This Month in History

4 July 1801: President Thomas Jefferson reviewed the Marines, led by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, LtCol William W. Burrows and the Marine Band, on the White House grounds. The smartly uniformed Marines performed drills and fired various salutes in observance of the new nation’s 25th anniversary.

McDonnell Douglas A-4 0016 July 1990: One of the oldest and most versatile attack aircraft in Marine Corps history, the A-4 Skyhawk, retired from the Corps’ active aviation structure after over 30 years of service. The last two Skyhawks from MAG-32 flew their initial flight from Cherry Point to NAS Patuxent River on this date.

7 July 1941: The 1st Marine Aircraft Wing was activated at Quantico, Virginia. Within a year of activation, the Wing would participate in the Marine Corps offensive at Guadalcanal. That bitter campaign would be the first in a series of legendary battles in which the Wing would add luster to its reputation. The 1stMAW would earn five Presidential Unit Citations for gallantry in campaigns spanning World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

11 July 1798: President John Adams approved “An Act for Establishing and Organizing a Marine Corps”, and it became law. The following day, the President appointed William Ward Burrows as Major Commandant, United States Marine Corps.  In August, Major Burrows opened his headquarters in Philadelphia, at that time still the capital of the new nation.

14 July 1993: The USS IWO JIMA was decommissioned after over 30 years of service in a ceremony at Norfolk Naval Base, Virginia. The ship was named for the World War II battle during which three Marine divisions ousted 20,000 entrenched Japanese troops. The Iwo Jima was commissioned 26 August 1961, and it was the first ship specifically designed as an amphibious assault ship from the keel up.

18 July 1918: The 4th Brigade of Marines began an attack near Soissons, France, as part of a three-division counterattack against the Germans. In the first two days of battle, the brigade sustained 1,972 casualties.

Fighting Marines 00224 July 1944: The V Amphibious Corps, commanded by Major General Harry Schmidt, landed on Tinian, in the Mariana Islands. The following morning, the 2d and 4th Marine Divisions began a shoulder-to-shoulder southward sweep of the island. Organized enemy resistance faded within a week, and on 1 August, MajGen Schmidt declared the island secure.

26 July 1947: The National Security Act of 1947 became effective, reaffirming the status of the Marine Corps as a separate military service within the Department of the Navy. The Act Provided for Fleet Marine Forces, and confirmed the Corps’ mission of seizing and defending advanced bases, as well as land operation incident to naval campaigns.

28 July 1918: Brigadier General John A. Lejeune assumed command of the 2d Division, U.S. Army in France, and remained in that capacity until August 1919 when the unit was demobilized. He was the first Marine officer to hold an Army divisional command, and following the Armistice, he led his division in the march into Germany.

Hat tip: Historical Division, HQMC

At Belleau Wood —Part III

1918-1 5th MarinesOn 9 June, allied forces unleashed a massive artillery barrage inside Belleau Wood. It transformed the lush forested hunting preserve to a jungle of shattered and uprooted trees. German artillery counter-fired, and while they did, the Germans reorganized their defenses.

On 10 June, Major Hughes led an assault into the northern sector of Belleau Wood. Initially successful, machineguns stopped the Marines. Major Cole, commanding an element of the 6th Machinegun Battalion, was mortally wounded during this assault. The next senior officer, Captain Harlan Major, quickly replaced Cole. It was at this point when the Germans began using heavy concentrations of mustard gas. General Harbord next ordered Major Wise, commanding the under strength and exhausted 2/5, to attack the woods from the west; he directed Hughes to continue his advance from the south.

Early in the morning of 11 June, Major Wise led his men through a thick morning mist toward Belleau Wood. Elements of the 23rd and 77th companies of the 6th Machinegun Battalion supported him. The Germans opened up with intense automatic weapons fire; interlocking fires first isolated Marine platoons and then systematically destroyed them. Major Wise had lost his bearings; rather than moving in a northeast direction, Wise moved directly across the wood’s narrow waist. A German soldier later remarked, “These Americans are reckless.”

Mistaken direction or not, the Marine attack turned the tide but at great cost. Captain Lloyd Williams lost his life. As officers fell, NCOs assumed command and continued their attack. Fighting became a demonstration of superior Marine Corps rifle fire and tenacious hand-to-hand combat. 2/5 captured 30 German machineguns, took 400 prisoners —but it cost them 50% of their effective strength.

After a three-hour artillery barrage, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines continued their attack on 12 June. The artillery had landed 1,000 yards beyond the German positions so the Marines once more engaged in brutal rifle and bayonet fighting. The Germans made good use of rocky ledges and ravines to hide their machineguns. In helping to pacify these well-hidden positions, Private Aloysius Leitner received posthumous award of the Navy Cross.

