Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

Among those interested in military history, particularly American military history, there are two prevailing opinions about American Marines.  The first is that Marines are quite good at amphibious warfare.  However, those with greater understanding realize that the Marines are more than amphibians; they are chameleons.  Marines aren’t just good at completing their traditional mission of projecting Naval power ashore; they are doubly good at fulfilling every mission.  What makes this even possible is the attitudes common among Marines: Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.

American Marines did not invent amphibious warfare; some form of it has been with us for at least 3,000 years.  Julius Caesar, the quintessential field commander, made amphibious landings and developed ship-borne artillery to support his landing forces.  From all this experience through three millennia, we know there are two kinds of amphibious operations: those that were highly successful and those that were a complete disaster.  Of the latter, no greater example exists than the spectacularly unsuccessful amphibious assault on Gallipoli, where of the 499,000 troops landed by Allied forces, half were killed, injured, or rendered incapacitated due to sickness and disease.

During the period between world wars, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps developed specialized amphibious warfare doctrine and equipment.  In the 1920s, two events propelled the Marine Corps to the forefront of amphibious inquiry.  The first was the introduction of the Marine Corps Schools (M.C.S.) at Quantico, Virginia.  The creation of Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune, M.C.S., provided an environment that encouraged enlightened thinking in matters of warfare.  Within this school, scholarly officers began asking “what if” questions about the future of war involving the United States.  The second event was the rise to prominence of Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hancock “Pete” Ellis, United States Marine Corps.

By this time, it was well known that Japan had seized several Pacific islands from the Germans during World War I.  Marine scholars began to suspect that Japan was starting to fortify these islands.  Lieutenant Colonel Ellis (Note 1) published a study in 1921 entitled Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia.  He predicted and outlined every move the Japanese would eventually follow in World War II and warned that the United States would face a fanatical enemy defending heavily fortified islands.  He also predicted the application of advanced warfare technology, such as aircraft carriers, torpedo planes, and long-range bombers.

From these inquiries, Navy and Marine Corps planners devised new troop organizations, new amphibious landing craft, a process for coordinating naval artillery and sea-borne air assault strategies, and logistical methodologies.  Navy planners scheduled exercises within the Caribbean area to test hypotheses, and it was from these lessons that a formal amphibious doctrine was eventually developed — including the seizure of objectives and the defense of advanced naval bases.

By 1927, the Marine Corps was officially tasked as an advanced base force.  On 7 December 1933, Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson issued General Order 241, which transformed the Advanced Base Forces into the Fleet Marine Forces (FMF).  From that point on, the U. S. Marine Corps became America’s quick reaction force.  By 1934, Marine Corps tacticians had developed effective amphibious techniques, and in that year, the Marine Corps published the Tentative Landing Operations Manual.  It was tentative because the Navy and Marine Corps continued to test emerging ideas about amphibious operations.  They accomplished this through annual fleet landing exercises.  Much of this early information remains relevant to current operations.

It will suffice to say that these preparations proved invaluable in World War II when the Marines not only spearheaded many of the attacks against Japanese-held islands in the Pacific but also trained the U.S. Army divisions that also participated in the island-hopping campaign.  What the U.S. Army knew about amphibious operations in the planning and execution of Operation Torch (North Africa, 1942) they obtained from the doctrine developed by the Marine Corps in the two previous decades and overseen by Marine officers assigned to General Eisenhower’s staff.

Three months before war broke out on the Korean peninsula in 1950, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Omar N. Bradley famously said, “The world will never again see a large-scale amphibious landing (Note 2).” Three months after that, the Marine Corps made an amphibious landing at Inchon, Korea — the master strategy of U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur.

“The ability to furnish skilled forces to meet emergencies on short notice has long been a hallmark of the U. S. Marine Corps.  When the call to arms sounded for the Korean War in June 1950, the Corps was handicapped by the strictures of a peacetime economy.  Nevertheless, a composite brigade consisting of a regiment and an air group was made available within a week’s time.

“With a reputation built largely on amphibious warfare, Marines of the 1st Brigade were called upon the prove their versatility in sustained ground action.  On three separate occasions within the embattled Pusan Perimeter — south toward Sachon and twice along the Naktong River — these Marine units hurled the weight of their assault force at a determined enemy.  All three attacks were successful, and at no point did Marines give ground except as ordered.  The quality of their performance in the difficult days of the Pusan Perimeter fighting made them a valuable member of the United Nations team and earned new laurels for their Corps.” —Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., General, U. S. Marine Corps, Commandant of the Marine Corps (1952 – 1955)

What General Shepherd did not say, of course, was that by the time President Truman and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson finished destroying our defense structure, none of our military services were prepared for another conflict.  The magnitude of the task accomplished by the Marine Corps in the first ten weeks of the Korean War may be fairly judged from the fact that on 30 June 1950, the 1st Marine Division consisted of only 641 officers and 7,148 enlisted men.  The 1st Marine Aircraft Wing had less than 500 officers and only 3,259 enlisted men.

On 2 August, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade was pressed forward into the Pusan Perimeter with a scant 6,600 infantry and aviation officers and enlisted men.  The Brigade became known as the Fire Brigade; it was also a light brigade because every one of the regiment’s battalions and attachments was understrength.  This meant that the Marines going into combat would do so without an organic reinforcing reserve capability.  One may wonder how this was even possible.  The answer, of course, is that American Marines always get the job done —no matter what it takes.  They improvise.  They adapt.  They overcome.


1.  Colonel Ellis (1880–1923) served as an intelligence officer whose work became the basis for the American campaign of a series of amphibious assaults that defeated the Japanese in World War II.  His prophetic study helped establish his reputation as one of the foremost naval theorists and strategists of his era, to include foreseeing a preemptory attack by Japan and island-hopping campaigns in the Central Pacific.  Colonel Ellis became the Marine Corps’ first spy whose mysterious death became enclosed in controversy.

2.  USMC Operations in Korea, 1950-1953 Volume I.

Captain Evelyn Waugh (Royal Marines)

He might have been the best sort of English writer.  He drank too much, smoked too much, never attended chapel, hardly ever attended classes at Oxford, and in 1927, polite society deemed him morally unsuitable for the institution of matrimony.

He also kept unsuitable company and were it not for his father’s allowance of £4.00 weekly, he would have had to give up drinking altogether.  He wanted to become a writer but initially could not find a publisher who was very interested in his efforts.  The main thing standing in his way was his profanity.  Fortunately for him, social and publishing standards were soon low enough to support his many detestable habits.  His first work in 1928, titled Decline and Fall, was very well received.

Those who argued amongst themselves that Evelyn Waugh was not suitable for marriage were rewarded with news of his divorce in 1928.  It was a messy affair and left him a bitter man.  Mr. Waugh was a rolling stone for the next ten years, gadding about the world, writing travel advisories and occasional articles for London newspapers.

In 1939, the thirty-six-year-old writer applied for a commission in the Royal Marines.  Given their reputation for rigorous training, no one knows why Evelyn Waugh chose the Royal Marines.  According to Waugh’s biographer, field training caused him so much pain that he could not even pick up a pen to write letters home — but the British have a tradition of taking on challenges and seeing them through, no matter what.

After his commission, Waugh revealed himself as an inadequate leader — he was entirely too curt with his men, who deeply resented him.  In a short time, he was removed from command and assigned to the regimental staff as an intelligence officer.  A year later, he was in a Marine Commando unit working for Colonel (later, Brigadier) Robert Laycock. Waugh’s editors claim that his books about World War II closely paralleled Waugh’s actual wartime adventures. If true, then his readers should presume Brigadier Laycock to be as mad as a hatter — but such descriptions do not seem reflective of Laycock, who had a distinguished career during and after the war.

Waugh’s account of World War II is titled Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender.  The trilogy was later made into a film titled Sword of Honor, starring Daniel Craig (2001).  If you enjoy reading fictional history, you’ll appreciate these books as a glimpse into a remarkable period.  He was also the author of Brideshead Revisited.

Captain Waugh tells us of one of his experiences and (possibly) reveals why he was an inadequate leader of troops.  During training, a British captain injured his knee during parachute training and was rushed to the nearest military hospital.  It was a medical clinic run by the Royal Air Force.

After x-rays, the captain was transferred to an army clinic, where he was treated and retained overnight.  The following day, two officers from his training unit went to visit him, not realizing that he had been transferred away from the R.A.F. facility.

The two officers entered the facility and checked in with the medical staff attendant at the front desk.

“I beg your pardon,” said the one officer, “we have come to see Captain Crouchback.”

The attendant answered, “Right.  Well, d’you know where to find him?”

“Actually, no; perhaps you can tell us.”

“I’m sure I don’t know.  Did you say ‘captain’?  Well, there you go … we don’t take army blokes here.”

“He came in yesterday for an emergency x-ray.”

“Right.  Well, I suppose you can try radiology, then.”

“Where’s that?”

After rolling his eyes, the airman said, “Check the board out front; it should tell you.”

Captain Freemantle turned to his companion and said, “I suppose it would be no good putting that man on a charge for insolence.”

“Not in the slightest,” said Captain de Souza.  “Insubordinate behavior isn’t an offense in the air service.”

New Georgia


Some people claim that Americans are insufferably arrogant—but it may not be accurate except for Texans.  But even if it were true, American arrogance doesn’t hold a candle to the haughtiness of the Japanese.  In the First World War, the Empire of Japan aligned itself with the Allied powers; in World War II, they joined the Axis powers.  Given their history through the 1920s, the Japanese sense of superiority was second to none.  By 1930, the Imperial Japanese Army Staff was convinced that their island nation of 130 million people could conquer Korea, China, the Philippines, Indochina, and Burma — with a subsequent eye on India — and, while doing it, could also defeat the world’s two most powerful nations: the United Kingdom and the United States.

The result was inevitable.  Japanese arrogance led militarists to underestimate the industrial capacity and willfulness of the Allied powers while overestimating their own.  Until the Second World War, the Japanese had gotten away with their “sneak attacks” on China and Russia.  At a time when the United Kingdom had its hands full in Europe, the United States had only just begun to mobilize its armed forces.  The Japanese decided that the time was right to initiate another series of lightning assaults — and did so at Pearl Harbor, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Guam.  By late 1941, the Japanese scored victory after victory.  The success of these operations convinced the Japanese that their army, navy, and air forces were invincible.

Their first snag occurred on 8 December when the Japanese tangled with a battalion of 450 Marines at Wake Island.  It took the Imperial Japanese Navy fifteen days to take the island away from those Marines.  Japanese losses included two destroyers, one submarine, two patrol boats, 30 destroyed or damaged aircraft, and 551 men.  American casualties included 94 Killed or wounded Marines, 433 captured, twelve aircraft destroyed, 70 civilian construction crew killed, and 1,104 civilians interned (180 of whom died in captivity).

