A Damn Fine Pilot

EGA 1868Here is the story of an exceptional Marine who enlisted when he was still very young —17-years of age.  I find it interesting that no matter what part of the country these young men and women come from, they all have similar reasons for “joining up.” If you asked these young people why they decided to enlist, I believe their answers would be remarkably consistent. The number one response, I believe, would be “opportunity.”  Most enlistees come from modest environments.  They probably did well enough in school but are not ready to continue with higher education.  Perhaps they can’t afford to attend college; military service will help with that. Maybe they have a sense of adventure; military service will help with that, too.  Possibly, they sense a need for some discipline in their lives; the military will definitely help with that.  Other reasons might include dismal job prospects after high school, to obtain top-notch training, gain a sense of accomplishment, a desire to travel or more simply, to get out of the house.

No matter what their reasons, they come to us by the thousands.  I do not intend to in any way degrade any of the other services, but the fact is that very few applicants have what it takes to become a United States Marine. Getting into the Marines is difficult —getting through basic training is even more difficult— and intentionally so.

Here we have a young man by the name of Kenneth Walsh. He was born on 24 November 1916. He came from Brooklyn, New York graduating from Dickinson High School, Jersey City, New Jersey in 1933.  He was probably a smart kid, graduating at the age of 17 years —about a year ahead of his peers.  Within a few months of his graduation, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He attended recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina.  Afterwards, he trained to become an aircraft mechanic and a radioman.  He served at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia.  Then, in 1936, he entered naval flight training at NAS Pensacola, Florida.  His rank upon entering flight school was private.  Upon obtaining his gold wings as a naval aviator, he was promoted to corporal.

He was assigned to fly scout-observation aircraft and over the next four years, he served on three aircraft carriers.  He was subsequently assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron 121 in North Carolina.  At the time of Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Walsh was serving as a master technical sergeant.  He was appointed as a Warrant Officer (designated a Marine Gunner) on 11 May 1942. A year later he was commissioned a First Lieutenant.

What made Walsh unique at this point was that he was among only a handful of Marine Corps officers who were qualified to serve as landing signal officer aboard U. S. Navy aircraft carriers.  He was also one of the most experienced Marine Corps pilots at the time.  Remaining assigned to VMF-124, Walsh flew the Vought F4U Corsair.  This aircraft was distributed to VMF-124 beginning in October 1942.  Marines found that these aircraft needed a few important refinements.  It was also a difficult aircraft to fly, but the refinement/learning curve was short.  The F4U aircraft had the range that the Pacific theater Grumman F4F Wildcats didn’t have.  Only the P-38s and F4U’s had the required combat range.  The fact was that these men and their flying machines were needed in the Pacific theater yesterday.

VMF-124’s Corsairs were sent to Espiritu Santo in the jeep carrier USS Kitty Hawkin January 1943. Upon arrival, VMF-124 was sent immediately to Guadalcanal, arriving on 12 February 1943.  The aircraft landed and while they were being refueled, their pilots were getting their first combat brief.  The mission: to escort a PBY Catalina which was assigned a search and air rescue mission for downed Wildcat pilots in hiding on Vella Lavella. On their first day in combat, the pilots logged 9 flight hours.

What Ken Walsh and his squadron mates wanted most was to familiarize themselves with the air combat area: islands, enemy locations, weather patterns.  They wouldn’t get the time for this.  The next day, Lieutenant Walsh led a four-plane element escorting B-24s to Bougainville —300 miles up the slot.

Another day, another mission.  Walsh had his first exposure to actual combat on 14 February. Again, his section was assigned to escort B-24’s to Bougainville … but this time, Japanese Zeros were waiting for them.  The Japanese had their own coast watchers.  The Americans lost eight aircraft that day; the Japanese lost three.  The incident was dubbed “The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.”

As one of the first Corsair squadrons, VMF-124 was anxious to establish a tactical doctrine that later arriving squadrons could build upon. This is how things are done in Marine aviation.  VMF-124 pilots turned to an experienced Wildcat pilot for his advice.  “What is the best way to approach combat with the Japanese?”  His answer was simple:  “You gotta go after them.”  The Corsair had an advantage over the Zero; it was something Walsh learned early on: altitude.  He also learned to avoid slow speed engagements because the Zero had superior maneuverability at speeds below 260 knots.

On 1 April 1943, Walsh was on patrol over the Russell Islands.  The Corsairs circled their assigned area quietly for two hours and then were relieved by a section of P-38 Lightening’s.  No sooner had the Corsairs departed the pattern, Zeros jumped the P-38’s. Walsh alerted his flight to return to assist the P-38s.  A wild melee was taking place and at first, the Zeros didn’t notice the Corsairs. Walsh lined up one Zero for a deflection shot but missed.  His wingman scored the kill.  They approached a second Zero; Walsh splashed him.

Walsh scored three more kills on 13 May 1943.

On 10 August, Walsh’s aircraft had been badly shot up. The plane was on fire, and Walsh had limited ability to control flight.  A Zero lined up to finish him off, but Walsh’s wingman splashed him, saving Walsh’s life.  Walsh managed to reach an emergency strip at New Georgia, but his landing was shoddy. He crashed into another Corsair on the line, but he survived.

By mid-August, VMF-124 had been moved to Munda, a recently captured Japanese airstrip.  Walsh was flying CAP over the invasion beaches at Vella Lavella when the flight director warned him of inbound bogeys.  Some Zeros and Vals (Aichi D3A Type 99 Carrier Bombers) soon arrived. Walsh shot down two before a Zero clobbered him, hitting his starboard wing tank.  The plane could still fly, and Walsh headed for home and ended up landing safely.  Battered, yes, but the Corsairs had prevented the Vals from reaching their airfield. By this time, Walsh had increased the number of his victories to 10.

