This Month in History

2 June 1918: At dawn on this date, the crack German 28th Division attacked along the axis of the Paris-Metz road hitting the American 2d Division, including the 4th Marine Brigade. The Marines opened with deadly rifle fire and helped hand the German troops a setback which set the stage for Marine victory at Belleau Wood which would soon follow, although at great cost.

8 June 1995: A Marine tactical recovery team from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit stationed on board the USS Kearsarge rescued a downed U.S. pilot, Captain Scott O’Grady, USAF, from Bosnian-Serb territory in Bosnia.

Fighting Marines 00610 June 1898: The First Marine Battalion, commanded by LtCol Robert W. Huntington, landed on the eastern side of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The next day, Lt Herbert L. Draper hoisted the American flag over Camp McCalla where it flew during the next eleven days. LtCol Huntington later sent the flag with an accompanying letter to Colonel Commandant Charles Heywood noting that “when bullets were flying, …the sight of the flag upon the midnight sky has thrilled our hearts.”

12 June 1961: President John F. Kennedy signed a Presidential Proclamation calling for the American flag to be flown at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, “at all times during the day and night.” Discussions between the Attorney General’s office and Marine Corps officials earlier in 1961 on improving the visibility and appearance of the monument led to the proposal to fly the Flag continuously, which by law could only be done by Congressional legislation or by Presidential proclamation.

Fighting Marines 00115 June 1944: Preceded by naval gunfire and carrier air strikes, the V Amphibious Corps assaulted the west coast of Saipan, Marianas Islands. By nightfall, the 2d and 4th Marine Divisions, moving against heavy opposition, had established a beachhead 10,000 yards wide and 1,500 yards deep.

20 June 1993: The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit returned to Mogadishu, Somalia, to stand ready to assist United Nations forces in maintaining peace in the war-torn country. Earlier that month, the 24th MEU had been ordered to cut short Exercise Eager Mace 93-2 in Kuwait to respond to possible contingency operations in Somalia.

25 June 1950: Shortly before dawn, eight divisions of the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded the Republic of Korea. Within three days, the South Korean capital city of Seoul had been captured. On 30 June, President Harry S. Truman ordered a naval blockade of the Korean coast and authorized the sending of U.S. ground troops to Korea. Two days later, General Douglas MacArthur, the Commander in Chief Far East, formally requested that a Marine regimental combat team be deployed to the Far East.

25 June 1966: In Vietnam, Operation Jay began about 30 kilometers northwest of Hue, and lasted nine days. The 2d Battalion, 4th Marines landed north of the North Vietnamese 812th Main Force Battalion, and the 2d Battalion, 1st Marines landed south of the enemy’s position. Caught in between the two Marine units, the enemy suffered over 80 dead in nine days of fighting.

Fighting Marines 00726 June 1918: BGen James G. Harbord, the Commanding General of the 4th Marine Brigade, notified American Expeditionary Force Headquarters that Belleau Wood was “now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.” After 20 days of combat, and at a cost of over 4,000 casualties, the 4th Brigade of Marines had proven its fighting heart. The grateful Commander of the French Sixth Army would soon decree that in all official correspondence, Belleau Wood would henceforth bear the name, “Bois de la Brigade de Marine.”

Hat tip: Historical Division, HQMC

A Jolly Green Miracle

After the siege at Khe Sanh, a major confrontation during the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese 304th and 325th Infantry Divisions withdrew into Laos to an area roughly adjacent to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Vietnam. It was the intention of General William C. Westmoreland to pursue these North Vietnamese infantry units with aircraft of the Seventh U. S. Air Force and elements of the US Seventh Fleet. Tactical Air Controllers ordered jet aircraft capable of carrying 750-pound bombs to strike suspected enemy targets in Laos.

A-7 Street Car 304One of these aircraft was a Vought A-7 Corsair flying off the deck of the USS America, patrolling at Yankee Station, an area in the South China Sea adjacent to the city of Da Nang. Its pilot was Navy Lieutenant Kenny Fields, call sign Streetcar 304; he was flying his first combat mission when he was shot down by extraordinarily intensive enemy Anti-Aircraft Artillery fires, referred to simply as Triple A, or AAA. The enemy fires were so intense that 7th Air Force believed it had finally located the elusive 304th and 325th North Vietnamese infantry divisions.

