Air Balloons and Such

Every Marine, regardless of military occupational specialty, is a rifleman.  There are specialists in the Marine Corps, of course —people trained to perform a specialized task, which, when combined with all other specialties, form the Marine Corps Team.  The Marine team has but one purpose: winning battles.  In contrast to the United States Army, which consists of several corps (three infantry divisions and supporting elements form a single corps, three such corps form a field army), the Marines are a single corps (three divisions, three air wings, and supporting elements).

Because the Marine Corps is a much smaller organization, which is the way we like it, Marines do not have the luxury of employing cooks or communicators that only cook and communicate.  Every Marine is a rifleman, including combat pilots, administrators, supply pogues, truck drivers, field engineers, and computer technologists.  Whether a general or a private, the Corps trains every Marine to pick up a rifle and kill an enemy.  The notion that every Marine is a rifleman makes the Marine Corps unique among all U.S. Armed Services.  The Corps’ distinctive training creates a common bond between Marines: officer and enlisted, men and women, whether ground, air, or logistics combat elements.  Marine aviators, for example, are hell on wings; they are also a lethal force on the ground should it become necessary.  Every Marine earns the title, Marine.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when Marine First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham reported to the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland, for duty under instruction.  He was the nucleus of what would become the Marine Corps’ air combat element.  A few short years later, Congress declared war against Imperial Germany, and the United States entered the First World War.  This event became the catalyst for the Navy and Marine Corps air arm, and a greatly accelerated growth in both Navy and Marine Corps manpower and combat technologies.

In those days, responsibility for procuring aircraft fell under the Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics (Also, BuAer).  Marine graduates of the U.S. Navy Flight School, Pensacola, Florida, became Naval Aviators.  Since those early days, the Navy and Marine Corps have developed aviation equipment, strategies, and tactics common to their unique “naval” mission of protecting the fleet through air superiority and projecting naval power ashore.  Marine pilots, however, provide close air support to ground forces —and this they do better than any other aerial arm of the Department of Defense.

At the beginning of the First World War, the entire Marine Corps consisted of a mere 511 officers and 13,214 enlisted men.  At the end of the “war to end all wars,” 2,400 officers and 70,000 men served as Marines.  Initially, HQMC assigned Captain Cunningham to command the Marine Aviation Company at Philadelphia.  Since there was only one aviation company, this simple designation was enough.  These early aviators’ mission was traditional, which is to say, attack and destroy enemy aircraft and provide intelligence on enemy forces’ location and movement.  Suddenly, the Marine Corps incurred a separate mission requiring different equipment types and a different aeronautical skill set.

With the expansion of Marine aviation, Captain Cunningham’s Aviation Company became the 1st Marine Aeronautic Company (1stMAC) with a workforce ceiling of ten officers and 93 men. 1stMAC’s mission was flying anti-submarine patrols in seaplanes.  HQMC approved a new aviation unit, designated as 1st Aviation Squadron (AS-1), to support the Marine Brigade in France. AS-1’s mission was to provide reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions.  The strength of the 1st Aviation Squadron was 24 officers and 237 enlisted men.

Following the war in Europe, Navy and Marine Corps planners distributed aviation personnel and equipment to Naval stations to support operating forces throughout the east coast of the United States and those in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  In the post-war environment, with less money available to sustain air combat forces, the Marine Corps began its desperate struggle to convince Congress that it should maintain, as a minimum, prewar levels of aviation personnel, bases, and equipment.  Leading the charge in this endeavor was Major Cunningham, who strenuously argued for Marine Corps aviation’s permanent adoption.

Congress officially limited the Marine Corps’ strength to one-fifth that of the U. S. Navy, in total, approximately 27,000 Marines.  Due in no small measure to Cunningham’s efforts, Congress approved an additional 1,100 Marines for aviation units.  Congress also approved permanent Marine Corps Air Stations at Quantico, Virginia, Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego, California.  On 30 October 1920, Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune approved an aviation table of organization[1] for four squadrons, each consisting of two flights. Simultaneously, the 1st and 4th Aviation Squadrons supported combat operations in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the 2nd and 3rd Aviation Squadrons trained at Quantico, Virginia.  By 1924, the Marine Corps had two air groups, each consisting of two squadrons.  The second air group took up station in San Diego, California.

As previously mentioned, the Marine Corps petitioned Congress for funds to maintain its air arm.  Part of this effort involved demonstrating to Congress and the American public the utility and worthiness of Marine Corps aviation.  To this end, the Marine aviators found it necessary to combine tactics and air strategy with headline-hunting public exhibitions.  One of these involved a march of 4,000 Marines from Quantico, Virginia, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  In this demonstration, the ground combat element maintained constant contact with aircraft along the route of march and provided air resupply of the men on the ground.

Additionally, Marine pilots continually tested new equipment and flying techniques, including record-breaking long-distance flights and air show competitions.  In the 1920s, air races became an American institution.  Marines sometimes flew navy aircraft in these competitions. Sometimes, they flew their own squadron’s aircraft. They occasionally flew experimental planes, testing not only their endurance but also the reliability of aircraft prototypes.  During this period, Notable pilots included First Lieutenant Ford O. Rogers, Major Charles A. Lutz, and Captain Arthur H. Page, Jr.

Arthur Hallet Page, Jr. was the first Naval Academy graduate to enter the Marine Corps Aviation program.  He may have been typical of aviators in his day, or at least he seems to have been the sort of fellow popularized in Hollywood films of that period —the flamboyant devil-may-care fellow.  From available sources at the USNA, we believe Captain Page had a colorful personality, a remarkable character, and was the embodiment of mature judgment.  He was good looking; a natty dresser had a good singing voice, possessed a near-professional dancing ability, and was frequently in the company of beautiful women.

Page was also a daring, foolhardy risk-taker —but a man others might describe as lucky as hell.  He graduated from the USNA, Class of 1918 (one of fourteen graduates) a year early due to the emerging European War.  Second Lieutenant Arthur H. Page, Jr., became a Naval Aviator (No. 536) on 14 March 1918.  His aviator number tells us how many Navy and Marine Corps pilots preceded him.

Capt A. H. Page, Jr., USMC

Today, we have few details about Page’s military career.  For the most part, early assignments appear typical of young officers.  He received his wings at the NAS Pensacola (1918). He then served several tours of duty attached to the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia —which may not have had anything to do with base security or operations (1919-20, 1923-24), service with the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade in Haiti —likely duties involving flight operations (1920-21), assignment as a flight instructor at NAS Pensacola (1924-25), as a student at Marine Corps Schools, Quantico (1925-26), service with the 3rd Marine Brigade in China (1926-28), an assignment at Marine Corps Base, San Diego, California (1928), and duty with the East Coast Expeditionary Force (1929).  His final assignment was at Headquarters Marine Corps (1929-30), during which time he engaged in flying exhibitions (previously discussed).

We also know that the Marine Corps established its first balloon detachment on 28 June 1918 under Captain Page’s command, very likely at Quantico.  The detachment’s mission artillery spotting in support of the 10th Marine Regiment (artillery), which in 1918 trained at Quantico for service with the American Expeditionary Forces.  After the Armistice on 11 November 1918, there being no need for the 10th Marines in France, HQMC deactivated the regiment in April 1919.

An aside:  Change within the Navy and War Departments, particularly involving aviation, was never easy.  Senior officers within both departments were simply the product of their training and experience and somewhat intractable in their national defense views.  Even following the First World War, Army and Navy leaders remained unconvinced that aviation should assume a more significant national defense role.  They may have maintained this view had it not been for the relentless efforts of William Lendrum Mitchell (1879-1936), an Army aviator.  Mitchell believed that “floating bases” was necessary to defend U.S. territories against naval threats, but the CNO, Admiral William S. Benson, dissolved navy aeronautics in 1919 (a decision later reversed by Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt).  It was a bit of service rivalry that senior navy aviators argued that land-based pilots no more understood naval aviation demands than ground commanders understood airpower capabilities.  They resisted any alliance with Mitchell.  Despite these attitudes, Mitchell urged the development of naval air service, arguing that air-delivered bombs would become a serious threat to enemy ships.  Not even Roosevelt agreed with Mitchell’s proposals in 1919.

BrigGen “Billy” Mitchell USA

Convinced that he was right on this issue, Mitchell became publicly critical of the Army and Navy’s senior leadership, judging them as “insufficiently far-sighted” regarding airpower.  Despite their misgivings, the secretaries of War and the Navy agreed to a series of joint Army/Navy exercises that incorporated captured or decommissioned ships as targets.  Mitchell believed that the nation’s spending on battleship fleets was a waste of money; he intended to demonstrate how easily aircraft could defeat the Navy’s dreadnaughts.  Mitchell received public support for the joint exercise when the New York Tribune revealed that the Navy had cheated on its test results.

Despite his popularity with the press, Mitchell’s criticism of Army/Navy leadership made him a pariah in both departments.  Nevertheless, the joint exercise proceeded with bombing attacks on a former German battleship by Army, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots armed with 230, 550, and 600-pound bombs.  Air-delivered bombs’ success and the German ship’s sinking caused the Navy to suspend shipbuilding and focus more on the possibilities of naval air power, but there were also political ramifications.  For starters, the Navy’s perceived weaknesses embarrassed President Harding —the blame of which fell at Mitchell’s feet.

As for Mitchell, his prickly personality left him with few friends in the Army hierarchy, a condition that only grew worse after Mitchell appeared before a Congressional committee and criticized his superiors and senior Navy officers.  In 1925, a tragic accident involving the airship Shenandoah prompted Mitchell to accuse senior Army/Navy leaders of gross incompetence and treasonable administration.  As Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, President Coolidge ordered Mitchell court-martialed.  The court-martial proceeding was more on the order of a media circus. Mitchell’s defense attorney was a sitting congressman.  Of the thirteen officers detailed as judges, which included Major Douglas A. MacArthur, none had an aviation background.  In its deliberations, the court ruled that the truth or falsity of Mitchell’s accusations were immaterial to the charge against him: Violation of the 96th Article of War, “Bringing disgrace and reproach upon the military services,” which included six specifications.  When the court found General Mitchell guilty of the charge and all specifications, he resigned his commission.

Despite Mitchell’s pissing-contest with Army/Navy leaders, the Marine Corps continued its experimentation with aviation platforms and aerial balloons.  Between 1924-29, the Marine Corps established a balloon observation squadron (designated ZK-1M).  Captain Page, meanwhile, continued evaluating experimental aircraft while challenging his aeronautical skills.  He flew the Curtiss F6C-3 plane to victory in the Curtiss Marine Trophy Race on 31 May 1930, defeating a field of mostly Navy pilots.  The F6C-3 was a member of the Hawk family of biplane fighters that, because of its performance evaluations by Navy/Marine Corps aviators, went through a series of design modifications to make it suitable for naval service.  Captain Page lost his life while participating in the Thompson Air Race in 1930.  There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots; there are no old bold pilots.

By the spring of 1940, planners at HQMC were acutely aware of the problems associated with defending advanced bases against enemy air attack.  To address these issues, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) convened a board of senior officers to study air defense aspects.  It became the duty of the Anti-Aircraft Defense Board to formulate policies suitable to both the Navy and War Departments.  One agreement concerned the division of responsibility for barrage balloons and kite defenses protecting U.S. military installations.  Under this agreement, the Army assumed air defense responsibility for permanent naval bases. Simultaneously, the Navy would develop shipboard defenses and “at such advanced bases as are not defended by the Army.”

On 27 December 1940, the Secretary of the Navy assigned responsibility for anti-air defenses (not defended by the Army) to the Fleet Marine Forces.  From that point forward, Marine advanced base battalions assumed responsibility for the anti-aircraft defense mission at Guantanamo, Midway, Johnson Island, Palmyra, Samoa, Wake, Guam, and “any future location seized by American forces.” The CNO subsequently asked various bureaus and offices to comment or offer suggestions on the extent to which the Marine Corps should enter the barrage balloon field.  There were two views:

  1. The Director, Navy War Plans Division opined that balloons were unreliable anti-air defense mechanisms and noted that the small size of several advanced base locations (islands) meant that balloon defenses would be ineffective except against dive bombers. Moreover, the placement of such balloons would have to be so as not to interfere with friendly air operations, which would require moveable barge platforms.  At no time did the War Plans Division mention any reliance on carrier-based attack aircraft.
  2. The Director, Fleet Training Division expressed confidence in the efficiency of balloon defenses. He relied on the United Kingdom’s experience in London’s defense; it appeared to him that 50-100 balloons would provide adequate anti-air defenses.  Based on this one assumption, the Director envisioned that the Marine Corps would require two to four squadrons of 24 balloons each and around 200 men per squadron.  There was also the problem of availability because requisitions for Army balloon equipment strained industrial production capacities.
Barrage Ballon (Samoa)

The CMC took immediate steps to procure balloons, not only for the initial issue but also for replacement balloons.  HQMC also recalled to active service retired Major Bernard L. Smith[2] and placed him in charge of the Corps’ barrage balloon development.  During World War I, while serving as an assistant naval attaché in France, Major Smith’s study of lighter-than-air craft made him an “expert” in the field of balloon defense mechanisms.

In late April 1941, Major Smith (assisted by Captain Aquillo J. Dyess and Captain Robert S. Fairweather) established a training school at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia.  Smith led his officers and ten enlisted men to the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey, for a two-week course of instruction in the art of flying British-made Mark-5 and Mark-6 balloons.  Returning to Quantico, Smith and his Marines prepared course curriculum and liaised with balloon manufacturers.  When, more than a year later, Smith and his staff had yet to receive their first student, HQMC directed Smith to move his cadre to New River, North Carolina, where it became part of the Marine Corps Training Center, Camp Lejeune.

Still without students, Smith’s “school” essentially became a balloon research/development center; the Navy’s Anti-Aircraft Defense Board provided Smith with several varieties of British prototypes.  Smith was also involved in the study of rockets and fuses suspended from aloft balloons.  By late 1941, the arrival of balloon equipment allowed Smith to commence teaching balloon defense’s art and science.  Concurrently, HQMC directed the establishment of the 1st and 2nd Barrage Balloon squadrons to further order that defense battalions incorporate these squadrons into training and operations.  Typically, HQMC wanted to review the defense battalion’s evaluations of the practicality of barrage squadrons.  By early December, Smith advised HQMC that the 1st Barrage Balloon Squadron (designation ZMQ-1) was ready for deployment. In late December, Smith’s report was timely because the Army requested the Marines provide a squadron to defend the Panama Canal Zone.  Administratively, ZMQ-1 fell under the Fifteenth Naval District; operationally, the squadron supported the Army’s artillery command. ZMQ-1’s “temporary” assignment lasted through mid-September 1942.

Barrage Balloon maintenance facility

Meanwhile, ZMQ-2, under Captain Henry D. Strunk, joined the 2nd Marine Brigade in Samoa.  War with Japan led the Marine Corps to activate six additional Barrage Balloon Squadrons, although planners estimated a need for as many as twenty squadrons by 1944.  To meet this demand, HQMC increased Smith’s training unit’s size to five officers and 43 enlisted men.  In April 1942, HQMC assigned ZMQ-3 to the Pacific command; by September, the squadron was operating on the island of Tulagi —but with significant restrictions.  Concerned that deployed balloons would attract enemy aircraft to vital airfields and logistics storage areas, senior Navy and Marine Corps officers curtailed the use of balloons at Tulagi and Guadalcanal.  Instead, squadron personnel performed ground defense (infantry) duties.  ZMQ-3 departed Tulagi for Noumea, where it joined with ZMQ-1, ZMQ-5, and ZMQ-6.  HQMC ordered the deactivation of ZMQ-4, serving in Samoa, on 20 February 1943.  The unavailability of helium at forward bases hindered squadrons’ performance, as in Noumea’s case, forcing unit officers to alter their tactics: they only launched their balloons when an enemy attack was imminent.

Shortages of helium wasn’t the only problem plaguing ZMQ squadrons.  The task of logistical resupply in the Pacific was incredibly difficult.  Since senior commanders in the Pacific questioned barrage balloons’ utility, balloon squadrons had a lower priority for resupply than did the most-forward units.  Army logisticians paid scant attention to the needs of the attached Marines.  Back in Washington, the demands placed on BuAer to prioritize the resupply of aircraft squadrons similarly left the balloon squadrons only marginally effective.  For example, each balloon squadron required 4,000 high-pressure hydrogen cylinders.  The Marine’s demand for 14,500 cylinders per month fell considerably short, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.  To help coordinate balloon activities and address logistical shortfalls, HQMC ordered Major Charles W. May to assume command of the Marine Barrage Balloon Group on 10 January 1943.

One wartime epiphany was the Marine Corps’ realization that anti-aircraft guns had a greater effect on the enemy than the barrage balloons did.  In the spring of 1943, the Marine Corps’ Commandant asked the U.S. Army to assume full responsibility for aerial balloon activities.  The Commandant’s decision made perfect sense because, at that time, all Marine balloon squadrons served under the operational control of the U.S. Army.  In June, the Army agreed to absorb the balloon mission, making 60 officers and 1,200 enlisted Marines available to serve in other (more critical) combat units.  Beginning in March 1943, Marines of ZMQ-5 began training with 90mm anti-aircraft guns; ZMQ-6 followed suit.  By August, manning anti-aircraft guns became the primary focus of training and operations.  ZMQ-2 disbanded on 21 August, with all its Marines joining the 2nd Defense Battalion.

All barrage balloon squadrons ceased to exist by December 1943, and all Marines assigned to them transferred to the Marine Corps’ defense battalions.  Luckily, these Marines were not only skilled balloonists; they were also deadly as hell in their new assignment as anti-aircraft gun crewmen and as a rifleman, the essential role of every Marine.

Sources:

  1. Updegraph, C. L. S. Marine Corps Special Units of World War II.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1972.
  2. Barrage Balloons, Aerospace Power Journal, Summer 1989.
  3. 225th AAA Searchlight Battalion Veterans Association, online.
  4. Hillson, F. J. When the Balloon Goes Up: Barrage Balloons for Low-Level Defense.  Maxwell AFB: U.S. Air Force Command and Staff College, 1988.

Endnotes:

[1] The purpose of military tables of organization (and equipment) (also, T/O and T/O&E) is to standardize the personnel staffing of military units according to their mission and includes the numbers and types of weapons and accoutrements required by such organizations to complete their mission.

[2] Major Smith was the 6th Marine officer designated as a naval aviator.

First Marine Battalion, 1898

John Davis Long served as Secretary of the Navy during the presidency of William McKinley.  Long’s appointment was not without controversy.  Apparently, President McKinley made the appointment without a wink or a nod from Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.  The situation involved some political infighting, which is always the case in national politics.  However, to appease Lodge, McKinley appointed Theodore Roosevelt to the Navy Department’s number-two position.  Roosevelt’s appointment satisfied Lodge because, given Long’s reputation as a hands-off manager, he could count on Roosevelt to “run the show.”

