General Order No. 1

EGA 2014-002Marine sentries are governed by 11 General Orders and such special orders and directives as may be required for a particular guard post or location. A Marine’s first general order is, “Take charge of this post and all government property in view.” That is precisely what the Marines did in 1921 (and again in 1926) when gangsters began robbing the United States Postal Service of its mail and packages. Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby, himself a veteran of Marine Corps service, instructed the Marines as follows:

“You must, when on guard duty, keep your weapons in hand, if attacked, shoot, and shoot to kill. There is no compromise in this battle with bandits. If two Marines guarding a mail car, for example, are suddenly covered by a robber, neither must hold up his hands, but both must begin shooting at once. One may be killed, but the other will get the robbers and save the mail. When our Marine Corps men go as guards over the mail, that mail must be delivered or there must be a dead Marine at the post of duty.”

Mr. Denby was not a joking man.

Mail robbery had become a very lucrative business between 1919 and 1921. According to an article by Postal Historian George Corney, about $6 million was lost to mail robbery during these years. In terms of today’s dollars, that would be about $80 million. Train/postal robbery was a worthwhile endeavor back then because registered mail is how most businesses and persons transferred money from one location to another. The worst robbery of all took place in New York City —the loss of $2.4 million in five sacks of registered mail. Today, that would be about $31 million.

The Postmaster General of the United States asked the President for help (on two separate occasions). In 1921, President Harding sent a terse letter to the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Denby:

My Dear Mr. Secretary:

You will detail as guards for the United States Mails a sufficient number of officers and men of the United States Marine Corps to protect the mails from depredations by robbers and bandits.

You will confer with the Postmaster General as to the details, and will issue the necessary instructions in regard to the performance of this duty.

Very truly yours,

Warren G. Harding

It was not very long before the Commandant of the Marine Corps temporarily reassigned 53 officers and 2,200 Marines to duty protecting the United States Mail. These Marines came from the bases at Quantico, Virginia and San Diego, California. Marine commanding officers passed down terse instructions to their Marines, including a training manual formatted as a series of questions and answers. Here are two examples:

Question: Suppose he (the robber) is using a gun or making threats with a gun in trying to escape?

Answer: Shoot him.

Question: Is it possible to make a successful mail robbery?

Answer: Only over the body of a dead Marine.

Of course, so few Marines could not guard every bit of mail and so the Post Office Department decided that Marines would only guard registered mail consisting of a considerable value, particularly mail involving cash and negotiable bonds. The post office consolidated these shipments as much as possible in order to reduce the number of Marines required for such duties.

USMC Mail Guards 001Marines assigned to these duties may have imagined that it was a plum assignment, but it actually involved long, tedious, lonely hours. Not one time during the initial period of guard duty did anyone attempt to rob the U. S. Postal Service. Marines were withdrawn on 15 March 1922.

The break in robberies continued until in April 1923 when a mail messenger in St. Louis was relieved of $2.4 million of registered mail, and a general reescalation of robberies in 1926. In October, a group of gunmen murdered a postal truck driver and made off with $150,000. Once again, the Postmaster requested Marines to guard the mail while the postal service developed its own force of guards and armored trucks. Once again, the Commandant of the Marine Corps detailed 2,500 Marines to postal security duties, this time under the command of two-time Medal of Honor recipient Major General Smedley D. Butler (West Coast Operations), and Major General Logan Feland (East Coast Operations). All 2,500 Marines served on Mail Guard Duty.

By 1926, gangsters had upgraded their firearm capability. Now they were using automatic rifles and machineguns. Marines responded in kind, adding Thompson sub-machineguns to their arsenal of .45 pistols and shotguns. This time, a Marine did fire his weapon. On the night of 26 October 1926, while detailed to a Seattle bound train, Private Fred Jackson discovered an intruder standing on the mail car platform. In spite of the fact that the train was traveling at about 25 miles per hour, Private Jackson ordered the man off the train. The man told Jackson he wasn’t going to do it. Jackson fired a shot above the man’s head, which caused the interloper to rethink his position. As the man jumped from the train, Jackson fired a second shot for good measure. Today this would result in a White House investigation.

Marines were withdrawn from Postal Security Duty in February 1927; they were needed elsewhere. The Banana Wars were once more heating up.

Preferential Treatment

Naval Aviation 001Marines are nothing if not competitive. This explains why, after 30 years service, you can count the number of your friends on one hand. Marines also make an important distinction between acquaintances, and friends. So there is a lot of back and forth between Marine officers with different MOS specialties. There is nowhere this animosity is more pronounced than within the aviation community —an age-old spectacle between helicopter and fixed-wing pilots. To fighter pilots, helicopter pilots are “rotor heads,” suggesting individuals with limited aeronautical skill. This is not true, of course, but it does represent the best of fixed-wing creativity.