When enemy fires ripped off large pieces of the A-7’s wing, the aircraft began tumbling end over end. Lieutenant Fields ejected from the plane, his parachute opening only seconds before he hit the ground. He had landed in the middle of two North Vietnamese infantry divisions and several hundred Pathet Lao guerillas, known for the heinous acts they committed against American pilots. Lieutenant Fields would be on the run for the next 40 hours.

0-2A Cessna (Nail)Several additional air elements worked to help save Lieutenant Fields, including heroic pilots flying The A-1 Skyraider aircraft from World War II, call sign Sandy, Sikorsky Search and Rescue HH-3 helicopters, commonly called Jolly Green Giant, and numerous on-call jet aircraft flown by Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots. Helping to coordinate the suppression of enemy AAA were Forward Air Controllers (FAC) flying small Cessna aircraft designated 0-2A, call signs “Nail66,” and “Nail 69.”

A-1 Skyraider 001Lieutenant Fields was not the only pilot on the run. The NVA anti-aircraft artillery also shot down two of the Sandy aircraft attempting to help rescue him. An Air Force SAR helicopter recovered one of these pilots —the other pilot became a captive of the NVA, serving out the rest of the war as a Prisoner of War. In addition to the loss of two Skyraiders, a rescue helicopter was also shot down, two of its four crewmen recovered alive.

Few people eject from an aircraft without injury; Lieutenant Fields was no exception. Not only was he injured; an enemy that was looking for him literally surrounded him. He had to evade that enemy while moving to a point where the Search Air Rescue aircraft could recover him. The NVA and Pathet Lao were not the only danger: there was also a Bengal Tiger in the area, and a Leopard, and a family of monkeys that could not keep a secret.

Statistics clearly indicated that the longer a pilot was on the ground, the more likely it was that the enemy would either kill or capture him. Time was of the essence, but repeatedly, factors kept American rescue efforts at bay: enemy AAA, low visibility, and bad weather. Finally, Fields was able to locate himself upon the crest of a hill overlooking the “valley of death.” Early in the morning of 2 June 1968, Air Force mission controllers determined it was time to suppress the NVA AAA fire and pull the downed pilot to safety. According to the exceptional book written by Fields and entitled The Rescue of Streetcar 304: A Navy Pilot’s Forty Hours on the Run in Laos:

Jolly 9 had been observing the fast-mover bomb smoke from his position at the IP eight miles away, so he had a fairly good idea of the direction to my position. Following one ripple BCU explosion, Jolly 9 heard me say I was hit. Oh boy, he thought. This really rips it! What should I do? The AAA was still active, and Sandy 9 hadn’t yet assured him it was safe to enter the fray. Jolly 9 also knew he wouldn’t be able to cope mentally if he lost me without going in once for a rescue attempt. It didn’t take Jolly 9 more than a few seconds to make up his mind. If he didn’t try now, he might as well just go home and write me off. He said one more short prayer out loud so his crew could hear.

“Lord, provide your protection for this crew today. Amen.”

HH-3 Jolly Green 001The mission to rescue Lieutenant Fields unfolded over the next fifteen minutes. Now the mission to snatch him out of the jaws of death was more critical than ever before. A cluster bomb dropped to suppress the enemy that surrounded Fields also wounded him. If the Jolly Green Giant did not rescue him soon, Fields would bleed to death.

Jolly 9 reacted immediately to seeing Fields on the ground below him. Field’s wrote:

“He looked down, found one specific bush to focus on, and intently maintained his altitude and position over it. As he worked hard to keep the helo motionless, he knew this was now the most perilous part of the rescue. An enemy gunner could knock him out of the sky even with a pistol. He was sweating and scared and really concentrating on the bush when suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, a brilliant white light swirled in and enveloped his helo. Its brilliance was such that he thought it would blind him if he raised his head and looked at it. He could see the bush and nothing else, not even his co-pilot an arm’s length away. None of his crew made any comment on the light even though he could hear [co-pilot] Yuhas talking to both door gunners.