WALSH - FDR 001On 30 August, Walsh fought an incredible battled against fifty Japanese aircraft, destroying four enemy fighters before he had to ditch his damaged Corsair.  Next, assigned to escort bombers headed toward Bougainville, Walsh’s plane developed engine problems.  He made an emergency landing at Munda and secured a replacement Corsair and soon went off to rejoin his section —flying alone.  From his vantage point, he saw Zeros attacking the B-24s.  Walsh shot down two of these.  On his return to base, he picked up a message from other B-24’s in trouble over Gizo.  He flew off to help, again downing two Zeros—but not before he was hit himself. He was forced to ditch off Vella Lavella.  It was his third water landing in six months.

Ultimately, Ken Walsh score 21 kills, 17 of which were Zeros —second only to Colonel Greg Boyington in air combat victories.  He lost five aircraft.  He was shot down on three occasions.  He ended his first combat tour in September 1943.  On 8 February 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented Captain Walsh with the Medal of Honor.

Citation:

USN MOH 001For extraordinary heroism and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty as a pilot in Marine Fighting Squadron 124 in aerial combat against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands area.  Determined to thwart the enemy’s attempt to bomb Allied ground forces and shipping at Vella Lavella on 15 August 1943, First Lieutenant Walsh repeatedly dived his plane into an enemy formation outnumbering his own division 6 to 1 and, although his plane was hit numerous times, shot down 2 Japanese dive bombers and 1 fighter.  After developing engine trouble on 30 August during a vital escort mission, First Lieutenant Walsh landed his mechanically disabled plane at Munda, quickly replaced it with another, and proceeded to rejoin his flight over Kahili.  Separated from his escort group when he encountered approximately 50 Japanese Zeros, he unhesitatingly attacked, striking with relentless fury in his lone battle against a powerful force.  He destroyed 4 hostile fighters before cannon shellfire forced him to make a dead-stick landing off Vella Lavella where he was later picked up.  His valiant leadership and his daring skill as a flier served as a source of confidence and inspiration to his fellow pilots and reflect the highest credit upon him and the United States Naval Service.

Walsh K A 001Walsh returned for a second combat tour with VMF-222 flying the advanced F4U.  Between 28 April and 12 May 1945, Walsh was awarded seven (7) Distinguished Flying Crosses for heroism during service in the Philippine Islands.  He scored his last victory on 22 June 1945 downing a Kamikaze over northern Okinawa.  Following the US victory over Imperial Japanese forces, Walsh was assigned to duty as the MAG-14 Assistant Operations Officer on Okinawa.  He returned to the United States in March 1946.

During the Korean War, Walsh served as a C-54 (transport) pilot with VMR-152 (15 July 1950 to November 1951).  He was promoted to Major in 1955, and to Lieutenant Colonel in 1958.  Having completed thirty years of honorable and faithful service, Colonel Walsh retired from the United States Marine Corps on 1 February 1962.

Colonel Walsh passed away on 30 July 1998, aged 81 years.  He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

 

Armistice Day, 2018

World War I ended 100 years ago today —at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month 1918.

Below, you will find two poems that define the war’s impact upon those who served then.  None of us should ever forget their sacrifices, and if there were to be a fitting memorial to those sacrifices, it would be that there would never again be a war of any kind.  Sadly, none of our politicians are very bright, so we must gird ourselves for more of the same.

For the Fallen

Robert Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) was moved by the opening of the Great War and the already high number of casualties of the British Expeditionary Force in 1914.  In 1915, despite being too old to serve in the military, Binyon volunteered at a British hospital for French soldiers.  He returned in 1916 to help care for soldiers wounded during the Battle for Verdun.

Within this poem is the Ode of Remembrance (the third and fourth stanzas).  This poem is recited during the United Kingdom’s annual observance, on Remembrance Day.  Note: If you have never seen the annual Remembrance Day observance in the United Kingdom, you owe it to yourself to view it.  You can find it at You Tube.

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

In Flanders Field

LtCol John McCrae (1872-1918) was a Canadian Army medical doctor.  Colonel McCrae died of pneumonia near the end of the war.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.  Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Let us never forget.

 

The Samoan Crisis of 1899

Samoa consists of two main islands and four smaller islands.  Human beings have inhabited these islands for around 3,500 years. The Samoan people have their own unique language and their own cultural identity.  Owing to the seafaring skills of the Samoan people, early European explorers began to refer to these islands as the “Navigator Islands.”

Contact with Europeans began in the early 18thCentury.  Dutch captain Jacob Roggeveen first sighted the islands in 1722.  He was followed by the French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville in 1768.  European contact was limited before 1830, but in that year British missionaries and traders began to arrive, led by John Williams (London Missionary Society) who traveled there from the Cook Islands.  Robert Louis Stevenson lived in Samoa from 1889 to 1894.

Of all the European explorers, Germany alone demonstrated a keen interest in the commercial development of the Samoan Islands, particularly in the processing of copra and cocoa beans on the island of Upolu.  The United States also had an interest in Samoa, particularly in the establishment of a coaling station at Pago Pago Bay.  To this end, the Americans forced alliances on the islands of Tutuila and Manu’a, which later became American Samoa.  Not to be undone, the British sent troops to protect their business interests, harbor rights, and consulate offices.  During an eight-year civil war, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States provided arms, training, and in some instances, combat troops to the warring Samoan natives.  The Samoan Crisis came to a head in 1889 when all three colonial competitors sent warships into Apia harbor; a larger war seemed imminent until a massive typhoon destroyed the warships in the harbor.

A second civil war came in March 1898 when Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States were locked in dispute over which of these should control the Samoan Islands.  The first battle involved British and American forces seeking to prevent a rebel takeover of the city of Apia.  When rebel forces (urged-on by the Germans) launched their attack, Anglo-American forces responded by directing naval gunfire against rebel positions surrounding Apia, which ultimately forced the rebels to retreat to the stronghold of the Vailele plantation.