Now imagine two Marine Corps airfields located in near proximity to one another, and you get a lot of caustic commentary between fixed wing and rotor wing pilots.

Flying military aircraft is a dangerous business. If everything is working okay on your aircraft, consider yourself temporarily fortunate —and realize that something is about to break that will have a profound impact on the remainder of your day. No place is this more acute than when flying helicopters, which according to physicists, are incapable of sustained flight.

One year, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing experienced a rash of aircraft accidents. This is always a concern to everyone in the Marine Corps aviation community because in matters involving aircraft mishaps, there are no “minor incidents.” In response to this sudden upsurge of misadventures, the Commanding General called a meeting at the base theater for all air group and squadron commanding officers, all safety officers, and all of their assistants.

Fighter Pilot 001Lieutenant Colonel Mike Gehring was one of these squadron commanders, a man who had a reputation for fearlessness when dealing with senior officers. For most of the marathon ass chewing, Colonel Gehring sat quietly in his seat and absorbed the general’s wrath. But the general’s rage seemed unending so that after a period of time, his audience —all of whom were subordinate officers— were themselves growing angry … the general’s important message losing its effectiveness. There were audible groans and one could hear the complaining voices from the captive officers —which is never a good sign. The general finally concluded his rebuke by saying, “Now, is there anyone out there who doesn’t understand what I said, or has any questions?”

No Commanding General expects to receive any questions after such a dressing down, and as expected, silence reigned throughout the theater for several long seconds. It was then that Colonel Gehring raised his hand.

Seeing the hand go up, the general said, “State your name and your question.” Gehring stood up and said, “Lieutenant Colonel Mike Gehring, sir … I’m sick of all the preferential treatment the helicopter pilots are getting around here. I think something should be done about this.”

One could have heard a pin drop on the carpeted floor; the general and senior officers were stunned. The general finally looked down from his podium on the theater stage and demanded, “What in the hell are you talking about?”

Colonel Gehring continued, “General, you may not have noticed this, but believe me when I tell you that the rest of us have noticed it. Anywhere we go on base, every premier parking spot is reserved for helicopter pilots. I’m talking about the officer’s club, the Base Exchange, the Base Dispensary … why, even at Wing headquarters. The best, closest parking spot is always reserved for helo drivers. Enough is enough. Sir, I know you’ve seen them … they are clearly marked with a sign that reads “Handicapped.”

Total silence followed for five full seconds —and then total pandemonium. Fighter pilots cheered, helicopter pilots jeered, unflattering catcalls erupted, and the general left the stage and exited the theater.

Now try to imagine what the officer’s club was like during Friday afternoon happy hour.

Hat tip: Major P. W. Chapman, USMC (Retired), PLayboy 37

Close Air —Part III

Korean War Map 001The Marine Corps continued its tradition of forward-looking innovation after World War II —much of this accomplished in the face of post-war demobilization and mandatory reduction in forces. President Truman and Defense Secretary Louis Johnson took an axe to all the military services. In the Marine Corps, a reduction of infantry regiments to two battalions, rather than the standard three. Instead of three rifle companies per battalion, there were only two. Instead of three infantry platoons per rifle company, there were only two. Thus, in June 1950 when communist North Korea invaded South Korea, the United States was barely able to respond. The problem facing most military units was not simply a matter of post-war manpower reductions —it was also a matter of inadequate training and poor leadership at the junior officer and mid-range NCO levels. Such conditions nearly handed the United States a disastrous defeat. At this time, the Marine Corps was fortunate, since most of its company grade officers and NCOs were combat veterans of World War II. They might have operated with fewer rifle platoons and aircraft, but they knew what they had to do.

Pushed all the way to the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, the Eighth US Army was barely able to hold on to the area of Pusan against a highly aggressive, well trained, and well-equipped North Korean army. In only five weeks from the North Korean invasion, the First Provisional Marine Corps brigade arrived in Pusan —the last remaining port available to United Nations forces. The brigade deployed as an integrated air-ground team —as it had been envisioned in 1933. A reconstituted 5th Marine Regiment paired with Marine Aircraft Group-33 (consisting of two Corsair squadrons, one night-fighter squadron, and a light observation squadron with four Sikorsky helicopters). The Brigade, known as the Fire Brigade, operated under the command of Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, a seasoned combat leader.  The first thing Marines did after their arrival in Pusan was go into the attack.

