Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

When Death Smiles at American Marines ... American Marines Smile back.

Among those interested in military history, and in particular American military history, there are essentially two prevailing opinions about American Marines. The first is that Marines are really 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 damn good at fulfilling every mission assigned to them.  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, not only made amphibious landings, he also 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.

It was during the period between world wars that 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 of these was the introduction of the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, Virginia. The creation of Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune, MCS 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 a number of Pacific islands from the Germans during World War I. Marine scholars began to suspect that Japan was beginning to fortify these islands. Lieutenant Colonel Ellis[1] published a study in 1921 entitled Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia. He not only predicted and outlined every move the US would eventually follow in World War II and warn fellow Marines that the US would eventually face heavily fortified Japanese-held islands. He also predicted the application of advanced warfare technology, such as the aircraft carrier, torpedo planes, and long-range bombers.

From these inquiries, Navy and Marine Corps planners began to devise new troop organizations, new amphibious landing craft, the means of coordinating naval artillery and sea-borne air assault strategies, and logistics 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.

FMF InsigniaBy 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 this 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 continues to exist in updated field manuals and doctrinal publications.

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 US 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.

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

“An ability to furnish skilled forces to meet emergency situations on short notice has long been a hallmark of the U. S. Marine Corps. When the call came for such a force to be dispatched to Korea on 2 July 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 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.”

—Lenuel C. Shepherd, Jr., General, U. S. Marine Corps, Commandant of the Marine Corps

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 rather than having three full infantry battalions in the regiment, there were only two.  Rather than having three infantry companies in each battalion, there were only two.  Rather than having three infantry platoons within each company, there were only two.

What this meant was that the Marines were going into combat without an organic reinforcing reserve capability.  They were going into combat without the ability to replace casualties.  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.  Marines always improvise, adapt, and 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 forefront of naval theorists and strategist 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

Struggling for Promotion

Young MarineA young lance corporal had taken all of the available courses specific to his military specialty in order to eventually win a promotion to corporal.  And he had taken all of the general knowledge classes available to Marines of his grade—and yet, in spite of all this work, he could not pass the test for promotion to corporal.

The young man went to see Gunnery Sergeant Jones, his NCOIC, who advised, “What you need is a freaking brain transplant.”  Knowing that the gunny was always right —about everything— the young Marine promptly made an appointment with a neurosurgeon in the small town just outside of the base.

After listening to the young Marine’s tale of woe, the doctor told him, “I agree with your gunnery sergeant.  You do need a brain transplant —and, you’re in luck.  We offer carpenters’ brains for about $500, and if you want to spend a little extra, you can get an electrician’s brain for right at $1,000.  On the other hand, if you want a first class brain, you can get a doctor’s brain for about $10,000, or you can have the brain of a member of congress for $50,000.”

“Wow,” said the young leatherneck.  “But I don’t understand why a congressman’s brain is so expensive!”

“Well son,” said the surgeon, “do you have any idea how many politicians we have to go through to find a brain that works?”

A Firebrand Commander

There are quite a number of famous people who have served as United States Marines. The list includes Hollywood actors, sons of presidents, athletes, politicians, musicians, and astronauts. A number of Marines have become legends —I have written about several here— some of those in their own time … and some, perhaps, in their own mind. I personally enjoyed researching “Handsome Jack” Myers, who was the real deal “Old Corps” Leatherneck. I would have enjoyed listening to him recount some of his adventures.

I recently uncovered another interesting old breed (pre-World War II) Marine. I can’t say that his career was extraordinary because his was a professional pattern shared with many other Marines. But what makes this fellow stand out is that he was a bona fide hero of the Battle of Tarawa. I am astonished that more people do not even know his name.

Before we get to that, however, let me offer a summary of what happened at Tarawa —and why.