American and British naval forces included cruisers USS Philadelphia, HMS Tauranga, HMS Porpoise and the corvette HMS Royalist.  On 1 April, Philadelphia, Tauranga, Porpoise and Royalist landed an expedition totaling 26 Royal and American Marines, 88 Royal and US sailors, and 136 Samoans for an attack on the landward side of Vailele.  Royalist was sent ahead to bombard the two fortifications guarding the Vailele plantation.  As the landing force moved inland, it no longer enjoyed the protection of naval gunfire. Upon their approach to Vailele, British and American troops were overwhelmed by rebel forces.  It was a defeat for the British and Americans, but three of America’s combatants are of particular interest.

Monaghan J 001U. S. Navy Ensign John R. Monaghan was born in Chewelah, Washington on 26 March 1873.  He was in the first graduating class of Gonzaga University and later graduated from the United States Naval Academy in June 1895. After graduation, he served as a midshipman aboard USS Olympia (flagship of the US Asiatic Station) where he was commissioned an ensign in 1897.  Monaghan was later transferred for duty aboard the monitor Monadnock and the gunboat USS Alert.  During the Spanish-American War, Ensign Monaghan was transferred to USS Philadelphia, flagship of the Pacific Station [1].

Lansdale PVH 001Lieutenant Philip Van Horne Lansdale was born in Washington, D. C., on 15 February 1858. He was commissioned an ensign on 1 June 1881 and subsequently served on Asiatic, North Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific Stations.  Promoted to lieutenant in 1893, he became the executive officer (second in command) of Philadelphia on 9 July 1898.  After participating in the ceremonies which transferred sovereignty of the Hawaiian Islands to the United States, Philadelphia was dispatched to Samoa, arriving off Apia on 6 March 1899.  Lansdale was the officer commanding the landing force on 1 April 1899.

Hulbert JL 001Private Henry Lewis Hulbert was born in Kingston Upon Hull, East Yorkshire, England on 12 January 1867.  He was raised in a cultured home environment, he was well-educated, and he was adventurous. He entered the British Colonial Civil Service and was posted to Malaya.  While there, he married Anne Rose Hewitt, but it was a nasty marriage and one that ended in a publicly visible, very embarrassing scandal.  Hulbert left Malaya and traveled directly to the United States.  At the age of 31-years, Hulbert joined the U. S. Marine Corps on 28 March 1898.  After completing his initial training at Mare Island, California, he was assigned to the Marine contingent aboard Philadelphia.  Private Hulbert was one of the 200-man landing force on 1 April 1899.

Philadelphia arrived at Apia, which was the main port on the island of Upolu (largest of a group of six islands) on 8 March 1899, and the center of the Samoan disturbance.  A conference was held at once between British and American naval commanders, their respective consuls, and local government officials.  They were looking for ways to preserve the peace.  German interests were not represented at this meeting owing to the fact that the Germans were behind the rebellion.  On 11 March, Rear Admiral Kautz, having assumed responsibility for joint operations, issued a proclamation addressed to the Samoan high chiefs and residents of the island, both native and foreign.  In general, he called for all concerned to return to their homes and obey the laws of Samoa.  Every effort was made to influential citizens to prevail upon warring factions to obey the proclamation and to recognize the authority of the Chief Justice of Samoa.

It was on 13 March 1899 at about ten o’clock p.m. that the rebel leader answered the proclamation by attacking Apia and concentrating their fire upon British and American consulates and at Mulinu’u Point, where women and children had taken refuge.  Within moments, US Marines and blue jackets went over the side and headed for Mulinu’u Point to protect the defenseless women. A series of well-aimed volleys dispersed the rebels at that location, but the Americans received sniper fire throughout the night.

Over the next several days, US and British forces constructed trenches and breastworks extending along the outskirts of Apia; nights were occupied fighting off rebel forays attempting to discover weak areas along the defensive perimeter.

On 31 March, Lieutenant C. M. Perkins, Commanding Officer of the Marine Detachment, USS Philadelphia, led a reconnaissance force consisting of sixteen riflemen and a machinegun crew into the jungle outside Apia.  Perkins encountered a vastly superior force of rebels, forcing him to withdraw back to the edge of town, to the American Consulate.

Rear Admiral Kautz ordered that a larger landing force be organized for the next day.  Commanding the landing force was Lieutenant Freeman, Royal Navy. The Americans would serve under Lieutenant Philip Lansdale, who was assisted by Lieutenant C. M. Perkins and Ensign John Monaghan.  Accompanying the combined force were an additional 136 natives, indifferently armed, poorly disciplined, with some of these men suspected rebel sympathizers.  British and American forces did not trust them and established a “color line” across which no Samoan could be allowed to cross.

On 1 April, the expedition had only just crossed the point at which the previous day’s battle had taken place when they were engaged by an estimated 1,200 rebels who had concealed themselves in the thick forest.  Lieutenant Freeman was almost immediately killed; shortly afterwards, Lieutenant Lansdale was shot in the leg, rendering him unable to walk.  In spite of his painful wound, Lansdale continued to fire at the rebels who were rapidly approaching him with rifles and beheading knives.

Realizing Lansdale’s dangerous predicament, Ensign Monaghan organized a number of blue jackets to form a defensive perimeter around their fallen leader.  Monaghan struggled to remove his superior from the battle area; the sailors fought off the savages for as long as they could, but they were being overwhelmed. Finally realizing the hopelessness of his situation, Lansdale ordered a general retreat.

As the force began its extraction, Private Hulbert stepped up calmly delivering deadly fire upon the approaching Samoan forces.  The Lansdale party slowly worked their way to the rear in withdrawal, but Lieutenant Lansdale received a gunshot wound to the chest.  It was a mortal wound from which would not recover.  Seaman N. E. Edsall joined Hulbert in laying down accurate fire as Monaghan continued in his attempt to remove Lieutenant Lansdale’s body from the field. Moments later, both Monaghan and Edsall were killed.  Private Hulbert executed a fighting withdrawal.

Private Hulbert survived the battle and received a commendation from the Secretary of the Navy on 22 May 1899, which stated in part, “The gallantry of Private Henry L. Hulbert, who remained behind at the fence till the last and who was with Lansdale and Monaghan when they were killed, I desire especially to mention.”