Theodore Roosevelt Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1898

Regarding increasing tensions with Spain, Secretary Long (and others) were doubtful these disagreements were likely to end in an armed conflict, but if it did, Secretary Long was confident that the United States would win it in short order.  Accordingly, Long took no actions to prepare for a state of war with Spain.  Long’s nonchalance was a source of irritation to Roosevelt.  In January 1898, out of concern for the safety of Americans in Cuba, Long ordered the USS Maine to Havana as a show of force.  Within a month, tensions between the US and Spain had reached the crisis stage; with Roosevelt’s insistence, Long finally began to prepare for war.  On 15 February 1898, the USS Maine exploded while at anchor, causing massive casualties.  Of the 26 officers, 290 sailors, and 39 Marines aboard the Maine, 260 men lost their lives, including 28 Marines.

The sinking of the Maine produced a public demand for satisfaction, sentiments echoed by Roosevelt.  Ten days later, Secretary Long took a day off from work.  His absence enabled Roosevelt to issue a series of directives designed to increase the Navy’s readiness for war, including an order to Commodore George Dewey to assume an aggressive posture in the Spanish Philippines.  When Long returned to work, he countermanded some of Roosevelt’s directives, but he did increase his interest in naval preparations for war.

On 16 April, five days before the war began, Secretary Long ordered the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General Charles Heywood, to organize one battalion of Marines for expeditionary duty with the North Atlantic Squadron.  Heywood’s battalion was named the First Marine Battalion.  Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, USMC, was appointed to command it.

Robert W. Huntington LtCol USMC Commanding Officer

The US Congress declared war on Spain on 25 April, effective retroactively from 21 April 1898.  Colonel Huntington had nearly 40 years of active duty service when he assumed command of the First Marine Battalion; he was a veteran of the American Civil War.  On 17 April, Huntington organized his battalion into four companies.  The Commandant’s earlier proposal for a second battalion was never implemented because, at the time, the Marine Corps did not have enough enlisted men to form another battalion while at the same time fulfilling its usual task guarding naval installations.  The First Marine Battalion was instead expanded to six companies: five rifle companies and one artillery company.  Each company had an authorized strength of 103 enlisted Marines, 1 First Sergeant, 4 sergeants, 4 corporals, 1 drummer, 1 fifer, and 92 privates.  The battalion command element included the Commanding Officer (CO), Executive Officer (XO), Adjutant, Quartermaster, and a Navy surgeon.  The battalion color guard included one sergeant and two corporals.

The battalion quartermaster, Major Crawley, excelled in provisioning the Marines for combat duty, and the battalion was ready to deploy on 22 April.  On that date, the Marines marched down to the pier and boarded USS Panther.  Citizens observing the movement from the sidelines cheered their Marines; there was no lack of enthusiasm for a war with Spain.  Panther was underway by 20:00 that very night.  The battalion, numbering 650 officers and men, produced over-crowded conditions aboard a ship designed to carry 400 combatants.  Each meal required three separate servings.

Panther pulled into port at Hampton Roads, Virginia, to await its naval escort[1].  While in port, Major Percival C. Pope and First Lieutenant James E. Mahoney reported to LtCol Huntington for duty at sea and on foreign shore.  The ship continued her journey on 26 April with USS Montgomery as her escort.

The ship’s overcrowded conditions caused some tension and conflict between the ship’s captain and the Battalion commander.  At issue was the duties of Marines while embarked and the right of the navy to discipline Marines.  When Panther arrived in Key West, Florida, Commander George C. Reiter[2], Commanding Officer of Panther, ordered Huntington to disembark his Marines and set up a camp ashore.  Major General Commandant Heywood demanded to know why Reiter ordered the Marines ashore, particularly since Panther was the only troop carrier available to transport the Marines.  Reiter explained that sending the Marines ashore relieved the crowded conditions aboard ship.

Colonel Huntington’s battalion remained ashore for two weeks.  During that time, they exchanged their heavy winter uniforms for summer weight clothing.  Marines with too much leisure time always find ways of getting into mischief, so Huntington ordered a training program involving rifle marksmanship, field sanitation, and company, platoon, and squad tactics.  Marines who were not engaged in one form of training or another were assigned shore patrol duty to ensure that the Marines behaved themselves while on liberty.

With the receipt of new Colt model machine guns, Huntington ordered his machine gunners to attend instruction on crew-serve weapons’ care, maintenance, and employment.  He also provided instruction in fighting in the tropics, the importance of boiling water, and mess cooks learned how to create healthy menus and prepare nutritionally sound meals to help prevent dysentery and diarrhea.  Navy Assistant Surgeon John Blair Gibbs[3] joined the battalion on 1 June 1898.

On 7 June 1898, the Navy Secretary ordered, “Send the Marine Battalion at once to Sampson without waiting for the Army.  Send Yosemite as a convoy escort.”  Huntington’s battalion re-embarked aboard ship and sailed for Cuba.  Major Pope, hospitalized with an illness, remained behind.

During the night of 9 June, Panther and Scorpion collided while at sea.  Scorpion suffered some damage to her fantail, but nothing critical.  Panther arrived at Santiago, Cuba, on the morning of 10 June, and Colonel Huntington reported to Admiral William T. Sampson, who, as Commander-in-Chief of the North Atlantic Squadron, served as the overall naval force commander.  Sampson directed Huntington to report to Commander Bowman H. McCalla, USN[4] aboard USS Marblehead, who would serve as landing force commander.

Commander McCalla entered Guantanamo Bay on 7 June to clear the outer harbor.  A Spanish artillery battery near the telegraph station at Cayo de Toro (on the western side of the bay) fired on the Marblehead and Yankee.  The Spanish gunboat Sandoval soon arrived down the channel from Caimanera to challenge the US presence there, but when Marblehead and Yankee opened fire, Sandoval withdrew.

The importance of Guantanamo Bay was its geography.  Guantanamo has an inner and outer bay, the latter offering good anchorage because of its depth.  The outer bay was an ideal location for coaling operations.  Because of its utility to the Navy, Admiral Sampson sent the Marines to protect ships at anchorage by denying Spanish troops the opportunity to fire at the ships from shore locations.

On 10 June, Commander McCalla ordered Marines from several ship’s detachments ashore to conduct reconnaissance missions inside Guantanamo Bay.  Captain M. D. Goodrell led forty Marines from USS Oregon and twenty additional Marines from USS Marblehead ashore.  Having completed his reconnaissance mission, Goodrell selected a bivouac site for the First Marine Battalion and afterward briefed Colonel Huntington on his designated position ashore.

By the end of the day on 10 June, U.S. Navy ships, including three cruisers (Marblehead, Yankee, Yosemite), the battleship Oregon, torpedo boat Porter, gunboat Dolphin, the collier Abarendo, transports Vixen and Panther and several privately-owned vessels containing journalists dominated Guantanamo’s outer bay.

Colonel Huntington’s battalion began its movement ashore at 1400 with four companies; two companies remained aboard ship to help with unloading supplies.  Company “C” was the first element ashore and assumed responsibility for area security as skirmishers at the top of a hill overlooking the bay.  Sergeant Richard Silvey planted the American flag on the hill, marking the first time the American flag ever flew over Cuba.  Two hundred feet below Company “C” was a small fishing village, which McCalla had ordered fired for health reasons.  The Commander prohibited everyone from entering these buildings.  The remainder of Huntington’s battalion went ashore on 11 June.

Colonel Huntington was not pleased with the bivouac site because it was vulnerable to attack from a ridgeline 1,200 yards to the rear of his position.  McCalla politely listened to Huntington’s complaint and then informed the colonel that he would remain where sited.  The navy needed the Marines to protect ships at anchor from enemy shore bombardment.

Spanish forces first attacked a Marine outpost late that night, killing Privates Dumphy and McColgan of Company “D.”  Due to nasty post-mortem injuries, their remains were difficult to identify.  Contrary to reports in the press, the Marine’s remains were not mutilated, per se, but McColgan did suffer 21 shots to the head, and Dumphy fifteen.  Later in the night, Spanish troops initiated five separate attacks on Marine position, all repulsed.  At about 0100, a Spanish force launched a concerted attack against the Marine perimeter.  During the assault, Spanish riflemen killed Assistant Surgeon Gibbs.  Well-camouflaged Spaniards continued to direct sporadic fire into the Marine perimeter.  Spain’s use of smokeless gunpowder made it difficult for Marines to detect firing positions.

On the morning of 12 June, after the death of Sergeant Charles H. Smith, Huntington moved the camp further down the hill, closer to the beach, to a place known as Playa de Este.  The Marines prepared fighting holes on the hill’s crest and designed earthworks in the shape of a square with a blockhouse in the center, and artillery pieces placed at each corner of the square and mutually supporting machine guns were positioned along the sides.  The earthworks stood chest-high; on the outside of the dirt walls, the Marines dug trenches, measuring five feet deep and ten feet wide.  That afternoon, another Spanish assault killed Private Goode Taurman.

Navy Chaplain Harry Jones, serving aboard USS Texas, having heard of the Marine deaths, volunteered to go ashore and conduct funeral services.  Throughout the services, Spanish sharpshooters targeted Chaplain Jones and harassed the Marines by firing into the makeshift church.  The undaunted Jones nevertheless performed the funeral rites with dignity and aplomb.

Aboard Panther, Commander Reiter’s obstinance continued as he balked at having to unload Marine ammunition and stores.  This problem was solved when Commander McCalla directed that Panther unload 50,000 rounds of ammo with the further admonition, “Do not require Huntington to break out and land his stores or ammo.  Use your own officers and crew.”

Ashore, Sergeant Major Henry Good was killed in a Spanish attack on the night of 12 June.  When the Spanish re-initiated their attack on the morning of 13 June, Colonel Huntington decided he’d had enough harassment by Spanish troops and ordered the destruction of a water-well in frequent use by the Spanish at Cuzco.  It was the only source of freshwater within twelve miles.  With two companies of Marines and fifty Cuban rebels, Captain George F. Elliott[5] proceeded to Cuzco with USS Dolphin providing naval gunfire support from the sea.  Journalist Stephen Crane[6] volunteered to act as Elliott’s adjutant if allowed to accompany the Marines; Huntington granted his request[7].

Sgt Quick in Cuba 1898 USMC Recruiting Poster

Approaching the Spanish defenses at Cuzco, the Marines encountered stiff enemy resistance.  Lieutenant Magill led fifty additional Marines and ten Cubans to reinforce Elliott.  Magill’s mission was to cut off the enemy’s line of retreat, but Dolphin’s naval artillery prevented his advance.  To redirect the ship’s fire, Sergeant John Quick volunteered to signal the ship and did so while exposing himself to intense enemy fire.  In recognition of his selfless devotion, Congress awarded Quick the Medal of Honor.

Ultimately, Spanish troops did escape the Marine assault, but not without incurring significant losses.  Elliott’s force suffered few casualties; two Cubans killed, and three Marines wounded.  Lieutenant Wendell C. Neville[8] was injured while descending the mountain during the engagement.  Twenty-three Marines suffered heat exhaustion and required medical evacuation.  Commander McCalla opined, “…the expedition was most successful, and I cannot say too much in praise of the officers and men who took part in it.”  Subsequently, Spanish probes and sniper attacks on Marine positions were rare.  On 15 June, naval gunfire destroyed the Spanish fort at Caimanera on the bay’s eastern side.

USS Resolute[9], loaded with stores for the Marines, arrived late in the day on 20 June.  Admiral Sampson ordered all stores located on the Panther transferred to Resolute.  On the 24th of June, McCalla ordered a reconnaissance in force to determine if Spanish forces still occupied the extremities of Punta del Jicacal, on the eastern side of Guantanamo Bay.  Early on the morning of 25 June, Huntington assembled 240 men and led them by boat across the bay.  Following the Marines were sixty Cubans under Colonel Thomas.  When the Marines went ashore, they discovered that the Spanish had already withdrawn.

On 3 July, during the naval battle of Santiago, the US Navy destroyed the Spanish navy.  With hundreds of Spanish seamen in the water, the American navy assumed responsibility for rescuing and caring for Spanish survivors.  Over the next several days, the Navy organized Marine guards to escort these prisoners to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Huntington was forced to give up sixty Marines for this duty, and additional Marines augmented them from ship’s detachments.

On 12 July, Commander McCalla ordered Huntington to quarantine the harbor at Guantanamo Bay.  It was more on the order of peacetime duty, which with time on their hands, the Marines began to create their own diversions.  Two Marines decided to raid stores aboard a privately-owned schooner in the harbor, and another was discovered buying liquor from a local source, which was prohibited.  Private Robert Burns, while on guard duty, shot and killed an enormous black pig.

USS Resolute

The First Marine Battalion broke camp on 5 August and boarded USS Resolute for operations at Manzanillo.  The Spanish commander was offered the opportunity to surrender but declined to do so as a point of honor.  Advised to evacuate the town of all civilians, the commander of USS Alvarado signaled that he intended to commence a bombardment at 1530 hours.  The shelling began in 1540 and lasted until 1615 when it appeared that flags of peace were flying over some of the town’s buildings.  Captain Goodrich, commanding Alvarado, sent a boat ashore flying a truce flag, but when the boat received enemy fire, the bombardments continued.  Gunfire terminated at 1730 for the night but resumed at 0520 the next morning.  After daylight, a boat from Manzanillo approached the fleet bringing word that officials had proclaimed a truce and the war was over.  Disappointment among the Marines was evident.

On 18 August, after taking aboard 275 men from an artillery battalion, Resolute embarked for Long Island, dropped off the soldiers, and then continued onward to New Hampshire … chosen by Commandant Heywood to provide the Marines some respite from the tropical heat.  General Heywood greeted his Marines as they came ashore, promoted six of the battalion’s officers for gallantry, and praised the men for their exceptional conduct.  On 19 September, Colonel Huntington received orders to disband the First Marine Battalion.

One remarkable aspect of the battalion’s experience in Cuba was the excellent health of the Marines.  There had not been a single case of yellow fever, dysentery, or diarrhea, which stood in contrast to other US troops’ experience, who were seriously affected by these illnesses.  Major Crowley reported that the use of distilled water for drinking and cooking, good field sanitation, and sufficient food and clothing enabled the Marines to return to the United States “fit for duty.”  Crawley was also insightful in purchasing empty wine casks for use as water containers, which increased the amount of water that could be kept on hand while encamped.

At a parade attended by President McKinley, Sergeant Quick received the medal of honor, and the president announced that a hospital in Kentucky would be named in his honor.

One aspect of the war that surprised Colonel Huntington and his Marines was the amount of favorable press coverage they had received during the conflict.  They were not only the first combat troops ashore, but they were also facing superior[10] numbers of the enemy in their engagements.  As a result of these press reports, the American public learned for the first time about the usefulness of the U. S. Marine Corps as a fighting force.  The press also praised the Marines for their general healthfulness and contrasted this result with the debilitating disease experienced by army units in the same conflict.

The Spanish-American War also demonstrated that the Marine Corps could play an essential role in future Naval operations and this was important because, as a result of the war with Spain, the United States had acquired Pacific bases that would require a military defense of the Philippines, Guam, and additional Pacific Ocean area advanced bases.  The war also illustrated how quickly a Marine Corps combat unit could be assembled and dispatched to foreign shore[11].  Subsequently, “combat readiness” became the hallmark of the United States Marines —and continues to this very day.

Sources:

  1. Clifford, J. H. History of the First Battalion of Marines.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1930.
  2. Collection of private papers, Colonel Robert Watkinson Huntington, USMC (Retired), Marine Corps University archives, and Gray Research Center, Quantico, Virginia.
  3. Documented histories, Spanish-American War, Naval History and Heritage Command, online.
  4. Feuer, A. B. The Spanish American War at Sea.  Greenwood Publishing, 1995.
  5. Stewart, R. W. The U. S. Army and the Forging of a Nation, 1775-1917.  Washington: Center of Military History, 2005.
  6. Sullivan, D. M. The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War, Volume 1, 1997

Endnotes:

[1] Panther required an escort because the ship was unable to defend herself at sea.

[2] Reiter was promoted to Rear Admiral (Lower Half) in 1905 and was detailed to Chair the Lighthouse Board until his retirement in 1907.

[3] The 40-year old Dr. John Gibbs was among the first medical doctors to receive an appointment as a surgeon in the US Navy Medical Corps.  He was instrumental in helping Colonel Huntington train his Marines in field sanitation, nutrition, and healthy cooking.  Within a few days, a Cuban sniper would kill Gibbs while he carried out his duties as a field surgeon.

[4] McCalla (1844-1910) was a Civil War veteran of the US Navy whose courage under fire and leadership earned him the respect and admiration of Navy and Marine Corps officers alike.  McCalla participated in the blockade of Cuba and was responsible for cutting submarine cables linking Cienfuegos with the outside world, thus isolating the Spanish garrison there, and led the invasion of Guantanamo Bay.  Advanced to Rear Admiral in 1903, McCalla retired from active duty service in 1906.

[5] Served as the tenth Commandant of the Marine Corps (1903-1910).

[6] Authored the Red Badge of Courage in 1895.

[7] On 18 June, Colonel Huntington received an order from McCalla not to allow any reporters near his camp or enter his lines without a pass from McCalla.  Any reporter attempting to do so was to be arrested as a POW and taken to the Marblehead.

[8] Awarded the Medal of Honor, served as fourteenth Commandant of the Marine Corps (1929-1930), died in office.

[9] Formerly, SS Yorktown, she was purchased by the US Navy on 21 April 1898 for service as an auxiliary cruiser/troop transport.

[10] Spanish forces outnumbered Americans 7 to 1.

[11] At the beginning of the war, the United States Armed Forces were unprepared for foreign conflict.  The Navy was barely adequate to its task, the Army was understaffed, underequipped, and under-trained.  The army’s only recent combat experience was the Indian wars in the American west.  What may have “saved” the Americans during this war was the fact that the Spanish were even less ready for war.  Thanks to the urgings of Theodore Roosevelt, Dewey’s Pacific Fleet was well positioned to strike the Spanish in Manilla Bay.  Operationally, it may have been one of the Navy’s greatest successes, although the Navy’s destruction of the Spanish fleet won the war in Cuba.

Re-Visiting World War I

—on Armistice Day, 2020

June 1918

The sweaty Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines marched wearily through the pitch-black of the night along a hard-packed wheel-rutted road.  German shelling had stopped a few hours earlier.  The respite allowed these Marines to reach La Voie du Chatel unmolested and take up their fighting positions in a clump of woods about a mile farther.  The battalion was down to three companies; the colonel had detached one rifle company to reinforce another battalion.

The wood contained little in the way of underbrush, so there was no way for the Marines to conceal themselves.  When dismissed from marching formation, the men broke ranks and began eating their cold rations. Some of the Marines remained on their feet, eating erect; others wearily sat on the ground to nibble and rest.  There may not have been much food, but there was plenty of tobacco, and the men took advantage of it.

Even after daybreak, the wood remained dim and damp from low cloud cover and early morning dew.  The Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Frederic Wise, a nineteen-year veteran of Marine Corps service, established his command post under a few trees on the edge of a thicket not far from the road that came down from Champillon.  Allied artillery began promptly at 0600 —right on schedule.   The thunder of distant guns brought slouching Marines to their feet, and they stood silently listening.  Then came the rifle and machine-gun fire heard from afar; it was ominously distinctive.  After a few moments, the Marines returned to what they had been doing, mostly resting.  They were tired.  Very tired.

