I could not disagree more with the “journalist” Tom Brokaw when he labeled our fathers and grandfathers from World War II the “greatest generation.” Sociologists and other eggheads want us to know that the greatest generation followed the lost generation of World War I and preceded the silent generation of the 1960s. Balderdash. There may have been good reasons for disillusionment among the World War I generation, it was, after all, a horrible war. Bad memories plague all combat veterans for the balance of their lives. The silent generation (1928-1945) was hardly silent in mounting massive numbers of anti-war protest in the 1960s.
My problem with Brokaw is that in singling out one generation over another he renders a tremendous disservice to those who fought in all our wars, beginning with the American Revolution. A terrible price was paid in each of these. Were the soldiers of World War I less brave than those of World War II? Were the men of World War II any more courageous than those who fought in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq? Personally, I have room in my heart for all these men; the horror of war significantly changed, and sometimes shortened, their lives. They experienced diminished lifespans, painful war disability, and tormented sleepless nights for the balance of their time on earth.
Service men and women of all generations are worthy of our interest and respect. Many of these stand out because they participated in momentous events, others because of their personal bravery. Every combat soldier runs the risk of death or serious injury, and yet when it is time to muster for battle, they overcome their basest fears, they “fall in,” they perform their duty, and they stand as one.
Nearly all nations have decorations to bestow upon men (and now, women) who outperform all others during the crucible of war. Countries assign seniority over their medals, a precedence from highest to lowest honors. In the United States, we award Purple Heart Medals to those wounded or killed in action. The highest decoration in the United States, awarded for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty is the Medal of Honor, first authorized by the Department of the Navy in 1861.
The highest military decoration of the British Empire (now, United Kingdom-British Commonwealth) is the Victoria Cross, authorized in 1854 (during the Crimean War). The Victoria Cross distinguishes those demonstrating conspicuous bravery, valor, self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. It differs from earlier forms of recognition for gallantry in the sense that the Victoria Cross did not discriminate according to birth or class. Queen Victoria presented the first medals at Hyde Park in 1857. Today, the highest military decoration of Australia (a British Commonwealth nation) is the Victoria Cross of Australia, generally awarded by the Governor-General of Australia.
In 1915, Australia was part of the British Empire. One hundred five years ago, the London Gazette published a brief announcement stating that King George V had awarded Lance Corporal Albert Jacka the Victoria Cross. No one in London knew who Albert Jacka was because he was a somewhat obscure young man from Australia.
Albert was born on a dairy farm just outside Winchelsea, Victoria, Australia on 10 January 1893. He was the fourth of seven children born to Nathaniel Jacka and his English-born wife Elizabeth. He attended primary school, as most children of that period did, and then began working with his father as a freight hauler. When the Great War began, Albert was a 21-year old employee of the Forestry Department at Heathcote. His work involved the installation of fencing, clearing fire breaks, and planting saplings. At the time, he was one of twenty such employees.
Albert enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) on 8 September 1914; after initial training, he joined the 14th Battalion, 4th Brigade. Turkey’s affiliation with the Axis powers prompted the dispatch of the 4th Brigade to the Middle East as part of the 1st Australian Division. Their mission was to guard the Suez Canal and undergo additional pre-combat training. Jacka’s first combat action exposed him to violent brutality. He was but one of thousands of young men who participated in the ill-conceived Australian landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, a battle that began the disastrous nine-month campaign that claimed the lives of more than 8,000 young Australians.
At 0330 on 19 May 1915, the Turks launched a small-unit assault against the ANZAC line at Courtney’s Post. After tossing hand-grenades into the Australian position, the Turks leapt into the trench. Jacka’s squad received the brunt of the explosions; three of Jacka’s men died instantly from the effects of the grenades with the rest of them receiving wounds from grenade fragments and gun fire. Lance Corporal Jacka alone remained unaffected. Jacka ordered the evacuation of his men while he alone remained behind to provide covering fire. He held off the Turks until the platoon commander sent up a few reinforcements.
Jacka was not a big man. He stood just over 5’ 6” tall, but his pre-military service employment had developed him into a muscular man of considerable strength. He was also a man devoted to his unit, his mates, and a man possessed of rugged determination. With only three men initially sent to reinforce him, Lance Corporal Jacka ordered them to fix bayonets. He would lead the charge back to Courtney’s Post, they would follow him. With this small force of four men, Jacka launched a counterattack against the Turks. In the ensuing fight, one additional Australian fell, mortally wounded; concentrated Turkish rifle fire forced Jacka to withdraw his fire team and call for additional reinforcements.
When those reinforcements arrived, Jacka organized them. He instructed them to lay down a base of fire against the Turks. After his men took up their firing positions, Jacka crawled out of the trench, crossed an area of “no man’s land,” and re-entered the trench behind the Turks. He then assaulted the Turks, shooting five of them, bayoneting two others, and taking three prisoners of war. Jacka then held Courtney’s Post alone until daybreak when additional soldiers re-manned the trench.
As the war continued, casualties mounted. The Battle of Chunuk Blair, an Australian attempt to break out of the beachhead, added thousands more to the list of dead and wounded. In their hemmed in positions, the Australians had no tactical advantage. In recognition of his sustained courage under fire, Lance Corporal Jacka’s commanding officer promoted him to corporal in late August, again to sergeant two weeks later, and by mid-November, he served as company sergeant major.
In July 1915, the British government announced that King George had awarded Jacka he Victoria Cross. He was then 22-years of age, making him the first Australian to receive the VC during World War I. The award also entitled him to £500 per month, which at the time was an enormous sum of money.
In early December 1915, after nine months of fighting with no strategic or tactical gains, and with an excess of 26,000 casualties, the Australians began their withdrawal from Gallipoli. Jacka’s battalion withdrew to Egypt where, after a few weeks, Jacka’s command assigned him to officer training school. Passing with high marks, Jacka received his commission to second lieutenant. During this time, the Australian Imperial Force received replacements and underwent a period of reorganization. Some of the combat experienced men from the 14th Battalion transferred to the 46th Battalion; the 4th Brigade combined with the 12th and 13th to form the 4th Australian Division.
Over the next three years Jacka’s battlefield bravery in France and Belgium became an inspiration to those back home. One Australian battalion began calling itself “Jacka’s Mob.” Yet, despite becoming a hero to the folks back home, Jacka fell out of favor with the officers in his chain of command. Apparently, Jacka began to criticize and question the orders passed down through the ranks, which in Jacka’s opinion, foolishly placed his men in harm’s way.
In late July, Jacka found himself embroiled in the Battle of Pozières near the French village of the same name during the Somme Campaign. The costly fighting ended with the British in possession of a plateau north and east of the village and positioned to menace the German position at Thiepval. According to one Australian historian, “the Pozières ridge is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.” Jacka again demonstrated exceptional bravery on 7 August.
In the early dawn hours, German troops swept through the ANZAC ranks and at one point, infiltrated Jacka’s position. At the end of the assault, only seven Australians remained uninjured. Jacka was one of the wounded. As the Germans began rounding up Anzac prisoners Jacka formed the surviving men and led them in an attack. Jacka’s small force made a vigorous assault upon the Germans and engaged them in hand-to-hand fighting. Jacka received multiple wounds during the engagement and just as the Germans began to encircle the eight men, Aussie reinforcements arrived. Many Germans were killed, more than fifty taken prisoner, and the Australian captives freed.
Jacka finally fell with his seventh combat wound when a bullet passing through his body just under his shoulder. Four of the seven men who fought with him died in the assault. As Jacka was lifted from the ground and placed on a stretcher, one orderly remarked that he must be the bravest man in the Australian Army. Such a statement, obviously communicated with respect and admiration, is probably not true; there were many brave men serving in the Australian Army during World War I. Not everyone’s courage was recognized or reported upon. Nevertheless, Jacka’s superior officers remembered his border-line insubordination and, therefore, were hesitant to recommend him for a second combat award.
Medically evacuated to Britain, Jacka received the Victoria Cross at Windsor Castle in September 1916. It was a great honor, of course, but he was at the same time resentful that his actions at Pozières were not similarly recognized. Jacka received a promotion to lieutenant in December 1916 and resumed his regular duties.
