The Eighth Marines – Beginnings

8th Marines LogoIt took the United States a few years to enter into the conflagration we today call World War I, but when the Congress authorized military action, an immediate expansion of the Marine Corps was ordered.  A number of regiments were brought into existence for employment in Europe and in areas outside the war zone.  By late 1918, the Marine Corps had 14 active regiments.  Only four of these would serve in Europe; the rest were ordered for service in the Caribbean, or remained stationed in the United States.

The Eighth Marine Regiment (8th Marines) was activated at Quantico, Virginia on 9 October 1917.  The regiment initially consisted of four units: Headquarters Company, and the 105th, 106th, and 107th Rifle Companies [Note 1].  The regiment was augmented by the 103rd, 104th, 108th, 109th and 110th Rifle Companies on 13 October.  Two additional companies were organized on 22 October: 111th and 112th Companies.  Major Ellis B. Miller was designated as the regimental commander.  He was a 37-year old Marine from Iowa.

At this time, Marine Corps regiments lacked a battalion structure, but in 1917, the Marine Corps adopted the deliberate policy of shaping its regiments to conform to the US Army’s regimental structure.  The reason for this was that Major General Hugh L. Scott, serving as Army Chief of Staff, insisted that Marines deployed to France be organized identically with US Army units [Note 2].  This made perfect sense in terms of deploying combat forces on the Western Front.  Marine regiments would henceforth be organized with a headquarters company and three infantry battalions.  Each battalion would consist of a command element and four rifle companies.  The size of regiments would average 3,000 men.

The first orders received by the 8th Marines indicated that it could be sent to Texas for a possible thrust into Mexico.

Relations between Mexico and the United States had been strained since the Mexican-American War (1846-48).  Since then, Texas and other border states had been subjected to bandit raids  from Mexico and insurrections from within Hispanic communities in South Texas.  The Mexican Revolution (1910-20) only increased these tension.

In 1914, Mexican authorities arrested nine sailors while their ship was anchored in Tampico.  The Mexicans released the sailors, but the US Naval commander demanded an apology and a 21-gun salute.  The Mexicans did apologize, but refused to offer the 21-gun honors.  As President Wilson consulted with Congress over the matter of a possible invasion of Mexico, US intelligence assets learned that a steamer with German registry was attempting to deliver weapons and munitions for Victoriano Huerta, who had seized control of the Mexican government [Note 3].  In response, Wilson authorized the Navy to seize the port city of Veracruz.

In 1916, the Mexican Bandit Pancho Villa crossed the US border with a sizable force and attacked the New Mexico town of Columbus.  Villa assaulted the resident detachment of the 13th Cavalry Regiment, burned the town, seized 100 horses, and made off with other military supplies.  Eighteen Americans died during the assault; Villa lost about 80 of his banditos.   

In January 1917, British Intelligence intercepted a cable from the German Foreign Office addressed to Mexico’s president proposing a military alliance; should the United States enter the war against Germany, a Mexican invasion of the southern portion of the US border would be rewarded by the recovery of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.  President Carranza referred the matter to a military commission, which concluded that the proposed invasion of former Mexican territory would be neither possible or desirable.

With this as a backdrop, the 8th Marines were ordered to Fort Crockett near Galveston as a contingency force should it be necessary to seize and hold the oil fields at Tampico.  The regiment departed for Galveston aboard the USS Hancock on 9 November.  A week later, the Marines were creating a campsite at Fort Crockett.

In August 1918, the 9th Regiment and Headquarters, 3rd Provisional Brigade arrived at Fort Crockett.  The 8th Marines became part of that Brigade.  The Marines remained at Fort Crockett until the end of the war with Germany, but it was not necessary to deploy these Marines into Mexico.  Meanwhile, Mexican officials were well aware of the presence of these Marines and their purpose.  The placement of these Marines may have materially avoided further conflict with Mexico.

The regiment returned to Philadelphia on 25 April and was deactivated the next day.  By the end of 1919, a decision was taken to reactivate the 8th Marines for service in Haiti—an intervention that would not go away [Note 4].  A reorganization of Marine Corps units in Haiti, precipitated by an overall reduction in the post-war strength of the U. S. Marine Corps, began in December 1919.  The 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment (3/2) was redesignated 1/8 with its field and staff [Note 5], 36th, 57th, 63rd, 65th, 100th, 148th, and 196th rifle companies.  8th Marine headquarters was not activated until the following month.

On 5 January 1920, the 8th Marines command element was activated at Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti.  Field and Staff, 1/8 was deactivated and its personnel transferred to Headquarters Company, 8th Marines.  8th Marines headquarters assumed control of subordinate numbered companies. This was the organization of the 8th Marines for the next five years.  The regiment operated with less than 600 men; it’s commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel Louis M. Little.  Colonel Little was an asset in Haiti because he was fluent in the French language.

The Marines were well-aware of a rumor that Cacos bandits were planning to assault  the capital city.  The attack came at 0400 hours on 15 January 1920.  Three-hundred bandits assaulted in three separate columns.  Second Lieutenant Gerald C. Thomas commanded an urban patrol of twelve Marines.  This patrol and a 50-man group of bandits surprised each other on one of the city’s side streets.  Thomas ordered his Marines to hold their fire as the bandits marched toward them.  When the bandits had advanced further, they opened fire on the Marines, but Thomas ordered his men to hold until the Cacos were directly in front of their position.  The concentrated fire from the Marines literally destroyed the bandit formation, killing 20 insurgents.  Thomas’ Marines suffered three wounded.  The bandits retreated from the city [Note 6].

In pursuit of the bandit leader Benoit Batraville, Colonel Little adopted aggressive “search and destroy” operations.  Marine patrols were constantly in the field looking for a confrontation with the insurgents.  This attention forced the rebels to be constantly on the move.  Batraville, however, managed to elude capture, which made the Marines even more determined to find and arrest him.

On 4 April 1920, the Marines experienced two significant encounters with the Cacos.  At 0700, Sergeant Laurence Muth observed a group of bandits on the summit of Mount Michel.  Muth instantly ordered his men to take firing positions and open fire.  Unexpectedly, another group of bandits, who were planning to ambush the Marines, opened fire on Muth’s right flank.  Sergeant Muth was killed in the first volley; in the ensuing firefight, ten bandits were dispatched but the Marines, being overwhelmed in numbers, withdrew.  Sgt. Muth’s body was left behind.  An enraged Colonel Little immediately dispatched 21 patrols, with himself leading one of them to the place where Muth was killed.  Catching a group of Cacos off guard, the Marines initiated a firefight that resulted in 25 enemy killed.  After the fight, Little discovered Sgt. Muth’s remains.  He had been decapitated and his heart had been cut out.

