 on 11-12 November, but Turner was able to unload most ships without incurring any serious damage.

American reconnaissance planes spotted the approach of Admiral Abe’s bombardment force and passed a warning to the Allied command, prompting Turner to detach all usable combat ships under Callaghan to protect the troops ashore from Japanese naval attack and ordered his supply ships at Guadalcanal to depart before dusk on 12 November.  Callaghan’s force included two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers.  At around 0130 on 13 November, Admiral Callaghan intercepted Abe’s bombardment group between Guadalcanal and Savo Island.  In addition to his two battleships, Admiral Abe commanded one light cruiser and 11 destroyers.  In the blackness of night, the two forces intermingled before opening fire at close quarters.  Admiral Abe sank or seriously damaged all but two of Callaghan’s ships.  Rear Admirals Callaghan and Scott both died in the melee.  The Americans sank two Japanese destroyers; the Battleship Hiei and a destroyer were heavily damaged.  Despite this American defeat, Abe ordered his warships to retire without bombarding Henderson Field.  After repeated attacks by the CAF, Hiei went under later in the day.  Admiral Abe’s failure to neutralize Henderson Field prompted Admiral Yamamoto to order the Japanese transport convoy to wait another day before heading toward Guadalcanal; he ordered Admiral Nobutake Kondo to assemble another bombardment group and attack Henderson Field on 15 November 1942.

Meanwhile, at 0200 on 14 November, a cruiser and destroyer force under Admiral Gunichi Mikawa conducted an unopposed naval bombardment of Henderson Field.  The attack did cause some damage but failed to impede the operational capability of the airfield or its aircraft.  Trusting that Mikawa’s force destroyed or heavily damaged Henderson Field, Tanaka’s transports began their run down the slot toward Guadalcanal.  Throughout the day on 14 November, aircraft from Henderson Field and USS Enterprise attacked Japanese shipping, sending one Japanese heavy cruiser and seven transports to Iron bottom Sound.  Japanese destroyers rescued most of the troops and returned them to the Shortland Islands.  After dark, Tanaka and his remaining four transports continued toward Guadalcanal. Admiral Kondo’s force approached Lunga Point.

Admiral Halsey, who was now low on undamaged ships, detached two battleships and four destroyers from the Enterprise Battle Group.  USS Washington and USS South Dakota, under the command of Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee, reached Guadalcanal and Savo Island prior to midnight on 14 November —an hour or so before Admiral Kondo’s task group arrived to execute his mission.  Admiral Kondo commanded the battleship Kirishima, two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and nine destroyers.  Shortly after hostile contact, Lee lost three destroyers —a fourth heavily damaged.  As Kondo turned his attention to USS South Dakota, USS Washington opened fire on the Kirishima,repeatedly smashing her with main and secondary batteries. Kirishima’s fate was thus sealed. Kondo retired without bombarding Henderson Field.

Tanaka’s four transports beached themselves near Tassafaronga at 0400 and quickly began unloading men and material.  Two hours later, Allied aircraft and artillery began firing on the transports, destroying all four ships and most of their supplies. Between 2-3,000 Japanese soldiers made it safely to shore, but their numbers were still inadequate to the planned offensive, prompting the Japanese IJA command to suspend it.

Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura assumed command of the newly formed Eighth Area Army at Rabaul on 26 November 1942.  In this capacity, he was responsible for operations in the Solomon Islands and in New Guinea.  Initially, General Imamura prioritized the seizure of Henderson Field and Guadalcanal, but the Allied offensive in New Guinea prompted him to rethink his urgencies. New Guinea posed a greater threat to Rabaul than did Guadalcanal.

Japan’s greatest difficulty was resupplying its widely dispersed IJA/IJN force. The situation among Japanese forces on Guadalcanal was dire; these men were starving to death; they were dying of diseases.  Pushed to the point of using submarines to resupply Hyakutake’s force, this effort was grossly inadequate.  A separate attempt to establish bases in the central Solomons to facilitate barge convoys to Guadalcanal also failed due to destructive allied air power.  On the very day Imamura assumed command in Rabaul, General Hyakutake notified him that the 17th Army was facing a food crisis: front line units were entirely out of food and rear-echelon troops were on one-third rations.  The only solution to this problem was returning to the employment of destroyers for resupply missions —with an interesting twist.

The Japanese devised a plan to help reduce the exposure of destroyers delivering supplies to Guadalcanal.  They cleaned and filled large oil drums with medical supplies and food, leaving enough air space to provide buoyancy, and then strung them all together linearly with rope.  As Japanese destroyers arrived at Guadalcanal, they would make a sharp turn and the cut-loose the drums.  Boat crews from shore could then retrieve the buoyed end of a rope and return it to the beach, where the soldiers could haul in the supplies.  Responsibility for implementing this plan fell to Admiral Tanaka (commanding the Tokyo Express).  On the night of 30 November, Tanaka loaded six destroyers with between 200 and 240 supply drums each and sent them down the slot to Guadalcanal.

Recall, however, that the Americans were reading the IJN’s mail. When notified of the Japanese effort to resupply their men on Guadalcanal, Admiral Halsey ordered Task Force 67 to intercept Tanaka’s destroyers.  Under the command of Rear Admiral Carleton H. Wright, Task Force 67 included four cruisers and four destroyers.  Two additional destroyers joined Task Force 67 while en route to Guadalcanal from Espiritu Santo on 30 November.