The Japanese might have learned something important from this misadventure were it not for their arrogance — but by then, they were already committed to a course of action that would become a disaster for the Japanese people.  Elsewhere, the Japanese seized the Netherlands Indies, and Malaya for much-needed oil.  Moreover, beyond their desire for self-sufficiency, Japan needed to consolidate its hold over Asian Pacifica. 

Consolidation meant setting up an Imperial defense structure — a line along which the Japanese could thwart any Allied effort to encroach into these new Japanese territories.  It was a very long defense line — looping from the Kuriles through Wake to the Marshall Islands, the Gilbert Islands, westward to the Bismarck Archipelago, Timor, Java, Sumatra, Malaya, and Burma.  The task of defending such a large area was far more than the Japanese military could handle.  By the time senior Japanese officers came to this realization (in the spring of 1942), it was already too late to change the game plan.  In any case, Japanese culture would not allow senior officers to acknowledge their errors.  Japanese arrogance hastened their ultimate defeat.

The Japanese Target Rabaul

In January 1942, Japanese troops overpowered an Australian garrison at Rabaul, located on the southwest Pacific Island of New Britain (now part of New Guinea).  Having taken Rabaul, the Japanese wasted no time transforming it into a significant base and anchorage and garrisoning the island with more than 100,000 troops.

Eighteen months later, the Imperial Japanese Staff ordered a withdrawal of their land forces back toward the home islands.  Within that time, allied forces thwarted the Japanese from taking Alaska, defeated the Imperial Navy in the Coral Sea, and sank four Japanese aircraft carriers during the Battle of Midway.  These losses were unrecoverable.  At Midway, Japan lost most of its experienced combat pilots.  The losses were substantial enough to cause Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to question his ability to engage the British and Americans head-on.

New Georgia

By seizing Rabaul, the Japanese painted a giant target on their backs.  The Allied commanders adopted an aggressive counteroffensive that called for a series of amphibious assaults on selected Japanese-held islands as part of a drive toward the Philippines and the Japanese home islands.  It was an island-hopping strategy that counted on the belief that isolating Japanese defensive forces (such as those at Rabaul) would be as effective as destroying them in combat — as far less costly to Allied troops.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed General Douglas MacArthur to serve as Commander, Southwest Pacific Area, and directed him to generate a plan to deal with Japanese objectives in that theater of operations.  While MacArthur was working up his battle plan, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, then serving as the Chief of Naval Operations, began working on a plan of his own.  General MacArthur saw the task as suitable for an Army operation; King disagreed.  Island hopping would require the overall command of a Navy admiral.  Both officers petitioned the President for his approval.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had already signaled his preference that the United States prioritize military and naval efforts against Nazi Germany.  He turned to the Army Chief of Staff, General of the Army George C. Marshal, to solve the problem.  Marshal developed a compromise plan involving three stages.  The first stage would be the responsibility of the Navy’s Pacific commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, and the other two would proceed under MacArthur’s direction.

Allied leaders agreed that Japanese naval and military strength at Rabaul made New Britain a priority.  However, at this early stage in the war, the United States lacked sufficient amphibious landing craft and was still in the process of building combat divisions.  Taking Rabaul was simply not immediately feasible.  Instead, the Allies agreed to surround and cut off Rabaul through amphibious operations with limited objectives.  The effort became known as Operation Cartwheel and involved New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Stage One was Operation Watchtower — a naval campaign against Tulagi, Guadalcanal, and the Santa Cruz Islands.  The commander of Watchtower was Vice Admiral William F. Halsey.  MacArthur’s task was to capture the northeastern coast of New Guinea and the central Solomon Islands and, once accomplished, destroy, or disrupt Imperial Japanese forces at Rabaul and outlying air bases.  At this stage in the war, both Halsey and MacArthur competed for men and material adequate for their several tasks.

Guadalcanal turned into a long engagement (7 August 1942 – 9 February 1943), but the fighting wasn’t over when the Japanese withdrew.  Another long, grueling campaign opened in New Guinea and several islands in the Solomon Chain. 

Dislodging the Japanese from New Guinea became a monumental task involving the combined efforts of the army and naval forces of the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.  These tasks would last through late August 1945.

One crucial step in this process would be the capture of the New Georgia island group — and the most vital objective on New Georgia was the Japanese airbase at Munda Point, located on the main island’s southwest tip.  What made this a monumental battle was that most of the Allied land forces experienced combat for the first time.

Marine Raiders seized the Russell Islands on 21 February 1943, and although the Marines landed unopposed, the landing itself prompted the Japanese to begin fortifying their advanced bases by sea.

To counter the Japanese reinforcement effort, General MacArthur ordered air assaults against Japanese shipping and aircraft — known as the Battle of the Bismarck Sea (early March 1943) (see map).  Japanese losses in both men and material were significant.

Admiral Yamamoto countered by initiating Operation I-Go, an ongoing series of air attacks against Allied airfields and anchorages at Guadalcanal and New Guinea.  Isoroku Yamamoto was a distinguished graduate of the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy.  He was a wounded combat veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, a graduate of Harvard University, and served two tours of duty as a naval attaché in the United States.  His English was impeccable.

Admiral Yamamoto was not someone the Allies wanted to contend with.  Unbeknownst to the Japanese, high-ranking Allied commanders regularly read Japan’s coded radio signals.  When MacArthur became aware that Yamamoto was organizing a command liaison visit to Bougainville, having first obtained presidential authorization, he ordered the Army Air Corps to locate Yamamoto’s aircraft and shoot it down.  This was accomplished on 18 April 1943.  Yamamoto’s death was a massive blow to the Imperial Japanese Staff.  The only senior Japanese naval officer who came close to Yamamoto’s capabilities was Admiral Mineichi Koga. 

Vice Admiral Halsey’s task of capturing dozens of islands was a complicated undertaking — for a wide range of reasons.  While stateside commands and Pacific Area Commanders pushed forward the men and materials needed for the Solomon Islands campaign, it fell upon Halsey to protect these ships until off-loaded.  Moreover, shipping channels around the islands involved in the operations were narrow, making Halsey’s ships vulnerable to Japanese shore batteries, aerial attacks, and submarine operations.  Sub-surface coral reefs and barrier islands also impeded Navy operations.

Admiral Halsey decided to begin his assault by launching amphibious operations against smaller (outlying) islands before landing troops on the main island of New Georgia — the focus of which was to capture the Japanese airfield at Munda Point.  Munda Point would play a critical role as an Allied air base supporting ongoing operations toward Bougainville and Rabaul.

The campaign against secondary islands began on 30 June 1943.  The assault on mainland New Georgia started a few days later.  With Marine Corps attachments, the U.S. 43rd Infantry Division landed on the southern shore on 2 July.  The 1st Marine Raider Battalion, working with two battalions of the U.S. 37th Infantry Regiment, landed on the island’s northwestern coast on 5 July.

Both amphibious landings were successful, but simultaneous drives inland quickly bogged down.  The island’s terrain was rugged, with natural obstacles impeding progress.  Infantry, artillery, and logistical support troops fell prey to the tropical heat, malaria, ringworm, fungal infection, dysentery, and beriberi.  It wasn’t long before these young fighters became exhausted.  Japanese soldiers steadfastly resisted every foot of the Allied advance.  At night, when the Allied forces collapsed into the defensive fighting positions, endless Japanese banzai attacks shattered their morale, exhausted them even more, and the ever-present smell of death became a constant reminder of the horror of war.

In one incident involving the U.S. 43rd Infantry, crafty Japanese tactics terrorized the American soldiers and confused them to the extent of fighting and killing their own men, both by shooting them and stabbing them to death with their bayonets.  In one report, a regimental commander stated, “Some men knifed each other.  Men threw hand grenades blindly, often in the wrong direction.  Some grenades hit trees and bounced back and exploded among the Americans.  In the morning, there was no trace of dead Japanese — but dozens of dead and wounded Americans.”  The Allied advance bogged down even more as these troops exhibited shell shock and combat fatigue.

U.S. Army Lieutenant General Oscar Griswold, Commanding General XIV Corps, arrived on New Georgia Island on 11 July.  His assessment was depressing.  The U.S. 43rd Infantry Division was “shot.”  Shortly after receiving his report, Griswold was ordered to take over land operations in New Georgia.  His first act was to pull his men back for much-needed rest and resupply.  The delay was operationally justified but also gave the Japanese time to refine their defensive positions.

Griswold’s renewed attack began on 25 July 1943 with the U.S. 43rd Division, U.S. 25th Division, and U.S. 37th Division working as a team to provide mutual support.  U.S. Marine Sherman tanks, artillery, naval gunfire, and air support aided in the advance until the corps ran into heavily fortified Japanese bunkers.  As the Allies maneuvered for field advantages, Japanese snipers picked off soldiers carrying flamethrowers, and isolated tanks were overrun and destroyed.  Japanese night operations continued to play havoc among the American combat divisions during the advance.

But the Americans soon learned how to fight the Japanese and began to give as well as they received.  Young combat leaders learned how to coordinate their operations with adjacent units and became more efficient in delivering artillery and mortar fire.  It was a rapid (and deadly) learning curve.  In only four days, the Japanese began to pull back to their final defensive line before Munda Point.

The Japanese refused to give up anything without a massive fight, which the Americans gave them between 29 July and 5 August.  Within two weeks of the final battle, Allied aircraft were using Munda Point against Japanese forces at other locations in the Solomon Islands.

As the fight for Munda Point was going on, other Allied troops made amphibious landings in the northern portion of New Georgia at Viru Harbor (on the south coast), Wickham Anchorage (on Vangunu Island and Rendova).  Additional fighting erupted on Arundel Island in August and September.  After U.S. and New Zealand troops landed on Vella Lavella, the Allied Commander was able to terminate the operation on 7 October 1943.


It is not known when the Japanese realized that they could not hold on to their line of defense for the home islands, much less the Solomons, but what became readily apparent in short order was that the Pacific War campaigns became battles of attrition.  It may have been Yamamoto who first came to that conclusion.  The Japanese could not replace their war dead — and it was only a matter of time before Imperial Japan collapsed upon itself.  After the Solomon Islands campaign, the Japanese embarked upon a new defensive strategy: defense in depth.  The Japanese were willing to sacrifice everyone and take with them as many Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen as possible.

Soon enough, Admiral Yamamoto’s replacement, Admiral Mineichi Koga, would fall back to the island of Bougainville, where it would be easier to reinforce and resupply.  There were several problems with this Japanese thinking.  First, to briefly return to the arrogance problem, the Japanese had difficulty admitting to mistakes — especially those of high magnitude.  Second, after having embarked upon this ruinous course of action, there was no way to reverse course and “save face.”  Third, Admiral Koga was no Yamamoto.

