The Cousin

Preface

Lieutenant Colonel William Washington of the 3rd Continental Light Dragoons rode quietly at the head of his regiment.  He was a large man for a light horseman.  He was over six feet tall with bear-like shoulders, a ruddy face, and clubbed brown hair.  One of his commanding generals described him as the “Hercules” of his day.  Perhaps.  That isn’t what we see in his portraits.  We see an ordinary-looking man with no wig or hat, a round, honest face, and a casual open stare.

By September 1781, Colonel Washington was 29 years old.  A wounded veteran of six years’ service, a former minuteman in Stafford County, Virginia, and a member of the Old Dominion gentry.  His cousin, of course, was the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.

William did not share those aristocratic attributes — he was more comfortable in the saddle than in parlors and drawing rooms drinking tea and discussing politics.  No, William was a fighter.  He amused himself with horse racing, good cigars, fine whiskey, and a modest wager.  He was unassuming, respectful of others, self-confident, good-humored, and friendly.  But there was also another side to William Washington: he was hot-tempered when his blood was up.  When he led his regiment into the fight, he was always the first man across the line of departure.  Like a badger, once he had hold of his enemy, he wouldn’t let go.  But, as with all good soldiers, it was only a matter of time before his luck ran out.

Beginnings

George Washington was 20 years old when Cousin William was born in 1752 — and only two years away from igniting the Seven Years’ War.  William’s parents were Bailey Washington, Sr., and Catherine Storke Washington, who were married in 1749.  William was their second-born child, whom Bailey named William after Catherine’s father, William Storke, the Sheriff of Stafford County.[1]  Bailey was moderately wealthy — the owner of 1,200 acres of prime agricultural land near Aquia Creek.  The bad news for William was that he would not stand to inherit this property.  Still, he was raised in a privileged environment, and while 1,200 acres wasn’t as large as the estate at Mount Vernon, it was large enough to require an investment in horses.  William Washington was raised in an environment of horse breeding, horsemanship, and horse racing.

At one time, Stafford County was part of Westmoreland County, created in 1664 as the Virginia colony sought to organize itself through a series of commonwealth structures.  In time, Stafford County (named after Staffordshire, England) gave way to such jurisdictions as Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince William counties and the city of Alexandria.

As a southern planter, Bailey Washington raised his children within the context of Anglo-Virginian culture, suggesting that William was brought up as a gentleman.  Beyond his primary education, William trained to become a church minister.  His post-primary education included Greek, Latin, mathematics, and theology.  William was well into training when the American Revolution sent him in a completely different direction.

In 1775, William Washington was 23 years of age with an incredibly acute sense of duty and of right and wrong.  When Virginia began raising troops to resist Great Britain, William gave up his studies and life as a planter’s son to join the patriot cause.  Patrick Henry delivered his Liberty or Death speech to the Virginia Convention in March.  Lord Dunmore, Virginia’s governor, wisely removed gunpowder from the public warehouse in Williamsburg to prevent it from falling into “local” hands, which only aroused the patriots even more.

Subsequently, news arrived from Massachusetts detailing the Battles of Lexington Green and Concord.  Like many of his fellow citizens in Stafford County, he was raised in the tradition of the Common Burden.  He was among the first of Virginia’s youth to answer the call “to arms.”  Already a member of the minutemen organization in Stafford County, he formed a militia company in the early summer.[2]  In Richmond, the convention created three infantry regiments commanded by Patrick Henry, William Woodford, and Hugh Mercer.[3]  On 12 September, at a meeting at the Spotsylvania Courthouse, local minutemen elected William Washington and Townshend Dade to serve as captains in Hugh Mercer’s 3rd Regiment of Infantry.  Assisting Mercer was Lieutenant Colonel George Weedon and Major Thomas Marshall.  Later that year, the regiment became part of Brigadier General Hugh Mercer’s Brigade of the Continental Army in New York and was assigned to the command of Major General Nathaniel Greene.

Fighting in the mid-Atlantic region, young Captain Washington commanded the 7th Company.  Lieutenant James Monroe, later the 5th President of the United States, served as Washington’s second-in-command.[4]  During the Battle of Trenton, Captain Washington and his XO distinguished themselves by leading a charge against a battery of Hessian artillery.  Washington and Monroe received serious wounds; both received the personal thanks of their Commander-in-Chief, General George Washington.  While recovering from his injuries, the Continental Army advanced William Washington to the rank of major and, on 27 January 1777, provisionally assigned him to serve in the newly created 4th Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons.[5]

Transition

During the night of 26 September 1778, the 3rd Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons, serving under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Baylor, had found billeting in the town of Old Tappan, New Jersey.  A town citizen with loyalist sentiments notified British forces, and Baylor’s command was attacked in their quarters while still asleep.  Colonel Baylor, wounded in the lung by a British bayonet, was captured and taken prisoner.  A short time later, Baylor’s XO, Major Alexander Clough, also injured, died of his wounds.[6]  In light of the loss of the regiment’s two principal command officers, Continental Army HQ advanced Major William Washington to Lieutenant Colonel and ordered him to assume command of the 3rd Dragoons.

Between September 1778 and the late summer of 1779, Colonel Washington recruited replacements and supervised their training.  On 19 November, the Army HQ ordered Washington to join the command of Major General Benjamin Lincoln in Charleston, South Carolina.

Southern Department Fights

On March 10, 1780, Washington’s regiment joined forces with the remnants of the 1st Continental Light Dragoons at Bacon’s Bridge, South Carolina.  His mission was to reconnoiter and screen against advancing British troops.  On 26 March, Washington had his first encounter with the British Legion, a brigade-sized unit of dragoons under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton.[7]  It was a minor victory near Rantowle’s Bridge on the Stono River.  Afterward, on the Ashley River during the fight at Rutledge’s Plantation, Colonel Washington again bested a detachment of Tarleton’s Dragoons.

On 14 April 1780, Colonel Tarleton assaulted the encampment of General Isaac Huger at Monck’s Corner, successfully routing the Continental force (including Washington’s Dragoons).  Washington’s losses included 15 dead, 17 wounded, 100 captured, and the loss of 83 horses.

Colonel Washington led his remaining troops across the Santee River to escape capture.  The severe attrition of Washington’s command forced its amalgamation with the 1st Continental Light Dragoons under Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Walton White.  While waiting to cross the flooded Santee River, British forces surprised and defeated Colonel White’s dragoons at Lenud’s Ferry on 6 May 1780.  With Colonel White’s capture, command of the dragoons passed to Colonel Washington.  Washington moved the regiment to North Carolina for recruitment, provision, and training when General Lincoln surrendered the southern army and the city of Charleston to Cornwallis on 12 May.

British forces defeated the reconstituted southern army, formed under General Horatio Gates, at the Battle of Camden, South Carolina, on 16 August 1780.  This loss opened up the south to British control.  General Nathanael Greene soon replaced Gates, whose cowardice in the field permanently discredited his former service in the northern theater

General Greene divided his army between himself and General Daniel Morgan.  Colonel Washington was placed under Morgan, who tasked Washington with conducting raids in western South Carolina.  Washington’s two notable successes included capturing Rugeley’s Mill on 4 December.  In this engagement, Washington bluffed 112 loyalists into surrendering a strongly fortified structure without firing a single shot.  To achieve the bluff, Washington used a Quaker Gun — a felled tree placed in the wagon bed and shaped to look like a large cannon.

In the second engagement at Hammond’s Old Store in the Little River district, Colonel Washington defeated 250 Georgian loyalists, killing or wounding 150 men and capturing the remaining one-hundred troops.

Colonel Washington’s successes became a source of irritation to General Charles Cornwallis, who soon turned to Colonel Tarleton and ordered him to “chase down” General Morgan’s “flying corps.”  Tarleton’s orders led directly to the Battle of Cowpens on 17 January 1781.

General Morgan’s battle plans called for Washington’s group of 80 Continental dragoons and 45 mounted Georgia infantry to serve as either a defensive or offensive unit (as the situation required).  Washington’s first encounter with the enemy involved the rescue of a South Carolina militia unit as it was reloading behind the front lines of Morgan’s left flank.  The unit was under an aggressive assault by Colonel Tarleton’s Legion.  Colonel Washington crushed the attackers, regrouped, and then pursued the British left flank infantry.  After repeated assaults by Washington, the Americans moved through the British infantry and attacked a small artillery position behind Tarleton’s front lines.

Surrendering troops create battlefield confusion.  This is what happened when the main British infantry decided to surrender their arms after Tarleton attempted to withdraw.  Washington, in close pursuit, found himself in an isolated position and, because of it, soon found himself the focus of an attack by Colonel Tarleton and two of his aides.  The courageous Washington met Tarleton head-on, calling out to him, “Where is now the boasting Tarleton?”

A young coronet of the 17th Dragoons, Thomas Patterson, rode up to strike Washington but was shot by Washington’s orderly as Washington struck Tarleton with a blow from his sword.  Colonel Tarleton returned the favor by shooting Washington in the leg, which luckily only creased his knee but also wounded Washington’s horse.[8]

Colonel Tarleton turned his horse and withdrew from the engagement.  Washington, whose temper had not yet cooled, pursued him for sixteen miles — eventually giving up the chase at Thickitty Creek, near the plantation of Adam Goudylock.  For his valor at Cowpens, Colonel Washington received a Congressional silver medal.[9]

After the Battle of Cowpens, Washington’s dragoons assisted the withdrawal of General Nathanael Greene to Dan River, Virginia, by providing rearguard actions against British forces under General Cornwallis.  Subsequently, Colonel Washington returned to North Carolina as a vanguard for Greene’s re-emerging army.

In March 1781, Washington’s dragoons fought at the Battle of the Guilford Court House, Greensboro, North Carolina.  This battle successfully fought as a defensive action gave General Cornwallis a victory — but an expensive one.  The fight only lasted around 90 minutes, but in that time, Cornwallis gave up a quarter of his men to death or incapacitation.  Upon learning of the battle’s details, Sir Charles James Fox, a British Member of Parliament, quipped that with another victory, such as at the Guilford Court House, the British Army in North America would be in ruins.

According to Cornwallis’ report, the British gave up three officers and 88 men of other ranks killed, with 24 officers and 374 men of other ranks wounded, with 25 men “missing in action.”  Colonel Tarleton was one of the wounded officers.

The Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill (also, the Second Battle of Camden) occurred on 25 April 1781 when British forces under Major General Francis Rawdon assaulted Continental troops occupying Hobkirk’s Hill.  After a fierce clash of arms, during which Colonel Washington could not assault Rawdon’s flank, General Green ordered a withdrawal, leaving Rawdon’s smaller force in possession of the hill.  Despite the British victory, Rawdon eventually fell back to Camden, abandoned it, and withdrew to Charleston.  Greene was willing to accept defeat in this and three other engagements for the longer-term benefit of depriving the British of their control of South Carolina beyond the city of Charleston.

The last Carolinas engagement during the American Revolution occurred at the Battle of Eutaw Springs.  In early 1781, Major General Greene initiated the campaign to end British control over the South Carolina backcountry.  His first objective was to capture a village designated as Ninety-Six.  On 22 May, Greene laid siege to the fortified village — but its loyalist residents would not budge.

Within thirty days, Greene became aware that General Rawdon was leading reinforcement to offer relief to Ninety-Six.  A Continental assault against the village was repelled, so to avoid having to confront Rawdon, General Green withdrew toward Charlotte, N.C.

General Rawdon did pursue Greene for several days but abandoned the pursuit because his men were exhausted and in need of resupply.  Ninety-Six was the only remaining inland British outpost after the fall of Augusta. Unable to sustain the outpost, General Rawdon decided to burn the village and withdraw to Charleston.  General Rawdon, being in poor health, decided to return to England, leaving command of Charleston in the hands of Colonel Alexander Stewart.

By mid-July, General Greene moved his exhausted army to a bivouac on the High Hills of Santee.  The men needed the rest, and Greene needed a place to await the arrival of reinforcements. 

On 13 August, Colonel Stewart led around 2,300 men to Thompson’s plantation (south of the Congaree River).  He then fell back to Eutaw Springs on 27 August (about 2 miles east of present-day Eutawville).  The Battle of Eutaw Springs was Colonel Washington’s final Revolutionary War action.  Midway through the fight, Greene ordered Washington to assault a portion of the British line positioned in a blackjack thicket along Eutaw Creek.[10]  The order was not only stupid, but it was also a needless sacrifice of good cavalry: the thicket proved impenetrable and British fire repulsed Washington’s mounted charges.  During the last charge, Washington’s mount was shot from under him, and he was pinned beneath his horse.  British troops bayonetted Washington, and he was taken prisoner and held under house arrest until the end of the war. 

On September 8, 1781, Washington’s final action was the Battle of Eutaw Springs, the last major battle in the Carolinas. Midway through the battle, Greene ordered Washington to charge a portion of the British line positioned in a blackjack thicket along Eutaw Creek. The thicket proved impenetrable and British fire repulsed the mounted charges. During the last charge, Washington’s mount was shot out from under him, and he was pinned beneath his horse. He was bayoneted, taken prisoner, and held under house arrest in the Charleston area for the remainder of the war.  General Charles Cornwallis said of Colonel William Washington, “There could be no more formidable antagonist in a charge, at the head of his cavalry, than Colonel William Washington.”[11]

In Conclusion

The list of patriot officers of William Washington’s quality is very small.  That Colonel Washington compares favorably with the most notable American Revolution heroes is indisputable — it is a shame that few Americans today know about this tremendously aggressive, tactically proficient, and strategically adept regimental commander.

Our schools teach that the American Revolutionary War ended with General Cornwallis’ surrender to George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, on 19 October 1781.  The worst of it is that it isn’t true.  Considerable fighting occurred in the two years after Yorktown and even expanded to the European continent.  After Yorktown, there were at least 200 additional fights in South Carolina alone — most often between Whig (patriot) and Tory (British loyalist) militias.[12]  Moreover, a violent civil war occurred between 1781 – 1783 as Indian tribes raged against each other, offering no quarter.

After Yorktown, the British embarked on an aggressive policy to reestablish its hold on the Caribbean. After Yorktown, the British confronted the combined forces of Spain, France, and the Dutch Republic. There was also the matter of French meddling in India, British mischief in Vermont, and the role of the Dutch navy in keeping the British “on alert.”

The last British soldier withdrew from the newly created United States on 25 November 1783 — three months after the signing of the instrument of peace (known as the Treaty of Paris of 1783) — a process that was begun in 1782, after Parliament voted to suspend military operations following Cornwallis’ surrender in late 1781.

Colonel William Washington met Jane Elliott of Sandy Hill, South Carolina, when she made his regimental battle flag, which he carried with him from the Cowpens to Eutaw Springs.  Retained under arrest in Charleston through the end of 1782, Colonel Washington nevertheless made good use of his time.  He and Jane Elliott were married on 21 April 1782.  Washington, unable to inherit his father’s Virginia estate, became quite wealthy through marriage (as did his cousin George).  Miss Elliott owned the Sandy Springs plantation and several other properties in St. Paul Parish.

In 1785, William and Jane Washington purchased a townhouse at 8 South Battery in Charleston.  They pursued low-country farming and raised thoroughbred horses.  William was elected to the state legislature between 1787 – 1804 and accepted the post of brigadier general of the state militia in 1794.

Following his presidency, George Washington retired to Mount Vernon to struggle with his predicament of being land-rich and cash poor.  He had vast acreages in the Virginia piedmont but could not sell the land due to the encroachment of squatters.  Ultimately, he grew restless in retirement, prompted by tensions with France.  In 1798, as part of the continuation of the French Revolutionary Wars, French privateers began seizing American ships — the so-called Quasi-War that lasted until 1800.

On 4 July 1798, President John Adams nominated Washington to serve as a lieutenant general as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armies.  President Washington accepted the post and served in it until his death 17 months later.  His work involved planning for a provisional army without offering specific details (to avoid political implications).  In recommending individuals to serve at high rank, Washington broke with the recommendations submitted by Thomas Jefferson.  By this time, the two men had become enemies.

While serving as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army, Washington offered his cousin William a commission as brigadier general in the U.S. Army.  William accepted the commission, particularly as it involved defensive works in South Carolina and Georgia, should the French attempt an invasion of the United States.  During this period, William served as an officer on his cousin’s staff.

In his late 50s, William Washington became ill and suffered from a lingering ailment — likely cancer.  He passed away on 6 March 1810, aged 58 years.  He was survived by Jane, his wife, and their son and daughter (Elizabeth).  Elizabeth was married to Major General Alexander Spotswood, the grandson of Colonial Virginia’s lieutenant governor.

Brigadier General William Washington — was one of America’s finest Revolutionary War officers.

Sources:

  1. Babits, L. E., and J. B. Howard.  Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of the Guilford Courthouse.  The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  2. Glen, J.  The Washington’s: A Family History.  Savas Publishing, 2014
  3. Glickstein, D.  After Yorktown: The final struggle for American Independence
  4. Haller, S. E.  William Washington: Cavalryman of the Revolution.  Heritage Books, 2001.
  5. Murphy, D.  William Washington, American Light Dragoon: A Continental Cavalry Leader in the War of Independence.  Westholme Publishing, 2014.

Endnotes:

[1] Do not confuse the subject of this essay, William Washington (1752 – 1810), with a distant relative, William Augustine Washington (1757 – 1810).  William Washington was George Washington’s second cousin once removed; William Augustine Washington was George Washington’s nephew.

[2] Beginning in 1774, minutemen were organized from within the ranks of colonial militia but trained specifically as an early form of special operations infantry.  These men were the “rapid reaction” force of the colonial militia.  They held themselves in readiness to report/respond to emergencies within moments of an alert.  The name derived from the fact that they were expected to respond “within a minute” of an alert.  

[3] Dr. Hugh Mercer was a Scot who eventually achieved the rank of Brigadier General in the Continental Army.  He previously fought as a Jacobite in the Battle of Culloden, in the Seven Year’s War, and in the early battles of the American Revolution.  He was killed in action at the Battle of Princeton.

[4] The “second-in-command” of an American military unit is variously referred to as “executive officer” or “deputy commander.”  The executive officer is usually referred to as simply XO, while a deputy commander is generally referred to as “deputy.”  When serving in temporary command, the XO or deputy will sign official documents as “Acting Commander.”

[5] The United States Army never had a cavalry component until 1861.  Before then, the horse-mounted troop was referred to as dragoons.  In effect, dragoons were horse-mounted infantry.  They would ride into battle, dismount, and fight as infantry.  After 1861, horse-mounted troops were called cavalry with a distinctly different mission.

[6] George Baylor previously served as General Washington’s aide-de-camp.  The 3rd Dragoons often served as security escorts for Martha Washington, who accompanied her husband during his military campaigns, and also served as Washington’s reconnaissance force, collecting and reporting information about the disposition of British Forces.

[7] The British Legion was an organization recruited and formed in the colonies of British loyalists.  A regimental-sized cavalry, the commander of the British Legion was Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton.

[8] A British version of this fight can be found in the records of the 17th Dragoons (Ch. 33)

[9] The Battle of the Cowpens was significant because the Americans totally destroyed the Brigade of Dragoons under Colonel Banastre Tarleton.  Such losses made the conflict a turning point in the war.  General Morgan’s success came as a result of his effective employment of a double envelopment of Tarleton’s force.  Of Tarleton’s 1,000 men, all of whom were British loyalists, 850 were killed or captured. 

[10] Blackjack red oak is a deciduous tree growing about 15 meters tall.  

[11] Balch, Thomas, ed., Letters, and papers relating chiefly to the provincial history of Pennsylvania. Applewood books, 2009, attributed to a letter written by Major William Jackson quoting General Lord Cornwallis.

[12] Such terms as patriot and loyalist are far too imprecise to use in any discussion about the American Revolution.  Glickman suggests using the words Whig and Tory … so that everyone knows who did what.  British loyalists were, after all, patriots as well. 


The First Land Fight

Introduction

Anyone who believes that the American Revolution was a war easily fought doesn’t know enough about American history.  We might argue that the revolution first occurred as an idea in the heads of British citizens who began to wonder if they could forge their future without the interference of the king or parliament.  Fighting the revolution was an entirely different matter.  Still, before we get to that discussion, we need to explore what else was happening in the world besides men muttering over their mead in a Massachusetts pub about burdensome taxes.

In the last years of the Seven Years’ War (also called the French and Indian Wars), British fleets and armies ranged across the world stage, dismembering France and Spain’s colonial empires.  But in London, from around 1750, British ministers had to consider the prospect of defending British territories from a wide range of enemies.

Looking at North America, it was logical to assume that some colonies could defend themselves, but there were questions about the other colonies.  Nova Scotia would be a problem — French catholic priests would see to that.  In any case, if the British knew anything about the French from the previous 400 years, it was that the French could not be trusted.  One could always tell when a French diplomat was lying because his lips were moving.  In any case, if the French seized Halifax, all the other British American colonies could be rolled up without much effort.

The Virginia colony was always reliable and well-populated with men who knew how to fight.  Pennsylvania’s Quaker politicians would open their doors to the French without a quibble.  No one knew where the ethnic German colonists would come down on the question of war with France.  Georgia and South Carolina could not defend themselves against the Cherokee, much less French marines.  In the West Indies, enslaved Black people outnumbered British Army regulars and colonists.  The thought of a slave revolt was disturbing, indeed.  This was only the tip of the iceberg.

Yes, the French Bourbons were threatening, but so too were the highland Scots, Irish Catholics, and North American Indians, and there was this ongoing and highly perturbing talk inside England about republicanism.  British politicians decided it was time to act.  Highlanders became the flower of the British Army, and Irish Catholics were recruited as well.  In Pennsylvania, German colonists formed two regiments of Royal American infantry.  Amazingly, 21,000 American colonists stepped up to defend the British colonies in 1758.  Before 1763, most native Indian tribes had sided with the British.  Arcadian troublemakers found themselves deported to Louisiana.  There was even some talk of forming a pro-British French militia.