Private Hulbert was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor for this engagement; he was later killed at the Battle of Blanc Mont Ridge in France on 4 October 1918.  He was, at the time of his death, a 51-year old First Lieutenant, already slated for promotion to Captain.  His personal decorations include the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart, and French Croix de Guerre.

Notes:

[1] Rear Admiral Albert Kautz, U. S. Navy, Commander, Pacific Station.

Evaluating the Apple

A good friend recently sent me a book review by Mark Bowden, which I can only assume appeared in The Atlantic.  Bowden is best known for writing Black Hawk Down: A story of Modern War.  The subject of Bowden’s review is a book titled Eat the Apple: A memoir, by Matt Young.

Bowden begins,

“The trouble with writing the unvarnished truth in a memoir is that it requires you to be hard not only on others, but also on yourself.  Matt Young’s inventive, unsparing, irreverent and consistently entertaining [book] is that, but it is also a useful corrective to the current idealization of the American soldier —or in this case a Marine.  Patriotism and respect for the military is so high in this country that we have lately held a national debate over whether professional athletes should be required to stand for the national anthem.  Men and women in uniform are given preference in boarding airplanes and are so routinely thanked for their service that the expression has become rote.  Each new season brings a crop of movies and glossy TV serials dramatizing the heroics of our Special Operations.”

“[Matt] Young see’s hollowness and potential harm in this.”

“Enforcing the idea that every service member is a hero is dangerous; like creating of generation of veterans who believe everything they did was good,” wrote Young.

Bowden tells us that Matt Young wants to warn us of the dangers in creating an army of fanatics.  “[Military] service deserves respect, of course, but it does not in itself guarantee stirring and selfless acts of bravery.”

24th Marine Expeditionary Unit table 3 rifle range shootI’m quite sure that I won’t read Matt Young’s book.  I already know about military service and I might even suggest that I completed my career long before Mr. Young enlisted.  Still, some things go without saying.  Given the nature of our Armed Forces, and the fact that the military services host hundreds of occupational specialties —all of which support the efforts of front-line forces— only about one-third of our 1.4 million military service members serve in the combat arms … which is the place where we’ll find most heroes if we happened to be looking for them.  Nevertheless, courageous acts aside, very few of these selfless individuals are without sin.  A split second of bravery doesn’t make a soldier a good husband, a good father, or even a trustworthy friend.

Now about those fanatics Mr. Young is worried about.  I am unable to speak about the other services, but I can say that it is the purpose of Marine Corps training to turn every Marine into a lethal killing machine.  This is how battles are won.  If it is fanaticism, it is necessary to the success of combat units (and their combat/service support attachments).  If at some future time, as a matter of national policy, we intend to arm milquetoast youngsters with weapons and send them into harm’s way, then our nation will no longer deserve an elite combat force.

Nevertheless, the Marine Corps isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  Roughly 40% of Marines reenlist after their first enlistment, which means that around 60% of everyone who joins the Marine Corps end up leaving at the end of their term of service.  Of those who end up getting out of the Corps, probably less than 20% later whine about their service as American Marines.  Once a first term Marine decides to leave the Corps, it almost isn’t relevant what it was that he or she did while wearing the uniform.  One thing does remain, however: this individual became a United States Marine —and he or she will always be a United States Marine— even if a chronic complainer.  If there is one thing that every Marine has in common, whether an officer or an enlisted man, it is the amount of complaining they do.  If you find a Marine who isn’t complaining about something, keep an eye on him —he’s probably stealing from the supply section.

Still, no matter what Matt Young says in his book, it isn’t enough to join the Corps.  Almost anyone can do that.  Moreover, almost anyone can end up in a combat unit.  What matters to me is an honest answer to these questions: Have you served honorably and faithfully in an extremely chaotic environment over an extended period of time?  During your service as a Marine, did you keep faith with your fellow Marines, past and present?

One will note that I didn’t say it was necessary that the Corps keep faith with us … only that we Marines keep faith with each other because this is the foundation of our brotherhood; this is what the Marine Corps has always been about.

MILLER JBI do have a bother, however —it is this: young Marines returning from combat, where they formed intense bonds with their fellow Marines, who suddenly find themselves isolated in a completely different environment.  Many of these young men are soon released from active duty and find themselves in the midst of a society that does not understand what they’ve just been through or the things they did for their country.  They are at a place where there is no safety net, and where no one is watching their six —a place where many young men and women struggle to maintain a sense of who they once were only a short time before.  We seem to have plenty of time for classes on gender and civility, but there appears to be no time at all for combat decompression.  Ours is not (and never has been) a good transition.  We (the Marines) could do a lot better in this regard.  Personally, I see this as a monumental failure of senior leadership.

Notes:

  1. The photograph that appears within my last paragraph is that of the iconic James Blake Miller, a Marine who fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah.  The photograph was widely published in the American press; he was tagged “Marlboro Marine.”  Jim Miller suffers from PTSD and is now in recovery.  In my opinion, senior leaders in the Marine Corps deserted this young Marine when what he needed from them was the kind of leadership espoused by Lieutenant General John A. Lejeune, our 13th Commandant.  We talk about this leadership annually as part of our celebration of the Marine Corps Birthday.  Apparently, modern leaders of the Corps would rather talk about it than to act on it.  In my opinion, Jim Miller and thousands of men just like him qualify as being among our nation’s greatest of young patriots.
  2. This post was previously published at my other blog, which I have since re-titled Old West Tales. Since this particular post no longer fits that profile, I’ve re-posted it here.

Gooch’s Colonial Marines

First, some background …

As everyone knows, the British and Spanish have been at one another’s throats since Moby Dick was a minnow, so we’ll just fast-forward to the conclusion of the War of Spanish Succession in 1713.  The Treaty of Utrecht gave the British a 30-year right of access to supply slaves to Spanish colonies and up to five hundred tons of goods per year.  The effect of this arrangement was that it gave British merchants (and smugglers) inroads to previously closed markets in Spanish America.  In spite of the treaty, however, Great Britain and Spain continued to be at odds during this period, including such conflicts as the War of the Quadruple Alliance, the Blockade of Porto Bello, and the Anglo-Spanish War, which ended in 1729.