Commanding the 100th Company, 8th Marines in the area of Marche Canard, Captain Jesse L. Perkins led his Marines into the countryside to search for Batraville.  Personally leading a squad of eleven Marines on 19 May, Perkins became aware of a large Cacos camp within a six hour march.  He proceeded to the location with the assistance of native guides.  At 0600, Perkins and his Marines encountered an outpost a short distance from the enemy’s main camp.  Perkins sent Second Lieutenant Edgar G. Kirkpatrick with seven Marines to envelop the camp site.  Captain Perkins, Sergeant William F. Passmore, Sergeant Albert A. Tauber, and Private Emery L. Entrekin [Note 7] assaulted the camp.  Although greatly outnumbered, Perkins gambled on the element of surprise.  Panic ensued once the Cacos observed the Marines rushing toward their position.  Disregarding enemy fire, Perkins and his Marines rushed forward while firing their weapons, momentarily stunning the rebels.  Benoit Batraville then appeared to take charge of the rebels.  Recognizing Batraville, Sergeant Passmore turned and fired at Batraville with his Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), killing him instantly.

At the sound of the rifle fire, Lieutenant Kirkpatrick immediately led his seven Marines into a flanking assault.  The firefight lasted another 15 minutes resulting in 10 enemy killed and several more seriously wounded.  Sergeant Muth’s pistol was found on Batraville’s body.

Although the Cacos leader had been killed, the Marines continued to conduct patrols in order to keep the rebels from reorganizing around a new leader.  Many of these patrols were conducted on horses and mules, since these animals were an excellent form of transportation over rough terrain [Note 8].

Problems with Cacos insurgents abated over time, but the hills were infested with bandits who traditionally preyed on defenseless women who were taking their wares to market.  To solve this problem, Colonel Little had his Marines disguise themselves as women.  When attacked by robbers, the Marines drew their weapons and resolved the problem.  After a few of these encounters, Haitian thieves left the women alone.

As the insurgency died down, the Marines undertook other duties, such as mapping the countryside, road construction, building sanitation facilities, and training the local constabulary.  When the 8th Marines was no longer needed in Haiti, it was once again deactivated and all assigned Marines were transferred to the 2nd Marine Regiment.  We will not hear of the 8th Marines again until the outbreak of World War II.

Sources:

  1. Santelli, J. S.  A Brief History of the 8th Marines.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1976
  2. Rottman, G. L.  U. S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle, 1939-45.  Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002

Endnotes:

  1. At this time, rifle companies were numerically designated.
  2. Regiments not ordered for service in Europe maintained the traditional Marine Corps structure.  After World War I, Marine Corps regiments gradually adopted the Army’s regimental system.
  3. A portion of the munitions shipment had originated with the Remington Arms Company.
  4. Naval forces had been sent to Haiti in 1915 to protect American and other foreign interests.  A series of revolts and disturbances led to an insurrection of Cacos bandits.  The intervention dragged on for years as Marines struggled to bring stability to a Republic in shambles.  Given what we know about Haiti today, the effort was a waste of American lives, time, and money.
  5. At this time, field and staff was the accepted title for what would later become Headquarters & Service Company.
  6. Thomas later served as Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps and retired in 1956.  He passed away in 1984.
  7. Perkins, Passmore, Taubert, and Entrekin were awarded the Navy Cross medal.
  8. While Marines did use horses and mules, at no time were Marines employed as cavalry units.  Of further interest, the US Army never developed a cavalry organization until after the Civil War.  Before that, the Army employed dragoons, which were mounted infantry.

Divided Nation – Divided Corps

EGA 1850-002In the first few years following the War of 1812, the United States Marine Corps fell into a period of institutional malaise.  There were two reasons for this: first, the United States government was unwilling to fund a corps of Marines in larger numbers than needed for service aboard ships of the U. S. Navy.  From the outset, the US Marine Corps has always received scant funding, staffing, and equipment.   Second, as was the custom in those days, Marine Corps officers were appointed and commissioned through political patronage.  The sons of wealthy or politically connected families received commissions; it did not matter whether these appointees were good leaders or even skilled in the art and science of armed warfare.  Lacking quality leadership and innovation, the Marine Corps simply “existed.”  Political patronage continues to exist in the selection of candidates for the United States’ military and naval academies; those wishing to attend either of these must be nominated of a member of Congress.

In 1820, Archibald Henderson was appointed as the Marine Corps’ fifth commandant.  He remained in this position for 38 years—so long, in fact, that he became convinced that the Marine Corps belonged to him.  He willed the Marine Corps to his son, but of course, the will didn’t stand up in court.  During Henderson’s tenure, however, the Marine Corps undertook expeditionary missions in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, Key West, in West Africa, the Falkland Islands, Sumatra, and against the Seminole Indians as part of the Seminole Indian [1] and Creek Indian Wars [2].

Andrew Jackson was not a fan of the Marine Corps, but Commandant Henderson was able to thwart Jackson’s attempt to disband the Marine Corps and combine it with the U. S. Army.  In 1834, congress passed the Act for the Better Organization of the Marine Corps.  The Act stipulated that the Marine Corps was an integral part of the Department of the Navy.  Jackson’s attempt was the first of many challenges to the Marine Corps as part of the United States Armed Forces.  In any case, Archibald Henderson personally led two battalions of his Marines (half of the entire Marine Corps back then) in the Seminole War (1835).  In 1846, US Marines participated in the Mexican American War (1846-48) and made their famed assault on the Chapultepec Palace, later celebrated in the Marine Corps Hymn.

Henderson’s tenure as Commandant ended with his death in 1859 (aged 75 years).  In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States and civil war loomed on the near horizon.  After Lincoln’s inauguration, southern states began to secede from the union.  Many officers of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps were from southern states; out of a sense of duty to their home states, officers began to resign their commissions.  About one-third of the Marine Corps’ commissioned officer strength resigned and accepted commissions in the Confederate States of America.  Essentially, this large migration of officers left the US Marine Corps with mediocre officers.  A battalion of Marine recruits, having been thrown into the First Battle of Manassas (Virginia) in 1861 were soundly defeated by rebel forces.

USMC Infantry 1862Union Marines performed blockade duties, some sea-based amphibious operations, and traditional roles while afloat.  US Marines also participated in the assault and occupation of New Orleans and Baton Rouge.  These were signal events that enabled the union to gain control of the lower Mississippi River and denied the CSA a viable base of operations on the Gulf Coast.  In any case, poor leadership had a negative impact on the morale of serving Marines.  Few officers were interested in commanding Marine detachments or battalions; they were content to secure administrative positions.  In total, the USMC strength in 1861 was 93 officers and 3,074 enlisted men.  President Lincoln authorized an additional 1,000 enlisted men, but a shortage of funding hindered the recruiting effort.  Marine recruits were not offered recruitment bonuses (as in the Army and Navy), their length of enlistment was longer, and they earned $3.00 less pay each month.