In fairness to Admiral Koga, the entire Solomon Islands fight was overwhelming to the Japanese, whose industrial production was inadequate to the military’s demand.  In comparison, American shipyards were producing one Liberty ship per day.  Additionally, geography didn’t favor the Japanese strategic plan.  The Solomon Island chain included six major islands and dozens of smaller ones.  The distance of the chain was five-hundred miles.  North of Guadalcanal lay eleven “main islands” of the Central Solomons.  New Georgia was the largest of these.  Bougainville was the northernmost island in the chain, some 300 miles distant.  Bougainville is 130 miles long and 30 miles wide — and this is where Koga decided to fight.

Given his seniority, Admiral Koga was no student of warfare — or history.  In earlier decades, the Japanese were fascinated by the German war machine — and yet, the Imperial Japanese Staff seemed unaware of the lessons taught by Carl von Clausewitz.  The Japanese didn’t concentrate their limited forces on land or sea and suffered the consequences.  In this case, the effects were two massive atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  But even then, the fighting on Bougainville continued from November 1943 until mid-August 1945.

Note: For a treat in the history of the Pacific War, visit Pacific Paratrooper.

Corpsman Up!


Some time ago, archeologists discovered the bones of tuna and sharks in a shallow cave on an island north of Australia.  Carbon dating measured these remains to be 42,000 years — suggesting that whoever consumed those fish also harvested them from the deep sea.  Scientists conclude that humans have had well-developed maritime skills for a very long time.

The earliest known boats, dated 10,000 years old, were found in France and the Netherlands.  Archeologists argue that wood and common boat-building materials do not preserve well, so it is likely that boats existed much earlier.  They know, through other sources, that the colonization of Australia and nearby islands in Southeast Asia began 45,000 years ago — requiring that men cross the sea in boats big enough to accommodate them.  Humans lived in “near-shore” locations 165,000 years ago — and it is an interesting argument to say also, “… then it is likely those people harvested fish from the deep sea,” as well.  Unfortunately, we lack direct evidence that this is true.

But we know that mankind traveled throughout the Mediterranean region for the past 5,000 years, and many of these people made their living from the sea, either directly or through maritime trade.  The Northmen began their Atlantic Ocean explorations between A.D. 800 – 1,000.  And we know that developing marine technology enabled humankind to build bigger ships capable of traveling great distances at sea.

Sea travel facilitated global migration, exploration, commerce, and conflict.  There would have been no European colonization of the New World without ships to take people to new places and keep them connected to their homeland.  As people began to spend more time at sea, health conditions developed that required treatments at sea.

Shipboard accidents injured seamen.  Crewmen became sick of a lack of proper hygiene and nutrition or from consuming tainted foods over long periods.  Such men were also susceptible to infectious diseases — all of which demanded the attention of the ship’s captain — a man who could not make a living without a healthy and effective crew.

To treat injuries and diseases while underway, ship owners and navies began to hire people with medical training.  The Navy called them surgeons and surgeon’s mates.  Over time, medicine and surgery have matured, and ship surgeons have helped pioneer lifesaving methods and procedures at sea and on foreign shore.

In 1812, the United States Ship Constitution crew included one surgeon and two surgeon’s mates.  The surgeon was Dr. Amos Evans.  His training included three years apprenticed to Dr. George Mitchell, a physician of Elkton, Maryland.  At best, Dr. Mitchell provided only rudimentary training, expanded in lectures by such men as Benjamin Rush at the University of Pennsylvania.  Once certified as a physician, Dr. Evans became the U.S. Navy’s first fleet surgeon.  As for Dr. Evans’ surgeon’s mates, it was up to them to train those men.  A good surgeon usually meant good training — but the opposite was also true.

Beginning of the Modern Navy

After being left to languish in the twenty or so years following the end of the American Civil War, the U.S. Navy was saved by the intelligence and pragmatism of such men as Farragut, Porter, and Dewey.  There were others, of course.  Arguably, the worst seaman ever to reach the rank of Admiral (even in retirement) was Alfred Thayer Mahan — the U. S. Navy’s greatest scholar aided and abetted by a man who never served in the Navy at all, Theodore Roosevelt.

U.S. Navy Medical Corps

Saving lives is serious business.  Saving lives at sea or in a firefight on foreign shore requires more than paramedic training.  It first demands the kind of individual willing to place their patient’s life ahead of their own.  The American Navy began looking for these kinds of people in the early 1890s.

A hospital corpsman does not become a corpsman without extensive training, with emphasis placed on the word extensive — which is nothing like the kind of training a surgeon’s mate received while aboard ship.  In the U.S. Navy, medical/hospital training is the one thing every doctor, nurse, and corpsman can depend on for the entire service period.  It is a wide-ranging syllabus that never ends, which was why the Navy created the Hospital Corps in the first place.  It is from the Navy Hospital Corps that we produced the term “Hospital Corpsman.”

U.S. Marines call their Corpsmen “Doc,” and as an aside, there is no one the average Marine respects more than the FMF Corpsman who could save his life.  Navy Corpsmen train in several occupational specialties, from pharmacist and lab technician to independent duty Corpsmen and Fleet Marine Force Hospital Corpsman.   The training begins with what the Navy calls “A” School.  Today, this is a 19-week program involving the basic principles and techniques of patient care and first aid — a process whereby better training accompanies enhanced knowledge of medical science.

The first basic school opened its doors in 1902 when the Navy spearheaded the concept of a Hospital Corps training on the campus of Naval Hospital Portsmouth, Virginia.  Coursework for the “Naval Hospital Corps Training School” involved three months of instruction in nursing, elementary anatomy, physiology, elementary hygiene, medical material, pharmacy, bandaging and splints, first aid, and discipline and drill.

Upon course completion, each graduate was assigned to a naval hospital for practical (on-the-job) instruction before being detailed to a ship or station.  On 15 December 1902, the Navy bestowed certificates to the first graduating class of “Corps School.” Owing to the alphabetical order in which the Navy issued its graduation certificates, Hospital Apprentice Max Armstrong of Oskaloosa, Iowa, became the Navy’s first Hospital Corpsman.

Advanced schools for further training began after 1910, with the first independent duty corpsman school (IDCS) starting during World War I.  On 18 June 1914, the Navy established the Hospital Corps School at the Naval Training Station in Newport, Rhode Island.  NHCS wasn’t the Navy’s first foray into hospital training, of course, but it did represent the start of an unbroken commitment to training Corpsmen which continues to this day (now at Joint Base-San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston).

The impact of specially trained corpsmen was a gradual but significant innovation.  Within two years of the school opening in Portsmouth, Corps School graduates represented twenty-five percent of the entire Navy Hospital Corps.  By October 1909, graduates comprised more than half of the active Hospital Corps.

Today, a Navy Hospital Corpsman who wants to serve with the Marines must jump through a few extra hoops.  The applicant must complete eight weeks of training at one of two Field Medical Training Battalions (FMTBn) at Camp Johnson, North Carolina, or Camp Pendleton, California.  It takes a lot of work to earn the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) Qualification Badge — which tends to make successful FMF Corpsmen just a bit cockier than most.

The training is challenging because in the field, far away from a physician or field hospital, the FMF Corpsman must know many different things about keeping a wounded Marine alive.  In effect, your “Doc” is all there is.  The thing to remember, when you read or hear about some tough battle the Marines just went through, there were Navy Corpsmen not an arm’s length away.

First Doc

The first U. S. Navy Hospital Corpsman to receive the Medal of Honor while serving alongside U.S. Marines was John Henry Balch.  He was born on 2 January 1896 in Edgerton, Kansas.

Balch enlisted in the U.S. Navy on 26 May 1917, requesting training and assignment as a Navy Hospital Corpsman.  Upon graduation from recruit training, he entered NHCS as a Hospital Apprentice, with later service at the Navy Recruiting Station, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

After service at the Washington Navy Yard and U.S. Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland, on 27 July 1917, Hospital Man Balch transferred to the U.S. Marine Corps for duty with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment (3/6).  At the time, 3/6 served with the 4th Marine Brigade, U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces in France.

In November 1917, the Navy advanced Balch to Pharmacist’s Mate Third Class.  He advanced again to PhM2 on 10 May 1918 and PhM1 on 17 May 1918.

During the Battle of Chatêau-Thierry, PhM1 Balch was wounded while serving on the line, but not sufficiently to keep him out of the war.  When the 6th Marines assaulted Belleau Wood, Balch was beside them in the ranks.  This fight lasted for three weeks.  Of the 2,400 men engaged in that battle, 1,300 were killed or wounded.  During the initial assault, Balch worked steadily for more than sixteen hours, continuously exposing himself to enemy fire while running to render medical aid to injured or dying Marines.

Later, during the Battle of the Somme-Py on 5 October, PhM1 Balch again displayed exceptional bravery by establishing an advanced aid station under heavy enemy artillery fire, for which he received the nation’s highest award, the MEDAL OF HONOR.


For gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, with the 6th Regiment, U.S. Marines, in action at Vierzy, on 19 July 1918.  Balch unhesitatingly and fearlessly exposed himself to terrific machinegun and high-explosive fire to succor the wounded as they fell in the attack, leaving his dressing station voluntarily and keeping up the work all day and late into the night unceasingly for 16 hours.  Also, in the action at Somme-Py on 5 October 1918, he exhibited exceptional bravery in establishing an advanced dressing station under heavy shellfire.

Following World War I, PhM1 Balch accepted his honorable discharge from active service and traveled to Chicago, Illinois, to seek civilian employment.  On 19 August 1919, Rear Admiral Frederic D. Bassett, Jr. presented Balch with the Medal of Honor at a ceremony conducted at the YMCA, Chicago.

On 2 September 1942, John Henry Balch rejoined the U.S. Naval Reserve, received a commission as a Navy Lieutenant, and served in the United States, Australia, and the Philippines throughout World War II.  Commander Balch retired from the naval service on 1 June 1950.  He passed away on 15 October 1980 and laid to rest in Riverside National Cemetery, Riverside, California.

In addition to the Medal of Honor, Commander Balch was also the recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star Medal with two gold stars (indicating three awards), Purple Heart Medal, Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V Device, World War I Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, French Croix de Guerre with Fourragère, Italian War Merit Cross, and the Portuguese War Cross.  Commander Balch’s wartime service in two world wars made him one of the U.S. Navy’s most highly decorated officers and the first U.S. Navy Corpsman to receive the Medal of Honor while serving with the U.S. Marines.

Marine Corps Reconnaissance


U.S. Marine Corps reconnaissance forces are a vital element of the Marine Corps Air-Ground Task Force whenever an expeditionary force commander faces uncertainty on the battlefield.  Marine Corps reconnaissance provides timely intelligence to command and control for battlespace shaping, allowing the MAGTF to act or react to changes in combat operations.  While reconnaissance assets may operate in specialized missions, they are unlike the unconventional Special Operations Command’s force counterparts.  Marine Corps Divisions and Force Reconnaissance units support infantry directly involved in the ground commander’s force of action options.

Many of the types of reconnaissance missions conducted by Marines are characterized by depth of penetration — a factor that increases mission time, risk, and support coordination needs.  Divisional reconnaissance units are responsible for the commander’s area of influence, the close and distant battlespace.  Force reconnaissance platoons are employed farther in the deep battlespace (area of interest).