After an hour or so, 2/5 Marines saw the walking wounded as they approached along the adjacent road.  Some of the men struggled by themselves; others walked in groups.  Some of the men had their arms wrapped in slings; others had bandages wrapped around their heads.  They all hobbled along, some using their rifles for crutches.  A few blinded men followed behind others with their hands resting upon the men’s shoulders ahead of them.  The injured men brought with them various accounts of the distant battle.   None of it being particularly good news.  The Germans had repelled their assault.  The attack was a disaster, they said.

Sometime later, behind the long line of injured men, came a group of motorized ambulances.  They stopped not far away, across the road from Colonel Wise’s command post, and began to set up a dressing station.  In the distance, the battle raged on.  After the ambulances came, the stretcher-bearers.  Someone had pressed these captured German soldiers into service.  The line of stretchers was not too long, and the Marines of 2/5 wondered if injured men told them exaggerated stories.  The stretcher men took their charges into the dressing station.  Some of the Marines wondered aloud at the foolishness of having medics so far from the battlefield.  Damn, Marines question everything.

At around 1100, a company of Army engineers passed by, moving toward Champillon.   Their captain soon appeared marching along behind them.  His face was pale, and he seemed much disturbed.  “The attack has failed,” he told the Wise.  “The Marines are cut to pieces.”  A few of Wise’s Marines, who stood nearby along the edge of the wood, heard this and muttered, “Bullshit.”  The captain soon continued on his way.

By noon, the distant fire slackened, but the men no longer paid any attention to it.  There was no excitement among them.  Some of the Marines slept; others sat around smoking.  Not long after, a runner came up the road with messages from Colonel Neville, the regimental commander.  Colonel Wise had orders to proceed with his Marines to the northeast edge of the wood, northwest of Luc-le-Bocage —there to await further orders.  The Sergeant Major passed the word, which prompted the NCOs to get their men on the road.  “Mount up.”   After mustering the men, the Marines stepped off in compliance with their orders.  One Marine noticed a German observation balloon hovering far above them and passed the word back through the ranks.  It was a bad sign.

An hour later, the Marines arrived at their newly assigned position on the wood’s northeast section.  The terrain was completely different; this section of wood afforded good concealment.  Company commanders dispersed their men, and sergeants inspected their positions, admonishing them to spread out—avoid bunching up, assigning them fields of fire.  Colonel Wise (post-war picture at right) walked among his Marines checking on his captains’ work —they, in turn, supervising the work of their lieutenants, and the sergeants, who already knew what to do, muttered “yes sir” and got on with it.  The veteran NCOs knew that setting into defensive positions is an ongoing process; there is always time to improve fighting positions —but there does come a time when the effort is less urgent, though no less critical.

When the Germans were not directing artillery fire against an allied advance, they used their big guns to harass suspected bivouac areas.  It seemed to the Marines that there was never any shortage of German artillery.  The enemy preferred shelling at night because it denied rest to the allied forces.  On this night, the shelling began at 2200.  Shell after shell poured into the wood.  The noise was deafening.  There was also the sound of shrapnel whizzing overhead, of trees crashing down.  The Marines leaned in closer to mother earth.  There were a few casualties, but not too many.  Then, as suddenly as the barrage had begun, it stopped.

At midnight, another messenger arrived —with new orders.  Colonel Neville ordered Wise to move his men again.  Wise had two hours to assemble his men, move them once more along the Lucy-Torcy Road, locate Colonel Feland[1], the regimental executive officer, and obtain orders about what next to do.  Wise signed for his orders and called for his captains.  Mustering the men in the dark after two hours of heavy shelling would be no easy task.  Wise sent out runners to find the Fifth Marines’ headquarters.  Locating Colonel Feland in the dark of night would be a miracle.

Wise already knew the score.  The battle of 2 June 1918 produced mixed results.  The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines had done rather well against the Germans, but the Germans severely mauled the 3rd Battalion.  The brigade’s objective had been the Bois de Belleau, and German resistance stopped the Allied advance.

Company officers and NCOs mustered the men as they came out of the woods in two’s and threes.  The Lucy-Torcy Road formed a defile between the high ground on both sides of the road.  On the right of the line of march was the Belleau Wood; Colonel Wise knew that the wood was teeming with German troops.  His map informed him that the road would open up into a sloping grain field about one-half mile distant.  It was not unlike a bottleneck from which his Marines would spill out onto a table.

When NCOs and officers finally organized their companies, and all hands accounted for, Colonel Wise stepped off, leading his Marines between those high banks.  But Wise was worried.  He knew they would soon encounter terrain that afforded no cover at all.  The night was still—the only noticeable sound was the crunching of booted feet.  There was no muttering in the ranks.  Wise thought the night was too still.  He didn’t have a good feeling about what lay ahead.  About 100 yards before the bottleneck, Wise halted his battalion and ordered them off the road.

When the road was clear of Marines, Colonel Wise called for a lieutenant and two rifle squads to reconnoiter the road ahead.  After a slow advance over a couple of hundred yards, rifle fire suddenly erupted from the left, the sound of which was unmistakably Springfield rifles.  Colonel Wise hollered out, “Ceasefire god damn it.  What in the hell do you mean by shooting us?  We’re Americans!”

The firing stopped —the shooters revealed themselves.  They were all that remained of the 3rd Battalion.  “Look to your right,” someone advised, “The Germans are in the Bois de Belleau.”  Colonel Wise no sooner started his men back the way they had come when the Germans opened fire with machine guns.  Their aim was low, but several Marines received wounds.  And then the entire German line opened up; most of the fire was indiscriminate and ineffective.  When Wise and his Marines returned to the battalion’s main body, he instructed his company commanders to take cover along the ridgeline on the left of the road and tie in with what remained of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.  Colonel Wise shuddered; he was well aware that had he led his battalion further down the road, the Germans might have destroyed 2/5.

While conferring with his company officers, Captain John Blanchfield suddenly grabbed at his groin and then fell to the ground.  A sniper’s well-aimed shot brought him down.  Two young NCOs picked him up and carried him to safety, but he was soon dead.  German fire continued unabated.  Overconfident, Germans began standing up and shooting at the Marines.  Germans also wounded Lieutenant Sam Cummings and several others; their comrades helped them along.  Some of these young men were beyond help.  The well-disciplined Marines held their fire.  There was no good reason to reveal their exact position.

When the NCOs had finally positioned their Marines, the battalion extended a mile in distance.  German fire continued, and it didn’t take much urging for the Marines to begin digging in —just in time for the arrival of more German artillery.

Colonel Wise made his way to his battalion’s left flank to find out about the remnants of 3/5.  He found fifty men; they were all that remained of a rifle company.  The lieutenant commanding the platoon had done a good job establishing defensive positions for his Marines.  They were in mutually supporting foxholes but nervous, which is not unusual.  The lieutenant apologized for firing on Colonel Wise; he explained that the Germans had been probing the Marine’s position for several hours.  Wise informed the young officer that he was now attached to the 2nd Battalion.

Within a half-hour, the soil being sandy and easily disturbed, 2/5 Marines were well-entrenched and expecting a German attack.  No attack materialized.  There were only persistent artillery and a constant stream of machine gunfire.  A continuous stream of machine-gun fire is not how experienced troops fire their automatic weapons; Wise suspected that the German troops were new to the line.

At 0900, Colonel Feland came up behind the ridge on foot.  He informed Wise that 1/5 was now on his left; there was little left of the Third Battalion.  He told the battalion commander, “Stay here and hold this ridge.”

Just as the Marines concluded that the German shelling couldn’t get worse, the German began to employ trench mortars on the Marine position.  Trench mortars were aerial torpedoes about four feet long and packed with explosives.  Once fired, they sailed through the air and landed along the top of the ridge; when they exploded, the entire ridge line shook.  The bombardment kept up for the whole of the day.  Gas shells fell, as well, but they were few.  In time, the regiment sent up a machine gun section to support the 1st and 2nd battalions[2].  No one entrenched on the Marine line could understand why the Germans did not launch a full-scale assault.  Had they done so, with so few men, no defense-in-depth, and no opportunity to establish secondary positions, the Germans would have crushed the First and Second Battalion of the 5th Marines.

The Marines were still on that ridge on the third day.  They held out against German artillery and murderous machine-gun fire; they maintained their position.  The Marines had nothing to shoot at, except trees.  Owing to the Marine positions’ disbursement and the depth of their fighting holes, the third day passed with few casualties.  The supply sergeant sent up cold food in the evening with resupplies of ammunition.  The Marines, on fifty-percent alert, slept as well as they could.  German artillery began again on the morning of the fourth day.

At 0900, a runner came up with a message for the Battalion commander; the Brigade Commander, Brigadier General Harbord,[3] wanted to see Colonel Wise at his headquarters.  It was an unusual meeting.  Without going through the regimental commander, Harbord ordered Wise into the attack on Belleau Wood.  Wise went straightaway to the regimental command post to inform Colonel Neville of his orders and requested the return of his third rifle company.

General Harbord had given Wise carte blanch authority to execute his attack.  What Wise did not want to do was to use the same unsuccessful strategy employed by the 6th Marines.  Using the same old playbook would only cost his Marines more suffering.  What Wise wanted was to hit the Germans where they weren’t looking —from behind.

LtCol Wise called for his company commanders.  Captain Wass, Captain Williams[4], Captain Dunbeck, and First Lieutenant Cook soon appeared.  They were red-eyed, unshaven, and dirty.  Wise explained the mission assigned to 2/5, informed him of his plan, outlined the risks, and asked for their opinions.  They agreed with Wise; there was no good reason to launch a frontal assault.  Wise informed his officers that 2/5 would move out at 0400 for an attack before daybreak.  In addition to the standard allotment of 100 rounds of ammunition, each Marine would receive two bandoliers (60 rounds each).  Colonel Neville directed 1/5 relieve 2/5 on the line at midnight.  (Shown right, Captain Lloyd Williams, USMC).

For the rest of the day, company officers and NCOs readied their men.  The Marines displayed no excitement at all.  They were veterans and, as such, resigned to whatever fate had in store for them.  Colonel Wise conferred with Major Terrill, the officer commanding 1/5, and Major John A. Hughes, commanding 1/6, to confirm the midnight relief.  Hughes agreed with Wise’s plan.  A frontal attack would be suicidal, he said.  Hughes offered good insight as to the German defenses and the terrain.  Hughes told him that within the wood was a knoll that extended a mile long and about a half-mile wide.  The knoll rose sharply from the surrounding field; there was an outcrop of boulders cut with gullies and ravines with thick underbrush inhibiting good observation beyond a few feet.  Within this tangle, Hughes continued, were well camouflaged German machine gun nests, protected by fallen trees and woodpiles.  Hughes told Wise to expect sniper fire from ground and treetop positions, by shooters desperate to defend the wood.

Colonel Wise was thankful for his conversation with Hughes, and for the fact that he would not have to make a frontal assault against the German positions.  But his relief was short-lived.  At midnight, General Harbord sent forward another message, countermanding his earlier order and directing Wise to make a frontal assault from the Wood’s southern edge.  Major Hughes’ 1/6 would attack on the right of 2/5[5].  To make sure that the Germans knew the Marines were coming, Harbord ordered a rolling barrage of artillery beginning at 0400.  Wise was dumbstruck.  It was now necessary to change his entire scheme of maneuver.  He called up his company officers and gave them their new orders.

At 0300, the 2/5 was ready to attack.  The early morning hour was still.  Colonel Wise informed his officers that he would establish his command post to the right of the battalion line.  Birds began to chirp; Wise later remembered how amazed he was that there were any birds at all in those woods.  With his Marines positioned for the attack, Colonel Wise awaited the commencement of allied artillery.  The morning light slowly revealed an odd, very eerie looking terrain.

A rolling barrage began at 0400, rounds dropping several hundred yards in front of the Marine position.  A cultivated field extended upward to meet the thick wall of the Belleau Wood.  Artillery pushed dirt high into the air, tons of soil dropping back to earth in a disorderly fashion.  As the bombardment began to creep forward, German machine guns came to life.  The Germans could not see any Marines yet, but the barrage informed them of what direction the attack would come.

Platoon sergeants blew their whistles; on cue, the battalion began its movement forward, now in plain sight of the Germans.  They had the range of these Marines, and young men started dropping, but the line moved steadily on.  In Colonel Wise’s opinion, the Germans could not have done better if they had ordered the attack themselves.  Marines dropped one after another.  In time, the Marine advance disappeared into the wood, and suddenly, German machine-gun fire abated.  Now it was time for the Germans to die.  Company commanders sent word back to Wise: objective achieved; casualties many.

Marines began escorting prisoners to the battalion command post.  These men were from the Jaeger Division.  The prisoners told the Marines that there were 1,800 Germans inside the wood[6].  The Marine strength, before the attack, was half that.  The German soldiers taken as prisoners said that they were glad to be out of the war.

The Marines took the wood.  Every shred of post-battle evidence pointed to the fact that it was a horrific fight.  In front of the German machine-gun nests were dead Marines.  Inside the next lay the remains of Germans.  A strange silence engulfed the entire area.  Colonel Wise looked for Captain Williams.  He instead found Williams executive officer; Captain Williams was dead.  It was pure carnage.  As the Marines continued their advance, Germans feigning death rose and shot them in the back.  This behavior so thoroughly pissed-off the Marines that they stopped taking prisoners; they even shot Germans who had thrown down their weapons —not out of cruelty, but for survival.  A dead enemy can’t kill you.

What made attacking German machine gun positions so dangerous, beyond the obvious, was how the Germans positioned their automatic weapons: Germans protected the first emplacement with two carefully camouflaged machine-gun nests behind it.  As the Marines assaulted one such position, machine gun crews in the rear would wait until the Marines seized the forward nest before opening fire —which was essentially how Second Lieutenant Heiser, of Captain Dunbeck’s company, lost his life.  A stream of machine-gun fire decapitated him.  Among the German soldiers in Belleau Wood, machine gunners were the first to surrender.  Unhappily for them, U.S. Marines were not very inclined to accept their surrender.

Colonel Wise’s companies fought their way through the Belleau Wood, from one side to the other.  A lot of Marines died in the process of taking the wood.  The attack began after daylight, but in some places, the wood was as dark as night, visibility impaired by think foliage, complex terrain, a place with no discernible landmarks.  If one happened to turn entirely around twice, he would lose his sense of direction, and only a compass could set them straight.  The density of the wood’s underbrush made close combat savage, deadly work.  Up close and personal could not have been more personal.  What made the American Marines stand out from their U.S. Army contemporaries was elemental courage, gallantry, fortitude, and the mental and physical hardening and determination instilled into them by their drill instructors.

At the end of this fight, German soldiers still occupied the northeast sector.  Colonel Wise no longer had enough men to take it.  Moreover, he didn’t have a sufficient number of Marines to defend what he’d taken.  Half of 2/5 lay dead, dying or wounded on the field of battle.  Colonel Wise had to establish a defensive perimeter that extended nearly two miles with what remained of his battalion.  Everyone left alive knew that a counterattack was only a matter of time.  Colonel Wise approached Major Hughes and requested the loan of a company of Marines to press the remaining Germans, but just then, General Harbord’s courier told Wise not to bother cleaning up the Germans; Army artillery would do the job.  Colonel Wise shook his head because he knew artillery would do nothing to defend Belleau Wood.  Major Snow brought up two companies of combat engineers; Wise promoted them to infantry and set them into defensive positions.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of stretcher-bearers emerged from the wood.  For some, medical attention mattered; for most, it didn’t.  This carnage was the price of glory; a word one never hears from the lips of a combat Marine.  There is glory, of course, but only in the sense that young, well-trained American Marines can overcome their natural fear of death to accomplish that which is necessary, and in this process, distinguishing themselves at the most critical of times.

Semper Fidelis

Post Script

The Battle of Belleau Wood exacted a heavy toll on the 4th Marine Brigade.  Within this brigade of 9,500 Marines, 1,000 lost their lives while in action, 4,000 more received serious battle wounds from gunfire or mustard gas —a 55% casualty rate.  Colonel Thomas Holcomb’s 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, suffered 764 casualties out of roughly 900-man assigned.  The battle ended in victory for the American Expedition Forces, but its significance went far beyond a single bloody engagement.

In subsequent years, the Marine Corps underwent a substantial reorganization and a change in direction, from its traditional role of serving in ship’s detachments to a multi-purpose force in readiness.  The Corps’ senior officers who were ultimately responsible for this reorganization were men who fought at Belleau Wood, including future commandants John A. Lejeune, Clifton Cates, Lemuel Shepherd, Jr., Wendell Neville, and Thomas Holcomb.

The list of Belleau Wood combatants also includes Roy Geiger, the only Marine to command a U.S. field army.  Charles F. B. Price commanded the 2nd Marine Division in World War II.  Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith commanded V Amphibious Corps in World War II, and Keller E. Rockey commanded the 5th Marine Division during the battle for Iwo Jima.  Merwin Silverthorn was a sergeant in the 5th Marines who later retired as a lieutenant general as one of the Marine Corps’ foremost authorities on amphibious warfare.

Modern Marines refer to these World War I veterans as the “Old Breed.”  The men identified above later shaped the Marine Corps in its new image: a force in readiness.  They created and implemented intense training programs, adopted new weapons, devised new battlefield tactics, emphasized the importance of contingency planning, and instituted rigorous education programs for officers, noncommissioned officers, and entry-level Marines.  Wisely, the Marine Corps learned many lessons from the Battle of Belleau Wood, and these lessons in turn prepared future Marines for World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle Eastern Wars.

Endnotes:

[1] Logan Feland (1869-1936) was a career Marine Corps officer who retired as a major general in 1933.  He participated in the Spanish American War while serving with the 3rd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry, and as a Marine Corps officer from 1899.  In every battle in which he served, Feland was at the forefront of the fight.  He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Army Distinguished Service Medal, and five awards of the Silver Star medal.

[2] At this particular time, all crew-served weapons were held in readiness by the brigade, distributed to regiments on an “as needed” basis.

[3] James Guthrie Harbord (1866-1947) was a senior officer of the US Army who, during World War I, commanded the 4th Marine Brigade during the battles of Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood.

[4] Captain Lloyd Williams commanded the 51st Company, 2/5.  He will live forever in the hearts of Marines for his famous reply to a French colonel.  As the Marines took their positions on 2 June, relieving elements of the French army, the colonel was attempting to acquaint the Americans with the realities of the situation outside Belleau Wood and not trusting his spoken English, wrote a note to Williams ordering him to retreat.  Captain Williams looked at the colonel coldly and said, “Retreat hell!  We just got here.”  Other Marine officers parroted Williams’ eloquence several times since then.

[5] Major Hughes later claimed that he received no such order from Harbord.

[6] It was actually around 2,500 Germans.

245th Anniversary of the U. S. Marine Corps

10 November 1775 — 10 November 2020

Who are these people who claim the title, U.S. Marine?

They are men and women who come from every part of the United States of America.  They are all high school graduates with many having college credits or degrees.  Many left their homes as teenagers seeking adventure; with an average age of 25-years, Marines are the youngest overall of all the uniformed services.  They are patriots—men and women who love their country enough to be willing to place themselves in harm’s way defending the American way of life.  When they left home, they left all the comforts of home to discover the unknown.