And yet, the preceding concerns were only half of the problem.  North America had no four-lane highways to move large numbers of troops.  Those troops would have to be transferred by ship if that were necessary.  The Atlantic coastline was the only highway.  Additionally, there were no “fast means of communication.”  Coordinating widely dispersed military forces was difficult in the extreme.

The revolutionary campaigns were complex, made so by weather, climate, the distances between cities, thick foliage, and the lack of adequate roads to move troops, artillery, and supply wagons.  The British Army was, in 1775, the world’s premier land army.  Who, in their right mind, would challenge it? 

In those days, armies depended on foraging to feed the men and animals.  There was no question that the British Army could forage; the king owned everything — he could take what he needed.  His subjects might be compensated, or they may not.  The Continental army had to rely on the patriotic spirit of local farmers.  A third of these farmers were British loyalists, with another one-third opportunists who would offer forage to whoever paid the highest.

The American Revolutionary War was a complicated series of campaigns.  It is hard to imagine the distances in an age where automobiles can travel five hundred or more miles in a single day.  It would take an American or British soldier 33 days to march 500 miles in 1775.  Granted, the number of men who participated in the American Revolution pales compared to modern warfare, but the number of combatants was significant for those days.  As with all armed conflicts, whatever could have gone wrong, did.

American land forces included (in total over seven years) 200,000 patriots. American naval forces included 106 Continental and State-owned ships. We don’t know how many men served in the navy, but Continental Marines had 132 officers and 2,000 enlisted men. The Americans were aided by 53 French navy ships and an unknown number of French land forces. Including all losses (Continental Army/State militia and civilian populations), the Americans gave up 70,000 war dead, 6,100 wounded in action, 17,000 losses from disease, and around 130,000 additional deaths attributed to smallpox. [1] The total of French allied dead was 2,112. Setting aside America’s war dead, the average life expectancy for a white male adult in 1780 was 39 years.

Opposing the Americans during the revolution were 48,000 British troops, 30,000 German troops, 25,000 loyalist troops, and 13,000 American Indians. What we know of British casualties is limited. Historians contend that British combat dead totaled 5,500 men; German allies lost 7,774 men, of which 1,800 died in battle. Nearly 5,000 German troops deserted in North America. Of British loyalists, 7,000 died during the American Revolution, including 1,700 combat dead and 5,300 from unspecified diseases.

Some Background

American Marines were created upon the recommendation of the Naval and Marine Committees of the Second Continental Congress in October and November 1775.  The officer commissioned to recruit the two Marine battalions was Samuel Nicholas, a native of Philadelphia.  Nicholas was born in 1744 (d. 1790), the youngest of three children of Anthony and Mary Chute-Cowman Nicholas.  Anthony was a blacksmith; Mary’s uncle Attwood Shute was the mayor of Philadelphia from 1755-58.  Samuel graduated from the College of Philadelphia (present-day University of Pennsylvania) in 1759.  On 28 November 1775, Sam Nicholas was commissioned by the Second Continental Congress to serve as Captain of Marines.  He was the first officer commissioned in the Continental Naval Service.

Upon confirmation of his appointment, Captain Nicholas started planning his recruitment campaign around the number of ships that would require a complement of Marines.  Captain Nicholas’ secondary assignment was the command of the Marine Detachment aboard USS Alfred.  In this capacity, Captain Nicholas answered to Commodore Esek Hopkins.[2]  Alfred sailed on 4 January 1776 for Nassau (See also, The Marine’s First Amphibious Raid).  Nicholas returned to Philadelphia in April 1776 and resumed command of the Marine battalions.  In June, Congress promoted Nicholas to Major Commandant Continental Marine Corps.

In October 1776, the people of Philadelphia speculated that when British General Sir William Howe was tired of chasing patriots in New York, he would march his army to invade their fair city.  Fearing such an eventuality, the Continental Congress organized committees and met with various members of the Pennsylvania legislature to plan a defense of the city.  A Pennsylvania committee submitted its recommendations to the Continental War Board.  They proposed that Congress permanently assign four companies of Marines in Pennsylvania or at Trenton to defend Philadelphia from British or Loyalist troops.[3]  The Pennsylvania committee also suggested an additional two Virginia militia battalions and a German militia battalion.

Contrary to the general concerns of Philadelphia citizens, British General William Howe was already engaged in Westchester County and, for the time being, posed no threat to Philadelphia.  Major Nicholas and his staff continued recruiting and training Marines in Philadelphia through the fall of 1776.  By then, the First Battalion was well-organized, disciplined, and (more or less) functional.  Nicholas adequately provided for their nutritional needs and saw they were accorded comfortable billets.  Still, some Marines deserted from their service responsibilities, with few returning to face the consequences.

Private Henry Hassan took his punishment but, within a month, deserted for a second time.  Even then, the Marine Corps was not everyone’s cup of tea. One Marine who returned may have regretted his decision when, having been found guilty at a court-martial of desertion and quitting his post without authority, received fifty lashes on his bareback for desertion and twenty-one additional lashes of the whip for quitting his post.

The Marines Mobilize

Suddenly, in mid-November, Philadelphia was abuzz with rumors of an approaching British fleet.  Congress directed the Marine Committee to arrange its naval forces in the Delaware River.  Accordingly, USS Randolph was made ready for sea.  Major Commandant Nicholas ordered Captain Shaw to select Marines from the First Battalion, prepare them for duty at sea, and report to the officer commanding the frigate.

Captain Shaw’s Marines reported to Randolph before the ship’s crew.  In 1776, few mariners were interested in serving in the Continental Navy with British sloops of war roaming the American coastlines and taking station in busy seaports.  The rumor of an approaching British fleet was only that; the fleet was actually several British merchantmen, but Randolph’s preparations continued.

Meanwhile, the land war was turning against General Washington.  After defeats at Long Island, White Plains, Fort Washington, and Fort Lee, General Washington began his long retreat through New Jersey.  He was in desperate need of veteran soldiers.  The British Army’s march to Trenton posed a real threat to Philadelphia.  By late November, General Washington was in a precarious situation; the British pushed him from Harlem Heights to Upper Westchester County.  He crossed the Hudson on 13 November and began his painful and embarrassing withdrawal to Hackensack, Newark, Elizabeth Town, and Brunswick.

From Brunswick, Washington sent a letter to President (of Congress) John Hancock begging for immediate reinforcements.  Hancock wanted to help, but with common knowledge that 10,000 British troops were enroute, there were no long queues of volunteers at the recruiting offices.  Washington led his under-staffed army out of Brunswick on 2 December, marching them through Princeton and finally halting them on the banks of the Delaware River.

When General Howe occupied Brunswick, everyone still above the ground inside Philadelphia went into cardiac arrest.  All Philadelphia shops and schools closed by order of the Council of Public Safety.  All able-bodied citizens and militia took up arms to defend the city.  What actually happened was that the good citizens of Philadelphia, able-bodied or not, ignored the Council of Public Safety, loaded their wagons, and deserted the city.  There was much to accomplish in such a short period of time, and defending the city was not very high on anyone’s agenda.

Once city officials realized their fellow citizens were gutless wonders, they urgently appealed to the Congress for Continental Marines.  Responding to the will of Congress, Major Nicholas detailed three companies of Marines for the defense of Pennsylvania.  Company officers inspected their men and readied them for service in the field.  With orders to report to General Washington, Major Nicholas marched his Marines down to the waterfront to board gondolas.[4]

The Marines’ departure from Philadelphia did nothing to bolster the morale of its few remaining citizens.  While Major Nicholas proceeded to General Washington’s camp, city officials formed a regiment of militia — three battalions — in all, around 1,200 men.  These were citizens who didn’t get away from Philadelphia fast enough.  They were well-clothed but poorly armed.  Within a few days, the regimental commander, Colonel John Cadwalader, was ordered to proceed and report to General Washington.

General Washington was happy to receive reinforcements — even Marines — but he wasn’t sure what to do with them.[5]  This problem was solved when Colonel Cadwalader arrived on 5 December.  Since Cadwalader and Major Nicholas were Philadelphians, Washington asked Cadwalader to absorb the Marine battalion into his regiment, along with the USS Delaware and USS Washington crews under captains Charles Alexander and Thomas Read.  Colonel Cadwalader’s regiment became a de facto brigade with these additional forces.

However, General Washington had far more on his plate than personnel issues.  For one thing, Washington was puzzled by General Howe’s delay in Brunswick.  Washington decided to march his men toward Princeton on 7 December.  Informants cautioned Washington that he was walking into a collision with the British.  Since it was not the time or place of his choosing, General Washington again retreated to Trenton and withdrew across the Delaware River.  In this process, Washington ordered his men to remove or destroy anything valuable to the enemy.

General Washington did not know that Similar problems plagued general Howe.  He did not have timely or reliable information about his enemy.  Wisely, Howe was cautious in his pursuit of Washington but unwisely divided his force into two corps.  The first, under Major General James Grant, Howe ordered to Trenton.  The second corps, under Major General Charles Cornwallis, General Howe ordered to Maidenhead — a position halfway between Trenton and Princeton.

The vanguard of Grant’s force reached Trenton just as the last of Washington’s army crossed the river into Pennsylvania. General Cornwallis’ troops reached the East bank of the river 15 miles above Trenton, but Washington had wisely removed all boats from that location and positioned his field canon on the west bank.  These measures brought General Grant’s advance to a screeching halt.

Once General Howe became aware that Grant and Cornwallis lost their momentum, he abandoned his immediate plan for a Pennsylvania campaign.  Instead, he ordered Grant and Cornwallis to establish winter camps.  Ultimately, these cantonments stretched from Hackensack to Burlington on the Delaware River.  General Howe then went to his winter camp.

Observing British forces constructing bridges and river-side docks, Washington logically concluded that Howe’s delay was only temporary.  Desperate for reliable knowledge concerning British activities, General Washington sent a letter to Pennsylvania’s Council of Safety asking them if it would be possible to send Commodore Thomas Seymour upriver to reconnoiter the area.  He also ordered Colonel Cadwalader to send a battalion to Dunk’s ferry.  The battalion’s two-fold mission was to guard the crossing and scout the area of Bordentown across the Delaware River.

On 11 December 1776, Hessian Colonel Carl E. U. von Donop departed Trenton with a force large enough to seize Bordentown and Burlington.  Von Donop encountered only light resistance from local militia, but his presence forced Washington’s scouting party back across the river.  The Germans had no problem occupying Burlington, but local Loyalists complained that his presence would only attract the attention of the Continental Navy.  Von Donop organized a delegation of Burlington citizens to confer with Commodore Seymore to receive his assurances and gain information from Seymour that might benefit General von Donop.  Meanwhile, Hessian troops began patrolling inside the town.

Commodore Seymour met with citizen delegates and, to his credit, was direct in response to their inquiries.  Seymour would have no sympathy for Burlington if von Donop occupied it.  As soon as he observed the Hessian town patrols, Seymour opened fire, forcing von Donop’s army to withdraw northward and aggravating the ulcers of the townspeople.

On 12 December, Marines from USS Hancock, serving under Marine Captain William Shippin, occupied Burlington.  Reports from Seymour and his scouts confirmed Washington’s suspicions.  Consequently, Washington established a defensive perimeter on the West Bank of the Delaware south of Burlington.  Brigadier General Philemon Dickinson secured Yardley’s Ferry and tied his defense line with that of Brigadier General James Ewing.  Colonel Cadwalader’s force tied in with Ewing from Hoop’s mill to Dunk’s Ferry.

While General Washington created his line of defense, militia General Israel Putnam supervised the defense of Philadelphia.  In the middle of these preparations, such as they were, HMS Roebuck anchored just inside Delaware Bay.  Roebuck’s position prohibited ships from reaching the open sea.  Congressional delegates ordered the Marine Committee to send warnings of Roebuck’s station to local merchantmen.[6]

The Committee then considered the employment of Randolph and Hornet — both ship’s captains received instructions placing them under General Putnam’s orders.  Congress offered a $10,000 bounty to the crew and Marines of Randolph if Captain Nicholas Biddle could bypass HMS Roebuck and get into the open sea.

Having done its duty in defense of Philadelphia, Congress promptly removed itself to Baltimore.  Congressional delegate Robert Morris, however, remained behind as a congressional liaison to General Putnam.  He advised Putnam to send Randolph and Hornet to sea without delay.  Putnam agreed and ordered both frigates readied for sea.  Morris’ idea was to send Biddle to sea in search of British ships operating off the coast of New York.  Despite Biddle’s recruitment of sailors from the city prison to man his ship, he did not have a full crew complement and was reluctant to shove off without an entire crew.

Captain James Nicholson, commanding Hornet, received different instructions.  Since Hornet had a barely adequate crew, Morris and Putnam ordered Nicholson to sail to South Carolina and, once clearing the capes, proceed to Martinique, where he might find crewmen and military stores needed for Washington’s army.

Both Continental ships set sail on 14 December, setting a course for Hog Island.  The following day, a messenger vessel overtook them with instructions to put into Chester to await the arrival of merchantmen destined for France.  While anchored in Chester, another boat arrived from Philadelphia, recalling both ships.  After Morris learned that HMS Falcon and two bomb ketches (ships rigged for firing mortars) had arrived to reinforce Roebuck, he recalled Randolph and Hornet, fearing their loss to the Royal Navy.

Morris was also concerned about Captain C. Alexander’s frigate Delaware; he asked Washington to release the ship back to Philadelphia.  Colonel Cadwalader, under whose command Delaware was placed, concurred.  Major Nichols formed a detachment of Marines for service on Delaware, placing them under the command of First Lieutenant Daniel Henderson and Second Lieutenant David Love.  The shifting of officers led to the temporary appointment of Sergeant James Coakley to First Lieutenant.[7]  The loss of 20 Marines from Cadwalader’s command had little effect on Washington because, on 14 December, the British had gone into winter quarters.

The Marines under Major Nicholas numbered around 130 officers and men.  While under Cadwalader’s command, the Marines shared the usual service duties with the brigade, including guard duty.  Cadwalader, well aware of General Washington’s concerns about gaining intelligence about enemy movements/intentions, assigned his guard units the additional task of obtaining information and passing it up the chain of command.  Guard units were also instructed to harass the enemy whenever possible.

Washington appreciated Cadwalader’s foresight.  He constantly fretted over the possibility of a sudden attack by Howe’s forces, particularly since Washington’s army was weak and under-equipped.  An army collapse at that point would be a disaster for the patriot cause.  Of additional concern to Washington was that most of his army’s enlistments would expire on 31 December 1776.  These factors prompted General Washington to seize the initiative against Howe while he still had an army.  News of Howe’s withdrawal and the scattering of his forces encouraged Washington’s line of thought.  By 24 December, General Washington had formulated a plan for offensive operations.

Washington’s primary objective was Trenton.  His plan called for crossing the Delaware River at three locations, executed by Cadwalader’s brigade, Hitchcock, Ewing, and a militia company under Captain Thomas Rodney.[8]  Captain Rodney would cross the river near Bristol and join Colonel Griffin, who was already in New Jersey.  Together, this force would march on Trenton and join Washington’s main body.  Ewing would cross the river at Trenton Ferry to the north of Cadwalader.  Ewing’s primary task was to capture the Assunpink Bridge to prevent the Hessians from escaping Trenton.   Washington commanded 2,400 troops and decided to cross at McKinley’s Ferry, ten miles above Trenton.  Once his three brigades reformed in New Jersey, Washington intended to march on Princeton and Brunswick.

Trenton was under the control of Hessian Colonel Johann Gottlieb.  In keeping with German tradition, Gottlieb’s regiment celebrated Christmas with feasting and strong drink.  Washington readied his men in Pennsylvania, but a fierce winter storm set in as the day progressed.  Snowfall was dense, and the temperature was agonizingly bitter.  Nevertheless, by 1800, Washington had sent his advance force across the Delaware River.  Poor weather, dropping temperatures, and coagulating river ice impeded Washington’s operations by midnight.  By then, Washington’s operation was already three hours behind schedule.

The army wasn’t assembled and ready to march until 0400.  Throughout the night, the storm worsened.  General Washington divided his command into two corps.  Brigadier General Nathanael Greene led the first of these toward the left and seized the Pennington Road, while Colonel Arthur St. Clair proceeded southeast, down the river road.

Within a mile of Trenton, Greene deployed his men to form a half-circle around the town.  Greene’s approach alerted the Hessians.  A number of pickets retreated to an area north of town.  Washington launched his main assault at around 07:00.  Patriot artillery opened fire into the ranks of Hessians, whom Gottlieb had formed to repel the patriot force.  The barrage decimated the Hessians, and they withdrew to the edge of town.  German officers rallied their men, reformed the ranks, ordered “fix bayonets,” and started back to confront Washington’s force.  Soon aware that they were outnumbered, the Hessians began a fighting withdrawal.  Unhappily for the Germans, they withdrew into elements of Ewing’s force at the Assunpink Bridge.  With their officers dying right and left, the German troops became confused and soon surrendered.

The second group of Hessians rallied under Major von Dechow to re-take the bridge, but they were soon defeated.  The battle lasted barely two hours.  Washington suffered the loss of one man killed and three wounded.  The Hessians lost 22 killed, 83 wounded, and 891 captured.  Six hundred Germans managed to escape capture and moved rapidly toward Bordentown.

As it turned out, Washington’s force assaulted the Hessians without the support of either Cadwalader or Ewing’s full complement.  As Cadwalader attempted to cross the Delaware River, the storm increased in intensity; dangerous ice impeded his movements.  Out of concern that the storm might cause the loss of his canon, Cadwalader delayed sending his main force across the Delaware River.

General Ewing faced the same predicament and, with the exception of his initial advance guard, made no further attempt to cross the river.  General Washington, meanwhile, was unaware of any of these circumstances.  Having defeated the Hessians, his mission accomplished, General Washington returned across the Delaware River.  He dispatched a force to accompany his prisoners to Philadelphia and resumed his defense of the West Bank.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Robert Morris had no success recruiting crews for Pennsylvania’s militia Navy.  Service at sea with low pay may have been too much to ask.  Captain Biddle grew obstinate about not having a full crew, but with Washington’s victory at Trenton, there was no longer a reason to send Randolph to sea.

Late in the day on 26 December, General Washington received a letter from Cadwalader explaining his reasons for failing to complete his mission.  When General Cadwalader wrote his letter, he did not know where Washington was.  He informed Washington that he intended to cross the Delaware River “the following morning.”  By then, Washington had returned to Newtown, Pennsylvania.  Washington’s reply asked Cadwalader to delay crossing the river until the two men could confer.  Of course, except for one regiment under Colonel Hitchcock, Cadwalader had already crossed.

Having received General Washington’s instructions, Colonel Hitchcock canceled his planned movement across the river.  He dispatched a messenger to Cadwalader advising him of recent events and instructions.  Cadwalader conferred with his officers.  Ultimately, Cadwalader decided to remain in New Jersey and make an attack against Burlington.  He sent Colonel Joseph Reed ahead with a small scouting force.  At 0400 on 28 December, General Cadwalader marched to Bordentown and took possession of the military stores abandoned by the Hessians.  There being no food for his men, however, Cadwalader proceeded to Crosswicks, where he located food stores.

Major Nicholas’ Marines, being attached to Cadwalader’s brigade, did not participate in the Battle of Trenton, but they would not have long to wait for their first taste of land warfare.  From Crosswicks, Cadwalader rejoined Washington outside of Princeton on the night of 2 January 1777.  Washington attached Cadwalader’s brigade to Brigadier General Greene’s Division.  At dawn on the morning of 3 November, Major Nicholas’ Marines arrived at the outskirts of Princeton.  Green placed the Marines in reserve.

General Washington’s plan called for a dawn assault on Princeton, but at dawn, he was still two miles from the town.  Intending to delay Cornwallis, Washington sent 350 men under Brigadier General Hugh Mercer to destroy the bridge over Stony Brook.  Shortly before 0800, Washington wheeled his army to the right through Clarke’s farm and proceeded to enter Princeton through an undefended section.

En route to Stony Brook, Mercer’s brigade encountered two British infantry regiments and a cavalry unit under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood.  This collision of combatants was the initiating engagement in the Battle of Princeton.  Mercer and his men put up a stout defense against overwhelming forces.  The British, mistaking Mercer for Washington, quickly surrounded him and demanded his surrender.  Incensed, Mercer drew his sword and attacked his captors.  Defending themselves, the enemy beat him to the ground and bayoneted him repeatedly.[9]

With Mercer’s executive officer dead, junior officers and troops became disorganized.  Having observed the fight, General Washington rallied what troops remained of Mercer’s force and pushed the British back.

Upon hearing the clatter of muskets, Brigadier General Cadwalader led his 1,100 men against Colonel Mawhood, whose men at the time were disorganized.  Mawhood rallied his men, reorganized them, and put them into ranks for an assault or defense.  Cadwalader’s brigade was mostly composed of untrained, inexperienced, poorly armed militia.  Nicholas’ Marines occupied the brigade’s right flank, but observing Mawhood’s battle line, the militia on the left began to falter.

General Washington, observing Cadwalader’s hesitance, ordered Colonel Edward Hand to move his sharpshooters forward to the right of the Marines.  Washington courageously rode amongst the young militiamen and encouraged them.  Colonel Hitchcock’s regiment soon arrived and took a position to Colonel Hand’s right.  The Americans advanced against Mawhood’s left and center, forcing the British to withdraw and scatter.  Despite Mawhood’s efforts to rally his men, the British line was defeated.