In March 1917, Jacka was promoted to captain and appointed to serve as the 14th Battalion’s intelligence officer. In early April 1917, the 4th Australian Division operated on the western front under the 1st ANZAC Corps of the British Fifth Army, which was then engaged in support of the Third Army in the Battle of Arras. The operation called for a flanking movement and time was of the essence. The lack of artillery dictated the use of a company of (12) tanks to crush the barbed wire and lead the attacking force into the Hindenburg Line. The tanks were late in arriving, however, and the 4th Australian Division’s attack was therefore delayed. The 4th Australian Divisions adjacent command, the 62nd Division did not receive the message to postpone the attack and its forward element advanced into the Bullecourt defenses resulting in 162 casualties before they withdrew back into the British line. The mistake was costly too because by advancing before the Fifth Army was ready for a coordinated effort, the Germans were made aware of the Allied intention.
The German troops feared Allied tanks, the result of which prompted the Germans to concentrate their crew-served weapons on these terrifying weapons and the Germans learned that the tanks were vulnerable to armor piercing projectiles. On the night of 8 April, Jacka conducted a reconnaissance patrol into “no man’s land” to investigate German defenses before a scheduled Allied attack. While laying markers to guide assault troops, he captured a two-man German patrol. For this action, Jacka would eventually receive a bar (indicating second award) of the Military Cross. The Battle of Bullecourt, however, was a disaster for the Australians of the 4th Brigade … much of this attributed to the incompetence of the Fifth Army commander, some of it because the British were only beginning to come to terms with the concept of tank-infantry coordination. Of approximately 3,000 Australians attached to the 4th Brigade, 2,339 men were either killed or wounded.
In June, Captain Jacka was appointed to command Company D, 14th Battalion and led his company through the Battle of Messines Ridge. During this engagement, Company D overran several machine gun positions and captured a German field gun. On 8 July, Jacka was again wounded by sniper fire near Ploeqsteert Wood. After two months of hospitalization, he returned to the front in late September and took command of the 14th Battalion during the Battle of Polygon Wood.
In May 1918, Jacka suffered injury from a mustard gas attack outside the village of Villers-Bretonneux, his condition made worse by also being shot in the trachea. His wound and condition were so severe that he was not expected to survive. He was eventually returned to the United Kingdom for a long recuperative period.
Jacka returned to Australia on 6 September 1919 and he was discharged from military service on 10 January 1920. Albert Jacka never fully recovered from his wounds, which were several and severe. He passed away in 1932, aged 39 years. Captain Jacka was one hell of a soldier, fierce and dangerous to an opposing enemy. There are those in Australia who believe that Captain Jacka deserved three awards of the Victoria Cross; some argue that it was only British snobbery that kept him from being so recognized, but historians refute this claim. Jacka’s superiors, the men he too-frequently criticized, were Australians and it was they who refused to recommend him for subsequent awards of the Victoria Cross.
War is horribly brutal. War time events create memories that never go away. People who experience war relive it in their minds for the balance of their lives. They experience flashbacks and nightmares for the rest of their days. People who never experienced combat may empathize with our combat veterans, but they will never fully understand combat. If the folks back home fully understood war, they would never again allow their governments to send their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers or sisters into the jaws of death. Lessons from the past are always useful in the present, but only if we are wise enough to learn from them. So far in human history, we either have not learned anything, or we conveniently ignore the facts.
All the men and women of our armed forces are brave, no matter what war they fought in, irrespective of war time era and Tom Brokaw is wrong to suggest one greater than another. If this were not true, then our young men and women would never don a military uniform. That said, some of our men and women are more than brave; they are incredibly so. One of these incredibly brave men was an Australian named Albert Jacka.
I don’t do book or movie reviews because I’m not qualified. Occasionally, however, I do offer summaries, not so much of the book or film, but of events that I find interesting, touching, or otherwise significant. One of these is the story of U. S. Air Force Staff Sergeant William H. Pitsenbarger (1944-1966). It truly is an extraordinary story and I enthusiastically recommend the 2019 film The Last Full Measure.
Pitsenbarger grew up in a small town just outside Dayton, Ohio. While still in high school, Bill Pitsenbarger contacted a local Army recruiter about enlisting with an option for Special Forces (Green Beret) training. When he spoke to his parents about his interests, they refused to give their permission. Upon graduation from high school, Bill Pitsenbarger joined the Air Force on the delayed entry program.
At the completion of basic training at San Antonio, Texas, Pitsenbarger volunteered for pararescue training. In 1963, this included Army parachute school, survival, evasion, resistance, and escape training, and air crash rescue and firefighting. Bill Pitsenbarger’s first assignment after his initial training was Hamilton AFB, California. While assigned to Hamilton AFB, Pitsenbarger performed a period of temporary additional duty in the Republic of Vietnam. At the conclusion of this temporary assignment, Pitsenbarger volunteered to return to Vietnam for a regular tour of duty where he reported for duty with Detachment 6, 38th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Bien Hoa Air Base just outside Saigon (now, Ho Chi Minh City). Detachment 6 included five aircrews that flew three Kaman HH-43F “Huskie” Helicopters commanded by Major Maurice Kessler, USAF.
The 2nd Battalion, 16th US Infantry arrived at Vung Tau, South Vietnam, on 10 October 1965 attached to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One). Initially, 2/16 encamped at Ben Cat, north of Saigon. The division wasted no time getting this newly arrived brigade adapted to the combat environment. Operations Bushmaster and Bloodhound involved aggressive patrolling adjacent to Highway 13 and the Michelin Rubber Plantation, followed by Operation Mastiff (February 1966) and Abilene (March-April 1966).
Operation Abilene was a search and destroy mission targeting the 274th and 275th Viet Cong Regiments of the 5th Division. Abilene employed two brigades of the US 1st Infantry Division with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and 161st Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery assigned in support. Initially, the Viet Cong avoided battle and contact with the communists was sporadic.
Major General William e. DePuy, as commander of the Big Red One, devised a plan to lure the VC into attacking his force. He assigned Company C, 2/16 to act as the bait. Once the VC attacked Company C, DePuy planned to rush in additional rifle companies to surround and destroy the Viet Cong force. At the time, the strength of Company C was 134 soldiers; it was only marginally effective as a US rifle company.
On 11 April 1966, as Charlie Company moved through the Courtenay Rubber Plantation, its understrength platoons encountered sporadic fire from communist snipers who attempted to kill the Americans one at a time. This intermittent fire allowed VC forces to maneuver around the outnumbered Americans. By 1400, it became apparent that VC officers were systematically directing their men to encircle the Americans. The communists had taken DePuy’s bait, but through “piss poor” planning, thick jungle prevented the 2nd Battalion’s other companies from surrounding the VC or reinforcing Charlie Company. Worse, friendly artillery fire further decimated the few men now surrounded by a superior enemy force.
Desperate fighting continued through the night; the soldiers of Charlie Company threw everything they had at the Viet Cong, including tear gas grenades. While established in a tight perimeter with mutually supporting crew-served weapons fire, the enemy was still able to breach the company’s lines —in the process of exfiltration, slitting the throats of soldiers wounded and awaiting medical evacuation. After five hours of brutal combat, what remained of Company C formed a tight perimeter protected only by supporting artillery, delivered at the rate of five rounds per minute.
It was in this setting that the Joint Rescue Center dispatched two HH-43 Huskie helicopters to extract wounded soldiers of C/2/16INF near Cam My, 35 miles east of Saigon. Upon reaching the extraction site, the helicopter crew lowered Senior Airman Bill Pitsenbarger, USAF to the ground to prepare wounded soldiers for evacuation. It was then that Pitsenbarger learned that the company medic was one of the wounded, that his wounds were enough to warrant aeromedical evacuation, and that he needed to remain on the ground to provide medical support to the men of Charlie Company. Pitsenbarger continued to provide life-saving treatment to the wounded and load them aboard returning helicopters.
The Air Force crew wanted Pitsenbarger back aboard the aircraft, but he elected to remain with the beleaguered company. Enemy small-arms fire struck one of the helicopters and its engine began to lose power. Pitsenbarger waived the helicopter off and continued administering to the wounded soldiers. The intensity of the enemy fire precluded further evacuations. For the next several hours, Pitsenbarger tended the wounded, hacking splints out of jungle vines, building improvised stretchers out of saplings, and when the infantry troops began running out of ammunition, Pitsenbarger gathered it from the dead and distributed it to those remaining alive.
With the arrival of darkness, Bill Pitsenbarger borrowed a rifle from a fallen soldier and joined with members of Charlie Company in forming a night perimeter. During the night, enemy fire took the life of Bill Pitsenbarger. The next morning, reinforcements arrived at the battle site to discover the young Airman’s body on the perimeter, his rifle in one hand, his medical kit in the other.