The U. S. Marine Corps did not enjoy the confidence of the Congress in 1863 and congress proposed transferring the Marines to Army control.  The draft resolution was defeated when Colonel Commandant John Harris [3] died in office, the Secretary of the Navy forced several officers to resign or retire, and Major Jacob Zeilin [4] was named to replace Harris.  Zeilin, although 59-years old at the time, was a combat veteran with a good reputation, whose duties were executed well enough to earn him the first Marine Corps commission to general (flag rank) officer.  Still, neither Harris nor Zeilin considered the employment of Marines as an amphibious assault force.

Despite poor leadership among the officers, seventeen enlisted Marines received the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry during the Civil War.  Thirteen of these men served as noncommissioned officers and performed the duties of gun captain or gun-division commander.  By the end of 1864, the recruitment of Marines improved with changes to conscription laws and additional funds to pay a recruiting bounty.  During the war, 148 Marines were killed in action; 312 additional men perished from other causes (illness/accident).

CSMC Uniform 1862The Confederate States Marine Corps (CSMC) was established on 16 March 1861 with an authorized strength of 46 officers and 944 enlisted men.  The actual strength of the CSMC never came close to its authorized strength.  In 1864, the total strength of the CSMC was 539 officers and men.  Heading the CSMC as Colonel Commandant Lloyd J. Beale, who previously served the US Army as its paymaster.  He had no experience as a Marine, which meant that his subordinate officers, who were Marines, had little regard for his leadership ability.  He was simply a bureaucrat, and everyone treated him as such.

The CSMC was modeled after the USMC, but there were important differences.  In the south, Marine companies were structured as permanent organizations.  The fife was replaced by the bugle, and CSMC uniforms were designed somewhat similar to those of the Royal Marines.

Confederate Marines guarded naval stations at Mobile, Savannah, Charleston, Richmond, and Wilmington and manned naval shore batteries at Pensacola, Hilton Head, Fort Fisher, and Drewery’s Bluff.  Sea-going detachments served aboard Confederate ships, including the CSS Virginia (Merrimack) in 1861, and as part of the naval brigade at the Battle of Saylor’s Creek.  The Confederate Marines did perform well-enough, but as with their Union counterpart, the officer corps was plagued with laziness and paltry bickering over such things as seniority, shore duty, and administrative (staff) assignments.  The enlisted men, as has become a Marine Corps tradition, observed this petty behavior, shrugged their shoulders or rolled their eyes, and went on with their duties.

The Confederate States of America ceased to exist with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House.  In the post-war period, U. S. Marines began a period of introspection about the roles and missions suitable for a small corps of Marines.  The Navy’s transition from sail to steam negated the need for Marine sharpshooters aboard ship.  Without masts and rigging, there was no place for Marines to perch.  What evolved was an amphibious role for Marines during interventions and incursions to protect American lives and property.

In 1867, Marines took part in a punitive expedition to Formosa [5] (Taiwan).  A few years later in 1871, Marines participated in a diplomatic expedition to Korea —its purpose to support the American delegation to Korea, ascertain the fate of the merchant ship General Sherman, and to sign a treaty assuring aid to distressed US merchant sailors.  When the Koreans attacked US Navy ships, the diplomatic effort turned into a punitive one.  In the subsequent battle of Ganghwa, which involved 500 sailors and 100 Marines, nine sailors and six Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor for their intrepidity in armed conflict.  Neither of these two expeditions were overwhelmingly successful, but the action did manage to start a conversation within the Navy and Marine Corps about amphibious warfare.

USMC Sgt 1890Then, in October 1873, a diplomatic dispute involving the United States, United Kingdom, and Spain caused concern in the United States about its readiness for war with a European power.  It is known as the Virginius Affair.  Virginius was a fast American-made trade ship hired by Cuban insurrectionists to land men and munitions in Cuba, to be used to attack the Spanish regime there.  The ship was captured by Spain, who declared that the men on board were “pirates” and Spain’s intention to execute them.  Many of these freebooters were American and British citizens.  Spain did in fact execute 53 of these men and only halted the process when the British government demanded it.  There was talk inside the US that the American government might declare war on Spain.  Eventually, the matter was resolved without resorting to arms, but the incident did set into motion a new (and henceforth, ongoing) role for the U. S. Marines.

In 1874, the US Navy and Marines conducted brigade sized landing exercises in Key West.  Additional training exercises were conducted on Gardiners Island in 1884, and Newport, Rhode Island in 1887.  Subsequently, in the 35-years between the end of the American Civil War and the end of the 19th century, Marines were engaged in 28 separate interventions.

Sources:

  1. Sullivan, D. M. The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War.  Four volumes, 1997-2000).  White Mane Publishing.
  2. Scharf, J. T. History of the Confederate States Navy from its Organization to the surrender of its last vessel.  Fairfax Press, 1977.
  3. Tyson, C. A. Marine Amphibious Landing in Korea, 1871.  Marine Corps History Division, Naval Historical Foundation, 2007.

Endnotes:

[1] There were three distinct wars: 1816-19, 1835-42, 1855-58.  In total, the Seminole Wars became the longest and most expensive Indian wars in US history.

[2] Also, Red Stick War, and Creek Civil War.

[3] Harris served as a US Marine for 50 years.  As commandant, his tasks were challenging.  He lost one-third of his officers at the beginning of the Civil War, was forced to give up a full battalion to augment the US Secret Service, and came to grips with the fact that with such a small force, there is little the Marine Corps could contribute to the Union effort.  Harris was more or less content to remain “out of sight” and comply with Navy Regulations as best as he was able.  Accordingly, US Marines did not play a major role in expeditions and amphibious operations during the Civil War.

[4] General Zeilin approved the design of the now-famous Eagle, Globe, and Anchor emblem of the U. S. Marine Corps (1868).  He is additionally credited with establishing many Marine Corps customs and traditions that remain with the Corps to this very day, including the Marine Corps Hymn, the officer’s evening dress uniform, and adoption of the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fidelis.”

[5] When the bark Rover was wrecked and its crew came ashore in Formosa, natives attacked and massacred them.  The US Navy landed a company of sailors and Marines to avenge this insult to American soverignty, but the enemy employed guerrilla tactics, which forced the landing force back to their ships.  The lesson learned as a result was that Marines would have to learn how to think outside of the box.

The Intrepid Commodore

Joshua Barney c. 1800I initially introduced my readers to Commodore Joshua Barney while recounting the Battle of Bladensburg, which occurred in 1814.  His command of the Marines at Bladensburg (where the President of the United States placed himself under Barney’s command) piqued my interest in this heroic figure from America’s past.  As it turns out, Commodore Barney was not simply a highly skilled naval officer, he was gutsy, determined, and resourceful, as well.