Jolly 9 felt God’s presence. A protective light shield was around his helo, and he was certain the Shekinah Glory of God was protecting him at his moment of greatest peril. The light would shield the helo from all danger while he was inside the protective bubble. Jolly 9’s fear subsided. He would hover until I appeared, and the light would protect him regardless of time or danger.”

When the rescue aircraft returned to their operating base in Thailand, the Sandy pilots charged with protecting the rescue helicopter approached the Jolly 9 pilot, Air Force Captain David Richardson. The pilot of Sandy 9, Air Force Major Tom Campbell stuck out his hand and told Richardson, “You are one lucky dude.”

“I had a little help from God,” Richardson replied. Sandy 9 wanted to inspect the damage to the helicopter; he was shocked to find there was not a single hole in the helicopter from enemy fire.

“This can’t be the bird you flew today,” Campbell told him. “I was never below 220 knots airspeed during the entire mission, and you were flying less than 100 knots most of the time. You hovered over Streetcar for nearly five minutes with enemy bullets flying all over the place and you want me to believe that this helicopter, with not a single hole in it, is the one you flew today?”

When Richardson inspected Campbell’s Skyraider, it looked like an aircraft made of Swiss cheese.

This is, by the way, one of the best accounts of the air war in Vietnam I have read, equaled only by another heroic story written by Marion F. Sturkey, titled: Bonnie Sue: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam.

And call upon me in the day of trouble. I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me. —Psalm 50:15

Truly, God is great!


On to Corregidor —Part VIII

Most of the men assigned to Company A ended up fighting the Japanese on their own initiative during the night of 5/6 May 1942. Lieutenant Harris was forced to withdraw from Cavalry Point once Mercurio’s position was overrun. PFC Nixon got into a bayonet dual with one Japanese soldier, and after wounding him, continued moving toward the sound of gunfire.

IJA CommanderMost of the 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry came ashore within fifteen minutes; within 30 minutes, Japanese infantry were moving toward Marine positions. The plan concocted by Colonel Gempachi Sato (pictured right conferring with his staff) seemed to be working, but the 785 men of the reinforced 2nd Battalion were not quite as successful. The current worked against them, and when the landing force neared North Point, where all defensive positions were intact, within ten minutes of the first assault, the Marines were ready and waiting. This fight raged for 35 minutes; Japanese lost 9 of their 10 landing craft. Most of the Japanese officers were killed within a few moments and the soldiers that did make it ashore were trapped behind rocks that were nestled into the beach sand. One machine gunner declared, “It’s like shooting ducks in a rain barrel.” He no doubt experienced adrenalin-induced euphoria. It wouldn’t last.

Once the Marines realized the extent of the Japanese Army successes, they initiated a counterattack designed to eject them from the area of Denver Battery. This was the location of the heaviest fighting; it was where Imperial Japanese soldiers came face to face with the American defenders. A few reinforcements did make their way to the frontline of the 4th Marines, but the battle became a duel of obsolete World War I weapons against accurate Japanese knee mortars. The defenders were outmatched.

Colonel Howard committed his last reserves at 0430 … some 500 Marines, sailors, and soldiers of a provisional fourth battalion. Movement forward was very costly because Japanese snipers took positions of great advantage to themselves. An additional force of 900 Japanese soldiers arrived at 0530. The Marine regiment was able to hold its position at some locations, while losing ground in others. The Japanese, running short of ammunition, resorted to bayonet charges; the Marines were happy to accommodate them, but any successes were strictly temporary.

The battle raged for several hours, a final blow coming around 0930 when three Japanese tanks landed and went into action. The defenders of Denver Battery withdrew to the ruins of a concrete trench just as Japanese artillery delivered a massive barrage. Fearful of the consequences should the Japanese be forced to take the Malinta tunnel, especially owing to the fact that the tunnel contained 1,000 sick and wounded men, and realizing that the defenders outside the tunnel were unable to hold back the Japanese assault for much longer, Lieutenant General Wainwright decided to surrender his men as a means of saving their lives.