At recruit training or officer’s candidate school, they learned the basics of what it takes to become a Marine.  They learned that in the Marine Corps, learning is a lifetime endeavor.  Upon graduating from Bootcamp or OCS, every Marine receives his or her first Marine Corps Emblem, signifying that they have passed the test for becoming a United States Marine.  They then proceed to infantry training because every Marine is a rifleman.

There are dozens of occupational fields in the Marine Corps, many of these are highly technical areas that demand further training.  After their initial period of training, Marines are scattered to the four winds and the corners of the earth.  In the process of becoming a United States Marine, they discovered a new family —one composed of men and women who believe as they do, whose values and devotions equal their own.  They inherited a unique tradition of devotion to duty that exceeds those of any other service organization; it has been passed to them by every previous generation dating back to 1775.  In time, they will pass this tradition on to those who follow them.  Part of this tradition demands that they keep faith with their God, their Country, and their Corps.  In the Marines, no one cares what color skin you have; they only care about the content of your character.  There is no place in the Marine Corps for people of low character.

Marines seldom get enough sleep, yet their energy levels remain high.  They take great pride in their uniforms and work constantly to present the best possible military appearance.  No one ever wants to become a “raggedy assed Marine.”  They are professionals who work hard to develop, maintain, and enhance their unique skills.  They are scholars who constantly read about the art and science of warfare.  The more they learn, the more they want to know.

Marines are also known to play hard.  Some smoke and drink too much, but they are absolutely devoted to maintaining their personal and professional integrity, their honor, their commitment.  They are courageous in the face of great danger.  They do not behave bravely on the battlefield for the Corps; they do it for each other, but this is what makes the Marine Corps unique.  Tragically, Marines sometimes lose a brother or sister; when this happens, they honor them publicly and mourn them privately.

We don’t pay Marines enough money, but most never joined for money —they joined to serve.  All they ask in return for their many sacrifices is the gratitude of the American people, and the respect they have earned and deserve.  Sometimes, it’s the little things that matter most: letters from back home matter because there are occasions when Marines aren’t sure they’ll ever see home again.

Young Marines grow up fast, because serving as a leader is a weighty responsibility.  Most Marine corporals have more responsibility than do most corporate executives.  They learn to make hard decisions; they learn how to live with the consequences of those decisions.  Yet, in some other ways, Marines never grow up at all … almost every Marine has a wicked sense of humor.

Marines fight for freedom; that is, the freedom of people whom they’ve never met.  Some Marines experience the crucible of war and must learn how to deal with its physical and psychological effects.  No matter whether Marines served in combat or not, every Marine stands the chance of going into a war zone; Marines are known to volunteer for combat service.  Every Marine knows that tough training pays off.  They sweat in tough training, so they won’t have to bleed in combat.  All Marines give something of themselves in the service of their country —some Marines give all.

Never ask a Marine what it’s like to serve in combat —it is an experience that defies explanation.

Marines love their time-honored rites and ceremonies, for these are the things that strengthen their bond with fellow Marines.  When the going gets tough, it is this bond that nurtures them.  The future may be uncertain, but one thing is constant: a Marine can always count on a fellow-Marine.  It’s what Marines do.  Together, Marines learn how to deal with victory and tragedy.

At the end of their Marine Corps adventures, some Marines go back home and take up their lives where they left off … but none of these men and women are ever the same as when they left for boot camp because being a Marine is a lifelong endeavor.  There are no ex-Marines.

One-third of all Marines remain in the Corps because they have fallen in love with the uniqueness of the Marine Corps lifestyle.  They crave the challenges of adventurous service.  Some Marines remain in the Marines because the Corps has become their home.

You should know that Marines are great story-tellers.  Most of these stories contain embellishments; the more often they are told, the greater the embellishments become.  Eventually, their stories become legend —and in some cases, myth.  Elite forces tell such tales.  Some are hilarious, some are true, and some are both.  No matter what the tale, Marines always speak highly of their Corps.

The title Marine is earned the hard way and remains effective throughout a Marine’s lifetime.  It has no monetary value, but it is a priceless gift.  When Marines meet one another, in uniform or civilian attire, there is also the exchange of a nod, or perhaps a tight smile.  There is but one exception to the Marine for Life Rule: it is that no one can remain part of the Marine family who dishonors themselves or our Corps.

To those who are serving as Marines presently, to those who have gone before, I thank you for your sacrifices.  Remember the good times, and if you haven’t done so, I urge you to seek your peace for the unhappy moments.  Stand tall, always, because future generations will one day stand upon your shoulders.

I know this because I am a United States Marine.

Marine Glider Pilots

On 20 May 1941, German forces launched an airborne invasion of the Island of Crete.  It was the first airborne invasion in history.  German casualties at the end of the first day were massive.   Greek and allied forces in defense of Crete were confident they could hold off the German Luftlandeschlacht.  Those defenders were wrong.  On the second day, German airborne units seized the airfield at Maleme, and from that base, pushed the defenders entirely off the island.  It wasn’t long after that when the Secretary of the Navy telephoned the Commandant of the Marine Corps and asked, “Dude, how cool was that?”

The Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC), Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb,[1] had already announced his decision in October 1940 to designate one battalion of each infantry regiment as “air troops.” Marine Corps planners envisioned that these “air troops” would fly to their destinations.  Holcomb further imagined that one company would be trained parachutists, and the remaining two companies would e “air-landed” troops.  The verbiage was confusing, but this was the language used in 1940: air-troops vs. air-landed-troops.  One problem that went undiscovered until well-into pre-combat training was that the United States lacked enough aircraft to accomplish vertical assaults.  Another pinch of sand in the “para-Marine” concept was landing Marines in dense jungle terrain.  Oops.

After 1941, the subject of glider aircraft was always associated with the Marine Corps’ concept of airborne assault forces, which originated from “high level” interest after the successful German airborne invasion of Crete.  Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was in awe of the concept.  He directed General Holcomb to study the issue and determine whether it held any promise for amphibious operations.  Because the German’s operation in Crete involved gliders carrying 750 troops, the Commandant was also asked to consider glider operations.

Apparently, what the Commandant meant by “air troops” in 1940 was parachutists, and what he meant by “air-landed” troops were Marines landing near the battle area in aircraft.

As for the suitability of such aircraft, it was the duty of the Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics to study the feasibility of such operations and for procuring suitable vehicles to facilitate such tactics.  Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) would only recruit men for such service once the Navy decided they were both feasible and practical for projecting naval power ashore.  When the Chief of Naval Operations asked the Commandant how he intended to go about staffing a glider program, General Holcomb opined that he would find second lieutenants to volunteer for pilot training.  He would select co-pilots from among the noncommissioned officer ranks.  I can almost see the CNO’s eyebrows fluttering before he artfully changed the subject to another pressing issue.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Aeronautics, which had already undertaken gliders’ study, found Secretary Knox’s suggestion underwhelming.  In 1940, Naval Aviation had far more significant problems to deal with than glider feasibility.  Besides, the Navy had already studied (and shelved) the possibility of using gliders as flight training vehicles.  They determined that gliders did not contribute as much to flight training as engine-powered aircraft.  In any event, the Chief, Bureau of Aeronautics advised the CNO that glider design studies were underway, noted that these projects incorporated both land and sea-based gliders.  He had serious reservations about the practicality of gliders in any capacity.

Nevertheless, CMC issued his call for volunteers in July 1941, advising all officers (second lieutenant through captain) that he needed 50 officers and 100 NCOs during the fiscal year 1942 to undertake glider training.  Initial training would occur at civilian schools, restricted to officers only until the Marine Corps could establish a glider school for enlisted men.  HQMC anticipated the need for 75 gliders capable of transporting ten combat loaded troops and two pilots —judged sufficient to transport one airborne battalion.  Such a project would challenge any early-war aeronautical industry but made even more perplexing because the largest glider manufactured in the United States in 1941 was a four-seat model not intended for people wearing combat gear.  Europeans had developed larger gliders, however, so American builders knew that it was doable.

Seeking to provide its unwanted assistance to the Bureau of Aeronautics, HQMC identified “desirable” features of the aircraft in its design: For instance: (1) The ability to take off from land or water; (2) Capable of transporting equipment, including light vehicles, 37-mm anti-tank guns, and if possible, light tanks[2]; (3) Configured for static line paratroop jumping; (4) Machine gun mounts for self-defense while airborne, and (5) a weight capacity of 12 men, each weighing 250 pounds in combat gear.  It is difficult to keep from laughing.

The Navy’s BuAer evaluated two prototypes, both of which fulfilled the Marine Corps’ requirement.  One of these was an amphibious, float-wing model available for production and open to bids.  The second glider was a twin-hulled seaplane glider whose plans were still on the drawing board the day before yesterday.

Glider pilot training presented unique problems.  When HQMC learned that the Army had enrolled officers in a soaring school in Elmira, New York, The Commandant directed First Lieutenant Eschol M. Mallory to evaluate this training.  By the way, Mallory was a Marine Corps Aviator who had certain biases against the idea of glider aircraft.  While in Elmira, Mallory learned that there was a second school in Lockport, Illinois.  Taking it upon himself to investigate both facilities, Mallory wrote a report for the CMC recommending that (1) glider training be restricted to qualified naval aviators because of (a) control problems, (b) navigation issues, and (c) because night/instrument flying precluded safe flight operations with novice pilots on the stick.  Additionally, in recognizing that 150 glider pilot trainees could not be pulled from existing resources, small as they were, Mallory recommended that should the CMC decide to proceed with the program, that (a) novice pilots be sent to the Lewis School outside Chicago and (b) that experienced pilots be sent to the Motorless Flight Institute at Harvey, Illinois.

The process of glider development was, from this point on, somewhat convoluted.  A series of conferences in 1941 to evaluate the progress of glider adaptation to Marine Corps combat service seemed favorable.  By October, the HQMC position on glider utilization had been fully developed and enunciated by the CMC.  Planners actually envisioned that gliders would be outfitted with outboard motors so that they could maneuver inside lagoons and other protected areas.  Of course, a few questions remained, such as the location of operating facilities where they would not interfere in regular aviation operations.

The CMC, who had earlier resisted the creation of commando battalions, was now on record as fully supporting the notion of glider operations within parachute battalions.  In retrospect, the situation illustrated senior leaders’ inability to foresee all possible tactical situations and the impact of their reluctance to conduct an adequate study, feasibility assessment, or experimentation and training.

Vernon M. Guymon

In November 1941, four Marine Corps officers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Vernon M. Guymon[3], enrolled in the glider pilot’s course at Motorless Flight Institute.  All of these officers were qualified naval aviators.  Guymon had been awarded the Navy Cross for his role in the air evacuation of sick and wounded Marines during the Nicaragua intervention in 1929.  Eight additional officers reported for training at the Lewis School.  All officers graduated shortly after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  But to maintain their proficiency, they had to fly —and at this early stage, there was still no glider aircraft in the Marine Corps aviation inventory.

In early January 1942, the Director of Aviation at HQMC indicated some hesitance in proceeding with the program.  First, he recommended a “temporary allowance” to form a glider detachment instead of a permanent glider organization.  The CMC concurred, and on 15 January, approved the temporary assignment of 14 officers and 56 enlisted men to the newly created Glider Detachment.  The manufacturer delivered one and two-man gliders to the Marine Corps during mid-March; the first 12-man gliders’ delivery was promised a short time later; it was a promise unfulfilled.  On 16 March 1942, the CMC requested the CNO to approve the formation of Marine Glider Group (MGG) 71, which would consist of an H&S Squadron 71, and Marine Glider Squadron (VML) 711.  The CNO approved the requested table of organization.

Activation of MGG 71 took place at the Marine Corps Air Station, Parris Island, South Carolina.  Initially, the group was equipped with three N3N-3 trainers, one SNJ-2, one J2F-3, one JE-1, and seven (7) two-man gliders.  Two of these gliders were kept in reserve.  HQMC assigned Lieutenant Colonel Guymon as Group Commander.

N3N-3 Trainer

By the summer of 1942, Guymon believed that training in two-man gliders was a waste of time.  Since all glider pilots (so far) were qualified naval aviators, the only training these pilots needed was transitional flying —best achieved in the 12-man gliders.  Colonel Guymon’s point was moot, however, because the Marine Corps still did not have 12-man gliders.  A search for a suitable glider base was undertaken and eventually selected at Eagle Mountain Lake, Texas.  HQMC considered additional sites, but none ever developed as glider bases or training facilities.

Two-place Glider

MGG-71 departed MCAS Parris Island on 21 November 1942 and arrived at Eagle Mountain Lake two days later.  Training continued even though the 12-man gliders still had not been delivered.  In February 1943, HQMC ordered the glider program’s suspension until the Marine Corps could satisfy the Pacific theater’s more pressing needs.  At HQMC, the Plans and Operations Division and Aviation Division jointly concluded that parachute battalions and glider squadrons were impractical in the Pacific War’s island-hopping campaigns.  CMC ordered the glider program terminated on 24 June 1943.  The Navy Department reassigned all USMC Glider aircraft to the U. S. Army; the Eagle Mountain Lake facility transitioned to a night fighter training base.

Sources:

  1. Updegraph, C. L. Jr., S. Marine Corps Special Units of World War II. History and Museums Division, HQMC, Washington, 1972.
  2. Sherrod, R. History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.
  3. Grim, J. N. To Fly the Gentle Giants: The Training of US WWII Glider Pilots.  Bloomington: Author House Press, 2009.

Endnotes:

[1] Thomas Holcomb (1879-1965) served as the 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps (1936-1943).  He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on 13 April 1900.  Holcomb was awarded the Navy Cross medal, four awards of the Silver Star Medal, and the Purple Heart.  Holcomb was a descendant of Commodore Joshua Barney of the Continental Navy.

[2] Proving that not every Marine officer was a genius unless one officer intended to defeat the program on the drawing board.

[3] Vernon Melvin Guymon (1898-1965) was a highly decorated Marine Corps mustang officer who retired as a Brigadier General in 1949.  Throughout his 30 years of service, he was awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, and two Purple Hearts.  While serving as a gunnery sergeant, Guymon was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in December 1918.  After service in the so-called Banana Wars in the early 1920s, he applied and was accepted for flight school.  He was designated a naval aviator on 15 November 1926.  Following the deactivation of MGG-71, Guymon was assigned to MAG-12 in the Pacific Theater, where he served as the Group Commander and later as Chief of Staff, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing.  Brigadier General Guymon retired from active duty on 1 March 1949.

Soldiers of Fortune

Soldiers of Fortune are men who have no political interest in the outcome of armed conflict but participate in it as hired infantry in exchange for lucrative payments.  Most of these men received training while serving in European and American military forces. The reasons men fight as mercenaries are probably as varied as those for joining a regular military organization. Still, no matter their circumstances, they’ve probably concluded that the pay is worth the risks. One risk, but not the only one, is that mercenaries have no legal protection. If their operations fail, hired soldiers are subject to arrest, trial, and capital punishment —which is one motivation for winning their battles.

Major “Mad Mike” Hoare

One such man was Thomas Michael Hoare (1919-2020), a British mercenary leader and adventurer in Africa and Seychelles, who passed away in February. Hoare’s parents were Irish expatriates working in Calcutta when “Mike” was born. His father sent him to Margate College[1] in England for his education when he was 8-years old.  Believing that his son was best suited for training in accountancy, Mike’s father did not allow him to attend Sandhurst; Mike instead joined the British territorial guard, an integrated reserve organization.

At the commencement of hostilities in World War II, military authorities assigned Mike to London’s Irish Rifles. He later joined the 2nd Reconnaissance Regiment of the Royal Armored Corps, received a commission to Second Lieutenant, and served in Burma and India.  By 1945, Hoare was serving as a Major. After the war, he married Elizabeth Stott, with whom he had three children. Short in stature, most people regarded Hoare as a “charming fellow,” whose dress and appearance was always “dapper.”

After the war, Mike re-enrolled in an accountancy program to complete his training, and he was qualified and certified in 1948. When Hoare realized how bored he was with his sedate lifestyle in London, he relocated his family to Natal Province, South Africa.  There, while working in accountancy, he organized safari operations as a part-time interest.  It was then that he began to quietly advertise his availability to work as a soldier for hire.  Always athletically active, Hoare kept in shape by marathon walking and long-range motorcycle races (Cairo to Cape Town).

By the early 1960s, Hoare realized that he wanted to return to a soldier’s life.  Between 1961-65, Major Mike Hoare led two mercenary expeditions into the Congo.  His first mercenary action occurred in 1961 in Katanga, a province attempting to break away from the newly created Republic of the Congo.  His mercenary unit called itself “Four Commando.” By this time, Elizabeth had had her fill with her husband’s adventurous life, and they divorced.  Hoare later married Phyllis Sims, an airline stewardess, with whom he had two additional children.

The Congo

In 1964, Congolese Prime Minister Moise Tshombe (his employer in Katanga) re-hired Major Hoare to lead a unit called Five Commando, Armée Nationale Congolaise (also, 5 Commando ANC), comprised of around 300 men of mixed nationality, to help put down a revolt known in history as the Simba Rebellion[2].  A former British officer named Alistair Wicks[3] served as Hoare’s second-in-command. Tshombe brought in mercenaries because he distrusted his military commander, General Joseph-Désiré Motobu, who had already led two coup d’états against Tshombe and refused to commit the Congolese Army against the Simba.

Once hired, Hoare recruited his commando force by running ads in South African newspapers, asking for physically fit white men experienced in the combat arms.  While in control of 5 Commando, the press began referring to Hoare as “Mad Mike,” painting him as a wild man. “Wild” was not an accurate description of Mike Hoare.  He was competent, resourceful, and thorough in planning mercenary operations.  Hoare was also a strict disciplinarian who demanded that his men shave, wear close-cropped hair, dress smartly, and attend church services weekly.  5 Commando was an all-white combat unit, its men representing South Africa, Rhodesia, Belgium, Germany, and the United Kingdom —all of whom previously served during the Second World War.

Mad Mike repudiated claims that 5 Commando was a mercenary unit.  He instead argued that his men were volunteers who resisted a communist takeover in the Congo.  In 1963 dollars, Hoare’s men earned $1,100/monthly.  Mike fought the sobriquet Soldier of Fortune; he claimed the money was never an issue with either himself or his men.  It may have been true for Mike Hoare, but such a claim did not describe his men, who frequently looted and misappropriated United Nations property in the Congo.

Reflecting pride in his Irish heritage, Hoare adopted a flying goose as his unit’s symbol.  He called his men Wild Geese, after the Irishmen who fought for the Stuarts in exile during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Mike Hoare had an excellent reputation as a combat commander.  He was calm and courageous under fire, always leading his men from the front to inspire them.  As a disciplinarian, Hoare once pistol-whipped one of his men who attempted to organize a mutiny.

Initially, the officers of the Simba force included tribal leaders who were, in turn, guided by military advisors from Eastern Bloc nations seeking to establish a communist regime in the Congo.  Ultimately, the Simba’s leadership devolved to the military advisors because tribal leadership was inept.  At first, Simba rebels successfully captured much of eastern Congo and, in doing so, quickly proclaimed the People’s Republic of Stanleyville —perhaps thinking the war was almost over.  However, poor Simba organization, lack of cohesion, and competing tribal interests defeated these initial successes.

