Building the Hive

Nothing happens in war without logistics.”

—Field Marshal Sir William Slim, British Army

USN 001

Some Background

Navy ships cannot remain at sea forever.  Shortly after the establishment of the U. S. Navy, senior officers began planning for ports and facilities that would enable the Navy to build and maintain its vessels, warehouse stores and ammunition, and where the navy could develop training programs for the rank and file.  Included was the requirement to hire civil engineers capable of overseeing its base construction efforts.  The Navy’s first hire was a man named Benjamin Henry Latrobe, an architect.

Latrobe was the son of a Moravian[1] minister of French descent in Yorkshire, England, educated in England and Germany.  A widower, he migrated to the United States with his two young children in 1786.  Latrobe found the profession of civil engineering and architecture in America barely adequate but left it in the hands of careful, thoughtful, professional men.  Latrobe’s building standards dominated in the United States until the American Civil War.

In 1804, the U. S. Navy appointed Benjamin Latrobe Engineer of the Navy Department[2].   Latrobe immediately began drafting plans for the construction of the Washington Navy Yard[3].  In 1809, Latrobe drafted plans for additional navy yards in New York and at Norfolk, Virginia.  Despite his contributions to the emerging Navy Department, Mr. Latrobe was never an employee of the Navy Department; he was a civilian architect contracted by the Navy Department.  The Navy Department did not implement his plan for New York and Norfolk until long after his death.

In 1826, Congress approved funding for the construction of two dry docks (in Boston and Norfolk); the Navy appointed a noted Bostonian engineer to design and construct them.  His name was Loammi Baldwin, a descendant of Deacon Henry Baldwin, an original settler of North Woburn, Massachusetts.  Between 1826-34, Baldwin served as Superintendent of Dry Docks and Inspector of Navy Yards.  Like Latrobe, Baldwin was a contract employee with no official position within the Navy Department.

William P. S. Sanger (1810-1890) was also from Massachusetts.  In 1826, Sanger was apprenticed to Baldwin to learn the trade of civil engineering[4]; between 1827-1834, Sanger represented Baldwin during his absences at the construction of the dry dock in Norfolk, Virginia.  Although Sanger was only a temporary employee initially, he would later play a central role in the development of civil engineering in the Navy and the creation of the Navy Civil Engineering Corps.  In 1836, Sanger was appointed to serve as Civil Engineer for the Navy and assigned to the staff of the Board of Navy Commissioners, a board of three Navy captains who served as the Secretary of the Navy’s principal advisory staff.

Sanger W P S 001
William P. S. Sanger

When the Navy Department reorganized in 1836, the Board of Navy Commissioners was replaced by five bureaus intended to oversee various aspects of naval operations.  The bureau system remained in place for the next 124 years.  The first of these was the Bureau of Navy Yards and Docks, which may serve to illustrate the importance placed on yards and docks by the Navy hierarchy.  Along with this emphasis, the Navy required someone to oversee yards and docks programs, which was never an easy task.  Although the Navy Civil Engineer Corps wasn’t established until 1867, Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur appointed William Sanger Civil Engineer of Yards and Docks in September 1842.

On 2 March 1867, the Navy established its Civil Engineer Corps and charged it with responsibility for constructing and repairing all buildings, docks, and wharves servicing U. S. Navy ships.  Civil engineers would supervise a naval architecture, direct the activities of master builders, and oversee public works initiatives.  Civil engineers were not required to wear a navy uniform until 1881 officers.  From then until today, Navy civil engineers have worn their unique service insignia[5].

In the early 1900s, civilian construction companies worked on a contract basis for the United States Navy.  On the eve of World War II, the number of civilian contractors working for the navy at overseas locations numbered around 70,000 men.  What made this particularly significant was an international agreement making it illegal for civilian employees to resist any armed attack.  To do so would classify them as guerilla fighters and this, in turn, would subject them to summary execution.  This is what happened when the Japanese invaded Wake Island[6].

The concept of a Naval Construction Battalion (NCB) was envisaged in 1934 as a war plan contingency, a concept that received the approval of the Chief of Naval Operations (then, an administrative post rather than an operational one).  In 1935, Captain Walter Allen, a war plans officer, was assigned to represent BuDocks on the war planning board.  Allen presented the NCB concept to the War Planning Board, which included it in the Rainbow Plan[7].

A major flaw in the proposal for NCBs was its dual chain of command; military control would be exercised by line officers of the fleet, while construction operations would fall under the purview of officers of the Civil Engineer Corps.  The plan for NCBs also ignored the importance of military organization, training, discipline, and creating esprit de corps within the force.  Last, at least initially, NCB plans focused almost entirely on the construction of training stations within the Continental United States (CONUS) with little attention to the deployment of NCBs to overseas locations.

Rear Admiral (RAdm) Ben Moreell was a leading proponent for Navy Construction Battalions (CBs, also Seabees).  In December 1937, Moreell became Chief, Bureau of Yards and Docks.  RAdm Moreell (1892-1978) graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering in 1913.  He joined the Navy at the beginning of World War I.  Owing to his educational specialty, the Navy offered him a direct appointment to Lieutenant Junior Grade in the Civil Engineer Corps.  Moreell was assigned to the Azores, where he met and was befriended by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Early in his career, the Navy recognized Moreell for his exceptional ability.  While serving as a lieutenant commander, Moreell was sent to Europe to study military engineering design and construction.  In 1933, he returned to the United States to supervise the Taylor Model Basin in Carderock, Maryland.

Moreell B 001In December 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed the advancement of Lieutenant Commander Moreell to Rear Admiral, by-passing commander, and captain, and appointed him to head the Bureau of Yards and Docks while concurrently serving as Chief of Civil Engineers of the Navy.  With great foresight, Moreell urged the construction of two giant drydocks at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and initiated Navy construction projects on Midway and Wake Island.  The Pearl Harbor project was completed in time to repair navy ships damaged during the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941 and the Midway project was completed in time to play an important role in the Battle of Midway.

By summer 1941, civilian construction crews were working on Guam, Midway, Pearl Harbor, Iceland, Newfoundland, and Bermuda.  Adm. Moreell took the decision that the navy needed to improve its project supervision.  To accomplish this, he requested the establishment of Headquarters Construction Companies, each containing two officers and 99 enlisted men.  The mission of the construction companies involved the conduct of drafting, surveys, and project inspections.  RAdm. Chester W. Nimitz, then serving as Chief, Bureau of Navigation, authorized the 1st Headquarters Construction Company on 31 October 1941; recruitment began in the following month.  The first recruit training class, quite remarkably, began at Newport, Rhode Island on 7 December 1941.

On 28 December 1941, RAdm Moreell requested authority to commission three Naval Construction Battalions.  Approval was granted on 5 January 1942 and a call for qualified recruits went out almost immediately.  The 1st Naval Construction Detachment was organized from the 1st Headquarters Construction Company, which was then assigned to Operation Bobcat in Bora Bora[8].  The Detachment was tasked to construct a military supply base, oil depot, airstrip, seaplane base, and defensive fortifications.  In total, 7 ships and 7,000 men were assigned to the base at Bora Bora.

The 2nd and 3rd Construction companies formed the nucleus of the 1st CB Battalion at Charleston, SC; these were soon deployed as the 2nd and 3rd Construction Detachments.  The 4th and 5th companies formed the 2nd CB Battalion and deployed as the 4th and 5th Construction Detachments.

Seabees 001The dual chain of command issue was finally resolved when Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox gave full authority over the Seabees to the Civil Engineer Corps.  Construction Battalions were officially recognized as Seabees on 5 March 1942.

To safeguard the location of projects in furtherance of advanced base construction, the Navy coded each project.  They were either Lion, Cub, Oak, or Acorn.  Lion 1-6, for example, primarily involved fleet bases projects.  Cub projects numbered 1-12 involved secondary fleet base projects.  Oak and Acorn projects were airfield construction programs.

In the Atlantic, the Seabees’ most complex task was preparation for the Allied landing at Normandy.  Subsequent operations took place along the Rhine and some of these involved “front line” work. 

The Navy-Marine Corps Team

USMC SealMarine Corps historian and author Gordon L. Rottman observed, “…one of the biggest contributions the Navy made to the Marine Corps during World War II was the creation of the Seabees.”  The Marine Corps, in turn, had a tremendous influence on Seabee organization, training, and combat history.

When Seabees first formed, they did not have a functional training facility of their own.  Upon leaving Navy boot camp, Seabee trainees were sent to National Youth Administration camps spread over four states.  To solve this problem, the Marine Corps created tables of organization that included NCBs.  It was through this process that Seabee companies were organized, equipment was standardized, and combatants received intensified military training through various regimental combat and advance base structures.

Early on, the Marine Corps’ requested one Seabee battalion in general support of an Amphibious Corps.  This was initially denied, but before the end of the year, Seabee Battalions 18, 19, and 25 were supporting advanced Marine forces as combat engineers, each of these being attached to composite engineer regiments (the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Marines).

In 1944, the demand for increased infantry caused the Marine Corps to deactivate its engineer regiments, but each Marine division retained a Seabee battalion in general support.  For operations on Iwo Jima, the 133rd and 31st Seabees were attached to the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions.  During the 5th Marine Division’s post-war occupation of China, the 116th Seabees accompanied them.  The 83rd, 122nd, and 33rd Seabees supported the III Amphibious Corps.

Navy Seabees were no “one-trick pony.”  In addition to combat engineering, they also participated as Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs), and Underwater Demolition Teams (UTDs), the forerunner of the Navy Seals organization.

The difficult we do now; the impossible takes a little longer.

During World War II, Seabees constructed 400 advanced bases across the Pacific to Asia, and from the Caribbean and Atlantic to African and European shores.  They frequently landed with assault forces, bringing with them skills in demolition operations, including places such as North Africa, Sicily, Anzio, Southern France, at Normandy, and operations crossing the Rhine River into Germany.  They were builders and fighters.  In the Pacific region, they constructed 111 major airstrips, 441 piers, 2,558 ammunition magazines, 700 square blocks of warehouses, hospitals —and all of it completed in the heat of battle.

Service Partnerships

On 27 October 1943, Allied forces landed on the Treasury Islands group, which were part of the Solomon Islands.  US and New Zealand forces assaulted entrenched Japanese troops as part of an effort to secure Mono and Stirling Islands so that a radar station could be established on the former, with the latter a staging area in preparation for the assault on Bougainville.  By taking the Treasury Islands, Allied forces would isolate Bougainville and Rabaul and eliminate the Japanese garrison.  On 28 November, Fireman First Class Aurelio Tassone, U. S. Navy Reserve, assigned to the 87th Naval Construction Battalion, created a legendary figure of the Seabees astride his bulldozer rolling over enemy positions.  According to the Naval History and Heritage Command …

Tassone-Turnbull 001Petty Officer Tassone was driving his bulldozer ashore during the landing of the Seabees when Lieutenant Charles E. Turnbull, Civil Engineer Corps, USN, told him that a Japanese pillbox was holding up the advance of the landing force from its beachhead.   While Lieutenant Turnbull provided covering fire with his carbine, Tassone drove forward using his front blade as a shield against sustained Japanese automatic weapons fire.  Tassone crushed the pillbox with the dozer blade killing all twelve of its Japanese defenders.  For his courage under fire, Tassone was awarded the Navy Silver Star medal.

During World War II, Seabees earned five Navy Cross medals, and the nation’s third-highest award for exceptional combat service, 33 Silver Star medals.  They also paid a heavy price: 18 officers and 272 enlisted men killed in action.  An additional 500 Seabees died as a result of non-combat injuries while performing hazardous construction operations.

During the Korean War, 10,000 World War II Era Seabees were recalled to active service.  They served during the landing at Inchon and participated in combat activity elsewhere, performing magnificently as combat engineers.  While Seabees were fighting in Korea, others were constructing an air station at Cubi Point, Philippine Islands —a massive undertaking that necessitated the removal of a two-mile stretch of mountain foothills, which, after having removed 20 million cubic yards of soil, became a project equivalent to the construction of the Panama Canal.

Seabees deployed to Vietnam twice during the 1950s.  In June 1954 they supported Operation Passage to Freedom; two years later Seabees were deployed to map and survey the roads in South Vietnam.  In 1964, Seabees constructed outlying operational bases and fire support bases near Dam Pau and Tri Ton.  Beginning in 1965, NCB personnel supported Marines at Khe Sanh and Chu Lai.

Shields Marvin CM3 USN
CM3 Marvin Shields, USN

On the night of 9 June 1965, the unfinished Army Special Forces camp at Dong Xoai was mortared and attacked by the 272nd Viet Cong Regiment, an assault by an estimated 2,000 communist troops.  The Special Forces camp fell to the enemy the next morning.  Having been wounded by mortar fire during the assault, Construction Mechanic Third Class Marvin G. Shields fought alongside his Special Forces counterparts helping forward positions in the resupply of much-needed ammunition.  Wounded for a second time by shrapnel and shot in the jaw on 10 June, he helped carry wounded soldiers to safer positions, including the fallen commanding officer.  After four more hours of intense fighting and greatly weakened by the loss of blood, Shields volunteered to help Second Lieutenant Charles Q. Williams, destroy an enemy machine gun outside the perimeter, which was threatening to kill everyone in an adjacent district headquarters building.  During this fight, Williams was wounded for the third time, and Shields for the fourth time, shot in both his legs.  Although evacuated, Shields died on the aeromedical evacuation helicopter.  Petty Officer Shields became the first and the only Seabee to receive the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life beyond the call of duty.  Shields and Petty Officer William C. Hoover lost their lives and seven additional Seabees received wounds that required medical evacuation during this battle.

More than 5,000 Seabees served in the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iraq War.  Since 1990, Seabees have provided vital construction skills in support of civil action programs across the globe, including the Middle East, the Philippine Islands, and in response to natural disasters inside the United States.  At the present time, there are six active-duty Navy Mobile Construction Battalions (NMCBs), split between Atlantic and Pacific fleet commands.

There is no question whether the United States will again face a significant national emergency.  When that happens, we can only hope (and pray) that we will still have available to us a lethal and exceedingly competent Naval Mobile Construction Battalion: America’s Fighting Seabees.

Sources:

  1. Historian, Naval Facilities Engineering Command. History of the Seabees.  Washington, 1996.
  2. Huie, W. B. Can Do!  The Story of the Seabees.  Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1997
  3. Huie, W. B. From Omaha to Okinawa, The Story of the Seabees.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012
  4. Kubic, C. R., and James P. Rife. Bridges to Baghdad: The U. S. Navy Seabees in the Iraq War.  Thomas Publications, 2009
  5. L. Germany First: The Basic Concept of Allied Strategy in World War II.  US Army Center of Military History, 1960
  6. Olsen, A. N. The King Bee.  Trafford Publishing, 2007

 Endnotes:

[1] Moravia was a crown land of the Bohemian Crown from 1348 to 1918, an imperial state within the Holy Roman Empire from 1004 to 1806, and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1804-1867.

[2] At this time, the Navy Department consisted of the Secretary of the Navy, three clerks, and the Chief Engineer.

[3] Navy officials ordered the Washington Navy Yard fired to keep it out of the hands of the British invaders in 1814.  The essential design of the navy yard remains a Latrobe design and the main gate on Eighth Street is the original base entry point.

[4] In 1826, the only formal training in engineering was the US Military Academy.  All other training was informally achieved through apprenticeships.

[5] It was never clear that the Act of 2 March 1867 intended civil engineers to serve as commissioned officers; the wording is too brief and vague for an adequate conclusion, but as the act stated, “… shall be appointed by the president …” the Secretary of the Navy assumed that his civil engineers should be commissioned as officers of the U. S. Navy.  The Secretary did not implement this interpretation until 1 January 1869, but dates of rank were backdated to 13 March 1863.

[6] When the Japanese invaded Wake Island on 23 December 1941, 70 civilian construction workers were killed when they took up arms against the Japanese.  After the fall of the island, 1,104 civilian construction workers were taken into captivity and forced to perform labor in the construction of Japanese defensive positions.  Of these, 180 died in captivity believed starved and beaten to death by brutish Japanese guards.

[7] American war planners realized that the United States faced the possibility of war on multiple fronts, against a coalition of enemies, the Joint Planning Board of the Army and Navy developed a new series of war plans.  They were called the Rainbow Plans … color-coded plans drawn up previously.

[8] An island in the leeward group of the western part of the Society Islands in French Polynesia.

The Better General

Union-Confederate FlagsDuring a recent holiday excursion across several states, my wife and I visited the National Battlefield Park at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  One who is interested in such things cannot help being overwhelmed by the events of this key battle during the American Civil War —155 years ago in July.  It may be an understatement to suggest that this battle was a disaster on many levels, all of which tend to demonstrate that General Robert E. Lee was not a great field commander of the Southern cause.  This is not an undue criticism —particularly in view of the human carnage suffered by the Army of Northern Virginia and the ultimate failure of General Lee to achieve his objectives, which were, at best, if not vague, unattainable.