2ndMarDiv PatchTarawa is an atoll in the central Pacific Ocean, part of the Gilbert’s Islands and now part of the Republic of Kirbati. A wide reef and a large lagoon of over 500 square kilometers characterize the atoll. The battle fought there lasted four days (20 November to 24 November 1943), and it was one of the bloodiest campaigns in Marine Corps history. The code name for the engagement was Operation Galvanic. It involved the 2nd Marine Division and its subordinate regiments: 2nd Marines, 6th Marines, 8th Marines, and 10th Marines and the target of the Marine’s attentions was the island named Betio.

Betio Island is located about 2,400 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; it is the largest island within the Tarawa Atoll. It is two miles long and about 800 yards wide at its widest point. Before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Tarawa Atoll was a British Commonwealth territory; it was the British who constructed the unusually long pier along the north shore into the lagoon. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese seized Tarawa and executed its occidental occupants. The northern coast of Betio Island faces into the lagoon, while the southern and western shore face the deep waters of the open ocean.

After the end of the Solomon Islands campaign (Battle for Guadalcanal in the Southern Pacific), Washington military planners decided that it was time to begin an offensive into the Central Pacific region. The strategy was to capture Japanese held islands, establish advanced air bases, and use these bases as stepping-stones to move the US military ever closer to the Philippines and the main islands of Japan. They called it island hopping and it was a strategy that made sense.

Betio Island Map 1943Tarawa Atoll became the first step in the so-called island hopping campaign —a strategy devised to offset the fact that the United States had a limited number of aircraft carriers in the Pacific. Advanced air bases would allow the United States to move across the Central Pacific toward the Philippines and Japan. But, before that could happen, the US needed to capture the Mariana’s Islands. Before they could do that, the US had to seize the Marshall Islands. They could not take the Marshall Islands until the first pacified the Gilbert Islands … which brings us to the Tarawa Atoll. The enemy garrison and airfield at Betio interfered with US intentions and so it became necessary to remove them.

The Japanese garrison consisted of about 4,700 Imperial troops; half of these were members of the 7th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force (Japanese Marines) —and they weren’t known for running away from a fight. Also present were men of the 111th Pioneer Battalion (similar to Seabees), the 4th Fleet Construction Battalion, the 3rd Special Base Defense Force, all of who were commanded by Admiral Keiji Shibazaki and Commander Takeo Sugai. Their mission was to inflict as much damage upon the American military as possible. They did their best.

Betio Island was the first time the U. S. Marines conducted an amphibious assault against a heavily defended, well-fortified objective. There were many hard lessons learned at Tarawa and the cost of these lessons was very high. Still, there was no way around it; either these lessons had to be learned at Tarawa, or they would have to be learned at some other location. They involved how to load ships for amphibious operations (last on, first off), important lessons about naval preparatory fires, and vital lessons about close air support. The Marines learned about tides.

A submerged reef surrounded Betio Island approximately 500 yards into the lagoon, which was the reason why the British constructed such a long pier in the island’s center. British experts [1] that had direct knowledge of the atoll informed the Marines that the tide tables used to plan the operation were notoriously inaccurate. These tide tables suggested that the Marines could expect five feet of water over the surrounding reefs at neap tide —high enough to get landing boats from the deep-water lagoon into the beach. They did not take into account the dodging tides [2]. The submerged reef and the irresolute tides restricted the continuous movement of troops, supplies, and equipment from ship to shore. Beyond this, naval preparatory fires were poorly executed and inadequate; air support was ineffective. These were some reasons the fighting was so desperate, why there were so many Marine casualties, and why the battle lasted 72 grueling hours. The ordeal that unfolded here caused ordinary men to perform extraordinary feats.

His name was Henry Pierson Crowe. He was born into an average family in Boston, Kentucky in 1899. He left school before graduation to join the Marine Corps in 1918. Serving briefly in France, he was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1919; three years later, he reenlisted. He spent the 1920s on expeditionary duty in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, and he also participated in national shooting competition. He was awarded the Distinguished Marksman Medal in 1927.

The Marine Corps appointed Crowe to Marine Gunner in 1934 —a warrant officer designation aimed at promoting to junior officer grades certain enlisted Marines with specialized knowledge and skill. From 1936 to 1939, Crowe served at the United States Embassy in Peiping, China. He was subsequently assigned to the 6th Marine Regiment, and the 8th Marine Regiment. He was promoted to Chief Master Gunner in February 1941.