MAG-33 flew close air support missions from escort carriers on station in the Sea of Japan. The combined firepower of American infantry and ground attack aircraft proved decisive in a number of clashes with tank-led North Korean forces along the Naktong River. These small-scale tactical victories raised the morale of front line forces and bought much needed time to develop an aggressive strategy. In September, the balance of the 1st Marine Division arrived in Korea, absorbed the Fire Brigade, and sailed into the Yellow Sea as the point of General MacArthur’s spear at Inchon. The hard work finally paid off and now everyone knew that the Marine Corps air-ground team packed a lethal punch.

CAS Korea 1950 001The Korean War reunited the 1st Marine Divison and 1st Marine Aircraft Wing for the first time since Guadalcanal; never before was there a time when Marine Corps close air support was more badly needed, or more responsively provided than in the 90-day period between the Inchon landing and the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir. Marine F4U Corsairs launched their attacks from escort carriers and expeditionary airfields, supporting battalions from Wolmi-do Island, across the Han River, and into the urban setting of Seoul —South Korea’s capital city. The North Koreans threw up one barricade after another to stop the advance of Marine infantry units, but none of these survived the assault of Marine Corsairs.

Later, as Marine infantry fought to extricate themselves from ten Chinese divisions trying to annihilate them, during the coldest winter in memory around the Chosin Reservoir, Marine aircraft remained on station overhead during every daylight hour. At the conclusion of the Chosin Reservoir campaign, the Commanding General of the 1st Marine Division, Major General Oliver P. Smith commended Marine pilots: “Never in its history has Marine aviation given more proof of its indispensible value to ground Marines. A bond of understanding has been established here that will never be broken.”

We define Close Air Support (CAS) as an air action by fixed and rotary wing aircraft, directed against hostile targets in close proximity to friendly forces. Marine Corps aviation is organized and equipped today to perform its primary function of assault, support, anti-aircraft warfare, offensive air support, electronic warfare, control of aircraft and missiles, and expeditionary reconnaissance. These things are inherently dangerous to pilots and grunts alike. There is nothing simple about air-ground coordination, or of placing needed ordnance on target, on time. These skill sets take years of constant training to achieve. Marine riflemen take a keen interest in the proximity of close air. To Marines, close air support means one thing: damn close.

Close Air —Part II

F4F Wildcat 001In 1941, the Marine Corps commissioned two air wings. By the time of Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor, the Marine Corps had deployed roughly half of its air squadrons to the Pacific. Marine aviation assets were found at Ewa Field, Hawaii, and with the garrison at Wake Island. They were flying the Grumman F4F Wildcats. When the Japanese attacked on 7 December 1941, they were not as surprised as they were overwhelmed. Desperate months followed, and for much of this time, the Marines were out-numbered and out-gunned. With the amphibious assault on Guadalcanal, the Navy-Marine Corps team had begun their first offensive campaign. Within seven days, combat engineers made the captured air strip at Guadalcanal suitable for landing American aircraft and this began with Captain John Smith’s VMF-223, flying F4F Wildcats, and Major Richard Mangrum’s VMSB-232, flying the Douglas SBD-3s. They were followed by Vought F4U Corsairs and a veteran by the name of Roy S. Geiger, the Marine Corps’ fifth naval aviator, commanding the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. These Marines had little opportunity for aviation missions in direct support of ground forces, however. As long as the Battle for the Solomons was uncertain, Marine aviators were employed to interdict Japanese air raids and reinforce convoys operating adjacent to Rabaul.

SBD3 Dive-Bomber 001During the twenty months following Guadalcanal, the Marines rarely fought as an air-ground team. Then in November 1943, a new front opened in the Central Pacific, which committed most Marine ground forces to a series of island operations through the end of the War. The vast distances between island objectives and the paucity of airfields made it next to impossible for aviation Marines to support their brothers on the ground. Aircraft carriers might have been the solution to this problem, but the Navy was unwilling to replace its own air groups with Marines. This problem continued until November 1944, when Admiral Chester W. Nimitz agreed to accept Marine Corps air support squadrons on board escort carriers in future amphibious operations. It took time to implement these new programs; Marine ground forces did not fully benefit from carrier-based Marine air cover until the Battle of Okinawa in April 1945.

F4U Corsair 001General Geiger was the first Marine Corps aviator to command a joint-service amphibious corps. He waged an effective and highly successful campaign at Bougainville, Guam, Peleliu, and Okinawa. As an aviator, he was always seeking a way to employ Marine Corps air assets in support of ground troops. It finally did come together at Peleliu. The first significant close air support mission was executed by Major Robert Stout’s VMA-114, supporting a battalion sized assault on Ngesbus Island. Twenty Corsairs strafed the beach defenses a mere 30 feet off the water, barely ahead of landing craft. The aircraft enabled the Marines to overwhelm a much larger force and capture the island.