Washington’s Continentals controlled Princeton within an hour, and the British withdrew to Maidenhead.  Washington estimated enemy casualties were around 500 incapacitated and 100 left dead on the field.[10]  Of his own, Washington reported 30-40 slain, including Brigadier General Mercer, Colonel John Haslet, Captain Daniel Niel, Ensign Anthony Morris, Jr., and Marine Captain William Shippin.

The Battle of Princeton was the first time in the Revolution that General Washington’s army saw the fleeing backs of British Redcoats — and the Continental Marines had their first taste of land battle.  General Howe regarded Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton as minor inconveniences, but to the Americans, having taken on the world’s greatest land army, the victories proved that the British could be beaten.  In writing of the American victories at Trenton and Princeton, modern British historian Sir George Trevelyan observed, “It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.”

Sources:

  1.  Collins, V. L.  A Brief Narrative of the Ravages of the British and Hessians at Princeton, 1776-1777.  New York: Arno Press, 1968.
  2. Fischer, D. H.  Washington’s Crossing.  Oxford University Press, 2006.
  3. Ketchum, R.  The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton.  Holt Publishing, 1999.
  4. McCullough, D.  1776.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
  5. Smith, C.  Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783.  Washington: Headquarters U. S. Marine Corps, 1975.

Endnotes:

[1] Most of the 17,000 dead due to disease involved Americans imprisoned on British prison ships.  British prison ships were obsolete, captured, or damaged ships used to house American prisoners of war.  Conditions aboard these ships were appalling; far more men died as British prisoners than died in actual combat.  The men languished in frigid conditions without adequate nourishment or clean water.  According to historian Edwin G. Burrows, disease and starvation killed half of those taken on Long Island and as many as two-thirds of those captured at Fort Washington in 1776 — a realistic estimate of between 2,000 and 2,500 men in the space of two months.  British guards harassed and abused the men constantly.  Of the total, 10,000 men died from simple neglect.  When they died, the British simply threw their bodies overboard into the New York harbor.  Well over 1,000 prisoners were transported to England, where they performed forced labor in the mines.  The British released some prisoners after they agreed to serve in the British Navy.

[2] Commodore was an honorary title (not a formal rank) bestowed on navy captains serving in command of two or more vessels of the Continental (later U. S.) Navy.  Esek Hopkins was forced out of the Navy in 1778.

[3] There were around 80 Marine privates in a company and five companies of Marines in a battalion.  It is amazing to imagine that the war board imagined that ten companies of Marines could defend against one or more British regiments.

[4] A Revolutionary War (period) gondola (also a gunboat) was a 54-foot, 29-ton boat armed with a single 24-pound bow canon.

[5] During the period from the Revolutionary War to the end of World War II, the Army operated under the War Department, and the naval forces operated under the Navy Department.  When Nicholas reported to General Washington, the Army Commander-in-Chief was uncertain that the naval forces were reliable (or useful) — one problem was that they had no obligation to obey Washington’s orders.  They were in the Navy Department with a completely different chain of command.

[6] On 6 July 1776, Pennsylvania’s Committee of Safety authorized the purchase of ships for the defense of Philadelphia.  By October, thirteen small ships had been constructed, six of which were operational by August: Bulldog, Burke, Camden, Congress, Dickinson, Effingham, Experiment, Franklin, Hancock, Ranger, and Warren.  Deciding overall command of the fleet was contentious, however.  The first commodore was Thomas Caldwell, who resigned due to ill health.  Caldwell was replaced by Samuel Davidson, a junior captain whose appointment ahead of more senior men nearly caused a mutiny of officers.  Davidson was removed from naval service and replaced by Thomas Seymour.  Captain John Hazelwood objected to serving under Seymour owing to his advanced age.  Eventually, the Committee of Safety removed Seymour and appointed Hazelwood in his place.    

[7] This reflects that even in these early days of American Marines, the Marine Corps placed tremendous trust and confidence in their noncommissioned officers and offered the most exceptional among them advancement into the officer ranks. 

[8] Washington promoted Cadwalader to Brigadier General.

[9] Mercer, later discovered on the battlefield, was rushed to the home of two Quaker women.  They nursed Mercer for nine days until he passed away.

[10] Actual British casualties were 270 men of all ranks.


The Bloodiest Day

An-Nasiriyah, 2003

Task Force Tarawa

Task Force Tarawa was the alternate designation of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2ndMEB).  Normally, a Marine Brigade exists as a cadre command element for contingency planning and operational coordination.  When a brigade is needed for a mission-specific task, it is activated by the appropriate commander, Marine Expeditionary Force (M.E.F.), who will then direct the supporting division, air wing, and logistics commanders to provide battalions, squadrons, and other units to the Brigade for combat training and field operations.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2ndMEB was one of four major combat organizations subordinate to the Commanding General, I MEF.  In 2003, I MEF was operationally assigned to the Army’s V Corps.  2ndMEB included the following subordinate commands:

2nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT-2), formed from the 2nd Marine Regiment (2nd Marines).  Subordinate units of RCT-2 included 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines (1/2), with Company A, 2nd Amphibious Assault Battalion (Alpha 2ndAABn) attached, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8), 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2), 1st Battalion, 10th Marines (1/10) (Artillery), Company A, 8th Tank Battalion (USMC Reserve Forces), and a reconnaissance company (also from Marine Reserve Forces).

Combat Service Support Battalion 22 (CSSB-22).  Upon arrival in Kuwait, I MEF reassigned CSSB-22 to a general (logistical) support role under I MEF.

Marine Aircraft Group 29 (MAG-29).  Upon arrival in Kuwait, I MEF reassigned MAG-29 to provide tactical air support to the combined land force.

By the time 2ndMEB crossed the line of departure, it was operating solely as a ground maneuver component (rather than as a MAGTF) within I MEF.  The brigade’s mission was to secure bridges to facilitate the movement of I MEF northward toward Baghdad, thereby conserving the 1st Marine Division for ground combat with Iraqi forces.  Initially, at least to the Marines of RCT-2, the mission didn’t seem as if the combat team would play a major role in the march to Baghdad, but RCT-2 would fight one of the defining battles of the entire campaign.

Highway 1

Brigadier General Richard F. Natonski, commanding Task Force Tarawa, moved to his assembly point on 19 March.  The brigade’s position was on the far left flank of I MEF.  The 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv) was to the brigade’s right and V Corps on its left. The battle space was limited, so for the first few days, 2ndMEB operated within the area assigned to V Corps.

Tarawa’s first mission was to seize and hold Jalibah Airfield to facilitate logistic operations.  Subsequently, Tarawa would coordinate with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division to seize the Euphrates bridge on Highway 1, 7 miles west of the city of An-Nasiriyah.[1]  To avoid the possibility of having to engage the Iraqi army in urban fighting, and because a single crossing site was deemed insufficient for the smooth flow of combat forces and their equipment, I MEF and V Corps commanders determined to open up both the southeastern bridge (over the Euphrates River) and the Saddam Canal (northeastern bridge).  Doing so would widen the corridor for the movement of forces northward.

Coalition intelligence was aware that An-Nasiriyah was the location of the HQ of the Third Iraqi Corps (III Corps), which included the 11th Iraqi Infantry Division (guarding the city), the 51st Mechanized Infantry Division (protecting southern oilfields), and the 6th Armored Division (located at Al Amarah).  The coalition was also aware that irregular forces (Fedayeen and Ba’ath Party militia) were operating independently of the Iraqi III Corps.  These irregular forces were untrained for conventional warfare but also known as fanatical armed thugs who suppressed the civilian population and targeted regular soldiers who, in confronting Coalition troops, decided to take early retirement.

In addition to his mission of seizing the bridges, I MEF warned 2ndMEB, “ … be prepared to” confront irregular forces, which some officers anticipated would put up the fiercest resistance to Coalition forces — they had the most to lose should the Coalition succeed in removing Saddam Hussein from power.

Task Force Tarawa crossed the line of departure on 21 March.  By mid-day on 22 March, the brigade had moved forward 93 miles, seized Jalibah, and occupied the area east of the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 8.  Its only problem was its constricted battle space.  Because V Corps needed the north-south roadway, Tarawa’s forward movement was “cross country.”  Proceeding “off track” actually facilitated the rapid movement of the brigade because the Army’s vehicle load produced bumper-to-bumper congestion on the main road.  Brigade artillery silenced the sporadic enemy fire, and 2/8 accepted the surrender of 50 Iraqi soldiers.[2]

On the morning of 23 March, Tarawa relieved elements of the US 3rd Infantry Division and prepared to seize the southeastern bridge.  Meanwhile, I MEF informed BGen Natonski that the US 3rd Infantry Division had successfully defeated both the Iraqi 11th Infantry Division and 51st Mechanized Infantry Division.  This information led Natonski to believe that seizing the bridges would not entail a difficult fight.  That night, Colonel Ronald Bailey, commanding RCT-2, received his orders to seize the Highway 1 bridge no later than 0430 on 24 March and by 10:00, seize the eastern bridges.

By this time, Bailey’s Marines were sleep-deprived, and his motorized vehicles were thirsty.  Colonel Bailey asked for more time, more intelligence, and more fuel.  Unfortunately, Brigade headquarters could give Bailey none of these things.  Bailey’s problem was that he had to move his RCT an additional 50 miles on fumes — but this is what Marines do.  Bailey mounted up with Charlie Company, 2nd LAR, and led 3/2 toward the Highway 1 bridge, arriving at around 02.30.  Two hours later, Charlie Company held the bridge on Highway 1.

RCT-2 received much-needed fuel resupply early on 23 March.  At this time, Bailey anticipated only light resistance from An-Nasiriyah; 1/2 and 2/8 moved forward at 0300.  Shortly after that, the Marines began receiving enemy machine gun, artillery, and mortar fire.  Lieutenant Colonel Rick Grabowski’s 1/2 took the lead because his Marines had mechanized vehicles (AAVs and tanks).  2/8, under Lieutenant Colonel Royal Mortensen, followed in trace.

Commanding the tank company, Major William P. Peeples’ lead element began taking enemy fire at around 0700. A short time later, Peeples noted a smoking and badly damaged Humvee heading in his direction.

Intelligence Gained by Rescue

At about 0600 on 23 March 2003, an 18-vehicle Army resupply convoy of the 507th Maintenance Company (consisting of 31 soldiers) mistakenly veered from Highway 8, turning toward the city of An-Nasiriyah on Route 7.  The convoy commander was Captain Troy King, U.S. Army — by MOS and training, a supply officer with little combat training.  Iraqi technical vehicles[3] shadowed the convoy as it drove through Iraqi checkpoints adjacent to the Euphrates River.

Once passing the Al-Quds headquarters, Captain King realized he was lost and, having turned around, retraced the route taken through the city.  As the convoy turned left onto Highway 16, at around 0700, King’s vehicles began receiving enemy small arms fire.  Confused vehicle operators panicked; in the chaos, they divided up into three separate groups, each attempting to find their way southward out of An-Nasiriyah.

Group 1 made it through the Iraqi gauntlet unscathed and continued south until it encountered Marines who were moving northward toward An-Nasiriyah.  Group 2 made it through the kill zone, but their vehicles were so badly damaged that the soldiers abandoned them and set up a hasty defensive position about three miles south of the city.  Iraqi forces defeated Group 3 by snagging them in roadblocks.  Once the Iraqis stopped Group 3 vehicles, they opened fire with RPGs, mortars, and tank fire.  Eleven soldiers died, and six were taken prisoner.[4]

At around 0730, King’s Group 1 survivors contacted Alpha Company, 8th Tanks on Highway 7, about ten miles south of An-Nasiriyah.  When Major William P. Peeples, commanding the tank company, realized that a number of soldiers had fallen into Iraqi hands, he ordered his tanks forward to rescue as many soldiers as possible, which included ten soldiers from Group 2.

Captain King informed Peeples that his convoy had been ambushed, that his soldiers had taken several casualties, and that most of his element was pinned down and in need of assistance.  Peeples moved his entire company north to assist the soldiers, informing 1/2 by radio of his intentions.  En route, Peeples’ tanks destroyed some enemy artillery, one tank, and some anti-aircraft weapons.  With the assistance of Marine AH-1s and F/A-18s, Peeples rescued ten soldiers.  At the conclusion of the mission, Peeples had to return to the rear for refueling — which meant that Grabowski’s battalion would be without tank support for nearly two hours.

Meanwhile, BGen Natonski met with Captain King, later recalling that he was astounded by his account, but it alerted him to the fact that An-Nasiriya would not be a cakewalk.  Colonel Bailey agreed with Natonski that it was necessary to seize the brigade’s objectives as soon as possible, and both officers were aware that some elements of the 507th were still inside the city.  Natonski pulled Grabowski aside and said, “Do what you can to find those missing soldiers; they’d do it for us.”

Grabowski’s 1/2 moved quickly forward to assault Nasiriyah because bridge seizure would allow elements of the 1stMarDiv to pass north through the city along Route 7.  RCT-2’s lightning strike with AAVs and Cobra gunships allowed the Marines to seize the two bridges and, in the process, defeat two or more platoons of Fedayeen and Ba’ath Party militia.  In this heavy fighting, Marines also destroyed two anti-aircraft weapons and several mortars and artillery firing positions.

A Bloody Beginning

Grabowski’s 1/2, without tank support, proceeded with two companies abreast.  Bravo Company (mounted) occupied the right flank, Charlie Company on the left.  Two miles south of the city, 1/2 encountered a bridge that spanned a railway underpass.  Grabowski redeployed his Marines into column formation with Bravo Company in the lead.  Staff Sergeant Schielein reported seven to nine Soviet-style enemy tanks and an estimated 50 dismounted infantry waiting in the underpass.  Schielein directed his TOW and Javelin weapons systems, destroying eight of the enemy tanks.[5]

Grabowski’s attack plan was sound, but the situation began to unravel rather quickly.  The rescue of the 507th had caused delays in the game plan, and the shortage of fuel/absence of tanks had slowed 1/2’s progress even more.  As Bravo Company crossed the bridge at about 12:30, the Marines began receiving enemy small arms and rocket fire.  Lead tanks, buttoned up (poor visibility) missed the first turn to the right and took the second turn with infantry right behind.  Marines fanned out in a relatively open field that looked passable, but the Marines were deceived.  Just below the surface of the field lay a thick, gooey layer of silt and sewage several feet deep.  The lead tank suddenly sank to its axles; follow-on vehicles became mired as well.  This is when the enemy opened up — and this is when Grabowski, who was with the lead unit, lost communications due to excessive radio chatter and the presence of high-tension power lines.  There was no radio link with supporting artillery, and the battalion air controller, Captain A. J. Greene, could not vector air support.

Eventually, Bravo Company’s forward air controller, Captain D. A. Santare, was able to establish communications with on-station AH-1s to suppress enemy fire from surrounding rooftops.[6]  The Iraqis were using “shoot and scoot” tactics, but once the gunships were overhead, they realized that they couldn’t scoot fast enough.  The AH-1’s also became spotters for the Marines on the ground, who were unable to observe enemy positions or movements.

Once Captain Tim Newland’s Bravo Company had crossed the bridge, Alpha followed in trace.  The Alpha Company commander, Captain M. A. Brooks, established a perimeter around the northern side of the bridge.  Captain Wittnam, commanding Charlie Company, crossed over the bridge.  He could easily identify Brooks’ position but did not know the location of Bravo Company.  Without communications, Wittnam could not establish contact with Grabowski.  Captain Wittnam assumed that Grabowski and Bravo Company had proceeded straight down the road to the battalion’s final objective, the Saddam Canal Bridge, so that is where Wittnam led his company.  It was a good decision, reflecting his battalion commander’s intent, and, as it turned out, it was what Grabowski hoped he would do.

Grabowski established contact with this XO, Major Tuggle.  He sent Tuggle back to the refueling point with instructions to get the tanks forward as soon as possible.  Peeples ceased refueling operations and moved his tanks forward.  One tank experienced a mechanical breakdown almost immediately.  Just after crossing the railroad underpass, Peeple’s four remaining tanks engaged six enemy tanks, destroying three.  Continuing forward to Brooks’ position, the two officers established tank-infantry coordination to the detriment of the Iraqis.

Charlie Company passed through Alpha Company and raced through Ambush Alley while receiving heavy enemy fire.  Iraqi militia appeared from almost every doorway, every window, and every rooftop, firing rifles and RPGs.  Some of these militias even ran into the middle of the street to engage the Marines are point-blank range.

Bad Comm’s

Charlie 1/2 Marines responded in keeping with their training.  Exiting on both sides of the elevated roadway, Marines sought cover and returned accurate and overwhelming fire.  These same militias that had so easily decimated the 507th only hours before soon discovered that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.  Charlie Company Marines on both sides of the road advanced on the enemy’s positions.

Captain Wittnam also experienced disruptions to communications.  For a brief moment, Wittnam had Grabowski on the net and informed him that he’d secured the Saddam Canal bridge.  Grabowski was elated, but then communications were cut once more.  But few besides Grabowski had heard Wittnam’s sitrep and Wittnam once again lost the ability to access air cover or his own weapons platoon.

Charlie Company continued to engage the Iraqi enemy with their organic weapons.  Occasionally, Wittnam, his artillery forward observer (2ndLt Fred Pokorney, Jr.), and his mortar platoon commander (1stLt Ben Reid) went atop the elevated roadway in the center of Charlie Company’s position to gain situational awareness and identify targets.  In this way, Reid’s mortarmen were able to deliver sporadic effective fire.  Lieutenant Pokorney was finally able to establish contact with 1/10 and called in a fire mission.  Soon after, Iraqi mortars crashed into Charlie Company’s position, killing Pokorney and wounding several mortarmen.  Marine casualties were quickly loaded into an AAV and sent back through Ambush Alley to the Battalion Aid Station.  It was the only way the Marines had to evacuate their dead and wounded because the volume of fire prohibited a helicopter medevac.

This lack of communication then took a deadlier turn.  While Charlie Company held on to their position north of the Canal, Bravo Company Marines continued working their way through the streets and alleys to the eastern side of the Saddam Canal bridge.  They were in an urban fight they’d hoped to avoid.  Behind them, AAV’s and tanks were doing all they could to extract the mired vehicles.

Both the Bravo Company commander, Captain Newland, and his forward air controller, Captain Santare, not having heard Wittnam’s report, continued to believe that Bravo was still the forward element of the battalion.  They did not know that Charlie Company had actually moved northward, beyond the Saddam Canal, and was in a desperate struggle with Iraqi militia.  Similarly, Captain Greene, the battalion air officer, had no operable radios.  It was because of this that Captain Greene passed air control to Captain Jones and Santare, allowing them to direct their own air attacks.  What Green, Santare, and Newland did know was that Bravo Company was receiving a tremendous volume of fire from north of the canal.  Newland told Santare that as soon as he could air support from A-10s, he wanted them to start running missions north of the Saddam Canal.[7]  Santare understood that the situation was dire.  He went to the guard channel, which was normally only used for emergencies, and requested immediate air support.

Friendly Fire

Within seconds, fixed-wing aircraft began checking in with Santare.  Santare waited a few moments for a Marine or Navy aircraft with a forward air controller to answer, but none were in the area.  Instead, he began working with two USAF A-10s, call signs “Gyrate 73” and “Gyrate 74.”  The A-10s were part of a squadron from the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.  Circling high overhead, the A-10s attempted to get a fix on Santare’s position east of Ambush alley.

The A-10s identified vehicular targets north of the Saddam Canal and passed the locations to Santare.  Santare verified with Newland that Bravo Company was still the forward-most unit.  Captain Santare could see neither the A-10s nor the targets they identified.  Both Santare and the A-10 pilots could see smoke pouring from a burning vehicle on the highway and used that as a reference point.  Neither Santare nor the A-10 pilots realized that the burning vehicle was a Marine AAV.

LtCol Grabow’s operation order, then in effect, prohibited the use of Type III Close Air Support without his personal clearance.  Nevertheless, Newland determined that the situation was critical at a time when the battalion commander was out of communications and, since air support is a “use it or lose it” asset, Santare authorized Gyrate 73 and 74 to engage anything north of the Saddam Canal.

Charlie Company, meanwhile, was still under intense mortar fire.  Unit leaders, on their own authority, continued loading wounded Marines into AAVs for medical evacuation.  Marines who had been advancing toward the enemy eventually returned to the roadway in the vicinity of the AAV positions.  First Lieutenant Seeley, commanding third platoon, did not understand why the Marines were returning to the highway.  He was told that the word from the AAV drivers was that they were “loading up.”  Before he could make any sense of the situation, the A-10s began strafing Charlie Company.

Lieutenant Seely had experienced friendly fire before during Operation Desert Storm.  He knew immediately what was happening.  A Marine standing next to him was hit in the chest and killed.  Seely shouted an order to 2ndLt Swantner, commanding the first platoon, to fire pyrotechnics.  Swantner immediately popped two red star clusters, the cease-fire signal, but the A-10s made several more strafing runs.  The A-10 pilots mistook the AAVs, loaded with Marine casualties, as enemy armor, as previously reported to them by Captain Santare.  In all, Charlie Company had lost 18 Marines killed and 19 more wounded due to friendly fire.  Five AAVs were completely destroyed, and two more had to be abandoned.  Captain Wittnam lost half of his company and half of his officers.

The fight for control of the An-Nasiriyah corridor on 23 March 2003 turned out to be far tougher than anyone in Task Force Tarawa (or the MEF) expected.  Inadequate intelligence was part of the problem; hardly anyone anticipated stiff resistance from the Iraqi militia.  General Natonski had been told that the US 3rd Infantry Division had defeated the 11th Iraqi Infantry Division and that any remaining Iraqi forces would melt away or surrender.  In fact, the 11th Iraqi had not been defeated, nor the 51st Mechanized, nor even the Fedayeen or Ba’ath militia.  If part of the battle plan was knowing the enemy, none of the planners for the march into Nasiriyah knew that particular enemy.