Missions & Structures

The primary missions assigned to Marine Corps reconnaissance units include (but may not be limited to) the following:

  1. Plan, coordinate, and conduct amphibious-ground reconnaissance and surveillance to observe, identify, and report enemy activity and collect other information of military significance.
  2. Conduct specialized surveying, including underwater surveys and/or demolitions, beach permeability and topography, routes, bridges, structures, urban/rural areas, helicopter landing zones, parachute drop zones, aircraft forward operating sites, and mechanized reconnaissance missions.
  3. When task organized with other forces, equipment, or personnel, assist in specialized engineer, radio, mobile, and other special reconnaissance missions.
  4. Infiltrate mission areas by necessary means, including surface, subsurface, and airborne operations.
  5. Conduct counter-reconnaissance.
  6. Conduct Initial Terminal Guidance for helicopters, landing craft, parachutists, air delivery, and re-supply.
  7. Designate and engage selected targets with organic weapons and force fires to support battlespace shaping.  This includes designation and terminal guidance of precision-guided munitions.
  8. Conduct post-strike reconnaissance to determine and report battle damage assessment on a specified target or area.
  9. Conduct limited-scale raids and ambushes.

Marine Corps Reconnaissance Organizations include —

  • First Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division (Camp Pendleton, California)
  • Second Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division (Camp Lejeune, North Carolina)
  • Third Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division (Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Japan)
  • Fourth Reconnaissance Battalion, 4th Marine Division, Marine Corps Reserve Forces, San Antonio, Texas.

Each battalion comprises five companies: Headquarters Company and four line companies designated Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Force.  Each line company consists of a headquarters element and two platoons: a reconnaissance and surveillance (R&S) Platoon and a visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) Platoon.

Deep Reconnaissance Platoons (DRPs) are units within Recon Battalions that carry out the role of Force Reconnaissance.  The first DRPs were formed in 1975 when Congress reduced the size of the Marine Corps.  Force reconnaissance was reduced to a single regular company, with the 1st and 3rd Battalions receiving a 23-man DRP.  These units took on greater importance in 2006 when all active duty Force Recon companies were transferred to the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) and became Marine Corps Special Operations Battalions.  Force Recon Marines not serving in an MSOB became part of the DRPs, and placed in the Delta Companies of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Recon Battalions.

Today, the standard recon platoon consists of a platoon commander (First Lieutenant), Platoon Sergeant (Gunnery Sergeant), Field Radio Operator (Corporal/Sergeant), Special Equipment NCO (Sergeant), Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman (Petty Officer 3rd, 2nd, or 1st Class). 

The platoon consists of three Recon Teams, each with a team leader (Staff Sergeant/Sergeant), an Assistant Team Leader (Sergeant or Corporal), Radio Operator (Sergeant or Corporal), Assistant Radio Operator (Lance Corporal), Point Man (Corporal or Lance Corporal), Slack man (Corporal or Lance Corporal).  Note: the slack man is the second man in the order of march.  His mission is to keep his eye on the point man, particularly the areas to the point man’s left and right flank.

World War II

But, of course, that’s not how the Marines have always conducted reconnaissance.  Everything changes over time.  In World War II, the first recon units were Scout & Sniper companies and the Scout (Tank) companies of the Marine Corps tank battalions.  They existed around the same time the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions came online in 1941.  At that time, each Regiment had a scout and sniper platoon attached to the Regimental Headquarters & Service Company.  The Scout & Sniper units had a variety of tasks and missions and, on occasion, became involved in heavy combat.  The problem was that given the nature of the Pacific War, there was not much “snooping and pooping” to be done against Japanese positions on small Pacific islands and archipelagos, so these specialized troops were often used as “spare” rifle platoons.

But you ask, why tanks?  In World War II, Tanks were reinforcing units for Scout & Sniper companies for added speed and firepower.  By themselves, Marine platoons facing Japanese regiments and divisions didn’t carry much punch.  These later evolved into Division recon companies (and, after that, battalions).  This concept of added punch was reintroduced in the 1980s with the Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) Battalions.

During the recapture of Guam, the 3rd Marine Division and the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade each had their own reconnaissance company.  Major General Allen H. Turnage, commanding the 3rd Marine Division, split the division’s scout and sniper company into three platoons and attached one platoon to each Regiment.  In the battle for Guam, Marine reconnaissance units played significant roles in the fights, particularly at night — when the Japanese preferred to launch Banzai charges.

Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) Colonel Tsunetaro Suenaga commanded the 28th Regiment of the 29th Division.  He began probing Marine lines shortly after sunset on the night of the 24th – 25th July 1944.  At 2130, Suenaga ordered an assault at the juncture of the regimental boundaries of the Division’s 4th Marines and the Brigade’s 22nd Marines.  When the Japanese launched, they did so in overwhelming force, overran the forward-most lines, and began penetrating the thinly held rear areas.  Using grenades, small arms, mortars, bayonets, and close-quarters combat, the Marines held off the charging Japanese.

In one instance, an assaulting Japanese unit reached the Marine howitzers, and heavy fighting ensued as Marines fought to deny the Japanese access to these weapons.  It was an “all hands” event, as every Marine (cooks, bakers, clerks, supply men) rallied around First Lieutenant Dennis Chavez, Jr., commanding the Reconnaissance Platoon.  Under his leadership and direction, the Marines stopped the Japanese assault.  By dawn, the Suenaga’s infantry regiment no longer existed, and the Japanese colonel was seriously wounded and dying.

Commanding the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, Brigadier General Lemuel C. Shepherd was tasked to provide a blocking force across the Orote Peninsula on the night of 25th – 26th July 1944.  In evaluating his defenses for the night, the Commanding Officer, 9th Marines (Colonel Edward A. Craig), was concerned that the junction between his Regiment and that of the 21st Marines may not be as strong as it need be should the Japanese once again attempt to exploit the allied lines.  Accordingly, Colonel Craig set his Scout & Sniper Platoon in as a reinforcing measure.

At about 2330, a forward listening post reported increased enemy activity within its sector of responsibility.  Thirty minutes later, the Japanese opened with artillery and mortar fire.  This overwhelming demonstration of concentrated fire drove the lightly armed Scout/Sniper platoon back, but once these preparatory fires lifted, the Marine defenders rushed back to their previous positions and held the Japanese at bay, exhausted them, and depleted their ammunition, food, and water.  This led General Hideyoshi Obata to withdraw his force from Guam’s southern region toward the mountainous central area, there to make a stand.  It was then that the Marines began to engage the retreating enemy.  Within ten days, the Japanese commander committed ritual suicide.

The last reconnaissance mission on Guam was a mechanized force consisting of two Scout companies and the H&S Company, 3rd Tank Battalion, and India Company, 21st Marines. 

The Korean War

The United States wasn’t ready for the Korean War (1950 – 1953).  We should have been, but we weren’t.  In 1945, everyone in the world was sick and tired of war.  Americans wanted to return home and get back to their lives — but thanks to the stress of combat, not everyone would be able to do that.  But President Truman wanted it to be so, so he worked to put America back into a peacetime economy.  To do that, in part, he gutted the U.S. Armed Forces — and the consequence of that was that what forces we did have were not ready to fight when the North Koreans attacked South Korea.

The first units to arrive in Korea were part of the occupation forces of the Eighth U.S. Army in Japan.  They were among the most “not ready” and paid a dear price for their combat readiness status.  Facing defeat after defeat, the North Koreans pushed United States/United Nations forces to the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula.  Three U.S. Army infantry divisions were hanging on by their fingernails, and General MacArthur asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a Marine Regiment to save the day. 

Marine Corps leadership gave MacArthur a Brigade instead.  One Rifle Regiment (-) with attachments, an artillery battalion, and a Marine Aircraft Group.  One of those attachments was a 1st Marine Division Reconnaissance Company platoon led by Captain Kenneth J. Houghton.  Houghton’s Marines played an essential role in the fighting in the Pusan Perimeter.  In those days, indeed, every Marine was a rifleman — they would not have survived otherwise.

The remainder of the 1st Reconnaissance Company (known as Division Recon) arrived with the rest of the division during the landing at Inchon.  Additionally, Able Company and Baker Company of the Second Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion arrived to reinforce Houghton’s Company.  Second Recon quickly reorganized from an amphibious unit of nine-man boat teams to motorized units of four-man jeep teams.  Jeep teams conducted deep reconnaissance as point elements for infantry advances and as amphibious raiding teams into North Korea from the U.S. Seventh Fleet.  On one such raid, sixteen Recon Marines and twenty-five members of the Underwater Demolition Team successfully infiltrated Posung-Myon, and destroyed three tunnels and two railway bridges without losing a single man. 

Following the 1st Marine Division’s withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir, a recon team infiltrated An-Dong, concealed themselves for four days while observing enemy activity, and remained in place while calling in air strikes on predominantly Chinese infantry units.  They executed their mission and withdrew undetected.

The 1st Reconnaissance Company deactivated in June 1953 but was reactivated in 1958.

The Vietnam War

When Americans began serving in Vietnam, no one in America knew where Vietnam was.  In 1944, people referred to it as Indochina, and Americans were working with local communist cadres to disrupt Japanese occupation forces.  The first American died in Indochina in 1945.  By 1947, U.S. military advisors were assisting the French in regaining their imperialistic hold over Indochina, a former French colony.  At the same time, the Soviet Union was working just as hard with communists to disrupt the French.  In 1954, Vietnamese nationalists defeated the French at the Battle of Diên Bien Phu.  With the withdrawal of Imperial French forces came the Americans to offer military assistance and advice to the newly created Republic of Vietnam (R.V.N.).

U.S. Marine Corps involvement in Vietnam began on 2 August 1954 when Lieutenant Colonel Victor J. Croizat assumed his post as Marine Liaison Officer, U. S. Military Assistance and Advisory Group, Vietnam.  For the next eight years, Marine activities in Vietnam involved advisory and operational planning duties.  This began to change in mid-April 1962 when Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 362 (HMM-362), under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archie Clapp, deployed to South Vietnam.  His mission was to provide combat service support to the fledgling Army of the Republic of Vietnam (A.R.V.N.).  In the spring of 1964, Marine Detachment Advisory Team One, commanded by Major Alfred M. Gray Jr., arrived to collect signals intelligence, becoming the first Marine ground unit to arrive in the country.

Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 — the episode in which the President of the United States lied to the American people and Congress to have a war with the North Vietnamese, the United States further committed its Marines.  The end of 1964 concluded the advisory and assistance phase of the Vietnam War — a crucial turning point had been reached.  With a significant escalation of Marine Corps combat activities, Lyndon Johnson had his war.

The first American combat units in Vietnam were those of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (9thMAB), a composite unit formed from within the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv) on the island of Okinawa.  9thMAB came ashore from ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet on 8 March 1965.  Its mission was to secure Da Nang Airbase and establish a beachhead at Red Beach, Da Nang. 