Much has already been written about the Battle of Gettysburg by those far more qualified than I, so it is not my intent to describe it further here.  But I am intrigued by the relationship between General Lee and his principle lieutenant, James Longstreet.  Lee referred to Longstreet as his “old war horse.”

Robert E. Lee 001Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) (called Rob by his family) was the son of Henry Lee III[1] and Anne Hill Carter[2].  Lee was a top graduate of the U. S. Military Academy (USMA) (class of 1829) who was trained as an engineer and served in the United States Army for 32 years.  For most of that time, Lee performed the duties of a field engineer, not a combat commander.  As a military engineer, Lee was a builder and participated in numerous projects.  He was involved in the early construction of shore fortifications in Georgia (Fort Pulaski), with later assignments at Fort Monroe, Virginia, leading survey teams to Ohio and Michigan, and in helping to develop the St. Louis harbor area.

Lee (whose ancestors migrated to the American colonies from Shropshire, England in 1639) married Mary Anna Randolph Custis (1808-1873), a great-granddaughter of Mary Washington through her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis (and a step-great granddaughter of George Washington) and the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis.  The couple married on 30 June 1831, altogether siring seven children.

During the Mexican American War, Lee served as a staff officer under General Winfield Scott, and from every account, Lee provided invaluable advice to his field commander during the war.  Between 1846 and 1855, Lee received brevet promotions to major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel while retaining his permanent rank of captain in the corps of engineers.  Following the Mexican American War, Lee served at Fort Carroll in Baltimore, and with a survey team in Florida.  It was a challenging period in Lee’s life because of his wife’s debilitating illnesses.  Over time, with her husband’s frequent absences from her side, Mary became bitter toward him.  When Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee was appointed Superintendent of the USMA, Mary Lee did not join him at West Point in 1852.

In 1855, Lee received his first combat arms assignment when transferred to the cavalry and assigned as the deputy commander, 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Texas, serving under Albert Sidney Johnson[3] at Camp Cooper, Texas.  His father-in-law’s death in 1857 forced Lee to take a two-year absence from his military duties to attend to matters at home.  The family’s financial situation was dire, which forced Lee to manage the plantation by himself.  From every account, Lee’s management style (toward Negroes) was harsh, even for the time, and particularly so after several slaves rebelled against his authority.  It was an incident that led Lee to redistribute black families to various properties of his deceased father-in-law’s vast holdings.  Despite these “management” issues, Lee was a gradual emancipationist who not only provided for the manumission of his personal slaves in his will, but he actively supported the establishment of a free republic in Liberia for the transportation of blacks back to Africa.  In effect, Lee did not believe that America was a suitable place for Negroes.

In 1859, Lee returned to active service with the U. S. Army.  Two important events took place in 1859 and 1860; (then) Lieutenant Colonel Lee was involved in both.  In October 1959, John Brown led a band of abolitionists to Harpers Ferry, Virginia and seized the federal arsenal.  It was Brown’s intent to provoke a slave rebellion in western Virginia.  Lee commanded detachments of state militia and US Marines[4] (under Lieutenant Israel Greene) to suppress the rebellion and arrest its leaders.

In 1860, Lieutenant Colonel Lee assumed command of Fort Brown, Texas during the so-called Cortina War.  Texas Ranger John “Rip” Ford offered a complimentary description of Lee at the time: dignified, calm, and a quality leader.  When Texas seceded from the Union in February 1861, General Dave E. Twiggs[5] surrendered US forces (about 4,000 men, including Lee) to the Texans.  Paroled, Lee returned to Washington and assumed command of the 1st US Cavalry Regiment.  In April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln offered Lee an appointment to Major General in the US Army, but Lee refused based on his belief that his first duty was to the state of Virginia, who seceded from the Union.  Scholars tell us that Lee believed secession was a grave mistake, but as a man of honor, Virginia’s secession prompted Lee’s resignation from the U. S. Army.  With this duty fulfilled, he returned home (present day Arlington National Cemetery).

Lee’s initial service as part of the Confederacy found him in command of two Confederate brigades (seven regiments) in western Virginia.  In this role, Lee demonstrated his lack of qualification to serve as a battlefield commander and was highly criticized for his defeat at the Battle of Cheat Mountain[6].  Nevertheless, Confederate President Jefferson Davis retained him in service to organize coastal defenses along the Carolina and Georgia seaboard.  In November 1861, Lee received appointment as Commander, Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.  He successfully defended Savannah by blocking the Union’s attempt to occupy that city.  Lee’s plan for the defense of Savannah allowed the city to hold out against Union forces until the end of 1864.

George B. McClellanIn the Peninsula Campaign during the spring of 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac advanced on Richmond, Virginia from Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia.  Union General George B. McClellan forced Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson and the Army of Virginia back to a point just north and east of the Confederate capital.  When Johnson was wounded at Seven Pines, Lee assumed command and re-named his army the Army of Northern Virginia.  Lee did not inspire the confidence of the southern press, however.  After three weeks of shoring up his defensive positions around Richmond, Lee launched a series of audacious assaults against McClellan’s forces.  McClellan, unnerved, abandoned the Peninsula Campaign by withdrawing his army 25 miles to the lower James River.  One effect of McClellan’s timidity was President Lincoln’s adoption of relentless warfare.  Lee defeated General John Pope at the Second Battle of Manassas and moved the forward edge of the battle area to within twenty miles of the nation’s capital.

Robert E. Lee was fourteen years older than James Longstreet, but in several respects, they were remarkably similar personalities.  Both graduated from West Point at the age of 21, both men distinguished themselves during the Mexican American War (Lee, as a staff officer and Longstreet as a combat commander), and both men expressed reservations about the secession of southern states.  This may be the place where their similarities end.

James Longstreet 001James Longstreet, who went by the familiar name “Pete[7],” was born on 8 January 1821 in Edgefield, South Carolina (present day Edgefield County, Georgia).  He was the third son born to James Longstreet (1783-1833) (of Dutch descent) and Mary Ann Dent (1793-1855) (of English descent).  Mary was originally from New Jersey and Maryland.  The Longstreet’s owned a cotton plantation near present-day Gainesville, Georgia.  Long before Pete was born, the Longstreet name was anglicized from Langestraet.

Longstreet’s father wanted his son to pursue a military career and, recognizing limited educational opportunities in the rural setting, sent his son to live with uncle Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, in Augusta, Georgia.  James spent eight years on his uncle’s Westover Plantation.  While there, James attended the Academy of Richmond County.  James’ father died from cholera while visiting Augusta in 1833.  Afterward, Pete’s mother and other siblings relocated to Somerville, Alabama while he remained in the care of his uncle.

Unlike many of our modern boys, James was raised to appreciate and excel in manly activities.  He was an exceptional shot with the rifle and pistol, and strong swimmer, a skilled hunter, and an accomplished horseman.  During the time of his youth, Georgia was a frontier where the so-called southern traditions had not yet taken hold.  Socially, “Pete” was rough around the edges, known for his profanity, a preference for strong drink, and playing cards—a legacy passed to him from his uncle.  Pete expressed no interest in political matters, despite the prominence of his Uncle Augustus in local politics.  Augustus was a lawyer, a judge, a newspaper editor, a Methodist minister, and a staunch “states’ rights” partisan who, during the Nullification Crisis[8], supported the state government of South Carolina.  It is likely that James was influenced by his uncle’s beliefs even if he did not embrace them publicly.

In keeping with his brother’s wishes, Augustus attempted to obtain a congressional appointment for James to attend the USMA in 1837, but at the time, a vacancy for the congressional district in Georgia was unavailable.  Instead, James received an appointment to attend the USMA in 1838 through Representative Ruben Chapman, First Congressional District of Alabama (where his mother resided).  While Pete Longstreet was an accomplished athlete at the USMA, he was somewhat less gifted in academic pursuits.  He ranked in the bottom third of his class in each of his four years at the academy.  Nevertheless, Longstreet was significantly influenced in his training by Professor Dennis Hart Mahan[9], who stressed the importance of swift maneuvering, protection of interior lines, and strategic positioning rather than making attempts to destroy an opposing force.  Longstreet’s tactical and strategic methods during the Civil War reflect Mahan’s emphases.

Upon graduation, Longstreet was ranked 54th of 58 cadets in the class of 1842 and while he may not have set the bar in academic pursuits, he did establish important friendships with several individuals destined to become prominent military men in subsequent years, including Ulysses S. Grant.  In any case, Brevet Second Lieutenant James Longstreet proceeded to this first posting with the 4th US Infantry at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.  In Missouri, Longstreet’s commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel John Garland.  Second Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant joined the regiment a year later.

In 1844, Longstreet met the daughter of his commanding officer, Maria Louisa Garland, whom he would later marry.  At the same time, Ulysses S. Grant began courting Longstreet’s fourth cousin, Julia Dent, whom he married.  Some historians believe Longstreet was “best man” at Grant’s wedding … the point being that Longstreet and Grant had established a close relationship long before the Civil War that would, for a time, divide them.

Over the next two years, Longstreet served in Louisiana and Florida, finally receiving his appointment to regular Second Lieutenant in March 1945.  When the 4th Regiment joined the 3rd Regiment in South Texas, Longstreet was reunited with several of his friends[10].

Pete Longstreet served with distinction during the Mexican American War.  Assigned to the 8th US Regiment under Zachary Taylor in 1846, Longstreet participated in the battles of Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, and the Battle of Monterrey.  During this last engagement, Longstreet (now commanding two companies of infantry), was assaulted by around two-hundred mounted lancers, which initially forced the American infantry to withdraw.  Longstreet, however, quickly reorganized his men and led a counterattack that resulted in the destruction of about half of the Mexican force.  He subsequently participated in the battles of Contreras and Churubusco, both of which were pivotal in seizing Mexico City.  The 8th Regiment was the only force in General William J. Worth’s division to reach the earthworks and it was Longstreet who carried the regimental colors to the Mexican positions.

Exposed to heavy enemy fire from above, Longstreet led his troops into a ditch seeking shelter.  Once there, however, Longstreet realized that the walls were so tall that the only way his men could scale the Mexican earthwork was by forming human ladders.  Eventually, the Americans prevailed, but only after fierce hand to hand fighting.  For this action, Longstreet was brevetted[11] to Captain.  Following the Battle of Molino del Rey, he was brevetted to the rank of major.  During the Battle of Chapultepec on 12 September 1847, Longstreet received a serious gunshot wound to his thigh.  Falling, he handed the regimental colors to a subordinate, (then) Lieutenant George E. Pickett, who continued the charge to the summit of the castle.  Longstreet was evacuated to Casa de Escandón, where he received treatment for his wound.  Slow to heal, Longstreet did not leave the Escandón home until December 1847.

Following the war, Pete served in several administrative assignments, including recruiting duty, as a pay master, and as a commissary officer[12].  Longstreet, typical of officers with distinguished combat service, preferred assignments in command of troops.  He requested assignment to the horse-mounted infantry[13], but his request was denied.  He did serve on frontier duty in Texas and fought several engagements against the Comanche and Mescalero Apache Indians.  In Texas, he served at Fort Scott near Fredericksburg and he commanded the garrison at Fort Bliss, Texas in 1856 and 1858[14].  In summary, Longstreet’s post-war military assignments were typical of most other “civil war” generals, north or south[15].

States Rights 001In 1860, the term “United States” was laughable.  There was nothing “united” about the states.  Sectionalism controlled the political debate, with such issues as States’ Rights and slavery occupying the top two tiers.  These were important issues of the day —emotional issues which lead to significant disunion within the states and in the Congress.  The question that confronted military officers was whether their loyalty belonged to the federal government, or to their home states[16].  Those who believed that states must always subordinate themselves to the will of the federal government elected to serve with the Union; those who believed, as Lee and Longstreet did, that their primary loyalty belonged to their home states, resigned their military commissions and returned home.  After the Battle of Fort Sumter, Longstreet agonized over the issue of secession.  At the time, he was serving as a paymaster in Albuquerque, New Mexico Territory.  Ultimately, he resigned his commission because, in his view, there was no other honorable course of action available to him.

Although born in South Carolina and raised in Georgia, Pete Longstreet offered his services to the State of Alabama, and did so for several reasons.  First, his appointment to the USMA came from Alabama.  Second, Alabama was the home of his mother, and third, as the senior-most officer from Alabama, he was in line to receive a prominent position within the Confederate army.  Longstreet resigned his US Army commission on 8 May 1861 and accepted a commission from the State of Alabama as a confederate lieutenant colonel.

Summoned to Richmond, Virginia by the President of the Confederacy, Longstreet met with Jefferson Davis on 22 June where he was offered advancement to brigadier general.  He accepted this appointment on 25 June and reported for duty under Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard[17] at Manassas junction.  There, Longstreet was assigned command of a brigade consisting of the 1st, 11th, and 17th Virginia infantry within the Confederate Army of the Potomac.  Longstreet immediately set about training his staff and regiments.  The Civil War began in earnest for Longstreet when Major General Irvin McDowell marched his army into Manassas with the expectation of bringing the rebellion to a quick end.  Longstreet’s Brigade saw its first action on 18 July at Blackburn’s Ford in a clash with Brigadier General Daniel Tyler.  When Tyler’s troops pushed the rebels back, Longstreet drew his sword and led his men forward to re-capture lost ground.  Elements of Colonel Jubal Early’s brigade rushed forward to reinforce Longstreet, but inexperienced and poorly trained riflemen fired into the backs of Longstreet’s Virginians.  Tyler withdrew from the field because his orders were to avoid a major battle with Confederate forces.

Northern forces believed they were preserving the union, but in the minds of the Confederates, they were defending their homes from “Yankee aggression.”  In these early days, Confederate forces waged a defensive strategy, one that worked for them during the first two years of the war.  One after another, Union incursions were defeated by rebels who were defending their homeland.  This, Longstreet believed, was the morally correct strategy.

In May 1863, Longstreet was a lieutenant general commanding the 1st Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.  In this capacity, Longstreet was Lee’s deputy commander, with whom he was at odds in the matter of invading northern territories.  Longstreet supported the defense of Confederate states; he did not support the invasion of Union states or territories.  Moreover, Longstreet knew (as Lee should have known) that the Confederate army could not realistically expect success against its Union opponent.   The US Army had far greater access to recruitment (replacements), armaments, mobility, and logistical support to field armies.

George Meade 001
Union Commander at Gettysburg George Meade

Upon arriving at Gettysburg, Lieutenant General Longstreet was not surprised to find an army twice as large as his own.  What did surprise him was General Lee’s stubborn insistence that a battle be waged there.  It caused him to argue strenuously with Lee to withdraw his army and find a terrain more suitable for a battle that favored the Confederates.  Lee could not be persuaded.  Worse, Lee was reckless in the deployment of his three corps.  In giving Brigadier General J. E. B. Stuart wide latitude in his ranging activities, Lee had no one to blame but himself for Stuart’s absence until 2 July 1863.  Lee wanted a victory at Gettysburg, and he wanted it immediately.  In trying to achieve it, however, Lee made battlefield decisions without full knowledge of the strength or disposition of his enemy.

Having lost the argument for withdrawal, Longstreet urged Lee to allow him to aggress the high ground on the Union left.  Lee again denied Longstreet’s request, ordering instead a frontal attack into the center of the Union line, which Lee believed was lightly defended.  For Longstreet’s Corps to arrive at that position, however (from the far-right flank of the Confederate line), it demanded a series of oblique movements across an open field of nearly one mile to the Union defenses.  It took a long time for those men to execute that assault, but worse than this, Longstreet’s hour long artillery preparatory fires directed toward the Union center made his intentions known to the George Meade, the Union commander.  While federal artillery answered Longstreet in counter-battery fire, Meade quickly reinforced the center line with infantry and short canister artillery.

Much has been written about the Battle of Gettysburg, evaluated in retrospect by men endowed with 20-20 vision.  Commanders make mistakes, of course —after all, they are mere human beings.  Lee’s invasion of the north had serious consequences not only for the men who fought at Gettysburg, but also for the war, which raged for another two years.  Having invaded the north, there was no other way for the war to end except by the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy.  We must wonder how the war might have ended had Longstreet, rather than Lee, been appointed as General of the Army of Northern Virginia.

In fairness, Robert E. Lee was a very ill man from around late 1862 when he suffered at least one heart attack (some suggest as many as five).  On this basis alone, Lee should have resigned his commission.  If not that, then the Confederate administration should have replaced him with someone healthier and who had a better understanding of military strategy.  There is no question that, considering Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet, “Old Pete” was the better general.  He was an exceptional field commander; he would not have sought a confrontation on northern territory; he would not have squandered the lives of so many men in a campaign that could not have been won.