Following the Anglo-Spanish War, Britain accorded Spanish warships so-called visitation rights —which is to say the right of Spanish vessels to inspect British trading vessels, operating along the Spanish Main, for smuggled cargoes.  Over time, Spain began to suspect that British traders were abusing certain tenets of this treaty (with some justification).  Stepping up their inspections, Spanish coast guard authorities began confiscating British cargoes.

In 1731, Spanish officials boarded the British Brig Rebecca off the coast of Florida looking for contraband.  At some point in this confrontation, a Spanish customs officer sliced off the ear of the ship’s captain, a man named Robert Jenkins.  While the incident proved somewhat traumatic to Captain Jenkins, no one back home in England really cared about Captain Jenkins’ ear. In fact, Sir Robert Walpole [1] gave his support to Spain during the War of Polish Succession (1733-1735).

In seeking greater access to Spanish markets, however, political and trading interests began to exert pressure on Walpole to take a more aggressive stance with Spain.  Walpole initially remained reticent, but as opposition to Walpole increased, so too did anti-Spanish sentiments among the British public —and the British South Sea Company [2].  Quite suddenly, Captain Jenkins’ ear became the focus of anti-Walpole political factions. Eventually, owing to these public sentiments, Walpole succumbed to public pressure and approved sending troops to the West Indies and a navy squadron to Gibraltar.  The Spanish monarchy responded by seizing all British ships in Spanish harbors.  The War of Jenkins’ Ear [3] thus began in 1739 —but it was little more than a continuation of the grab for America’s resources by the British, French, Dutch, and Spanish.

Vernon 001One of the first major actions of the war was the British capture of a silver-exporting town on the coast of Panama on 22 November 1739.  The purpose of this operation was to damage Spain’s economy and weaken its maritime capacity.  The poorly defended port was attacked by six ships of the line under the command of Vice Admiral Edward Vernon.  The port was quickly captured and within three weeks, British forces successfully destroyed its fortifications, port facilities, and warehouses.  At the completion of these depredations, the British withdrew leaving Portobelo’s economy was so damaged that it did not fully recover until construction of the Panama Canal two hundred years later.

The Vernon action caused Spain to change their trade practices.  Rather than conducting commerce at centralized ports with few large treasure fleets, they employed a larger number of convoys and increased the number of port facilities.  The Spanish also devised new trading routes, including navigation around Cape Horn to establish trading facilities along South and Central America’s western coast.

Meanwhile, back in Great Britain, Admiral Vernon became the man of the hour and his victory was widely celebrated by folks who weren’t even sure where Panama was located.  In 1740, at a dinner in Vernon’s honor the song “Rule Britannia” was performed for the first time.  Patriotism was widespread in London; Robert Walpole was pressed to launch an even larger naval expedition to the Gulf of Mexico.

Nevertheless, Admiral Vernon and the governor of Jamaica, Edward Trelawny, believed that rather than focusing their attention in the Gulf of Mexico (Cuba, for example) they should give their attention to Spain’s gold coast and this became Vernon’s primary objective.  Admiral Vernon planned a major assault on the city of Cartagena de Indias (in present day Columbia) because it was the location of the Spanish Viceroyalty and the main port of the West Indian fleet sailing for the Iberian Peninsula.

Admiral Vernon launched three assaults against Cartagena between 13 March 1740 and 20 May 1741.  Requiring information about Cartagena, Vernon’s first assault was limited to a reconnaissance in force.  He needed coastal surveys, and he needed to understand Spanish naval routines near Playa Grande.

The purpose of his second assault on 18 March 1740 was to provoke a Spanish response.  By bombarding the city, Vernon hoped to be able to evaluate Spain’s defensive capabilities.  In Cartagena, Admiral Blas de Lezo [4] anticipated Vernon’s intentions.  Rather than responding to the naval bombardment, Lezo ordered the removal of cannon from ships and placed them as coastal defense batteries at likely avenues of a British approach.  When Vernon initiated his anticipated amphibious assault, Lezo was waiting for him and the landing force was defeated.  Vernon then commenced a naval bombardment that lasted twenty-one days, after which he withdrew the bulk of his forces.

Vernon returned to Cartagena with thirteen ships of war intending to re-initiate a bombardment of the city.  This time Admiral Lezo reacted; he deployed six ships of the line so that the British fleet was kept beyond the firing range of the port city. Vernon, now frustrated, again withdrew leaving Admiral Lezo with confidence in his defensive capabilities.

So, what happened …

It was at this point that Admiral Vernon began to formulate plans for a third assault of Cartagena.  To achieve this goal in terms of manpower, however, Great Britain was forced to urge its North American colonies to raise 3,000 soldiers to participate in the expedition [5].  There was no shortage of volunteers as thousands of men stepped forward to serve King and Country [6].  In total, the British raised 40 companies forming four battalions within an American regiment—paid for by the British taxpayer.  Of significance, the regiment’s officers were granted the right to half-pay [7].

Sir William Gooch
Sir William Gooch

Appointed to command the Colonial regiment was Alexander Spotswood, a lieutenant colonel of the British Army and a former lieutenant governor of Virginia [8].  Spotswood, a noted explorer, also established the first colonial iron work in North America. He gained political standing for his skill in negotiating acceptable treaties with the Iroquois Nations.  After Spotswood’s death in 1740, Sir William Gooch was appointed to replace him.  At the time of his appointment, Sir William was the serving lieutenant governor of Virginia.