Attached to the 9thMAB was a Recon Platoon from Alpha Company, 3rd Recon Battalion.  These Marines were the first to encounter hostile action from the Communist Viet Cong (V.C.) forces on 22 April 1965.  A recon patrol from Delta Company, 3rd Recon Bn, operating ten miles southwest of Da Nang, exchanged fire with a larger force of V.C.  The usual mission assigned to recon units is the collection and information about enemy forces and activities — not to engage the enemy in combat and certainly not to engage a much larger unit.  Accordingly, the Recon platoon called in for reinforcements, and the fight was on.  However, the V.C. unit withdrew through the dense jungle and “disappeared” before a major contest could develop.  Two days later, a recon squad positioned a mile and a half south of Da Nang fell under a surprise attack by V.C. forces.  The fight lasted a few minutes, but two Marines died that night. 

These Marines were not the first Americans to die in Vietnam — and they would not be the last, not by a longshot.

Frank S. Reasoner

Frank Reasoner (1937 – 1965) was born in Spokane, Washington but was raised in Kellogg, Idaho, graduating from high school in 1955.  He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps three months before his eighteenth birthday. 

Upon completion of recruit training in San Diego, California, Reasoner was promoted to Private First Class and ordered to infantry training at Camp Pendleton.  Subsequently, the Marine Corps selected Reasoner for training as an airborne radio operator, where he completed training at the Naval Air Technical Training Center, Jacksonville, Florida, and the Communications-Electronics School in San Diego.

Reasoner’s first regular posting occurred with Marine Wing Service Group 37, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at El Toro, California.  After his promotion to Corporal, he applied and was accepted to Naval Academy Preparatory School, Bainbridge, Maryland.  In January 1958, the Marine Corps promoted Reasoner to Sergeant, and in June, having passed entrance examinations, transferred him to the Marine Corps Reserve while attending the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.

Upon graduating from the United States Naval Academy in June 1962 with a Bachelor of Science Degree, Reasoner also received his commission to Second Lieutenant.  He was promoted to First Lieutenant in December 1962 and reported to the Officer’s Basic School in January 1963.

Upon reporting to the 1st Marine Brigade at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, Reasoner was assigned to Bravo Company, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, FMF.  When Bravo Company was assigned to Vietnam in 1965, Lieutenant Reasoner went with it.  On 20 June, he assumed command of Alpha Company, 3rd Recon Battalion.

On 12 July, First Lieutenant Reasoner led an 18-man patrol near Dai Loc, eleven miles southwest of Da Nang, when a company-sized V.C. unit attacked the patrol.  During the engagement, Reasoner and three of his fellow Marines were killed in action.  His MEDAL OF HONOR citation tells the story of what happened that day.

The reconnaissance patrol led by First Lieutenant Frank S. Reasoner had deeply penetrated heavily controlled enemy territory when it came under extremely heavy fire from an estimated 50 to 100 Viet Cong insurgents.  Accompanying the advance party and the point that consisted of 5 men, he immediately deployed his men for an assault after the Viet Cong had opened fire from numerous concealed positions.  Boldly shouting encouragement and virtually isolated from the main body, he organized a base of fire for an assault on the enemy positions.  The slashing fury of the Viet Cong machine gun and automatic weapons fire made it impossible for the main body to move forward.  Repeatedly exposing himself to the devastating attack, he skillfully provided covering fire, killing at least two enemy insurgents and effectively silencing an automatic weapons position in a valiant attempt to effect evacuation of a wounded man.  As casualties began to mount, his radio operator was wounded, and Lieutenant Reasoner immediately moved to his side and tended his wounds.  When the radio operator was hit a second time while attempting to reach a covered position, 1st Lt. Reasoner courageously ran to his aid through the grazing machinegun fire and fell mortally wounded.  His indomitable fighting spirit, valiant leadership, and unflinching devotion to duty inspired the patrol to complete its mission without further casualties.  In the face of almost certain death, he gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.  His actions upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service.



By the time the United States combat forces arrived in South Vietnam in 1965, the Southeast Asia War had been going on for twenty years — and in 1965, the average age of a combat Marine was 19 years.  Senior Marine Corps officers realized that there were only two possibilities for America’s communist enemy in Vietnam: either the Marines would kill him, or the Marines would continue fighting him until he was no more.  The Viet Cong/North Vietnamese soldier couldn’t pack up and go home; he was home.  So, it came as no surprise to anyone in mid-November 1965 when a Viet Cong regiment that had been thoroughly beaten in an earlier operation suddenly reappeared on the field of battle.

On 17 November 1965, despite its shellacking during OPERATION STARLIGHT, the 1st Viet Cong Regiment assaulted a South Vietnamese outpost found at Hiep Duc, 25 miles due west of Tam Ky.  Not everyone was convinced that it was a reformed regiment — it was likely a new North Vietnamese regular unit operating under a false flag.  During the Vietnam War, Tam Ky served as the capital of Quảng Nam Province in the South-Central coastal region of South Vietnam and a gateway to a fertile mountain valley known as Nui Loc Son.  To some, it was known as the Que Son Valley — a strategic area between Da Nang and Chu Lai.  The enemy exercised freedom of movement in this region because of the northeast monsoon season when heavy rain clouds shrouded the valley and its western approaches.

That night, the communist regiment with all three assault battalions overran a small Regional Force (RF) garrison.  Subsequently, the district commanders reported 174 of 433 defenders missing and 315 weapons lost.  As soon as the attack was reported, F-4B (Phantom) aircraft from Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) -11 and A-4 Skyhawks from MAG-12 began conducting strikes in the surrounding hills.  Secondarily, two combat helicopter groups (MAG-16 and MAG-36) began preparing to lift two South Vietnamese (ARVN) battalions into the battle areas.


The site chosen to land the two ARVN battalions would be problematic.  First, the landing zones were area-restrictive — they only accommodate so many aircraft landing at a time.  Second, the enemy’s positions in surrounding mountainous areas allowed them to shoot down on top of the planes once they had “touched down.” It was a pickle because either the Marines would have to take out those enemy positions or they would have to lose an unacceptable number of helicopters.  While the air boss held the helicopters in a circulating pattern, forward air controllers vectored fixed-wing attack aircraft to neutralize the enemy’s positions.

No one imagined on 17 November that this would be an easy fight, but with Marine close air support (CAS) and dedicated fighting, ARVN forces reoccupied Hiep Duc within two days.  The next decision — whether to reoccupy the outpost or abandon it — would be up to the Vietnamese commander.  

The 3rd Marine Division commander put the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines (3/7), on notice at Chu Lai that it would reinforce the ARVN battalions if necessary.  The enemy made the ARVN commander’s decision for him when they overran another isolated outpost at Thach Tru in southern I Corps.  Since General Thi had insufficient forces to reoccupy all areas under enemy threat, he abandoned Hiep Duc and concentrated on Thach Tru, sixteen miles south of Quảng Ngai.  ARVN forces fought well enough that the Marines weren’t needed.

Two simultaneous Viet Cong assaults at two locations were typical of the enemy’s monsoon strategy.  They moved during periods of poor weather because they realized that weather restricted the use of American air assets.  Knowing that U.S. and ARVN forces would respond to isolated attacks, the Viet Cong set up numerous ambushes to trap any reinforcing units.  The enemy had miscalculated at Thach Tru, but at Hiep Duc, the enemy was in an excellent position to enter the Nui Loc Son basin, which opened access to other strategic outposts at Que Son and Viet An.

To counter this threat, the Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV), General William Westmoreland, ordered the Commanding General, III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF), Lieutenant General Louis Walt, to place two battalions on 12-hour rapid deployment alert.  On 22 November, Westmoreland issued a letter of instruction to Walt confirming his earlier order, to wit: “Conduct search and destroy operations against more distant VC base areas to destroy or drive the VC out.” Meanwhile, the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (Hawaii), although not in the operational chain of command, suggested very strongly to Walt that he needed to recapture the initiative and included some suggestions for enticing the enemy to attack a weak position — suggesting the Hiep Duc might be the place to do that.  General Walt next conferred with his Vietnamese counterpart, who agreed to initiate OPERATION HARVEST MOON/LIEN KET 18.

The Operation

On 5 December, III MAF activated a temporary command designated Task Force Delta under the authority of Brigadier General Malvin D. Henderson.  The two battalions assigned to the task force were the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines (2/7) at Chu Lai, and the 3rdBattalion, 3rd Marines (3/3) at Da Nang.  As it happened, 3/3 had only one organic rifle company — Lima Company.  The two other companies were Echo Company, 2/9, and Golf Company, 2/4.

The Division C.P. formed a provisional artillery battalion from elements of the 11th and 12th Marine regiments.  Additionally, Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet granted permission to name the Special Landing Force as the battalion landing team in reserve.  General Henderson and his staff completed their planning on 7 December.  ARVN Brigadier General Hoang Xuan Lam, commanding the 2nd Infantry Division, set up his command post at Thang Binh.  Lam was well known to the Marines of I Corps, dressed as he did in a black beret with flashy silver badges and a tanker’s jacket.  He was a hotdog if ever there was one.  Henderson set up his C.P. with the artillery batteries at Que Son.

The 5th ARVN Regiment, with two battalions, would enter the Que Son Valley along the Thang Binh-Hiep Duc road on 8 December and move eight miles to a point just south of Que Son village.  MACV intelligence claimed that the 1st VC Regiment operated west of Que Son village.  Two-Seven, under Lieutenant Colonel Utter, moved in behind the enemy to flush them eastward into the 5th ARVN.  Lieutenant Colonel Dorsey’s 3/3 would reinforce Utter, as required.  As the 5th ARVN stepped off, the 11thRanger Battalion took the right flank, and the ARVN 1st Battalion took the left.  At about 1330, more or less at the halfway point, the 70th VC battalion slammed into the ARVN Rangers.  Within the first fifteen minutes of the battle, the Rangers had given up about a third of their manpower.  The ARVN 1/5 attempted to reinforce the Rangers, but the enemy’s mortars prevented them from crossing the road.

Though badly mauled, the Rangers managed to extricate themselves to a position 1,200 meters northwest and then, having set into a hasty defense, called for Marine close air support.  A-4s delivered an overwhelming aerial assault on VC positions.  When the A-4s cleared the area, Marine helicopters began ferrying in reinforcements from General Lam’s 6th ARVN Regiment.  As soon as the infantry exited the choppers, the pilot’s missions turned to aeromedical evacuation.  The enemy initiated several probes of ARVN defenses throughout the night, but no actual fighting developed.

Early in the morning of 9 December, elements of the 60th and 80th VC battalions struck the 5th ARVN.  In the heavy fighting that followed, Viet Cong overran both regimental and 1st battalion command groups, killed the regimental commander, and scattered South Vietnamese troops to the South and east.  At about the same time, another VC battalion attacked the 1st Battalion, 6thARVN, but was stopped in its tracks.  It was at this point that General Henderson decided to commit his Marines.  HMM-161 airlifted 2/7 into an LZ five miles west of the shattered ARVN regiment.