Lee succumbed to his heart disease in 1870.  Subsequently, Lee became a deity in the defeated south.  He was worshipped by his men, whom he wasted in horrifically large numbers, by those who refused to relinquish the southern cause, even for the next one hundred years, and by those who turned their vitriol upon the superior field commander: James Longstreet.  Longstreet became the target of southern venom because of his post-war support for the rights of black Americans.  His critics were former soldiers, statesmen, and members of the southern press who ignored the fact that Pete Longstreet worked hard on behalf of Civil War veterans (north and south) throughout the Reconstruction Era.  They were small-minded fellows (Democrats) who criticized Longstreet for joining the Republican Party, for endorsing Ulysses S. Grant for the presidency (in 1868), and for taking on government roles during and after Reconstruction.

No general officer in our country’s history warrants deification … not Washington, Taylor, Lee, Longstreet, or even more recently, “Mad Dog” Mattis.  These men accepted commissions and the heavy burden of command.  They owed no loyalty to their political masters, but the were obligated to their purpose, which in this tale, was either defending and protecting the Constitution of the United States, or their solemn commitment to protect their homeland.  Equally important, they owed their loyalty to the men whom they sent into harm’s way.  There can be no greater calling for a military officer than to lead men into a great battle —and lead them well.

If Robert E. Lee has a legacy, it is that he violated the trust and confidence placed in him to defend the homeland, he failed to attend to the welfare of his men and preserve them, as much as possible, in the crucible of war.

Sources:

  1. Coddington, E. B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command.  Simon & Schuster, 1968.
  2. Connolly, T. L. The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society. 1978.
  3. Knudsen, H. M. General James Longstreet: The Confederacy’s Most Modern General.  Word Association Publishing, 2007.
  4. Longstreet, J. From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America.  Lippencott Publishing, 1896.
  5. Lynch, J. D. Robert E. Lee, or, Heroes of the South.  A Poem.
  6. Railton, B. The Saturday Evening Post, 2 May 2019: Considering History: Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and the Truths of Civil War Memory.
  7. Sawyer, G.  James Longstreet: Before Manassas and After Appomattox.  Sawyer House, 2005.

Endnotes:

[1] Also known as “Light Horse Harry Lee,” a distinguished Revolutionary War major general.  Subsequent to his military service, economic downturns financially ruined Henry who ultimately spent a year of his life in debtor’s prison.  When Harry Lee opposed the War of 1812, he was beaten nearly senseless by a mob of Democrats from Baltimore.  The result of these injuries forced Lee into convalescence, but he never fully recovered.  He died on 25 March 1818 while in the care of Louisa Greene, the daughter of Nathaniel Greene, at Cumberland, Georgia.

[2] Daughter of Charles Carter (1732-1808), the fifth-generation owner of Shirley Plantation and a distinguished family of Tidewater, Virginia.

[3] Albert Sydney Johnson (1803-1862) served as a general officer in three separate armies: the Texian Army, the U. S. Army, and the Confederate States Army.  In a career spanning 34 years, Johnson was a seasoned combat officer with service in the Black Hawk War, the Texas War of Independence, the Mexican American War, the Utah War, and the American Civil War.  Despite his prowess as a field commander, statues of Johnson have been removed in Texas and schools named in his honor were renamed in 2018.  If there is any shame in Texas history, this is it.

[4] When Secretary of War John B. Floyd learned of the rebellion, the Virginian may have had visions of Haitian rebellion in the early 1800s and Nat Turner’s rebellion and their resulting carnage of whites.  Floyd ordered a message delivered to Lee, who at the time, was at home in Arlington, Virginia, which detailed Lee to assume command of the US reaction forces.  President James Buchanan was dissatisfied with Floyd’s re-action and urged him to rush troops to Harpers Ferry.  Apparently, an artillery battery was already en route from Fort Monroe to Baltimore, but their movement was taking too long.  To assist, Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey offered a detachment of Marines from the Washington Navy Yard.  Ultimately, an expedition of fifty Marines proceeded to Harpers Ferry to help quell the disturbance.  After commanding his force to “charge” the arsenal, the fight lasted less than five minutes.  Lee was complimentary of Lieutenant Greene and his Marines during this episode.

[5] See also, David Emanuel Twiggs.

[6] Fought between 12-15 September 1861 in Pocahontas and Randolph counties, Virginia (present day, West Virginia).  Lee attempted to surround the Union garrison atop Cheat Mountain, but the attack was never launched due to faulty intelligence and poor communications among the rebel forces, inadequate supplies, and poor weather.

[7] Nicknamed by his father because of his rock-like character.

[8] Nullification was a political argument, taken directly from the Bill of Rights, which held that states were entitled to nullify any federal law that infringed on the rights of states.  The issue as it first surfaced in the early 1790s eventually led to the formation of political parties in the United States, and this in turn polarized the nullification debate between those who believed in the supremacy of the federal government over the states, and those who believed that the federal government could not impose laws upon the states that violated the Tenth Amendment of the US Bill of Rights; specifically, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” 

[9] Mahan’s books became standard textbooks used in military academies throughout the western world through the First World War.  His lectures and writings about field strategy and fortification were instrumental during the Civil War, used by officers on both sides of the conflict.  From Mahan, Longstreet learned the importance of topography and the use of terrain to achieve advantages in combat.  Mahan’s son was Alfred Thayer Mahan, who became an important influence in the use of naval warfare in the emerging United States after 1877.

[10] The placement of US military units in Texas in 1844-1845 suggests that the United States anticipated a war with Mexico resulting from the admittance of Texas into the Union, which in fact broke out in 1846.

[11] Brevet promotions were temporary advancements in rank (without pay increases) in recognition of courage in the face of the enemy.

[12] A commissary officer was responsible for the procurement and distribution of food for troops and animals.  While not a particularly exciting duty, it was an experience that gave Longstreet an appreciation for the complexities of logistical support of front-line troops.

[13] Prior to the Civil War, the US Army did not have formal “cavalry” units.  Called dragoons, horse-mounted units were simply mobile infantry troops tactically employed as riflemen (although the distinction between the two may be slight).

[14] In 1858, Longstreet visited his friend Ulysses Grant in St. Louis, Missouri.  By this time, Grant had left the Army to pursue business interests, which were largely unsuccessful.  Longstreet found his friend extremely poor, depressed, and frequently inebriated.

[15] Our knowledge of Longstreet’s activities between 1848-1861 are limited by the fact that he was not known as a diarist and what papers he might have had were destroyed in a house fire in 1889.

[16] For many southern officers, the question was never about maintaining their loyalty to the US Constitution; it was rather a belief that the federal government had violated the Constitution in the matter of states’ rights.

[17] Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard (1818-1893) was the first prominent Confederate general officer of the American Civil War.  Beauregard served with distinction and gallantry during the Mexican American War and the Civil War.  He was raised in a prominent Creole family in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, finished second in his class at the US Military Academy, became an accomplished military engineer, and in 1861 served as the Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point.  He was dismissed from this assignment after only a few days because of his vocal sympathy for the Southern cause.  He subsequently resigned his commission from the U. S. Army and offered his services to the Confederacy.  Beauregard was the first general officer appointed by the Confederacy and was placed in command of the defenses of Charleston, South Carolina.  It was Beauregard who ordered the first shots of the Civil War resulting in the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861.  At Manassas, he served as second in command to General Joseph E. Johnson.

Airborne Marines

USMC-USN Parachutist BadgeSimilar to the development of U. S. Marine Corps raider battalions, the genesis of airborne qualified Marines came from our European allies during World War II.  In May 1940, the Commandant of the Marine Corps tasked his Plans and Policy branch to conduct a feasibility study for the utilization of Marine parachute troops.  General Holcomb asked his staff to plan for one battalion of infantry at full strength, one platoon of 75-mm pack howitzers (two guns per platoon), issued three units of fire for all weapons, three days of rations and water, adding light anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons as appropriate, and no vehicles beyond hand-drawn carts.

While the plans and policy branch considered the Commandant’s proposal, various naval attaches began collecting reports on the use of parachute forces by Germany, Russia, and France.

The plans and policy branch considered the Commandant’s proposal and came up with three possible scenarios where parachute units might be employed as a Marine combat force:

  • As a reconnaissance and raiding force with limited ability to return to its parent organization or base. In this application, planners assumed that the unit’s objective was sufficiently vital to the interests of the force commander that he was willing to sacrifice the entire organization to complete it, or
  • As a spearhead or advance unit whose mission would be to seize and hold a strategic objective until the arrival of larger, reinforcing organizations, or
  • As an independent force operating for extended periods as a guerrilla force within enemy held territory.

HOLCOMB T 001By October 1940, the Commandant decided that an element from one infantry battalion of each regiment would be trained as “air troops.”  Each air troop battalion would host a company of parachutists, estimating a total airborne force of 750 parachute qualified Marines.  The Commandant’s decision had nothing to do with transforming amphibious troops into air assault forces, but rather to increase the combat capability of the Marine infantry division —the same rationale he used in approving raider battalions.

Two Marine officers and 38 enlisted men reported to the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey for parachute training in late October 1940.  By early November, they had completed tower training and were sent to Quantico, Virginia for added physical conditioning prior to making their first jump.  A second group of Marines (3 officers and 44 enlisted men) began their initial training at the end of December.  Both groups graduated from parachute training on 26 February 1941, each man qualified as parachute jumpers and riggers.  Additional training occurred throughout the Spring and by mid-summer, a total of 225 jumpers had graduated from the Lakehurst course.

But NAS Lakehurst was inadequate for the training of so many Marines in such a compressed period of time, so Captain Marion L. Dawson, USMC was sent to San Diego in February 1941 to prepare additional facilities there.  In March, the entire graduating class of the second training group was transferred to San Diego to form the 1st Platoon, Company A, 2nd Parachute Battalion.  They were later joined by the third graduating class, who formed the 2nd Platoon, Company A.

Meanwhile, Company A of the 1st Parachute Battalion was formed at Quantico, Virginia on 10 July 1941 and to avoid confusion while in the process of growing a new battalion, Company A of the 2nd Parachute Battalion (San Diego) was renamed as Company B, 1st Parachute Battalion.  The parachute battalion headquarters element was activated on 15 August 1941, with Captain Marcellus J. Howard, USMC as its first commanding officer.  Howard relocated his emerging battalion to New River, North Carolina for further training on 28 September.  The 1st Parachute Battalion was fully formed on 1 March 1942, while the 2nd Parachute Battalion was activated on 23 July 1941 under the command of Captain Charles E. Shepard, Jr. and declared at full strength on 3 September 1942.

There were no shortages of volunteers for parachute training, but the requirements for entering the program were quite strict.  A successful applicant had to be unmarried, athletically inclined, above average in intelligence, between the ages of 18-32 years, and have no physical or mental impairments.  Extra pay was authorized for Marines who completed parachute training, which amounted to an additional $100 for officers and $50.00 for enlisted men, and this may have been a factor in the number of Marines who applied for parachute training.

War was declared against Japan after their attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and this resulted in a sudden demand for combat Marines.  The formation of specialized battalions put a tremendous strain on the Marine Corps because it was still in the process of putting together the manpower needed to expand regular conventional forces.  A decision to establish two parachute training schools at New River, North Carolina and San Diego, California would ensure that the Marines could assemble and provide replacements to three parachute battalions.  There were no barracks for these trainees, so they quartered in tents during their ten weeks of training. Each class consisted of 36 Marines and each school started a new class each week.  Eventually, parachute training school was reduced to six weeks of training, totaling 361 hours of instruction.

Parachute training was divided into three two-week phases, the first being ground training.  Phase I included parachute tactics, map reading, demolition training, techniques of fire, scouting, patrolling, water survival, and weapons familiarization.  Phase II included parachute packing, rigging, flotation training, and the handling of cargo containers.  Phase III involved actual jumping, beginning with controlled and free tower jumping, suspension lines, and six actual jumps.  At the completion of Phase III, Marines were presented with the parachute qualification wings.  Not everyone who began training successfully completed it —the washout rate was 40%.

Putting together the facilities for parachute training was only one of the problems facing the Marine Corps.  There was also the problem of staffing these schools with qualified instructors, which eventually forced the Marine Corps to select its instructors from the operating forces —men who had successfully completed jump school.  There was also a problem with acquiring sufficient numbers of parachutes for use in training Marines how to use them.

The Allied defeat of Japanese naval forces at Midway and the Coral Sea stopped Japan’s advance in the Pacific.  Japanese losses were substantial, losing over 400 carrier and land-based aircraft and five aircraft carriers.  Such losses forced Tokyo to assume a defensive posture.  Japan’s new military reality was to establish a strong defensive perimeter of the Japanese home islands; its focus was to transform Truk in the Caroline Islands into an impregnable stronghold.  To accomplish this, the Japanese would have to strengthen Rabaul on New Britain in the Solomon Islands.  Part of this defensive structure was eastern New guinea, Guadalcanal, and Tulagi in the southern Solomons chain.

Guadalcanal 002Fortified airbases in the foregoing named locations allowed the Japanese to meet Allied air and seaborne attacks by shuttling their own assets from one base to the next.  By mid-June 1942, the Japanese airfield construction program had begun in earnest, including at Guadalcanal, Florida, and Savo Islands.  The primary purpose was to cut communications between the United States and Australia and forestall any Allied offensive operations.  While setting in a robust defensive structure, the Japanese retained its threat to vital supply bases in New Caledonia, New Hebrides, and Fiji.

The 1st Parachute Battalion departed from the United States on 7 June 1942, arriving at Wellington, New Zealand on 11 July 1942.  Within a week, the battalion sailed to Koro, Fiji Islands where it began training and rehearsing for the assault on Guadalcanal—Code named Watchtower.

The Allied expeditionary force supporting Watchtower consisted of 75 ships and transports, including vessels of both the United States and Australia, which assembled off the Fiji Islands on 26 July 1942.  There was only time for one rehearsal landing exercise before departing for Guadalcanal on 31 July.  Overall command of the 16,000 (mostly) U. S. Marines fell under Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift.  Of the total assault force, 3,000 were scheduled to land on Tulagi and nearby islands of Florida, Gavutu, and Tanambogo.  Brigadier General William H. Rupertus, then serving as the Assistant Division Commander, 1st Marine Division, would lead the Tulagi-Gavutu-Tanambogo force.

Bad weather permitted the Allied force to arrive off station unseen by the Japanese on the morning of 7 August, but the Japanese did pick up increased radio traffic from the Allied expeditionary force and planned to send out reconnaissance aircraft at daybreak.  The landing force split into two groups for the assault on Guadalcanal and the Florida islands.  At daybreak, aircraft from the USS Wasp began bombing Japanese targets, destroying 15 seaplanes at anchorage near the islands.  Pre-assault naval bombardments were directed at Tulagi, Gavutu, Florida, and Tanambogo.

Tulagi Map 001The island of Tulagi is two miles long and a half mile wide; it lies just south of Florida Island and 22 miles directly north across Sealark Channel from Guadalcanal.  A ridge rising over 300 feet above sea level marks the northwest-southeast axis of the island.  Around two-thirds of the way down from its northwest tip, the ridge is broken by a ravine and then rises again in a triangle of hills, designated Hill 208 in the southeast and Hill 281 in the northeast.

Tulagi had been the seat of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, with the governor’s residence and other offices on its northeast side.  About 3,000 yards east of Tulagi are the small islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo, which are joined by a 500-yard long causeway.

At 0800 on 7 August, the 1st Raider Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson and 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines under Lieutenant Colonel Harold E. Rosecrans made an unopposed landing on the western shore of Tulagi.  Coral formations kept the landing craft from reaching the shore, which required that the Marines had to wade ashore from about 100 meters from the beach.

Japanese forces at Tulagi and Gavutu were assigned to the 3rd Kure Special Naval Landing Force and an aviation detachment.  The assault at Gavutu was not simultaneous with the landing at Tulagi, however.  Insufficient numbers of landing craft delayed the 1st Parachute Battalion’s assault for four hours while the 1st Raider Battalion and 2/5 were completely ashore.

The 1st Parachute Battalion under Major Robert H. Williams finally made their assault in three waves beginning at noon on 7 August 1942.  After landing, Company B made some progress inland before the Japanese garrison was able to implement their defense plan.  Earlier naval gunfire had destroyed the seaplane ramp at Gavutu, forcing Marines in the second and third waves to land at a more exposed location.  Japanese machine gun fire inflicted heavy casualties on the Marines of Company A and Company C; one Marine in ten was either killed or wounded, including the battalion commander, who was quickly replaced by the executive officer, Major Charles A. Miller.

Tanambogo 001Marines from Company A and Company C quickly employed their Browning 1919 Machine guns and mortars under the direction of Captain George Stallings to suppress enemy fire, allowing more Marines to push inland.  As reflected on the map at left, Gavutu and Tanambogo are little more than mounds of coral averaging around 50 meters above sea level, except for two hills, one on each islet, numbered 148 and 121, reflecting their height in meters.  Japanese on both islets were well entrenched in bunkers and caves constructed on and within both of these hills and organized with mutually supporting fields of fire.  Marine planners had significantly underestimated the strength of the Japanese garrisons.