General Wainwright sent a radio message to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, saying, “There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed.”

Colonel Howard dutifully burned the National Ensign and the Battle Color of the 4th Marine Regiment. He then led his men into captivity.

US-USMC ColorsIn the defense of the Philippine Islands, the 4th Marine Regiment gave up 72 killed in action, 17 who died of wounds, 167 wounded in action, and 474 died in captivity. The regiment would remain decommissioned until 1 February 1944.

End of series; next week, a miracle.


On to Corregidor —Part VII

Corregidor Marines 004Initially, the area of responsibility assigned to 1/4 was heavily wooded and dotted with coastal artillery barracks and other buildings; by early May the entire region was completely barren of any vegetation and the buildings were mere remnants; dust a foot thick covered the entire area, the result of heavy pummeling by Japanese bombs. The Marines (a term which now includes all other assigned personnel, regardless of their service affiliation) were constantly repairing beach defenses. Enemy fire was so accurate that the troops could only be fed at night. Shown right, LtCol Curtis T. Beecher and his battalion runner.

Casualties began to mount, including the officers. Major Harry Lang, commanding Company A was killed; Captain Paul Brown and one of his platoon commanders in Company B received serious wounds. Company D lost one Marine officer and three Army officers to Japanese bombs. While Army officers were quickly appointed to command these companies, they had scant knowledge about infantry tactics or how to lead men in combat. The troops had little confidence in them, but this wouldn’t matter for very long.

Colonel Howard reported to General Wainwright and briefed him about the condition of the 4th Marines. After delivering his report, General Wainwright informed Howard, “We will never surrender this command to the Japanese.” Colonel Howard realized that Wainwright was under tremendous pressure. “The matter of surrender never came up; I was on there to brief him about the effectiveness of my command.”

Early in the evening of 5 May 1942, a Philippine civilian arrived in a small fishing boat on the beach at Corregidor. He carried a message from Philippine intelligence on Bataan. He was promptly taken to LtCol George Hamilton, the regimental intelligence officer. The message warned of a Japanese amphibious assault on the night of 5/6 May 1942. The Japanese plan was to land the 61st Infantry Regiment during the evening of 5 May, seize the airfield, and then capture Malinta Hill. A second regiment of the 4th Infantry Division would land on Morrison and Battery Points. The two forces would then join for the capture of topside.

IJA landing Corregidor 1942At 2240 hours artillery shelling concentrated on the north shore beach defenses, in the sector of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. At 2300, supplies of food and water were just reaching the beach positions when landing boats were reported offshore. Then, a second concentration of artillery pounded the beach for just under ten minutes; the barrage ended with phosphorous shells —no doubt a signal for the landing force to proceed. The landing consisted of 790 men of the 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry Regiment. Captain Lewis Pickup of Company A watched as the landing craft angled toward his company’s position. He ordered searchlights turned on and Marines began pouring fire into the landing craft with 37mm guns, machine guns, and individual rifle fire. The Japanese troops struggled in the mire created by layers of oil from the ships that had been sunk earlier. PFC Barnes and one other position were the only remaining automatic weapons of 13 positions—the rest destroyed by enemy bombardments.

First Lieutenant Bill Harris passed the word to his Marines, “Fix bayonets.” Master Gunnery Sergeant Mercurio ordered one of his Marines to go forward observe and report the location of the Japanese. When PFC Nixon got to the beach, the Japanese were only 30 yards away. In the darkness, Japanese infantry were able to by pass the Marine positions, which were spread too thin to be effective. Fighting quickly became hand-to-hand. Corporal Franklin remembered, “It was damn bloody.” A grenade went off close to Franklin, who sustained shrapnel wounds to the face and head. Stunned, he laid down on the ground and hazily saw a Japanese coming at him with a bayonet. Franklin suddenly jumped up, and with his own bayonet, attacked the Japanese soldier. Franklin received a bayonet wound to his chest, but he managed to kill his enemy. Afterward, Franklin ran up the trail past another enemy soldier, who shot him in the leg, but the Marine kept moving until he reached the safety of Malinta Hill.

Continued next week