By late afternoon, as Henderson committed LtCol Dorsey’s Battalion to a position a mile and a half southeast of the ARVN’s position, LtCol Utter managed to move his entire Battalion some 3,000 meters closer to the beleaguered 5th ARVN regiment. Dorsey’s Lima Company took the battalion lead and, after making first contact with ARVN units, pushed northwest toward Hill 43.  These Marines ran into around 200 V.C. at the base of the hill.

Shooting bullets at U.S. Marines does nothing to enhance their overall dispositions, so as the VC threw down on the Marines, Dorsey began shelling the Viet Cong.  By the time the VC broke contact with the Marines at sundown, the enemy had sent 75 of their men across the river Styx.  Lima Company seized Hill 43 early the following day, joining up with 40 ARVN survivors from the 1st Battalion, 5th ARVN.

On 10 December, General Henderson ordered Colonel Utter to drive eastward and Colonel Dorsey to push northwest to compress the enemy between them.  To block an enemy escape, Henderson ordered LtCol Robert T. Hanifin Jr. to bring his 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines (2/1), ashore from the U.S.S. Valley Forge.  The first assault element, Fox Company, lifted off the ship at around 1100, heading toward the hamlet called Cam La, five miles southeast of Que Son.  Enemy 12.7mm heavy machine guns assaulted the helicopters from fortified positions on Hill 407 as the birds approached their LZ.  The Marines were surprised by the volume and intensity of the enemy’s fire.

Fox Company Marines were in trouble the instant they exited their helicopters.  The VC kept them under continuous mortar, machine gun, and small arms fire.  The men took what cover that was available to them and waited for reinforcements.  The rest of 2/1 landed to the west.  Henderson ordered Utter’s Battalion to move south to aid Fox Company Marines.  Echo Company 2/7 pushed south toward Fox 2/1 but was walloped on its right flank by enemy fire.  With some difficulty, Echo Company reached a position from which it could support Fox Company Marines.  At that point, Fox Marines began to withdraw.  Ten hours later, Hanifin’s command group and his three rifle companies joined up with Utter’s Echo Company — but, by then, both Echo and Fox had suffered substantial casualties: twenty dead and eighty wounded.

As darkness fell at the end of the day, General Walt relieved Brigadier General Henderson and replaced him with Brigadier General Jonas M. Platt.  Henderson was an experienced Marine officer who participated in some of World War II’s most significant battles but was a combat engineer with no infantry command experience.  But this unusual war was just beginning, and the Americans would have to learn more than a few critical lessons.  Henderson was just out of his depth and pinned to a steep learning curve.  The stakes were too high to leave him in place — and if that weren’t true, then Walt would never have moved him out in the middle of a critical operation.  The first thing Platt did was shift another company to 2/7 from 2/1.

On 11 December, Task Force Delta moved to consolidate its position.  General Platt studied the battlefield from the air.  Since he received no enemy fire from Hill 407, he concluded that the VC had withdrawn from their positions.  Platt directed LtCol Utter to seize the hill, which he did without delay. Dorsey’s Battalion began a search of the area north of Hill 407, and Platt called for Colonel Hanifin’s remaining two companies to come ashore.

General Platt suspected that the 1st VC Regiment had retreated into the Phuoc Ha Valley, a smaller area paralleling the larger Que Son Valley.  Phuoc Ha was a known VC base region, and When General Thi was asked whether he intended to pursue the 1st VC Regiment, he urged great caution.  Of interest, no Vietnamese officer participated in more coup d’état in Vietnam than Major General Nguyen Chanh Thi, the Commanding General of I Corps.  He was one of the original warlords of the northernmost region of South Vietnam.

That afternoon, General Westmoreland’s J-3 (Operations Officer), Brigadier General William E. DePuy, U.S. Army, visited with Brigadier General Platt, and he suggested using B-52 strikes before U.S. forces entered the valley.  Platt accepted DePuy’s offer.

Say What?

The B-52 Stratofortress was a tactical support aircraft under the codename Arc Light.  Each aircraft could carry 60,000 pounds of bombs.  An Arc Light strike in the Phuoc Ha Valley would have a devastating effect.  On the morning of 12 December, Arc Light aircraft struck the Phuoc Ha Valley, and anyone with a soul would have to pity anyone who survived.  As the plane flew at or above 50,000 feet, none of the enemies would have known what would happen.  Men lost their eardrums from a mile away.  Within a kilometer, the concussion of a single 500-pound bomb knocked people unconscious — so to get an appreciation of an Arc Light, one should multiply one 500-pound bomb by hundreds falling simultaneously.  At the end of a strike, the land looked like a moonscape.  General DePuy had arranged for two days of air strikes.

Yea, though, we walk through the valley …

On 13 December, General Platt organized the advance of Task Force Delta into two groupings.  Two-Seven was dispatched southeast to the Khang River, deep into the valley.  From there, it would move back toward Tam Ky.  Platt replaced the battle-shattered Echo Company with Company H, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines — and Colonel Utter moved his Battalion of Marines along a dirt road to secure the South Vietnamese outpost at Viet An.  He assigned two companies to control the high ground in the north (Company F) and east (Company G) and another (Company H) occupying the village itself that evening. 

LtCol Utter executed an airlift to the Khang River.  Company F and Company G conducted the initial landing shortly before noon, following air strikes on the landing zone.  As they landed, the Marines faced intermittent 12.7mm machinegun fire from fleeing Viet Cong.  The rifle companies quickly secured the landing zone and were soon joined by Hotel Company 2/9.

LtCol Utter then established defensive positions along high ground overlooking a ferry crossing along the river he suspected the VC used as a regular route of march.  As 2/7 moved ever deeper into the Phuoc Ha Valley, Task Force Delta’s other two battalions began to move south and east.  At first, BLT 2/1 gave the Arc Light crews a wide birth, but once the danger had passed, these Marines resumed their area security patrols.  Apart from eight enemies disguised as women, the Battalion encountered little enemy activity.

On 13 December, 3/3 and 2/1 proceeded along the northern part of the valley, east and northwest.  The three-battalion mission was clear: to search for, destroy, and compel Viet Cong forces to expose themselves.  It didn’t take 3/3 long to discover evidence of how well provisioned and secure the VC were in the ignored valley.  There were caves stuffed with sleeping cots, blankets, medical supplies, uniforms, batteries, and sewing kits.  If the Marines hadn’t figured it out before then, they knew it now — these VC fellows knew their home territory and were serious about the fight.

Task Force Delta continued its advance over the next three days.  Two-Seven, moving east, discovered a field medical hospital.  Two-One reached the area of devastation from Arc Light on the 15th and then pivoted toward 3/3.  As Hanifin crossed over a ridge of hills separating the two battalions, he encountered a force of around fifty VC.  After a couple of hours of exchanging fire, the VC withdrew, and the tired Marines from 2/1 were airlifted into Phu Bai.  Similarly, 3/3 was pulled out to rest.

Two-Seven faced a more difficult march.  The cross-country march took the Marines from the ferry crossing on 15 December toward Thon Hai, which they anticipated reaching on 18 December.  Passing through Ky Phu, a little more than five miles west of Tam Ky, the Marines found the village eerily quiet and absent any men and women huddling among themselves in “out of the way” locations.  

On that day, Marines had been receiving intermittent sniper fire, but nothing that led the battalion commander to think that an attack was imminent — just another day in paradise.  Still, LtCol Utter was being wisely cautious with security patrols between five and seven-hundred yards in advance guard and both flanks.  He also knew his Battalion wasn’t fresh. They’d been on the trails for more than twenty miles, and they were wet, miserable, and tired.  Colonel Utter had evacuated fifty Marines on 17 December with immersion foot.

Two-Seven’s three companies advanced in a column.  Company G had the point, followed by Fox Company in “V” formation.  H&S Company followed Fox Company, and Hotel Company 2/9 brought up the rear.  Ky Phu was rice paddy central, interspersed with small villages and hedgerows.  To the South, there was a low ridge line no higher than 30 meters that commanded the western approaches to the market section of the village.

The Storm Arrives

By 1330, with half of the Battalion on the other side of Ky Phu central, Golf and Fox companies came under sudden attack from machine guns and recoilless rifle fire.  At first, Colonel Utter thought the shooting was part of the VC’s harassing campaign.  He ordered Golf to turn south and use the Battalion’s 81mm mortars to clear the road and direct Fox to assume the Battalion’s advance.  Golf soon reported that they were receiving counter-battery mortar fire.  The Battalion CO’s miscalculation had placed the entire unit in great danger.  Two-Seven had walked into an enemy battalion-sized ambush.

As the Battalion proceeded forward, two enemy companies hit the lightly armed H&S Company from both north and South — the enemy’s goal being to split the Battalion.  But the Marines responded immediately and, through a coordinated effort, began to deliver overwhelming gunfire on the Viet Cong.  The attackers became the attacked.  With the CO’s radio operator killed, LtCol Utter lost contact with the rest of his Battalion.

What began as a jab turned into a slugfest of hours in duration.  As enemy fire rained down on the Marines taking cover in the rice paddies, poor weather finally gave the Marines a break.  Enemy mortars landing in the rice paddies absorbed most of the explosions.  A gap opened between Fox Company and H&S Company, and the enemy wasted no time exploiting it.  Hand-to-hand fighting broke out.

The company commander, First Lieutenant Grosz, sent runners to Fox Company, directing them to come back and close the gap.  The enemy fire killed the first two messengers — so Grosz ran the gauntlet and contacted the Fox Company commander.  Although not hit, Grosz’s uniform was pockmarked with bullet holes.  Lieutenant Grosz and a squad from Fox Company fought their way back to H&S Company lines.

With the battalion commander’s concurrence, Fox Company began moving back to H&S Company to establish a defensive perimeter.  After Utter contacted the Task Force’s artillery support (Mike Battery, 4/11), 2/7 began receiving fire support from 155mm howitzers.  As Fox and H&S Company began to take control of the situation, Golf Company 2/9 became the enemy’s next target of opportunity.

The Company Commander was Captain Paul L. Gormley, Jr.  In the enemy’s initial assault, Gormley and his radio operator, Lance Corporal Robert J. Wilkins, were killed by a 57mm recoilless rifle.  Command of the company thus fell to First Lieutenant Harvey C. Barnum, who was temporarily assigned to the company as an artillery spotter from the 2nd Battalion, 12th Marines (Barnum shown right).  

Barnum ordered a hasty defense.  While the lead element was responding to his order, he ran forward to retrieve the bodies of Gormley and Wilkins.  There were a thousand things for the lieutenant to do almost immediately, including re-establishing command and control over Hotel Company, attending to casualties, breaking out of the ambush, notifying the Battalion Commander of the status of the company, and checking in with the battalion air officer.  He could do none of these things without a radio, so he placed Wilkins’ radio on his back, making Barnum a prime target for enemy fire.