After a battle lasting well over two hours, the Marines were able to work their way to the top of Hill 148 and began destroying Japanese positions with demolition charges, hand grenades, and in some cases hand-to-hand fighting along the slopes of the hill.  From the apex of Hill 148, Marines were able to suppress Japanese fire coming from Tanambogo.  Major Miller radioed a request to General Rupertus for reinforcements before mounting an assault on Tanambogo.

Most of the defenders on Tanambogo were aviation personnel, some of which were armed with no more than hand sickles and gardening tools.  General Rupertus detached one company from the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines (1/2) on Florida Island to assist in securing Tanambogo.  Rupertus was advised by his staff that a single company would not be sufficient but Rupertus apparently knew better and ordered the company to assault the Islet.  The Marines from 1/2 were hit by overwhelming machine gun fire as they approached the landing area, which resulted in many casualties among the Navy landing craft crews.  Three landing craft were heavily damaged.  Realizing that his position was untenable, the company commander ordered the remaining boats to depart with wounded Marines aboard; he and twelve of his men who had already landed sprinted across the causeway seeking cover on Gavutu.  Japanese casualties on Tanambogo on 7 August was only ten killed in action.

Throughout the night, Japanese defenders staged isolated attacks against the Marines on Gavutu, their movements concealed by heavy thunderstorms.  General Vandegrift alerted 3/2 to standby for a reinforcing assault.  The battalion began its landing at Gavutu at 10:00 on the morning of 8 August; once ashore, 3/2 assisted 1st Parachute Battalion in the destruction of all remaining Japanese defenders, which was completed in two hours.

At this time, 3/2 prepared to attack Tanambogo across the causeway and 1st Parachute Battalion was assigned to provide covering fire.  Dive bombers and naval artillery were also requested, but when aircraft dropped their ordnance on Marines on two occasions, killing several of them, further air support was called off.  Accurate artillery was provided by USS San Juan, however, which lasted for 30 minutes.

The 3/2 assault began at 16:15, by landing craft and across the causeway, and with the assistance from two light tanks[1], the attack began making headway against the stout Japanese defense.  One of these tanks became hung up on a tree stump and, isolated from its infantry support, was surrounded by a group of about 50 Japanese.  They set fire to the tank, killing two of its crewmen and severely beat the other two crewmen before most of these men were killed by Marine Corps rifle fire.  There were 42 bodies around the defeated tank, including the remains of senior officers and pilots.

Throughout the day, Marines methodically destroyed the Japanese-held caves with demolition charges.  By 21:00, most of the Japanese defenders were dead, but a few holdouts continued to attack the Marines at night with several hand-to-hand engagements.  By noon on 9 August, all Japanese resistance on Tanambogo ended.  476 Japanese were killed, 70 Americans joined them.  Most of the 20 prisoners were construction workers.

Paramarines 001On 9 August 1st Parachute Battalion was moved to Tulagi to reinforce the 1st Raider Battalion and took up positions as a security force near the government buildings.  A month later, the 1st Parachute Battalion and 1st Raider Battalion, both under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson, executed a raid in the vicinity of Taivu near the village of Tasimboko, Guadalcanal.  The Raiders landed at Taivu Point and advanced toward Tasimboko, while the Parachute Marines landed 2,000 yards east of the village and took up positions to protect the flank and rear of the Raider advance.  Following an intense fire fight with Japanese defenders of Tasimboko, the combined force entered the village and destroyed food, medical equipment, and military stores.  Before dark on 8 September 1942, the two battalions withdrew to its embarkation point.

Several days later, again in conjunction with the 1st Raider Battalion, 1st Parachute Battalion was ordered to occupy the ridge southeast of Henderson Field[2] on Guadalcanal.  Enemy activity increased on 11 September and reached a peak during the night of 13-14 September when the Marine perimeter repulsed strong and repeated attacks by Japanese forces.  This battle would become known as the Battle of Bloody Ridge, also the Battle of Edson’s Ridge.  This action severely mauled General Kawaguchi’s force, against whom the previous raid had been staged.

On 18 September the 1st Parachute Battalion was withdrawn from Guadalcanal and transported to New Caledonia for rest, refit, and retraining.  Between September 1942 and the spring of 1943, the 1st Parachute Battalion was re-indoctrinated in jump techniques, parachute packing, patrolling, scouting, and platoon, company, and battalion sized operations.

Paramarines 002The 2nd Parachute Battalion arrived at Wellington, New Zealand on 31 October 1942 and remained in camp until January 1943 when it was transported to Noumea to undergo further training with the 1st Parachute Battalion.

The 3rd Parachute Battalion under Major Robert T. Vance was organized on 16 September 1942 and assigned to the 3rd Marine Division in general support of Amphibious Corps Operations, Pacific Fleet.  Dispatched to Noumea to join the other two parachute battalions, 3rd Parachute Battalion arrived on 27 March 1943.  Five days later, the 1st Parachute Regiment was activated, consisting of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Parachute Battalions, Regimental Weapons Company, and the Headquarters & Service Company.  Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Williams, having recovered from his wounds on Gavutu, assumed command of the Regiment.

A 4th Parachute Battalion was formed on 2 April 1943 under Lieutenant Colonel Marcellus J. Howard, but the battalion remained in training status until it was disbanded on 19 January 1944.

In early September 1943, Allied headquarters directed several reconnaissance patrols to Choiseul to gather intelligence on Japanese dispositions, force concentrations, and their normal patrol activity.  The reconnaissance patrols involved clandestine elements of the New Zealand armed forces, US Marines, and US Navy personnel.  These units operated for several days in the southwestern part of the island and in the northwest.  Contact was made with coast watchers seeking suitable sites for airfields and beaches capable of landing operations.  From these missions, it was determined that the terrain was unsuited for dropping troops by air and if troops were landed at all, it would require an amphibious operation.  Owing to numerous coral reefs off shore there were very few beaches on the island suitable for an amphibious assault —but one of these was at Voza, the site of an abandoned village.

After being transported to Guadalcanal for pre-combat assignments, the 1st Parachute Regiment was moved to Vella Lavella.  While encamped, the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Parachute Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Victor H. Krulak[3], was summoned to the I Marine Amphibious Corps headquarters on Guadalcanal.  He was advised of an impending operation on the island of Bougainville[4], scheduled to begin on 1 November 1943.  Krulak’s mission was to lead a raiding force onto the island of Choiseul and create as great a disturbance as possible in order to confuse the enemy and mask the true location of the main assault.  Upon return to Vella Lavella to plan his operation, he was aided by Australian coast watchers who provided vital information on enemy forces and dispositions.

Krulak’s operation consisted of three rifle companies reinforced by a communications platoon, a regimental weapons detachment, and a detachment from an experimental rocket platoon.  In total, the force would consist of 30 officers and 626 men.  2nd Parachute Battalion was loaded into four fast transports and departed Vella Lavella in the evening of 27 October 1943, landing unopposed near Voza[5].  Krulak led his men about a mile inland and set up a base camp.  On 28 and 29 October, patrols were sent out to reconnoiter Japanese positions at Sangigai to the southeast and along the Warrior River in the north.

The attack on Sangigai began at around 11:00 on 30 October when Company E opened fire on the Japanese garrison there.  The Japanese quickly retreated toward the mountains directly into the path of Company F which had executed an envelopment of the village, flanking the enemy position.  Company E immediately moved into the village, secured it, and destroyed all buildings and facilities, a barge, and around 180 tons of supplies.  By 0800 the next morning, the raiders had returned to their base camp having lost 6 Marines killed in action, 12 wounded (including Krulak) while killing 75 Japanese soldiers.

A second raiding party under Major Warner T. Bigger was sent north to Nukiki and then overland to the Warrior River.  This group mortared Japanese installations on nearby Guppy Island, which started several large fires.  After encountering stiff enemy resistance, the party was withdrawn by landing craft.  Krulak continued to send out patrols on 1 and 2 November.  By 3 November, the Japanese recognized that the American force was small and began to close in on the beachhead and after laying minefields and booby traps, Krulak’s battalion was withdrawn during the night of 3-4 November[6].

On 22 November 1943, the 1st Parachute Battalion under Major Richard Fagan embarked 23 officers and 596 Marines on four infantry landing craft (also, LCIs), and headed for Bougainville.  The battalion arrived off Empress Augusta Bay on 23 November and after going ashore, the battalion went into reserve under I Amphibious Corps, being administratively attached to the 2nd Raider Regiment.  Four days later, 1st Parachute Battalion was task organized (reinforced by Company M of the 3rd Raider Battalion and an artillery forward observer team from the 12th Marines) for a raid on Japanese supply facilities near Koiari, south of Cape Torokina.

The movement of 1st Parachute Battalion from Cape Torokina to Koiari took about an hour by LCI.  Fagan intended to come ashore some distance from the Japanese supply depot and approach the enemy from the rear, but it was soon discovered that the landing had taken place in the center of the supply depot tactical zone.  The Marines quickly formed a defensive perimeter, as they were surrounded on three sides by Japanese forces and had their backs to the sea.  A fierce battle raged for several hours.  With casualties mounting and ammunition running low, Fagan requested to be withdrawn.  Shortly before 18:00, three destroyers arrived offshore and began delivering artillery support to the flanks of the beleaguered battalion.  Naval gunfire was augmented by 155-mm howitzers from Cape Torokina.  Thus, protected on three sides by artillery fire, Fagan was able to load his Marines on rescue boats.  1st Parachute Battalion suffered 15 killed in action (KIA), 99 wounded, and 7 Marines unaccounted for.

On 3 December, the 1st Parachute Battalion was joined by its parent regiment (less the 2nd Battalion), which two days later was sent to occupy a forward position of the 3rd Marine Division front.  During this time, the Marines were under constant attack and harassment by Japanese forces.  On 10 December, the parachute Marines were withdrawn and replaced by the 9th Marines and 21st Marines and moved into Division reserve.  On 22 December 1st Parachute Battalion, the regimental weapons company, and a platoon from H&S Company were attached to the 2nd Raider Regiment as a relief for the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (1/3) near Eagle Creek.  This unit was later relieved by the 132nd Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division on 11 January 1944.

By mid-January 1944, all parachute battalions were embarked aboard troop transport ships for return to the United States.  The Marine Corps was in the process of creating six (6) infantry divisions and five (5) aircraft wings, circumstances that could not justify retaining specialized battalions such as Raider or Parachute battalions/regiments.  Beyond this, none of the battle areas in the central and south Pacific region lent themselves to parachute drops, with the exception of one combat drop at Tagaytay Ridge in the Philippines, which was successfully conducted by the U. S. Army’s 11th Airborne Division in 1945.  With this one exception, all US parachute units normally fought as regular infantry organizations.

There were four essential factors to explain why, after spending the time and money to train Marines as parachutists, they were never used in that capacity.  As previously stated, island terrain simply did not lend itself to a successful airdrop insertion of combat troops, nor were there a sufficient land-based staging area for parachutists or aircraft.  Next, the Marine Corps did not have sufficient aircraft to airlift more than a single battalion; it would have taken six squadrons of transport aircraft to accomplish the movement of two parachute regiments.  Finally, the distances between suitable rear area staging areas and forward area combat zones exceeded the range of fully loaded transport aircraft.

The parachute battalions were always a “luxury” that the Marine Corps could ill-afford (the costs of training, specialized equipment, etc.) but they had certainly made noteworthy contributions to the Pacific war and their professionalism brought credit to the reputation of the Marine Corps.  This would all become apparent a year later when many of these disbanded units were rolled into the newly created 5th Marine Division, which went ashore during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Note: Parachute qualified Marines continue to serve in limited numbers, either as members of reconnaissance units or as members of the Raider Battalion community, brought back into active service in 2014.

Sources:

  1. Hoffman, J. T. Silk Chutes and Hard Fighting: USMC Parachutes Units in World War II.  Washington: USMC Historical Division, (1999).
  2. Johnstone, J. H.  USMC Parachute Units.  Washington: USMC Historical Division, (1961).

Endnotes:

[1] The light tank, M-3 (unofficially, M3 Stuart) was named for J. E. B. Stuart of Civil War fame.

[2] The initial construction of this airfield was begun by the Japanese Imperial Army; after it was seized by Allied forces, the airfield was renamed in honor of Major Lofton Henderson, USMC, Commanding Officer of VMSB-241, who was killed during the Battle of Midway —the first Marine Corps aviator killed in the battle.

[3] Lieutenant General Krulak served at the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific from 1 March 1964 to 1968.  Krulak’s son Charles served as the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995-1999.

[4] Bougainville Island is the principal island of Papua New Guinea and the largest of the Solomon Islands archipelago.  It is named after the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville discovered some time in 1768.

[5] Voza is located along the coast of Choiseul Island northwest of the village of Sangigai.  The island itself runs 75 miles in length and up to 25 miles in width at its widest point.

[6] One of the patrol boats providing security for Krulak’s force was commanded by a young lieutenant by the name of John F. Kennedy.

Memorial Day

Memorial Day

 

With a sober heart we pray

On this solemn Memorial Day

And recall those who gave their all

So that our Nation yet stands tall

So many wars and rivers of tears

Shed by mothers, fathers, and dears

They sacrificed their lives for us

As did our Lord … so long ago

Dear Lord, have mercy on those who serve

Love them, protect them, bring them home

Bless them Lord, and should they die

Take them home with you to abide.

For it is said, “ … no greater love than this

A man gives up his life for a friend.”

With this in mind, we must recall

Those who gave us … their all.

 

A Brave Australian

Captain Albert Jacka, V.C., M.C.

AUS ARMY 001I could not disagree more with the “journalist” Tom Brokaw when he labeled our fathers and grandfathers from World War II the “greatest generation.”  Sociologists and other eggheads want us to know that the greatest generation followed the lost generation of World War I and preceded the silent generation of the 1960s.  Balderdash.  There may have been good reasons for disillusionment among the World War I generation, it was, after all, a horrible war.  Bad memories plague all combat veterans for the balance of their lives.  The silent generation (1928-1945) was hardly silent in mounting massive numbers of anti-war protest in the 1960s[1].

My problem with Brokaw is that in singling out one generation over another he renders a tremendous disservice to those who fought in all our wars, beginning with the American Revolution.  A terrible price was paid in each of these.  Were the soldiers of World War I less brave than those of World War II?  Were the men of World War II any more courageous than those who fought in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq?  Personally, I have room in my heart for all these men; the horror of war significantly changed, and sometimes shortened, their lives.  They experienced diminished lifespans, painful war disability, and tormented sleepless nights for the balance of their time on earth.

Service men and women of all generations are worthy of our interest and respect.  Many of these stand out because they participated in momentous events, others because of their personal bravery.  Every combat soldier runs the risk of death or serious injury, and yet when it is time to muster for battle, they overcome their basest fears, they “fall in,” they perform their duty, and they stand as one.

Nearly all nations have decorations to bestow upon men (and now, women) who outperform all others during the crucible of war.  Countries assign seniority over their medals, a precedence from highest to lowest honors.  In the United States, we award Purple Heart Medals to those wounded or killed in action.  The highest decoration in the United States, awarded for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty is the Medal of Honor, first authorized by the Department of the Navy in 1861.

Victoria CrossThe highest military decoration of the British Empire[2] (now, United Kingdom-British Commonwealth) is the Victoria Cross, authorized in 1854 (during the Crimean War).  The Victoria Cross distinguishes those demonstrating conspicuous bravery, valor, self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.  It differs from earlier forms of recognition for gallantry in the sense that the Victoria Cross did not discriminate according to birth or class.  Queen Victoria presented the first medals at Hyde Park in 1857.  Today, the highest military decoration of Australia (a British Commonwealth nation) is the Victoria Cross of Australia, generally awarded by the Governor-General of Australia[3].

In 1915, Australia was part of the British Empire.  One hundred five years ago, the London Gazette published a brief announcement stating that King George V[4] had awarded Lance Corporal Albert Jacka the Victoria Cross.  No one in London knew who Albert Jacka was because he was a somewhat obscure young man from Australia.

Albert was born on a dairy farm just outside Winchelsea, Victoria, Australia on 10 January 1893.  He was the fourth of seven children born to Nathaniel Jacka and his English-born wife Elizabeth.  He attended primary school, as most children of that period did, and then began working with his father as a freight hauler.  When the Great War began, Albert was a 21-year old employee of the Forestry Department at Heathcote.  His work involved the installation of fencing, clearing fire breaks, and planting saplings.  At the time, he was one of twenty such employees.

JACKA A LCPL 001Albert enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) on 8 September 1914; after initial training, he joined the 14th Battalion, 4th Brigade.  Turkey’s affiliation with the Axis powers prompted the dispatch of the 4th Brigade to the Middle East as part of the 1st Australian Division.  Their mission was to guard the Suez Canal and undergo additional pre-combat training.  Jacka’s first combat action exposed him to violent brutality.  He was but one of thousands of young men who participated in the ill-conceived Australian landing at Gallipoli[5] on 25 April 1915, a battle that began the disastrous nine-month campaign that claimed the lives of more than 8,000 young Australians.