A son of Baltimore, Maryland [1], Joshua Barney (1759-1818) initially went to sea at the age of 12 in 1771.  Four years later, he served as second-in-command to his brother-in-law aboard a merchant ship involved in European trade.  When the brother-in-law died, Barney assumed command of the ship and navigated the ship to Nicard Occitan (Nice).  There is much about his early years that we do not know, but he did marry twice and had children with both his wives.

Beginning in 1776, Barney served as a commissioned officer in the Continental Navy, the master of the Hornet, and at the time, the youngest commander of a Continental warship.  In this capacity, he participated in the raid on New Providence, in the Bahamas, under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins.  The Navy promoted him to lieutenant in recognition of his gallantry in the action between Wasp and the British brig [2], HMS Betsey.  Later, while serving aboard Andrew Doria, he played a prominent role in the defense of the Delaware River.  The British took Barney as a prisoner (and exchanged him) on several occasions during the Revolutionary War.  In 1779, the British held him at the Old Mill Prison at Plymouth, England until he escaped in 1781.  Barney wrote a memoir about his adventures, published in 1832 by his relatives, long after his death.

In April 1782, the Navy placed Barney in command of the Pennsylvania ship Hyder Ally.  During the Battle of Delaware Bay, Barney captured the better-armed HMS General Monk.  Monk was renamed General Washington and Barney was rewarded by giving him command of that ship.  With orders to deliver dispatches to Benjamin Franklin in France.  Barney’s return voyage to the United States carried news of peace with Great Britain and the end of the Revolutionary War.

After the war, Barney joined the French navy.  The French appointed him to serve as a squadron commander with the rank of captain.  From June through October 1796, Barney commanded the frigate [3] Harmonie, which was serving on station in the Caribbean and Chesapeake Bay.  As the Napoleonic Wars did not begin until 1803, it does not appear that Captain Barney served under the French flag at that time.

The United States had no interest in becoming involved in the Napoleonic Wars, but the loss of commercial ships to British raiders, the illegal impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy, and the insult to national pride eventually brought the United States back to war with Great Britain in 1812.  Even so, the United States was ill-prepared for another war, either on land or at sea.  Were it not for the fact that the British were fully engaged with France in Europe, it might have gone very badly for the fledgling United States in the early days of this conflict.  The Royal Navy was, at that time, the strongest navy in the world.  In comparison, the United States Navy was but a flea on the backside of a rogue elephant.

Without a navy of any substance, the United States began to construct, commission, and capture ships to serve as warships.  One of the more successful privateers was Joshua Barney of Baltimore, Maryland, who in 1812 was 53 years of age and living near Elk Ridge, Maryland.  Because he had served under a foreign flag as a naval commander, the US Navy denied Barney command of a United States Navy ship; instead, the Navy offered him command of the privateer schooner Rossie.  As a privateer, Barney excelled.  On a single voyage, Barney captured four ships [4], eight brigs, three schooners [5], and three sloops [6], a total value of around 1.5 million pounds.  By December of 1812, the Royal Navy was rampaging the Chesapeake Bay, blockading ports and taking what they wanted from shoreline villages and towns.  Their first defeat came at the mouth of the Elizabeth River when the Royal Navy failed to seize Norfolk, Virginia —but as an act of revenge, the British sacked the town of Hampton.  The American army’s commitment to operations in Canada left the Chesapeake Bay undefended, allowing the British navy to invade the American shore with impunity.

Despite its few resources and very little money, the United States government resolved to do something.  This is when Captain Barney stepped forward with a plan to defend the Chesapeake.  In those days, it was easy for a citizen to approach the President of the United States.  Barney drew up his plan and delivered it personally to President Madison.  It was as detailed a plan as anyone had ever seen, including sketches of gunboats that were like river-barges [7], equipped with oars and light sails, and armed with one large gun.  As Barney envisioned it, these small vessels would be manned by local men, would draw attention to themselves but they would also be proficient in keeping an eye on the British navy.  With a shallow draft, the barges would be able to withdraw close to shore where the British could not follow.  One of Barney’s selling points was that the barges were relatively inexpensive to build and, once the war was over, the vessels could go on the block for commercial use.

President Madison was suitably impressed.  He appointed Barney as Commander of the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla.  Construction of the barges began in earnest and bounties were offered to entice men who would otherwise have served as privateers, or enlisted men in the land forces.  News of the flotilla quickly spread, and this prompted the British to construct barges of their own on tangier Island.  Within a short time, Barney had seven (7) 75’ barges, six (6) 50’ barges, two gunboats [8], one row galley [9], a lookout boat, and his flagship USS Scorpion [10].

With eighteen vessels (but scant supplies), Barney led his flotilla from Baltimore to attack Tangier Island and destroy the British efforts there.  With the discovery of British reconnaissance troops near St. Jerome’s Creek, Barney decided to attack these men.  The surprise was that a British warship was in hiding not far distant, causing Barney to make a rapid withdrawal into the Patuxent River.  British captain Barrie, in command of HMS Dragon, blockaded the mouth of the Patuxent River and waited for reinforcements from HMS Jaseur and HMS Loire.  Barney continued his withdrawal to the shores of St. Leonard’s Creek.  Initially, with the realization that the British out-gunned him four to one, Barney saw little chance of besting the British, but his position offered an excellent defense.  We remember this three-day battle as the Battle of the Barges.  The conflict ended in a draw, but Barney did not lose a single man to British fire, while the Royal Navy suffered numerous casualties.

In August of 1814 48-British ships arrived in the Chesapeake with a contingent of 5,400 soldiers under the command of Major General Robert Ross.  These troops landed at the little down of Benedict and began their march northwards.  Admiral Sir George Cockburn, serving as overall commander-in-chief, sailed up the Patuxent River … altogether setting into motion the Battle of Bladensburg —the defense of the City of Washington.  Given the timidity of the undisciplined American militia, all that really stood between General Ross’ army and Washington was Commodore Barney and around 500 sailors and Marines.  Of course, we know that it was a futile defense and Barney was (once more) captured by the British.  Although seriously wounded, Barney was well-treated by the British, who congratulated him on his gallantry under fire.  Before his capture, Barney ordered his flotilla burned to keep them from falling into the hands of the British; the remnants of this force remain at the bottom of the Patuxent River today.  With the peace came Barney’s release from captivity and he returned to his home in Anne Arundel County.

The wound he received in 1814 eventually killed Commodore Barney, who at his death was only 59 years old.

Sources:

  1. S. Naval History and Heritage Command, Joshua Barney, online resource.
  2. Barney, M. A Biographical Memoir of the Late Commodore Joshua Barney From Autographical Notes and Journals in Possession of His Family and Other Authentic Sources.  Gray and Bowen, publishers, 1832.
  3. Shomette, D. Shipwrecks on the Chesapeake.  Centerville, MD: Tidewater Publishers (1982)
  4. Ellis, J. J. His Excellency, George Washington.  New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 2004

Endnotes:

[1] When Baltimore was still an American city.