While serving in Vietnam, Senior Airman Bill Pitsenbarger completed 250 pararescue missions. His selfless courage under fire at Xa Cam My prompted his command to recommend him for the Medal of Honor. Instead, the Air Force posthumously awarded Pitsenbarger the Air Force Cross (AFC). Not everyone agreed with this decision. For the next 34 years, Air Force squadron mates and surviving members of Charlie Company worked tirelessly to have his AFC upgraded to the Medal of Honor. They accomplished their mission on 8 December 2000 when the Secretary of the Air Force presented his surviving and still-grieving parents with their son’s much deserved Medal of Honor and a posthumous promotion to Staff Sergeant (E-5).
Medal of Honor Citation:
Airman First Class Pitsenbarger distinguished himself by extreme valor on April 11, 1966 near Cam My, Republic of Vietnam, while assigned as a Pararescue Crew Member, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron. On that date, Airman Pitsenbarger was aboard a rescue helicopter responding to a call for evacuation of casualties incurred in an on-going firefight between elements of the United States Army’s 1st Infantry Division and a sizable enemy force approximately 35 miles east of Saigon. With complete disregard for personal safety, Airman Pitsenbarger volunteered to ride a hoist more than one hundred feet through the jungle, to the ground. On the ground, he organized and coordinated rescue efforts, cared for the wounded, prepared casualties for evacuation, and insured that the recovery operation continued in a smooth and orderly fashion. Through his personal efforts, the evacuation of the wounded was greatly expedited. As each of the nine casualties evacuated that day were recovered, Pitsenbarger refused evacuation in order to get one more wounded soldier to safety. After several pick-ups, one of the two rescue helicopters involved in the evacuation was struck by heavy enemy ground fire and was forced to leave the scene for an emergency landing. Airman Pitsenbarger stayed behind, on the ground, to perform medical duties. Shortly thereafter, the area came under sniper and mortar fire. During a subsequent attempt to evacuate the site, American forces came under heavy assault by a large Viet Cong force. When the enemy launched the assault, the evacuation was called off and Airman Pitsenbarger took up arms with the besieged infantrymen. He courageously resisted the enemy, braving intense gunfire to gather and distribute vital ammunition to American defenders. As the battle raged on, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to care for the wounded, pull them out of the line of fire, and return fire whenever he could, during which time, he was wounded three times. Despite his wounds, he valiantly fought on, simultaneously treating as many wounded as possible. In the vicious fighting which followed, the American forces suffered 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached, and airman Pitsenbarger was finally fatally wounded. Airman Pitsenbarger exposed himself to almost certain death by staying on the ground and perished while saving the lives of wounded infantrymen. His bravery and determination exemplify the highest professional standards and traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Air Force.
Staff Sergeant Pitsenbarger’s combat awards include the Medal of Honor, Airman’s Medal, two Purple Heart medals, Air Medal, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross.
 Pararescue training began in 1946 in the U. S. Army Air Corps. The mission of ARS was saving the lives of airmen downed as a result of disasters, accidents, crash landings at locations beyond their assigned air base. The far-flung nature of Army/Air Force operations created a demand for a larger pararescue service, which was separate and distinct from local base rescue units. Pararescue teams include a physician, and four medics additionally trained in field medicine, rescue operations, parachute training, and basic infantry tactics. The Vietnam war was a pivotal conflict for USAF PRTs; the demand for qualified pararescue men was high and the program significantly expanded. The use of helicopters enlarged areas of operations and demanded a shift in tactics. The USAF created “rescue packages,” some of which involved forward air controllers, escort helicopters and A-1 “Sandys,” airborne rescue coordination flights and heavy helicopters commonly referred to as Jolly Green Giant (HH-3 and HH-53).
 A highly decorated infantry officer with service in World War II, the Korean War on detached duty with the Central Intelligence Agency, as an attaché in Hungary, Chief of Staff Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and from March 1966, as Commanding General, 1st US Infantry Division.
 Although the Air Force upgraded Pitsenbarger’s Air Force Cross to the Medal of Honor, he was the first USAF enlisted man ever to receive the Air Force Cross. In total, only four USAF enlisted men have received the Medal of Honor.
Born in Herefordshire, England in 1885, William E. Fairbairn illegally joined the British Royal Marines in 1901. He was only fifteen years old. He so much wanted to join the Marines that he somehow convinced his recruiter to falsify his paperwork. Upon completion of his initial training, Fairbairn was immediately sent to Korea where he got his first taste of close combat. Along with getting battle-tested in war, Fairbairn realized that his very life could depend upon his ability to defend himself with bayonet or fighting knife. He began studying martial arts disciplines that originated in Korea. It was the beginning of his effort to become a master of combat.
In 1907, the British Legation Guard seconded Fairbairn to the International Police Force in Shanghai; it was the toughest assignment a police officer could get. As a junior officer, he was assigned to one of the cities red-light districts. It was also the most dangerous part of the most dangerous city in the entire world.
Shanghai’s inner-city warlords controlled the gangs of outlaws; they, in turn, ran large areas within the city. These were seriously dangerous men who would brook no competition from either gangsters or police officers. The gangs ran everything illegal, from deviant behavior and opium to the kidnapping and ransom of the children of wealthy parents, to cold-blooded murder.
Not long after arriving in Shanghai, Officer Fairbairn was patrolling in the brothel district when he encountered a gang of criminals who threatened his life. They threatened the wrong man. Fairbairn attacked these gangsters, but he was quickly overwhelmed by their numbers and he received a life-threatening beating. When he woke up in the hospital days later, Fairbairn noticed a plaque near his bed advertising the services of one Professor Okada, a master of jujitsu and bone setting. Through many hours of off duty study, William Fairbairn earned a black belt in both jujitsu and judo.
Fairbairn (pictured left) served 30 years with the Shanghai police. In this time, he was involved in over 600 encounters with armed and unarmed assailants. His innate courage, determination, and acquired skillset in hand-to-hand combat always took him through to safety. On one particular evening, Fairbairn entered into another dangerous situation with a Japanese officer and fellow expert in the martial arts.
At this time, extreme hostility existed between China and Japan. As Fairbairn approached and greeted the Japanese officer, he noticed that there were around 150 Chinese men and women sitting bound on a nearby Japanese naval vessel. When Fairbairn inquired what was in the offing, the Japanese officer informed him that the Chinese persons were going to be executed. Fairbairn insisted that the Japanese officer release the Chinese at once and he would take them into custody. The Japanese officer refused.
Calmly, with a measured voice, Fairbairn warned the Japanese officer, paraphrasing: Do what you have to do, but one day we’ll meet again, and I’ll make sure you pay for this wrongdoing. The Japanese officer released all prisoners to Fairbairn.
Over many years, Fairbairn acquired practical knowledge in the field of law enforcement, self-defense, and close combat. He decided to incorporate his experiences into a new practical street defense system. He called it Defendu. He borrowed from various martial arts and included his own “down and dirty” non-telegraphic strikes that were easy to apply and highly practical and effective in real-world situations. Defendu also included various kicks, mainly designed to damage an attacker’s legs and knees.
In addition to his hand-to-hand combat skills, Fairbairn also developed new police weapons and equipment (bullet-proof vests, batons), firearms training courses, and specialized training for police anti-riot forces.
In 1939, the British Secret Service recruited Fairbairn and commissioned him as an army officer. Shortly after, with his demonstrated skills, colleagues and superiors alike began referring to Fairbairn as “Dangerous Dan.” He, along with fellow close-combat instructor Eric Sykes, received commissions as second lieutenants on 15 July 1940. Fairbairn and Sykes trained British, American, and Canadian commando units, including American ranger forces, in such areas as close-combat, combat shooting with the pistol, and knife fighting techniques. Lieutenant Fairbairn was quite plain in his instruction: dispense immediately with any idea of gentlemanly rules of fighting. His admonition was, “Get tough, get down in the gutter, win at all costs. There is no fair play. There is only one rule—kill or be killed.”
There are those today who never heard of William Fairbairn or Eric Sykes, but they may have heard of their most erstwhile invention: The Fairbairn fighting knife, also called commando knife … a stiletto-type dagger used by the British Special Forces in World War II. Given all his combat-related innovations, some have suggested that William Fairbairn might have been the inspiration for Ian Flemings’ Q Branch in the James Bond novels and films.