The engagements of 23 March 2003 were successful because Marine officers, NCOs, and rank and file were well-trained, competent, courageous, well-coordinated, and highly motivated.  Mistakes were made, but that is part of the business of warfare.  What matters under such circumstances is how our warriors respond to those mistakes and mishaps.  The Marines of RCT-2 responded professionally, as we expect our Marines to respond.  There were also a few important lessons learned, particularly with regard to close air support (See also: special note (below)).

Special note:

Understandably, Marine survivors of the friendly fire incident were angry/bitter about what happened.  They may still harbor that anger.  The larger picture appears relevant, however.  The A-10s were receiving heavy anti-aircraft fire, which necessitated attacks from high altitudes.  This made target recognition difficult.  It also meant that they had to rely on the ground forward air controller to give them a correct picture of the ground battle.  In this incident, they were cleared to release their weapons by the Bravo Company forward air controller.  The pilot’s failure to recognize the “cease fire” flare could have just as easily been confused with tracer rounds being fired.  No one could help the loss of communications which disconnected the key leaders from one another.  Captain Santare did his best to confirm that Bravo Company was still the lead element of 1/2.  Moreover, because the city was designated as a “restricted fire” area, there was no preplanned air support for Task Force Tarawa’s assault.  When FACs are forced to improvise, the chances of something bad happening increases tenfold.

A subsequent investigation of the incident concluded that the primary cause of the incident was Captain Santare’s violation of the battalion commander’s standing order not to use Type III CAS without his express permission.  But Marines were being killed by a stubborn enemy who was determined to resist the Marine assault.  Captain Greene authorized Santare to establish direct contact with overhead fixed-wing aircraft, which given the circumstances of poor communications, Santare was forced to do.  Captain Santare acted in what he perceived as the best interests of his fellow Marines, an effort to save their lives — and yet, in doing so, caused the incident.  It wasn’t a matter of neglect or incompetence; it was simply gut-wrenching war.

Sources:

  1. Andrew, R.  U. S. Marines in Battle: The Battle of An-Nasiriyah.  HQ USMC, Washington, 2009.
  2. Lowrey, R. S.  Marines in the Garden of Eden: The Battle for An Nasiriyah.  Berkley Press, 2006.
  3. Livingston, G.  An Nasiriyah: The Fight for the Bridges. Caisson Press, 2004.
  4. Pritchard, T.  Ambush Alley: The Most Extraordinary Battle of the Iraq War.  Presidio Press, 2007.

End Notes:

[1] An-Nasiriyah was the point at which all Army and Marine Corps ground combat units would enter Iraq from Kuwait.  A railroad, several highways, and two major waterways converged in or around the city.  There were two sets of bridges spanning the Euphrates River in the southern section of the city, including the Saddam Canal, which ran along the city’s northern border.  Since the route of march would take coalition forces through the most densely populated section of the city, I MEF planned on opening up a second corridor.

[2] A congested MSR is asking for serious trouble.  The Army has not figured this out since the Korean War.

[3] Also, Non-standard tactical vehicles (NSTVs) (usually pickup trucks with weapons mounted in the rear bed or on the roof of the operating cab.

[4] Prisoners included PFC Jessica Lynch, Specialist Shoshana Johnson, and PFC Lori Piestewa.  Piestewa died of her wounds.  Lynch was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for being a blonde chick, and Johnson sued the Army because she didn’t get a medal, too. 

[5] Tube Launched Optically Tracked Wire-guided missile (TOW) (M-220); Javelin (FMG-148) is a man-portable antitank system.

[6] Each rifle battalion in Task Force Tarawa had one air officer and two forward air controllers; two of the three rifle companies had their own forward air controllers.  Captain Jim Jones was attached to Alpha Company; Captain Santare was assigned to Bravo Company.  The battalion air officer was Captain Greene. 

[7] There are three types of close air support, usually expressed as Type I, Type II, and Type III CAS.  Type I is when the air controller can see both the attacking aircraft and its target.  Type II is when the FAC cannot see the attacking aircraft or the target or when the attacking aircraft cannot acquire the target prior to the release of its weapons.  Type III is when the FAC can see neither the aircraft nor the target. 


No Promise of a Rose Garden

Since the Marine Corps’ earliest years, it has been the duty of senior noncommissioned officers to drill, drill, inspect, and drill again the young men who profess a desire to become a United States Marine. In the days of sail, the arts and sciences of Marine Corps training included instruction about history and traditions, discipline, marksmanship, sword drill, close order drill, physical fitness training, the care and cleaning of uniforms, equipment, and small arms, service at sea, and the fundamentals of naval artillery. There was then, in the olden days, as there is now, much to learn about serving as a Marine — but there is not much time to learn it. So, recruit training is as relentless as it is rigorous. Only the best-qualified recruit is allowed to graduate into that sea of faces we sometimes call the ranks of a Marine Brigade.

To young recruits, seasoned NCOs represent the “old Corps.” Of course, the expression “old corps” is somewhat of an old saw — and to some Marines, “old corps” was last year.  Marine NCOs are men who possess corporate knowledge of how the Marine Corps works — the often complex workings of the operating forces on land and at sea.  The process of training recruits has changed over the years, of course, but the well-established tradition does continue. In time, some of these young recruits will become Drill Instructors themselves.[1] Of course, for that to happen, a Marine has to have the stuffing to remain in the Corps long enough to become a seasoned NCO. Not everyone has staying power — and the mission becomes even more, demanding with seniority. The Marine Corps has never been an organization for lightweights.

In the days before recruit depots, most recruit training occurred at designated Navy Yards in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, or at the Marine Barracks on Eighth & I Streets — just down the street from the Washington Navy Yard. Back then, all training was localized. The quality of the training received had everything to do with the quality of the NCO trainer, and even though the Marine Corps demanded formal training for recruits since around 1804, there was no money for textbooks or other written materials.  Additionally, since Congress placed a ceiling on enlisted strength levels and made no allowance for drill instructors, trainers had to come from locally available personnel. 

Marine Corps staffing levels were such that the Corps could ill-afford to squander what they had available for their assigned mission. The Marine Corps has never had “an abundance” of NCOs suitable for service as drill instructors. But before 1900, recruit training fell upon the shoulders of NCOs assigned D.I. duty. For the most part.

In 1860, the United States began to prepare for a war between the states. Everyone knew that war was likely. Some people even looked forward to war. Washington politicians had tried diplomacy since 1820 and failed — maybe it was simply time to “get on with it.”

These preparations included recruiting additional men for service in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. In July, youngsters began streaming into the Washington Navy Yard for recruit training in Washington. But in mid-July, the Army needed men to confront rebels forming at Manassas — so, trained or not, Marine NCOs at the Navy Yard mustered their recruits and marched them off to join the picnic.

The First Battle of Manassas was no picnic — even though several members of Congress packed picnic lunches and escorted their wives to watch the fun.

Those young Marines did have initiative, but they were of little use in the fight beyond carrying ammunition to support Army artillery units. In 1861, Marines were trained for service at sea, not on land. In 1861, amphibious warfare doctrine was still sixty years into the future.

In 1911, Major General Commandant William P. Biddle standardized recruit training for all Marines, coast-to-coast: drill, physical exercise, hand-to-hand combat, and intensive marksmanship training. Biddle established four recruit training depots: Philadelphia, Norfolk, Puget Sound, and Mare Island. The depots at Philadelphia and Puget Sound were closed. Four years later, in 1915, the Norfolk training depot was moved to its present location, Parris Island, South Carolina.

As the United States began moving toward its involvement in the European war, the number of recruits-in-training at any one time surged from 835 to 13,286. After “boot camp,” Marines went to Quantico, Virginia, for their pre-deployment (unit) training. There to greet them, undoubtedly, were the NCOs — most of whom had served in combat during U.S. interventions in the Caribbean and Central America. Once in France, Marine units underwent additional “land warfare” training.

Boot Camp is where the Marine Corps makes Marines — and has been for the past 111 years. The people who make these Marines are called Drill Instructors (DIs). When most civilians think of the Marines (which probably isn’t often), they probably think of a recruiting poster, such as the one on the right. DIs are the stuff of legends — among the most professional leaders in the Marine Corps. The primary candidate for Drill Instructor School are sergeants and staff sergeants. Anyone eligible to serve as a drill instructor can be directed to appear before a Drill Instructor Screening Board — but not every NCO can become a DI. The Screening Board only selects the most qualified NCO to attend Drill Instructor School. Why? Because it is the solemn duty of the DI to transition undisciplined civilians into United States Marines — there’s no room for error.

What makes these Marines among the best in the Corps? They have to be exceptional in their regular MOS, they have to meet height/weight criteria, they have to look sharp in their uniforms, they have to be among the Corps’ top sharpshooters, and they have to achieve a near-perfect physical fitness score. If they’re married Marines, they have to have a stable family life and be financially secure. To become a DI, they must be even-tempered, judicious, and informed decision-makers. There are no “crazies” walking around under DI covers. Marine DIs might appear unhinged to the recruit standing in front of them, but that DI anger is all part of a carefully cultivated act — an act they learn at DI School.

Today, the two major recruit training depots (MCRDs) are located at Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego, California. There are DI Schools at each location. The coursework is tough, the physical training relentless, and there are uniform inspections every single day. There is no such thing as an un-squared away Marine Corps Drill Instructor. If an applicant is selected for DI School at PISC, his DI duty assignment will also be at PISC — that is, if they graduate. Not everyone does.

For that reason, DI candidates aren’t permitted to take their families with them to the MCRD until after they’ve graduated and received their first DI assignment. The work of a DI is relentlessly difficult, but so too is the life of a DI’s wife. Rocky marriages don’t last a single tour of DI duty.

DI duty is demanding. Whatever Marine Corps training demands of its recruits, it demands five times that of its drill instructors. If the recruits are awakened at 0500, the DIs are up at 0400. Recruits are put to bed at 2200, but their DI is up past midnight. Recruits may look ratty by the end of the day, but their DI always looks poster-perfect. They change into fresh uniforms three or four times a day.

Each recruit platoon has between 60-80 recruits. Because these recruits demand their DI’s full attention 24 hours a day (times forever), DIs work in teams of three or four — generally as follows:

  • Each platoon will have two or three Junior Drill Instructors (J.D.I.’s). These NCOs instruct in the training and discipline of troops; make sure that recruits are up on time, march to chow at the right time, march to medical and dental periods on time, march to training sessions on time, get showered, and hit the rack on time. J.D.I.’s also make sure their recruits write home to the folks regularly.
  • The Senior Drill Instructor (S.D.I.) is responsible for the platoon and the J.D.I.’s. The senior can be just as terrifying as the others but is also considered the “adult in the room.” If something goes wrong (no matter what) — it’s the SDI’s fault. It can be career-ending if something goes wrong (no matter what).

What most people don’t realize is that officer candidates have DIs too. They aren’t called DIs, but most have completed a successful tour of DI duty. At Navy and Marine Corps officer candidate schools, D.I.’s are called Sergeants Instructors.

NCOs have much to say about who may graduate and receive a Navy and Marine Corps commission.  This situation may seem strange — but one of an NCOs most important responsibilities is to help train, assist, and advise Navy and Marine Corps officers.  This relationship between officers and NCOs is a long-held tradition that lasts for an entire career.  Even general officers and admirals have senior enlisted advisors. Competent officers listen carefully to what their NCOs have to say. The not-so-bright officers will probably never make it past captain — which is not bad.

Marine Corps Drill Instructors take a solemn pledge:

“These recruits are entrusted to my care. I will train them to the best of my ability. I will develop them into smartly disciplined, physically fit, basically trained Marines, thoroughly indoctrinated in love of Corps and country. I will demand of them and demonstrate by my example the highest standards of personal conduct, morality, and professional skill.”

How Important is Boot Camp?

Twenty-four hundred Marines were killed or wounded on the first day of Operation Detachment. Historian J. A. Colon recently asked, “Was the Marine Corps’ success at Iwo Jima a matter of leadership, bravado, or fundamental training? What prompted the Marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions to succeed in a ruthless battle lasting 36 excruciating days? In this study, Colon examined the efficiency of recruit training (boot camp), replacement training, and unit training as it related to the success of the Iwo Jima campaign, noting in that study that one-quarter of all Medals of Honor awarded to Marines during World War II were earned on Iwo Jima.

Colon deduced that boot camp training proved far more essential than pre-operation or replacement training, a conclusion reached not through historiographical studies but through the personal testimonies of the Marines who fought that dreadful battle. Where the pre-operational training was incomplete, lacking realism, and the SWAG of operational planners, Marines retained their knowledge of boot camp training from the start of the operation to its conclusion. Boot camp imbued Marines with their sense of duty, gave them confidence in their weapons, and brought them to the point where they could endure the physical and mental stresses of bloody combat. What allowed the Marines to succeed at Iwo Jima, indeed, every Pacific combat operation was their self-discipline, self-confidence, and the esprit de corps instilled in them by their Marine Corps Drill Instructor.

To clarify — talk to anyone who has successfully served in the Marine Corps, and they will assure you that their boot camp training has remained with them all the days of their lives since graduation.

Drill Instructors, Platoon 224 Company E, 2ndBn RTR MCRD PISC

Sergeant J. S. Schweingruber

Sergeant R. S. Winston

Sergeant S. M. Nikolopoulos

Corporal J. D. Baker

Except for (Sergeant Major) Nikolopoulos, it’s been 60 years since I’ve seen these men. They were my drill instructors. That’s how significant Marine Corps Recruit Training is.

Endnote:

[1] The only service of the U.S. Armed Forces to use the term “drill instructor” is the U.S. Marine Corps.  In both the Navy, and Marine Corps, Marine Corps Drill Instructors train officer candidates, while Recruit Division Commanders (R.D.C.’s) train Navy enlisted personnel.  Air Force recruits are trained by Military Training Instructors(M.T.I.s).  In the Army, they are called drill sergeants.

[2] The drill instructor appearing in this 1968 recruiting poster is Sergeant Charles Taliano, USMC (Deceased) (1945-2010).  He was a native of Cleveland, Ohio.  He left the Marine Corps in 1968 to work in the publishing industry.  He retired in 1999 and relocated to Beaufort, South Carolina in 2001.  There, he served as the manager of the MCRD PISC gift shop.  He was buried at the Beaufort National Cemetery. 


Mare Nostrum

Introduction

Senatus Populus Que Romanus

People who enjoy reading about ancient Rome are fascinated by the strength and capabilities of the Roman Legions.  Perhaps not so much of the brilliance of Rome’s generals, but the capacity of 5,000 to 6,000 men advancing 50 miles in a single day, establishing a well-defended bivouac, tearing it down the next morning, and then marching another 50 miles — is nothing short of extraordinary.[1]

Of all the things we know (or think we know) about the ancient world, there is one aspect of that history we know very little about — the Roman Navy.  Even considering eight hundred years of faithful service to Rome, modern historians know far more about Rome’s legions than they do its Navy.  It is a sad fact because Rome’s navy was the instrument through which the Republic (and later the Empire) transformed the Mediterranean Sea into Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) — and the loss of naval power contributed to the fall of Rome in 426 A.D.

We know very little about the Roman Navy’s early history because so few records of naval activities exist.  In any case, Rome was always a land-based society.  The Romans only occasionally went to sea, and until around 311 B.C.E., if any size of Roman fleet existed, hardly anyone took notice of it.  But 311 B.C.E. was when Rome ordered the construction of a fleet of twenty ships and appointed two magistrates to command it.

Before the Punic Wars (264 – 146 B.C.E.) Rome’s fleet (classis) was restricted to minor coastal operations mainly centered on defending commercial ships from raiding pirates.  We understand this from a chronological standpoint by realizing that Rome first had to conquer and consolidate its power on the Italian Peninsula before it could look outward.  This was an effort lasting roughly 500 years.

Nor should anyone think that creating a navy was a simple task.  An effective Navy must have a sufficient number of ships capable of imposing its will on an enemy fleet.  The captains of such vessels must be skilled pilots and employ strategies and surface warfare tactics that allow them to defeat their enemies.

A Short History

Mare Nostrum

As legions of land infantry sought to expand Rome’s influence on the land, a small naval force was trying to develop some degree of power at sea, but before the First Punic War, Rome’s fleet confined itself to coastal patrols to protect trade routes.  If Roman commanders decided they needed naval blockades, they called upon their Greek allies in Southern Italy for assistance.  That situation changed when Rome went to loggerheads with Carthage in 264 B.C.E.[2] 

The Punic Wars was a series of conflicts between Rome and Carthage lasting from 264 B.C.E. to 146 B.C.E.[3]   The first of these broke out in Sicily and lasted 23 years.  The conflict was primarily naval warfare conducted in the Mediterranean Sea surrounding the island of Sicily.  When war erupted, Carthage was the dominant power in the western Mediterranean, and insofar as the Carthaginians were concerned, Sicily was part of the Punic Empire.

Once they decided to dispute the Carthaginian claim over Sicily, the Roman Senate ordered a massive construction effort of 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes.[4]  Quinqueremes were large galley ships with five rows of oarsmen; triremes were smaller ships hosting three rows of rowers.  Over more than two decades of fighting, both sides suffered tremendous human and material losses.  Ultimately, the Romans defeated Carthage in 241 B.C.E., even if the quest for supremacy remained undecided.  A 2nd Punic War was fought between 218 – 202 B.C.E., ending with another Roman victory.  In 146 B.C.E., Rome assaulted Carthage, slaughtered most of its inhabitants, and demolished the city and its fortifications.  Afterward, North Africa became a Roman province.

Rome’s new fleets fell under the direct command of elected magistrates, men elected for one year.  Because they were politicians with no expertise in naval warfare, the navy’s principal advisors and ship captains were Greek seamen.  The Greeks provided the Romans with a large amount of knowledge, but the Carthaginians, formerly known as Phoenicians, invented seafaring — and the Romans ranked inferior to the Carthaginians for many years.

Corvus

One maxim is that necessity is the mother of invention.  During the First Punic War, the Romans sought ways of compensating for their lack of seafaring skills with new naval warfare technologies.  One was a sea bridge (shown right) called a Corvus. Measuring roughly 4 feet by 36 feet, the device was (likely) placed in the prow of a galley where a pole and a system of pulleys permitted the raising and lowering of a bridge.  A heavy spike acted as an anchor on the enemy ship’s deck, allowing marines to cross over onto the enemy ship and engage them in direct combat.[5]  Rome’s first success with the Corvus occurred during the Battle of Mylae, which the Romans won.

Despite the Carthaginian advantage in experience, they only won one major sea battle at Drepana in 249 B.C.E.  By 120 B.C.E., Rome was the undisputed Mediterranean power and remained so for the next 546 years.  Rome’s navy helps to explain this success. 

Rome’s first sea battle outside Mare Nostrum occurred in 56 B.C.E., during the Gallic Wars.  When a maritime tribe of Veneti rebelled against Rome’s authority, it was up to Julius Caesar to respond to it.  Caesar, the great land general, was at a disadvantage because the Romans were unfamiliar with the coastline, struggled against tides and currents, and they had lost their surface warfare expertise.  Additionally, Veneti ships were made of sturdy oak, stood taller than Rome’s lighter galleys, and relied on sail for propulsion.  These factors gave the Veneti important advantages over the Romans.  Still, the Romans were clever engineers.  When the Veneti and Romans finally clashed in Quiberon Bay, the Roman Navy used hooks at the end of long poles and cut the halyards supporting the Veneti sails.  It didn’t end well for the Veneti after Roman marines boarded their ships.  In the following year, Caesar used his Roman galleys to invade Britain.

The Ships

Egyptian Ship

Ancient Rome can take no credit for inventing ships or surface warfare.  It has been going on for a long time.  Nearly 2,000 years before Italian tribalists began identifying as Roman, Egyptian ships patrolled the Nile River.  Because of a lack of suitable wood for shipbuilding, Egypt constructed its earliest vessels from woven papyrus reeds.  They were large enough to accommodate 30 rowers and two men on the rudder.  Scholars claim that Egyptian surface warfare is as old as Egypt itself.

Phoenician ship

Next came the Phoenicians, who, around 1,500 B.C.E., gave the Egyptians a seaborne thrashing.  Scholars tell us that the Phoenician culture developed from the ancient Canaanites (present-day Lebanese).  The Phoenicians dominated the Mediterranean Sea around 500 B.C.E., establishing settlements in Cyprus, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, and Carthage.

Persian Warship

The Persian navy developed within its first empire between 525 – 330 B.C.E. We know it is pure speculation because there are no existing written records of the Persian Navy.  Scholars believe the Persian naval force came about because Cambyses wanted to use it to conquer Egypt, strengthen a Persian presence on the coast of Asia Minor, assert its authority over Samos, conquer Thrace, and war against Scythia.   In its time, the Persians developed 1,200 warships and three times that number in transport ships. 

Greek Warship

Greece was never a nation-state until long after the Roman period.  Before Rome, Greece consisted of independent city-states that were happy to fight with other Greeks when not warring with foreigners.  Of the strongest city-states, Athens had the most formidable navy, its ships no doubt influenced by the Phoenicians, and created out of necessity as a defense against Persia’s attempts at conquest.  The Persian wars were fought between 499 – 449 B.C.E.

The earliest Greek ship of war was known as a penteconter.  This ship emerged when there was no distinction between merchants and warships.  They were versatile, long-range vessels used for sea trade, piracy, and warfare and capable of transporting freight or troops.  A penteconter was rowed by fifty oarsmen, arranged in a row of twenty-five on each side of the ship.  A midship mast with sail could also propel the ship under favorable conditions.  The Penteconter design provided a long ship with sharp keels (thus referred to as “long boats”).  Typically, they lacked a full deck — or were unfenced ships.