[2] A brig is a two-mast square rigged ship.

[3] A frigate in the age of sail was a warship built for speed and maneuverability and could be a vessel of several sizes.  Their principle batteries could be placed on a single deck, or on two decks with smaller guns.  They were generally two small to stand in the line of battle.  They were full rigged with square sails on three masts and mostly used as escort ships and patrolling.  They usually carried 28 guns.

[4] In context, ship meaning ships of the line or full-rigged vessels with three or more full-rigged masts.  Ships of the line were generally categorized as first, second, or third-rate vessels (more than 64-guns).  Fourth-rate ships came into being in the mid-18th century (50-60 guns).

[5] A schooner is a fore and aft-rigged vessel with two or more masts, of which the foremast is shorter than the main.

[6] Sloops were fore-and-aft rigged vessels with a single mast.  They were later powered warships between corvettes and frigates in overall size.

[7] Essentially, shoal-draft flat bottom boats normally constructed as river or canal transport of bulk goods.

[8] Gunboats were of various sizes and armaments with a single mast.

[9] An armed craft that used oars rather than sails but was often fitted with sails in addition to its oars.

[10] Scorpion was a self-propelled floating artillery battery, sloop rigged with oars.  As part of the Chesapeake Bay flotilla, Scorpion was commanded by Major William B. Barney, Commodore Barney’s son.

244th Anniversary of the U. S. Marine Corps

November 10th is the 244th anniversary of the founding of the United States Marine Corps. If you’ve never served as a Marine, then you will never know what being a Marine is all about. If you’re interested, though, here’s a short glimpse of our history.

 

If you are a Marine (there are only two types: those still living (and have maintained their faith with us), and those who aren’t), then you are my brother or sister. To you, I wish the happiest (and safest) of all Marine Corps birthday celebrations.

Semper Fidelis, Marines

Mustang sends …

Diminished Honor

Occasionally, one wonders, “What in the hell is the matter with people?”  I have to say that the American navy has a rich history of honor, sacrifice, and fortitude, but there are a few blemishes, as well —which is true within all our military branches.  Our military is representative of our society —its strengths and weaknesses.  There is no justification for dwelling on them, but they do present important lessons and we either learn from them or repeat them to our sorrow.

Two disgraces stand out.  The first involves Rear Admiral (then Captain) Leslie Edward Gehres, USN (1898-1975) whose primary contribution to the Navy was his toxic leadership while in command of the USS Franklin (CV-13) (1944-1945).  Gehres assumed command of USS Franklin at Ulithi, relieving Captain J. M. Shoemaker.  Under Shoemaker, USS Franklin had come under attack by Japanese kamikaze aircraft.  At the change of command ceremony, Gehres told the ship’s crew, “It was your fault because you didn’t shoot the kamikaze down.  You didn’t do your duty; you’re incompetent, lazy, and careless.  You don’t know your jobs and I’m going to do my best to shape up this crew.”  The vision of this takes us to the film Caine Mutiny, starring Humphrey Bogart—a psychopath placed in command of the fictional destroyer, USS Caine.  One can only imagine how Captain Shoemaker felt having to listen to Gehres’ tripe on his last moment of command.

Gehres was raised in Rochester, New York and Newark, New Jersey.  He enlisted in the New York Naval Militia in 1914.  His unit was activated for World War I service and Gehres was assigned to USS Salem, USS Massachusetts, and USS Indiana.  Subsequently, Gehres attended the Reserve Officer’s Course at the USN Academy.  He was commissioned an ensign on 24 May 1918.  Gehres received a regular commission in the Navy in September of that year while serving aboard USS North Dakota in the Atlantic.  He was assigned to flight training at Pensacola, Florida and received his designation as a Naval Aviator in August 1927.

In November 1941, Gehres commanded Fleet Patrol Wing 4.  He spent most of World War II in the Aleutian Islands.  His subordinates referred to him as “Custer” because of his illogical tactics and erratic behavior.  Despite a rather poor reputation among his subordinates, Gehres was advanced to the rank of Commodore —the first Naval Aviator to achieve this rank.

USS Franklin
USS Franklin

In November 1944, he took a reduction in rank designation in order to assume command of USS Franklin.  His remarks at the change of command ceremony must not have done very much for crew morale.  In 1945, Franklin was assigned to the coast of the Japanese homeland in support of the assault on Okinawa.  Ship’s aircrews initiated airstrikes against Kagoshima, Izumi, and southern Kyushu.  At dawn on 15 March, the ship had maneuvered to within 50 miles of the Japanese mainland and launched a fighter sweep against Honshu Island and Kobe Harbor.  It was a stressful time for the crew, who within a period of six hours, had been called to battle stations on six separate occasions.  Gehres finally allowed the crew to eat and sleep but maintained crewmen at gunnery stations.

A Japanese aircraft appeared suddenly from cloud cover and made a low-level run on the ship to drop two semi-armor piercing bombs.  Franklin received a “last minute” warning of the approaching aircraft from USS Hancock, but Gehres never ordered “general quarters.”  One-third of the crew were either killed or wounded.  It was the most severe damage of any surviving USN aircraft carrier in World War II.  As a result of officer and crew activities, ten officers and one enlisted man was awarded the Navy Cross —one of those being Gehres.

(Chaplain) Father Joseph T. O’Callaghan refused the Navy Cross for his participation in the aftermath of the Franklin bombing.  Some speculated that the priest turned down the award because his heroic actions in the aftermath of the bombing reflected unfavorably on Gehres leadership as Commanding Officer.  President Truman intervened, however, and Father O’Callaghan was awarded the Medal of Honor on 23 January 1946.  True to form, Captain Gehres charged crewman who had jumped into the water, to avoid death by fire, with desertion.  Gehres charges against crewmen were quietly dropped by senior naval commanders in the chain of command.  Captain Gehres, while advanced to Rear Admiral (Lower Half), was never again assigned to a position of command.  By 2011, Gehres was universally excoriated for significant deficiencies in leadership.  Admiral Gehres became a study of poor leadership —but one wonders why the Navy promoted him to flag rank.  His behavior in command of USS Franklin became the very definition of “toxic leadership.”  Indeed, it was.

Charles B McVay III
Captain Charles B. McVay III

A second failure in navy leadership involved the case of Captain Charles B. McVay III (1898-1968).  Captain McVay was a highly decorated navy officer in command of USS Indianapolis (CL/CA 35) when the ship was torpedoed and sunk in the Philippine Sea on 30 July 1945.  Of the 1,197 crew, only 317 survived the sinking.  Of all ship’s captains in the history of the US Navy, McVay was the only officer ever court-martialed for the loss of his ship in a combat action.