Significantly, Fairbairn also influenced training in the U. S. Marine Corps. Anthony J. D. Biddle, Sr., (1874-1948) (shown right) was a millionaire, the son of Edward Biddle II, the grandson of Anthony Drexel, and the great-grandson of Nicholas Biddle —bankers and industrialists all. His wealth enabled him to pursue the theater, writing, and Christianity on a full-time basis. A. J. D. Biddle was the basis of the book and play titled My Philadelphia Father, and the film The Happiest Millionaire. As a United States Marine, Biddle trained men in the art of hand-to-hand combat in both World War I and World War II. He was a fellow of the American Geographical Society and founded a movement called Athletic Christianity. In 1955, Sports Illustrated magazine called him boxing’s greatest amateur and a major factor in the re-establishment of boxing as a legal act and an estimable sport.
Colonel Biddle, as an expert in close-quarters fighting, wrote a book entitled Do or Die: A supplementary manual on individual combat. It instructed Marines and members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on combat methods with open hand fighting, knife fighting, and bayonet fighting. Within the book Do or Die, Biddle wrote in the Imprimatur, “Now come the very latest developments in the art of Defendu, originated by the celebrated Major W. E. Fairbairn, Assistant Commissioner of the Shanghai Municipal Police, and of jujitsu as shown by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel G. Taxis, U. S. Marine Corps, formerly stationed in Shanghai, who was an instructor in these arts. Following a series of conferences with Colonel Taxis, several of his particularly noteworthy assaults are described in Part III of this manual. Major Fairbairn is the author of the book, Get Tough.
Despite his lethal capabilities, Dangerous Dan was a well-mannered gentleman who never drank alcohol, never used profanity, and never boasted of his ability or accomplishments. William Ewart Fairbairn passed away on 20 June 1960, aged 75, in Sussex, England.
Biddle, A.J. D. Do or Die. Washington: The Leatherneck Association, Inc., 1937
Fairbairn, W. E. Get Tough. New York: Appleton-Century Company, 1942
Fairbairn, W. E. Shanghai: North China Daily News and Herald, 1926
Fairbairn, W. E., and Eric A. Sykes. Shooting to Live. London: Oliver & Boyd, 1942.
Lewis, D. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops. Kindle edition online.
Somewhere between the first and fifth of August 1943, three young lieutenants, naval aviators all, swooped down upon a somewhat large rattlesnake resting in the area adjacent to the Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina, captured it, and took it with them to their newly commissioned squadron ready room. The well-fed snake measured about seven feet in length. Few people understand why lieutenants do anything. Observing the antics of a lieutenant, most people roll their eyes and think to themselves, “But for the grace of God …”
In this case, however, the lieutenants were on a mission. It was to find a nickname for their recently commissioned aircraft squadron. With all squadron pilots assembled, it was unanimously agreed that Marine Fighting Squadron 323 (VMF-323) would be henceforth known as the Death Rattlers. Its patch and nickname continue to exist today, as of this writing, for 77-years. In 1943, VMF-323 was assigned to Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-32, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW). The squadron’s first commanding officer was Major George C. Axtell, Jr.
VMF-323 began combat training almost immediately after its activation. This squadron, as well as others being formulated, were desperately needed in the Pacific. In September 1943, VMF-323 was transferred to one of the Air Station’s outlying fields, a Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Facility at Oak Grove. Its first aircraft was the Vought F4U-1 Corsair. In 1943, VMF-323 was one of eight Marine Corps Corsair squadrons.
In January 1944, VMF-323 was transferred to El Centro, California and reassigned to Marine Base Defense Aircraft Group (MBDAG)-43. In California, squadron pilots worked to master instrument flying, gunnery, bomber escort, overland navigation, dogfighting, section flight tactics, field carrier landings, and strafing. Field carrier landing training was a prelude to actual carrier landing qualification training. When this training period was concluded, VMF-323 moved to Camp Pendleton, California. For Major Axtell, training new officers was a never-ending task since no sooner had he molded his pilots into skilled aviators, they would be transferred to another squadron and Axtell would have to begin the task of bringing along a newer pilot. Axtell, a qualified instrument pilot before taking command of the squadron, insisted that all of his pilots develop that skill set. Axtell believed that instrument flying would build self-confidence in his pilots and prepare them for future battles—which proved prescient.
VMF-323’s first casualty occurred on 17 March 1944 when Second Lieutenant Robert M. Bartlett, Jr., crashed his aircraft two miles south of the airbase while on a routine night familiarization flight. In April, VMF-323 took part in two large-scale joint service air interception exercises. On 25 May Second Lieutenant John A. Freshour and his passenger, Lieutenant Commander James J. Bunner, USN were killed when their Douglas SBD (Dauntless) crashed into a power line near Camp Pendleton’s airfield. That month, Axtell focused his pilots on the art and science of dive-bombing and forcing his pilots to avail themselves of an intelligence reading room and a classified material library. Major Axtell, young as he was, was a task-maker because in addition to learning, practicing, and becoming proficient in aviation skills, he also demanded that his pilots attend aircraft recognition classes and lectures on a host of technical topics —including the geography of Palau’s Islands, Philippines, the Sulu Archipelago, and other island areas these pilots could be assigned to. A third pilot was lost when Second Lieutenant Glen B. Smith crashed at sea on a routine training flight.
On 7 September 1944, 30 pilots, 3 ground officers, 90 enlisted men, 24 aircraft, and repair parts boarded the USS Breton (CVE-23) as the squadron’s advanced element. Its rear echelon of 20 officers, 167 enlisted men remained behind for further training. VMF-323 would be assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing. Ten days later, the squadron catapulted the squadron to its destination at Emirau. During takeoff, Second Lieutenant Gerald E. Baker crashed into the sea and was killed. Upon arrival at Emirau, Axtell reported to the Commanding General, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing for duty. For the next 30 days, VMF-323 conducted local flight training within a fifty-mile radius of the field. Training included gunnery, dive-bombing, and squadron tactics. On 24 October, Commander Task Group 59.6 ordered VMF-323 (Forward) to Espiritu Santo, a rear area supply base in the New Hebrides Islands. On the same day, the Commanding General, FMFPac (Air) placed VMF-323 under his administrative control.
By 31 October, VMF-323 (Fwd) was fully located at Espiritu Santo and busily involved in setting up the squadron for air operations. Between 9-28 November, the squadron participated in another round of familiarization flights, gun proficiency, bombing, and squadron tactics. On 29 November, the squadron’s rear echelon arrived and rejoined the squadron. MAG-33 attached the squadron on the same day. Ordnance experts from MAG-33 began installing airborne rocket launchers almost immediately, necessitating additional training by squadron pilots and ground crews. It was complicated; pilots needed to learn about glide angle, range, proper lead, rock effectiveness, safety, and the characteristics of various rockets. Added to the already busy training routine was close air support of ground troops. Unbeknownst to the squadron’s officers, they were being prepared for battle on the island of Okinawa. As the pilots were practicing air combat maneuvers, the enlisted men were spending more time on the rifle range: Every Marine is a Rifleman. Expected to develop proficiency with their sidearm, pilots went to the range, as well. Finally, the squadron’s ground defense crews practiced with anti-aircraft machine guns. There would be no gravel crunchers to provide security for VMF-323.
On 23 February, MAG-33 issued classified orders to the Commanding Officer, VMF-323: they would fly their 32 Corsairs to Okinawa in echelons. Combat operations began on 10 April from Kadena airfield. Weather conditions made Flying conditions poor. When the dawn combat air patrol (CAP) launched at 0515 hours on their first day, First Lieutenant James L. Brown failed to join the flight. Initially listed as missing in action, he was later declared killed in action. On the next day, the airfield came under attack, but there was no damage or casualties. The Death Rattlers’ first combat kill came that very morning, 11 April. First Lieutenant Vernon E. Ball was readying for takeoff when a Japanese bomb hit the runway in front of his aircraft. Ball calmly steered his aircraft around the bomb crater and took off. Once airborne, Ball observed fellow squadron mate Al Wells shoot down the Japanese bomber responsible for cratering the runway.
On the afternoon of 12 April, a fourteen aircraft CAP noted the approach of Japanese aircraft from the north. The Death Rattlers split into three divisions. Six aircraft were diverted northwest from Ie Shima, flight leader Major Arthur L. Turner with Second Lieutenant Obie Stover as his wingman. The second section was led by First Lieutenant Dellwyn L. Davis, with Second Lieutenant Robert J. Woods as his wingman. The third section was led by First Lieutenant Charlie Spangler, with Second Lieutenant Dewey Durnford as his wingman.