Following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in December, the 8th Marines embarked to Samoa in the following month. Crowe received a commission to Captain in February 1942 and assumed command of Weapons Company, 8th Marines. On Guadalcanal, Captain Crowe’s heroism under fire earned him both the Silver Star and Bronze Star medals.

After the Solomon Islands campaign, the 2nd Marine Division was withdrawn to New Zealand for rest, replacements, refitting, and further training. Captain Crowe was promoted to Major in March 1943 and assigned to command the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8).

The initial assault force at Betio Island consisted of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines (2/2) (Landing designation Red 2) Commanded by LtCol Herbert R. Amery, Jr., the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2) (Red 1), Commanded by Major John F. Schoettel, and Crowe’s 2/8 (Red 3). The 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines would be held in reserve.

The landing force began debarkation into assault vehicles at 0320 on 20 November 1943. Things started going wrong almost immediately; troop transports were lined up incorrectly, amphibian vehicles weren’t sure where they were supposed to be during the loading phase, rough sea made cross-deck loading dangerous and slow, and carrier support was delayed by more than 30-minutes. When air support did arrive, it was ineffective. Through all this chaos, Marines designated for the amphibious assault remained in the lagoon, bobbing up and down in their amphibian vehicles and landing craft for more than five hours.

2-8 001The Marines began heading for Betio Island at 0917 hours. The first wave slammed in to the reef, crawled over it, and headed to the shoreline … and that’s where everything came to a painful, devastating halt. Well-directed defensive fires cut into the Marines; the assault faltered when senior leaders were killed, and entire platoons were wiped out. There was no way the first wave could make it beyond a small log-abutted seawall. A Japanese officer was seen standing atop a concrete bunker waving to the Marines with his pistol, “Come on … come on.” As additional waves of Marines headed toward Betio, the tiny beachhead, if that’s what you could call it, began piling up with dead and wounded Marines.

Then the dodge tide took horrendous effect; as landing craft ground to a halt on the reefs 500 yards off shore, Marines began to abandon them, crawled over the side, and began wading ashore into intense machine gun fire directed at them by the Japanese. Not many made it, but one that did was Major Jim Crowe. When his landing craft impaled itself on the submerged reef, Crowe shouted “Damn it to hell! Alright Marines … follow me.” Over the side he went. 2/8’s commander arrived on the hostile shore within scant moments of the first wave.

The battle was not shaping up very well. It was so bad that Division Commander decided to commit his reserve forces after only one hour.

Holding the American beachhead on Betio Island rested in good measure with fiery, redheaded mustang commander of 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, Henry P. Crowe. There were a couple of reasons for this. Most of 2/8 landed in organized formation and without sustaining massive casualties. In contrast, 2/2 and 3/2 both sustained a considerable number of killed and wounded, including Colonel Amey. The commander of troops ashore, Colonel David M. Shoup [3], turned to Major Crowe to become the crutch upon which the landing operation could proceed. Shoup needed Crowe to not only maintain his position on Red 3 —he needed him to expand it. But the Japanese were now paying attention to Major Crowe’s battalion and 2/8 started taking heavy casualties, too. As Marines waded ashore from left of the pier into Major Crowe’s section of the beach, he plugged them in to 2/8 units as replacements for the killed and injured. Throughout this horrific battle, Major Crowe was a tower of strength. One must wonder how many Marines were saved from certain death by Major Crowe’s calm demeanor and his command presence under the most adverse conditions.

Today there is a diorama depicting the Battle of Tarawa, and Major Crowe, at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

The slugfest continued for four days. Ultimately, the Japanese were overwhelmed —and while they were willing to fight to the death, they soon became too tired, too thirsty, and too disorganized to continue a coordinated defense. Yes, they did have courage and determination, but it was no substitute for cohesive action, and there is no stopping American Marines, no matter how many casualties it takes, from achieving their combat objectives. Marine casualties included 1,696 killed in action; 2,101 wounded in action. Only 17 Japanese Marines were taken alive.