German command launched a counter attack against 3/5 at Bouresches around 0300 on June 13th; the attack was repulsed. From within Belleau Wood, newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel Wise reported, “Artillery barrage, heavy losses, morale excellent.”

1918-1 Belleau WoodThe west side of the wood was finally pacified two days later. After nine days of continuous fighting, the US 7th Infantry Regiment finally relieved the bearded and exhausted Marines but they were reemployed five days later when the 7th Regiment was unable to clear the woods.

On 25 June, following a daylong artillery barrage, a determined 2/5 again advanced into the wood. Now commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Ralph S. Keyser, 2/5 attacked on the left side of the battle area, 3/5 attacked the center, and 3/6 attacked on the right. Against this relentless assault, the Germans fell back, relinquishing their positions to the Marines. By the next day, General Harbord was able to report to his superior, “Woods now US Marine Corps entirely.”

American Marines attacked the woods on six separate occasions before they were able to expel the Germans. Only afterward did the Marines realize they defeated elements of five divisions of German infantry. Much of this fighting was hand-to-hand. World War I brought America’s smallest combat force to the forefront of American consciousness. The American people not only learned that there were critters called Marines —they also learned that these critters were not to be trifled with.


At Belleau Wood —Part II

On 4-5 June, American forces continued to repel German assaults. The French 167th Division arrived, allowing the US 2nd Division to consolidate his 2,000 yard front. Early in the morning of 6 June, the allies launched an attack on German positions, who at that time were preparing for their own assault. French forces attacked to the left of the American line, Marines assaulted Hill 142 to prevent German flanking fire into the French advance.

The 2nd Division’s mission was to capture the ridge overlooking Torcy and Belleau Wood and occupy the wood preventing German forces it use. The Marines, however, had failed to detect the presence of the 461st German Infantry Regiment, which had prepared exceptional defensive positions and interconnect automatic weapons coverage and pre-registered artillery fires.

Janson Earnest A.At dawn on 6 June, Major Julius Turrill led the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5) into the attack of Hill 142—but only two of his companies were in position when the order went out to commence the advance. Marines advanced across the wheat fields with fixed bayonets —and many of these Marines died before their bodies collapsed to the ground. Captain Crowther, commanding the 67th Company, was almost immediately killed. Captain Hamilton and the 49th Company fought from wood to wood, killing entrenched Germans wherever discovered. By this time, Hamilton had lost all five of his junior officers. Only one officer was left alive in the 67th Company. Hamilton quickly organized the remnants of two companies into a single organization.

The Germans quickly launched a counter-attack. Twelve of these attackers had the misfortune of meeting Gunnery Sergeant Ernest A. Janson, who killed two of these Germans in hand to hand combat with his bayonet, causing the others to make a hasty retreat. [1] Also cited for heroism was then-Marine Gunner Henry Hulbert. [2]

The rest of the battalion finally arrived and went into action. Turrill’s flanks were unprotected and the Marines were rapidly exhausting their ammunition. NCOs reminded their men, “Shoot to kill.” By mid-afternoon, the Marines successfully captured Hill 142. It cost them 9 officers and most of thee 325 Marines of 1/5.

Major Benjamin S. Berry, commanding 3/5 and Major Tyler M. Meyer, commanding 3/6 advanced into Belleau Wood. The Marines advanced through waist high wheat into deadly machinegun fire. As the Marine advance faltered, Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly sounded out, “Come on you sons of bitches; do you want to live forever?” [3]

Not long after ordering the advance, Major Berry received serious wounds. Major Meyers led his Marines into the southern end of Belleau Wood, encountering heavy machinegun fire, sharpshooters, and barbed wire designed to channel his Marines into German killing zones. Marines and Germans soon engaged in hand to hand fighting. Casualties on this day were the highest in Marine Corps history up to that time —exceeded only by a far distant melee at a place called Tarawa. On this day, Marines lost 31 officers and 1,056 enlisted men. Still, the Marines had a foothold in Belleau Wood and they were not letting go.

The battle was deadlocked. At midnight on 7-8 June 1918, German infantry assaulted the Marines, but the Marines stopped them cold. Marines attacked the Germans on the morning of the 8th, but they too were halted by intense German fire. By now, Meyers’ battalion sustained 400 casualties. Harbord decided to pull 3/6 off the line and replace it with 1/6, commanded by Major Hughes. After Berry’s evacuation, Major Maurice E. Shearer assumed command of 3/5.