The Marines were flying at 15,000 feet, 71-miles northwest of Ie Shima when they spotted a multi-engine Japanese bomber about eight miles distant and at an altitude of around 11,000 feet. According to the Squadron’s official account:
Spangler and Durnford peeled off, followed by Davis and Woods. Spangler closed from five o’clock and opened fire at 800 feet. First, he knocked out the tail gunner and the top of the rudder, and then flamed the port engine. Durnford was closing from seven o’clock, whereupon the Betty turned on him, apparently trying to give the side blister gunner a shot. Durnford opened fire at 200 feet, directing his fire at the cockpit. Davis flamed the starboard engine from 100 feet and the Betty spiraled down in flames, exploding when it hit the water.
Meanwhile, a second six-plane element was directed to the Motobu Peninsula. Captain Felix S. Cecot was flight leader with Second Lieutenant Leon A. Reynolds as his wing. Captain Joe McPhail led the second section with Second Lieutenant Warren W. Bestwick. Second Lieutenant Glenn Thacker flew with Second Lieutenant Everett L. Yager. The enemy approached at about 18,000 feet. The Marines climbed to 23,000 to gain an overhead advantage. McPhail reported—
I spotted some F4Us chasing Zekes; I called out their position and rolled over. Bestwick was on my wing. On the way down, four Zekes appeared right under us at about 19,000 feet, flying almost abreast in two-plane sections. I started firing at the rear plane on the right, at about 400 yards, above and behind. My first burst was off, and the Zeke saw the tracers. He made a couple of small turns, and then I started getting hits. Pieces started coming off around the cockpit, and then he blew up. The other three scattered. I then pushed over and came home alone, being unable to find my wingman.
Berwick’s report stated …
Captain McPhail shot at the rear plane on the right. His Zeke crossed under the rest of their formation and exploded in flames. I picked the second plane of the first section and fired a long burst and saw it explode. By that time, the first plane of the second section had broken off to the right and down, so I continued my run and fired a 20-degree deflection shot from behind. This plane also exploded. While looking for Captain McPhail, I saw my first Zeke spiraling down smoking, but I didn’t see my second Zeke after firing on him.
Lieutenant Thacker had followed Bestwick on the original pass going after the fourth Zeke in the formation. He made an attack run on the Zeke and his guns knocked pieces from the fuselage, causing it to smoke. The Zeke, however, rolled, pulled up tightly, and escaped. Thacker claimed a probable kill as a result of his action.
At the same time, Captain Cecot dove from 23,000 feet to 5,000 to fire at a Jack. The Jack rolled, Cecot fired at his belly and saw it smoking. He was unable to observe further damage. He too claimed a probable kill.
The remaining section, composed of lieutenants John Ruhsam and Robert Wade, were returning to Kadena because Wade’s landing gear could not be retracted. Just south of Motobu, a Zeke dove out of the sun and made a pass at Wade’s plane. Wade lowered his flaps and made a tight run. The Zeke shot past, rolled, and dove to the deck. Wade followed him down and was almost in firing position when Ruhsam opened fire with a 30-degree deflection shot and the Zeke burst into flames and crashed.
During this flight, all squadron pilots involved encountered Japanese aircraft for the first time.
VMF-323 flew a variety of close air support and bombing missions over the next few days, the seventh and last mission of 22 April was a record-breaker. The last mission was an eight aircraft formation led by Major George C. Axtell, the squadron commander. The flight departed Kadena at 1500 hours and did not return until around 1915. During this flight, VMF-323 downed a record 24 (and three-quarters) enemy aircraft. The squadron’s records reflect that the action was fast and furious.
Major Jefferson D. Dorah, Jr., squadron executive officer, burned five planes and exploded a sixth, all within twenty minutes. Major George B. Axtell shot down five planes within fifteen minutes. Twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Jeremiah J. O’Keefe also shot down five planes, one of which tried to ram him after it caught fire.
Flying combat aircraft is a dangerous vocation. This was true in 1945, it is more so now as our young men fly high-performance aircraft with exceptionally complicated technology. Every moment of a training or combat flight is a teaching moment. Bad things can happen to machines, and it is the human pilot that must respond to each “sudden” and sometimes catastrophic failure. In April 1945, VMF-323 pilots learned about fire discipline. Some used up their ammunition too quickly, wastefully, which at the moment the last round was fired, rendered that bird as combat ineffective. Other pilots dropped their external fuel tanks too soon, which threatened their ability to return safely to base. They learned from their mistakes, of course … or they died because of them.
VMFA-323 is the home squadron of my good (and long-time) friend Pablo, who occasionally comments here. Pablo has been an aviator for more than 50 years. That is … fifty years of accident-free flying. He is a certified instructor pilot, a certified glider pilot, and certified to teach glider flying. He is also a much-sought-after aviation safety instructor/lecturer. He will attest to the risks associated with aviation and most likely agree that these innate risks, when combined with high anxiety combat maneuvering, makes military flying the most challenging vocation anyone could ever ask for. It should not surprise anyone that there are aircraft mishaps, and that good young men and women die in them. Given the operational tempo of our military air wings, what is surprising is that there are not more mishaps.
As Brigadier General Chuck Yeager (USAF) once said, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.”
Chapin, J. C. Fire Brigade: U. S. Marines in the Pusan Perimeter. Washington: USMC Historical Center, 2000.
Pitzl, G. R. A History of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323. Washington: USMC Historical Center, 1987.
Sherrod, R. History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II. Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.
 Lieutenant General George B. Axtell (1920-2011) was a World War II flying ace, recipient of the Navy Cross, and the youngest commanding officer of a Marine fighter squadron. General Axtell served through three wars and retired from active service in 1974. In addition to command of VMF-323, he also commanded VMF-452, VMF-312, Marine Carrier Air Group-16, Marine Air Control Group 1, Marine Aircraft Group 12, Force Logistics Command, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, and the Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic. In addition to the Navy Cross, he was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, three awards of the Legion of Merit with combat valor device, two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and seven awards of the Air Medal.
 The Corsair was developed by the Chance Vought Aircraft Company, designed and operated as a carrier-based aircraft and entered service in the Navy-Marine Corps in 1942. It quickly became one of the most capable fighter-bombers in the US arsenal and, according to Japanese pilots, the most formidable American fighter in World War II. The Corsair saw service in both World War II and the Korean War. It was retired from active service in 1953.
 Betty was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi G4M twin-engine land-based bomber.
 Zeke was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.
 Jack was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (lightning bolt), a Japanese Navy aircraft
People have admired chivalrous conduct for thousands of years, long before we invented a word for it. It does not confine itself to mounted warriors wearing armor and confronting a determined enemy. Chivalry was a code employed by a culture of warriors, which extends to the notion of good men skilled in warfare willing to place their lives and fortunes “on the line” in defense of innocents, in defense of the realm, in defense of religious beliefs. The code was already in writing by the time of Charlemagne and is chronicled in La Chanson de Roland, which tells of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 A.D. Historians have restored the code, which appears in summary form below:
To fear God and maintain His church (community)
To serve the liege lord in valor and faith
To protect the weak and defenseless
To give succor to widows and orphans
To refrain from the wanton giving of offense
To live by honor and for glory
To despise pecuniary reward
To fight for the welfare of all
To obey those placed in authority
To guard the honor of fellows
To eschew unfairness, meanness, and deceit
To keep faith
At all times, speak only truth
To persevere to the end in any enterprise once begun
To respect and honor women
Never refuse a challenge from an equal
Never turn one’s back upon a foe
Of these eighteen tenets, 12 relate to chivalrous behavior, as opposed to combat. For people like me, they remain relevant and elemental in the behavior of true ladies and gentlemen and closely align themselves with the New Testament’s I Corinthians, 13.
If I speak in the tongues of men or angels but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all that I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others; It is not self-seeking, nor easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies they will cease. Where there are tongues, they will be stilled. Where there is knowledge, this too will pass away. For we know in part, and we prophecy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I spoke as a child; I thought like a child. I reasoned like a child. But when I became a man, I put away the things of childhood. For now, we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but we will see face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three alone remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
During the early and late Middle Ages, the code of chivalry was incorporated into rites of knighthood, standards of behavior expected of those who served the interests of others, more than their own interests. They also included strict rules of etiquette and behavior. The codes were so exemplary that poets, lyricists, and writers incorporated them into their tales. Since most people were illiterate, wandering minstrels communicated these ideals throughout the land. In the post-Roman period of England (c. 500 A.D.) Arthurian myths strengthened notions of personal fortitude and courage in the face of adversity, of honor, honesty, valor, and loyalty.