Admiral Tanaka’s force arrived off Guadalcanal at around 2240 and began preparations to unload the supply barrels.  Admiral Wright’s command approached the island through Iron Bottom Sound.  Wright detected Tanaka’s force on radar but waited too long before giving the order to attack.  Wright’s hesitance allowed Tanaka to escape an optimum firing setup.  All American torpedoes missed their intended targets. At the same time, Admiral Wright’s cruisers opened fire, destroying one IJN guard destroyer.  Tanaka abandoned his supply mission, increased the speed of his vessels, and launched a total of 44 torpedoes toward Wright’s cruisers. His salvo resulted in the demise of USS Northampton.  USS Minneapolis, USS New Orleans, and USS Pensacola were all heavily damaged.  Admiral Tanaka managed to escape, but his supply mission failed.  Within a week, General Hyakutake was losing 50-men per day from malnutrition, disease, and Allied air/ground assaults.  Additional efforts at resupply failed to alleviate the food crisis, and Admiral Tanaka lost another destroyer to a U. S. Navy Patrol/Torpedo Boat.

IJN headquarters proposed to abandon Guadalcanal on 12 December 1942; IJA headquarters concurred —given their inability to resupply forward ground forces, further efforts to retake Guadalcanal from the Americans would be impossible.  The order to begin planning for the abandonment of Guadalcanal was issued on 26 December.  The Japanese wanted to focus on New Guinea, instead.  Emperor Hirohito formally approved this decision on 31 December.  The effort to withdraw from the island was code named Operation Ke —it would commence during the latter part of January 1943.

During December 1942, the war-weary 1st Marine Division was withdrawn from Guadalcanal for rest and recuperation, replaced by the US XIV Corps (consisting of the 2nd Marine Division, 25th Infantry Division, and 23rd Infantry Division) under the command of Major General Alexander Patch, U. S. army. On 1 January, allied forces on Guadalcanal numbered around 50,000 troops.

On 18 December, XIV Corps began attacking Japanese positions on Mount Austen, but the Japanese mounted a sturdy defense and the American assaults stymied and halted on 4 January 1943.  The Army renewed its offensive on 10 January.  As Marines advanced along the coast, Army units poured into the Mount Austen area. The operation cost the Americans around 250 lives, but the Japanese suffered around 3,000 killed in action.

The Japanese delivered a battalion of soldiers via the Tokyo Express on 14 January.  This unit was to provide a rear-guard for Operation Ke.  Japanese warships and aircraft moved into positions around Rabaul and Bougainville in preparation of the withdrawal.  Allied intelligence detected these enemy movements but misinterpreted them as a preparation for another attempt to seize Henderson Field and Guadalcanal.  General Patch, an overly cautious commander, committed only a small portion of his troops to continue a slow-moving offensive against General Hyakutake.

Admiral Halsey, acting on the same intelligence assessment, dispatched a supply convoy to Guadalcanal with a screening force of several cruisers. Sighting these cruisers, Japanese torpedo bombers attacked and heavily damaged USS Chicago, which the Japanese sunk the next day in a separate action.  Halsey directed the remaining cruisers to take up station in the Coral Sea, south of Guadalcanal, and prepare to counter a Japanese offensive.  While Halsey anticipated a renewal of a Japanese offensive, the 17th Army withdrew to the west coast of Guadalcanal.

Twenty destroyers operating under the command of Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto successfully evacuated General Hyakutake and roughly 5,000 of his soldiers on the night of 1 February 1943.  Additional evacuations occurred on 4 and 7 February.  In total, the number of Japanese soldiers evacuated from Guadalcanal numbered 10,652 men.

America’s first offensive in World War II … what did we gain?  It was the first step in recovering advanced Pacific bases.  The United States developed Guadalcanal and Tulagi into major forward operating bases supporting the Allied advance further up the Solomon Islands chain, including additional fighter/bomber capable airstrips at Lunga and Koli Point, and major port and logistics facilities.

The Guadalcanal campaign transformed the Pacific war into a defensive war for the Japanese.  They were a fierce and determined enemy, but clearly the Empire of Japan had bitten off far more than it could chew when it attacked the United States of America.  In early 1943, the Allied forces gained a strategic initiative that they never once relinquished throughout the war.  Japan’s withdrawal from the southern region of the Solomon Islands enabled the Allies to deny the Japanese Navy access to the sea; forward units of the IJA could not long survive without the IJN.  Incrementally, the Allied forces neutralized Rabaul and facilitated the South West Pacific Campaign under General Douglas MacArthur and the Central Pacific Island-hopping campaign of Admiral Chester Nimitz.  It was now up to the Allies to decide whether to destroy a Japanese held island or by-pass it.

The war was far from over, however.  It would take bucket more blood to win the Pacific War.

Sources:

  1. Braun, S. M. The Struggle for Guadalcanal (American Battles and Campaigns).  New York: Putnam, 1969
  2. Christ, J. F. Battalion of the Damned: The 1st Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007
  3. Coggins, J. The Campaign for Guadalcanal: A Battle That Made History.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1972.
  4. Hersey, J. Into the Valley: Marines at Guadalcanal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002