There was no panic in Barnum as he set upon his tasks.  His calmness under fire gave confidence to his NCOs and men as he worked to bring order to chaos.  For well over four hours of intense combat, First Lieutenant Barnum and the Marines of Golf Company held off the VC as they worked to secure a landing zone from which casualties could be evacuated.

Colonel Harvey C. Barnum, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired) (1940- ), was the fourth Marine to receive the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War.  After he retired from active duty in 1989, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Reserve Affairs (2001 – 2009).  The citation for his MEDAL OF HONOR reads as follows:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Forward Observer for Artillery while attached to Company H, Second Battalion, Ninth Marines, Third Marine Division (Reinforced) in action against communist forces at Ky Phu, Quang Tin Province, Republic of Vietnam, on 18 December 1965.  When the company was suddenly pinned down by a hail of extremely accurate enemy fire and was quickly separated from the remainder of the Battalion by over five hundred meters of open and fire-swept ground, and casualties mounted rapidly, Lieutenant Barnum quickly made a hazardous reconnaissance of the area seeking targets for his artillery.  Finding the rifle company commander mortally wounded and the radio operator killed, he, with complete disregard for his own safety, gave aid to the dying commander, then removed the radio from the dead operator and strapped it to himself.  He immediately assumed command of the rifle company and, moving at once into the midst of the heavy fire, rallying and giving encouragement to all units, reorganized them to replace the loss of key personnel and led their attack on enemy positions from which deadly fire continued to come.  His sound and swift decisions and his obvious calm served to stabilize the badly decimated units, and his gallant example, as he stood exposed repeatedly to point out targets, served as an inspiration to all.  Provided with two armed helicopters, he moved fearlessly through enemy fire to control the air attack against the firmly entrenched enemy while skillfully directing one platoon in a successful counterattack in the key enemy positions.  Having thus cleared a small area, he requested and directed the landing of two transport helicopters for the evacuation of the dead and wounded.  He then assisted in the mopping up and final seizure of the Battalion’s objective.  His gallant initiative and heroic conduct reflected great credit upon himself and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and United States Naval Service.

The U.S.S. Harvey C. Barnum is named in his honor.

Korean War Gallantry

There was a time when the eastern part of the present state of Mississippi was occupied by the settlers of New France.  As part of the settlement of the French and Indian War, France ceded what is now Hattiesburg to the British, and it was incorporated into the colony of West Florida.  After 1803, significant numbers of settlers began making their way into the unsettled areas of West Florida and territories further west. 

In the 1830s, the United States government began relocating native Americans of the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes under the Indian Removal Act, which moved natives from the Southeast to areas west of the Mississippi River.  They and their slaves eventually moved to the Indian Territory in present-day Kansas and Oklahoma.

Hattiesburg, Mississippi, developed at the confluence of the Leaf and Bouie Rivers.  It was founded in 1882 by Captain William H. Hardy, a civil engineer.  The city was incorporated in 1884 with a population of approximately 400 souls.  Originally called Twin Forks, and later Gordonville, the city received its final name of Hattiesburg from Captain Hardy, in honor of his wife, Hattie Hardy.

One son of Hattiesburg was a young man named Henry Alfred Commiskey.  Henry was born on 10 January 1927 to Hugh and Agnes Walsh Commiskey.  Hugh’s grandfather was born in Ireland in 1804 and later immigrated to the United States.  Commiskey (Mac Cumascach) is a prominent Monaghan and Longford surname.

Henry attended Sacred Heart Catholic School in Hattiesburg, founded by Sisters of Mercy in 1900.  He later worked as a brakeman for the Illinois Central Railroad before joining the Marine Corps two days after his 17th birthday on 12 January 1944.  He completed his recruit training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California.

Private Commiskey joined the replacement draft for the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, and participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima.  During the battle, Commiskey received gunshot wounds and was evacuated to the United States for medical treatment and recovery.  He later received a letter of commendation in recognition of his “high qualities of leadership and courage in the face of a stubborn and fanatical enemy.

After his return to full duty, Commiskey served as a Marine Corps drill instructor at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina.  While serving as a DI, the Marine Corps offered Commiskey an officer’s commission, and he accepted.  He was commissioned a Second Lieutenant of U.S. Marines on 10 September 1949.

In August 1950, Second Lieutenant Henry Commiskey was sent to the Korean Peninsula with the 1st Marine Regiment, serving under Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller as part of the 1st Marine Division.  While serving in Korea, the Marine Corps promoted Commiskey to First Lieutenant.  In this capacity, Henry Alfred Commiskey became the first U.S. Marine to receive the Medal of Honor during the Korean War.  His citation reads as follows:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a platoon leader in Company C, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, First Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, in action against enemy aggressor forces.  Directed to attack hostile forces well dug in on Hill 85, First Lieutenant Commiskey spearheaded the assault, charging up the steep slopes on the run.  Coolly disregarding heavy enemy machine-gun and small-arms fire, he plunged on well forward of the rest of his platoon and was the first man to reach the crest of the hill, which was his objective.  Armed with only his service pistol, he jumped into a hostile machine-gun emplacement occupied by five enemy troops and quickly disposed of four of the soldiers with his automatic pistol.  Grappling with the fifth enemy soldier, First Lieutenant Commiskey knocked him to the ground and held him until he could obtain a weapon from another member of his platoon and killed the last of the enemy gun crew.  Continuing his bold assault, he moved to the next emplacement, killed two more of the enemy, and then led his platoon toward the enemy’s rear area to rout the remainder of the hostile troops and destroy them as they fled from their positions.  His valiant leadership and courageous fighting spirit served to inspire the men of his company to heroic endeavor in seizing a critical objective and reflect the highest credit upon First Lieutenant Commiskey and the United States Naval Service.

First Lieutenant Commiskey received his Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman at the White House in August 1951.

In September 1951, the Marine Corps selected First Lieutenant Commiskey for flight training at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida.  He received his Naval Aviator wings in June 1953 at Corpus Christi, Texas, and completed jet training at El Toro in California.  In 1954, Commiskey returned to Korea as a pilot with Marine Attack Squadron 212, Marine Aircraft Group 12, First Marine Aircraft Wing.

Captain Commiskey was promoted to major in July 1959.  Between 1960 and 1966, he served as a Recruiting Officer, a tactics instructor, a student company commander, and an executive officer at the Marine Corps Officer’s Basic School, Quantico, Virginia.

Following his retirement from active duty in 1966, Henry moved to Meridian, Mississippi.  Increasingly despondent because of his father’s death in 1969, Henry’s wife returned home from shopping on the evening of 16 August 1971 to find that her husband had taken his own life.  He was 44 years old.

Major Henry A. Commiskey was entitled to the following medals and awards:

  • Medal of Honor
  • Purple Heart Medal (2 Gold Stars)
  • Navy Commendation Medal (Bronze V Device)
  • Presidential Unit Citation (2 Bronze Stars)
  • Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal (2 Bronze Stars)
  • Asiatic–Pacific Campaign Medal (1 Bronze Start)
  • World War II Victory Medal
  • Navy Occupation Service Medal (with Asia Clasp)
  • National Defense Service Medal (1 Bronze Star)
  • Korean Service Medal
  • United Nations Service Medal
  • Korean Presidential Unit Citation

Military Medals — British and American Traditions

The Cousins

It has only been since the seventeenth century that acts of bravery, merit, or service during war gained recognition of participation or individual acts of courage.  Before then, the ordinary British soldier was usually rewarded with a state pension.  In any case, during the English Civil War, the public’s opinion of soldiers was quite low and remained so for many years.  Usually, only the most desperate fellows volunteered for military service — and in some cases, joining the army was an alternative to going to jail.

After the Napoleonic Wars (1799 – 1815), public opinion improved due to the well-publicized heroic actions of soldiers and their officers.  During this period, medals were only awarded to high-ranking officers and members of the aristocracy for services rendered to the Crown.

The first British Army Medal (B.A.M.) awarded to ordinary soldiers was the Waterloo Medal, issued between 1816 – 1817.  The B.A.M. was awarded to every soldier who could prove that they were present during the campaign against Napoleon in which the British Army, alongside their Dutch and German allies, suffered while performing feats of heroism.  The medal was unique for two reasons: (a) it was the first of its kind, and (b) each soldier or officer who received it had their name stamped into the medal.

Even though 39,000 medals were issued, the B.A.M. received mixed reactions among the senior officers and N.C.O.s who had not been present at Waterloo; they, instead, fought the War of 1812 in the United States/Canada and the Spanish Peninsula campaign.  In subsequent years, this particular controversy resulted in B.A.M. awards as a matter of routine whenever troops were sent to battle, no matter where in the world it was.

After gaining the approval of Queen Victoria and Parliament, the Ministry of Defense agreed to create a Military General Service Medal in 1847.  The process required the men to apply for the medal if they thought they thought themselves entitled to wear it. Not many men applied for the medal because not many men were literate enough to know what to do. The government only issued 26,000 medals. 

In the following decade, the government struck a dozen different medals: The Indian General Service Medal (1854), the Victoria Cross (after the Crimean War) — a gallantry medal awarded to men of any class or service for acts of heroism in the face of the enemy at risk of death.  There is no higher recognition for courage under fire in the United Kingdom than the V.C.

The Victoria Cross is a simple design, the prototype of which was a product of the London jeweler Hancocks & Company.  Hancocks still make the V.C.  Legend tells us that the medal prototype and the first 111 crosses came from the bronze guns captured by the Russians in Crimea.  Since its creation, the Crown has issued 1,356 Victorian Cross Medals.

During the twentieth century, the British Army witnessed bloody action in both the First and Second World Wars.  Each conflict produced a unique series of campaign and service medals.  There was the 1914 – 1915 Star, the British War Medal, and Victory Medal for those fighting in the First World War.  The government awarded 2.3 million medals to frontline soldiers and support personnel, including Royal Navy and Canadian service members.

After World War II, the men serving in that conflict received a unique version of the general service medal, the 1939 – 1945 Star, worn alongside appropriate medals and campaign ribbons.  For example, those in the North African campaign received the African Star.  If they also served during the Italian Campaign or on D-Day, the appropriate specific awards to wear alongside it.  Commonwealth soldiers (Indian, Australian, Canadian, and South African) received proper recognition alongside their other entitlements.

The Americans

In the U.S. military, the history of personal decorations and awards is not part of the curriculum in basic training.  Military medals have had an important role in its history, but it is also rarely discussed.  Military personnel wear their decorations and awards with pride and reflect on them: they are symbols of a demanding job well done and trigger memories of good men, pulling together, and perhaps also lost forever —but they don’t brag about those medals.