I believe these two things: (1) King Arthur was not a myth; (2) No organization in the world today better emulates the chivalrous code than the United States Marine Corps. This is what I believe, but I do not exclude any other of western civilization’s stalwart military or public service organizations. I only intend my statement to emphasize the frequency of such laudatory qualities within the brotherhood of the US Marine Corps.
The stories from antiquity, mythical or otherwise, serve as teaching moments. There may not have been a greater general in all antiquity than Julius Caesar, but he was a flawed man (professionally and personally) whose mistakes were devastating to Rome and its people. King Arthur too was an illustrious leader, a man whose human frailty led to his demise and that of his Camelotian kingdom. Not too many years ago, the American people spoke of the Kennedy White House as Camelot, but revealed history tells us that Jack Kennedy and his lovely bride were troubled people whose personal behaviors destroyed them, their legacy, which deeply troubled their citizen-admirers’.
The bane of humankind is our moral frailty.
Historians have claimed that the Arthurian stories were legend or myth because there are no written records to validate them. Nor is there any physical evidence that he ever lived —until recently. British archeologists believe that they have uncovered the burial tomb of a man named Arthur that dates back in time to around 500 A. D. Perhaps King Arthur was a myth, but I doubt it. King Arthur is the warrior from antiquity that no one ever forgot. His existence may not be as well documented as that of Jesus of Nazareth, but the evidence that does exist is enough to convince me that such a man did exist —but more to the point, his is a story that can help us discover who we are, and how we might use the lessons of time to improve ourselves; how we might better serve our families, our communities, and our nation.
Many tales were written about King Arthur and his knights of the round table, most of which were romantic constructs that incorporated supernatural or mythical beings, which were clearly imaginative inventions. Three hundred years earlier, however, Nennius records Arthur as a historic figure in Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons), an account unfettered by flights of fancy. The Britons, of course, were tribal Celts who occupied all of Britain before being pushed into Wales by the Romans, Angles, and Saxons. Arthur was one of the last Britons to make a successful stand against the Anglo-Saxon invasions, a conflict that continued through the rise and progeny of King Alfred the Great (847-99). If Nennius correctly records the events of the time, given that present-day England was divided by squabbling tribes in the post-Roman period, then Arthur would not have adorned himself in shining armor. He would wear the attire of a Celtic chieftain, which most likely incorporated the clothing and armor of late-Roman style. There would have been no great castles, but something more on the order of wooden stockades incorporated with then-existing Roman fortifications/settlements.
Historic facts about this period of Romano-British England are more fascinating than the fanciful tales because history is more plausible. Monk Nennius never told us where Arthur was born, but he did list his battles —notably his last battle at Badon, which occurred near Aquae Sulis (present-day Bath). The significance of the battle was that the Britons prevailed over the Anglo-Saxon horde, pushing them back to the British Saxon Shore. We know this from the Anglo-Saxon’s own records of the time, and from archaeological evidence. That the Britons had a powerful, unifying leader, seems undeniable.
Was there such a place as Camelot? Yes-and no. Colchester, England is the site of the earliest Roman settlement, although evidence suggests that the settlement existed before the arrival of Romans in 55 B.C. It was then called Camulodunon, which also appears on coins minted by the chieftain Tasciovanus between 20-10 B.C. It would be easy to make this association, but Colchester is far removed from Aquae Sulis and there is yet another possibility.
In the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, there is a 7th-century work titled The Song of Llywarch the Old. It contains one of the oldest references to King Arthur, composed of a series of poems attributed to a poet named Llywarch, who praises the exploits of a chieftain named Cynddylan, who died fighting the Anglo Saxons in 658 A.D. Cynddylan, according to Llywarch, was the direct descendant of Arthur, which implies that Arthur once ruled the kingdom that Cynddylan ruled. It was the kingdom of present-day Powys, Wales, which at the time covered the area described above, in the south and west-central England and east-central Wales. The Anglo-Saxons eventually defeated the Britons, pushing them into the Welsh mountains where a modern-day county still retains the old kingdom’s name. The Romans called this area Viroconium.
When Rome abandoned Britain in 410 A.D., most of their settlements were abandoned and Britain fell into the so-called Dark Ages. Romans and their mixed-blood descendants, however, continued to occupy Viroconium. It had been the fourth largest town in Romano-Britain after Londonium(London), Lindum Colonia (Lincoln), and Eboracum (York). While the Anglo-Saxons quickly overran the largest cities (above), Viroconium was far distant from the invasive Germans and remained free and evolved into the Briton’s most important city in the early Dark Ages. These ruins still exist with archeological evidence that the town went through a process of reconstruction around 500 A.D. We know the town today as Wroxeter, which is 25 miles northwest of Worcester, my lovely bride’s hometown. Ancient manuscripts tell us that Arthur ruled over the Briton’s most important city —which would have been Viroconium.
Still, Arthur is not a Welsh name. The ruler of Viroconium around the time of Arthur was named Owain Ddantgwyn (pronounced Owen Thant-gwyn), which sounds nothing like Arthur. During the early Middle Ages, British warriors were given honorary titles of real or mythological animals thought to represent their prowess in battle. One of these was the Welsh word “Arth,” meaning Bear. In Viroconium around 500 A.D., its ruler Owain Ddantgwyn was known as the Bear, hence, Arth. Scholars today connect the Welsh word for bear with the Latin word for bear, Ursus, which then became, in later years, Arthur, a king, and a person who actually did exist.
The tales of King Arthur are entertaining, but the history of the real warrior is more fascinating. Our admiration for such a fellow continues because, among other things, he helped create the code of honor that serves as our guide for achieving and maintaining nobility.
Knights in the sense of the Middle Ages never existed in the United States, of course —Americans eschewed the notion of kings or of men born into families of nobles. Instead, we Americans believe that every person can obtain nobility by acting nobly. The Knight’s Code of Honor that I borrowed (above) is a nifty tool for helping us achieve nobility —as a guide for the way we live our lives.
As for knights —we do have them, but we call them by another name. Their standards are high, their tolerance for failure is low, they do remarkably brave things almost on a daily basis while never seeking recognition. They are guardians of the weak, they succor the suffering, and live according to a unique code of honor. These knights demand fairness, serve justice, always persevere, and they keep the faith. In fact, it is their motto: Semper Fidelis. We call these modern-day knights United States Marines.
“Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for a friend.”
Remarkably, much about the US Marines is modeled on the warrior that no one forgot. Personally, given who I am, I hope no one ever does forget.
Anderson, G. King Arthur in Antiquity. London: Roufledge (2004)
Phillips, G. The Lost Tomb of King Arthur. Rochester: Bear & Company, 2016
Dumville, D. N. Sub-Roman Britain: History and legend. 1977
 Our observation that chivalrous codes did exist does not suggest that every individual who took such oaths always observed them. Every person has strengths as well as weaknesses; some of us have destructive character flaws. In ancient society, and today, there are plenty of scurrilous fellows who took oaths for only one purpose, to advance themselves, and then violated them on a more-or-less on-going basis.
 Read: The Lost Tomb of King Arthur, by Graham Phillips, Rochester: Bear & Company, 2016.
 Nennius was a Welsh monk of the 9th century. Nennius, who lived in Brecknockshire, present-day Powys, was a student of the bishop Elfodd of Bangor, who convinced ecclesiastics of his day to accept the Continental dating of Easter. Much of Nennius’ effort was based on earlier works, notably De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which was written by Gildas between 500-579 A. D.
 Popular writers suggest that Arthur Pendragon was descended from a Welsh and Romano-British line, which given the history of Rome’s presence in Britain, and the areas in which they settled (Aquae Sulis (Somerset)-West Mercia (Wroxeter/Worcestershire)), the suggestion is credible.
Shortly after the inauguration of President George Washington in 1789, Congress created the United States Department of War (also, War Department) as a cabinet-level position to administer the field army and Naval Affairs under the president’s constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States and the United States Secretary of War. The first Secretary of War was retired army general Henry Knox. With the possible exception of President James Madison “lending a hand” alongside U. S. Marines at the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814, George Washington is the only Commander-in-Chief to lead a field army in 1794 during the so-called Whiskey Rebellion.
President John Adams considered the possibility of reorganizing a “new army” under the nominal command of retired President Washington to deal with the increase of maritime incidents between the United States and the French Republic in 1798. Adams considered this possibility owing to his concern about the possibility of a land invasion by the French and his perceived need of consolidating the Armed Forces under an experienced “commander in chief.” A land invasion would come, but not from France.