At 0330 on 19 May 1915, the Turks launched a small-unit assault against the ANZAC[6] line at Courtney’s Post.  After tossing hand-grenades into the Australian position, the Turks leapt into the trench.  Jacka’s squad received the brunt of the explosions; three of Jacka’s men died instantly from the effects of the grenades with the rest of them receiving wounds from grenade fragments and gun fire.  Lance Corporal Jacka alone remained unaffected.  Jacka ordered the evacuation of his men while he alone remained behind to provide covering fire.  He held off the Turks until the platoon commander sent up a few reinforcements.

Jacka Assault 1915Jacka was not a big man.  He stood just over 5’ 6” tall, but his pre-military service employment had developed him into a muscular man of considerable strength.  He was also a man devoted to his unit, his mates, and a man possessed of rugged determination.  With only three men initially sent to reinforce him, Lance Corporal Jacka ordered them to fix bayonets.  He would lead the charge back to Courtney’s Post, they would follow him.  With this small force of four men, Jacka launched a counterattack against the Turks.  In the ensuing fight, one additional Australian fell, mortally wounded; concentrated Turkish rifle fire forced Jacka to withdraw his fire team and call for additional reinforcements.

When those reinforcements arrived, Jacka organized them.  He instructed them to lay down a base of fire against the Turks.  After his men took up their firing positions, Jacka crawled out of the trench, crossed an area of “no man’s land,” and re-entered the trench behind the Turks.  He then assaulted the Turks, shooting five of them, bayoneting two others, and taking three prisoners of war.  Jacka then held Courtney’s Post alone until daybreak when additional soldiers re-manned the trench.

As the war continued, casualties mounted.  The Battle of Chunuk Blair, an Australian attempt to break out of the beachhead, added thousands more to the list of dead and wounded.  In their hemmed in positions, the Australians had no tactical advantage.  In recognition of his sustained courage under fire, Lance Corporal Jacka’s commanding officer promoted him to corporal in late August, again to sergeant two weeks later, and by mid-November, he served as company sergeant major.

In July 1915, the British government announced that King George had awarded Jacka he Victoria Cross.  He was then 22-years of age, making him the first Australian to receive the VC during World War I.  The award also entitled him to £500 per month, which at the time was an enormous sum of money.

In early December 1915, after nine months of fighting with no strategic or tactical gains, and with an excess of 26,000 casualties, the Australians began their withdrawal from Gallipoli.  Jacka’s battalion withdrew to Egypt where, after a few weeks, Jacka’s command assigned him to officer training school.  Passing with high marks, Jacka received his commission to second lieutenant.  During this time, the Australian Imperial Force received replacements and underwent a period of reorganization.  Some of the combat experienced men from the 14th Battalion transferred to the 46th Battalion; the 4th Brigade combined with the 12th and 13th to form the 4th Australian Division.

Over the next three years Jacka’s battlefield bravery in France and Belgium became an inspiration to those back home.  One Australian battalion began calling itself “Jacka’s Mob.”  Yet, despite becoming a hero to the folks back home, Jacka fell out of favor with the officers in his chain of command.  Apparently, Jacka began to criticize and question the orders passed down through the ranks, which in Jacka’s opinion, foolishly placed his men in harm’s way.

In late July, Jacka found himself embroiled in the Battle of Pozières near the French village of the same name during the Somme Campaign.  The costly fighting ended with the British in possession of a plateau north and east of the village and positioned to menace the German position at Thiepval.  According to one Australian historian, “the Pozières  ridge is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.”  Jacka again demonstrated exceptional bravery on 7 August.

In the early dawn hours, German troops swept through the ANZAC ranks and at one point, infiltrated Jacka’s position.  At the end of the assault, only seven Australians remained uninjured.  Jacka was one of the wounded.  As the Germans began rounding up Anzac prisoners Jacka formed the surviving men and led them in an attack.  Jacka’s small force made a vigorous assault upon the Germans and engaged them in hand-to-hand fighting.  Jacka received multiple wounds during the engagement and just as the Germans began to encircle the eight men, Aussie reinforcements arrived.  Many Germans were killed, more than fifty taken prisoner, and the Australian captives freed.

Jacka finally fell with his seventh combat wound when a bullet passing through his body just under his shoulder.  Four of the seven men who fought with him died in the assault.  As Jacka was lifted from the ground and placed on a stretcher, one orderly remarked that he must be the bravest man in the Australian Army.  Such a statement, obviously communicated with respect and admiration, is probably not true; there were many brave men serving in the Australian Army during World War I.  Not everyone’s courage was recognized or reported upon.  Nevertheless, Jacka’s superior officers remembered his border-line insubordination and, therefore, were hesitant to recommend him for a second combat award.

Medically evacuated to Britain, Jacka received the Victoria Cross at Windsor Castle in September 1916.  It was a great honor, of course, but he was at the same time resentful that his actions at Pozières were not similarly recognized.  Jacka received a promotion to lieutenant in December 1916 and resumed his regular duties.

In March 1917, Jacka was promoted to captain and appointed to serve as the 14th Battalion’s intelligence officer.  In early April 1917, the 4th Australian Division operated on the western front under the 1st ANZAC Corps of the British Fifth Army, which was then engaged in support of the Third Army in the Battle of Arras.  The operation called for a flanking movement and time was of the essence.  The lack of artillery dictated the use of a company of (12) tanks to crush the barbed wire and lead the attacking force into the Hindenburg Line.  The tanks were late in arriving, however, and the 4th Australian Division’s attack was therefore delayed.  The 4th Australian Divisions adjacent command, the 62nd Division did not receive the message to postpone the attack and its forward element advanced into the Bullecourt defenses resulting in 162 casualties before they withdrew back into the British line.  The mistake was costly too because by advancing before the Fifth Army was ready for a coordinated effort, the Germans were made aware of the Allied intention.

The German troops feared Allied tanks, the result of which prompted the Germans to concentrate their crew-served weapons on these terrifying weapons and the Germans learned that the tanks were vulnerable to armor piercing projectiles.  On the night of 8 April, Jacka conducted a reconnaissance patrol into “no man’s land” to investigate German defenses before a scheduled Allied attack.  While laying markers to guide assault troops, he captured a two-man German patrol.  For this action, Jacka would eventually receive a bar (indicating second award) of the Military Cross.  The Battle of Bullecourt, however, was a disaster for the Australians of the 4th Brigade … much of this attributed to the incompetence of the Fifth Army commander, some of it because the British were only beginning to come to terms with the concept of tank-infantry coordination.  Of approximately 3,000 Australians attached to the 4th Brigade, 2,339 men were either killed or wounded.

In June, Captain Jacka was appointed to command Company D, 14th Battalion and led his company through the Battle of Messines Ridge.  During this engagement, Company D overran several machine gun positions and captured a German field gun.  On 8 July, Jacka was again wounded by sniper fire near Ploeqsteert Wood.  After two months of hospitalization, he returned to the front in late September and took command of the 14th Battalion during the Battle of Polygon Wood.

In May 1918, Jacka suffered injury from a mustard gas attack outside the village of Villers-Bretonneux, his condition made worse by also being shot in the trachea.  His wound and condition were so severe that he was not expected to survive.  He was eventually returned to the United Kingdom for a long recuperative period.

Jacka returned to Australia on 6 September 1919 and he was discharged from military service on 10 January 1920.  Albert Jacka never fully recovered from his wounds, which were several and severe.  He passed away in 1932, aged 39 years.  Captain Jacka was one hell of a soldier, fierce and dangerous to an opposing enemy.  There are those in Australia who believe that Captain Jacka deserved three awards of the Victoria Cross; some argue that it was only British snobbery that kept him from being so recognized, but historians refute this claim.  Jacka’s superiors, the men he too-frequently criticized, were Australians and it was they who refused to recommend him for subsequent awards of the Victoria Cross.

Jacka A PortraitWar is horribly brutal.  War time events create memories that never go away.  People who experience war relive it in their minds for the balance of their lives.  They experience flashbacks and nightmares for the rest of their days.  People who never experienced combat may empathize with our combat veterans, but they will never fully understand combat.  If the folks back home fully understood war, they would never again allow their governments to send their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers or sisters into the jaws of death.  Lessons from the past are always useful in the present, but only if we are wise enough to learn from them.  So far in human history, we either have not learned anything, or we conveniently ignore the facts.

All the men and women of our armed forces are brave, no matter what war they fought in, irrespective of war time era and Tom Brokaw is wrong to suggest one greater than another.  If this were not true, then our young men and women would never don a military uniform.  That said, some of our men and women are more than brave; they are incredibly so.  One of these incredibly brave men was an Australian named Albert Jacka.

Sources:

  • Grant, I.  Jacka, VC: Australia’s Finest Fighting Soldier(South Melbourne, Victoria: Macmillan Australia, 1989.
  • Lawriwsky, M.  Hard Jacka: The Story of a Gallipoli Legend(Chatswood, N.S.W.: Mira Books, 2007.
  • Macklin, R.  Jacka VC: Australian Hero(Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2006.

Endnotes

[1] I often wonder if these people protested the wars in Korean and Vietnam as much as they protested having to serve their country.

[2] 1497-1997

[3] The Governor-General of Australia is the British monarch’s representative in Australia and serves as head of state.

[4] Grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II.

[5] The landing at Gallipoli was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, then serving as First Lord of the Admiralty.

[6] Australian-New Zealand Army Corps

A Last Full Measure

I don’t do book or movie reviews because I’m not qualified.  Occasionally, however, I do offer summaries, not so much of the book or film, but of events that I find interesting, touching, or otherwise significant.  One of these is the story of U. S. Air Force Staff Sergeant William H. Pitsenbarger (1944-1966).  It truly is an extraordinary story and I enthusiastically recommend the 2019 film The Last Full Measure.

Pitsenbarger grew up in a small town just outside Dayton, Ohio.  While still in high school, Bill Pitsenbarger contacted a local Army recruiter about enlisting with an option for Special Forces (Green Beret) training.  When he spoke to his parents about his interests, they refused to give their permission.  Upon graduation from high school, Bill Pitsenbarger joined the Air Force on the delayed entry program.

Pitsenbarger 001At the completion of basic training at San Antonio, Texas, Pitsenbarger volunteered for pararescue training[1].  In 1963, this included Army parachute school, survival, evasion, resistance, and escape training, and air crash rescue and firefighting.  Bill Pitsenbarger’s first assignment after his initial training was Hamilton AFB, California.  While assigned to Hamilton AFB, Pitsenbarger performed a period of temporary additional duty in the Republic of Vietnam.  At the conclusion of this temporary assignment, Pitsenbarger volunteered to return to Vietnam for a regular tour of duty where he reported for duty with Detachment 6, 38th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Bien Hoa Air Base just outside Saigon (now, Ho Chi Minh City).  Detachment 6 included five aircrews that flew three Kaman HH-43F “Huskie” Helicopters commanded by Major Maurice Kessler, USAF.

The 2nd Battalion, 16th US Infantry arrived at Vung Tau, South Vietnam, on 10 October 1965 attached to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One).  Initially, 2/16 encamped at Ben Cat, north of Saigon.  The division wasted no time getting this newly arrived brigade adapted to the combat environment.  Operations Bushmaster and Bloodhound involved aggressive patrolling adjacent to Highway 13 and the Michelin Rubber Plantation, followed by Operation Mastiff (February 1966) and Abilene (March-April 1966).

Operation Abilene was a search and destroy mission targeting the 274th and 275th Viet Cong Regiments of the 5th Division.  Abilene employed two brigades of the US 1st Infantry Division with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and 161st Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery assigned in support.  Initially, the Viet Cong avoided battle and contact with the communists was sporadic.

Major General William e. DePuy[2], as commander of the Big Red One, devised a plan to lure the VC into attacking his force.  He assigned Company C, 2/16 to act as the bait.  Once the VC attacked Company C, DePuy planned to rush in additional rifle companies to surround and destroy the Viet Cong force.  At the time, the strength of Company C was 134 soldiers; it was only marginally effective as a US rifle company.

On 11 April 1966, as Charlie Company moved through the Courtenay Rubber Plantation, its understrength platoons encountered sporadic fire from communist snipers who attempted to kill the Americans one at a time.  This intermittent fire allowed VC forces to maneuver around the outnumbered Americans.  By 1400, it became apparent that VC officers were systematically directing their men to encircle the Americans.  The communists had taken DePuy’s bait, but through “piss poor” planning, thick jungle prevented the 2nd Battalion’s other companies from surrounding the VC or reinforcing Charlie Company.  Worse, friendly artillery fire further decimated the few men now surrounded by a superior enemy force.

Desperate fighting continued through the night; the soldiers of Charlie Company threw everything they had at the Viet Cong, including tear gas grenades.  While established in a tight perimeter with mutually supporting crew-served weapons fire, the enemy was still able to breach the company’s lines —in the process of exfiltration, slitting the throats of soldiers wounded and awaiting medical evacuation.  After five hours of brutal combat, what remained of Company C formed a tight perimeter protected only by supporting artillery, delivered at the rate of five rounds per minute.

Kaman HH-43 001
USAF HH-43 Huskie

It was in this setting that the Joint Rescue Center dispatched two HH-43 Huskie helicopters to extract wounded soldiers of C/2/16INF near Cam My, 35 miles east of Saigon.  Upon reaching the extraction site, the helicopter crew lowered Senior Airman Bill Pitsenbarger, USAF to the ground to prepare wounded soldiers for evacuation.  It was then that Pitsenbarger learned that the company medic was one of the wounded, that his wounds were enough to warrant aeromedical evacuation, and that he needed to remain on the ground to provide medical support to the men of Charlie Company.  Pitsenbarger continued to provide life-saving treatment to the wounded and load them aboard returning helicopters.

The Air Force crew wanted Pitsenbarger back aboard the aircraft, but he elected to remain with the beleaguered company.  Enemy small-arms fire struck one of the helicopters and its engine began to lose power.  Pitsenbarger waived the helicopter off and continued administering to the wounded soldiers.  The intensity of the enemy fire precluded further evacuations.  For the next several hours, Pitsenbarger tended the wounded, hacking splints out of jungle vines, building improvised stretchers out of saplings, and when the infantry troops began running out of ammunition, Pitsenbarger gathered it from the dead and distributed it to those remaining alive.

With the arrival of darkness, Bill Pitsenbarger borrowed a rifle from a fallen soldier and joined with members of Charlie Company in forming a night perimeter.  During the night, enemy fire took the life of Bill Pitsenbarger.  The next morning, reinforcements arrived at the battle site to discover the young Airman’s body on the perimeter, his rifle in one hand, his medical kit in the other.

While serving in Vietnam, Senior Airman Bill Pitsenbarger completed 250 pararescue missions.  His selfless courage under fire at Xa Cam My prompted his command to recommend him for the Medal of Honor.  Instead, the Air Force posthumously awarded Pitsenbarger the Air Force Cross (AFC).  Not everyone agreed with this decision.  For the next 34 years, Air Force squadron mates and surviving members of Charlie Company worked tirelessly to have his AFC upgraded to the Medal of Honor.  They accomplished their mission on 8 December 2000 when the Secretary of the Air Force presented his surviving and still-grieving parents with their son’s much deserved Medal of Honor and a posthumous promotion to Staff Sergeant (E-5).

Medal of Honor Citation:

USAF Medal of Honor 001
USAF Medal of Honor

Airman First Class Pitsenbarger distinguished himself by extreme valor on April 11, 1966 near Cam My, Republic of Vietnam, while assigned as a Pararescue Crew Member, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron.  On that date, Airman Pitsenbarger was aboard a rescue helicopter responding to a call for evacuation of casualties incurred in an on-going firefight between elements of the United States Army’s 1st Infantry Division and a sizable enemy force approximately 35 miles east of Saigon.  With complete disregard for personal safety, Airman Pitsenbarger volunteered to ride a hoist more than one hundred feet through the jungle, to the ground.  On the ground, he organized and coordinated rescue efforts, cared for the wounded, prepared casualties for evacuation, and insured that the recovery operation continued in a smooth and orderly fashion.  Through his personal efforts, the evacuation of the wounded was greatly expedited.  As each of the nine casualties evacuated that day were recovered, Pitsenbarger refused evacuation in order to get one more wounded soldier to safety.  After several pick-ups, one of the two rescue helicopters involved in the evacuation was struck by heavy enemy ground fire and was forced to leave the scene for an emergency landing.  Airman Pitsenbarger stayed behind, on the ground, to perform medical duties.  Shortly thereafter, the area came under sniper and mortar fire.  During a subsequent attempt to evacuate the site, American forces came under heavy assault by a large Viet Cong force.  When the enemy launched the assault, the evacuation was called off and Airman Pitsenbarger took up arms with the besieged infantrymen.  He courageously resisted the enemy, braving intense gunfire to gather and distribute vital ammunition to American defenders.  As the battle raged on, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to care for the wounded, pull them out of the line of fire, and return fire whenever he could, during which time, he was wounded three times.  Despite his wounds, he valiantly fought on, simultaneously treating as many wounded as possible.  In the vicious fighting which followed, the American forces suffered 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached, and airman Pitsenbarger was finally fatally wounded.  Airman Pitsenbarger exposed himself to almost certain death by staying on the ground and perished while saving the lives of wounded infantrymen.  His bravery and determination exemplify the highest professional standards and traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Air Force.