Hoare capitalized on these failings.  His use of available air support, his application of diversionary tactics, and his innovative use of reverse marches enabled him to deceive and confuse Simba rebel commanders; he was never where they thought he might be. Hoare was also known to hijack boats on the Congo River and use them for making lightning-fast water-borne raids to rescue hostages.  Hoare was also ruthless in combat.  Having no time for prisoners, he never took any.

Later in the rebellion, Hoare worked in concert with Belgian paratroopers, Cuban exile pilots, and CIA-hired paramilitary forces who attempted to save 1,600 European civilians and missionaries in Stanleyville. Of the Simba treatment of their captives, Hoare reported, “The mayor of Stanleyville, Sylvere Bonekwe, was a great and respected man, whom the Simba forced to stand naked in front of a frenzied crowd while one of them cut out his liver.”

In another Congolese operation, labeled Dragon Rouge, Hoare saved another 2,000 European lives when he rescued them from Simba savages.  Before the rescue, the Simba tormented their captives to the point where these wretched people no longer resembled human beings.  Hoare remarked, “Taking Stanleyville was the greatest achievement of the Wild Geese.  There is only so much 300 men can do, but there we were, part of a very big push, and clearing the rebels out was a major victory.  As a result of this one incident, Hoare became a hero in the western press.  Hoare didn’t see himself as a hero, however —but he was thoroughly disgusted by the savagery of the Simba rebels and gave them no quarter in combat.

In 1964, Tshombe promoted Hoare to Lieutenant Colonel and added another battalion to Hoare’s force.  Hoare commanded 5 Commando through November 1965.  Reflecting his anti-Communist attitude, Hoare said, “I had wanted nothing so much as to have 5 Commando known as an integral part of the ANC, a 5 Commando destined to strike a blow to rid the Congo of the greatest cancer the world has ever known —the creeping, insidious disease of communism.”

After returning to South Africa, Hoare told the press that “killing communists is like killing vermin, killing African nationalists is as if one is killing an animal.  My men and I have killed between 5,000-10,000 Congo rebels in the 20 months that I have spent in the Congo. But that’s not enough. There are 20 million Congolese, you know, and I assume that about half of them at one time or another were rebels whilst I was down here.” One of the Simba advisors was an Argentine-Cuban officer named Che Guevara, a murdering swine of such low character and regard for human life that he wantonly murdered hundreds if not thousands of people.  Hoare was proud of the fact that he was the first man to have defeated Guevara.

The exploits of Hoare and 5 Commando in the Congo have been much celebrated and have contributed to veneration of the mercenary lifestyle.  Many of Hoare’s exploits appeared in Soldier of Fortune Magazine and pulp novels. Fictional writers and filmmakers modeled their heroes after Colonel Hoare.  One fictional film account of the Wild Geese in 1978 starred Richard Burton, Roger Moore, and Richard Harris, with Burton playing the Mike Hoare character’s role.

Seychelles

The Republic of Seychelles is an archipelagic island country in the Indian Ocean that consists of 115 islands.  In 1978, Seychellois exiles living in South Africa approached South African officials to discuss the prospect of launching a coup d’état against usurper-President France-Albert René.  René promoted himself to president from prime minister while the duly elected President James Mancham was out of the country.  The United States viewed a coup d’état favorably because of the distrust certain Washington officials had of René and the proximity of Seychelles to the American base at Diego Garcia.

With a clear signal of U.S. backing, friends of Mancham contacted Colonel Hoare to see if he would be willing to lead an operation to Seychelles to reclaim Mancham’s presidency. Of course, Hoare was willing, so he raised a force of around 55 men from former South African special forces, former Rhodesian troopers, and ex-Congo mercenaries.  For Hoare’s plan to work, he disguised his men as rugby players and named them Ye Ancient Order of Froth Blowers.  He hid automatic weapons at the bottom of their luggage, which was then possible because South African rugby players often acquired toys and returned them to South Africa to distribute among several orphanages.

However, while going through the customs line at the Seychelles airport, one of Hoare’s men erroneously entered the “Something to Declare” line.  Once in that line, customs officials insisted on searching his bag, discovered concealed weapons, and sounded an alarm.

Another of Hoare’s men then pulled out a rifle, quickly assembled it, and shot the customs office before he could escape. Despite this setback and no other option available to him, Hoare continued the operation, and fighting broke out inside the airport.  In the middle of this melee, an Indian jetliner was slightly damaged upon landing when it collided with trucks on the runway.  Realizing that the Indian flight passengers were in danger of finding themselves in a crossfire, whether they remained aboard the aircraft or not, Hoare quickly negotiated a ceasefire with Seychellois officials.  Once these passengers safely deplaned, Hoare and his men boarded the Indian plane, hijacked it, and flew back to South Africa.

Upon returning to South Africa, the South African government charged Hoare and his men with kidnapping (the aircrew). Since kidnapping carries no minimum sentence in South Africa —and because it appeared as if Hoare and his men might “walk,” international powers pressured South Africa to recharge Hoar with aircraft hijacking, a more severe offense.  A South African court convicted Hoare and 42 of his 43 men. The one-man found not guilty was an American ex-soldier, a former Vietnam War veteran wounded at the airport and placed on the aircraft while in a sedated condition.

Colonel Hoare received a sentence of ten years imprisonment for his part in the Seychelles Affair.  The South African government quietly released Hoare’s mercenaries after serving only three months in jail.  Hoare, on the other hand, remained in confinement.  After serving 33 months in prison, South Africa’s president granted Hoare a Christmas Day pardon.

In total, Mike Hoare authored eight books about his life as a mercenary. He passed away from natural causes on 2 February 2020.

About Modern Mercenaries

Mercenaries continue their work in the world’s cesspools, but no longer as “Soldiers of Fortune.” Today they’re called Corporate Warriors.  These modern men are no longer the hard-drinking quick-fisted dogs of war of years past.  They wear designer clothes, use the finest after-shave, and rather than operating from their home offices, they rent spacious glass and chrome-plated offices.  Corporate executives are well-read and experienced former combat officers, astute businessmen, and politically connected players in the field of regional conflict.  They maintain good relations with the political movers-and-shakers of their own and other countries.  They refer to combat units as “security groups.” They also no longer confine themselves to coup d’états; today, they focus their attention on mining security, engineering, transportation, finance, and of course, area and personal security for highly placed politicians.  These well-connected modern corporations no longer need to smuggle arms and munitions —FedEx delivers them to corporate warehouses.

Who hires these kinds of firms?  The much-celebrated Kofi Anan discussed hiring corporate warriors while serving as UN Under-Secretary for peacekeeping operations.  For one thing, hiring a private security group is more cost-effective than maintaining a regular military defense force.  There is even talk of replacing traditional police departments with corporate law enforcers.

A Personal note

I have known one mercenary. While serving as Adjutant, Marine Aircraft Group 46 (1979-81), one reservist served as an airfield operations officer in one of the group’s subordinate drill units.  I will refer to him as Major Charles Claire (not his real name).

Claire had an average build, lean, but had a pallid face with no evidence of over-exposure to the sun.  His deep blue eyes complimented his dark blond hair.  A somewhat melancholy man, Claire spoke effectively but always in a quiet tone.  He had immense pride in his military accomplishments and his uniformed appearance.  Whether authorized by Marine Corps uniform regulations, he always displayed his French parachute wings. Occasionally he would join me for lunch at a local restaurant during scheduled training weekends, and, knowing that I found his adventure interesting, recounted several of his more exciting tales.  He often spoke of operational planning (mostly how combat operations never seemed to go as planned), logistical challenges (resupply, caring for the wounded), and glitches involving rapid extraction at the operation’s conclusion.

When Claire left active duty following a Vietnam combat tour in 1967, he knew that he enjoyed the risks associated with combat service but found Marine Corps culture too restrictive.  While maintaining his reserve commission, he went to France, where he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion for five years. It was after this when Charles began hiring himself out at a mercenary.  Whether he ever served with Hoare, I cannot say; it never came up in our conversations.  When he wasn’t fighting, he worked as a freelance writer.

“You can’t argue with the pay,” he told me, “but now I question whether the pay was worth it.”  Claire’s problem was that he was dying —something he kept concealed from the Marine Corps hierarchy.  In Angola, he said, he contracted intestinal parasites.  Returning to the United States, he consulted with medical specialists who told him that he had a significant infestation.  It was so profound, the doctors told him that an operation would probably kill him. Claire’s only recourse was to deal with it until the parasites killed him.  His announcement seemed consistent with his lunch fare, which always consisted of mashed potatoes and a glass of water: no meat, no salad, no dessert.

Claire’s stories were enough to convince me that a mercenary life is not something a normally-wired person would pursue—but then, I never considered Claire normal.  He had a heck of a life, just not a very long one.  It might have been better were he shot to death than to die slowly.  I last saw him in 1981.

Sources:

  1. Burke, K.  Revolutionaries for the Right: Anticommunist Internationalism and Paramilitary Warfare in the Cold War.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.
  2. Dadrian, E.  Mercenaries in Africa: From Soldiers of Fortune to Corporate Warriors.org online, 2004.
  3. Hoare, C.  Mad Mike Hoare: The Legend. Partners in Publishing, 2018.
  4. Mockler, A.  The New Mercenaries.New York, Bantam Books, 1985.
  5. Venter, A. J.  War Dog: Fighting Other People’s Wars: The Modern Mercenary in Combat. New Delhi: Lance Publications, 2006.

Endnotes:

[1] William Leach-Lewis established Margate College in 1873 as a secondary institution and preparatory school for boys. Lewis gave his life while in service as Mayor of Margate in 1906. Margate College High School advertised that “Boys are prepared for Oxford and Cambridge local examinations, for the College of Preceptors, also for the Army and their universities.  Today, a shopping center stands at the site of the original campus.

[2] The Simba Rebellion (1963-65) (also, Orientale Revolt) took place within the larger context of the Congo Crisis (several simultaneous rebellions) and the Cold War. The rebellion leaders were the followers of the deceased Patrice Lumumba, ousted and killed in 1960.

[3] Alistair Wicks served in the RAF during World War II.  After the war, while studying law at Oxford, Wicks migrated to Rhodesia.  Hoare recruited Wicks to serve as his second-in-command of 4 Commando.  When Wicks wasn’t engaged in mercenary work, he was employed by Rhodesian Air Services.  He resigned from mercenary in 1967 following four-months imprisonment in Biafra.

The West Florida Expedition

American history is quite fascinating —I would say even more so than the revisionist accounts offered in our public schools and universities over the past sixty years.  Two of my interests are the colonial and early founding periods of the United States.  History isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but there is so much we can learn from it —lessons that would positively contribute to modern society.  Ut est rerum omnium magister usus[1], and if true, if experience is the teacher of all things, then our learning from past mistakes can only aid us in the future.

One of the things I find interesting about the American Revolutionary War is how little attention historians have paid to the British loyalists.  After all, they too were part of that story.

1763 was a banner year for the British because, in that year, England finally triumphed over France after fighting one another to a standstill since 1689.  In the Treaty of Paris of 1763, England acquired Spanish Florida and French Canada.  British divided Florida into two provinces: West and East Florida.  West Florida included the southern half of present-day Mississippi, a rectangular region straddling the Gulf of Mexico from Lake Pontchartrain and Maurepas and the Mississippi River in the west, to the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola rivers on the east.  It extended northward to an imaginary line running east from the confluence of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, including the old Spanish port of Pensacola and the former French settlements of Mobile, Biloxi, and Natchez.

In the late 1760s, West Florida was sparsely settled because, except for a narrow strip of land along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, the soil was unsuitable for agriculture, which led settlers to rely on raising livestock.  The British anticipated settling West Florida effortlessly and for reasons of security, they reserved the area west of the Appalachian Mountains for Indians.  British policy at that time intended to avoid confrontations with the Indians by channeling white settlers either to Canada or to one of the two Florida settlements.  The British also decided to offer land to members of the British court as a reward for faithful military service.  As an example, 40,000 acres were set aside for the Earl of Eglinton near the Natchez and Pensacola settlements.  An untended consequence of land grants to noblemen was that they almost immediately began selling these lands, and by every measure, they were quite successful in doing so.

The British accorded settlers of lesser rank, 100 acres to the head of household and 50 acres for each member of his family, including slaves.  The head of a family could also purchase an additional 1,000 acres for a reasonable price —but clear title to this land was withheld until the settlers had cultivated their land for three to five years.  The settlement of West Florida increased steadily, especially in the Natchez area, until in 1773 when the foreign office inexplicably canceled the governor’s authority to grant land.

In 1775, with the outbreak of the American Revolution, the situation in West Florida changed rapidly.  Both Florida provinces were converted into sanctuaries for British loyalists escaping from colonial terrorists.  After 1775, West Florida enjoyed its greatest period of growth, an attraction among sturdy pioneers of Englishmen and Scotsmen.

Who were the loyalists, and why weren’t they interested in freedom from Great Britain?  They were generally older people, conservative by nature, well-established in the colonies with long-standing business interests in England.  Older people tend to resist change and the Revolutionary War period was nothing at all if not an era of momentous changes.  In the minds of British loyalists, a rebellion was not only morally wrong but also unwarranted.

Taxation without representation was a key issue at the outset of the American Revolution.  Parliamentary taxation affected everyone, including loyalists.  There was no overwhelming repudiation of taxes among the loyalists because, in the first instance, Parliament had the right to tax colonists.  Second, the colonists had long benefitted from the security provided by the British Army.  Among loyalists, it was entirely reasonable that Parliament expected colonists to help pay for the costs of maintaining these forces.  The loyalists also had no objection to “quartering soldiers in private homes.”  These were young men from back home who had come to America to protect British citizens from the ravages of the French and Indian attacks, why not give them a nice place to sleep?  Besides, which would be cheaper (tax-wise)?  Quartering soldiers in the homes of citizens, or constructing barracks for the same purpose?  Since everyone benefitted from these tax levies, why object to them? Of course, the British Parliament could have addressed this issue with greater sophistication, but the British people (especially those living in England) were used to an authoritarian legislature.

When the so-called “American patriots” resorted to violence against the Crown and those who remained loyal to Great Britain, the older, conservative, well-settled colonists felt alienated —and with good reason.  The patriots burned down their homes, torched their businesses, and physically and verbally assaulted them.  In many ways, patriot behavior was more like that of  hooligans and domestic terrorists than of good neighbors with interesting ideas about government and society[2].

Many loyalists, at least initially, were fence-sitters.  Among those, optimists who believed that if there was to be a separation from the mother country, it should take place naturally and amicably, under circumstances mutually beneficial to both sides of the Atlantic.  Some pessimists believed that the only possible result of revolutionary thought and action would be chaos, corruption, and mob rule[3].  In either case, when patriots began terrorizing them, they either became apathetic to the cause, or they moved even further to the right.  Some returned to England, others decided to stay in the colonies and fight for their King.  In New York, many loyalists were part of influential families, some of these with unmistakable ties to the French Huguenot-Dutch De Lancey[4] faction supporting the British Crown.  There were also “black” loyalists —slaves who had been promised freedom from slavery by the British government.  Colonial patriots made no such promises, from any quarter —north or south.

There were many prominent families among American patriots[5].  One of these was the family of a man named James Willing … a wealthy Philadelphia family.  His father Charles twice served as Philadelphia’s mayor; his mother was Anne Shippen, the granddaughter of Philadelphia’s second mayor.  James’ older brother was a merchant, a business partner with Robert Morris[6], and a delegate to the Continental Congress from Pennsylvania.  In his younger years, James sought his fortune in British West Florida operating a general store within the Natchez settlement.  The folks of Natchez were happy to live in America, but they were loyalists —and intensely so.  Willing, not being able to share those sentiments, and being rudely vocal about it, soon decided to return to Philadelphia[7].

In 1777, serving as a congressional spokesman, Willing returned to Natchez to convince the residents there to join the American independence movement.  His proposals rebuffed, he returned to Philadelphia with greatly exaggerated claims that the people of West Florida posed a serious threat to the cause of American independence, although he was probably right in thinking that loyalists would interrupt trade on the Mississippi River, a major source of colonial resupply.

Oliver Pollock, meanwhile (an Irish-born colonist with many years devoted to trading with the Spaniards in the West Indies), established a close working relationship with Alejandro O’Reilly[8] and other Spanish-Louisiana officials.  Granted the privilege of free trade with New Orleans, Pollock became a successful businessman, married, and raised his family there.  In 1777, Pollock was appointed Commercial Agent of the United States in New Orleans.  He used his influence and wealth to help finance American operations in the west, including the campaign by Major General (militia) George Rogers Clark[9].  In September 1778, Pollock introduced Colonel David Rogers and Captain Robert Benham to Louisiana Governor Bernardo de Gálvez.  Rogers delivered a letter to Governor Gálvez from Virginia patriot Patrick Henry —a letter that led to Spain to join the war against England.  In the British view, there could be no better example of treason than that.

In 1778, James Willing was calling himself a naval captain[10] in the service of the United Independent States of America[11]  Pollock received a letter from Robert Morris stating that Willing would be leading an expedition against loyalist settlements above New Orleans.  In his capacity as a naval captain, Willing led 29 men of the 13th Virginia Regiment from Fort Pitt and sailed down the Ohio River[12].  Willing’s mission may have been more on the order of moving supplies from New Orleans to Fort Pitt than it was conquering West Florida, but the correspondence Willing carried with him to Florida could be construed as authorization to punish British loyalists.  With his desire for adventure and a somewhat reckless nature, Willing boarded the gunboat Rattletrap[13] with his Virginians, now dubbed “marines.”

Willing and his marines departed Fort Pitt early on the night of 10 January.  A short distance from where the Wabash empties into the Ohio River, the Willing Expedition seized the large bateau[14] belonging to the Becquet Brothers, which was laden with pelts.  They also arrested a man named  La Chance and impounded his cargo of brandy —which Willing and his crew subjected to extensive tests for impurities.  Willing’s notoriety thus established, off they went into the Ohio River and southward.  The commander at Fort Kaskaskia, a Frenchman named Rocheblave, suspected that the Willing Expedition was moving toward Illinois and believed that the sort of insults offered to Becquet and La Chance was the sort of thing frontier settlers could expect from colonial hoodlums should they ever achieve a foothold into the western (French) colonies.

Painting by Charles Waterhouse

By the time the expedition reached the Mississippi River, Willing had added two canoes and ten recruits to his entourage.  One of these was a youngster named George Girty, whom Willing commissioned a second lieutenant.  George was the youngest of four brothers, a family whose only claim to history was that they all became British loyalists.  Historians know that Willing stopped at a Spanish post at the mouth of the Arkansas River, where, having warned the few American settlers living there that their lives were in peril from British loyalists, proceeded on his journey.  The then-petrified settlers ended up petitioning Spanish officials for their protection.

Willing arrived at the Natchez plantation of Colonel Anthony Hutchins[15], a loyalist, on 19 February, promptly arrested him and seized his property —including his slaves.  Willing then divided his force by sending two canoes on a scouting mission further south to the Natchez settlement —a farming community populated by American, English, and French settlers (all of whom lived together in harmony) —and until recent times, the home of James Willing.  The scouting party, well-armed and dressed as hunters, arrested all settlement inhabitants and secured their property.