Also, in 1798, Congress established the United States Department of the Navy, initiated on the recommendation of James McHenry to provide organizational structure to the emerging United States Navy and Marine Corps (after 1834), and when directed by the President or Congress during time of war, the United States Coast Guard (although each service remained separate and distinct with unique missions and expertise). Until 1949, the Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy served as members of the presidential cabinet.
Following World War II, particularly as a consequence of evolving military technology and the complex nature of war, Congress believed that the War and Navy departments would be better managed under a central authority. James Forrestal, who served as the 48th Secretary of the Navy, became the first United States Secretary of Defense. A restructuring of the US military took the following form under the National Security Act of 1947.
Merged the Department of the Navy and Department of War into the National Military Establishment (NME). The Department of War was renamed the Department of the Army. A Secretary of Defense would head the NME.
Created the Department of the Air Force, which moved the Army Air Corps into the United States Air Force.
Protected the U. S. Marine Corps as a separate service under the Department of the Navy.
The secretaries of military departments remained nominal cabinet posts, but this arrangement was determined deficient given the creation of the office of the Secretary of Defense.
While the National Security Act of 1947 did recognize the U. S. Marine Corps as a separate naval service, it did not clearly define the service’s status within the Navy Department. Under this new arrangement, the Commandant did have access to the Secretary of the Navy, but many operational matters involving the Marine Corps continued to fall under the purview of the Chief of Naval Operations. As an example, the U. S. Navy funded Marine Corps aviation, determining types of aircraft made available to the Marine Corps as well as matters pertaining to air station operations. Accordingly, the Marine Corps, as an organization, remained vulnerable to the dictates of others in terms of its composition, funding, and operations limiting the role of the Commandant in deciding such matters.
Within three months of assuming the office of Commandant on 1 January 1948, General Clifton B. Cates was forced to confront a difficult political situation. In March, Defense Secretary Forrestal convened a meeting of the military secretaries and service chiefs in Key West, Florida to discuss and resolve their respective roles and missions within the National Military Establishment. Since General Cates was not invited to the meeting, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Louis E. Denfield, undertook the representation of the Marine Corps as part of the Navy. The problem was that the Marine Corps has never been part of the U. S. Navy.
Part of the Key West conference involved a discussion concerning likely future conflicts, with everyone agreeing that America’s next war would involve the Soviet Union in Europe. Should this happen, given President Truman’s mandate to cut Defense spending, then the Army and Air Force would require substantial defense allocations for reinforcements. In order to fund this potential threat, the meeting concluded that the Marine Corps must receive less money. Besides, argued the Army and Air Force, there would be no need for an amphibious force in a European war. The Key West meeting concluded with an agreement that the Marine Corps would be limited to four infantry divisions, that the JCS would deny Marine Corps leadership any tactical command above the corps levels, and a prohibition of the Marine Corps from creating a second land army.
When General Cates learned of this meeting, he protested making such decisions without his participation claiming that it violated the intent of the National Security Act of 1947 and impaired the ability of the Marine Corps to fulfill its amphibious warfare mission. General Cates protestations fell on deaf ears.
Louis A. Johnson replaced James Forrestal as Secretary of Defense in March 1949. Johnson shared Truman’s commitment to drastic reductions in defense spending in favor of domestic programs. Both Truman and Johnson made the erroneous assumption that America’s monopoly on atomic weapons would act as a sufficient deterrence against Communist aggression. Neither of these men, therefore, believed that a military force-in-readiness was a necessary function of the Department of Defense.
Given the relative autonomy of the service secretaries and military chiefs under the National Security Act, and as a means of thwarting independent lobbying by either the Navy or the Air Force, President Truman pursued two courses of action. (1) Truman sought (and obtained) an amendment to the National Security Act that made the Department of Defense a single executive department, which incorporated as subordinates, each of the service secretaries. The amendment also created the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, subordinating its members to the chairman, the first of these being General Omar Bradley. (2) Both President Truman and Johnson demanded that the service secretaries and senior military leaders “get in line” with the President’s defense cuts.
The intimidation apparently worked because General Omar Bradley changed his tune once he was nominated to become Chairman of the JCS. In 1948 he moaned, “The Army of 1948 could not fight its way out of a paper bag.” In the next year, both he and Army Chief of Staff General Collins testified before Congress that Truman cuts made the services more effective.
At about the same time, in a meeting with the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Richard L. Conolly, Johnson told him, “Admiral, the Navy is on its way out. There is no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps. General Bradley tells me amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.”
Truman hated the Marine Corps with intense passion, which might afford psychologists years of interesting study. He did not think the nation needed a corps of Marines when there was already a land army. In implementing Truman’s budget cuts, Secretary Johnson intended that the Marine Corps be disestablished and incorporated into the U. S. Army. Toward this goal, Johnson initiated steps to move Marine Corps aviation into the U. S. Air Force. He was soon reminded that such a move would be illegal without congressional approval.
Neither Truman nor Johnson ever accepted the fact that the Marine Corps, as a combat force, provided unique strategic and tactical strengths to the national defense structure. What the law would not allow Secretary Johnson or President Truman to do, they attempted to accomplish through financial starvation. Under the chairmanship of Omar Bradley, the JCS was bitingly hostile to the Marine Corps.
The Marine Corps, however, was not the lone ranger. Less than a month after assuming office, Secretary Johnson canceled construction of the USS United States, a then state-of-the-art aircraft carrier. Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan resigned his office, and a number of Navy admirals joined him, effective on 24 May 1949. The incident is remembered as the Revolt of the Admirals.
The revolt of admirals prompted the House Armed Services Committee to convene hearings during October 1949. A number of active duty and retired admirals appeared before the committee and gave their testimony, including Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Denfield. They had little good to say about Louis Johnson or newly appointed Navy Secretary Francis Matthews. General Cates also gave testimony, giving his unqualified support to the Navy. Along with this, he protested the fact that he had not been consulted in matters pertaining to the Marine Corps and the impact of these decisions on the national defense. Said Cates, “… the power of the budget, the power of coordination, and the power of strategic direction of the armed forces have been used as devices to destroy the operating forces of the Marine Corps.” The House committee also called General Bradley, who, in arguing in favor of disestablishment of the Navy and Marine Corps rejected the notion that the United States would ever again have a use for amphibious operations.
Replacing Admiral Denfield as CNO was Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, who immediately repudiated General Vandergrift’s agreement with Secretary Sullivan. He instead approached the Secretary of Defense and requested “a free hand” in matters pertaining to the Marine Corps. Johnson granted Sherman’s request. At the beginning of 1950, after two years of forced budgetary cuts, Sherman slated the Marine Corps for additional cuts. The Marine Corps would be reduced to 24,000 officers and men, a reduction from eleven infantry battalions to six, from twenty-three aviation squadrons to twelve. Additionally, Secretary Johnson ordered the curtailment of appropriations for equipment, ammunition, supplies, and people and excluded Marine Corps units from various tactical training. Admiral Sherman assigned the bulk of amphibious ships to support Army training, leaving the Marines with little to do.
War did return to the United States, of course. When it did, it proved General Omar Bradley and the other joint chiefs were completely wrong in their predictions. Worse, it demonstrated how unprepared the United States was for its next martial challenges.
Support for the Marines
Although Representative Carl Vinson (D-GA) proposed a bill that gave full JCS membership to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the measure failed but generated much attention in the American press, particularly in the Hearst news organization. Public support was already growing for the Navy-Marine Corps when the war clouds once more gathered in the Far East.
Among Truman’s staunchest congressional foes was Representative Gordon L. McDonough (R-CA). McDonough wrote a letter to President Truman noting how the Marine Corps has always rushed to the nation’s defense. With this in mind, the congressman urged the president to include the Commandant as a full member of the JCS. The president’s response to McDonough tells us far more about Truman than is possible in an entire essay. Truman wrote, “For your information, the Marine Corps is the Navy’s police force, and as long as I am President, that is what it will remain.” Apparently, Truman failed to consider that he was writing to someone who might use the president’s blistering comments against him later on. Truman continued, “They [Marines] have a propaganda machine almost the equal of Stalin’s. When the Marine Corps goes into the Army it works with and for the Army and that’s the way it should be … The Chief of Naval Operations is the chief of staff of the Navy of which the Marines are a part.”