The Greeks later copied and produced the Phoenician bireme, a ship with two rows of oarsmen on each side.  Later, a trireme design increased the number of oarsmen to three rows.  Triremes were first used against Corinth around 700 B.C.E.  What we know about these ships comes from archeological investigations.  Modern analysts claim that these ships “most likely” pushed the technological limits of the ancient world.  By “technology,” historians refer to what humankind knew or understood about human accommodation, propulsion, weight, waterline, the center of gravity, stability, strength, and feasibility.  Each of these was an interdependent variable — even if one became more important than another according to the ship’s purpose.

Shipbuilders would determine the size of a ship based on the number of men needed to crew it.  A trireme demanded a crew of 200 men, 170 of which were involved in its propulsion and steering mechanisms.  A demand for greater speed required high oar-gearing — the ratio between the outboard length of an oar and the inboard length, which made the trireme so effective at sea. 

Shipbuilding was a science and a delicate balance.  The original construction of a trireme was intended to maximize its performance.  Should a shipwright later modify the ship, its design would become compromised.  Designers attempted to optimize speed to the point where any less weight would result in losses to the ship’s integrity.  They placed the center of gravity at the lowest possible position — just above the waterline — which retained the ship’s resistance to waves and capsizing.

How good were these ancient shipbuilders?  The purpose of the area just below the center of gravity and the waterline (known as the hypozomata) was to allow the bending of the hull when faced with a 90-knot force.  The fact that these ancient thinkers could put such technology into practice is mind-bending.

Roman Quinquereme

Even so, the intricacy of triremes was such that they demanded a great deal of maintenance to stay afloat.  Ship’s lines, sails, rudders, oars, and masts required frequent replacement, and if left at sea too long, they would become waterlogged.  To extend the life of such ships, they were pulled out of the water at night (whenever possible).  Even though constructed with light wood, drawing the ship out of the water took 140 men.  Properly taken care of, the vessel might last 25 years.

Construction of a trireme took 6,000 man-days.  That’s 40 men, 150 days per ship.  Archeologists believe the vessel measured 120 feet in length and 18 feet wide.  The height of the ship sitting in the harbor was almost 7 feet.  When under power, the ship was capable of 6 knots as leisurely effort.  At average cruise speed, the ship could travel 50 – 60 miles in a day.  The Roman quinquereme was much larger.

In classical antiquity, the primary purpose of these galleys was to ram an enemy ship — to cause the enemy ship to sink or become disabled.  They called this  ram rostra, giving the name Navis Rostrata for “warship.”  Ship ramming took skill, luck, and a ship capable of surviving the act of ramming another ship at 8 to 10 knots speed.

It is important to remember that Rome turned to the Greeks for their expertise in its early days of investigating naval warfare.

Roman Navy High Command

During Rome’s Republic, command of a naval fleet was given to a serving magistrate or pro-magistrate — men of consular or praetorian rank. 

Note: Rome thrived for well over 1,300 years.  As Rome Proper developed, it underwent three systems of government.  The first was a kingdom.  In this arrangement, the king served as the executive magistrate.  The king’s power was absolute.  He was the supreme ruler, high priest, chief lawgiver and judge, and sole army commander.

When the king died, his power reverted to the Roman Senate, a body of around 100 men who served by virtue of their wealth and influence in the Roman city-state.  The senate ruled Rome until electing a new king.  When that occurred, the senate relinquished its sovereign power back to the king.

A succession of kings became abusive and much resented by the people.  When the people overthrew the monarchy and adopted a republic, the constitutional balance of power shifted from the sole executive to the Roman Senate.

During the republican stage, the number of senators increased from around 100 to between 300 – 500 lifetime appointments.  After establishing a republic, the Senate assigned executive power to two elected consuls.  The consuls shared state power as chief executives for one year.  During the imperial period, power shifted from appointed consuls to a single executive, the emperor (who served for life).  Note: The Roman Senate continued until 603 A.D. — 177 years after the “fall of the Roman Empire.”

It was during the republican period when Rome abandoned permanent political assignments (except the Senate) and began the practice of limiting high-ranking appointments to one year.  But there was a problem … the Romans soon discovered that appointments made for periods of only one year denied the state practical advantages of experience and the flexibility needed to ensure the availability of knowledgeable men to perform important functions.  So, without making any changes to the limitations imposed by one-year appointments, the Romans decided to temporarily extend certain officials’ authority  (imperium) for as long as needed.  Pro-magistrates, therefore, were former consuls or praetors with extended authority.  They were also called pro-consuls and pro-praetors.

In the Punic Wars, one consul commanded the fleet; the other controlled the army.[6]  These men were politicians and, therefore, incompetent to command or direct fleet or squadron operations.  The actual command was instead entrusted to experienced legates and senior tribunes.

In ancient times, navies and trading fleets did not have the logistical capabilities of modern ships — which means that if they needed stores, repairs, or re-equip, they would have to go ashore to see to those needs.  Nor was a Roman Navy headquarters element directing the fleet’s missions.  Roman navies operated as extensions of the Roman Legions.

Ship’s Crew

Roman Marine 2nd Century B.C.

The helmsman, an experienced seaman, headed the ship’s deck and command element.  Experienced sailors were always upper-deck hands, as were lookouts on the bow, boatswain, quartermaster, shipwright, piper, and two rowing assistants.  Whether rowers or helmsmen, ancient sailors needed physical stamina.  Previous battle experience was a “given.”  These men were probably in their late 30s or early 40s.  Ten additional hands cared for and deployed the ship’s sails and masts.

Contrary to Hollywood depictions, the rowers of ancient navies were free men of society’s lower classes.  Enslaved people may have been employed, but if they were, it was only out of necessity rather than standard practice.  These men were the greyhounds of the fleet, so they were likely young and powerful. 

We believe Roman marines served aboard ships during the Punic Wars — but there is a shortage of specific information about these men that allows much insight into their duties, training, rank classifications, or uniforms.  We think the naval infantry component of a Roman galley numbered between ten and fifteen men experienced in boarding enemy ships, closing with them, and engaging in combat with their enemies.  Such men had to be fearless in the performance of their duties.

I think marines (naval infantry) joined the fleet during the 1st Punic War when the Roman Navy understood they could not defeat the Carthaginians by ship-ramming alone.  It would be necessary for marines to help defeat enemy crews, and when Roman leaders found that even spear throwers and archers had limitations, they came up with the idea for a Corvus.  Then, with that innovation, the Romans began defeating enemy ships.  It may have been a marine who came up with the concept of the Corvus — and it may have been then that the Roman marine proved his worth to naval battles.

Roman Marine, 3rd Century A.D.

A Roman soldier served for 25 years; it was probably no different for sailors and marines.  Like the army, the Roman Navy trained its men to perform necessary tasks.  Sailors learned their tasks; Marines learned theirs.  It is also possible that marines/sailors cross-trained — that marines learned how to perform certain naval tasks, and sailors learned how to perform marine tasks.  When quinqueremes and triremes were alongside each other, marines would deploy to kill enemy crew with their spears or bows and arrows or board the enemy ship with drawn swords.  Surface warfare was a dangerous game.  The boarder could be killed, of course — and probably many were.  But if too many marines boarded the enemy ship, the galley might capsize.  No doubt, many did.  We think a marine in the 3rd century A.D. may have looked like the caricature shown at right.

Endnotes:

[1] If these men were able to advance 50 miles in a 12 hour period (daylight hours), they sustained a pace exceeding 4 miles per hour.  Impressive. 

[2] Modern-day Tunis.

[3] The word Punic refers to the language spoken by ancient Carthaginians, who evolved from Phoenician culture.  There were three Punic wars.

[4] Scholars claim that the Romans captured a Carthaginian quinquereme and used it as a blueprint for its own ships.

[5] Few warfare technologies are “perfect,” and neither was the Corvus.  The downside of this device was that if not properly secured, or if it became unsecured during rough seas, it could cause a galley to capsize. 

[6] In subsequent wars, praetor’s assumed command of a fleet.  A praetor was the title of either a military commander or an elected magistrate.   


John Arthur Hughes

Introduction

Courage, pluck, grit, and sand — all have similar colloquial meanings.  They are terms one might have overheard in a conversation between two men (not among the ladies).  They are words that refer to someone who has stamina, is physically and mentally tough, someone with a strength of character.

Author Mark Twain used such terms as grit and sand.  In Huckleberry Finn, Clemens wrote, “She had the grit to pray for Judas if she took the notion — there warn’t no backdown to her, I judge. You may say what you want to, but in my opinion, she had more sand in her than any girl I ever seen; in my opinion, she was just full of sand.

Words reflect how we think, and Americans seem to admire someone who demonstrates a strength of character and physical and mental toughness. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Mr. Clemens wasn’t the first to use such expressions.  They were slang in common use as early as 1862 and 1825, respectively.

Years ago, a cartoon circulated where I worked depicting a tiny mouse sitting hunched on its two hind legs, looking up into the sky.  A shadow appeared over the little mouse; it was an outline of a bird of prey.  Seconds before its demise, the little mouse displayed its pluck by giving the bird “the finger.”  The cartoon was very popular.  I may even have a copy of it among my papers.

We marvel at the toughness and resolve of our fellow man because such characteristics and attributes are part of America’s values.  This is why we read novels and develop affinities for the “good guys” who fight for justice or defend the weak.  Well, we at least used to admire such qualities.

Speaking of Pluck

The U.S. Medal of Honor is the highest combat award bestowed upon members of the Armed Forces to recognize gallant conduct in combat.  There are three medals, one each for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  The U.S. Navy was the first to award a medal of honor in 1861.  The last Medal of Honor issued was in December 2021.  In total, the Medal of Honor has recognized the gallantry of 3,525 Americans, 618 of those posthumously.

Nineteen servicemen have received two Medals of Honor — of those, five “double recipients” received both the Army and Navy Medal of Honor for the same action, all of which occurred during World War I.[1]  Fourteen men received two medals of honor for separate actions.  Two of those men were U.S. Marines: Major General Smedley D. Butler and Sergeant Major Daniel J. Daley.  Numerous others received the Navy’s two highest awards: the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.  One of these men was John Arthur Hughes.

John Arthur Hughes had grit.  Some might even argue that he had True Grit.

Born on 2 November 1880 in Brooklyn, John Arthur Hughes was the son of William H. T. Hughes, a director of the Ward Steamship Line, and his wife, Olive.  John was educated at the prestigious Berkeley School, graduating in 1900.  Although John received a congressional nomination to attend the U.S. Military Academy, he failed the entrance examination.  By then, his father had died — leaving attendance at college out of the question.  Joining the U.S. Marine Corps was not out of the question.

Curious to type

John Hughes joined the Marines on 7 November 1900.  He stood roughly five feet ten inches tall, weighed less than 136 pounds, and had a slender build — which was not altogether different than most other young Americans.  Initially, Private Hughes was serious about his role as a Marine.  He focused on his duties and earned high praise from his superiors.  In 1901, John Hughes sewed on the rank insignia of a Marine corporal — and four months after that, the Marines promoted him to sergeant.

The early twentieth century was a period of opportunity in the Marine Corps.  In 1898, the Marine Corps had taken an unexpected turn from that of a group of sea-going bellhops to an amphibious force of lethal capabilities while projecting naval power ashore.  See also the First Marine Battalion, 1898.  In 1901, John Hughes was what the Marines in the 1960s might describe as “A.J. Squared Away.”

Following the American Civil War, the primary source of Marine Corps officer commissions came from graduating students of the U.S. Naval Academy.  But it was also a time when naval power projection became exceedingly complex.  The Navy had transitioned from sail to coal-fired ships, demanding sophisticated operating systems with keen instruments and electrical capacities throughout their ships.  The navy required a steady stream of highly qualified naval architects and engineers to operate and maintain these ships.  This meant that the navy could no longer afford to offer Marine Corps commissions to Naval Academy graduates; they needed men wearing the navy uniform.  But the Marines needed qualified officers, too.

In 1898, Colonel Commandant Charles Heywood petitioned the Secretary of the Navy for permission to offer commissions to well-educated individuals from civilian life (not associated with a service academy) and to highly qualified enlisted men who had proven themselves as noncommissioned officers.  With the sizeable expansion of the Navy after 1900 came the growth of the Marine Corps, as well.  In 1900, the Marine Corps needed 18 Second Lieutenants.  Congress directed that only eight of these entrants could be civilian college graduates — the remaining ten had to come from either the Naval Academy or the enlisted ranks.  Since all of the Naval Academy’s graduates went to service with the Navy in 1900, Colonel Heywood turned to the Marine Corps NCO.[2]

Stepping Up

An insurrection was going on, and the American government needed its Marines to stop it. Sergeant John A. Hughes took his oath of office as a Second Lieutenant 0n 21 December 1901.  During the swearing-in ceremony, Hughes stood next to another former NCO named Earl H. Ellis, whom everyone called “Pete.”  After their training as newly commissioned officers, Hughes and others joined a replacement battalion bound for the Philippine Islands.

Upon arrival in the Philippines, Marine officials posted 2ndLt Hughes to the Marine Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Mancell C. Goodrell and the battalion under Major Constantine Perkins, a graduate of the Naval Academy.[3]  John Hughes’ impetuousness and unpredictability caused both Goodrell and Perkins some discomfort — much like too much gas after dining for a week on navy beans — because they had little patience for Hughes’ penchant for playing pranks.  Moreover, Lieutenant Hughes drank too much and did not appear to take to heart efforts to reform him in the mold of the Old Corps.[4]  It was then that Hughes’s reputation for “grit” began.  Some Marines began to refer to Hughes as Johnny the Hard; as we’ll see, he was one tough hombre.

According to researcher Colonel Merrill Bartlett, Major Perkins (of whom little is known) rated Hughes as an average officer, observing that Hughes was reckless and careless with a disposition toward boisterousness.  Apparently, Lieutenant Hughes and his running mates liked to sing loudly at 3 a.m., which irritated the senior officers billeted in officer’s quarters.

Despite his somewhat lackluster fitness reports, Hughes passed his examination for promotion, and a promotion board recommended him for advancement to First Lieutenant.  By this time, Hughes had become known, by reputation, as a hard ass.  He preferred to resolve minor disciplinary problems with his men through one-on-one instructional periods, often involving fisticuffs and somewhat harsh language. This type of behavior was the one drawdown among mustang officers: they knew what worked for them as sergeants and took those “successes” with them into the officer ranks — where they were not appreciated. In the modern Marine Corps, Hughes would likely face a court-martial for such conduct. The Marine Corps has every right to expect better of its commissioned officers.

After leaving the Philippines, Hughes reported to the Marine Barracks, Boston, where he served for two years as an assistant quartermaster and commissary officer.  In 1906, the Commandant posted Hughes aboard the U.S.S. Minneapolis and later detached him to constabulary duty with the 1st Provisional Regiment in Cuba.

Despite Hughes’ unwillingness to change his irresponsible behaviors, the Marine Corps promoted him to Captain in 1909 and ordered him to the Marine Barracks in New York City.  A short time later, Marine officials assigned him to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, via the troop ship U.S.S. Hancock.

In Cuba, Hughes and his men transferred to the auxiliary cruiser U.S.S. Buffalo, which transported the leathernecks to Panama in March 1910.  Just thirty days later, while assigned to the Third Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, Hughes participated in the bombardment and assault of Coyotepe Hill, Nicaragua.

The Marine Corps was a small service in the early 20th century; the officer corps was small enough that nearly every officer knew every other officer — particularly since these were men with whom they competed for promotion and assignment.  In this kind of environment, it wasn’t long before everyone knew about the incident involving Captain Hughes and his commanding officer, Major Smedley D. Butler. 

These two officers, each colorful in their own peculiar way, detested each other.  Butler opined that while Captain Hughes was efficient and knowledgeable, he was excitable and disloyal (to his commanding officer).  In April 1912, Hughes’ superior ordered him confined to quarters because of getting into a fistfight with a brother officer. Fighting among officers was strictly prohibited.

The Commandant is watching

In June, Hughes earned five days’ suspension from duty for “assumption of authority and insubordination.” The nature of Hughes’ alleged offense is lost to history, except as noted on his next fitness report.  But then, less than a month later, the impulsive Leatherneck absented himself from duty without authority and received another suspension from duty due to “unwarranted evasion of orders.”

Besides noting that he had been suspended from duty, Hughes’ reporting senior added that “he knows his profession thoroughly, but he is excitable and not always loyal, in his attention to duty, manner, and bearing, to his commanding officer.” But the incident that raised the hackles of his superiors occurred in April 1912, when Hughes was confined to his quarters as a result of a fistfight with a brother officer.  We believe the identity of this “brother officer” was Smedley D. Butler.

Major Butler cabled the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Colonel William P. Biddle, stating that he considered Hughes a menace to the welfare of his command and requested that the Commandant order his return to Washington under arrest or a transfer out of his command with a preference for sending him as far away from Central America as possible — even to the extent of recommending the Philippines.  But Butler did more than that.  He turned to his father, U.S. Congressman Thomas S. Butler, who served on the House Naval Affairs Committee.

Congressman Butler turned to the Secretary of the Navy for assistance in relieving his son from the challenges caused by the unrepentant Captain Hughes.  Secretary Meyer was in no mood for tattling or seeking special favors.  He denied the congressman’s request and directed the Commandant to inform Butler that he’d have to learn to deal with his challenges without the help of his father.  Secretary Meyer also noted that Major Butler had attempted to embellish the charges against Captain Hughes by adding previous incidents for which he had already been punished.[5]

Nevertheless, at the end of 1912, officials ordered Captain Hughes to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, for service with the Marine Barracks.  Within a year, however, the Commandant ordered all East Coast Barracks to provide the human resources needed to man two regiments of the Advance Base Force (A.B.F.) (forerunner to the Fleet Marine Force).

Captain Hughes reported to the Commanding Officer, 2nd A.B.F., at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where his commanding officer appointed him to command a rifle company.  The A.B.F. Commander was Lieutenant Colonel John A. Lejeune.

The purpose of these Navy-Marine Corps exercises was to test the concept of the A.B.F.  Still, a secondary objective, owing to declining political conditions, was to serve as a force in readiness for possible operations in Mexico.  With naval maneuvers judged successful, the A.B.F. set sail for New Orleans on 9 February 1914.  On 5 March, the A.B.F. received orders to proceed to Veracruz.

Veracruz, Mexico

In 1914, the Mexican-American War had been over for 66 years.  Still, diplomatic relations between those two countries remained strained — and the truth is that Mexicans, Texicans, and Americans had never gotten along.  Today, it is doubtful that they ever will.  U.S. policy toward Mexico hasn’t made many efforts to improve these relations, but neither has Mexico. 

In 1913, after assuming the office of president, Woodrow Wilson withdrew the United States’ official recognition of the government/presidency of Victoriano Huerta.  Wilson’s reasons for taking this action were that Huerta was using borrowed funds to purchase armaments and munitions for use against the people of Mexico to maintain his power over them.

Conditions deteriorated even more when Wilson imposed an arms embargo on Mexico in August 1913.  The final straw was the Mexican officials arrested nine U.S. sailors in Tampico, Mexico, for entering areas of the city marked as off-limits to foreign military personnel.  When this matter was not resolved to Wilson’s satisfaction, he ordered a naval force to capture Veracruz.

Captain Hughes led his 15th Rifle Company ashore on 21 April as part of the landing force.  For his conduct between 21-24 April, Captain Hughes was cited for conspicuous gallantry and was nominated to receive the Medal of Honor.[6]     

Major Butler was another nominee.  To his credit, Butler pleaded with his superiors to withdraw the medal, insisting he did nothing to deserve such a high-level award.  This issue of awarding the medal of honor to Marine officers had become political, and Butler’s complaints weren’t helping matters. Irritated, Butler’s superiors in the chain of command ordered him to stop moaning and wear the damn thing. Butler’s discomfort increased, however, when he learned that his superiors had also nominated Captain Hughes for the Medal of Honor. Modern historians believe Butler despised no man more than John A. Hughes.

While the Marine brigade was en route back to the north, Captain Hughes received orders that he would proceed to the Marine Barracks, Portsmouth.  In his final fitness report, despite his nomination for the Medal of Honor, Major Randolph C. Berkeley (also a Medal of Honor nominee) rated him poorly in leadership — for treating his men harshly.

In 1916, while serving as the Commanding Officer of the Marine Detachment, U.S.S. Delaware, Hughes landed with his Marines in response to civil unrest and banditry in the Dominican Republic.  President Wilson made a Marine presence in the Dominican Republic permanent after late October that year.

Meanwhile, Captain Hughes became eligible for promotion to major by achieving fifteen years of honorable service.  Amazingly — or possibly not, the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels denied Hughes’ advancement.  Historians suggest that usually, the Secretary of the Navy would take no hand in the matter of a Marine officer’s promotion, but in this case, it would seem that through his father, Smedley D. Butler was involved in urging Daniels to “do the right thing” for the Corps (and for Butler).

At this time, the Commandant, Major General George Barnett, received a telegram reporting that Captain Hughes had become a combat casualty — wounded by gunshot.  Barnett promptly took the telegram to Secretary Daniels and demanded that he release his hold on Captain Hughes’ promotion.

The Marine Corps promoted Hughes to Major on 16 March 1917.  Accompanying his promotion was a strongly worded memorandum from Secretary Daniels.  Merrill Bartlett tells us that the memo warned Hughes against any future drunkenness or harshness toward his men.

After Hughes recovered from his wound, he served as a staff officer at the headquarters of the A.B.F. in Philadelphia.  When the United States entered World War I, Hughes proceeded to Quantico, Virginia, to prepare for a substantial increase in Marine Corps manpower.