Willing and his main body arrived the following morning.  According to later testimony, captive townspeople sent a delegation of four citizens to parlay with Willing.  They agreed to surrender and promised their neutrality if Willing restored their property.  Willing agreed, adding these stipulations: (a) that the settlers must agree to re-provision his expeditionary force, (b) that single men join the expedition, and (c) that all married persons relocate to Spanish territory within fifteen days.  From among the single men who joined the expedition, Willing appointed Richard Harrison a lieutenant of marines.

South of Natchez, Willing carried out a campaign of destruction to crops, livestock, and the homes of Loyalist settlers and carried off their slaves (likely sold in New Orleans).  William Dunbar and Frederick Spell, who witnessed Willing’s behavior, suggested in their later testimony that Willing was more interested in enriching himself than he was in any patriotic endeavor (which, by every account, seems to have been the case).  Willing, however, did not molest any “patriotic” Americans.

By this time, the British were aware of Willing’s marauders —which given the expanse of the territory and poor communications back then, is quite amazing.  In any case, the British dispatched their sloop Rebecca (well-armed with sixteen 4-pound and six swivel guns) up the Mississippi to interdict Willing’s campaign.  On 23 February, 18 marines under lieutenants McIntyre and Harrison captured Rebecca, which for a time ended Great Britain’s control of the Mississippi River.  McIntyre and Harrison sailed the vessel to New Orleans as a prize of war.  The ship would be renamed, Morris.

Oliver Pollock established and maintained a close relationship with Governor Bernardo de Gálvez.  During a future Spanish campaign against the British, Pollock would serve as Gálvez’ aide-de-camp.  When Pollock received word that Willing was approaching New Orleans, he recruited an additional 40 men to join the expedition and assisted him in transporting “British” property to New Orleans.  Of these 40 men, 26 men took it upon themselves to float downriver to join McIntyre and Harrison.  McIntyre’s group soon came upon the British Brig Neptune and seized her.  Neptune was laden with lumber and a handful of passengers bound for Jamaica.  McIntyre off-loaded the passengers, retained the cargo, and sailed her to New Orleans —the expedition’s second prize.

News of Willing’s expedition quickly spread throughout British West Florida and caused some panic among the loyalists.  They abandoned their large plantations, loaded their slaves, livestock, and valuables on boats and barges, and headed toward New Orleans where they petitioned Spanish officials for protection.  For their part, at least initially, Spanish officials were intent on remaining neutral in the conflict between the British and Americans, so they graciously received these refugees and accorded them Spanish hospitality.  Governor Gálvez similarly welcomed James Willing, which in large measure as a result of Oliver Pollock’s efforts.

Willing and his men were granted freedom of the city, provided with housing, and they were allowed to auction the property taken from loyalists, including their slaves[16].  The precise amount of the profits gained by Willing’s auction is unknown, but some estimates ranged as high as £60,000.00.  While appreciative of the courtesy and hospitality accorded to their subjects, British officials strongly protested the fact that Gálvez extended those same courtesies to James Willing, who in their view was nothing more than a pirate.  Neither were the British pleased about Willing’s auctioning British property.

Gov. Gálvez ignored British protests, and the longer he did so, the louder their protests became.  Within a short time, British petitions for redress were filed almost every day.  Finally, Gálvez appointed a commission to consider the merits of British complaints.  Until mid-March, Gálvez remained unconcerned with British protests.  But then came the arrival of the British sloop Sylph under the command of Captain John Ferguson.  In addressing the problem, Ferguson was simple and direct:

Having the honor to command one of His Britannic Majesty’s ships in this river, and having information that your excellency has received into your government a body of armed men, enemies to my Sovereign and that you have suffered them from the Spanish Territory to commit depredations on this River by forcibly seizing upon the vessels, property, and persons of British subjects, in violation of the Treatise of Peace, the Law of Nations, and the Rights of Men.  I cannot help looking at such conduct on your part, as a tacit if not an open declaration of war against the King, my master.

Governor Gálvez answered Ferguson with equal fervor[17].  He had no obligation (he said) to protect British citizens residing on British soil but (pending the report by his commission), Gálvez offered to return British goods and property seized by Willing.  This decision came as a blow to the Willing/Pollock clique.  They offered a stout defense of their activities, particularly as it related to the capture of the two British ships.  Neptune, argued Willing, having been seized on open water in British territory, was a  lawful prize of war.  Gálvez remained inflexible; Neptune must be returned.  When it appeared that Morris (formerly Rebecca) seemed more secure, Oliver Pollock proceeded to refit and man her.  William Pickles was selected to serve as Morris’ Captain, and Robert Elliott was chosen to serve as Commanding Officer of Marines (Daniel Longstreet was appointed to serve as Marine First Lieutenant)[18].

In April, Captain Ferguson and Sylph was relieved by Captain Joseph Nunn, commanding HMS Hound.  Nunn continued to press Gálvez on the issues raised by Ferguson; Gálvez continued to resist all British suppositions and remained firm with the Americans.  Nevertheless, believing that the British would initiate military action, Governor Gálvez requested reinforcements from the Viceroy of New Spain and began working on New Orleans defenses.  He also demanded that every British/American person living in New Orleans take an oath of neutrality or leave the city.  A few British departed the city, but most remained.  Americans were unanimous in their acceptance.

Gov. Gálvez felt better once the American and British had offered their oaths respecting Spanish neutrality.  Captain Nunn, on the other hand, did not feel better.  In his view, Gálvez had openly demonstrated his support for the colonial rebellion, and this placed Spain in opposition to the British Crown.  It wasn’t enough to cause Captain Nunn to initiate war with Spain, of course, but Gálvez’s cozy relationship with the colonists did prompt the British into reasserting their authority on the Mississippi River.

Before dawn on 19 April, Nunn sent a force of fifty men to recapture Fort Bute at Manchac (115 miles north of New Orleans) which had been seized by Willing’s expedition.  British riflemen killed two men and a woman and wounded ten others.  Fourteen Americans were taken, prisoner.  Willing was, by this time, concerned about retaining control of Natchez, which led him to dispatch a force of marines under Lieutenant Harrison to observe whether Natchez loyalists were keeping their oaths of neutrality.

Meanwhile, Colonel Hutchins had violated his parole by returning to his plantation.  In Natchez, Hutchins agitated among the citizens and urged them to take up arms against American colonists.  We do not know what Hutchins told these people, but we do know that he alarmed them to the point of organizing a stout defense at a location known as White Cliffs.

En route to Natchez, Lieutenant Harrison was forewarned by a man named John Talley of Colonel Hutchins’ mischief.  Harrison sent Talley ahead to offer assurances that his intentions were peaceful.  Hutchins’ work was well done, however, and upon Harrison’s approach, loyalist gunfire inflicted a heavy toll on the marines.  Harrison lost five men killed with several more wounded and captured; Harrison returned to New Orleans with only a few of his remaining force.

British West Florida Governor Peter Chester (—1799), with service between 1770-81, encouraged British settlers to return to their homes and “restore yourselves to that full allegiance and fidelity which you owe to your sovereign and country.”  And, he added, that should these citizens not comply with Chester’s advice, then they would be judged guilty of criminal neglect of their solemn duty.  With a British army garrison of  110 men from Pensacola guarding Fort Bute at Manchac, a British ship with a crew of 150 men, and 200 British militia protecting Natchez, loyalist settlers finally felt secure.  Thus renewed, British presence also stopped the flow of goods between New Orleans and Fort Pitt.

The Willing Expedition had aroused British loyalists along the river to such extent that Willing could no longer return to Philadelphia via the Mississippi.  And, the longer Willing remained in New Orleans, the less Gálvez and Pollock wanted to deal with him.  Gálvez was highly incensed when Willing circumvented the governor’s prerogatives by issuing a proclamation to Americans living in New Orleans.  The proclamation not only violated Willing’s oath, a condition of his being allowed to remain in New Orleans, it was also a violation of Spanish sovereignty.  But if the rift between Willing and Gálvez was significant, the break with Pollock was even worse.  With some justification, Willing criticized Pollock for his poor administration and questionable financial accounting[19].  Willing’s unpaid marauders were displeased to the point of deserting in large numbers.  It was only the consistent discipline and fair treatment of Lieutenant Harrison and Lieutenant George that kept most (not all) marines on duty.  In any case, Pollock was anxious to be rid of Willing and did not hesitate to express his annoyance with Willing in his reports to Congress.

Hoping for James Willing’s departure from New Orleans was one thing; witnessing his departure was another.  Effectively, Captain Willing had become a prisoner in New Orleans, but he had no one to blame but himself.  It was his actions that caused the British to block the Mississippi.  Willing had but two options for returning to Philadelphia: an overland march, or by sea.  Willing had no interest in walking back to Pennsylvania.

By mid-June, Oliver Pollock decided he’d had enough of James Willing and formally petitioned Governor Gálvez to allow work to proceed on Morris so that it might carry Willing and his men back to Philadelphia.  Without much consideration, Gálvez consented and the ship’s refit was soon started.  Unhappily for both Gálvez and Willing, the refit project experienced several delays.

Fed up with life in New Orleans, Lieutenant George and Lieutenant Harrison requested the governor’s permission to leave New Orleans via the overland route.  Governor Gálvez gave his consent conditionally: George and Harrison had to give their oath not to cause further dismay to any British subject.  Having offered their oaths, the officers soon departed.  After a year of overland travel, the marines finally returned to Fort Pitt.  After the marine detachment was officially disbanded, George accepted an appointment as a captain of an artillery in the Continental Army.

Accompanied by Lieutenant McIntyre, James Willing finally departed New Orleans in mid-November carrying dispatches for the Continental Congress.  The ship, however, was captured by a British privateer off the coast of Delaware and Willing was taken as a prisoner to New York where he remained until exchanged for British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton.  Some historians contend that Willing spent two years as a prisoner of war.  If this is true, when one considers his many depredations imposed on Mississippi River settlements, then a reasonable man might conclude that his internment was warranted.

James Willing died at his home in Haverford Township, Pennsylvania in 1801.  He was 51 years old.  For additional insight into the corruption of early-American officials, see also:  James Wilkinson, Image of Respectability.  The amount of dishonesty during the Revolutionary and early founding periods of the United States could lead one to conclude that as despicable as James Willing was, he had much in common with more than a few of our founding fathers.

Sources:

  1. DuVal, K. Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution.  Random House, 2016.
  2. Eron, R. Peter Chester, Third Governor of the Province of West Florida Under British Domination 1770-1781.  Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1925.
  3. Haynes, R. V. The Natchez District, and the American Revolution. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2011.
  4. James, A. J. Oliver Pollock, Financier of the Revolution in the West.  Mississippi Historical Review, 1929.
  5. Smith, C. R. Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975. 

Endnotes:

[1] Attributed to Julius Caesar, De Bello Civille.

[2] The same thing is happening today within the so-called Progressive Movement; modern conservatives (the classic liberals of the colonial era) are being regularly attacked because of their values.  Progressivism, as it turns out, is not very enlightened.

[3] It is impossible to say the pessimists were completely wrong about the level of political corruption in America.

[4] Followers of Oliver and James De Lancey.  Oliver was a wealthy merchant, politician, and British Provincial soldier; James was his nephew.

[5] Modern leftists define “patriotism” as an anti-government “far right” movement.  In 1775, it was a far-left movement.

[6] Robert Morris, Jr., (1734-1806) was an English-born financier who served in the Pennsylvania legislature, the Second Continental Congress, and the United States Senate.  He was a signer to the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the U. S. Constitution.

[7] According to his “friends and neighbors” in Natchez, Mr. Willing drank too much, talked too much, and thought too little.  This may be a fair assessment.

[8] O’Reilly (1723-1794) was born in Ireland became the Inspector-General of Infantry in the Spanish Empire, served as Captain-General and the second Spanish governor of Louisiana, and the first official to exercise power in Louisiana after France ceded it to Spain.  He was later made a count of Spain but known to creoles as “Bloody O’Reilly.”

[9] The older brother of William Rogers Clark.  A surveyor and militia officer who became the highest-ranking officer of the Revolution in the western frontier.  Most of his accomplishments occurred before his 40th birthday; subsequently, his drinking and indebtedness destroyed his reputation.  When Virginia refused to pay him for his Revolutionary war  expenses, he turned his attention toward the Spanish as a source of income, but mostly through questionable land speculation schemes.  His is not one of the great American stories of our founding years.

[10] James Willing is not listed as a commissioned officer of the Continental Navy.

[11] The title claimed was something Willing made up.  There is an organization today with a similar title claiming to consist of ten states, five provinces of Canada, and Guam.  ISA announced its independence in 2007 where its officials all wear tin foil hats.

[12] What the Continental Congress did not want was a sizeable expedition to West Florida to attack Pensacola and Mobile, an ambitious plan that had the support of Benedict Arnold.  Congress decided instead on a more modest expedition and placed Willing in charge of it.

[13] I’m not sure how to respond to questions about the naming convention involve with this vessel, but Rattletrap was purchased from John Gibson for 300 pounds in Pennsylvania currency.  It was a galley-type vessel with ten oars, and she/it was armed with two ¾-pound swivel guns.

[14] A long, light, flat bottom boat with a sharply pointed bow and stern.

[15] Colonel Hutchins was a retired British Army officer whose grant of land for military  service was 250,000 acres.  His home was located at White Apple Acres, which he occupied in 1773.  He served as a representative representing the Natchez district in the provincial assembly in Pensacola in 1778.  At times during the Willing Expedition, Hutchins was the de facto governor of the Natchez district.  He remained active in political and military affairs in present-day Mississippi for many years.

[16] Despite Spanish law, which forbade commerce with foreigners.

[17] The British were hardly in a position of strength in West Florida.  Eventually, Gálvez would seize both Pensacola and Natchez (1779).

[18] Both Robert Elliott and Daniel Longstreet’s names appear in the lineal list of officers of the Continental Navy and Marine Corps.

[19] Pollock was, as previously stated, a businessman whose every action was motivated by profit.  He is not remembered as a man having an abundance of scruples.

Nawzad —2008

Some Background

Men have used spears in warfare for well over 3,000 years —and they continued using them even after the invention of firearms.  The use of spears began as implements for hunting in pre-history.  They were fashioned by burning one end of a straight stick until it had become pointed, its makers scraping the wood further to make the pointed end even sharper, which increased its lethality.

The hunting spear may have been one of mankind’s earliest technological advances, inspired by early man’s demand for food.  Scientists in Germany discovered this kind of weapon embedded into the skeletal remains of an elephant.  No one is quite sure when humans turned these hunting weapons upon one another; we only know that it was a long time ago.  What we do know is that spears were far more efficient than clubs, and likely preferable because of their versatility.  A spearman could thrust his weapon into an enemy or throw it from a distance.

Over time, hunters-gatherers became agriculturalists.  With farming came the domestication of animals and less demand for hunters.  One demand remained, however: the defense of small villages to protect loved ones and food stores.  When men learned that more spearmen were far more efficient in self-defense than one or two uncoordinated defenders, they began to develop offensive and defensive tactics.  At first, it is likely that the employment of these maneuvers more closely resembled a Chinese fire drill than a military formation, but in time someone came up with the idea that a well-drilled formation fared better in warfare than a mish-mash of stick-wielding yahoos.

The earliest formation was the phalanx, a closely packed block of spearmen.  The phalanx made the spear far more deadly in close combat; even back then there was no ribbon for coming in second.  The phalanx formation made ancient Greece into a military power with subsequent armies adopting similar formations over the next 2,000 years.

Gladius Hispaniensis

The Roman armies did such a good job of emulating Greek strategies that they eventually took over the known world.  The Roman started with the basics of Greek tactics and improved on them.  While retaining the spear (pilus) the Romans also used swords (Gladius).  Initially, Roman swords were much like those used by the Greeks, but from around the third century BC, Rome adopted the Celtiberian[1] sword; they called it Gladius Hispaniensis.  This sword was shorter in length, better made, and far more manageable for close-in fighting.  The Roman spear was especially adapted to Roman tactics, used as a kind of close-combat artillery, but constructed more on the order of a javelin.  After throwing their pilum in a single volley, Roman legions then charged into their enemy in close formation with shield (scutum) and gladius.

Rome’s demise[2], after 1,100 years of military domination, produced several hundred years of political and social instability.  The next innovation of the spear came in the form of the lance, a weapon used from horseback by mounted knights.  Knights led infantry (foot) formations (that retained the spear as its primary weapon), but it was the mounted warrior that led to most military innovation in subsequent years—such as saddles, stirrups, a longer “cavalry” sword.  Cavalry (or its earliest form) became the Middle Ages’ most important combat component.  Eventually, polearms replaced spears as infantry weapons.

The polearm provided a defense against mounted assaults —an innovation that enabled the Swiss to become the most feared military force in Europe during the Middle Ages.  The most widely recognized polearm of that period was called a halberd, a cross between a spear and an ax with a hook.  The halberd was useful in stabbing, slashing, and pulling riders from their horses.

The pike was an exceptionally long spear fielded by large blocks of men (similar in many ways to the Greek phalanx, but without shields).  Pikes enabled infantry to hold off charging cavalry.  By this time, military formations had begun to field fire arms so the pike blocks also protected musketeers while they reloaded their weapons.  When muskets and rifles became the primary weapon of field armies, bayonets became the primary means used by riflemen to defend themselves in close combat.  When attached to the musket or rifle, the two weapons served the same purpose as the ancient spear.

U.S. Marine Corps bayonet

Bayonets continue to function as a close-in weapon in modern military arsenals.  They are primarily used while searching for the enemy in confined spaces, or whenever a field commander anticipates close combat.  There are many examples of the use of the bayonet in World War II and the Korean War.  The command, “Fix Bayonets” is chilling because at that point, everyone knows that a knife fight is about to take place.

In Afghanistan

When First Lieutenant Arthur E. Karell ordered “Fix Bayonets,” the hunkered down Marines of Fox Company’s 3rd Platoon began to perspire.  The sound of Marines withdrawing their bayonets from scabbards and affixing them to the ends of their rifles was distinctive.  Click, click, click.  Lieutenant Karell’s order was precautionary because he didn’t know what to expect in the quiet darkness.  All he knew was that his orders placed he and his men at that specific spot, and that Helmand Province (later known as Marineistan[3]) is where someone high up in his chain of command had decided that U.S. Marines could do the most good.  Karell was part of the vanguard of Marines who would become predators —their prey was the Taliban.

Nawzad, Afghanistan was a ghost town.  The 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines (2/7) assumed responsibility for pacifying this enemy-occupied but once-populated town in a remote and god-forsaken area of southeast Afghanistan.  The people who used to live in Nawzad (some 10,000 in number (estimated)) abandoned their mud-brick homes and melted away into the dusty area surrounding it.  With the departure of these simple people, the Taliban moved in and made themselves at home.  Karell’s battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Richard D. Hall, had sent Fox Company to issue eviction notices.

The fact was that Colonel Hall didn’t know much more about Nawzad than Karell; Hall had no “intel” of the enemy situation because Helmand Province wasn’t a priority for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO’s coalition headquarters in Kabul.  Up until 2/7’s arrival in Helmand Province, the ISAF had ignored Nawzad.

The quiet darkness of early morning was periodically interrupted by the sounds of distant  jackals, which was enough to straighten the Marine’s neck hair.  Karell’s Marines didn’t know what awaited them, but whatever it was, it was about to get its ass kicked.  The Taliban were dangerous, of course, but they weren’t U.S. Marines.  They may have intimidated poor farmers and the U.S. Army led ISAF in Kabul, but they weren’t going to cower Fox 2/7.  Still, neither Lieutenant Karell nor his company commander had a firm picture of the enemy situation.