At the time, USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser (formerly the flagship of Admiral Raymond Spruance, 1943-1944), was on a top-secret mission and under the direct authority of the President of the United States.  Its mission was to deliver two atomic bombs to Tinian Island.  Because the mission was top secret, speed was of the essence and to prevent attention to her course, no escorts were authorized.  This was a catastrophe of epic proportions.  Captain McVay, wounded, ordered his crew to abandon ship.  Of the 897 (approximate) crewmen who went overboard, 317 survived massive shark attacks over a period of five days.

Why was Captain (later promoted to Rear Admiral) court-martialed?  The Navy accused him of hazarding his ship by not following a zig-zag course through the Philippine Sea.  He was found “not guilty” of a second charge of “failing to order abandon ship in a timely manner.”  The fact was, however, that the Navy failed the USS Indianapolis on several fronts.  First, the Navy refused to provide the cruiser with escort ships, to which it was entitled during war.  Second, the Navy delayed its rescue of the crew (owing to the secret mission assigned to the ship) and no report of an overdue ship was made, again owing to the nature of its secret mission.

A navy court of inquiry recommended that Captain McVay be court-martialed.  Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander, U. S. Pacific Fleet disagreed, but he was overruled by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King [1].  The Japanese commander of the submarine that sank Indianapolis was called to testify at McVay’s court-martial.  He stated that given the proximity of Indianapolis to his submarine, zigzagging wouldn’t have made any difference —Indianapolis was dead the minute the torpedoes were fired.  Ultimately, Admiral King ordered any punishments to be set aside.

Captain McVay suffered for the remainder of his life over the death of his crew, but not a single man lost was the result of McVay’s competence.  After the loss of his wife to cancer in 1967, Charlie McVay took his own life in 1968.  This too was a failure of Navy leadership.  McVay was a good man chastised for no good reason other than as a scapegoat for poor Navy leadership.

Sources:

  1. The Day the Carrier Died: How the Navy (Nearly) Lost an Aircraft Carrier in Battle. James Holmes, National Interest Newsletter, 28 April 2019
  2. Stanton, D. In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors. Reed City Productions, 2001
  3. Hulver, R. A. and Peter C. Luebke, Ed. A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis.  Naval History and Heritage Command, 2018.

Endnotes:

[1] According to author Richard F. Newcomb (Abandon Ship), Admiral King’s insistence that Captain McVay appear before a court-martial was because Captain McVay’s father, admiral McVay (II) once censored King, as a junior officer for regulatory infractions.  According to Newcomb, Admiral King never forgot a “grudge.”

 

A Master of Naval Warfare

A favored saying among historians is that our failure to learn the lessons of history condemns us to repeat it.  There are several variations of this, of course, most are a misquotation of the original by George Santayana (1863-1952), who in Volume I of The Life of Reason, wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  While the statement has a negative connotation, there are many positive things to learn from history and the people who made it.

Among the on-going discussions within the Navy and Marine Corps is how to best prepare for the next international conflagration.  In his 2007 professional article published in the Marine Corps Gazette, Lieutenant Colonel Wayne Sinclair noted, “The greatest challenges and most far reaching opportunities of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) commander will lie in his ability to orchestrate and synchronize the efforts of numerous, diverse entities along a single path toward an overarching campaign adjective.”  Sinclair was not the first to make such an observation.  Admiral Raymond A. Spruance isolated the “single naval battle” in the Pacific during World War II.  In 2012, Admiral John C. Harmony explained [1], “’The Single Naval Battle’ is a framework, or lens, for thinking about, planning for, and executing naval operations.  Everything that occurs in the maritime battlespace affects everything else in that battlespace —so every aspect of Navy and Marine Corps doctrine and operations must consider the impact across the whole naval force.”

There is nothing simple about warfare.  Quadruple that statement when it comes to naval warfare.  Before World War II, Raymond A. Spruance began to train his mind to imagine the single battlespace.  He was part of an organization that created and maintained the extraordinary culture in which learning, experimenting, and innovation was demanded and then rewarded through promotion and assignments.  Admiral Spruance was an engineer; a man thoroughly knowledgeable of the technologies of the day: radar, processing combat information, air power —and how to effectively employ it.  He thought long and hard about what his enemy was thinking and what they were likely to do.  Spruance may have been the most intellectual of all senior naval officers of his day; his mental capacity back then may even dwarf that of modern-day admirals and generals.  Something to think about because we haven’t seen the end of war.

Ray Spruance 001Raymond Ames Spruance (1886-1969) became one of the greatest admirals in United States naval history.  Although born in Maryland, he was raised in Indianapolis, Indiana.  He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1907 and later pursued advanced degrees in electrical engineering.  Typical of the Navy, Spruance had to learn about sea service from the bottom rung of the officer rank structure.  He initially served as a junior officer aboard the battleships USS Iowa and USS Minnesota.  He later transferred to the destroyers USS Bainbridge and USS Osborne, and then back to the battleship flotilla.  In 1916, Spruance helped to fit out USS Pennsylvania and served aboard that ship during its initial voyages.  He later served as the Assistant Engineering Officer at the New York Naval Shipyard (1917-1918).

As an officer in command, Spruance was known for maintaining a quiet bridge.  Chit-chat was prohibited.  Whatever was spoken in the performance of duty must be said in clear and concise language.  There was never any room on the bridge for confusion or lack of focus.  Given the several recent at-sea mishaps involving our navy’s ships, this would seem to be a policy that contemporary commanders should be reimplement.

Spruance graduated from the Naval War College in 1927.  He subsequently served as the executive officer of the USS Mississippi, several engineering assignments, staff intelligence, and as an instructor at the Naval War College.  He later commanded the battleship USS Mississippi (1938-1939), receiving his promotion to rear admiral in 1939.  His first flag assignment was as Commandant of the Tenth Naval District in Puerto Rico through August 1941.  In the first few months of World War II, Admiral Spruance commanded Cruiser Division Five making his flagship the USS Northampton.  His force was constructed around the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, which was then commanded by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey. Halsey’s task force conducted a series of hit and run raids against the Japanese in the Western Pacific —notably in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands in February 1942, Wake Island in March, and facilitating the Doolittle Raid in April.  In reality, the raids achieved little more than raising the morale of the people of the United States, who were devastated by Japan’s surprise attack at Pearl Harbor —but they also set the tone for a more aggressive stance by naval commanders in the Pacific.

Yamamoto 001In late May 1942, naval intelligence confirmed Japan’s intent to invade Midway Island.  The attack was the brainchild of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto [2], who intended his combined fleet to expand the Japanese Navy’s outer perimeter in the Central Pacific.  Yamamoto was convinced that an overwhelming attack at Midway would threaten the United States at Hawaii and cause the United States to sue for peace with Japan.  For all of Yamamoto’s exposure to American culture, his thinking revealed that he did not know the American people.  Commanding the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz realized that his primary task was to destroy Japan’s air power in the Pacific.  To do that, he would need to destroy the Japanese carrier fleet.  This would become Vice Admiral Halsey’s mission.