For his extraordinary leadership at Tarawa, Major Crowe received the Navy Cross.

Crowe HP 001Major Crowe also participated in the Battle of Saipan; his entire World War II service was with the 8th Marine regiment. After the war, LtCol Crowe served with the 29th Marines in China, and after returning to the United States, completed professional military education appropriate to his rank.

Returning once more to California, LtCol Crowe served as a battalion executive officer and, while at Camp Pendleton, California, along with Colonel David M. Shoup, 1st Lieutenant Harold Schrier, Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley appeared in a cameo role as himself in the John Wayne film Sands of Iwo Jima.

In 1950, Crowe was dispatched to Japan and assumed command of the 1st Shore Party Battalion and participated in the amphibious landing at Inchon, the Inchon-Seoul Campaign, and the landing at Wonsan.

Promoted to Colonel in 1951, Crowe served at the Amphibious Training Command at Coronado, California, commanded H&S Battalion at MCRD San Diego, and additionally served as the Marine Corps technical advisor in the making of the film Battle Cry—a story written by former Marine Leon Uris, who during World War II served in the 6th Marines.

Having completed 41 years of active service, Colonel Crowe retired from active duty on 1 March 1960. Subsequent to his retirement, he served as the Chief of Police in Portsmouth, Virginia until 1969. Colonel Crowe passed away on 27 June 1991 at the age of 92. Colonel Crowe’s personal decorations include the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit with combat “V” device, Bronze Star Medal (three awards), with combat “V” device, and the Purple Heart Medal (two awards).

We must not forget such men as these.



[1] Major F. L. G. Holland, Royal Army and Captain Warnham, Royal Navy

[2] Dodge tide is a term for a neap tide with minimal rise and fall over the course of a day or two.

[3] 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps

[4] It was my privilege and honor to serve in Company E, 2/8 from 1963 to 1964.


The men and women of the Navy and Marine Corps are brothers and sisters in arms within the Department of the Navy. The Navy’s mission is to maintain, train, and equip combat ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression, and maintaining freedom of the seas. The Marine Corps mission is to defend America at home, protect her interests abroad, and project Naval power ashore. It is a team effort.

It is difficult to describe the avant-garde nature of the Naval establishment. Not all of our lessons have been easily learned but I think the Navy and Marine Corps are blessed with top-notch people who always strive to leave their service in better shape than when they joined it. There are several examples of this, but the one I want to write about today involves the Navy Hospital Corps.

Hospital Rating BadgeIn the Old Navy, medical services were provided to ship’s company by surgeons and randomly selected crewmen detailed to assist him. In those days, it was common to find surgeons and his assistants toiling under the most deplorable of conditions. Expediency led to frequent amputations; lacerations were often cauterized with heated irons. Sand was thrown down to keep the surgeon from slipping on the bloody deck.

In those early days, the surgeon’s medical assistants were called Loblolly boys, an expression that originated in the Royal Navy indicating the daily ration of porridge fed to the sick. The phrase “loblolly boy” was incorporated into US Navy Regulations, 1814. The terminology changed several times over many decades: Surgeon’s Steward (1841), Nurse (1861), Apothecary (1866), and Bayman (1876).

By the 1880s, medical science was progressing at a rapid rate, prompting Navy Surgeon General J. R. Tyron to petition the Navy Department for advanced training for enlisted medical personnel. With the advent of the Spanish-American War, Congress passed a bill authorizing the establishment of the Navy Hospital Corps, passed into law by President William McKinley on 17 June 1898. As a result, three naval ratings were created: hospital apprentice, hospital apprentice first class, and hospital steward (a chief petty officer). Additional ratings were added in 1916 and these would remain in effect until 1947.