The 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines was initially activated on 1 January 1941 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  Its world war service included Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and Okinawa.  During the Korean War, 2/7 participated in the landing at Inchon, the Battle of Seoul, the landing at Wonsan, and the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.  Captain William Barber received the Medal of Honor for his extraordinary courage while commanding Fox Company.  The battalion deployed to Vietnam from July 1965 until October 1970.  While based at Twenty-nine Palms, California, the battalion was deployed for Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-91 with additional service in Iraq in 2004, 2005, 2006.  The battalion deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, and again from 2012-2013.

2/7 spearheaded the return of Marines to Afghanistan in April 2008, engaging in combat almost from the very first day.  It was the hardest hit battalion in the Marine Corps in 2008.  During its eight month deployment, the battalion lost 20 Marines killed in action; 160 wounded in action, and of these, thirty amputees.

It was 15th June 2008 and Karell was seconds away from launching his first combat assault.  Most of his noncommissioned officers were combat veterans, but their previous experience had been in Iraq.  Afghanistan was a horse of a different color.  From their position in a dried-up irrigation ditch, in the pitch-black early morning, the only thing the Marines could see was the vague outline of a thick mud wall that stood higher than most Marines were tall.  The wall separated the town from a small, scraggly forest.  Up until then, it was “Indian country,” and no one from Fox Company had seen what lay on the other side.  They only knew that whenever a patrol came near the wall, someone from the other side started shooting at them.  Not knowing the enemy situation beyond the wall prompted Karell to issue his order, “Fix Bayonets.”

Karell began the platoon’s advance, stealthily creeping along in the dark with he and his platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant (SSgt) Gabriel G. Guest, leading the way.  This is how Marines do combat: leaders at the tip of the spear.  Despite a long list of unknowns, the Marines of the 3rd Platoon had confidence in their lieutenant.  Karell possessed all the positive attributes of an outstanding combat leader.  He was calm in stressful situations.  He moved with purpose and self-confidence.  He was open with and respectful of his men.  He was willing to admit when he’d messed up.  He learned from his mistakes.  In the eyes of his superiors, Karell had additional traits: knowledgeable, thoughtful, aggressive, good at planning and even better in execution.  In short, Karell was a hunter-warrior —a dangerous predator.

As Karell’s Marines moved forward, they could hear the growling engines of support vehicles coming up behind them.  Suddenly, from behind the wall, a rocket-propelled grenade shattered the silence of the night —the explosive swooshing above the heads of the leathernecks toward the approaching support vehicles.  Marine machine guns opened up; enemy machine guns answered.  Muzzle flashes from the base of the wall revealed the enemy’s positions.

The instant before the shooting started, Karell’s Marines were nervous; an instant after, Marine Corps training took over.  The Marine’s first emotion was that they were pissed off that someone was shooting at them.  After coordinating by radio with Fox Actual, once the Marine’s machine guns shifted their fires, Karell launched his assault toward the enemy.  2nd Squad laid down a base of fire as Karell and the 1st Squad rushed forward.  Then 1st Squad took up suppressing fires as 2nd Squad advanced.  The Marines of 3rd Platoon ignored the enemy’s fire as deadly rounds snapped past them, but they were expending a lot of ammunition.  SSgt Guest began relaying ammo resupply forward. The enemy machine gun went silent and the enemy began running in the opposite direction.

Lieutenant Karell brought combat engineers forward.  After firing mine clearing devices into the area in front of the wall, they blew a gaping hole through the adobe barrier.  Karell’s platoon poured through the wall and took up a hasty defense position until the platoon was ready to pursue the enemy.  What they found inside the compound stood in stark contrast to the desolate moonscape on the outside.  It was a garden setting, complete with flowing water and a forest of fruit trees.

Karell and his Marines had no time to enjoy it; the lieutenant organized his Marines to begin destroying enemy bunkers.  Their progress took them into the light forest.  Standing before them was a white mound that rose above the trees.  Karell estimated that the damn thing was forty-feet above ground.  The skipper[4] supposed it could be a command bunker.

From where the 3rd Platoon was standing the mound looked like a stone fortress.  It was “no big deal.”  The Marines started climbing weighted down by the intense morning heat, their weapons, ammunition, and body armor.  They were looking for caves —but found none.  They expected enemy resistance —but there was none.  When he reached the top, Lieutenant Karell did a quick search of the area.  All he found were scars from artillery of some earlier battle.  Karell laughed —his 3rd Platoon had captured a huge rock.

2/7 was sent to Nawzad to train Afghan police.  The ISAF reasoned that if the Marines could train local police, the police would then be able to protect their own community.  The fly in that ointment was that there were no police in Nawzad.  Absent the police training mission, Colonel Hall queried higher headquarters about his new mission.  He was told to make it possible for the Afghan people to return to their long-deserted town.  There was no mention of how he was to accomplish this task, of course, only that the Marines needed to “get it done.”  So, Hall executed the Marine Corps plan: find the Taliban and convince him that he’s in the wrong business.

Helmand Province in Afghanistan

While it was true that the battalion’s mission had changed, little else had.  Since ISAF controlled all in-theater air assets, 2/7 would not have dedicated air support.  Marine grunts love their aviators, and this has been true all the way back to the early days of Marine aviation —when Marines began to explore the utility of aircraft for ground support missions.  For two decades, the Marines perfected air-ground operations during the so-called Banana Wars.  During World War II, Navy and Marine Corps aviation perfected the art and science of close air support.  They employed these skills in the Korean War.  In fact, it was during the Korean War that the Marines taught the Army a thing or two about on-call close air support.  In Afghanistan, however, the Marines would have to REQUEST air support through the ISAF.  Maybe they would get it, maybe they wouldn’t.  There was no guarantee that 2/7 Marines would have their USMC Cobra pilots (their combat angels) overhead.

By the time 2/7 arrived in Nawzad, the once-thriving city was already long-abandoned.  It was likely that Taliban or drug trafficking warlords had driven them away.  But Colonel Hall was resourceful and smart.  Before the scheduled deployment of his Battalion, Hall went to Helmand Province and talked to people on the ground.  He came away with the understanding that, despite his (then) stated mission to train a police force, his Marines would do more fighting than training.

A week after Lieutenant Karell’s rock climb, Captain Russ Schellhaas, the Fox Company commander, assigned Karell’s 3rd Platoon to support of his 1st Platoon during an operation that unfortunately found 1st Platoon in the middle of a minefield.  It was a horrible day for twenty-six seriously wounded Marines.  A few days after that, Staff Sergeant Chris Strickland, an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technician was killed while attempting to disarm an improvised explosive device (IED).

The mission of the Marine combat engineer is to enhance the mobility and survivability of ground combat forces.  Among its several specific tasks are expedient demolition, route/area minesweeping operations, and a range of other force protection measures.  Thirty days later, it was Lance Corporal John Shrey’s duty to conduct minesweeping operations while leading Lieutenant Karell and his platoon’s 3rd Squad through a potential IED minefield.  Karell and his Marines followed him as if they were baby ducks.

Once the Marines had made it through the minefield, they concealed themselves in a grove of scrubby underbrush within sight of their point of interest —a supposedly abandoned compound with a single adobe shack.  Intel claimed that insurgents were using the compound as a rallying point, a place where they stored their gear before laying in more IEDs.  North of the rally point was a band of trees, within which was another series of compounds —in distance, about a half-mile in length.  Heavily armed Taliban occupied these compounds and used them as IED factories and safe havens.  According to the 2/7 operations officer, the Taliban were Pakistanis who had come to fight through what the Marines were calling “Pakistan Alley.”  And the Marines knew that it was only a matter of time before they would have to clear it out.  For now, though, the Karell concentrated on the immediate threat: the rally point.

At daybreak, the 3rd Squad could hear the Moslem call to prayer echoing through the northern forest.  Lieutenant Karell also detected the sound of armored vehicles bringing up the rest of his platoon.  Shouts erupted from insurgents just inside the tree line; two Pakis ran from the wood carrying RPGs.  They were unaware of Karell’s presence in the grove.

Enemy machine-gun fire opened-up against a Marine bulldozer as it barreled its way through a minefield, clearing a lane to the rally point.  An RPG was fired at the MRAP carrying Karell’s second squad.  The leader of the 2nd Squad was a young corporal by the name of Aaron Tombleson.  At 23-years of age, Tombleson was responsible for the lives and welfare of twelve Marines.  His point man was Private First Class Ivan Wilson, whom everyone called “Willie.”

Explosions began erupting near the MRAP.  Lieutenant Karell heard a loud detonation and this was followed by the giant tire of an MRAP flying toward 3rd Squad.  With none of his men injured in the blast, Corporal Tombleson quickly transferred his squad to a second vehicle.  It was already a jumbled day and it was still early in the morning.

Marines of Fox Company 2/7 in 2008          Photo credit to Sgt F. G. Cantu, USMC

The bulldozer went on to punch a hole through the wall of the compound but had gotten stuck in the rubble and tight surroundings.  A fire team from 2nd Squad dismounted to provide security for the engineers while they attempted to straighten out the bulldozer.  Willie led the fireteam alongside the MRAP toward the rear of the dozer, but incoming small arms fire began pinging the side of the MRAP.  The fire team took cover and began returning fire.  PFC Wilson on point ran to the edge of the compound and took a kneeling position to return fire.  In that instant, an IED exploded under him.  Lieutenant Karell heard the explosion, followed seconds later by a radio report that the 2nd Squad had four or five casualties with one KIA.

3rd Squad’s Navy Corpsman was HM3 Tony Ameen.  He requested Karell’s permission to move up to help attend to the wounded.  Assuming 2nd Squad’s corpsman was overwhelmed in treating the injured, Karell told Ameen he could go —but only with an engineer to sweep for mines.

With Lance Corporal Shrey leading the way, Ameen and another Corpsman, HM Jack Driscoll, and a few additional Marines to provide security, moved up.  The going was slow.  As the medical team inched forward behind Shrey, another explosion erupted, and a plume of smoke appeared behind the tree line.

“Doc” Ameen, impatient with the rate of march, bolted out of line and rushed forward.  This is what Navy Corpsmen are trained to do.  They run to their wounded Marines —and this explains why 2,012 Navy Corpsmen have been killed in combat since the Navy Medical Corps was founded in 1871.  Forty-two corpsmen lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.  There are 21 U.S. Navy ships named after Navy Corpsmen; they have received over six-hundred medals for valor —including 23 Medals of Honor and 179 Navy Cross medals.

A few steps past Shrey, Ameen stepped on another IED.  Ameen went flying head over heel.  He lost one foot and half of his left hand.  Shrey, knocked to the ground by the concussion and bleeding from both ears, got groggily to his feet.  Despite his injury, Shrey maintained his presence of mind and shouted to Doc Driscoll to halt in place.  LCpl Shrey did not want another casualty among the corpsmen.

Meanwhile, Corporal Tumbleson and seven of his Marines —all that was left of his squad— carried Willie to the MRAP; as the Marines struggled to place him inside the vehicle, Wilson attempted to help them.  It was then that he and realized that his arm was missing.  Willie slipped into unconsciousness.  Nearby, a contingent of ISAF Estonian soldiers rushed forward to help get Willie to the Medevac Landing Zone.

Lieutenant Karell called for an airstrike, which after a few minutes destroyed the compound.  Afterward, Karell moved his platoon forward and occupied the compound.  That afternoon, during retrograde back to Nawzad, another MRAP set off an IED, but there were no more human casualties; the truck was damaged beyond repair.  When the Marines arrived back at the company command post (CP), Karell learned that Willie had died on the medical evacuation helicopter.

Even though 3rd Platoon Marines were shaken and exhausted from the day’s events, Karell assembled them to break the news about PFC Wilson.  Afterward, the Marines never spoke about the battle of the compound —they only talked about the day Willie died.  That night, Karell led an eight-man patrol from 1st Squad back to the enemy rally point.  The Marines had learned that the Taliban often returned to a battle site to assess the damage and lay in more IEDs.  No sooner had Karell and his men reached the area just outside the compound, they heard movement ahead of them.  Apparently, the enemy also heard the Marines approaching and withdrew.  Karell wasn’t looking for another fight —he wanted to get his Marines back in the saddle after losing Wilson.

Conditions in Nawzad were what one might expect in Afghanistan.  2/7 Marines were fighting in temperatures that hovered around 120-degrees Fahrenheit.  The chow sucked —but then, all MREs[5] do.  Critical resupply was continually interrupted by enemy activity along the main supply route (MSR).  There was no running water.  The constant swirling of powdery Afghan dust clogged the Marine’s throats —they were continually rinsing their mouths with water, gargling, and spitting it out.  Lack of contact with the outside world challenged unit morale, but worse than that, the Marines believed that their sacrifices were serving no worthwhile purpose.  They were sent there to train police, but instead, the Marines became the police.  And the fact was that a single battalion of Marines was an insufficient force to deal with the overwhelming number of Taliban/Pakistani insurgents over so large an area.  As a result, the Marines were spread too thin —a direct consequence of President Obama’s decision to withdraw the military from Afghanistan.  There were no replacements for evacuated casualties; the Marines would have to fight with what they had.  Corporal Tombleson’s squad, for example, started off with twelve Marines, casualties reducing it to eight —a 33% reduction in combat efficiency.

The attitudes of Marines of Fox Company mirrored those of the other line companies.  Everyone believed that when 2/7 was pulled out, as one day it must, there would be no one to replace them —and they wondered, if this was true, then why were they in Afghanistan at all?  Staff Sergeant Kevin Buegel, who replaced the wounded and evacuated Staff Sergeant Guest as platoon sergeant, was pissed off.  The very idea of losing Marines for no good purpose was a constant source of irritation.  Eventually, word came down that Obama had reversed his earlier decision to withdraw all US forces.  2/7 would be replaced by another battalion landing team after all.

In late October 3rd Platoon assumed the company vanguard (the point) position when Fox Company plunged into Paki Alley to root out and destroy Taliban forces.  Hall’s 2/7 had already cleared Nawzad but clearing the Taliban from the alley would be a tough fight, as urban-type warfare always is.

Lieutenant Karell’s platoon was engaged in clearing operations; each of his rifle squads moving deliberately through their assigned sectors.  At one location, the 1st Squad encountered a Taliban shooter in the structure’s basement.  Marines called out to him in Pashtu to surrender, but he kept shooting at them with an AK-47.  Corporal Joe Culliver was an intelligence analyst temporarily attached to Fox company.  He wanted the shooter taken alive, if possible; one of the Karell’s Marines told him, “Don’t count on it.”  Nothing the Marines did convinced this shooter that it would be to his advantage to surrender.

1st Squad’s delay of advance was becoming a critical issue because the three squads moving forward provided mutual security during the platoon’s operation.  Lieutenant Karell decided that they’d wasted enough time on this one holdout.  Marines tossed hand grenades into the basement; the insurgent answered with more rifle fire.  Staff Sergeant Buegel was pissed off; he always was about something.  He rigged a C-4 explosive and tossed it into the basement.  Whatever impact the explosion had appeared negligible because the shooter continued to unleash measured fire.  Karell knew that the shooter was wounded, knew that he wasn’t going to surrender, and he knew that he was not going to leave him alive in the rear of his Marines.

Elsewhere in the Alley, the Taliban was putting up one hell of a fight.  The enemy employed mortars, machine guns, and hand grenades against the 3rd Platoon.  Karell needed to close the door on this shooter.  Marines inched down the stairwell and poured hot lead around the adobe corer into the open basement.  The shooter finally went silent.  Karell, with his pistol at the ready, entered the basement with Corporal Culliver right behind him.  The Taliban was laying on the floor along the wall on the far side of the room.  He was badly wounded.  Spread out across the floor in front of him were dozens of needles and empty ampules of morphine.  The shooter was higher than a kite, and this explained his apparent lack of pain.  As Karell approached the shooter, he suddenly heaved, reaching for his AK-47.  One of the Marines behind Karell fired twice, killing the Taliban.

Folks back home believe (because this is what the U.S. media tells them) that the Taliban are deeply religious people, dedicated to their belief system, that they are willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of their god.  This could be true among those who run dozens to hundreds of madrassas, and it may even apply to Afghanistan’s dozens of warlords.  Taliban fighters, on the other hand, are seriously malnourished men radicalized by drug addiction.  Culturally and historically, the average Afghan is opposed to any form of government and there is nothing any western coalition can do to change that.  It is a situation that has existed since the days of Alexander the Great.  The only options available to western forces is that of (a) relieving them of their misery and sending them into whatever awaits them in the afterlife (although, with a population exceeding 36 million people, this is highly unlikely), or (b) leaving them alone.

3rd Platoon fought on.  Now, finally, with the backing of newly assigned cobra gunships, pilots[6] could see Karell’s three squads dangerously separated in the urban setting.  3rd Platoon’s fight lasted well over seven hours.  Karell believed his Marines were making progress, but that’s not what the cobra pilots were seeing.  From their vantage point, dozens of insurgents were swarming eastward toward the Karell’s Platoon.  It was only the gunship’s well-aimed rockets that drove them back toward Pakistan.

After seven hours, Lieutenant Karell was running out of daylight —and everything else— and his platoon was only half-way through the series of walled compounds.  Marine engineers destroyed several IED factories and knew more of them lay ahead.  The problem was that the 3rd Platoon was an insufficiently sized force to seize and hold the compounds.  Worse, the combat engineers were out of explosives —so that even if the 3rd Platoon did capture additional IED factories, there was no way to destroy them.  Captain Schellhaas knew that when he ordered the withdrawal of his platoons, it would be only a matter of time before the insurgents filtered back in.

Caught in the middle of all this was the Afghan farmer who only wanted to raise his poppies in peace[7].  The day following 3rd Platoon’s assault on Paki Alley, Karell led a motorized patrol to a small hamlet known as Khwaja Jamal.  In the spring, someone from this village was always taking pot-shots at patrolling Marines; since then, the insurgents there had either withdrawn or gone underground.  More recently, 2/7 Marines had established a dialogue with village elders.  Everyone in Khwaja Jamal was curious about these American interlopers.  It worked to the Marine’s advantage that their living conditions were equal to those of the poor farmers, but while the Marines —the product of 21st Century American society— enjoyed their creature comforts, Afghanis steadfastly rejected modernization in every form.

Were these villagers’ friend or foe?  A third of them were intent on selling Marines their ample supply of illicit drugs; another third wanted to know about American farming and irrigation techniques —and then there was a group of younger men who demanded to know why the Marines were in Afghanistan at all, how many soldiers they had, and how far could their guns shoot.

In December, when 2/7 was withdrawn, Nawzad was still empty of civilians.  By then, a third of Karell’s platoon had been killed or wounded.  Platoon sergeant Buegel was himself wounded by an IED, but he was one of the lucky ones.  Maybe the good Lord likes cranky people.  Relieved by Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 3/8, BLT 2/7 Marines returned to California to resume their lives.  Some of these men left the Corps at the end of their enlistments, some remained on active duty.  The majority of those who remained on active duty were transferred to other posts or stations.  As new men reported for duty with 2/7, replacing those ordered out, the battalion began its workup for a subsequent tour in Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Karell, who was at the end of his obligated service, decided to remain on active duty.