An Interesting Aside

Shortly after the U.S. entered the European war, Brigadier General John A. Lejeune wrote to this friend, Major Smedley D. Butler (then serving as a major general in the Haitian constabulary), informing him that he (Lejeune) expected to command a Marine brigade in the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.).  Should that happen, Lejeune wrote, he would offer Butler command of an infantry battalion.

Subsequent planning revealed that the A.E.F. commander, General “Black Jack” Pershing, reduced the Marine Corps’ footprint to a single regiment.[7]  Lejeune was sad to advise Butler that a colonel would command a single regiment and he had no further say in the matter.

Colonel Bartlett assures us that Lejeune’s letter to Butler was somewhat less than honest.  By then, Butler had burdened HQMC with a constant stream of requests for relief from his duty in Haiti and assignment to the A.E.F. in France.  Commandant Barnett was unsympathetic.  He first informed Butler that his position was vital to American interests in Haiti.  Secondly, he reminded Lejeune that Butler had used all of his political leverage to gain the coveted post to command the Gendarmerie d’ Haiti and that he could damn well remain there.

But General Barnett had a problem that needed a resolution.  He required the names of qualified officers for service in the A.E.F.  He needed Lejeune’s advice — and one of the officers suggested by General Lejeune was Major John A. Hughes.

World War

When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the U.S. Marine Corps included 462 commissioned officers, 49 warrant officers, and 13,214 enlisted men.  Of those, 187 officers and 4,546 enlisted men served outside the continental limits of the United States.  Six weeks later, the Marine Corps had organized the 5th Marine Regiment (consisting of around one-sixth of the Corps’ total strength).  When the regiment sailed for France in June 1917, U.S. Marines accounted for one-fifth of the A.E.F.’s expeditionary force.

Closely following the 5th Marines in July and August 1917 was the 6th Marine Regiment and 6th Machine gun Battalion (M.G.B.)  Within one year of America’s entry into the war, the Marine Corps had placed as many enlisted Marines in France as had served on active duty at the outbreak of the war.  President Wilson’s policies in Central America and the Caribbean Sea demanded a massive increase in the number of Marines serving on active duty.  In June 1918, the authorized strength of the Marine Corps was 1,323 officers and 30,000 enlisted men.  The number of Marines serving on that date was 1,424 officers and 57,298 enlisted men.[8]

Colonel Albertus W. Catlin assumed command of the 6th Marine Regiment.[9]  Catlin assigned Major John A. Hughes to command the 1st Battalion, Thomas Holcomb (later, Commandant of the Marine Corps) to command 2/6, and Berton W. Sibley to command 3/6.

Upon arrival in France, Major Hughes settled his battalion at St. Nazaire.  He joined his fellow officers for temporary duty under instruction at the I Corps School of Infantry at Gondrecourt.  Hughes’ performance as a student prompted the Army to extend his temporary assignment through February 1918 so that he could serve as an instructor.  In mid-February, Hughes asked the Army to send him back to his battalion, and they refused — so Major Hughes packed his kit and returned to his battalion without orders.  The Army high command was unhappy with Hughes, but Colonel Catlin sorted it all out.

On 27 May 1918, Imperial Germany launched the third of its spring counteroffensive operations to bring the war to a close before the United States committed the total weight of its Army to the fight.  Within four days, German soldiers reached the Marne River at Château-Thierry.  Until this point, General Pershing had consistently refused to release any American forces to serve under foreign command, but with Imperial German troops sitting a mere 35 miles from Paris, Pershing rushed three American infantry divisions to Château-Thierry to halt the German advance.  One of those divisions was the U.S. Second Infantry with the 4th Marine Brigade.

Catlin’s 6th Marines occupied a position along the Paris-Metz highway, south of a small forest called Bois de Belleau (Belleau Wood), with orders to dig in and hold at all costs.  Having halted the German advance, the Brigade received new orders: expel the Germans from Belleau Wood.  Thus began the Battle of Belleau Wood, one of the Marine Corps’ most contested and bloodiest fights.  Before the end of this battle, the Marine brigade suffered a 50% casualty rate — and it was during this fight that Major John A. Hughes earned both the Navy Cross and Silver Star.  He also suffered the effects of poisoned gas, thereby earning his second Purple Heart medal.

Following the Battle of Belleau Wood, the German high command foolishly decided to cut the highway between Soissons and Château-Thierry.  The Marines deployed south of Soissons on 18 July.  After two days of bitter fighting, the Brigade gave up an additional 2,000 casualties — with most of the dead and wounded from the 6th Marine Regiment.  One of those injured Marines was Major Hughes.

By this time, Johnny the Hard was a physical wreck.  His previous wound had opened up and made walking difficult and painful.  His gas-seared lungs sapped his strength, and he had reached the limit of his endurance.  But despite his pain and discomfort, he did his duty and persevered until his superiors ordered him returned to the United States.

Before that happened, however, again, according to Colonel Bartlett, Major Hughes took a nasty fall as a bunker collapsed.  The major cussed and asked the Marines, “Say, any of you birds got a pair of wire cutters?”  Using those wire cutters, Major Hughes sat down and cut off a shard of bone protruding from his leg.

Grit.

Second Medal of Honor Recommendation

Major Hughes’ promotion to lieutenant colonel, effective 28 August 1918, finally caught up with him — along with another Silver Star medal and two French Croix de Guerre.  But one Marine Corps icon thought that Hughes deserved more.  Colonel Hiram I. Bearss (shown right), believing that Hughes earned the Medal of Honor for his performance at Soissons, put that recommendation in writing and sent it directly to the Commandant of the Marine Corps.[10]

In writing his recommendation, Bearss reported, “During the engagement east of Vierzy, on the 19th of July 1918, Lieut. Col. Hughes (then major) conducted his battalion across open fields swept by violent machine-gun and artillery fire.  His entire commissioned and non-commissioned staff were either killed or wounded. Though suffering the severest pain from an old wound, he led his battalion forward and, by his dauntless courage, [and] bulldog tenacity of purpose, set an example to his command that enabled [it] to hold [its] position against the enemy throughout the day [and] night, though without food or water and with very little ammunition. Major Hughes’ battalion had been reduced to about 200 men, but due to this magnificent example of gallantry and intrepidity, this remnant of a battalion held a front of over 1,200 yards. As a battalion commander, he risked his life beyond the call of duty.”[11]

The Commandant returned Bearss’ recommendation, noting that it should have been submitted through the chain of command to Headquarters, A.E.F., but by then, too much time had elapsed, and Hughes did not receive a second Medal of Honor for his World War I service.[12]

After five months in the Army hospital in France, Colonel Hughes was ordered back to the United States for further treatment at the U.S. Naval Hospital, Philadelphia.  After an additional two months of treatment, Hughes attempted to ask for an assignment to the A.B.F., but to no avail.  Colonel Hughes was no longer medically qualified for Marine Corps service.  The Commandant transferred Hughes to the disability retired list on 3 July 1919.

In retirement, Hughes joined his brothers in the Hughes Trading Company[13] but left two years later to work for Mack Trucking in Cleveland — and later the first director of the Ohio Liquor Control Department.  In 1936, the square-jawed Marine became the Director of Safety at the Great Lakes Exposition.  Ill health relating to his military service forced Hughes to retire again in 1937, and he moved to Florida.  Johnny the Hard passed away on 25 May 1942 while undergoing treatment at the Veterans Hospital.

Meanwhile — back in July 1918 — Smedley Calls His Daddy

At about the time Colonel Hughes had fought his last battle in France, Smedley Butler finally made his way to France — but only after side-stepping the Commandant of the Marine Corps and calling on his father to help him achieve an assignment in the A.E.F.  Congressman Thomas S. Butler spoke with Secretary of the Navy Daniels, who ordered the Commandant to send Butler to France with the next replacement draft.  This interference resulted in Butler’s meteoric rise from major to full colonel and command of the 13th Marine Regiment.

In the summer of 1918, Secretary of War Newton Baker and his senior staff had no interest in another Marine Brigade in France, but on 15 September, within only a few weeks of his father’s interference, Colonel Butler and the 13th Marines embarked for France.

To Butler’s profound disappointment, however, General Pershing decided to break up the 5th Marine Brigade and use the Marines as replacements and for logistical duties behind the lines.  When Brigadier General Smedley Darlington Butler arrived in France, General Pershing placed him in charge of a supply depot.  Within only a few months, Butler was awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, and the French Order of the Black Star — no doubt arranged for by his daddy in recognition of his non-combat service.  General Butler continued to cry on his father’s shoulder for the balance of his career.

No pluck, no sand, and no grit.

Sources:

  1. Bartlett, M. L.  The Spirited Saga of Johnny the Hard.  Naval History, U.S. Naval Institute, 2007
  2. Catlin, A.  With the Help of God and a Few Marines: The battles of Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood.  Blue House Books, 2016.
  3. Sweetman, J.  The Landing at Veracruz, 1914.  U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1968.
  4. “A Brief History of the Medal of Honor, U.S. Army Center of Military History, online.

Endnotes:

[1] During World War I, Marines served with the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.), which placed these men under the operational authority of the Department of War, even though at the time, they were regularly assigned to the Department of the Navy.  It was a bit confusing back then, so it was possible for a Marine to receive a medal of honor from both the Army and the Navy.  After the war, service regulations changed to reflect that a medal of honor can only be awarded once for a single action.  It is still possible to receive two such medals, but only for separate actions. 

[2] The process of commissioning enlisted men to serve as officers resulted in the term “mustang,” denoting an individual who “came up through the ranks” rather than someone who was born with a silver spoon in their mouth.  A mustang was a feral animal, not a “thoroughbred.”  Over many years, the Armed Forces found that in terms of leadership, raw determination, and professional knowledge, former enlisted men made better officers.  A few former enlisted men found their way to general officer status, but for the most part, accession to flag rank was reserved for graduates of the service academies.

[3] My primary source for this information is retired Lieutenant Colonel Merrill L. Bartlett.  Were it not for his fine writing at Naval History Magazine, I would never have heard of Colonel Goodrell or Major Perkins.

[4] Certain individual Marines had severe drinking problems at the turn of the century; more than one officer succumbed to the effects of alcoholism, including Pete Ellis — which remarkably all seemed to originate in the Philippines. 

[5] The incident suggests that despite his demonstrated courage in combat, Smedley Darlington Butler would have made a perfect centerpiece for a bouquet of assholes. 

[6] The Medal of Honor is awarded by the President of the United States in the name of the Congress of the United States — hence, the medal is often termed the “Congressional Medal of Honor.”  After the incursion into Mexico, Congress amended its legislation for the Medal of Honor to include naval officers.  Within the Department of the Navy, the conflict provided an opportunity to shower the Medal of Honor on selected participants at Veracruz.  Of the Navy contingent deployed to Veracruz, 28 officers and 18 enlisted men earned the award — and nine Marine Corps officers.    

[7] History tells us that ultimately the Marines did provide an infantry brigade to the A.E.F, but in the planning stages, Pershing did all that he could to avoid having Marines in his command.

[8] The two regiments and separate battalion formed the 4th Marine Brigade, with an authorized strength of 258 officers and 8,211 enlisted men.  The brigade fought in eight major engagements and suffered 12,000 casualties.  At the same time, the Corps maintained the 5th Marine Brigade in the A.E.F. reserve, provided the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division with staff officers and enlisted men, and provided officers to command U.S. Army infantry and aviation units.

[9] See also: With the Help of God and a Few Marines by Colonel Albertus W. Catlin, USMC (deceased). 

[10] Bearss, himself a holder of the Medal of Honor, commanded an Army infantry regiment and the U.S. 51st Infantry Brigade in France.  His moniker in the Marine Corps was “Hiking Hiram,” famous for his trek across the Island of Samar in the Philippines in 1901.

[11] Source, LtCol Merrill L. Bartlett, USMC (Retired) Naval History Magazine, 2007.

[12] General Barnett was right, of course.  The recommendation should have been submitted through the chain of command.  It is also possible that Barnett knew that Secretary Daniels would never allow the approval of the Medal of Honor for Hughes.

[13] In retirement, Colonel John A. Hughes provided a falsified dossier for “Pete” Ellis’ ill-fated spy mission to the Central Pacific in 1923. (Ellis assumed the identity of a salesman for the Hughes Trading Company as a cover for his undercover and somewhat bizarre escapade).


Market Garden, 1944

Ego:

(a) Self-esteem or sense of self-importance.

(b) The part of the mind that meditates between the conscious and unconscious, responsible for reality testing and personal identity.

Introduction

A military aviator with an inadequate grasp of aeronautics, who doesn’t know the capabilities and limitations of his aircraft type, a combat pilot who hasn’t mastered air combat maneuvering, or an airman who runs out of luck, is likely only to kill himself.  On the other hand, an inadequate field commander may very well die, but he is just as likely to kill hundreds or thousands of his men in the process.

No one doubts the stress experienced by a combat pilot, and no one should believe that it is an easy matter to command troops in the field, either.  A good leader, whether in the air or on the ground, must know their profession — but more than that, they must know themselves.  A pilot must never think of himself as better than his aircraft; a ground commander must never think of himself as better than his least experienced troops.  We expect our pilots and ground commanders to demonstrate confidence, not overconfidence.

Bernard Law Montgomery

According to his account, Bernard Montgomery was a horrid child made that way by his equally despicable mother and a father who was gone from home for long periods.  When Maud Montgomery died in 1949, her son Bernard refused to attend her funeral.  Bernard had become a bully toward his peers, including those at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.  It was something he should have grown out of long before he reached college, and his violent behavior nearly resulted in his expulsion from Sandhurst.  Nevertheless, he graduated in 1908, commissioned a second lieutenant with the 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment.  Later that year, Montgomery posted with his battalion in India.

Four years later, Montgomery served as battalion adjutant at Shorncliffe Army Camp, a training base in Kent, which served as a training/staging base during the First World War.  Montgomery moved to France with his battalion in August 1914.  The Royal Warwickshire Regiment became part of the 10th Brigade, 4th British Infantry Division.  In mid-October, he was twice wounded at Méteren, Belgium, and cited for conspicuous and gallant leadership.  In 1915, Montgomery served as Brigade Major (Temporary) with the 112th Brigade and later with the 104th Brigade.[1]  Between 1916-17, Montgomery served as a staff officer with the 33rd Division and the IX Corps, Plumer’s Second Army.  After the war, the Army reverted Montgomery to captain but appointed him to brevet major and command of the 17th Service Battalion.

When the British Army passed Montgomery over for attending the Staff College, placing in jeopardy any hope he had for permanent promotion or command, he directly appealed to the Commander-in-Chief, asking to have his name added to the list.

After Montgomery graduated, the Army appointed him to serve as Brigade Major, 17th Infantry Brigade, located in County Cork, Ireland, during the Irish War of Independence.  Montgomery did not believe the British could defeat the insurgency without resorting to harsh measures, but he also thought the better course of action would be to grant self-government to Ireland.

In May 1923, Montgomery was promoted to major and assigned to command an infantry company in his parent battalion.  From 1926 to 1929, he served as Deputy Assistant Adjutant at Staff College (Camberley) while serving as a temporary lieutenant colonel.

After his wife died in 1937, Brigadier Montgomery immersed himself in his military duties.  His unhappy childhood and the tragedy of his wife’s death likely contributed to his eccentricities and inferiority complex.  These factors made him over-compensate for his self-perceived inadequacies and drove him to assume the role of an overbearing bully or tyrant.  His intolerance of “lesser men” and constant suspicion that others were plotting against him produced a paranoid man who hardly anyone could tolerate, professionally or socially.

If there was one agreement among Montgomery’s associates, peers, and antagonists alike, it was that he was a difficult man to like.  British Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, a peer, could not understand why Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, General Dwight Eisenhower, didn’t fire Montgomery for his insufferable arrogance and insubordination.  Instead, Eisenhower tolerated Montgomery even though he was so full of himself that it frequently crossed the line into psychotic behavior.  The evidence for this was Montgomery’s repudiation of everything the Allied staff knew in 1944 about conducting successful military operations.  His stubbornness resulted in the combat deaths of good men — about which Montgomery seemed to care little.

It is difficult to know which of these generals hated the other more, Patton or Montgomery.  Their disputes, in the field and the press, have become the subject of many books and magazine articles.  Scholars who admired either of these men offered continuous praise; critics saw the squabbles as mean and petty, more focused on their egos than the sacred duty of leading men in combat.

A Californian by birth, Patton had ties to the Old South; his grandfather was killed in 1864 while serving as a Confederate colonel.  He attended the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and the US Military Academy (USMA).  He was an Olympic athlete and an early advocate of mechanized warfare.  Like Montgomery, Patton sought fame throughout his long career.  He possessed a legendary temper and could not abide unmanly behavior, leading to two incidents of slapping low-ranking soldiers.   The only difference between Patton and Montgomery was that Patton exhibited a superiority complex and was behaviorally less eccentric.

Toward Market Garden

In the weeks following D-Day, the speed of the Allied advance across France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands produced two false impressions among Allied leaders.  The first was that the Allied forces were winning against the Germans, and the second was that the German army was crumbling.  In  September 1944, neither of these was true.  Moreover, rapid advancement produced three crises: the first was that the advancing armies were spread too thin, the second was that the advancing troops outpaced their logistics train, and the third was that the front-line troops were exhausted.  All these conditions were dangerous in the extreme, not to mention foolhardy, as Allied forces approached Germany’s formidable Siegfried Defensive Line.

Relationships between Montgomery, Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton, became strained. By early September 1944, a crack developed within the Allied command. Montgomery became convinced that he alone could win the war and achieve it before Christmas 1944.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew the United Kingdom needed its alliance with the United States, so he supported General Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that maintaining a healthy partnership with the British would make them strong allies after the war.

Montgomery planned to bypass the German Siegfried Line by executing an allied envelopment into Germany through The Netherlands.  Neither General Patton nor General Bradley could support Montgomery’s plan arguing that it was logistically unsupportable.

Undeterred, Field Marshal Montgomery devised a plan of action in two parts: Operation Market and Operation Garden.  Operation Market would employ airborne forces behind enemy lines to seize German-held bridges.  Operation Garden would push land and armor forces through The Netherlands, across the bridges, and into Germany.  Together, the plan was called Market Garden.

Of the airborne units, Montgomery planned on 40,000 men parachuting into Germany.  The units earmarked for this operation were the 101st U.S. Airborne (assigned to seize five bridges), the 82nd U.S. Airborne (responsible for one bridge), the British 1st Airborne, and the Polish 1st Independent Airborne Brigade (actually focused on two bridges).  The two critical elements for the success of Montgomery’s plan were (a) seizing the bridges from the Germans and (b) holding them.

Americans back home had their favorite military heroes; some adored Eisenhower, who never held a combat command.  Other Americans idolized Patton, the epitome of a combat officer and a bull in a fine China shop.  Still, others supported Omar Bradley, the so-called “soldier’s general.”  The British needed their heroes, as well.  Political pressure pushed Eisenhower to appoint Montgomery as Commander 1st Allied Airborne Army.  General Eisenhower was fully aware that Montgomery was working on a plan, but Eisenhower (later supported by his staff) claimed that he didn’t know any of the details of Market Garden.

As an Army commander, Montgomery did not believe he needed to obtain Eisenhower’s permission to proceed.  In the aftermath of the Market-Garden disaster — even well after the war, Montgomery continued to claim that Eisenhower had approved his plan.  Every success in combat has a proud father; every disaster in war is a red-headed stepchild.

Was Field Marshal Montgomery delusional?  Evidence shows that Eisenhower “approved in principle” Montgomery’s three-pronged attack.  Still, there is no evidence that Eisenhower gave his final approval or that Montgomery asked for one.  Still, one would think that the appropriation of thousands of allied aircraft would have required Eisenhower’s approval.

Field Marshal Montgomery named Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Arthur Montague (“Boy”) Browning as Commander 1st Airborne Corps and Deputy Commander, First Allied Airborne Army, during Operation Market Garden.  Browning was a Montgomery sycophant who knew as much about generalship as he did about airborne operations. Browning shared many of Montgomery’s less appreciated traits: he was argumentative, arrogant, and full of himself.  American officers didn’t like Browning and, as important, didn’t trust him.  The relationship between Browning and US Army Air Corps Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton was toxic.[2]

When General Browning finally revealed his plan to the Royal Air Force staff on 10 September 1944, the RAF raised questions that were similar to those posed by General Brereton — questions about feasibility, logistics, and Northern European weather patterns.  One early problem was that in that part of Europe in September, there was insufficient daylight to conduct two airborne airlift operations in 24 hours.  Moreover, if Montgomery expected allied air cover for his assault force, then nighttime operations were out of the question.  A second issue was that General Browning expected C-47 aircraft to pull two fully manned glider craft.  Such an experiment was never tested.  General Brereton quite correctly refused to allow it.

Additionally, the Northern European weather pattern in late September is inconducive to large-scale airborne operations — or the logistics footprint required to pull it off.  In any case, the RAF and USAAC urged “Boy” Browning to reconsider his assault plan.  Browning refused, and when he did, the allied air forces refused to drop airborne troops closer than eight miles from Arnhem.   To do so, British and American air corps commanders argued, would subject the air forces to unacceptable risks.

During the operational planning phase of Market Garden, Dutch resistance leaders warned Montgomery that while the German army was withdrawing from coastal Europe, the Nazis were neither defeated nor dispirited.  Moreover, the resistance argued, it was foolhardy to march so many men 64 miles up a corridor firmly in German hands.