Two days before Admiral Halsey was to set sail from Pearl Harbor, he was hospitalized with what we today refer to as Shingles.  Halsey recommended that Spruance replace him as commander of the task force.  Spruance had no prior experience employing carrier-based air combat.  At first, Nimitz questioned Halsey’s choice, but Halsey was adamant, even insistent, but he also advised Spruance to rely on his chief of staff, Captain Miles Browning [3], a battle-tested expert in carrier warfare.  Despite his personal trepidations, Admiral Spruance assumed command of Task Force 16, which included USS Enterprise and USS Hornet.  In this capacity, Spruance served under the overall command of Vice Admiral Jack Fletcher, whose flagship was the USS Yorktown; Yorktown had been badly damaged during the Battle of the Coral Sea but was quickly repaired and returned to active service in time for the defense of Midway.

The navy’s intercept force consisted of the three carriers, seven heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, fifteen destroyers, 233 carrier-based attack aircraft, 127 land-based aircraft, and sixteen submarines.  The battle group would face off against a two-battle group Japanese invasion force.  The first group consisted of four carriers, two battleships, two heavy-cruisers, one light cruiser, twelve destroyers, 248-carrier based aircraft, and sixteen float planes.  The surface support force (second group) involved four heavy cruisers, two destroyers, and twelve seaplanes.  Japanese occupation forces served under Admiral Nobutake Kondo.  Yamamoto exercised over-all command from the IJN ship Yamato.

Midway 001
Battle of Midway

Admiral Yamamoto devised a complex plan for seizing Midway.  What made this scheme complex was the coordination of multiple battle groups over several hundred miles.  He named his scheme Operation MI.  Yamamoto’s plan, however, was based on erroneous assumptions —specifically that the Americans would field only two carriers.  He knew that Lexington was sitting at the bottom of the Coral Sea, and assumed that the Americans had lost the Yorktown, as well.  Admiral Yamamoto also underestimated American morale.

Yamamoto dispersed his attack force to mask their presence from the American navy.  He then sought to lure the Americans into a trap, defeat the US Navy and land-based aircraft by overwhelming air power, and then bring up his second group to place the final nail in the coffin of what remained of the American navy.  It was a doctrinal tactic popular among the major navies of the world at the time.  It might have worked had the US Navy not broken the Japanese Naval Code (JN-25), which allowed Admiral Nimitz to read Yamamoto’s mail.  Moreover, Yamamoto’s dispersal plan precluded one battle group from supporting the other.  Additionally, Yamamoto’s light carriers and battleships were unable to keep up with his fleet carriers.

Yamamoto’s plan also involved a compromise with the Japanese Army.  The IJA would support Yamamoto’s Midway operation if Yamamoto agreed to support the army’s invasion of the Aleutian Islands.  The Army felt that their invasion was necessary in order to keep mainland Japan out of the range of US land-based aircraft in Alaska.  Japan’s invasion of the Aleutian Islands was the first time a foreign nation had occupied American territory since the War of 1812.  The Americans had no choice but to confront the Japanese in the Aleutians for the same reason: to prevent Japanese bombers from attacking the West Coast of the United States.  The invasion of the Aleutians (designated Operation AL) reduced Yamamoto’s combat fleet by two carriers, five cruisers, twelve destroyers, six submarines, and four troop transport ships.  Accordingly, Admiral Nagumo’s Carrier Division Five was two-thirds short of his original carrier fleet.  Beyond this, the Japanese fleet suffered from what some historians have identified as a glass jaw.  The Japanese could throw a pretty good punch, but it couldn’t take one.

At Midway on 4 June, the U. S. Navy had four squadrons of PBY aircraft (31 birds) for long-range reconnaissance, six TBF Avengers, nineteen Marine Corps [4] SBDs, seven F4F Wildcats, seventeen SB2U Vindicators, and twenty-one Brewster F2As (Buffalos).  Army aircraft included seventeen B-17s, four B-26 Marauders equipped with torpedoes.  Overall, 126 aircraft.  Piloting a PBY, Ensign Jack Heid spotted the Japanese force at about 0900.  He plotted their position as 580 miles west of Midway.  What Heid observed was the occupation force, not the main battle force.  Nine B-17s departed Midway just after noon to attack the force identified by Ensign Heid.  Three hours later, the B-17s found their target and released their bombs.  None of these munitions struck a Japanese ship.  In fact, the only successful hit was from a PBY that delivered a torpedo into a Japanese oil tanker at 0100 on 5 June.  Bombarding navy ships from the air was no easy task.

Japanese aircraft and shipboard anti-aircraft fires were intense, resulting in the defeat of several waves of US aircraft —at Midway and at sea en route to the Japanese task force.  American dive bombers from Spruance’s air wing located the Japanese carriers at a most-inopportune time.  Japanese fighter-bombers were in the process of refueling on the decks of carriers; planes detailed to provide air cover were overwhelmed with American torpedo bombers.  It did not go well for the Japanese.

True … Admiral Spruance’s attack was a gamble —but not a foolish one.  The United States Navy was at the time led by intellectual warriors.  In June 1941, 83 of the Navy’s 84 admirals had completed the Naval War College.  Through training and study, the US Navy-Marine Corps team had foreseen everything that in fact transpired during World War II.  Admiral Spruance was one of these men.  What set him apart from his peers was his display of intellectual independence and the courage to call a spade and spade.  Admiral Spruance displayed his exceptional talent at Midway.  If we could break it down, then we should observe that the outcome at Midway was a combination of luck, hubris, and exceptional leadership.  The Americans were lucky to break the Japanese Naval Code (JN-25); Japanese national pride and ethnocentric arrogance got in the way of common sense, and Admiral Spruance was an extraordinary leader at a most critical moment in history.

After the task force’s initial success, Spruance was challenged by the question, “What next?”  He knew that Japanese carriers had been gravely wounded.  Should he exploit this success by pursuing the Japanese to take advantage of their diminished capability?  Should he withdraw his task force back toward the east, beyond the reach of the Japanese fleet?  The U. S. Navy had three aircraft carriers in the entire Pacific Ocean area; two of these were under Spruance’s command.  Spruance knew as well as anyone that the U. S. Navy remained inferior to its Imperial Japanese counterpart both in numbers and in efficiency at sea [5].  Admiral Nimitz’ directive to Spruance was two-fold: Protect Midway and its land-based aviation capability; inflict maximum damage to the Japanese carrier force.  He did that … but what next?