Military personnel understand the difference between Decorations and Awards — most civilians do not.  Among civilians with no military service connection, there is no difference between decorations and awards, but they are two vastly different things.  A presented decoration recognizes specific acts of bravery or achievement.  An award or service medal confirms service in a particular role or geographical area (campaign) and citations issued by foreign governments and approved by the U.S. government.

Typically, a U.S. medal is struck with a design to commemorate an event.  It is a creative process involving various methods — including pressure stamping.  In the past, bronze, silver, and gold were used, but most U.S. military medals today are made of various alloys.  Modern medals are nothing like the medal invented by Antonio di Puccio Pisano in 1438.  This process remained exclusively in Italy until the 16th Century when it spread to other European nations.

In the American colonies, the oldest military decoration was the Fidelity Medallion, created by the Continental Congress in 1780 and presented to those who captured British Major John André — the officer who worked with Benedict Arnold to betray the colonies.

The Congress conferred the Fidelity Medallion on three soldiers who were members of the New York militia: Privates Isaac Van Wart, David Williams, and John Paulding.  The medal was never again awarded — and it is for this reason that the first United States (as opposed to Continental) medal awarded was the Badge of Military Merit, created in 1782.  In the new egalitarian America, it is also significant that the first medals awarded to American troops were awarded to enlisted men, not officers.[1]

On 7 August 1782, General George Washington designed the Badge of Military Merit.  It was a cloth or silk figure of a heart, recognizing meritorious or gallant conduct.  But it was General Washington who instigated the practice of awards of recognition, and only three men received this decoration: (a) Sergeant Elijah Churchill: 2nd Regiment, Light Dragoons.  He was awarded the badge for his part in two successful raids behind British lines in Nov. 1780 and in October of 1781.  (b) Sergeant William Brown: 5th Connecticut Regiment. Awarded the badge for leading an advance party — with only bayonets — penetrating the British lines at Yorktown, VA on 14 October 1781, and (c) Sergeant Daniel Bissell: 2nd Connecticut Regiment. Awarded the badge for masquerading as a British soldier from August 1781 to September 1782.[2]  Again, all three recipients were enlisted men — and the design was the forerunner of the modern Purple Heart Medal.

Between General Washington’s Merit Badge and the American Civil War, government officials issued certificates of merit and “brevet promotions” to recognize courageous conduct and meritorious service.  The first military decoration formally authorized by the United States government to symbolize valorous conduct was the Medal of Honor, approved for enlisted men of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.  President Lincoln signed the authorization on 21 December 1861.  In July 1862, Congress approved a Medal of Honor suitable for the U.S. Army (and Volunteer Army of the United States).

One should recall that the early American colonists migrated from England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. When they went to the New World, they took with them their long-held cultural values and traditions.  Among these was a general loathing for standing armies and the profession of arms.  See also: Citizen Soldier and the American Militia.  The reason for their profound contempt for the military was simple enough: British soldiers were instruments of government tyranny — a view reinforced throughout the American Revolutionary War.  This distrust of standing armies lasted from 1775 through 1941.

At the beginning of the American Civil War, the Union Army was comparatively small.  To build an armed force capable of defending the Union, it was necessary to augment it with federalized state militias.  Recruiting men to serve in the Civil War was no easier in 1861 than in 1776, and it became even more difficult once the knowledge of the horror of combat made its way into America’s living rooms.

Thus, the civil war gave the U.S. Congress two good reasons for instituting an American decoration for valor.  The first was the obvious: to honor American servicemen for their sacrifices.  The second reason was to incentivize enlisting in the Army — every romantic young man wants to become a hero.  The Navy was the first to adopt the Medal of Honor because it was the one service facing the gravest shortage of skilled crewmen.

Congress’s authorization for the Medal of Honor made certain stipulations.  Only acts of gallantry performed during the present conflict —the Civil War— would be recognized, and the Secretary of the Navy’s authorization was limited to two-hundred medals.

A new authorization signed in 1862 gave the Navy much more room for maneuver when it came to awarding the Medal of Honor and even authorized further rewards for committed, intrepid seamen. Now, a Sailor could earn a promotion by way of “extraordinary heroism” rather than wait until he aged into a higher rank, the usual practice. And now, unlike under the 1861 act, a Sailor could receive this promotion and a Medal of Honor for acts of heroism performed “in the line of his profession” and not necessarily in a combat situation. The first Medals of Honor struck resulted from this second act — of 1862.

The Purple Heart Medal

When Gen. John J. Pershing and the American Expeditionary Force arrived in Europe in 1917, the only existing American decoration was the Medal of Honor.  Pershing, his subordinate commanders, and the men of the rank and file soon became acutely aware that the British and French armies had a variety of military decorations and medals to recognize valorous service.

By the end of the First World War, the Army and Navy had developed additional medals to recognize exceptional heroism that does not meet the test of the Medal of Honor: The Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Navy Cross and Army Distinguished Service Medal, and Army Distinguished Service Cross.

These new medals (while giving much-deserved recognition to many servicemen) also required a high degree of combat heroism or meritorious service, and a few civilian and military leaders in Washington believed another decoration was needed — one that could be used to reward individuals of more junior rank for their valuable wartime services.

In the 1920s, the War Department studied the issue.  A few officers with knowledge of George Washington’s dormant Badge of Military Merit recommended that the merit medal be resurrected and renamed the Order of Military Merit.  Further, they suggested that the medal be awarded to any soldier in recognition of heroism not performed in actual combat or exceptionally meritorious service.

Ultimately, no action was taken on these proposals for another ten years — until General Douglas MacArthur assumed the office of Army Chief of Staff.  He revived interest in the merit medal by writing to Charles Moore, Chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts.  He informed Moore that the Army intended to revive General Washington’s old award on the bicentennial of his birth.

As a result, on 22 February 1932, the War Department published General Order No. 3 announcing that “the Purple Heart, established by General George Washington in 1782,” would be awarded to persons who, while serving in the Army of the United States, performs any singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service.” Then, within a single parenthetical, the Army included this sentence: “A wound, which necessitates treatment by a medical officer, and which is received in action with an enemy of the United States, or as a result of an act of such enemy, may . . . be construed as resulting from a singularly meritorious act of essential service.”

This meant that the Purple Heart was an award for high-level service. But it also meant that an individual serving “in the Army” wounded in action could also receive the Purple Heart.  Not all wounds, however, qualified for the new decoration.  Rather, the wound had to be severe enough to necessitate medical treatment.

From 1932 until the outbreak of World War II, the Army awarded around 78,000 Purple Heart Medals to living veterans and active-duty soldiers who had either been wounded in action or had received General Pershing’s certificate for meritorious service during World War I.[3]

While the Army issued most Purple Heart Medals to men who had fought in France from 1917 to 1918, a small number of wounded soldiers from the Civil War, the Indian Wars, and the Spanish-American War applied for and received the Purple Heart.  However, there were no posthumous awards for this early edition of the Purple Heart Medal.  General MacArthur made it clear in 1938 the Purple Heart — like Washington’s Badge of Military Merit — was “not intended to commemorate the dead; it was to animate and inspire the living.”

After Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the deaths of thousands of soldiers in Hawaii and the Philippines, the War Department abandoned MacArthur’s “posthumous award” policy.  On April 28, 1942, the Army announced that the Purple Heart would be awarded to “members of the military services killed  (or who died of wounds) on or after December 7, 1941.”

This policy change only applied to those killed after the Japanese attack on Hawaii.  Posthumous awards of the Purple Heart for pre–World War II conflicts were still not permitted.  Five months later, the Army made another significant change in the award criteria for the Purple Heart: it restricted the award to combat wounds only.  

While MacArthur’s intent in reviving the Purple Heart in 1932 was that the new decoration would be for “any singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service” (with combat wounds being a subset of such fidelity or service), the creation of the Legion of Merit in 1942 as a junior decoration for achievement or service meant that the Army did not need two medals to recognize the same thing.  As a result, the Purple Heart became a decoration for those wounded or killed in action.

One additional change in the evolution of the Purple Heart Medal was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision on 3 December 1942 to allow the Secretary of the Navy to award the decoration to Sailors, Coast Guardsmen, and Marines.

The next significant change to the award criteria for the Purple Heart occurred during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.  When certain American service members in South Vietnam began being killed and wounded, they were deemed not eligible for the Purple Heart because they served in an advisory capacity (rather than as combatants).  Additionally, as a matter of law, the United States was not a formal participant in the ongoing war between the South Vietnamese, communist insurgents, and their North Vietnamese allies.  Thus, there was no “enemy” to satisfy the requirement of a wound or death received “in action against an enemy.”

President Kennedy signed an executive order on 25 April 1962 authorizing the Purple Heart Medal to any person killed or wounded “while serving with friendly foreign forces” or “as a result of action by a hostile foreign force.” By 1973, thousands more Americans had been awarded the Purple Heart.

Kennedy’s decision to expand the award criteria for the Purple Heart also meant that servicemen killed or wounded in lesser-known actions (such as the Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty in 1967 and the North Korean seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo in 1968) could also receive the Purple Heart.

A successive change to the Purple Heart regulations occurred in February 1984 when President Ronald Reagan recognized the changing nature of war and signed an executive order announcing that the Purple Heart would recognize those killed or wounded as a result of an “international terrorist attack against the United States.” Reagan also decided that the Purple Heart should be awarded to individuals killed or wounded “outside the territory of the United States” while serving “as part of a peacekeeping mission.” President Reagan’s decision resulted in a small number of Americans receiving the Purple Heart who otherwise would have been denied the medal.

On 25 April 2011, the Department of Defense announced that the Purple Heart Medal could be awarded to any service member sustaining “mild traumatic brain injuries and concussive injuries” in combat.  This decision acknowledged that brain injuries caused by improvised explosive devices qualify as wounds, even though such damages may be invisible.  Awards for traumatic brain injury were retroactive to 11 September 2001, the day of Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

On the issue of the severity of a brain injury, a serviceman or woman need not lose consciousness to qualify for the Purple Heart.  If a medical officer or health professional diagnoses concussive injury, and the “extent of the wound was such that it required treatment by a medical officer,” this is sufficient for the award of the Purple Heart.

One remaining issue is whether a Purple Heart is appropriate for someone with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.).  In 2008, after increasing numbers of men and women returning from service in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom were diagnosed as suffering from P.T.S.D., some commentators proposed awarding the Purple Heart for these psychological wounds.  After carefully studying the issue, the Defense Department concluded that having P.T.S.D. did not qualify a person for the Purple Heart because the disorder was not a “wound intentionally caused by the enemy — but rather a secondary effect caused by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event.”


[1] The Continental Congress did vote to award George Washington, Horatio Gates, and John Paul Jones with gold medallions in recognition of their efforts in defeating the British forces, but none of these were awarded until after the end of the Revolutionary War, in 1790.

[2] The information gathered by Sergeant Bissell helped the Continental Army prepare for an attack on the British in New York City.

[3] Printed certificates signed by Pershing that read “for exceptionally meritorious and conspicuous services.”