McDonough inserted Truman’s response into the Congressional Record, and it wasn’t long before the press picked it up and printed it. Press reporting created a firestorm in the United States. Conservative politicians of both parties and journalists excoriated Truman for his remarks. The White House was overwhelmed by mail from the public, many who lost loved ones during World War II, expressing their indignation of Truman’s remarks. Presidential aides scrambled to construct a letter of apology, which Truman personally handed to General Cates at the White House. He then released a copy to the press. Afterward, when Truman fired Louis Johnson after only 18 months as Defense Secretary, the matter moved to the back burner.
The nation responds
Immediately following World War II, the Eighth US Army was assigned to occupation duty in Japan. Initially, there was much work to be done: disarming former Japanese soldiers, maintaining order, dealing with local populations, guarding installations, and prosecuting war criminals. According to the Eighth Army Blue Book, “On 31 December 1945, Sixth Army was relieved of occupation duties and Eighth Army assumed an expanded role in the occupation, which encompassed the formidable tasks of disarmament, demilitarization, and democratization. The missions were flawlessly executed at the operational level by Eighth Army …”
The statement may be undeniably true, but as the Japanese people settled comfortably into their new reality, demands placed on soldiers and their officers lessoned. What the Blue Book’s history section omits, a dangerous precedent for future soldiers, was that this major combat command became lethargic, pleasure-seeking, and in the face of severe budgetary restraints imposed on it by the Truman administration, reached an unbelievable level of incompetence and ineptitude.
In the early hours of 25 June 1950, the (North) Korean People’s Army, numbering 53,000 front line and supporting forces followed a massive artillery bombardment into South Korea. There were only a handful of Army advisors in South Korea at the time. Those who wanted to continue living made a beeline toward the southern peninsula.
In Japan, there was a single battalion in the 21st Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division capable of “mounting out” to interdict the overwhelming KPA army. The battalion, composed of mostly untrained teenagers capable of little more than standing guard duty in Japan, never stood a chance.
The Marines Respond
At the time of the North Korean invasion, senior officers of the U. S. Marine Corps knew that they would be called upon to address this new crisis. Lieutenant General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, in Hawaii, flew to Tokyo to confer with General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander Allied Powers (SCAP), in Tokyo. At the conclusion of their meeting, MacArthur sent a dispatch to the JCS in Washington requesting the immediate assignment of a Marine regimental combat team to his command.
In Washington, General Bradley delayed his response for a full five days. By the time the JCS did respond, the North Korean Army had already mauled the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division at the Battle of Osan, rendering it combat ineffective. Closer to the truth, 1/21 was combat ineffective even before it arrived on the Korean Peninsula. For these young men, the land of the morning calm had become a bloody nightmare.
In late June 1950, Marine Corps manpower equaled around 74,000 men. The total number of Marines assigned to the Fleet Marine Forces was 28,000, around 11,000 of these were assigned to FMFPac. Neither the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton nor its east coast counterpart, the 2nd Marine Division, could raise more than a regimental landing team (RLT) of combat-ready troops, with supporting air. To fully man a combat division, it would be necessary to transfer Marines to Camp Pendleton from posts and stations, recruiting staffs, supply depots, schools, depots, districts, and even Marine headquarters.
General MacArthur had requested an RLT, he would get a Marine brigade, the advance element of the 1st Marine Division that had been ordered to embark. The officer assigned to lead the Brigade was the senior officer present at Camp Pendleton, Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, an experienced combat leader with 33 years of active duty service.
The ground combat element of the Brigade would form around the 5th Marine Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray. Murray was already selected for promotion to colonel. Marines reporting for duty at Camp Pendleton were rushed to the 5th Marines where they would flesh out Murray’s understrength battalions. 1st Battalion 11th Marines (artillery) would serve in general support of the brigade with additional detachments (company strength) in communications, motor transportation, field medical, support, engineer, ordnance, tanks, and special weapons.
At the Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro, California, Marine Aircraft Group 33 was being formed around Brigadier General Thomas H. Cushman. Cushman would serve as Craig’s deputy and command the brigade’s air element, consisting of a headquarters squadron, service squadron, VMF 214, VMF 323, VMF(N) 513(-), and Tactical Squadron-2 (detachment).
In total, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade arrived in Korea with 6,534 Marines —its equipment, brought out of mothballs dating back to World War II: trucks, jeeps, amphibian tractors, all reconditioned and tested for service.
Major General Frank E. Lowe, U. S. Army (Retired) was dispatched to Korea as the personal envoy of President Truman. His task was to observe the conduct of the conflict and report his findings directly to the President. General Lowe advised President Truman that the Army, its senior leadership and combat doctrine were dangerously lacking. Of the 1st Marine Division, General Lowe reported, “The First Marine Division is the most efficient and courageous combat unit I have ever seen or heard of.” General Lowe recommended that the Marine Corps have a permanent establishment of three divisions and three air wings.
Whether General Lowe’s report influenced Truman is unknown. What is known is that the Secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of the Navy, and Chief of Naval Operations continued to oppose recognition of the Marine Corps as a viable service and its leader as someone entitled to become a member of the JCS. Still, public and congressional support for the Marine Corps increased steadily. The issue of the Douglas-Mansfield bills was deferred until the 1952 legislative session. Before then, however, Admiral Sherman died suddenly in July 1951, and General Lemuel C. Shepherd succeeded Cates as Commandant of the Marine Corps.
As a result, the 1952 legislative session worked in the Marine Corps’ favor. The Marine Corps was approved for a peacetime force of three infantry divisions, three air wings, and a manpower ceiling of 400,000 men. The Commandant was granted access to the Joint Chiefs of Staff with voting rights on matters pertaining to the Marine Corps, as determined by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and on 20 June 1952, President Truman signed into law the Douglas-Mansfield Act. Some pundits claim that politically, Truman did not dare veto the bill —others argue that Truman finally realized the value of the Marine Corps as our nation’s premier combat force.
Catchpole, L. G. The Korean War. London: Robinson Publishing, 2001
Davis, V. The Post-Imperial Presidency. New Brunswick: Transaction Press, 1980
Fehrenbach, T. R. This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History. Washington: Potomac Books, 2001
Krulak, V. H. First to Fight: An Inside View of the U. S. Marine Corps. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999.
Montross, L. and Nicholas A. Canzona. S. Marine Operations in Korea, 1950-1953 (Volume 1): The Pusan Perimeter. Historical Branch, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1954.
The United States Naval Proceedings Magazine, Volume 33, Number 3: A Propaganda Machine Like Stalin’s, Alan Rems, June 2019
 A supporter of the United States Constitution, Representative from Maryland, and third Secretary of War. He was also a noted surgeon with many successes during the Revolutionary War. Fort McHenry, outside Baltimore, is named in his honor.
 Forrestal had served in the Navy Department as Under Secretary since 1940 and appointed as Secretary of the Navy in 1944. Forrestal served as Secretary of Defense from 18 September 1947 until 28 March 1949 when President Harry S. Truman asked for his resignation and replaced him Louis A. Johnson. Forrestal’s wartime service had taken its toll and he was personally shattered when fired by Truman, with whom he had little patience. He took his own life on 22 May 1949 while undergoing treatment for severe depression.
 During World War II, Chief of Naval Operations Ernest J. King was well-known as a micro-manager. He treated the Commandant of the Marine Corps as another one of his bureau chiefs and denied the Commandant access to the Secretary of the Navy. This restriction changed when Admiral Nimitz became CNO, but the relationship was a gentleman’s agreement between Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan, Admiral Nimitz, and Marine Commandant Alexander A. Vandergrift. The National Security Act of 1947, however, did not clarify the status of the Marine Corps within the Department of the Navy.
 During World War II, the Marine Corps fielded six infantry divisions.
 Nearly every newly created U. S. Air Force general was a proponent of the use of strategic bombing and atomic warfare as the United States’ principal defense strategy. Standing in opposition to this ludicrous mindset was nearly every active duty and retired Navy admiral.
 The JCS evolved from a relatively inefficient joint board of senior Army and Navy officers who seldom agreed in matters of operational planning or execution. The Joint Board performed as presidential advisors but had no authority to initiate programs or policies. Following World War I, the Joint Board was renamed the Joint Planning Committee with the authority to initiate recommendations but had no authority to implement them.
 General Bradley detested the Marine Corps almost as much as President Truman and Secretary Johnson.
 Because of Truman and Johnson’s defense cuts, the United States had no combat-ready units in June 1950.
 Replacing Sullivan was Francis P. Matthews, a former director of the USO who admitted to having no expertise that would qualify him for service as a Navy Secretary beyond his contempt for the Marine Corps.
 President Truman demanded Denfield’s resignation and took action to demote the other admirals.