EGA 2014-002[1] Sergeant Major Ernest August Janson (1878-1930) served as both a US soldier and a US Marine. After serving for nearly ten years in the Army, he enlisted into the Marine Corps in 1910 and in view of his prior service, the Marine Corps appointed him to the rank of Corporal. At the time of this particular service, Janson was serving temporarily as a gunnery sergeant, a wartime appointment. Janson was the first Marine to receive two Medals of Honor for the same action: one bestowed upon him by the U. S. Army, and the other by the U. S. Navy. It is no longer possible for anyone to receive two Medals of Honor for the same action.

[2] I previously wrote about Captain Hulbert on 22 October 2013.

[3] Marine Corps Commandant Major General John A. Lejeune once acclaimed Sergeant Major Daniel Joseph Daly (11 Nov 1873-27 April 1937) as the outstanding Marine of all time. Major General Smedley D. Butler added, “Daly was the “fightingest Marine I ever knew.” Dan Daly and Smedley Butler were the only two Marines to receive the nation’s highest award for two separate acts of valor. Daly was a small man in stature, but he more than made up for this in terms of courage in combat. See also Handsome Jack and Someone Has to Know How.

Continued next week


At Belleau Wood —Part I

World War I was a horrendous slugfest that lasted far too long. In the aftermath of this war, when world leaders understood how many millions of men had lost their lives, they declared it the war to end all wars; surely, no one in their right mind would ever repeat such a calamity as this. The war was indeed a world war, with battles and confrontations in Germany, Belgium, France, the Balkans, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The Battle of Belleau Wood was but one of these.

1914-1 German InfantryWe can explain Germany’s 1918 spring offensive by the surrender of Russian forces on the Eastern Front. No longer having to contend with a two-front war, Germany moved fifty divisions of infantry into the Western campaign. The timing of the German assault had as its purpose the unsettlement of newly arrived infantry from the United States. The Germans wished to shock these raw troops before it was possible to incorporate them into the line.

A third German assault targeted French forces between Soissons and Reims. Known as the Third Battle of the Aisne, German forces reached the northern bank of the Marne River at Château-Thierry, only 59 miles from Paris, on 27 May 1918. On 31 May, the US 3rd Division held the German advance. In response, elements of the 7th German Imperial Army turned right toward Vaux and Belleau Wood. The 461st Imperial German Infantry Regiment occupied the wood. The Battle of Belleau Wood actually comprised two actions—the first at Chateau-Thierry (3-4 June 1918), and the second within the wood itself (6-26 June 1918).

After the fall of Château-Thierry and Vaux, the US 2nd Division, which included the 4th Marine Brigade (then commanded by Army Brigadier General James G. Harbord), was brought up along the Paris-Metz highway. The US 9th Infantry Regiment and 6th Marine Regiment went into the line while Harbord placed the US 23rd Infantry and 5th Marine Regiment in reserve.

1914-1 French ArmyOn the evening of 1 June 1918, German infantry punched a hole through the French line, just left of the American Marine’s position. In response, Harbord directed his reserve, consisting of the US 23rd Infantry Regiment, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, and elements of the 6th Machinegun Battalion, to force march ten miles to plug the gap in the French line. These units were in place before dawn of 2 June; by the end of the day, American forces held a 12-mile front north of the Paris-Metz highway. The line extended through grain fields and scattered woods, from Triangle Farm west to Lucy, and then north to Hill 142. The German line opposite extended from Vaux to Bouresches to Belleau Wood. It was their intent to cross the Marne but General Harbord had a different notion.

As his forces withdrew from their previous position, the French commander ordered Harbord to withdraw, to dig trenches, and prepare for a German assault. Harbord ignored the order. He ordered his Marines to fix bayonets and stand where they were. The Marines prepared shallow fighting placements from which they could fire from a prone position. The German attack materialized on the afternoon of 3 June. Marines held their fire until the Germans were within 100 yards, and then with deadly fire for which American Marines are known, slaughtered wave after wave of German infantry. Having suffered heavy losses, the Germans prepared defensive positions in a line between Hill 204 near Vaux and Torcy within the woods.

French officers continued to implore the Marines to retreat from their line; when ignored by General Harbord and his staff, they even approached company officers. One Marine officer, Captain Lloyd W. Williams commanding a company within the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines uttered his famous retort: “Retreat hell, we just got here.”

Continued next week

Happy Birthday, America

Your Marines have been with you every step of the way.

Marines—defined as soldiers, who serve at sea, are as old as naval warfare. When Themistocles mobilized Athenian sea power against invading Persians in 480 BCE, one of his first decrees was to order the enlistment of Marines for the fleet. He called these enlistees Epibatae; heavily armed sea soldiers. He assigned them to triremes at Salamis and they fought successfully against Xerxes and saved Athens. Much later, the Romans employed what Polybius described as Milites Classiarii (soldiers of the fleet), a category of legionnaire organized and specially armed for duty on Roman warships. One of the earliest of these was a young officer named Julius Caesar. However, it was not until much later that the British and Dutch almost simultaneously rediscovered a distinct role for Marines. They raised the first two modern corps of Marines in 1664 and 1665, respectively.