The U. S. Navy Hospital Corpsman has distinguished himself aboard ships at sea, on submarines, and at every Navy Base around the world. During World War II, Hospital Corpsmen performed many heroic life-saving feats, often under the most appalling conditions, from treating burn victims to preparing sailors for evacuation from sinking ships. In some instances, these Corpsmen performed life-saving surgeries when there was no medical doctor available. Throughout all these ordeals Navy Corpsmen never broke faith with their motto: Semper Fortis — Always Courageous.”

Navy Corpsmen 002Perhaps at no time has the Navy Hospital Corpsman better acquitted himself than when assigned as a Field Hospital Corpsman with the U. S. Marines. The Marines loved their corpsmen; they didn’t worry about such things as ratings and ranks —they simply called him “Doc.”

Hospital Corpsmen served alongside the Marines in every conflict since the Spanish-American War. They have become part of the combat unit’s table of organization. During World War II, “Doc” landed on every hostile beach along side “his” Marines. In fact, one of the individuals helping to raise the flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima was Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class “Jake” Bradley.

Throughout all of these battles, the Field Hospital Corpsman responded to every call for assistance. It never mattered whether the Marines were engaged in a firefight; when the call went out Corpsman Up, Doc always responded. If he didn’t respond, he was already dead. It is no surprise, then, that Marines always take care of their Doc … and no one ever messes with a Hospital Corpsman when the Marines are around —nobody. One demonstration of the uniqueness of the Field Hospital Corpsman and the Marines is that all U. S. Navy medical personnel serving with Marines are authorized to wear the Marine Corps uniform, exchanging Marine Corps rank insignia with that of the U. S. Navy.

“Doc” has been cited many times for heroism: 22 awards of the Medal of Honor, 174 Navy Crosses, 945 Silver Stars, and nearly 1,600 Bronze Star Medals. During the Vietnam War, 639 Navy Corpsmen lost their lives: here is the story of one of those.

RAY DR 001David Robert Ray was born on February 14, 1945 in McMinnville, Tennessee, the largest town in Warren Country, just 70 miles northwest of Chattanooga. Ray received a scholarship to attend college upon graduation in 1963 and attended classes at the Knoxville campus from 1963 until March 1966, when he enlisted in the U. S. Navy. Following graduation from boot camp, Ray attended the Naval Hospital Corps School in San Diego, California. His first tour of duty was served aboard the USS Haven (AH-12), a World War II vintage hospital ship. Subsequently, he served at the U. S. Navy Hospital, Long Beach, California until May 1968.

Having requested assignment with the Fleet Marine Forces, Ray was ordered to attend Field Hospital School for battlefield training at Camp Pendleton, California. Upon arrival in Vietnam, Ray was assigned to Battery D, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment at An Hoa, South Vietnam.

Navy Corpsman 001In the early morning of 19 March 1969, an estimated battalion strength North Vietnamese unit attacked Fire Support Base Phu Loc Six, which was adjacent to Liberty Bridge near An Hoa in Quang Nam Province. During the initial assault, the NVA penetrated the fire base perimeter, gunning down many of the Marines assigned to that sector. Doc Ray moved from parapet to parapet during the attack, rendering medical aid to wounded Marines. In the process of providing this aid, he too was struck by enemy fire. Even though Field Hospital Corpsmen are designated as non-combatants, they are armed for self defense and the protection of their wounded patients. It was under these circumstances that Petty Officer 2nd Class (HM2) Ray engaged the enemy with his sidearm, killing one and wounding and incapacitating another.

Although Bobby Ray was gravely wounded, he refused medical evacuation. Through the darkness of night, through the hail of bullets that surrounded him, Doc Ray continued working to save the lives of “his” Marines. It was at this time that an NVA grenade landed within the parapet where Doc Ray was performing life-saving procedures. Without hesitation, Ray fell upon the enemy explosive and absorbed the full effect of its detonation.

Medal of HonorDavid Robert Ray thereby sacrificed his own life in order to save his Marine patient. John 15:13 tells us, “Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

In recognition of this selfless act of heroism, David Robert Ray was posthumously awarded our nation’s highest award: the Medal of Honor. Ray was one of four Navy Corpsmen so decorated during the Vietnam War.