Lawrence Washington 001
Lawrence Washington

All of Gooch’s field officers were detailed to the American regiment from the British Army; his company grade officers (excepting one lieutenant and one sergeant from the British Army in each company), were all appointed from among the colonial elite.  Of these, the best known was a Lawrence Washington [9] (pictured left), who was George Washington’s older half-brother.  When formed, the colonial regiment contained one colonel, four lieutenant colonels, four majors, thirty-six captains, seventy-two lieutenants, four adjutants, four quartermasters, one surgeon, four surgeon’s mates, 144 sergeants, 144 corporals, 72 drummers, and 3,240 privates (then called sentinels).  Colonel Gooch’s immediate superior was Admiral Edward Vernon, Royal Navy —and for the purposes of this account, Gooch’s superior is relevant because Admiral Vernon intended Gooch’s regiment to perform as Marines, rather than as land infantry.

Lord Charles Cathcart
Charles Cathcart, 7th Lord Cathcart

The British home contingent, under the command of Lord Cathcart, was delayed by four months —finally sailing from England in November 1740.  After joining the fleet in Jamaica in January 1741, Admiral Vernon commanded one of the largest fleets ever assembled.  He commanded 186 ships, 3,000 pieces of artillery, and 27,000 men: 12,000 sailors, 10,000 soldiers, 1,000 Jamaican slaves, and the 4,000 troops of the American regiment.  On paper, the numbers seem impressive, but the reality was another matter. Sickness and scurvy [10] were epidemic among the troops; Lord Charles Cathcart, the British army commander died from this disease.

Goochs Marines 001
Uniform of the American Regiment, War of Jenkins’ Ear

The American regiment went ashore in Jamaica, but it was far from ready for combat service.  Lacking sound officer and NCO leadership, the troops were ill-disciplined and inefficient in the art of war.  Making things worse, the British government made no effort to pay or feed the colonials, which brought the colonial troops near to mutiny.  Sickness was even more rampant within the American ranks than it was in the British. Yet, in spite of this, by 11 March Vernon positioned his fleet off the coast of the Spanish Main [11].

In order to reach Cartagena, Vernon had to force entry through a small passage at Boca Chica, which was defended by three forts; he had to defeat each of these fortifications.  Accordingly, Vernon landed his troops —exempting the American Regiment [12]— and opened the critical passage.

In late April, Lieutenant General Thomas Wentworth, having replaced Lord Cathcart, led an attacking force to the outskirts of Cartagena.  During this assault and owing to their lack of esprit de corps and overall tactical incompetence, Wentworth relegated the Americans to the menial task of carrying scaling ladders and woolpacks.  During the assault Americans threw down their ladders and fled the battle.  British forces were now left without the means to carry the walls of the city.

When a Spanish counter-attack threatened to isolate British forces from their ships, Wentworth was forced to withdraw.  To make matters worse, yellow fever was now epidemic among the troops —American and British alike. Half of the landing force was incapacitated, which forced Admiral Vernon to withdraw his fleet to the coast. There, soldiers lay dying without medical attention by the hundreds.  In early May, Vernon embarked the survivors of his land forces and returned to Jamaica. The sickness could not be contained, however, and the British force was soon reduced to around 2,700 men (roughly 1,300 English, 1,400 American).

In August, having decided to invade Cuba, Vernon’s fleet entered the Gulf of Mexico.  On 29 August 1741 the British fleet anchored at Cumberland Bay, 90 miles from Santiago de Cuba.  Troops and supplies were landed, but the sickness continued unabated.  Vernon kept his soldiers in camp until November when they returned to their ships and the fleet sailed back to Jamaica. Three-thousand reinforcements arrived from England in February 1742, but they too fell ill.  In October 1742, Gooch’s regiment was disbanded, and the officers and men were discharged.  Of the 4,163 officers and men in the American regiment, only 10% survived.  The regiment’s surviving officers did receive half-pay for the rest of their lives, but not before they appeared before a board of general officers in London to plead their case.

By succumbing to their natural fears and running away in the face of battle, Gooch’s regiment disgraced itself —but having said that, we cannot say that their training was adequate to the purpose of producing effective soldiers.  Moreover, British treatment of these troops was equally outrageous.  While it is true that Wentworth’s army distrusted these colonial marines, there were plenty of reasons for the Americans to distrust and feel betrayed by their British officers —even discounting the onset of disease.  The Americans were inadequately clothed, fed, and cared for and they served without pay. At Cartagena, the Americans were relegated to work alongside Jamaican slaves.  They were placed on ships and forced to work as seamen —a breach of the terms of their enlistments.  Aboard ship, the colonials were refused berthing spaces or hammocks, assigned to do the work that ship’s crew didn’t want to do, and they were often moved from ship to ship without their own officer’s knowledge.

The men who formed the colonial regiment may have been detailed to serve Admiral Vernon’s fleet as marines, but there is no way to equate them with modern day American and British Royal Marines [13].

Notes:

[1] Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Oxford (1676-1745) was Great Britain’s first prime minister.

[2] The South Sea Company was a joint-stock company formed in 1711, created to consolidate and reduce the cost of national debt.  The company was granted a monopoly to trade with South America and nearby islands—the genesis of its name.

[3] Robert Jenkins was called to testify before the Parliament in 1738, and according to some accounts, he produced his severed ear as part of his presentation.  This account has never been verified.  The Jenkins incident was considered along with various other examples of Spanish depredations upon British subjects and the incident, some eight years later, was popularly perceived as an insult to British honor.

[4] Admiral Blas de Lezo y Olaverrieta (1689-1741) was a Basque officer in service to the King of Spain.

[5] Until 1740, North America’s military contribution to Great Britain had mostly come from privateers[5], who were sanctioned by the British government during time of war.  At other times, the British referred to such endeavors as piracy.  Traditionally, colonial militia in North America were recruited and paid for by local governments to protect local jurisdictions; the British Army and Navy handled international conflicts.  Thus, British expeditionary operations during the War of Jenkins’ Ear opened a new chapter in an old story —but with a significant shift: the employment of colonial ground forces.  The use of American colonists as British ground forces had not been previously attempted —and, as it turns out, was never attempted again.

[6] Virginia was the only colony having to rely on impressment to meet expected quotas.

[7] Half-pay was a term used in the British Army and Royal Navy referring to the pay and allowances an officer received when in retirement, or not in active duty service.