Staff Sergeant Pitsenbarger’s combat awards include the Medal of Honor[3], Airman’s Medal, two Purple Heart medals, Air Medal, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross.

See also: A Jolly Green Miracle.

A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors.

–John F. Kennedy.

Sources:

  1. Tilford, E. Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia, 1961-75, Office of USAF History, 1980 (PDF)
  2. Deeter, J. William H. Pitsenbarger: A Hero of Piqua and America.  This local life, Troy Ohio, undated

Endnotes:

[1] Pararescue training began in 1946 in the U. S. Army Air Corps.  The mission of ARS was saving the lives of airmen downed as a result of disasters, accidents, crash landings at locations beyond their assigned air base.  The far-flung nature of Army/Air Force operations created a demand for a larger pararescue service, which was separate and distinct from local base rescue units.  Pararescue teams include a physician, and four medics additionally trained in field medicine, rescue operations, parachute training, and basic infantry tactics.  The Vietnam war was a pivotal conflict for USAF PRTs; the demand for qualified pararescue men was high and the program significantly expanded.  The use of helicopters enlarged  areas of operations and demanded a shift in tactics.  The USAF created “rescue packages,” some of which involved forward air controllers, escort helicopters and A-1 “Sandys,” airborne rescue coordination flights and heavy helicopters commonly referred to as Jolly Green Giant (HH-3 and HH-53).

[2] A highly decorated infantry officer with service in World War II, the Korean War on detached duty with the Central Intelligence Agency, as an attaché in Hungary, Chief of Staff Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and from March 1966, as Commanding General, 1st US Infantry Division.

[3] Although the Air Force upgraded Pitsenbarger’s Air Force Cross to the Medal of Honor, he was the first USAF enlisted man ever to receive the Air Force Cross.  In total, only four USAF enlisted men have received the Medal of Honor.

Dangerous Dan

Fairbairn Sykes 001Born in Herefordshire, England in 1885, William E. Fairbairn illegally joined the British Royal Marines in 1901.  He was only fifteen years old.  He so much wanted to join the Marines that he somehow convinced his recruiter to falsify his paperwork.  Upon completion of his initial training, Fairbairn was immediately sent to Korea where he got his first taste of close combat.  Along with getting battle-tested in war, Fairbairn realized that his very life could depend upon his ability to defend himself with bayonet or fighting knife.  He began studying martial arts disciplines that originated in Korea.  It was the beginning of his effort to become a master of combat.

In 1907, the British Legation Guard seconded Fairbairn to the International Police Force in Shanghai; it was the toughest assignment a police officer could get.  As a junior officer, he was assigned to one of the cities red-light districts.  It was also the most dangerous part of the most dangerous city in the entire world.

Shanghai’s inner-city warlords controlled the gangs of outlaws; they, in turn, ran large areas within the city.  These were seriously dangerous men who would brook no competition from either gangsters or police officers.  The gangs ran everything illegal, from deviant behavior and opium to the kidnapping and ransom of the children of wealthy parents, to cold-blooded murder.

Not long after arriving in Shanghai, Officer Fairbairn was patrolling in the brothel district when he encountered a gang of criminals who threatened his life.  They threatened the wrong man.  Fairbairn attacked these gangsters, but he was quickly overwhelmed by their numbers and he received a life-threatening beating.  When he woke up in the hospital days later, Fairbairn noticed a plaque near his bed advertising the services of one Professor Okada, a master of jujitsu and bone setting.  Through many hours of off duty study, William Fairbairn earned a black belt in both jujitsu and judo.

Fairbairn 002Fairbairn (pictured left) served 30 years with the Shanghai police.  In this time, he was involved in over 600 encounters with armed and unarmed assailants.  His innate courage, determination, and acquired skillset in hand-to-hand combat always took him through to safety.  On one particular evening, Fairbairn entered into another dangerous situation with a Japanese officer and fellow expert in the martial arts.

At this time, extreme hostility existed between China and Japan.  As Fairbairn approached and greeted the Japanese officer, he noticed that there were around 150 Chinese men and women sitting bound on a nearby Japanese naval vessel.  When Fairbairn inquired what was in the offing, the Japanese officer informed him that the Chinese persons were going to be executed.  Fairbairn insisted that the Japanese officer release the Chinese at once and he would take them into custody.  The Japanese officer refused.

Calmly, with a measured voice, Fairbairn warned the Japanese officer, paraphrasing: Do what you have to do, but one day we’ll meet again, and I’ll make sure you pay for this wrongdoing.  The Japanese officer released all prisoners to Fairbairn.

Over many years, Fairbairn acquired practical knowledge in the field of law enforcement, self-defense, and close combat.  He decided to incorporate his experiences into a new practical street defense system.  He called it Defendu.  He borrowed from various martial arts and included his own “down and dirty” non-telegraphic strikes that were easy to apply and highly practical and effective in real-world situations.  Defendu also included various kicks, mainly designed to damage an attacker’s legs and knees.

In addition to his hand-to-hand combat skills, Fairbairn also developed new police weapons and equipment (bullet-proof vests, batons), firearms training courses, and specialized training for police anti-riot forces.

In 1939, the British Secret Service recruited Fairbairn and commissioned him as an army officer.  Shortly after, with his demonstrated skills, colleagues and superiors alike began referring to Fairbairn as “Dangerous Dan.”  He, along with fellow close-combat instructor Eric Sykes, received commissions as second lieutenants on 15 July 1940.  Fairbairn and Sykes trained British, American, and Canadian commando units, including American ranger forces, in such areas as close-combat, combat shooting with the pistol, and knife fighting techniques.  Lieutenant Fairbairn was quite plain in his instruction: dispense immediately with any idea of gentlemanly rules of fighting.  His admonition was, “Get tough, get down in the gutter, win at all costs.  There is no fair play.  There is only one rule—kill or be killed.”

There are those today who never heard of William Fairbairn or Eric Sykes, but they may have heard of their most erstwhile invention: The Fairbairn fighting knife, also called commando knife … a stiletto-type dagger used by the British Special Forces in World War II.  Given all his combat-related innovations, some have suggested that William Fairbairn might have been the inspiration for Ian Flemings’ Q Branch in the James Bond novels and films.

Biddle AJD 001Significantly, Fairbairn also influenced training in the U. S. Marine Corps.  Anthony J. D. Biddle, Sr., (1874-1948) (shown right) was a millionaire, the son of Edward Biddle II, the grandson of Anthony Drexel, and the great-grandson of Nicholas Biddle —bankers and industrialists all.  His wealth enabled him to pursue the theater, writing, and Christianity on a full-time basis.  A. J. D. Biddle was the basis of the book and play titled My Philadelphia Father, and the film The Happiest Millionaire.  As a United States Marine, Biddle trained men in the art of hand-to-hand combat in both World War I and World War II.  He was a fellow of the American Geographical Society and founded a movement called Athletic Christianity.  In 1955, Sports Illustrated magazine called him boxing’s greatest amateur and a major factor in the re-establishment of boxing as a legal act and an estimable sport.

Colonel Biddle, as an expert in close-quarters fighting, wrote a book entitled Do or Die: A supplementary manual on individual combat.  It instructed Marines and members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on combat methods with open hand fighting, knife fighting, and bayonet fighting.  Within the book Do or Die, Biddle wrote in the Imprimatur, “Now come the very latest developments in the art of Defendu, originated by the celebrated Major W. E. Fairbairn, Assistant Commissioner of the Shanghai Municipal Police, and of jujitsu as shown by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel G. Taxis, U. S. Marine Corps, formerly stationed in Shanghai, who was an instructor in these arts.  Following a series of conferences with Colonel Taxis, several of his particularly noteworthy assaults are described in Part III of this manual.  Major Fairbairn is the author of the book, Get Tough.

Despite his lethal capabilities, Dangerous Dan was a well-mannered gentleman who never drank alcohol, never used profanity, and never boasted of his ability or accomplishments.  William Ewart Fairbairn passed away on 20 June 1960, aged 75, in Sussex, England.

Sources:

  1. Biddle, A.J. D. Do or Die.  Washington: The Leatherneck Association, Inc., 1937
  2. Fairbairn, W. E. Get Tough.  New York: Appleton-Century Company, 1942
  3. Fairbairn, W. E.   Shanghai: North China Daily News and Herald, 1926
  4. Fairbairn, W. E., and Eric A. Sykes. Shooting to Live.  London: Oliver & Boyd, 1942.
  5. Lewis, D. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops.  Kindle edition online.

Death Rattlers

VMFA 323 Patch 001Somewhere between the first and fifth of August 1943, three young lieutenants, naval aviators all, swooped down upon a somewhat large rattlesnake resting in the area adjacent to the Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina, captured it, and took it with them to their newly commissioned squadron ready room.  The well-fed snake measured about seven feet in length.  Few people understand why lieutenants do anything.  Observing the antics of a lieutenant, most people roll their eyes and think to themselves, “But for the grace of God …”

In this case, however, the lieutenants were on a mission.  It was to find a nickname for their recently commissioned aircraft squadron.  With all squadron pilots assembled, it was unanimously agreed that Marine Fighting Squadron 323 (VMF-323) would be henceforth known as the Death Rattlers.  Its patch and nickname continue to exist today, as of this writing, for 77-years.  In 1943, VMF-323 was assigned to Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-32, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW).  The squadron’s first commanding officer was Major George C. Axtell, Jr[1].

VMF-323 began combat training almost immediately after its activation.  This squadron, as well as others being formulated, were desperately needed in the Pacific.  In September 1943, VMF-323 was transferred to one of the Air Station’s outlying fields, a Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Facility at Oak Grove.  Its first aircraft was the Vought F4U-1 Corsair[2].  In 1943, VMF-323 was one of eight Marine Corps Corsair squadrons.

F4U Corsair USMC 002In January 1944, VMF-323 was transferred to El Centro, California and reassigned to Marine Base Defense Aircraft Group (MBDAG)-43.  In California, squadron pilots worked to master instrument flying, gunnery, bomber escort, overland navigation, dogfighting, section flight tactics, field carrier landings, and strafing.  Field carrier landing training was a prelude to actual carrier landing qualification training.  When this training period was concluded, VMF-323 moved to Camp Pendleton, California. For Major Axtell, training new officers was a never-ending task since no sooner had he molded his pilots into skilled aviators, they would be transferred to another squadron and Axtell would have to begin the task of bringing along a newer pilot.  Axtell, a qualified instrument pilot before taking command of the squadron, insisted that all of his pilots develop that skill set.  Axtell believed that instrument flying would build self-confidence in his pilots and prepare them for future battles—which proved prescient.

VMF-323’s first casualty occurred on 17 March 1944 when Second Lieutenant Robert M. Bartlett, Jr., crashed his aircraft two miles south of the airbase while on a routine night familiarization flight.  In April, VMF-323 took part in two large-scale joint service air interception exercises.  On 25 May Second Lieutenant John A. Freshour and his passenger, Lieutenant Commander James J. Bunner, USN were killed when their Douglas SBD (Dauntless) crashed into a power line near Camp Pendleton’s airfield.  That month, Axtell focused his pilots on the art and science of dive-bombing and forcing his pilots to avail themselves of an intelligence reading room and a classified material library.  Major Axtell, young as he was, was a task-maker because in addition to learning, practicing, and becoming proficient in aviation skills, he also demanded that his pilots attend aircraft recognition classes and lectures on a host of technical topics —including the geography of Palau’s Islands, Philippines, the Sulu Archipelago, and other island areas these pilots could be assigned to.  A third pilot was lost when Second Lieutenant Glen B. Smith crashed at sea on a routine training flight.

On 7 September 1944, 30 pilots, 3 ground officers, 90 enlisted men, 24 aircraft, and repair parts boarded the USS Breton (CVE-23) as the squadron’s advanced element.  Its rear echelon of 20 officers, 167 enlisted men remained behind for further training.  VMF-323 would be assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.  Ten days later, the squadron catapulted the squadron to its destination at Emirau.  During takeoff, Second Lieutenant Gerald E. Baker crashed into the sea and was killed.  Upon arrival at Emirau, Axtell reported to the Commanding General, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing for duty.  For the next 30 days, VMF-323 conducted local flight training within a fifty-mile radius of the field.  Training included gunnery, dive-bombing, and squadron tactics.  On 24 October, Commander Task Group 59.6 ordered VMF-323 (Forward) to Espiritu Santo, a rear area supply base in the New Hebrides Islands.  On the same day, the Commanding General, FMFPac (Air) placed VMF-323 under his administrative control.

By 31 October, VMF-323 (Fwd) was fully located at Espiritu Santo and busily involved in setting up the squadron for air operations.  Between 9-28 November, the squadron participated in another round of familiarization flights, gun proficiency, bombing, and squadron tactics.  On 29 November, the squadron’s rear echelon arrived and rejoined the squadron.  MAG-33 attached the squadron on the same day.  Ordnance experts from MAG-33 began installing airborne rocket launchers almost immediately, necessitating additional training by squadron pilots and ground crews.  It was complicated; pilots needed to learn about glide angle, range, proper lead, rock effectiveness, safety, and the characteristics of various rockets.  Added to the already busy training routine was close air support of ground troops.  Unbeknownst to the squadron’s officers, they were being prepared for battle on the island of Okinawa.  As the pilots were practicing air combat maneuvers, the enlisted men were spending more time on the rifle range: Every Marine is a Rifleman.  Expected to develop proficiency with their sidearm, pilots went to the range, as well.  Finally, the squadron’s ground defense crews practiced with anti-aircraft machine guns.  There would be no gravel crunchers to provide security for VMF-323.

On 23 February, MAG-33 issued classified orders to the Commanding Officer, VMF-323: they would fly their 32 Corsairs to Okinawa in echelons.  Combat operations began on 10 April from Kadena airfield.  Weather conditions made Flying conditions poor.  When the dawn combat air patrol (CAP) launched at 0515 hours on their first day, First Lieutenant James L. Brown failed to join the flight.  Initially listed as missing in action, he was later declared killed in action.  On the next day, the airfield came under attack, but there was no damage or casualties.  The Death Rattlers’ first combat kill came that very morning, 11 April.  First Lieutenant Vernon E. Ball was readying for takeoff when a Japanese bomb hit the runway in front of his aircraft.  Ball calmly steered his aircraft around the bomb crater and took off.  Once airborne, Ball observed fellow squadron mate Al Wells shoot down the Japanese bomber responsible for cratering the runway.

On the afternoon of 12 April, a fourteen aircraft CAP noted the approach of Japanese aircraft from the north.  The Death Rattlers split into three divisions.  Six aircraft were diverted northwest from Ie Shima, flight leader Major Arthur L. Turner with Second Lieutenant Obie Stover as his wingman.  The second section was led by First Lieutenant Dellwyn L. Davis, with Second Lieutenant Robert J. Woods as his wingman.  The third section was led by First Lieutenant Charlie Spangler, with Second Lieutenant Dewey Durnford as his wingman.

The Marines were flying at 15,000 feet, 71-miles northwest of Ie Shima when they spotted a multi-engine Japanese bomber about eight miles distant and at an altitude of around 11,000 feet.  According to the Squadron’s official account:

Spangler and Durnford peeled off, followed by Davis and Woods.  Spangler closed from five o’clock and opened fire at 800 feet.  First, he knocked out the tail gunner and the top of the rudder, and then flamed the port engine.  Durnford was closing from seven o’clock, whereupon the Betty[3] turned on him, apparently trying to give the side blister gunner a shot.  Durnford opened fire at 200 feet, directing his fire at the cockpit.  Davis flamed the starboard engine from 100 feet and the Betty spiraled down in flames, exploding when it hit the water.

Meanwhile, a second six-plane element was directed to the Motobu Peninsula.  Captain Felix S. Cecot was flight leader with Second Lieutenant Leon A. Reynolds as his wing.  Captain Joe McPhail led the second section with Second Lieutenant Warren W. Bestwick.  Second Lieutenant Glenn Thacker flew with Second Lieutenant Everett L. Yager.  The enemy approached at about 18,000 feet.  The Marines climbed to 23,000 to gain an overhead advantage.  McPhail reported— 

I spotted some F4Us chasing Zekes[4]; I called out their position and rolled over.  Bestwick was on my wing.  On the way down, four Zekes appeared right under us at about 19,000 feet, flying almost abreast in two-plane sections.  I started firing at the rear plane on the right, at about 400 yards, above and behind.  My first burst was off, and the Zeke saw the tracers.  He made a couple of small turns, and then I started getting hits.  Pieces started coming off around the cockpit, and then he blew up.  The other three scattered.  I then pushed over and came home alone, being unable to find my wingman.