Sources:

  1. Brady, J. The Scariest Place in the World: A Marine Returns to North Korea.  New York: Dunne Books, 2005
  2. Drury, B., and Tom Clavin. The Last Stand of Fox Company.  New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009
  3. Henderson, K. A Change in Mission.  Washington: Washington Post Company, 2009
  4. Kummer, D. W. S. Marines in the Global War on Terrorism.  Quantico: History Division, USMC.  2014
  5. Martin, R. Breakout—The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.  Penguin Books, 1999.

Endnotes:

[1] Celtiberians were Celticized people inhabiting the central-eastern Iberian Peninsula during the final centuries BC.

[2] There are dozens of explanations for the collapse of Rome, among them corruption, social malaise, and the fact that Rome attempted to incorporate barbarians into the Republic/Empire —people who were culturally non-Roman, and who therefore lacked the uniqueness of Roman esprit-de-corps.

[3] At the end of 2007, the most optimistic description possible for Helmand Province was that it was a gaggle turned stalemate.  When the Marines were sent to Helmand Province, Marine commanders decided they had had enough of fighting battles the Army way; they intended to fight the Taliban on their own terms.  It wasn’t long before the U.S. Army hierarchy in Kabul complained to Washington that the leathernecks had gone rogue; the Marines refused to do anything their Army superiors wanted them to do.  But the Marines know how to win battles.  They win battles through aggressiveness, thinking outside the box, and terrifying the hell out of the enemy.  This mindset is a significant contrast to Army careerism.  The Army began referring to Helmand Province as Marineistan.

[4] Skipper is an informal naval term denoting the Commanding Officer of a Marine company, the Commanding Officer of a Navy ship, or a Navy/Marine Corps aircraft squadron.

[5] Meals, Ready to Eat.  Also, Meals Rejected by Ethiopians.

[6] Every Marine officer is trained as an infantry officer.  A combat pilot knows exactly what his ground counterpart is facing and strives to support the grunts in every way possible.

[7] Fifty-two percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) is generated by their illicit drug trade.  Given that the majority of its 36 million people are happy to remain in the stone age, one wonders how “saving” Afghanistan is in the United States’ national interests.

At the Airport/In Transit

There aren’t enough military airplanes to accommodate every general officer (except in the Air Force), so most flag officers in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps rely on commercial aircraft to get where they need to go.  There is no preferential accommodation, though.  Whether serving as a one-star general or a three-star admiral, they all ride in normal class accommodations because the Government Accounting Office prohibits the pampering of senior military officers at the public’s expense.  Other military personnel uses commercial aircraft, too … only they usually end up paying for it out of their own pockets —such as people traveling home on authorized leave.

Both situations explain how a Marine Corps brigadier general ended up spending time at a commercial airport with an Air Force second lieutenant.  Normally, flag rank officers do not much enjoy talking to lieutenants.  This isn’t so much a matter of snobbishness as it is that general officers were lieutenants once, too, a long time ago, and no one wearing stars today wants to remember how screwed up they were back then.

The brigadier general was in uniform because he was flying officially, attending important meetings.  He was sitting by himself at a small table in a crowded waiting room at an aircraft hub, waiting for a connecting flight.  He was minding his own business, reading a newspaper, drinking a cup of coffee, and munching on a few snacks.

The Air Force second lieutenant was also in uniform.  A recent graduate from the academy, he too was waiting for a connecting flight.  En route to the gate area, he stopped at a local news shop and picked a newspaper, a package of Oreo cookies, and a cup of coffee.  Carrying the purchased articles was difficult because he also had to carry his hat, his briefcase, and his raincoat.  The sooner he put all these things down on a tabletop, the better.  He rushed forward into the waiting area only to find the area packed with other travelers.  Well, except that there was this one fellow sitting alone at a table for two.  Perfect.

The lieutenant rushed over to the table (lieutenants are always rushing around) and hurriedly setting down his several hand-held articles said, “Mind if I sit here, soldier?”

The general unfolded his newspaper long enough to affix his deadliest stare upon the young lieutenant whose own eyes fixated upon the single star on the general’s collar.  Having seen all that he needed to see, and without saying a word, the general went back to reading his paper.  After a few seconds of painful silence, the lieutenant sat down in his chair and set about organizing his personal belongings, which took a few moments because in organizing his personal effects it was necessary that he stand and sit again a few more times.  The raincoat, for example, came off the top of the table and was hung neatly over the back of his chair.  He set his briefcase on the floor beside the chair.  He moved his hat to the side of the table, out of the way, and he laid his folded newspaper in front of him.

At that moment, the general again unfolded his newspaper, re-affixed his death ray stare, and reached over to help himself to an Oreo cookie.  Once the item was firmly grasped in the general’s hand, the newspaper came up again.  The only sound coming from behind the newspaper was that of an Oreo cookie being consumed.

The lieutenant was both aghast and perplexed.  Sure, rank has its privileges, he thought to himself, but there is such a thing as social grace, and here this … general fellow has helped himself to the lieutenant’s Oreo cookies.  Without asking.  Without so much as a damn “by-your-leave.”  Well, the lieutenant reasoned, those are my cookies; I paid for them, and I’ll darn sure eat them.  He then reached across the table, ruffled his fingers through the cookie container, extracted one, and began eating it.  Again, the newspaper unfolded, and the general’s stare returned once more.

Undaunted and refusing to be intimidated, general or no general, the lieutenant ate the cookie, took a few sips of coffee, and returned the general’s stare.  It wasn’t a disrespectful stare, just somewhat rebellious.  And it worked, too.  The general went back to reading his paper.  Life is full of small victories, or so the lieutenant thought.  It was exactly as his Dad told him years ago.

This sharing of cookies went on for a few more minutes until finally, in response to an announcement over the public address system, the general abruptly stood, retrieved his briefcase and hat, and walked off toward a boarding gate.  The package of Oreos, with one cookie remaining, sat on the table.

The lieutenant watched the general’s departure, shook his head, and thought to himself, “That is one very cheeky general.”  Having eaten the final cookie and with another sip of coffee, the lieutenant unfolded his newspaper.  There, inside the newspaper, the young lieutenant discovered his very own unmolested package of Oreo cookies.

Of Note:

  1. I was told this story years ago.  Whether it happened, I cannot say but it did bring a smile to my face, and I hope it does yours as well.

The Gun Maker

There are many positive things to say about the American Republic —along with a few deserved criticisms.  One of my criticisms is that we Americans seem never to learn important lessons from history —so we are continually forced to relearn them.  This relearning process is too often painful for our nation —for its complex society.  Maybe one day we’ll smarten up, but I’m not holding my breath.

Speaking of lessons unlearned, given their experience with the British Army the founding fathers were distrustful of standing armies.  I find this odd because the British Army’s presence within the thirteen colonies prevented hostile attacks against British settlements.  Years later, at the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812, observing how the American militia cut and run when confronted with a well-trained British Army, President James Madison remarked, “I could never have believed so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day.”

Our reliance on state or federal militia to defend our homeland was one of those unlearned lessons.  War is not for amateurs.  Federalized state militias during the American Civil War were not much of an improvement over the Revolutionary War minute men.  History shows us, too, that finding enough resources to fight a war against Spain in Cuba was very close to becoming an unmitigated disaster.  There was only one combat force ready for war in 1898; the U. S. Marine Corps was able to field a single (reinforced) battalion —one that was engaged with the enemy before the Army figured out which of its senior officers was in charge.  Who knows how many horses drowned because the Army couldn’t figure out how to unload them from transport ships and get them to shore.

The United States was still unprepared for combat service at the beginning of the First World War.  Politicians —those geniuses in Washington— had little interest in creating and maintaining a standing armed force.  Worse, our military leaders were incompetent and complacent, and as a result of this, the US military lacked modern weapons.  When Congress declared war against Imperial Germany, the American army was forced to rely on weapons provided by Great Britain and France.  It wasn’t that the United States had no weapons, only that our arsenal was a mishmash of firearms requiring an assortment of munitions that were both inadequate and inefficient for the demands of general war.  In particular, the United States arsenal included ten different revolvers of varying calibers, 12 rifles of foreign and domestic manufacture, and six variants of automatic weapons/machine guns.

Some Background

The Puckle Gun

The world’s first rapid-fire weapon was the brainchild of James Puckle (1667-1724), a British inventor, a lawyer, and a writer, who in 1718 invented a multi-shot gun mounted on a wheeled stand capable of firing nine rounds per minute.  The Puckle Gun consisted of six flintlock barrels, operated manually by a crew.  The barrel was roughly three feet long with a bore measuring 1.25 inches (32mm).  The weapon was hand loaded with powder and shot while detached from its base.  To my knowledge, this device was never used in combat.

Today, we classify machine guns as either light, medium, or heavy weapons.  The light machine gun (with bipod for stability) is usually operated by a single soldier.  It has a box-like magazine and is chambered for small caliber, intermediate power ammunition.  Medium machine guns are general purpose weapons that are belt-fed, mounted on bi-or tripods, and fired using full power ammunition.  The term “heavy machine gun” may refer to water-cooled, belt-fed weapons, operated by a machine gun team, and mounted on a tripod (classified as heavy due to its weight), or machine guns chambered for high-powered ammunition.  Heavy machine gun ammunition is of larger caliber than that used by light and medium guns, usually .50 caliber or 12.7mm.

Gatling Gun

One example of America’s use of rapid-fire weapons was the weapon designed by Richard J. Gatling in 1861, which seems to follow the Puckle design.  Called the Gatling Gun, it was the forerunner of the modern machine gun (and of modern electric motor-driven rotary guns and cannons).  It saw only occasional use during the American Civil War, and only sporadic use through 1911.  It was not an easily transportable weapon.

Wide use of rapid-fire (machine) guns changed the tactics and strategies of warfare.  Magazine or belt fed ammunition gave opposing armies substantial increases in fire power.  No longer could soldiers advance in a frontal assault without incurring massive casualties, which then led to trench warfare.  Machine guns would never have been possible without advances in ammunition —a shift away from muzzle loading single-shot weapons to cartridges that contain the round, propellant, and means of ignition.

The first recoil-operated rapid-fire weapon was the creation of Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1884, a British-American inventor.  The Maxim gun was used by the British in several colonial wars between 1886-1914.  Maxim’s work led to research and development by Hotchkiss[1], Lewis, Browning, Rasmussen[2], Mauser, and others.

First World War 

The only machine guns available to the United States at the beginning of World War I were the Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié, the Chauchat M1915, M1918 (pronounced Show-sha), which was a light machine gun made in France, Belgium, and Poland, the Colt-Vickers (called the potato digger) was a British water-cooled .303 caliber gun, the Hotchkiss 1914, and the Lewis gun[3].  While the Lewis gun was designed in the United States in 1911, no one in the Army’s Ordnance Department was much interested in it, which caused inventor Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis to seek license for its production in the United Kingdom in 1914.

Some of these machine guns were more dependable than others; they are, after all, only machines.  But one consequence of faulty weapons was the needless combat-related deaths of many young men, whose weapons failed to work at critical moments.  Whenever combat troops lose confidence in their weapons, they become less aggressive in combat; they lose their determination to win —they lose battles.

America’s War Department in 1914 was inept.  Not only were the Army’s senior leader’s incompetent, the entire organization was ill-prepared to carry out the will of Congress.  Of course, the Congress might have taken note of these conditions before declaring war on Germany in 1917, but it didn’t.  Before America could go to war, it was necessary to increase the size of the Army through conscription, complete re-armament was necessary, and massive amounts of spending was required to satisfy the needs of general war.  Until that could happen, until war technology could be developed, the American soldier and Marine would have to make do with French and British armaments.

In 1917, John Browning personally delivered to the War Department two types of automatic weapons, complete with plans and detailed manufacturing specifications.  One of these weapons was a water-cooled machine gun; the other a shoulder fired automatic rifle known then as the Browning Machine Rifle (BMR).  Both weapons were chambered for the US standard 30.06 cartridge.  After an initial demonstration of the weapons capabilities with the US Army Ordnance Department, a second public demonstration was scheduled in south Washington DC, at a place called Congress Heights.

On 27 February 1917, the Army staged a live-fire demonstration that so impressed senior military officers, members of Congress, and the press, that Browning was immediately awarded a contract for the production of the BMR and was favored with the Army’s willingness to conduct additional tests on the Browning machine gun.

In May 1917, the US Army Ordnance Department began this additional testing of the machine gun at the Springfield Armory.  At the conclusion of these tests, the Army recommended immediate adoption of Browning’s weapon.  To avoid confusing the two Browning automatic weapons, the rifle became known as the M1917 Rifle, Caliber .30, Automatic, Browning.  Over time, the weapon was referred to as simply the Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR.

What was needed then was a company capable of producing the weapons in the quantities needed to arm a field army —which is to say, three infantry corps, each consisting of three infantry divisions, each of those having three regiments, and each regiment consisting of three infantry battalions.  It would be a massive undertaking.  Since the Colt Firearms Company was already under contract to produce the Vickers machine gun for the British Army, Winchester Repeating Arms Company was designated the project’s primary manufacturer.  Winchester, after providing invaluable service to Browning and the Army in refining the final design to the BAR, re-tooled its factory for mass production.  One example of Winchester’s contribution was the redesign of the ejection port, which was changed to expel casings to the left rather than straight up.

The BAR began arriving in France in July 1918; the first to receive them was the US 79th Infantry Division.  The weapon first went into combat against German troops in mid-September.  The weapon had a devastating impact on the Germans —so much so that France and Great Britain ordered more than 20,000 BARs.

B. A. R.

The Marines, always considered the red-headed stepchildren of the U. S. Armed Forces, now serving alongside US Army infantry units, were never slated to receive these new weapons.  Undaunted, Marines of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment developed a bartering system with co-located units of the 36th Infantry Division.  The Marines traded their Chauchats to the soldiers in exchange for the new BAR.  Given what I know of the average Marine’s ability to scavenge needed or desired resources, I have no doubt that the Marines were able to convince the doggies that one day, the soldiers would be able to retain the French guns as war souvenirs[4], whereas the BARs would have to be surrendered after the war.  Unhappily for the Marines, senior Army officers learned of this arrangement and the Marines were ordered to surrender the BARs and take back their Chauchats.

The BAR was retained in continual use by the US Armed Forces (less the Air Force, of course) from 1918 to the mid-1970s.  The BAR’s service history includes World War I, Spanish Civil War, World War II, Second Sino-Japanese War, Chinese Civil War[5], Indonesian Revolution, Korean War, Palestinian Civil War, First Indochina War, Algerian War, and in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Cyprus, and the Thai-Laotian Border War.

The Man

The BMG and BAR were not Browning’s only accomplishments.

John Moses Browning was born into a Mormon family on 23 January 1855.  His father, Jonathan, was among literally thousands of Mormon pioneers that made their exodus from Illinois to Utah.  The elder Browning established a gun shop in Ogden in1852.  As a Mormon in good standing, Jonathan had three wives and fathered 22 children.

John Browning began working in his father’s gun shop at around the age of seven where he learned basic engineering and manufacturing principles, and where his father encouraged him to experiment with new concepts.  He developed his first rifle in 1878 and soon after founded the company that would become the Browning Arms Company.  In partnership with Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Browning developed rifles and shotguns, from the falling block single shot 1885 to the Winchester Model 1886, Model 1895, the Model 1897 pump shotgun, and Remington Model 8.  He also developed cartridges that were superior to other firearm company designs.

John Moses Browning

Browning Arms Company is responsible for the M1899/1900 .32 ACP pistol, M1900 .38 ACP, M1902 .38 ACP, M1903 Pocket Hammer .38 ACP, M1903 9mm Browning Long, M1903 Pocket Hammerless .32 ACP, M1906/08 Vest Pocket .25 ACP, M1908 Pocket Hammerless .380 ACP, the US M1911A1 .45 ACP, Browning Hi-Power 9mm Parabellum, the Colt Woodsman .22 long rifle, and BDA handguns in .38 and .45 ACP.  He developed ten variants of shotgun, eleven rifles, six machine guns, and was awarded 128 patents. 

The Legacy

What it takes to win battles is reliable weapons expertly employed against the enemy.  John Browning gave us expertly designed, quality manufactured weapons to win battles.

We no longer rely on state militias to fight our wars, but we have taken a turn toward including more reserve organizations in our poorly chosen fights.  The US also has, today, a robust weapons development program to give our Armed Forces a battlefield advantage.  Despite past failures in providing our frontline troops quality weapons, the US Marines have always succeeded against our enemies with the weapons at their disposal.  Occasionally, even entrenching tools were used with telling effect against the enemy.

If American Marines have learned anything at all about warfare since 1775, it is that success in battle depends on never taking a knife to a gunfight.

Sources:

  1. Borth, C. Masters of Mass Production.  Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945.
  2. Browning, J. and Curt Gentry. John M. Browning: American Gunmaker.  New York: Doubleday, 1964.
  3. Gilman, D. C., and H. T. Peck (et.al.), eds. New International Encyclopedia.  New York: Dodd-Mead.
  4. Miller, D. The History of Browning Firearms.  Globe-Pequot, 2008.
  5. Willbanks, J. H.  Machine guns: An Illustrated History of their Impact.  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Endnotes:

[1] Benjamin B. Hotchkiss (1826-1885) was an American who, after the American Civil War, with the US government little interested in funding new weapons, moved to France and set up a munitions factory he named Hotchkiss et Cie.

[2] Julius A. Rasmussen and Theodor Schouboe designed a machine gun that was adopted by the Danish Minister of War, whose name was Colonel Wilhelm Herman Oluf Madsen.  They called it the Madsen Machine Gun.

[3] The invention of Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis in 1911 that was based on the initial work of Samuel Maclean.  The US Army’s ordnance department was not interested in the Lewis Gun because of differences between the Chief of Ordnance, Brigadier General William Crozier and Colonel Lewis.

[4] Larceny has been a Marine Corps tradition since the 1890s.  During World War II, Marines were known to steal hospital sheets from adjacent Navy hospitals, make “captured Japanese flags” out of them, and sell them to sailors and soldiers as war souvenirs.  During the Vietnam War, anything belonging to the Army or Navy that was not tied down and guarded 24-hours a day was liable to end up on a Marine Corps compound.  In 1976, three Marines were court-martialed for stealing two (2) Army 6×6 trucks, attempting to conceal the thefts by repainting the trucks and assigning them fraudulent vehicle ID numbers.  In 1976, our Marines were still driving trucks from the Korean and Vietnam War periods.  Despite overwhelming evidence that these three Marines were guilty as hell, a court-martial board consisting of five Marine officers and a Navy lieutenant, acquitted them.  Apparently, no one sitting as a member of the court thought it was wrong to steal from the Army.

[5] Franklin Roosevelt’s “lend-lease” program provided thousands of US made weapons to the Communist Chinese Army during World War II.  The Communists under Mao Zedong hid these weapons away until after Japan’s defeat, and then used them to good advantage against the Chinese Nationalists.  Some of these weapons were used against American soldiers and Marines during the brief “occupation” of China following World War II.  The United States  government continues to arm potential enemies of the United States, which in my view is a criminal act.