Spruance withdrew toward the east while maintaining a watchful eye over Midway Island.  Despite scathing criticism from senior admirals [6], Spruance made the right decision.  He knew that the Japanese were bloodied, not beaten.  Defending Midway had been a risky endeavor; should Spruance have risked a night engagement with IJN forces that were still in the area?  It would have placed limited assets at an unacceptable risk.  Where Admiral Spruance stood out is his ability to see the “single naval battle.”  Admiral Spruance ignored his critics.  He was comfortable in his own skin; he had confidence in the capabilities of his subordinates.

Following the Battle of Midway, Rear Admiral Spruance was pulled back to Pearl Harbor to serve as Admiral Nimitz’ chief of staff and later, as Deputy Commander in Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet.  Nimitz needed someone of Spruance’s intellectual capacity to advise him.  Spruance remained in Hawaii until August 1943 when he was appointed to command of the Central Pacific Force —later designated US 5th Fleet [7].

In August 1943, Admiral Nimitz instituted a plan that was designed to make maximum use of his limited naval forces.  Nimitz called it his “Big Blue Fleet.”  Naval assets were alternated between Admiral Halsey (designated Third US Fleet) (Task Force 38) and Admiral Spruance (designated Fifth US Fleet) (Task Force 58).  When not in command of their designated fleets, the admirals and their staffs were assigned to Pearl Harbor where they planned future operations.

Bill Halsey USN 001
William F. Halsey

The differences between Halsey and Spruance were as night and day.  “Bull” Halsey [8] was aggressive and brash; Spruance was calculating and cautious.  The rank and file were proud to serve under either of these men, but the senior officers preferred the leadership style of Spruance.  Under Admiral Spruance, the senior staff knew what they were going to do, and when they were going to do it.  Halsey, on the other hand, made his senior officers nervous.  They never knew from one moment to the next what he would order them to do.  For this reason, Admiral Spruance became known as the “admiral’s admiral.”

In February 1944, Admiral Spruance directed Operation Hailstone, the US assault against the Japanese naval base at Truk.  Spruance’s Fifth Fleet destroyed twelve Japanese warships, 32 merchant ships, and 249 aircraft.  The assault on Truk took place at the same time Admiral Kelly Turner’s amphibious force attacked Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands.  When Japanese naval forces withdrew from Truk, Admiral Spruance commanded the task group that pursued them.  It was the first time a four-star admiral took part in a sea action aboard one of the engaged ships.  Spruance commanded his force with deadly precision.  In addition to the destruction of Japanese ships at Truk, Spruance sunk the light cruiser Katori and the destroyer Maikaze.  In June, while screening for the US invasion of Saipan, Admiral Spruance defeated the Japanese fleet in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, sinking three carriers, two oilers, and an estimated 600 Japanese aircraft.  Spruance mauled the Japanese so badly that afterwards, Japanese carriers were used solely as decoys because there were no aircraft or aircrews to fly them.  Again, in the aftermath of the battle, Spruance was criticized for not being aggressive enough … but once more, Spruance made the right call.

USS Indianapolis 001
Artist’s rendition of the USS Indianapolis

For most of the war, Admiral Spruance preferred to use the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis as his flagship.  It was named in honor of his hometown.  After Indianapolis was struck by Kamikaze aircraft off the coast of Okinawa, Spruance moved his flag to the USS New Mexico.  On 12 May 1945, two Kamikaze aircraft struck New Mexico; afterwards, the Admiral was could not be located.  He was discovered manning a firehose amidships, helping deck hands to fight the fire.  As the ship was not too badly damaged, Spruance maintained his flag aboard USS New Mexico.  For his actions at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Admiral Spruance was awarded the Navy Cross.

In November 1945, Admiral Spruance succeeded Admiral Nimitz as Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet.  Spruance was later awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal for his service during the capture of the Marshall and Marianas Islands.  After the war, Spruance was not awarded five-star rank due to the limited number of Fleet Admirals authorized in the Navy.  Instead, he was awarded five-star retirement pay for life.  Admiral Spruance later said that he felt that Admiral Halsey was more deserving of the fifth star and was happy he received it.

From February 1946 to July 1948, Admiral Spruance served as President of the Naval War College.  After retirement, Admiral Spruance served as US Ambassador to the Philippine Islands, serving from 1952 to 1955.  Raymond Spruance passed away at Pebble Beach, California on 13 December 1969.  He was laid to rest at Golden Gate National Cemetery alongside his wife, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Admiral Richmond K. Turner, and Admiral Charles A. Lockwood.

I lament that we no longer have fighting admirals of Ray Spruance’s caliber serving on active duty.

Sources:

  1. Marine Corps Gazette, the Professional Journal of U. S. Marines, Marine Corps Association & Foundation.
  2. Willmott, H. P. The Last Century of Sea Power: From Washington to Tokyo, 1922-1945.  University of Indiana Press, 2010.
  3. Buell, T. B. The Quiet Warrior: a biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance.  Boston, Little-Brown, 1974.

Endnotes:

[1] Admiral Harvey, J. C. and Colonel Philip J. Ridderhof.  “Keeping our Amphibious Edge.”  U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Annapolis, Maryland, 2012.

[2] See also: The Truly Reluctant Admiral (in several parts).

[3] Browning served as a navy surface warfare officer in World War I, later attended flight school at NAS Pensacola, and served aboard the USS Langley.  He later evolved into one of the Navy’s most courageous combat pilots.  He retired as a Rear Admiral in 1947.

[4] Marine F2A and SB2U aircraft were already obsolete, but it was all the Marine Corps had at the time.

[5] There was no better demonstration of this than the Naval Battle of Savo Island.  The US Navy lacked the number of surface vessels and the training needed to defeat the Imperial Japanese Navy.

[6] Vice Admiral William S. Pye (1880-1959) issued a stinging rebuke of Spruance for his failure to pursue the Japanese Fleet.  Pye was no intellectual and, despite his service in two world wars and his seniority, Admiral Pye had no combat experience.  It was Admiral Pye who failed to relieve the Marines at Wake Island in December 1941.

[7] Admiral Nimitz devised a program of rotating senior officers (and staffs) in and out of the Central Pacific.  Nimitz called it the “big blue fleet.”  When Admiral Halsey commanded the US Third Fleet (Task Force 38), Spruance and his staff returned to Pearl Harbor to plan future operations.  When Spruance activated the US Fifth Fleet (Task Force 58), Halsey and his staff would rotate back to Pearl Harbor.

[8] On 13 October 1942, William F. Halsey was abruptly ordered to “immediately” assume command of the South Pacific Area and South Pacific Forces.  Admiral Ghormley had become reticent and a lackluster senior officer.  Halsey’s appointment improved the morale of all naval, air, and ground forces in the South Pacific area … particularly among Marines on Guadalcanal, who suffered under Gormley’s command.

Manilla John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basilone Lena 001
Sgt Lena Mae Basilone

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

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

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

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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