Berwick’s report stated …

Captain McPhail shot at the rear plane on the right.  His Zeke crossed under the rest of their formation and exploded in flames.  I picked the second plane of the first section and fired a long burst and saw it explode.  By that time, the first plane of the second section had broken off to the right and down, so I continued my run and fired a 20-degree deflection shot from behind.  This plane also exploded.  While looking for Captain McPhail, I saw my first Zeke spiraling down smoking, but I didn’t see my second Zeke after firing on him.

Lieutenant Thacker had followed Bestwick on the original pass going after the fourth Zeke in the formation.  He made an attack run on the Zeke and his guns knocked pieces from the fuselage, causing it to smoke.  The Zeke, however, rolled, pulled up tightly, and escaped.  Thacker claimed a probable kill as a result of his action.

At the same time, Captain Cecot dove from 23,000 feet to 5,000 to fire at a Jack[5].  The Jack rolled, Cecot fired at his belly and saw it smoking.  He was unable to observe further damage.  He too claimed a probable kill.

The remaining section, composed of lieutenants John Ruhsam and Robert Wade, were returning to Kadena because Wade’s landing gear could not be retracted.  Just south of Motobu, a Zeke dove out of the sun and made a pass at Wade’s plane.  Wade lowered his flaps and made a tight run.  The Zeke shot past, rolled, and dove to the deck.  Wade followed him down and was almost in firing position when Ruhsam opened fire with a 30-degree deflection shot and the Zeke burst into flames and crashed.

During this flight, all squadron pilots involved encountered Japanese aircraft for the first time.

VMF-323 flew a variety of close air support and bombing missions over the next few days, the seventh and last mission of 22 April was a record-breaker.  The last mission was an eight aircraft formation led by Major George C. Axtell, the squadron commander.  The flight departed Kadena at 1500 hours and did not return until around 1915.  During this flight, VMF-323 downed a record 24 (and three-quarters) enemy aircraft.  The squadron’s records reflect that the action was fast and furious.

Major Jefferson D. Dorah, Jr., squadron executive officer, burned five planes and exploded a sixth, all within twenty minutes.  Major George B. Axtell shot down five planes within fifteen minutes.  Twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Jeremiah J. O’Keefe also shot down five planes, one of which tried to ram him after it caught fire.

FA-18 Hornet 001Flying combat aircraft is a dangerous vocation.  This was true in 1945, it is more so now as our young men fly high-performance aircraft with exceptionally complicated technology.  Every moment of a training or combat flight is a teaching moment.  Bad things can happen to machines, and it is the human pilot that must respond to each “sudden” and sometimes catastrophic failure.  In April 1945, VMF-323 pilots learned about fire discipline.  Some used up their ammunition too quickly, wastefully, which at the moment the last round was fired, rendered that bird as combat ineffective.  Other pilots dropped their external fuel tanks too soon, which threatened their ability to return safely to base.  They learned from their mistakes, of course … or they died because of them.

VMFA-323 is the home squadron of my good (and long-time) friend Pablo, who occasionally comments here.  Pablo has been an aviator for more than 50 years.  That is … fifty years of accident-free flying.  He is a certified instructor pilot, a certified glider pilot, and certified to teach glider flying.  He is also a much-sought-after aviation safety instructor/lecturer.  He will attest to the risks associated with aviation and most likely agree that these innate risks, when combined with high anxiety combat maneuvering, makes military flying the most challenging vocation anyone could ever ask for.  It should not surprise anyone that there are aircraft mishaps, and that good young men and women die in them.  Given the operational tempo of our military air wings, what is surprising is that there are not more mishaps.

As Brigadier General Chuck Yeager (USAF) once said, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.”

Sources:

  1. Chapin, J. C. Fire Brigade: U. S. Marines in the Pusan Perimeter.  Washington: USMC Historical Center, 2000.
  2. Pitzl, G. R. A History of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323.  Washington: USMC Historical Center, 1987.
  3. Sherrod, R.  History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.

Endnotes:

[1] Lieutenant General George B. Axtell (1920-2011) was a World War II flying ace, recipient of the Navy Cross, and the youngest commanding officer of a Marine fighter squadron.  General Axtell served through three wars and retired from active service in 1974.  In addition to command of VMF-323, he also commanded VMF-452, VMF-312, Marine Carrier Air Group-16, Marine Air Control Group 1, Marine Aircraft Group 12, Force Logistics Command, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, and the Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic.  In addition to the Navy Cross, he was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, three awards of the Legion of Merit with combat valor device, two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and seven awards of the Air Medal.

[2] The Corsair was developed by the Chance Vought Aircraft Company, designed and operated as a carrier-based aircraft and entered service in the Navy-Marine Corps in 1942. It quickly became one of the most capable fighter-bombers in the US arsenal and, according to Japanese pilots, the most formidable American fighter in World War II.  The Corsair saw service in both World War II and the Korean War.  It was retired from active service in 1953.

[3] Betty was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi G4M twin-engine land-based bomber.

[4] Zeke was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

[5] Jack was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (lightning bolt), a Japanese Navy aircraft

The Warrior No One Forgot

Templer KnightPeople have admired chivalrous conduct for thousands of years, long before we invented a word for it.  It does not confine itself to mounted warriors wearing armor and confronting a determined enemy.  Chivalry was a code employed by a culture of warriors, which extends to the notion of good men skilled in warfare willing to place their lives and fortunes “on the line” in defense of innocents, in defense of the realm, in defense of religious beliefs.  The code was already in writing by the time of Charlemagne and is chronicled in La Chanson de Roland, which tells of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 A.D.  Historians have restored the code, which appears in summary form below:

  • To fear God and maintain His church (community)
  • To serve the liege lord in valor and faith
  • To protect the weak and defenseless
  • To give succor to widows and orphans
  • To refrain from the wanton giving of offense
  • To live by honor and for glory
  • To despise pecuniary reward
  • To fight for the welfare of all
  • To obey those placed in authority
  • To guard the honor of fellows
  • To eschew unfairness, meanness, and deceit
  • To keep faith
  • At all times, speak only truth
  • To persevere to the end in any enterprise once begun
  • To respect and honor women
  • Never refuse a challenge from an equal
  • Never turn one’s back upon a foe

Of these eighteen tenets, 12 relate to chivalrous behavior, as opposed to combat.  For people like me, they remain relevant and elemental in the behavior of true ladies and gentlemen and closely align themselves with the New Testament’s I Corinthians, 13.

If I speak in the tongues of men or angels but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all that I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; Love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others; It is not self-seeking, nor easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.

Love never fails.  But where there are prophecies they will cease.  Where there are tongues, they will be stilled.  Where there is knowledge, this too will pass away.  For we know in part, and we prophecy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I spoke as a child; I thought like a child.  I reasoned like a child.  But when I became a man, I put away the things of childhood.  For now, we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but we will see face to face.  Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three alone remain: faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love.

During the early and late Middle Ages, the code of chivalry was incorporated into rites of knighthood, standards of behavior expected of those who served the interests of others, more than their own interests[1].  They also included strict rules of etiquette and behavior.  The codes were so exemplary that poets, lyricists, and writers incorporated them into their tales.  Since most people were illiterate, wandering minstrels communicated these ideals throughout the land.  In the post-Roman period of England (c. 500 A.D.) Arthurian myths strengthened notions of personal fortitude and courage in the face of adversity, of honor, honesty, valor, and loyalty.

I believe these two things: (1) King Arthur was not a myth; (2) No organization in the world today better emulates the chivalrous code than the United States Marine Corps.  This is what I believe, but I do not exclude any other of western civilization’s stalwart military or public service organizations.  I only intend my statement to emphasize the frequency of such laudatory qualities within the brotherhood of the US Marine Corps.

The stories from antiquity, mythical or otherwise, serve as teaching moments.  There may not have been a greater general in all antiquity than Julius Caesar, but he was a flawed man (professionally and personally) whose mistakes were devastating to Rome and its people.  King Arthur too was an illustrious leader, a man whose human frailty led to his demise and that of his Camelotian kingdom.  Not too many years ago, the American people spoke of the Kennedy White House as Camelot, but revealed history tells us that Jack Kennedy and his lovely bride were troubled people whose personal behaviors destroyed them, their legacy, which deeply troubled their citizen-admirers’.

The bane of humankind is our moral frailty.

Historians have claimed that the Arthurian stories were legend or myth because there are no written records to validate them.  Nor is there any physical evidence that he ever lived —until recently.  British archeologists believe that they have uncovered the burial tomb of a man named Arthur that dates back in time to around 500 A. D[2].  Perhaps King Arthur was a myth, but I doubt it.  King Arthur is the warrior from antiquity that no one ever forgot.  His existence may not be as well documented as that of Jesus of Nazareth, but the evidence that does exist is enough to convince me that such a man did exist —but more to the point, his is a story that can help us discover who we are, and how we might use the lessons of time to improve ourselves; how we might better serve our families, our communities, and our nation.

Arthurian 001Many tales were written about King Arthur and his knights of the round table, most of which were romantic constructs that incorporated supernatural or mythical beings, which were clearly imaginative inventions.  Three hundred years earlier, however, Nennius[3] records Arthur as a historic figure in Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons), an account unfettered by flights of fancy.  The Britons, of course, were tribal Celts who occupied all of Britain before being pushed into Wales by the Romans, Angles, and Saxons.  Arthur was one of the last Britons[4] to make a successful stand against the Anglo-Saxon invasions, a conflict that continued through the rise and progeny of King Alfred the Great (847-99).  If Nennius correctly records the events of the time, given that present-day England was divided by squabbling tribes in the post-Roman period, then Arthur would not have adorned himself in shining armor.  He would wear the attire of a Celtic chieftain, which most likely incorporated the clothing and armor of late-Roman style.  There would have been no great castles, but something more on the order of wooden stockades incorporated with then-existing Roman fortifications/settlements.

Historic facts about this period of Romano-British England are more fascinating than the fanciful tales because history is more plausible.  Monk Nennius never told us where Arthur was born, but he did list his battles —notably his last battle at Badon, which occurred near Aquae Sulis (present-day Bath).  The significance of the battle was that the Britons prevailed over the Anglo-Saxon horde, pushing them back to the British Saxon Shore.  We know this from the Anglo-Saxon’s own records of the time, and from archaeological evidence.  That the Britons had a powerful, unifying leader, seems undeniable.

Was there such a place as Camelot?  Yes-and no.  Colchester, England is the site of the earliest Roman settlement, although evidence suggests that the settlement existed before the arrival of Romans in 55 B.C.  It was then called Camulodunon, which also appears on coins minted by the chieftain Tasciovanus between 20-10 B.C.  It would be easy to make this association, but Colchester is far removed from Aquae Sulis and there is yet another possibility.

In the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, there is a 7th-century work titled The Song of Llywarch the Old.  It contains one of the oldest references to King Arthur, composed of a series of poems attributed to a poet named Llywarch, who praises the exploits of a chieftain named Cynddylan, who died fighting the Anglo Saxons in 658 A.D.  Cynddylan, according to Llywarch, was the direct descendant of Arthur, which implies that Arthur once ruled the kingdom that Cynddylan ruled.  It was the kingdom of present-day Powys, Wales, which at the time covered the area described above, in the south and west-central England and east-central Wales.  The Anglo-Saxons eventually defeated the Britons, pushing them into the Welsh mountains where a modern-day county still retains the old kingdom’s name.  The Romans called this area Viroconium.

When Rome abandoned Britain in 410 A.D., most of their settlements were abandoned and Britain fell into the so-called Dark Ages.  Romans and their mixed-blood descendants, however, continued to occupy Viroconium.  It had been the fourth largest town in Romano-Britain after Londonium(London), Lindum Colonia (Lincoln), and Eboracum (York).  While the Anglo-Saxons quickly overran the largest cities (above), Viroconium was far distant from the invasive Germans and remained free and evolved into the Briton’s most important city in the early Dark Ages.  These ruins still exist with archeological evidence that the town went through a process of reconstruction around 500 A.D.  We know the town today as Wroxeter, which is 25 miles northwest of Worcester, my lovely bride’s hometown.  Ancient manuscripts tell us that Arthur ruled over the Briton’s most important city —which would have been Viroconium.

Still, Arthur is not a Welsh name.  The ruler of Viroconium around the time of Arthur was named Owain Ddantgwyn (pronounced Owen Thant-gwyn), which sounds nothing like Arthur.  During the early Middle Ages, British warriors were given honorary titles of real or mythological animals thought to represent their prowess in battle.  One of these was the Welsh word “Arth,” meaning Bear.  In Viroconium around 500 A.D., its ruler Owain Ddantgwyn was known as the Bear, hence, Arth.  Scholars today connect the Welsh word for bear with the Latin word for bear, Ursus, which then became, in later years, Arthur, a king, and a person who actually did exist.

The tales of King Arthur are entertaining, but the history of the real warrior is more fascinating.  Our admiration for such a fellow continues because, among other things, he helped create the code of honor that serves as our guide for achieving and maintaining nobility.

Knights in the sense of the Middle Ages never existed in the United States, of course —Americans eschewed the notion of kings or of men born into families of nobles.  Instead, we Americans believe that every person can obtain nobility by acting nobly.  The Knight’s Code of Honor that I borrowed (above) is a nifty tool for helping us achieve nobility —as a guide for the way we live our lives.

cropped-marine-recon-002.jpgAs for knights —we do have them, but we call them by another name.  Their standards are high, their tolerance for failure is low, they do remarkably brave things almost on a daily basis while never seeking recognition.  They are guardians of the weak, they succor the suffering, and live according to a unique code of honor.  These knights demand fairness, serve justice, always persevere, and they keep the faith.  In fact, it is their motto: Semper Fidelis.  We call these modern-day knights United States Marines.

“Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for a friend.”

—John 15:13

Remarkably, much about the US Marines is modeled on the warrior that no one forgot.  Personally, given who I am, I hope no one ever does forget.

Sources:

  1. Anderson, G.  King Arthur in Antiquity.  London: Roufledge (2004)
  2. Phillips, G.  The Lost Tomb of King Arthur.  Rochester: Bear & Company, 2016
  3. Dumville, D. N.  Sub-Roman Britain: History and legend.  1977

Endnotes:

[1] Our observation that chivalrous codes did exist does not suggest that every individual who took such oaths always observed them.  Every person has strengths as well as weaknesses; some of us have destructive character flaws.  In ancient society, and today, there are plenty of scurrilous fellows who took oaths for only one purpose, to advance themselves, and then violated them on a more-or-less on-going basis.

[2] Read: The Lost Tomb of King Arthur, by Graham Phillips, Rochester: Bear & Company, 2016.

[3] Nennius was a Welsh monk of the 9th century.  Nennius, who lived in Brecknockshire, present-day Powys, was a student of the bishop Elfodd of Bangor, who convinced ecclesiastics of his day to accept the Continental dating of Easter.  Much of Nennius’ effort was based on earlier works, notably De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which was written by Gildas between 500-579 A. D.

[4] Popular writers suggest that Arthur Pendragon was descended from a Welsh and Romano-British line, which given the history of Rome’s presence in Britain, and the areas in which they settled (Aquae Sulis (Somerset)-West Mercia (Wroxeter/Worcestershire)), the suggestion is credible.

National Security and the U. S. Marine Corps

War Office 001Shortly after the inauguration of President George Washington in 1789, Congress created the United States Department of War (also, War Department) as a cabinet-level position to administer the field army and Naval Affairs under the president’s constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States and the United States Secretary of War.  The first Secretary of War was retired army general Henry Knox.  With the possible exception of President James Madison “lending a hand” alongside U. S. Marines at the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814, George Washington is the only Commander-in-Chief to lead a field army in 1794 during the so-called Whiskey Rebellion.

President John Adams considered the possibility of reorganizing a “new army” under the nominal command of retired President Washington to deal with the increase of maritime incidents between the United States and the French Republic in 1798.  Adams considered this possibility owing to his concern about the possibility of a land invasion by the French and his perceived need of consolidating the Armed Forces under an experienced “commander in chief.”  A land invasion would come, but not from France.

Also, in 1798, Congress established the United States Department of the Navy, initiated on the recommendation of James McHenry[1] to provide organizational structure to the emerging United States Navy and Marine Corps (after 1834), and when directed by the President or Congress during time of war, the United States Coast Guard (although each service remained separate and distinct with unique missions and expertise).  Until 1949, the Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy served as members of the presidential cabinet.

Following World War II, particularly as a consequence of evolving military technology and the complex nature of war, Congress believed that the War and Navy departments would be better managed under a central authority.  James Forrestal, who served as the 48th Secretary of the Navy, became the first United States Secretary of Defense[2].  A restructuring of the US military took the following form under the National Security Act of 1947.