Corsairs provided close air support to protect badly mauled Marine battalions near Bloody Nose Ridge on Peleliu; they brought with them terrifying new weapons: napalm and high explosive rockets. Such destructive weapons used in close air support missions demanded very close air-ground coordination. The Marines implemented a process of air liaison parties (ALPs), which were primarily Marine pilots with radio operators to accompany infantry commanders, much in the same way as artillery forward observers. Landing Force aviation control units began to coordinate ALPs during the battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

In mid-1944, Marine squadrons were languishing in the Central Pacific, relegated to dropping bombs on bypassed Japanese island garrisons. With MacArthur’s return to the Philippines, however, elements of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing flew in support of operations in Leyte. The Philippine battles were far different from those of small coral atolls and the Marines participated in a wide range of operations, from close air support and air interdiction to attacks on Japanese shipping. The Battle for Okinawa was the largest air-ground battle of the Pacific War.

To be continued

Close Air —Part I

Cunningham Alfred 001Marine Corps Aviation began with a few good men that really did want to fly air machines. One of the first of these was a first lieutenant whose name was Alfred A. Cunningham. He was not only the first Marine Corps naval aviator, he was also a visionary able to develop the concept of an expeditionary air force. He had a keen interest in the way Italian aviators used their machines against the Ottoman Turks in 1911, and it was he that urged Major General Commandant William Biddle to establish a flying program for Marines. The timing was right, for General Biddle was under a great deal of pressure to expedite the Marine Corps’ transition to an advanced naval base defense mission. Biddle regarded Cunningham’s proposal as an opportunity to move this mission forward and recommended the creation of a Marine aviation capability. The Navy accepted this as a commitment to modernization and the Marine Corps has been flying tactical aircraft ever since.

When President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Imperial Germany in April 1917, the Marines were ready with fifty pilots and mechanics of the Aviation Detachment of the Marine Advanced Base Force. The War Department was happy to accept Marine ground troops—eventually increasing to 10,000 in strength, but it was somewhat less enthusiastic about accepting Marine Corps land-based air squadrons to provide reconnaissance and artillery spotting. The Navy, however, did accept the Marine’s advanced based seaplane squadron for antisubmarine patrols in the Azores. Captain Cunningham commanded four bomber squadrons in 1918 —the 1st Marine Aviation Force— supporting the Allied naval bombing group in Northern France. At this time, the Marines were flying De Havilland DH-4 and DH-9 biplanes over German installations behind the lines.

DH-4Still, the General Board of the Navy had questions about Marine Corps aviation and it was up to Cunningham to flesh it all out. He testified in 1919, “The only excuse for aviation in any service is its usefulness in assisting the troops on the ground.” He envisioned an air arm capable of providing direct support to battlefield infantry operations. He saw expeditionary air squadrons that could deploy by ship and fly from primitive fields in support of ground units, or in support of advanced naval bases. Remember, however, the Marines were not a very large organization; if they were to develop air support doctrine, they would have to do this on the move. They did this during the so-called Banana Wars in the Caribbean and in Central America. It was a challenging period for the Marines —the only military service engaged in combat during the interwar years (1919-1941). The lessons learned by the Marines during this period would prove invaluable during World War II.

Marine Brigades returned to the United States from Nicaragua and Haiti in 1933, just as the Marine Corps underwent a significant change in its primary mission —from static defense of advanced naval bases to one more suitable for a “likely war” with Japan. (See also: Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, Major Earl Hancock “Pete” Ellis, USMC, 23 July 1921.) The Navy and Marines had been developing their Amphibious Warfare doctrine since the 1920s, which conceptually involved the forcible seizure of strategic islands in a naval campaign across the Pacific. One cannot help but wonder how it was that Marine officers could see the threat developing in Japan, while no one else in our nation’s government could. Nevertheless, encouraged by the development and tactical performance of Marine Corps aviation in Nicaragua, the Marine Corps incorporated the air-ground team concept in a series of landmark doctrinal initiatives. The new Fleet Marine Force (FMF) brigades formed in 1933 at Quantico, Virginia and at San Diego, California, contained an air group and an infantry regiment. Essentially, this same organizational structure would rescue South Korea and the Eighth US Army from complete destruction in June 1950.

In 1933, however, reliable air-ground radios were almost nonexistent. In 1933, the Marines still had not determined which air frame best suited a Marine Corps mission. Should they adopt dive-bombers, fighters, or some new ground-attack variant? The question would be answered in time, once aviation planners developed a proper construct for the mission, which ultimately was what it had always been: close air support.

To be continued