[8] Spotswood was appointed lieutenant governor under the nominal governorship of George Hamilton, 1st Earl of Orkney in 1710.  As Hamilton never ventured to the American colonies, the lieutenant governor, upon appointment, became the de factoCrown authority within the colony.  Owing to his adversarial relationship with the Virginia Council, and with James Blair in particular —a very powerful adversary, Spotswood was recalled in 1722.

[9] Lawrence Washington (1718–1752) was an American soldier, planter, politician, and prominent landowner in colonial Virginia. As a founding member of the Ohio Company of Virginia, and a member of the colonial legislature representing Fairfax County, he also founded the town of Alexandria, Virginia on the banks of the Potomac River in 1749.  Lawrence was the first of the family to live at the Mount Vernon estate, which he named after his Commanding Officer in the War of Jenkins’ Ear, Admiral Edward Vernon. When Lawrence Washington became ill with tuberculosis, he and his brother George travelled to Barbados, expecting that the warm climate would alleviate his ill health.  Lawrence died at Mount Vernon the following year.

[10] Scurvy is a disease resulting from a lack of vitamin C.  Early symptoms include weakness, tiredness, and soreness in the arms and legs. Without treatment, affected individuals experience decreased red blood cells, gum disease, loss of hair, and bleeding from the skin.  If conditions worsen, poor healing of wounds occurs, personality disorders appear, and finally death from bleeding and infection.

[11] Spain’s mainland coastal possessions.

[12] In the entire regiment, Gooch trusted only 300 troops to perform their duties ashore.

[13] The Royal Marines were formed in 1755 as the Royal Navy Infantry.  However, these Marines can trace their origins to the formation of the British Army’s Duke of York and Albany’s maritime regiment of foot on 28 October 1664. The Royal Marines have close ties with allied marine forces, particularly the United States Marine Corps and the Netherland’s Marine Corps (Korps Mariniers).  Today, although have undergone many substantial changes over time, the Royal Marines remain an elite fighting force within the British armed forces.

 

The Marines’ First Amphibious Raid

Gunpowder 001At the outset of the American Revolution, Great Britain’s governor in Virginia recognized that stores of arms and gunpowder within his control were now threatened by colonial rebels.  Accordingly, he directed that these stores be removed from Virginia and transported to New Providence Island in the Bahamas.  In August 1775, General Gage [1] alerted Governor Montfort Browne, the governor of the Bahamas, that rebels might undertake operations to seize these supplies.

Gunpowder was in short supply in the Continental Army. It was this critical shortage that led the Second Continental Congress to direct planning for a naval expedition to seize military supplies in Nassau.  Congressional instructions issued to Captain Esek Hopkins, who had been selected to lead the expedition, simply instructed him to patrol and raid British naval targets along the Virginia/North Carolina coastline. Hopkins may have been issued additional instructions in secret, but we know that before sailing from Delaware on 17 February 1776, Hopkins instructed his fleet [2] to rendezvous at Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas.

Continental Fleet At Sea
Continental Fleet

Upon sailing, the fleet encountered gale-force winds but in spite of this, the fleet managed to say together for two days.  Then, Fly and Hornet became separated.  Hornet was forced to return to port for repairs, while Fly did eventually rejoin the fleet.  Undeterred by the loss of two ships, Hopkins continued his mission believing that the gale had forced the British fleet in to port.

In late February, Governor Browne became aware that a rebel fleet was in the process of assembling off the coast of Delaware.  In spite of this, he took no action to prepare an adequate defense.  There were two primary defense works at New Providence: Fort Nassau and Fort Montagu. Fort Nassau was poorly equipped to defend the port against amphibious raids; its walls were not strong enough to support its 46-cannon.  Fort Nassau’s poor state prompted the British to construct Fort Montagu on the eastern end of the harbor in 1742, a position that commanded the entrance to the harbor. At this time, Fort Montagu was fortified with 17-cannon but most of the gunpowder stores and ordnance was held at Fort Nassau.

Hopkins’ fleet arrived at Abaco Island on 1 March 1776. It soon captured two sloops owned and operated by British loyalists, one of whom was Gideon Lowe of Green Turtle Cay. Hopkins pressured the owners to serve as pilots.  George Dorsett, a local ship’s captain, escaped capture and alerted Browne of Hopkins’ arrival.

On the next day, Hopkins directed the transfer of Marines to Providence and the two captured sloops; plans were formulated for an amphibious assault.  The main fleet would hold back as three ships carrying the landing force entered the harbor at daybreak on 3 March.  The intention was to gain control of the town before an alarm could be raised.

As it turned out, a daybreak assault was a huge mistake because the alarm was sounded when the three ships were observed entering the harbor in the morning light.  Roused from his bed, Governor Browne ordered four guns fired from Fort Nassau to alert the militia.  Unhappily, two of these guns came off their mounts at the moment they were fired.  At 0700, Browne held a council of war with Samuel Gambier.  Browne wondered whether he should remove the gunpowder to the Mississippi Packet, a fast ship then docked in the harbor. It was a good idea, but Browne failed to act on it.  Ultimately, Browne ordered thirty unarmed militia to occupy Fort Montagu before retiring to his home for his morning ablutions.

Fort Montagu
Fort Montagu, Nassau

The landing force realized that they had been discovered the moment they heard the guns fired at Fort Nassau; the element of surprise was lost, and the assault was aborted.  Hopkins signaled his fleet to rejoin at Hanover Sound, some six nautical miles east of Nassau.  When the ships were assembled, Hopkins consulted with his captains to rethink the plan of attack [3].  The landing force was increased by fifty sailors.  Along with the Wasp, the three ships of the landing force would proceed to a point south and east of Fort Montagu (pictured right).  The Marines made an unopposed landing between noon and 1400 … it was the first amphibious landing of what became the United States Marine Corps.