  • Merged the Department of the Navy and Department of War into the National Military Establishment (NME). The Department of War was renamed the Department of the Army.  A Secretary of Defense would head the NME.
  • Created the Department of the Air Force, which moved the Army Air Corps into the United States Air Force.
  • Protected the U. S. Marine Corps as a separate service under the Department of the Navy.
  • The secretaries of military departments remained nominal cabinet posts, but this arrangement was determined deficient given the creation of the office of the Secretary of Defense.

While the National Security Act of 1947 did recognize the U. S. Marine Corps as a separate naval service, it did not clearly define the service’s status within the Navy Department. Under this new arrangement, the Commandant did have access to the Secretary of the Navy[3], but many operational matters involving the Marine Corps continued to fall under the purview of the Chief of Naval Operations.  As an example, the U. S. Navy funded Marine Corps aviation, determining types of aircraft made available to the Marine Corps as well as matters pertaining to air station operations.  Accordingly, the Marine Corps, as an organization, remained vulnerable to the dictates of others in terms of its composition, funding, and operations limiting the role of the Commandant in deciding such matters.

USMC SealWithin three months of assuming the office of Commandant on 1 January 1948, General Clifton B. Cates was forced to confront a difficult political situation.  In March, Defense Secretary Forrestal convened a meeting of the military secretaries and service chiefs in Key West, Florida to discuss and resolve their respective roles and missions within the National Military Establishment.  Since General Cates was not invited to the meeting, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Louis E. Denfield, undertook the representation of the Marine Corps as part of the Navy.  The problem was that the Marine Corps has never been part of the U. S. Navy.

Part of the Key West conference involved a discussion concerning likely future conflicts, with everyone agreeing that America’s next war would involve the Soviet Union in Europe.  Should this happen, given President Truman’s mandate to cut Defense spending, then the Army and Air Force would require substantial defense allocations for reinforcements.  In order to fund this potential threat, the meeting concluded that the Marine Corps must receive less money.  Besides, argued the Army and Air Force, there would be no need for an amphibious force in a European war.  The Key West meeting concluded with an agreement that the Marine Corps would be limited to four infantry divisions, that the JCS would deny Marine Corps leadership any tactical command above the corps levels, and a prohibition of the Marine Corps from creating a second land army[4].

When General Cates learned of this meeting, he protested making such decisions without his participation claiming that it violated the intent of the National Security Act of 1947 and impaired the ability of the Marine Corps to fulfill its amphibious warfare mission.  General Cates protestations fell on deaf ears.

Louis A. Johnson replaced James Forrestal as Secretary of Defense in March 1949.  Johnson shared Truman’s commitment to drastic reductions in defense spending in favor of domestic programs.  Both Truman and Johnson made the erroneous assumption that America’s monopoly on atomic weapons would act as a sufficient deterrence against Communist aggression[5].  Neither of these men, therefore, believed that a military force-in-readiness was a necessary function of the Department of Defense.

Given the relative autonomy of the service secretaries and military chiefs under the National Security Act, and as a means of thwarting independent lobbying by either the Navy or the Air Force, President Truman pursued two courses of action.  (1) Truman sought (and obtained) an amendment to the National Security Act that made the Department of Defense a single executive department, which incorporated as subordinates, each of the service secretaries.  The amendment also created the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff[6], subordinating its members to the chairman, the first of these being General Omar Bradley[7].  (2) Both President Truman and Johnson demanded that the service secretaries and senior military leaders “get in line” with the President’s defense cuts.

The intimidation apparently worked because General Omar Bradley changed his tune once he was nominated to become Chairman of the JCS.  In 1948 he moaned, “The Army of 1948 could not fight its way out of a paper bag.”  In the next year, both he and Army Chief of Staff General Collins testified before Congress that Truman cuts made the services more effective.

At about the same time, in a meeting with the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Richard L. Conolly, Johnson told him, “Admiral, the Navy is on its way out.  There is no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps.  General Bradley tells me amphibious operations are a thing of the past.  We’ll never have any more amphibious operations.  That does away with the Marine Corps.  And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.”

Truman hated the Marine Corps with intense passion, which might afford psychologists years of interesting study.  He did not think the nation needed a corps of Marines when there was already a land army.  In implementing Truman’s budget cuts, Secretary Johnson intended that the Marine Corps be disestablished and incorporated into the U. S. Army.  Toward this goal, Johnson initiated steps to move Marine Corps aviation into the U. S. Air Force.  He was soon reminded that such a move would be illegal without congressional approval.

Neither Truman nor Johnson ever accepted the fact that the Marine Corps, as a combat force, provided unique strategic and tactical strengths to the national defense structure.  What the law would not allow Secretary Johnson or President Truman to do, they attempted to accomplish through financial starvation[8].  Under the chairmanship of Omar Bradley, the JCS was bitingly hostile to the Marine Corps.

The Marine Corps, however, was not the lone ranger.  Less than a month after assuming office, Secretary Johnson canceled construction of the USS United States, a then state-of-the-art aircraft carrier.  Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan[9] resigned his office, and a number of Navy admirals joined him, effective on 24 May 1949.  The incident is remembered as the Revolt of the Admirals.

Major Denfeld
Admiral Denfield USN

The revolt of admirals prompted the House Armed Services Committee to convene hearings during October 1949.  A number of active duty and retired admirals appeared before the committee and gave their testimony, including Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Denfield[10].  They had little good to say about Louis Johnson or newly appointed Navy Secretary Francis Matthews.  General Cates also gave testimony, giving his unqualified support to the Navy.  Along with this, he protested the fact that he had not been consulted in matters pertaining to the Marine Corps and the impact of these decisions on the national defense.  Said Cates, “… the power of the budget, the power of coordination, and the power of strategic direction of the armed forces have been used as devices to destroy the operating forces of the Marine Corps.”  The House committee also called General Bradley, who, in arguing in favor of disestablishment of the Navy and Marine Corps rejected the notion that the United States would ever again have a use for amphibious operations.

Replacing Admiral Denfield as CNO was Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, who immediately repudiated General Vandergrift’s agreement with Secretary Sullivan.  He instead approached the Secretary of Defense and requested “a free hand” in matters pertaining to the Marine Corps.  Johnson granted Sherman’s request.  At the beginning of 1950, after two years of forced budgetary cuts, Sherman slated the Marine Corps for additional cuts.  The Marine Corps would be reduced to 24,000 officers and men, a reduction from eleven infantry battalions to six, from twenty-three aviation squadrons to twelve.  Additionally, Secretary Johnson ordered the curtailment of appropriations for equipment, ammunition, supplies, and people and excluded Marine Corps units from various tactical training.  Admiral Sherman assigned the bulk of amphibious ships to support Army training, leaving the Marines with little to do.

War did return to the United States, of course.  When it did, it proved General Omar Bradley and the other joint chiefs were completely wrong in their predictions.  Worse, it demonstrated how unprepared the United States was for its next martial challenges. 

Support for the Marines

Although Representative Carl Vinson (D-GA) proposed a bill that gave full JCS membership to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the measure failed but generated much attention in the American press, particularly in the Hearst news organization.  Public support was already growing for the Navy-Marine Corps when the war clouds once more gathered in the Far East.

Among Truman’s staunchest congressional foes was Representative Gordon L. McDonough (R-CA).  McDonough wrote a letter to President Truman noting how the Marine Corps has always rushed to the nation’s defense.  With this in mind, the congressman urged the president to include the Commandant as a full member of the JCS.  The president’s response to McDonough tells us far more about Truman than is possible in an entire essay.  Truman wrote, “For your information, the Marine Corps is the Navy’s police force, and as long as I am President, that is what it will remain.”  Apparently, Truman failed to consider that he was writing to someone who might use the president’s blistering comments against him later on.  Truman continued, “They [Marines] have a propaganda machine almost the equal of Stalin’s.  When the Marine Corps goes into the Army it works with and for the Army and that’s the way it should be … The Chief of Naval Operations is the chief of staff of the Navy of which the Marines are a part.”

McDonough inserted Truman’s response into the Congressional Record, and it wasn’t long before the press picked it up and printed it.  Press reporting created a firestorm in the United States.  Conservative politicians of both parties and journalists excoriated Truman for his remarks.  The White House was overwhelmed by mail from the public, many who lost loved ones during World War II, expressing their indignation of Truman’s remarks.  Presidential aides scrambled to construct a letter of apology, which Truman personally handed to General Cates at the White House.  He then released a copy to the press.  Afterward, when Truman fired Louis Johnson after only 18 months as Defense Secretary, the matter moved to the back burner.

The nation responds

Immediately following World War II, the Eighth US Army was assigned to occupation duty in Japan.  Initially, there was much work to be done: disarming former Japanese soldiers, maintaining order, dealing with local populations, guarding installations, and prosecuting war criminals. According to the Eighth Army Blue Book[11], “On 31 December 1945, Sixth Army was relieved of occupation duties and Eighth Army assumed an expanded role in the occupation, which encompassed the formidable tasks of disarmament, demilitarization, and democratization.  The missions were flawlessly executed at the operational level by Eighth Army …”

The statement may be undeniably true, but as the Japanese people settled comfortably into their new reality, demands placed on soldiers and their officers lessoned.  What the Blue Book’s history section omits, a dangerous precedent for future soldiers, was that this major combat command became lethargic, pleasure-seeking, and in the face of severe budgetary restraints imposed on it by the Truman administration, reached an unbelievable level of incompetence and ineptitude.

In the early hours of 25 June 1950, the (North) Korean People’s Army, numbering 53,000 front line and supporting forces followed a massive artillery bombardment into South Korea.  There were only a handful of Army advisors in South Korea at the time.  Those who wanted to continue living made a beeline toward the southern peninsula.

In Japan, there was a single battalion in the 21st Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division capable of “mounting out” to interdict the overwhelming KPA army.  The battalion, composed of mostly untrained teenagers capable of little more than standing guard duty in Japan, never stood a chance.

The Marines Respond

At the time of the North Korean invasion, senior officers of the U. S. Marine Corps knew that they would be called upon to address this new crisis.  Lieutenant General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, in Hawaii, flew to Tokyo to confer with General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander Allied Powers (SCAP), in Tokyo.  At the conclusion of their meeting, MacArthur sent a dispatch to the JCS in Washington requesting the immediate assignment of a Marine regimental combat team to his command.

In Washington, General Bradley delayed his response for a full five days.  By the time the JCS did respond, the North Korean Army had already mauled the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division at the Battle of Osan, rendering it combat ineffective.  Closer to the truth, 1/21 was combat ineffective even before it arrived on the Korean Peninsula.  For these young men, the land of the morning calm had become a bloody nightmare.

In late June 1950, Marine Corps manpower equaled around 74,000 men.  The total number of Marines assigned to the Fleet Marine Forces was 28,000, around 11,000 of these were assigned to FMFPac.  Neither the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton nor its east coast counterpart, the 2nd Marine Division, could raise more than a regimental landing team (RLT) of combat-ready troops, with supporting air.  To fully man a combat division, it would be necessary to transfer Marines to Camp Pendleton from posts and stations, recruiting staffs, supply depots, schools, depots, districts, and even Marine headquarters.

General MacArthur had requested an RLT, he would get a Marine brigade, the advance element of the 1st Marine Division that had been ordered to embark.  The officer assigned to lead the Brigade was the senior officer present at Camp Pendleton, Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, an experienced combat leader with 33 years of active duty service.

The ground combat element of the Brigade would form around the 5th Marine Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray.  Murray was already selected for promotion to colonel.  Marines reporting for duty at Camp Pendleton were rushed to the 5th Marines where they would flesh out Murray’s understrength battalions[12].  1st Battalion 11th Marines (artillery) would serve in general support of the brigade with additional detachments (company strength) in communications, motor transportation, field medical, support, engineer, ordnance, tanks, and special weapons.

At the Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro, California, Marine Aircraft Group 33 was being formed around Brigadier General Thomas H. Cushman.  Cushman would serve as Craig’s deputy and command the brigade’s air element, consisting of a headquarters squadron, service squadron, VMF 214, VMF 323, VMF(N) 513(-), and Tactical Squadron-2 (detachment).

In total, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade arrived in Korea with 6,534 Marines —its equipment, brought out of mothballs dating back to World War II: trucks, jeeps, amphibian tractors, all reconditioned and tested for service.

MajGen Frank E. Lowe USA
MajGen Frank Lowe USA

Major General Frank E. Lowe, U. S. Army (Retired) was dispatched to Korea as the personal envoy of President Truman.  His task was to observe the conduct of the conflict and report his findings directly to the President.  General Lowe advised President Truman that the Army, its senior leadership and combat doctrine were dangerously lacking.  Of the 1st Marine Division, General Lowe reported, “The First Marine Division is the most efficient and courageous combat unit I have ever seen or heard of.”  General Lowe recommended that the Marine Corps have a permanent establishment of three divisions and three air wings.

Whether General Lowe’s report influenced Truman is unknown.  What is known is that the Secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of the Navy, and Chief of Naval Operations continued to oppose recognition of the Marine Corps as a viable service and its leader as someone entitled to become a member of the JCS.  Still, public and congressional support for the Marine Corps increased steadily.  The issue of the Douglas-Mansfield bills was deferred until the 1952 legislative session.  Before then, however, Admiral Sherman died suddenly in July 1951, and General Lemuel C. Shepherd succeeded Cates as Commandant of the Marine Corps.

As a result, the 1952 legislative session worked in the Marine Corps’ favor.  The Marine Corps was approved for a peacetime force of three infantry divisions, three air wings, and a manpower ceiling of 400,000 men.  The Commandant was granted access to the Joint Chiefs of Staff with voting rights on matters pertaining to the Marine Corps, as determined by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and on 20 June 1952, President Truman signed into law the Douglas-Mansfield Act.  Some pundits claim that politically, Truman did not dare veto the bill —others argue that Truman finally realized the value of the Marine Corps as our nation’s premier combat force.

Sources:

  • Catchpole, L. G. The Korean War.  London: Robinson Publishing, 2001
  • Davis, V. The Post-Imperial Presidency.  New Brunswick: Transaction Press, 1980
  • Fehrenbach, T. R. This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History.  Washington: Potomac Books, 2001
  • Krulak, V. H. First to Fight: An Inside View of the U. S. Marine Corps.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999.
  • Montross, L. and Nicholas A. Canzona. S. Marine Operations in Korea, 1950-1953 (Volume 1): The Pusan Perimeter.  Historical Branch, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1954.
  • The United States Naval Proceedings Magazine, Volume 33, Number 3: A Propaganda Machine Like Stalin’s, Alan Rems, June 2019

Endnotes:

[1] A supporter of the United States Constitution, Representative from Maryland, and third Secretary of War.  He was also a noted surgeon with many successes during the Revolutionary War.  Fort McHenry, outside Baltimore, is named in his honor.

[2] Forrestal had served in the Navy Department as Under Secretary since 1940 and appointed as Secretary of the Navy in 1944.  Forrestal served as Secretary of Defense from 18 September 1947 until 28 March 1949 when President Harry S. Truman asked for his resignation and replaced him Louis A. Johnson.  Forrestal’s wartime service had taken its toll and he was personally shattered when fired by Truman, with whom he had little patience.  He took his own life on 22 May 1949 while undergoing treatment for severe depression.

[3] During World War II, Chief of Naval Operations Ernest J. King was well-known as a micro-manager.  He treated the Commandant of the Marine Corps as another one of his bureau chiefs and denied the Commandant access to the Secretary of the Navy.  This restriction changed when Admiral Nimitz became CNO, but the relationship was a gentleman’s agreement between Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan, Admiral Nimitz, and Marine Commandant Alexander A. Vandergrift.  The National Security Act of 1947, however, did not clarify the status of the Marine Corps within the Department of the Navy.

[4] During World War II, the Marine Corps fielded six infantry divisions.

[5] Nearly every newly created U. S. Air Force general was a proponent of the use of strategic bombing and atomic warfare as the United States’ principal defense strategy.  Standing in opposition to this ludicrous mindset was nearly every active duty and retired Navy admiral.

[6] The JCS evolved from a relatively inefficient joint board of senior Army and Navy officers who seldom agreed in matters of operational planning or execution.  The Joint Board performed as presidential advisors but had no authority to initiate programs or policies.  Following World War I, the Joint Board was renamed the Joint Planning Committee with the authority to initiate recommendations but had no authority to implement them.

[7] General Bradley detested the Marine Corps almost as much as President Truman and Secretary Johnson.

[8] Because of Truman and Johnson’s defense cuts, the United States had no combat-ready units in June 1950.

[9] Replacing Sullivan was Francis P. Matthews, a former director of the USO who admitted to having no expertise that would qualify him for service as a Navy Secretary beyond his contempt for the Marine Corps.

[10] President Truman demanded Denfield’s resignation and took action to demote the other admirals.

[11] Dated 3 July 2019.

[12] Each of Murray’s battalions were organized with an H&S Company, two rifle companies, and one weapons company.