Major General Roy Urquhart, commanding the British 1st Airborne Division, communicated his misgivings about Market Garden to Lieutenant General Browning.[3]  Urquhart, who until then had never controlled an airborne unit, was cautioned by Browning about the effects of defeatism on unit morale.  After landing outside Arnhem, Urquhart discovered that after protecting Allied landing fields, he would have no more than a single brigade (a third of his force) to seize and hold the Arnhem Bridge.[4]  As events unfolded, only one allied unit reached the Arnhem Bridge: the British 44th Parachute Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Frost.[5]

There were other operational disasters, as well.  None of Urquhart’s high-frequency radios were working; he had no means of communicating with higher headquarters and could not receive intelligence reports from his subordinate units.  Urquhart was operating in the dark.

Market Garden was no cakewalk for the Americans, either.  Of the five bridges assigned to the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, the Germans destroyed two — which produced a bottleneck restricting the movement of Allied forces across the Rhine.  When the American commander learned about the two destroyed bridges, General Matthew Ridgeway slowed his pace of advance.  This decision allowed German forces more time to prepare their defensive works.

Brigadier General James M. Gavin, commanding the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, received orders from Browning to secure the Grosbeak Heights southeast of Nijmegen.  It was an order Gavin could not obey because, given shortages of boats and ammunition, he could only provide a single battalion of the 504th Parachute Regiment to hold the Nijmegen Bridge.

This operational and logistical planning failure allowed the Germans to reinforce a vital bridge, which delayed strengthening or relieving the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem.  Gavin’s 504th Parachute Regiment heroically seized the bridge across the Waal River, but by that time, the Germans had already killed or captured the men holding the bridge at Arnhem.

Aftermath and Conclusion

We remember Operation Market Garden as a colossal failure.  It was poorly conceived, inadequately planned, incompetently directed, and overly ambitious.  Montgomery/Brown failed to consider the most basic yet vital factors of warfare.  Montgomery underestimated the enemy’s strength, capability, disposition, and fighting spirit.  Moreover, Market Garden was logistically unsupportable, the terrain was ill-suited for corps-size operations, and weather patterns were ill-disposed to airborne operations.  Montgomery’s failure was more than negligent; it was malfeasant.[6]

Beyond losing 17,000 men to this poorly planned and executed fiasco, Market Garden had other consequences.  For instance, in seeking to establish a bridgehead across the Rhine, the Allied forces rushed offensive operations on three fronts in the south of the Netherlands.   To secure shipping to the vital port of Antwerp, the Allies advanced northwards and westwards.  The Canadian First Army seized the Scheldt Estuary.  Separately, Operation Aintree was designed to seize and secure the banks of the Meuse as a natural boundary for the established salient.  Aintree became a protracted battle, which eventually included Operation Overloon.  Operation Pheasant expanded the Market Garden salient westward.  The German counter-offensive intended to halt Allied use of the port of Antwerp, split the Allied lines, encircle four allied armies, and force a negotiated peace settlement.  In the aftermath of Market Garden, the Allied rush to victory resulted in over 90,000 men killed, wounded, or captured and the loss of 733 tanks and 1,000 aircraft.

Another unhappy consequence of Market Garden was the Dutch famine of 1944-45.  Dutch workers went on strike during the battle to aid the Allied assault.  Germany forbade food transportation in retribution, and in the following winter, more than 20,000 Dutch citizens were starved to death.

A healthy ego is as essential to field commanders as for high-performance jet pilots.  Montgomery did not have a healthy ego. Instead, the field marshal appears to have been a tormented man — one who may have suffered from Asperger’s Disorder for most of his life and a man who regularly relied on bluster and position to mask severe deficiencies as a field general.  It is one thing to make a costly mistake — our senior combat commanders are, after all, human beings with strengths and weaknesses — and tragic mistakes do happen in wars.  But it is quite another matter when a field commander risks the lives of thousands of men knowing that he’s exceeded his capability and then masks that failure by pretending there was no failure or trying to blame it on subordinate officers/commands.  This, I believe, describes Bernard Montgomery.  Browning was another matter altogether, but the men who served in the 1st Airborne Army in September 1944 deserved far better men to lead them. 

Sources:

  1. Badsey, S.  Arnhem, 1944: Operation Market Garden.  London: Osprey Publishing, 1993.
  2. Clark, L.  Arnhem: Operation Market Garden, September 1944.  Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 2002.
  3. Hoyer, B. K.  Operation Market Garden: The Battle for Arnhem.  Defense Technical Information Center, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, 2008

Endnotes:

[1] In the British Army, a brigade major serves the same function as a Brigade Executive Officer in the American Army; supervision of the several staff sections of the Brigade: Administration, Operations/Training, Intelligence, logistics, and special staff sections.  The brigade major usually held the rank of major (even if only a temporary advancement), intentionally ranked below officers commanding battalions.  The Brigade Commander directed his battalions, and the Brigade Major directed the Brigade Commander’s staff.

[2] If anyone in Europe knew about airborne operations, it was Lewis Brereton, whose entire career involved air assault operations.

[3] Robert Elliott (Roy) Urquhart (1901-88) fought with distinction at Arnhem, but in this battle, his division lost 75% of his men and was subsequently withdrawn from further combat service during World War II.  Major General Sir Richard Gale, Commander, 6th Airborne Division agreed with Urquhart’s assessment of the likely consequences of Market Garden, but Montgomery/Browning ignored him, as well.

[4] An SS training battalion was operating adjacent to the intended landing field.

[5] John Dutton Frost (1912-93) served with distinction with the parachute forces in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.  He commanded the 44th Parachute Battalion and was responsible for seizing the Arnhem Bridge and holding it against an entire German Panzer Division for four days.

[6] Supreme Allied Headquarters received numerous reports about German troop movements, including the identity of German units.  Eisenhower was so concerned that he sent this information to Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith to raise the issue with Montgomery.  Montgomery dismissed Eisenhower’s/Smith’s concerns and refused to alter his plan for landing airborne units at Arnhem.  Even when briefed by his own staff intelligence officer, who showed him photographic evidence of armor units at Arnhem, Browning dismissed his evidence out of hand — and then ordered the intelligence officer placed on sick leave owing to his “nervous strain and exhaustion.”


Combat Leader

Introduction

Valor, audacity, and fortitude are words and phrases that describe (or used to do), all of America’s Armed Forces.  America’s Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines are each replete with examples of individual and organizational esprit de corps.  What these men and organizations do in combat mirrors their mission and their training; how well they do it reflects the quality of their leaders and their individual fighting spirit, their willingness to improvise, adapt and overcome — their ability to sustain serious injury and keep on fighting.

America’s Marines have been at this now for going on 250 years.  The history of the Marines is replete with examples of courage under fire, refusal to quit, and victory without fanfare.  We don’t know much about the kind of training the Continental Marines experienced in preparing them for war with Great Britain in 1775, but we do know that despite the infinitesimal size of the early Corps, they displayed small unit camaraderie and self-confidence, and esprit de corps.  They were American Marines.  Their successes in battle far outnumbered their failures, and while they may have withdrawn, they never quit the fight.  Within two weeks of mustering on the stern of the Continental Navy’s flagship USS Alfred, these early Marines were en route to their first battle, which occurred at New Providence, Nassau, on 3 March 1776.  It wasn’t the bloodiest of battles, but they did their part in helping the navy accomplish its mission, and that’s what Marines do.

The British overwhelmed the Marines at Bladensburg during the War of 1812, but by that time, every other American military unit had already left the field of battle.  So well did those Marines acquit themselves that the Marine Barracks Washington was the only government building spared by the British Army when they burned that city.  Marine Barracks, Washington, is the oldest structure in Washington, D. C. today.

Outside the number of readers of this blog, few people today are aware of the Marine Corps’ battle history.  As naval infantry, American Marines protected their country’s interests from the coast of North Africa, throughout the Caribbean, in the Falkland Islands, Sumatra, West Africa, and in the Seminole Wars.  During the Mexican War, Marines seized enemy seaports along the Gulf and the Pacific Ocean.  A battalion of Marines fought under General Winfield Scott at Pueblo and carried the fight all the way to the “Halls of Montezuma.”  And during the Civil War, Marines fought at sea and onshore.  During the Spanish-American War, while the War Department and senior Army staff argued about who should do what, the Navy and Marine Corps were already ashore fighting.

The farther Marines get from one battle, the closer they get to their next.

The Crucible

The goal of military training in the United States is to ensure that when the politicians send the nation to war (as they frequently do), or send them into conflicts short of war, that America’s armed forces will be able to accomplish strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.  Ultimately, the goal of training is to develop individual combat skills within the fighting force and rehearse those individuals as a team to enable them to win battles quickly, efficiently, and with the lowest loss of life.  Because warfare continues to change in terms of technology and methodology, training is constant.  But there are no lessons in warfare greater than those learned in actual combat.

“Here lies the bones of Lieutenant Jones, a graduate of our finest institutions.

He died last night, in his very first fight, when he applied the school solution.”

During the Battle for Guadalcanal, America’s first major offensive in the Pacific War, American losses included 7,100 killed and 7,789 wounded.  The battle lasted six months and two days, from 7 August 1942 to 9 February 1943.   The Battle for Tarawa took place ten months later (between 20-23 November 1943).  Marines gave up 1,009 killed and an additional 2,101 wounded, with 88 missing/presumed dead.

There is no comparison between these two battles.  Both involved heavy fighting and horrible death, but the difference was that the Battle for Tarawa only lasted three days.  Had that fight lasted as long as the Guadalcanal campaign, it would have cost the United States well over 60,000 dead.  Another distinction is that the ratio of killed to wounded at Tarawa reflects the savagery of the fight.  Twenty percent of the Marines who landed at Tarawa were killed or wounded, but organizational losses were much higher.  The 2nd Amphibious Battalion, for example, lost half of its men and all but 35 of its 125 amphibian tractors.

The number of men lost at Tarawa within a period of only 76 hours caused a firestorm of controversy back in the United States — most of it involved heartbroken parents who found an ear with the American press, but some too from among the military hierarchy.  Douglas MacArthur was astounded by the losses and questioned the wisdom of Admiral Nimitz’s “frontal assault” strategies in the island-hopping campaign.  But the fact is that battles are not served up with clean linen.  Mistakes are always made in great undertakings, and in war, people die and receive horrific injuries.  The hard reality is that when war becomes necessary, its human and material costs are immaterial.  What matters most is winning.

But it is from within the confines of such horrors that the men who survive them learn how to conduct combat operations more efficiently — and quicker.  The one lesson never learned by politicians is that prolonged wars are never beneficial to anyone.

Additional background

At the conclusion of World War II, President Harry S. Truman wasted no time demobilizing the armed forces.  He was intent on making a smooth transition from a wartime economy to one that fulfilled the needs of a nation at peace.  Veterans were returning home from four long years of horror; they needed jobs, and Truman believed that it was the government’s duty to help create those jobs.  It was also a time of restructuring the Armed Forces.

The War Department was disbanded; in its place, a Department of Defense, which incorporated the service secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  But, toward achieving his goals for a nation at peace, Truman placed the military services on the chopping block.  Every service experienced sharp cuts in manpower and equipment.  Truman reallocated funds away from defense toward social programs. Suddenly, there was no money to repair airplanes, tanks, or radios.  There was no money for annual rifle requalification, no money for training exercises, and hardly any money to feed, clothe, and see to the medical needs of active-duty personnel.

During this time, the Marine Corps had but one advantage over the other services.  They all “gave up” one-third of the wartime strength, of course, but while combat veterans in the Army, Navy, and Air Force dwindled to about twenty percent of their total force, the Marine Corps retained half of their combat officers and noncommissioned officers — the men who had led the way through the Pacific, and miraculously survived.

Cold War Goes Hot

When the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) invaded South Korea in the early morning hours of 25 June 1950, they did so in overwhelming numbers.  It was a mechanized/combined arms force involving thirteen infantry divisions, an armored division of well-trained, superbly equipped troops, and to back them up, a full aviation division.[1]  Various sources tell us that the number of invading troops was between 90,000 —150,000 men.  An additional 30,000 men were part of the reserve force.

The suddenness of the Korean War caught the United States unprepared.  The men serving in forward units were young, inexperienced, and inadequately trained.  Their equipment was unserviceable.  There were shortages of ammunition and munitions.  Trucks wouldn’t run, radios wouldn’t work, planes couldn’t fly, and leaders couldn’t lead.  Within two weeks, US forces suddenly thrust into the heat of battle and suffered one defeat after another.  Within a month, the remains of thousands of young American soldiers were on the way home for burial and the United Nations forces.

General Douglas MacArthur, serving as Supreme Allied Commander, Far East, was headquartered in Tokyo, Japan.  Within this United Nations (UN) Command were several subordinate commanders, including Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet, and Commander, U.S. Eighth Army, and Commander, U.S. Fifth Air Force.  MacArthur was least happy with the Eighth Army’s preparedness for war (although it was hardly the fault of its commander).

Commanding the Eighth Army was Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, U.S. Army.  His subordinate commands included the U.S. 24th Infantry Division, 1st Cavalry Division, and the U.S. 25th Infantry Division — all of which were stationed in Japan as part of the post-war Allied occupation force.  In June 1950, not one of these organizations was prepared for a national emergency.[2]  The South Korean (ROK) armed forces numbered less than 70,000 men in the Republic of Korea.  One thing the South Koreans shared in common with the Eighth Army was that the men were poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly led.

Eventually, all UN forces were organized under the US Eighth Army.  By the time General Walker was able to organize an armed response, the NKPA had already overrun 90% of the South Korean peninsula.  The only terrain remaining in the possession of UN forces was a 140-mile perimeter around the port city of Pusan (southeast South Korea).  As previously stated, General Walker’s forces suffered one defeat after another throughout July and August 1950, racking up 6,000 casualties within around 45 days.[3]  The morale of the US/UN forces was at an all-time low.

Under these dire conditions, General MacArthur asked the JCS for a Marine regiment to help stem the tide of the invading NKPA.  A single regiment, mind you — when the NPKA had already mauled two infantry divisions within 30 days.  What MacArthur received, instead, was a Provisional Marine Brigade — the lead element of the rapidly organizing 1st Marine Division.

The New Sheriff Arrives

For the uninformed, a Marine expeditionary brigade is an awesome organization, chiefly because it incorporates ground, air, and service support elements designed to make the brigade a self-sustaining combat powerhouse.  The 1st Marine Provisional Brigade (1stMarBde) began forming around the 5th Marine Regiment (5thMar) at Camp Pendleton, California, on 7 July 1950.  Brigade combat support elements included an artillery battalion, tank company, combat engineer company, communications company, reconnaissance company, and shore party battalion.  The brigade’s air combat element was Provisional Marine Aircraft Group Thirty-three (MAG-33), which included three fixed-wing squadrons and a light helicopter squadron normally based at the Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS), El Toro, California.[4]

What made the 1stMarBde extraordinary was the circumstances under which it was formed.  Truman’s cuts were so devastating to the Marine Corps owing to its already small size, that on 25 June 1950, there was but one infantry regiment at Camp Pendleton — its personnel strength reduced by one-third and with most of its organizational equipment in depot storage.[5]  The regiment had three battalions (and a headquarters element), but each battalion was short one rifle company; each rifle company was short one infantry platoon.  These reductions simply meant that the Marines would have to fight harder.

The brigade pulled into Pusan Harbor on the evening of 2 August — with off-loading operations beginning almost immediately.  Troop leaders had already briefed their men about what to expect from this new enemy.  The Marines knew that they would be outnumbered, but they knew that not even superior numbers would save the North Koreans from their ultimate fate.  The one thing that seemed most noticeable the next morning, as battalions began to muster dockside, was the appearance of supreme confidence among those young Marines.

During the Korean War, US Marine combat commands operated within the Eighth Army.  General Walker decided to use the Marine Brigade as a stop-gap force.  Whenever the NKPA mauled and routed a US/UN Army unit, Walker sent the Marine Brigade to re-take the Army’s forfeited positions.  Had it not for these handfuls of Marines, the Pusan Perimeter would have collapsed, and the NKPA would have pushed the UN  forces into the South China Sea.

The First Provisional Marine Brigade was dangerously understrength, but what the Marines brought to the table was a foundation of exceptional officer and NCO leadership, combat experience, and an unparalleled fighting spirit.  When the NKPA met the US Marines for the first time, they quickly realized that they foolishly underestimated the lethality of the Marine Corps Air/Ground Team.

The Fire Brigade began combat operations almost immediately inside the Pusan Perimeter.  The North Korean Army may have had its way with our poorly trained army, but the Marines would have none of it.  Within a few days, American Marines began introducing NKPA soldiers to their worst (and last) day.

General Walker assigned Craig’s brigade to support the U.S. 25th Infantry Division (XX/25) under the command of Major General William B. Kean, U. S. Army.  In addition to the 1stMarBde, XX/25 included the U.S. 5th Regimental Combat Team (5RCT), U.S. 14th Infantry Regiment (III/14), U.S. 24th Infantry Regiment (III/24), U.S. 27th Infantry Regiment (III/27), and the U.S. 35th Infantry Regiment (III/35).  Altogether, Eighth Army HQ designated the division with all attachments as “Task Force Kean.”

Walker intended to initiate offensive operations against NKPA forces on 6 August.  Kean tasked the 1stMarBde and 5CT  to secure the area of Chinju from the NKPA 6th Division (NKPA/6).  Walker’s goal was the break up a suspected massing of NKPA troops near Taegu by forcing some NKPA troops southward.  Walker’s plan of attack was to move west from positions held near Masan, Seize Chinju Pass, and Secure a line as far as the Nam River.  The plan was only a contingency, however.  The success of Walker’s plan would depend on the arrival of the U. S. 2nd Infantry Division (XX/2) from the United States.

Overall command of the brigade fell to Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, USMC.  His assistant was Brigadier General Thomas J. Cushman, who also commanded Marine Aircraft Group-33.[6]  Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray (selected for promotion to colonel) served as Commanding Officer, 5th Marines.[7]  Below Murray, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (also 1/5) was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George R. Newton;[8] 2/5 was led by Lieutenant Colonel Harold S. Roise,[9] and 3/5 was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert D. Taplett.[10]  The skill and determination of these field commanders and the fighting spirit of their men won every battle.  The 1st Marine Brigade went to Korea with the finest combat commanders available, combat-tested Noncommissioned Officers, and a body of men who exhibited the highest qualities of the United States Marine.

To my knowledge, there has never been a shooting war without casualties.  Harkening back to the Pacific War, if there is one thing we know about amphibious operations, it is that there are no avoiding casualties during the assault phase, and this was particularly true when large numbers of Marines landed on small islands populated by fanatical enemies.  But from among the survivors of the great battles of World War II we will rediscover the gutsy Marine leaders who planned and executed America’s future battles — in Korea and Vietnam.

I have already mentioned the brigade commander, Brigadier General Edward A. Craig.  As a colonel, Craig served as the V Amphibious Corps’ operations officer during the Battle of Iwo Jima.  Craig was critical of Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith for his refusal to land the 3rd Marine Regiment when doing so would have provided much-needed relief to the Marines already ashore, and he argued, shorten the battle.

Colonel Raymond L. Murray, the Commanding Officer, 5th Marines, was an experienced combat officer with service on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan while in command of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines.  He was cited for conspicuous gallantry at all three battle locations, earning two Silver Star medals, the Navy Cross, and the Purple Heart.  Murray was awarded a second Navy Cross and two additional Silver Star medals during the Korean War.  Murray retired as a major general in 1968.

During World War II, Captain Kenneth J. Houghton participated in the Battle of Tarawa and the Battle of Saipan.  During the early days of the Korean War, he served as the Commanding Officer, Reconnaissance Company.  Houghton retired as a major general in 1977.

Changchon Ambush

At sundown on 11 August, Lieutenant Colonel Bob Taplett’s 3/5 dug in for the night on the road to Sachon.  The NKPA appeared to him somewhat disorganized.  For the first time since the North Korean invasion began, a sustained Eighth Army counterattack had not only stopped the communists but sent them into a withdrawal.  Taplett was about a day’s march from Sachon, while 5CT was racing along the shorter Chinju route northward, where enemy opposition had been light for the past two days.  Morale within the Army’s ranks seemed high, and radio traffic sounded optimistic.

General Craig was not at all optimistic.  Within the next 48 hours, the Marines were destined to carry out one of the most astonishing operations in the history of the Marine Corps: simultaneous battalion-sized assaults in opposite directions, 25 miles apart.  But at 0630 on 12 August, as 1/5 passed through 3/5 with the mission of seizing Sachon, there was no hint of any such development.  In fact, the front was quiet enough to make the senior NCOs nervous.  If one were to ask the company gunnery sergeant (pick any company), he’d tell you, “The enemy is up to no good, sir.”

1/5 moved out in column formation behind a 15-man detachment of the Recon Company under Captain Kenny Houghton.  Captain Tobin’s “Baker” Company followed behind.[11]  Two Marine tanks sandwiched in between the 1st and 2nd platoons.  Three more tanks were brought up to the rear of Captain Tobin’s company, followed by the rest of the battalion.

The eerie calm continued for another 4 or so hours.  At noon, with Sachon only four miles ahead, Captain Houghton led the battalion point around a bend into the thatched hamlet of Changchon.  Several Marines spied two skulking figures dashing for cover and opened fire.  When they did, the hills on both sides of the road erupted into flame.  Marine rifle fire had spooked the enemy into pre-maturely, revealing their ambuscade.  NKPA machine guns blazed away from the high ground in front and from both flanks.  It could have been a disaster for 1/5 Marines.

Captain Tobin ordered First Lieutenant Hugh Schryver’s 1st platoon forward along the roadside ditches; three Marines took hits, but the platoon reinforced Houghton’s thin line, who were busily engaged in returning enemy fire.  Tobin then sent First Lieutenant David Taylor’s 2nd platoon up behind the three tanks.  The roadway was too narrow for the tanks to maneuver, and the soil on either side of the road was too muddy to support the weight, but as mobile fortresses, they added to Marine firepower.