Revolution Marines 001Americans of the 17th and 18th centuries were notably a maritime people. The British colonies were close to the sea, but scattered along 1,000 miles of coastline. In the absence of good roads, communication took the form of ships at sea; ships that required protection from raiding adversaries. Maritime training took place in the northeastern colonies where men learned how to handle small vessels along the Newfoundland banks, in all seasons of the year, in all kinds of seas. This was how large numbers of colonists evolved into a maritime society. They learned the art and science of naval warfare while serving on British ships, who frequently warred with the European powers of the time. Americans were first employed as Marines by Admiral Edward Vernon who commanded the British fleet against the Spaniards in the War of the Austrian Succession.

There being no further use for Marines after the Peace of Utrecht in 1712, the British government disbanded all but four small companies. However, with the outbreak of hostilities with Spain in 1739, King George II once more ordered Marines to serve aboard ships of the line. Subsequently, the government authorized six regiments of Marines, each consisting of 1,100 officers and men. Soon after, however, the British crown authorized three additional regiments for duty in the colonies. The British Crown seized upon a notion put forward by Alexander Spotswood to recruit Marines for service in the colonies from the colonies. Men for war were somewhat scarce in England.

Gooches Marines 1740It was argued that no one was better suited for service as Marines than men in the colonies who, by 1739, had established a strong maritime tradition. An order went out to the ten colonial governors to raise 30 companies of 100 men each. Each company would consist of one captain, two lieutenants, one ensign, four sergeants, and four corporals. Colonel Spotswood would command these Marines in the colonies. Not all colonies responded to the demand for Marine companies, but eventually the companies combined into a single regiment. With Spotswood’s death, command of the regiment passed to the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Colonel William Gooch. Gooch’s Marines joined Admiral Vernon’s fleet in October 1740 and served as an attacking force at Cartagena, New Granada (Colombia). The general attack began on 9 March. In one month, English and American Marines were fighting side-by-side at Fort Lazar —but it was a poor effort. Forced back by overwhelming musket fire, the American Marines left stranded their English counterparts and the battle turned into a disaster for the English. No more than one in ten American Marine returned home after this war with Spain.

American Marines again served the British Fleet during the Seven Years’ War. It was thus that American colonists gained the necessary training and experience, which made them the best material for an efficient Marine force. There did remain significant limitations on the Americans, however: there was no tradition of naval leadership in the colonies at the outbreak of the American Revolution, the Americans faced an overwhelming force, and the colonies, individually and collectively, could ill-afford a strong military force. What the colonists did have, however, was patriotism toward the cause for liberty.

The Gentlemen delegates of the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on the morning of 10 November 1775. They discussed the unhappy facts that confronted them. First, a course of action regarding a petition from the inhabitants of Passamaquoddy, Nova Scotia whose citizens asked for admittance to the association of North Americans, and for preservation of their rights and liberties.

Second, delegates knew that Colonel Benedict Arnold was somewhere near the St. Lawrence River and prevented from mounting an attack against the city of Quebec because of the horrible weather. Time was of the essence because British reinforcements were on the way to protect the city. Arnold had barely 350 men.

At the same moment, General Washington camped with 17,000 troops outside the city of Boston, short of everything needed to command an efficient field operation in what appeared to be an endless siege.

Revolutionary Marines 003The Committee of Five soon arrived to offer their recommendations respecting the petition from Nova Scotia. The committee, consisting of John Jay of New York, Silas Deane of Connecticut, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, John Langdon of New Hampshire, and John Adams of Massachusetts, presented its proposal in simple, straightforward language: first, create two battalions of Marines from the forces then under the command of General Washington. The Marine force would require one colonel, two lieutenant colonels, two majors, with the remaining commissioned and non-commissioned structured to mirror the organization of an Army regiment. At the conclusion of their presentation, the Continental Congress resolved:

That two battalions of marines be raised, consisting of one colonel, two lieutenant colonels, two majors, and other officers as usual to other regiments, and that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions, that particular care be taken that no person be appointed to office or enlisted into said battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage by sea when required: that they be enlisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present war between Great Britain and the colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress: that they be distinguished by the names of the first and second battalions of American Marines, and that they be considered as part of the number which the continental Army before Boston is ordered to consist of.

G Washington 1774Delegates passed another resolution later in the day: it left the fate of Nova Scotia in the hands of General Washington. President Hancock transmitted the adopted resolutions to Cambridge for Washington’s information and comment. Alas, General Washington was not at all pleased.