Hearing commotion, a British lieutenant by the name of Burke led a detachment of troops out from Fort Montagu to investigate.  Suddenly finding himself significantly outnumbered, he sent a flag of truce to determine the intentions of these men.  He was quickly informed, and perhaps even forthrightly so, that it was their purpose to seize military stores.

Meanwhile, Governor Browne (now freshly coiffed) arrived at Fort Montagu with another eighty militiamen (some of whom were actually armed).  Upon being informed of the size of the landing force, Browne ordered three of Fort Montagu’s guns fired and then withdrew all but a few men back to Nassau. In Nassau, he ordered the militia back to their homes; he retired to the governor’s house to await his fate.

Sometime later, Governor Browne sent Lieutenant Burke to parley with the rebel force.  Burke was instructed to “wait on command of the enemy and know his errand, and on what account he has landed troops here.”

Samuel_Nicholas
Capt Samuel Nicholas

The firing of Montagu’s guns had given Captain Nicholas [4] some pause for concern even though his Marines had already occupied the fort.  He was consulting with his officers when Lieutenant Burke arrived and stated Governor Browne’s message.  Nicholas restated that their mission was to seize the military stores, adding that they intended to do this even if they had to assault the town. Burke carried this message back to Browne; Nicholas and his Marines remained in control of the fort throughout that night —which was another mistake.

That night, Governor Browne held a council of war. The decision was taken to attempt the removal of the gunpowder.  At midnight, 162 of 200 barrels of gunpowder were successfully loaded aboard the Mississippi Packet and HMS St. John.  The ships sailed at 0200 bound for St. Augustine.  This feat was made possible because Commodore Hopkins had anchored his fleet in Hanover Sound, neglecting to post a single ship at the entrance of the harbor.

On the next morning, Captain Nicholas and his Marines occupied Nassau without encountering any resistance.  In fact, the Marines were met by a committee of city officials who offered up the keys to the city.  Commodore Hopkins and his fleet remained in Nassau for two weeks, loading as much weaponry as he could fit into his ships—including the remaining casks of gunpowder.  Hopkins also pressed into service the Endeavor to transport some of the materials.

Governor Browne complained that the rebel officers had consumed most of his liquor stores during their occupation (which is probably true), and that he was placed in chains like a felon when he was arrested and taken aboard Alfred —which is also likely true.

Hopkins’ fleet sailed for Block Island off Newport, Rhode Island on 17 March 1776; he took with him Governor Browne and other British officials as prisoners.  On 4 April, the fleet returned to Long Island where they encountered and captured HMS Hawk.  The next day, the captured HMS Bolton, which was laden with stores including armaments and gunpowder. Hopkins met stiff resistance on 6 April when he encountered HMS Glasgow, a sixth-rate ship [5], but the outnumbered Glasgow managed to escape capture and severely damaged Cabot, wounding her captain, who was Hopkins’ son, John Burroughs Hopkins, and killing eleven crew.  Hopkins’ fleet returned to New London, Connecticut on 8 April.

Governor Browne was eventually exchanged for the American general William Alexander [6] (Lord Stirling).  Browne came under severe criticism for his handling of the defense of Nassau, even though Nassau remained poorly maintained and was subjected to American threats again in early 1778.

Commodore Hopkins, while initially lauded for the success of the assault upon Nassau, his failure to capture HMS Glasgow and complaints from fleet crewman resulted in several investigations and courts-martial.  In spite of the fact that his crew suffered from disease, the captain of Providence was relieved of his command, which was turned over to John Paul Jones —who received a commissioned as captain in the Continental Navy.  Eventually, Commodore Hopkins was forced out of the Navy due to further missteps and accusations relating to his integrity.

The Second Continental Congress promoted Captain Samuel Nicholas to the rank of major and placed him “at the head of the Marines.”

Notes:

[1] Thomas Gage (1718-1787) was a British general officer and colonial official who had many years of service in North America. He served as the British Commander-in-Chief in the early days of the American Revolution.

[2] Hopkins’ fleet consisted of the following ships: Alfred, Hornet, Wasp, Fly, Andrew Doria, Cabot, Providence, and Columbus.  The fleet consisted of 200 Continental Marines under the command of Captain Samuel Nicholas.

[3] Hopkins’ executive officer was John Paul Jones. Initially, it was believed that Jones urged Hopkins toward a new point of attack and then led the assault.  This notion has been discredited because unlike most other of Hopkins’ subordinates, Jones was unfamiliar with the local area. It was more likely that the assault was led by one of Cabot’s lieutenants, Thomas Weaver.

[4] Samuel Nicholas (1744-1790) was the first commissioned officer of the Continental Marines; by tradition, he is considered the first Commandant of the United States Marine Corps.

[5] A sixth-rate ship of the British navy typically measured between 450-550 tons, contained 28-guns, and had a crew of about 19 officers, including the captain, two lieutenants, chaplain, and Royal Marine lieutenant.  Quarterdeck warrant officers included the ship’s master, surgeon, assistant surgeon, purser, gunner, bosun, carpenter, two master’s mates, four midshipmen, and a captain’s clerk.  The rest of the crew were lower deck ratings.

[6] At the beginning of the American Revolution, Alexander was commissioned a colonel in the New Jersey colonial militia.  His personal wealth permitted him to outfit the militia at his own expense and he was willing to spend his own money in support of patriot causes.  During an early engagement, Alexander distinguished himself leading volunteers in the capture of a British naval transport.  By an act of the Second Continental Congress, Alexander was commissioned Brigadier General in the Continental Army.

During the Battle of Long Island, Alexander led an audacious attack against a superior British army under General William Howe.  Taking heavy casualties, Alexander was forced to withdraw, which he did in an orderly and distinguished manner.  During this withdraw, he inflicted heavy casualties upon the British, who were in pursuit.  Alexander’s brigade, overwhelmed by a ratio of 25-to-one, Alexander was taken prisoner. Because of his actions, American newspapers hailed him as “the bravest man in America.”

Alexander was exchanged as a prisoner for British Governor Montfort Browne and promoted to major general. He subsequently became one of George Washington’s most trusted generals.