Within mere minutes, NKPA ambushers pinned down Tobin’s entire company, including the company headquarters further down the road, which received automatic weapons fire from higher up on Hill 250.  Lieutenant Colonel Newton requested airstrikes through his air controller, First Lieutenant James Smith.  Air support was all Newton had available.  Within a few minutes, Marine Corsairs dropped ordnance on Hill 250, after which Tobin directed 2nd Lieutenant Dave Cowling to attack the high ground.  Able Company sent forward a rifle platoon and a machine gun section.  To these reinforcements, Colonel Newton assigned the mission of attacking Hill 301.

As Cowling’s 3rd platoon crossed the roadway, tanks and mortars added their fires to the airstrikes, but enough of the enemy’s automatic weapons survived to catch the 3rd platoon in a crossfire, which forced the Marines back.  Cowling lost one man killed, and four wounded.  Meanwhile, Able Company occupied Hill 301 without meeting any resistance.

Smith notified Newton that he had two Corsairs overhead with five minutes of fuel remaining.  Newton asked that the pilot search for targets of opportunity along the road from Changchon to Sachon.  The Marine aviators visited an enemy convoy and left them with a lasting impression.

3rd platoon fell back on Hill 301 as Newton ordered the Able Company Commander, Captain John Stevens, to secure the nearby high ground on the right side of the road.  Newton’s maneuvering left Hill 250 as the center of enemy resistance on the right.  Marines dropped 113 mortar rounds on the enemy’s positions, and additional airstrikes followed.  This concentration of fire silenced the enemy machine guns, securing Baker Company’s right flank.

Meanwhile, Baker Company’s other two platoons and Captain Houghton’s Marines had their hands full on the left flank.  A brisk exchange of fire continued until Marine artillery solved the argument.  One NKPA position after another disappeared in a burst of glory.  Newton called for three more airstrikes, and these opened the door for a 2nd platoon left flank assault.

Newton’s Marines cleaned up remaining NKPA positions, the climax of which was a group of the enemy approaching the crest of Hill 202 from the reverse slope.  Lieutenant Taylor dispatched Technical Sergeant Lischeski with a squad to prepare an appropriate welcoming committee.  Thirty-nine unsuspecting communists walked into the sergeant’s trap.  There was only one survivor, but even that was temporary.

The fight at Changchon lasted all afternoon, and darkness set in before Baker Company could complete setting in for the night.  Newton estimated that his enemy opposition was a reinforced NKPA company, the rearguard element for a withdrawing battalion.  In this action, 1/5 lost 3 killed in action, and 13 WIA.  After Newton’s companies had secured the high ground, medical personnel evacuated the battalion’s dead and wounded.

This was a single action, on a single day, at the beginning of the US/UN counteroffensive. 

Sources:

  1. Catchpole, B.  The Korean War.  Robinson Publishing, 2003.
  2. Fehrenbach, T. R.  This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History. Potomac Press, 2001.
  3. Montross, L., and N. A. Canzona.  U. S. Marine Corps Operations in Korea, 1950-1953, Volume I: The Pusan Perimeter. HQMC G-3 Branch, 1954. 
  4. Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History.  Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] Two of these infantry divisions were mixed Chinese/Korean organizations.

[2] See also, From King to Joker.

[3] Battles are not won purely on the size of opposing armies; they are won by the skill of their commanders and the fighting spirit (and capacity) of their men.  None of these conditions existed within the US/UN armed forces on 25 June 1950.

[4] Despite several demonstrations during World War II of the advantages air/ground interface (close air support of ground forces), the Army was never interested in developing this capability until Marine aviators saved their bacon numerous times during the Korean War. 

[5] For the Marine Corps to meet this combat requirement, HQMC had to transfer men and material from the 2nd Marine Division and 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point, transfer people from the supporting establishment (supply depots, recruiting staffs, schools, and HQMC in Washington), and active Marine Corps reserve units.

[6] Lieutenant General Thomas J. Cushman (1895-1972 ) was the recipient of two Legions of Merit medals and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.

[7] Major General Murray (1913-2004) was a highly decorated officer, having won two Navy Cross medals, four Silver Star Medals, a Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Purple Heart Medal.  Murray commanded 2/6, 3rd Marines, 5th Marines, 1st Infantry Training Regiment, and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC.  He fought at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Inchon, Seoul, the Chosin Reservoir, and the Vietnam War.

[8] Colonel Newton (1915-2003 ) was a graduate of the USNA, class of 1938, retiring in 1962.  While serving with the US Marine Legation Guard in Peking, China, he was captured by the Japanese and held as a prisoner of war (1941-1945).  He was awarded the Silver Star medal for conspicuous gallantry on 23 September 1950 and the Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious service while commanding the 1stBn 5thMar  7 July – 12 September 1950.

[9] Colonel Roise (1916-91) was the recipient of two Navy Cross medals in the Korean War.  He served on active duty from 1939 until 1965 with combat service at Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, Pusan, Inchon, Seoul, and the Chosin Reservoir.

[10] Taplett was awarded the Navy Cross medal for his gallant service at the Chosin Reservoir.

[11] In the 1950s, Army and Marine rifle companies were phonetically designated Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George, How, Item, Jig, King, and Love.


Lieutenant Colonel Frank E. Bourne DCM OBE

On 8 May 1945, as the United Kingdom and the United States began celebrating Victory in Europe (VE) Day, a 91-year-old British hero took his final breath at his home in Kent, England.  His name was Frank Edward Bourne.  Few people know about him today, but by the end of this post, I hope my readers will know about this remarkable man.

Frank was born in Balcombe, Sussex, southeast England, on 27 April 1854.  He was the last of eight sons born to James Bourne and Harriet Gibson, a farming family.  From every account, James and Harriett Bourne were good parents, hardworking, and respectable.  Frank was a bright young man, literate, and motivated to make something of himself.  What he wanted from life was a challenge, and if he could also have an adventurous life, even better.  Where did one go in the south of England to find an adventurous life?  They went to the Army, of course.

Frank Bourne enlisted in the British Army in Brighton, East Sussex, in December 1872.  Knowing his son was making a colossal mistake, James tried to change Frank’s mind, but the young man would not be detoured.  Frank’s enlistment record reflects that he stood five and a half feet tall, was of slender build, and had brown hair, grey eyes, and a dark complexion.[1]

A year later, having completed basic training, young Frank was posted to the Second Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot (also, 2nd Warwickshire).  He was one of those young men to whom soldiering came naturally.  In 1875, Frank was promoted to corporal and then, three years later, to Colour Sergeant — the senior noncommissioned officer in his rifle company (more or less equivalent to a company first sergeant in the U.S. military structure).  Because of his youth and relative inexperience, the men of Company B referred to him as “The Kid.”  Most of the privates in the company were in their thirties.

He may have taken a ribbing because of his relative youth, but the men highly respected Bourne.  He was the only literate enlisted man in the company, which allowed him to help his men write letters home to their families.  He was fair, even-handed, and very calm, and when he wanted the men to do something, they “snapped to.”

In 1879, Frank was 25 years old.  This was the year his battalion commander posted Company B to the missionary outpost at a ford (drift) along the Buffalo River abutting Zululand in South Africa.  The outpost was named Rorke’s Drift.  Colour Sergeant Bourne’s company commander was Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead.

In the native language of the Zulu people, Rorke’s Drift was called Kwa Jimu (Jim’s land); the mission was one belonging to the Church of Sweden, formerly a trading post owned by merchant James Rorke.  Under Lieutenant General Frederick Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford, Rorke’s Drift became a vital supply depot and field hospital under the overall command of Brevet Major Henry Spalding.  Company B was detailed to provide security for the depot/hospital.

On 20 January, Chelmsford marched his 2,000-man army to Isandlwana, some 10 miles east of Rorke’s Drift.  The next day, a small engineer detachment of No. 5 Field Company, Royal Engineers, under Lieutenant John Chard, arrived to repair the pontoons that bridged the Buffalo River.  Chard, unsure of his orders, rode to Chelmsford’s position to receive clarification.  He was ordered back to Rorke’s Drift with orders to construct defensive positions.

Spalding departed the station for Helpmekarr on 22nd January to ascertain the location of Captain Rainforth’s Company G, which was late in arriving.  Spalding left Chard in temporary command.  So informed, Lieutenant Chard went to the station to observe the work underway on the pontoons.  A short time later, two survivors from Chelmsford’s army arrived and informed the men at Rorke’s Drift that the British army had been defeated (in fact, wiped out) — and that the Zulu Army was en route.

Lieutenant Chard called a meeting with Lieutenant Bromhead and Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton (Commissary and Transportation Department) to decide whether they should defend Rorke’s Drift or withdraw to Helpmekarr.  Dalton opined that the Zulu would quickly overtake a small party with wagons of sick and injured men.  The consensus was that the soldiers should stay and defend.  See also The Battle of Rorke’s Drift.  It was the most incredible stand in British military history.

As senior NCO, Colour Sergeant Bourne was at the forefront of the company’s activities — from organizing and assigning the men to their defensive positions to providing them with an example of soldierly virtue and remaining conspicuously in the fight.  In his statement to the BBC in 1936, Bourne said, “Now just one word for the men who fought that night.  I was moving about amongst them at all times, and they did not flinch for one moment.  Their courage and bravery cannot be expressed in words.  For me, they were an example all my soldiering days.”

Frank Bourne was not one of the men to receive the Victoria Cross for the fight at Rorke’s Drift, but he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (the nation’s second-highest award).[2]  The medal carried with it an annuity of £10 monthly.  For Bourne and the surviving men of Company B, the Zulu War was over.  In 1880, 2nd Warwickshire departed South Africa for Gibraltar.  The British Army offered Bourne an officer’s commission, but not being wealthy enough to sustain an officer’s position, he turned it down.  He was instead promoted to Quarter Master Sergeant.[3]

At Gibraltar, Frank Bourne married Eliza Mary Fincham and began to raise his family; they eventually had five children.  His battalion eventually ended up in India and Burma but saw minimal action.  In 1890, Bourne was advanced to Honorary Lieutenant and appointed to serve as Adjutant, School of Musketry in Hythe, Southampton.  Bourne remained at this post for many years, eventually retiring as a Major in 1907.

In retirement, Major Frank Bourne DCM assisted Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts (a much beloved general officer known in the ranks as “Bobs”) with the administration of the National Service League and the National Smallbore Rifle Association.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Major Bourne rejoined the army and was posted as Adjutant, School of Musketry, Dublin.  By the end of the First World War, Bourne had been promoted to lieutenant colonel and awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE).[4]

One hell of a soldier.  Rest in peace, Colonel Bourne.

Sources:

  1. Find A Grave Memorials (online).
  2. Imperial War Museum, United Kingdom (online).

Endnotes:

[1] According to these records and photographic evidence, Frank Bourne looked nothing like the actor who played him in  the film, Zulu — Nigel Green.

[2] Queen Victoria created the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) in 1854 in recognition of gallantry in the field by “other ranks” of the British Army.  It is the oldest award for gallant conduct ranking only below the Victoria Cross (created in 1857).  In 1993, the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross replaced the DCM, CGM, and DSO.  The CGC is now the second-highest medal for gallantry in combat in the United Kingdom.

[3] During the Napoleonic War, the demand for experienced military officers prompted the British Army to offer battlefield commissions to enlisted men.  However, the system of commissions in those days required officers to purchase their commissions, which to most low-to-middle-class Englishmen, was cost prohibitive.   

[4] Technically, the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is an order of chivalry in recognition of public service outside civil service, established in 1917 by King George V.


Louis Cukela, U.S.M.C.

Ven I vaunt to send a damned fool, I send myself.

One of the Marine Corps’ “colorful” characters of the past was Major Louis Cukela.  Cukela was born in the kingdom of Dalmatia on 1 May 1888 (modern-day Croatia).  A “mustang,” Cukela rose in ranks from Private to Major over a career spanning 29 years.  Three things made this officer a colorful character: his broken accent, short temper, and unquestioned courage and valor in combat.   

Louis Cukela received his primary education in Dalmatia with further schooling at the Merchant Academy and Royal Gymnasium.  In 1913, he migrated to the United States with his brother, both young men deciding to settle in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  There may not have been many job opportunities in Minneapolis in the early part of the 20th century, which could explain why Cukela decided to join the U.S. Army in 1914.  Corporal Cukela accepted his discharge from the army in 1916.

Seven months later, before the United States officially entered Europe’s Great War, Louis Cukela enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.  Officially, the United States entered the war on 6 April 1917.  In late May, President Wilson directed the Secretary of the Navy to issue orders detaching a Marine regiment for service with the U.S. Army in France.  The regiment would be known as the 5th Regiment of U.S. Marines.  And, as a demonstration of the combat readiness of these Marines, the regiment sailed for France sixteen days later.[1]

Cukela served in the 66th rifle company in the Norfolk, Virginia area.  As the Marines reformed for service with the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.), Marine rifle companies formed as part of infantry battalions within regiments.  The 15th rifle company (Pensacola) joined the 49th, 66th, and 67th companies to create the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.  The 1stBn embarked aboard the U.S.S. DeKalb, arriving at St. Nazaire on 26 June.

Initially, the Army assigned these Marines to the U.S. First Infantry Division.  Many of these Marines had combat experience, but not as part of a land army.  This necessitated that the marines undergo training to familiarize them with land operations. This training involved instruction by French infantry officers and N.C.O.s in offensive and defensive operations, trench warfare, grenade throwing, bayonet fighting, and infantry-artillery coordination. Until this training could be accomplished, the Marines performed communications duties (as messengers) and certain other logistical duties.

In September 1917, the 5th Marines was assigned to serve under the U.S. Second Infantry Division.  In October, the regiment became part of the 4th Brigade of Marines (one of two infantry brigades in the 2nd Division).  Despite the regiment’s pre-combat training, General Pershing had no confidence that the 5th Marines were ready for service in the line.  In March 1918, the Marine Brigade relocated to the relatively quiet area of Toulon.  To acquaint Marines with combat service opposing German troops, the regiments rotated battalions into the trenches for a set period of time.  When the Marines were not standing watch, they were kept busy improving or repairing their trenches.

On 19 – 20 March, during a battalion relief operation, the enemy launched a raid in force.  The extraordinary effort of the 49th Company, 3rd Battalion, sent the enemy reeling back to their own trenches.  At this time, the German high command began paying closer attention to those American Marines.  On 30 May, the A.E.F. assigned the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division to the French Sixth Army, after which the Marine Brigade received the mission of stemming a German thrust toward Paris.  Retreating units and civilian refugees clogged up the lines of communication, requiring the Marines to disembark from their motorized vehicles and proceed toward  Meaux.[2]

Gunnery Sergeant (later Second Lieutenant) Cukela fought in every engagement in which his regiment participated. That’s what Marines do — but it was just as well they were focusing their attention on the Germans because, according to Major General James G. Harbord, commanding the U.S. Second Infantry Division, the French high command was a disaster.  No one knew anything — and didn’t seem to care.

On 2 June, the battalions of the 5th Marines occupied reserve and line duty north of the Marne River and west of Chateau-Thierry.  Harbord struggled to organize the lines of the French XXI Corps and cover the withdrawal of French infantry/artillery units.  Harbord finally accomplished this by mid-day on 4 June 1918.  That afternoon, 2/5 repulsed two German assaults against the withdrawing French and convinced the Germans to withdraw into defensive positions.

The French Sixth Army ordered the XXI Corps to straighten its lines; XXI Corps assigned the mission to the 2nd Infantry Division, and Harbord handed it off to the Marine Brigade.  Second Battalion, 5th Marines successfully mounted the first attack and straightened out the allied lines.  For the second attack, General Harbord sent the Marines into Bois de Belleau (Belleau Wood).  The fight set a single American infantry division against five German divisions.  By the end of the battle on 23 June 1918, the 5th Marines had suffered 2,000 killed and wounded — but the struggle also set into motion a massive German withdrawal that continued until the Armistice.

Tiffany Cross
Medal of Honor

On 18 July 1918 at Soissons, the 66th Company operated in the Forêt de Retz some 50 miles northeast of Paris, near Villiers-Cotterets, when a German strong point held up the company’s advance.  Alone, of his own volition, Cukela crawled beyond the company’s lines toward the German defenses.  Despite the enemy’s bullets zipping just above his head, he captured an enemy machine gun by bayoneting its three-man crew.  Then, using German grenades, Cukela demolished the remaining part of the enemy’s strong point.  He silenced the Germans, captured four prisoners, and captured two undamaged machine guns.  For this action, the United States awarded Gunnery Sergeant Cukela two medals of honor — one from the U.S. Army and another from the U.S. Navy. [3]

In addition to his two medals of honor, Cukela also received three Silver Star medals and several French National/Military awards: Legion of Honor (Chevalier), Military Medal, and three Croix de Guerre.

Cukela may have been entitled to two purple heart medals, as well, for wounds received while engaged with the enemy.  He did not receive these awards because, believing his wounds minor, he never reported to sick bay for treatment.

On 1 November 1919, First Lieutenant Cukela joined the 1st Marine Brigade in Haiti.  Soon after arriving and being made aware of the mission of garrisoning Marines in Haitian towns, Cukela took aside one promising young second lieutenant and observed it was a waste of time.  Instead, the Marines should pursue the Cacos into the mountains and be done with them.  It was a logical proposal, and the young lieutenant — Lewis B. Puller — never forgot Cukela’s advice.

While serving in the Caribbean, Cukela’s brigade commander charged him with executing three Haitian detainees.  A medical officer examined Cukela and reported him as highly agitated and smelling of alcohol.  Reputation-wise, Cukela was thought to have a propensity for executing Cacos.  Cukela was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the “word,” having gotten out, prompted the Commandant to reassign him to the Dominican Republic.

His battlefield appointment to Second Lieutenant took place on 26 September 1918, and a regular commission was conferred on 31 March 1919.  He advanced to First Lieutenant on 17 July 1919 and Captain on 15 September 1921. 

In 1955, Warner Brothers cartoonist and story writer Warren Foster (1904 – 1971) developed a tale he titled Sahara Hare.  It was a continuation of the epic contest between Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam (who appears in the tale as Riff Raff Sam).  Bugs pops up in the desert, thinking he’s arrived at Miami Beach.  Meanwhile, while riding on a camel, Sam suddenly comes upon Bugs’ tracks and exclaims, “Great horney toads!  A trespasser is getting footy prints all over my desert.”  Sam orders the camel to slow down and loudly says, “Whoa camel, whoa!  Whoa!”  Ignored by the camel, Sam whacks him on the head and tells the half conscience camel, “When I say Whoa, I means WHOA!”

Funny stuff, if you enjoy Warner Brothers Cartoons — but it makes you wonder if Warren Foster ever served in the Marines and knew or ran across one of the great Cukela stories. Captain Cukela was no Cossack; he had little interest in equestrian pursuits and rode like a sack of rice. Assigned to attend the Army Infantry Officers School at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Army emphasized infantry tactics but also demanded that its officer students demonstrate mastery of the horse. One day, his mount took off at a gallop toward Alabama, and nothing Captain Cukela did could persuade the horse from the gallop.  He ordered “Stop Horse” on several occasions — to no avail.  Finally, Captain Cukela balled up his fist and whacked the horse as hard as he could on its forehead, and the animal sank to its knees.  Dismounting, Captain Cukela admonished the horse, “I am Cukela — you are the horse.  I tell you, stop — you stop.  You not stop, damn you, I break your head.”    

On 30 June 1940, the date of his retirement, Cukela was promoted to Major — but he was recalled to active duty a month later in anticipation of war with Japan. 

During World War II, Major Cukela served as a supply officer at Norfolk, Virginia, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  He was returned to the retired list on 17 May 1946 — achieving 32 years of active military service.

After Major Cukela suffered a stroke in 1955, he lay dying at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.  One afternoon, a prominent Lieutenant General visited his bedside.  Cukela, even in his weakened state, had no trouble recognizing Chesty Puller — but kept referring to him as “Lieutenant.” Cukela observed to Puller that he was dying.  General Puller answer, “That’s all right, old man.  You’re going to Valhalla — where all Marines go. 

Louis Cukela, aged 67 years, passed away on 19 March 1956.

Cukela made the famous quote, shown at the beginning of this post, after receiving a garbled and incomprehensible field message.  According to author and biographer Colonel Merrill Bartlett, USMC (Retired) Cukela’s strange comments caught on quickly in the A.E.F. — even to General Pershing, himself. 

Sources:

  1. Who’s Who in Marine Corps History.  History Division, HQMC
  2. Yingling, J. M.  A Brief History of the 5th Marines.  Washington, D.C., 1963, 1968.

Endnotes:

[1] The rapid organization, equipping, and embarkation of the regiment was the product of considerable forethought by senior Marine Corps planners. 

[2] The weather was hot, the roads dusty, and the Marines were over-burdened by carrying their supplies and equipment on their backs.  Morale was not improved with the dejected and terrorized looks appearing on the faces of French soldiers moving away from the battle site.  It was at this time when Captain Lloyd W. Williams of the 2nd Battalion told a French colonel that the Marines would not retreat — “We just got here.”

[3] Following World War I, the U.S. Navy decided to recognize two kinds of heroism.  One involving extraordinary courage in the face of the enemy, and the other recognition for non-combat service.  The ribbon pattern on the medal awarded for non-combat reflected an up-side-down star.  The new pattern medal was designed by the Tiffany Company (1919), reflecting actual combat.  It was known as the Tiffany Cross Medal of Honor but due to its similarity with the German Cross, the medal was unpopular, and several awardees requested a newer design once issued in 1942.