Until the advent of World War II, most individuals receiving commissions in the Army or Navy came from privileged backgrounds. Likely as not, military service was a family tradition or the result of family influence; this is how many officers, such as George Patton, George Marshall, and Mark W. Clark were able to attend military academies. People with meager incomes did not send their children to prestigious schools. Then as now, responsibility for the purchase of uniforms and equipment fell upon those gaining a commission, purchase their own meals, and subject themselves to a certain social protocol. Few could meet these expenses who did not have independent means.
There were exceptions to the silver spoon, of course. Although Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley came from low-income families, their demonstrated brilliance during the entrance examinations to Annapolis and West Point helped to propel them forward as a commissioned officer. Eisenhower would have accepted an appointment to Annapolis had he not been “too old” to receive a navy appointment. He therefore accepted an appointment to the USMA.
In the Marine Corps, many famous officers were educated in civilian colleges and universities, and sought a commission subsequent to graduation. Holland M. Smith, for example, was an attorney before receiving a Marine Corps commission. Alexander Vandergrift received a commission while attending the University of Virginia. Smedley D. Butler came from a family with significant political influence, Lewis B. Puller, Sr., attended the Virginia Military Institute.
Earl Hancock Ellis began his career as a Marine by enlisting as a private in 1900. Within twelve months, Ellis had achieved the rank of corporal making him eligible to take an examination for a commission to Second Lieutenant. Ellis received his commission in December 1901.
In spite of his reputation for brilliance, Ellis began to demonstrate some disappointment with life as an officer early in his career. After receiving his initial training as a newly commissioned officer, the Marines ordered Ellis to the Philippines, where he served as the Adjutant of the First Regiment. It was there that he wrote, “I think that this is the laziest life that a man could find — there is not a blamed thing to do except lay around, sleep, and go ‘bug house’. But all the same, I am helping to bear the white man’s burden.”
Subsequently ordered to command the Marine Detachment aboard the USS Kentucky, flagship of the Pacific Fleet, Ellis gained experience in fleet exercises, maintaining cordial relationships with foreign navies, and conducted visitations to Singapore, China, and Yokohama, Japan. He returned to the United States in 1904 and received his promotion to first lieutenant in March of that year. In the following years, Ellis served as a staff officer at Marine Barracks, Washington DC and as quartermaster at Mare Island, California. During this period, he formed a warm friendship with Major George Barnett who, in a few short years, would become the 12th Commandant of the Marine Corps.
From 1906 to 1907, Ellis served as the Recruiting Officer in Oakland, California and Des Moines, Iowa. Following another tour of duty at Mare Island, Ellis returned to the Philippines, this time serving as Adjutant of the Second Regiment, then commanded by “Hiking Hiram” Bearss. Promoted to captain in 1908, his new commander, John A. Lejeune, commanding the Fourth Brigade, assigned Ellis as a company commander. After Ellis attempted to liven up a boring dinner party by shooting water glasses sitting on the dinner table; Lejeune returned Ellis to administrative duties.
Ellis again reported to the Navy Yard in Washington for duty in May 1911, requesting assignment to aviation duty shortly thereafter. Then Commandant William Biddle suggested that he attend the Naval War College instead. After completing the year-long course, the Naval War College sought to retain Ellis on their staff of lecturers. Ellis subsequently served as an intelligence officer at Headquarters Marine Corps, serving under then Colonel George Barnett. He was particularly engaged in the planning of exercises involving the new Advance Base Force. Barnett rated Ellis high in this assignment.
In February 1914, Barnett became the Commandant of the Marine Corps and soon thereafter, appointed Ellis to the joint Army-Navy Board to study the Defense of Guam. After the outbreak of World War I, it was common to sight German and Japanese warships operating in the Marianas Islands. This became a concern to Ellis. In March, the Marine Corps assigned Ellis to the staff of Guam’s governor designate, Captain William J. Maxwell, USN; Ellis’ duties included that of staff secretary, intelligence officer, and chief of police. It was at this time that Ellis began to display outward signs of acute alcoholism.
Captain Ellis returned once more to the Navy Yard Washington to assume duty as one of the Commandant’s aide-de-camps. Colonel John Lejeune, who served as an assistant to the Commandant, had Ellis assigned to his staff. In August 1916, the Marine Corps promoted Ellis to major —one-week before US involvement in World War I. Barnett initially disapproved Ellis’ request for duty with combat forces, assigning him instead to help establish a new Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Virginia where he also served as an officer instructor at the school for commissioned officers.
Barnett, who had persuaded the Secretary of War to involve the Marines in World War I, dispatched the Fifth Marines to join the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). When the War Department additionally ordered the Sixth Marines to France, Colonel Lejeune received orders to join the AEF and he took Major Ellis with him. Colonel Lejeune discovered the AEF somewhat of a mess. Upon arrival, Lejeune found himself attached to the 64th Brigade, 32nd Division. Ellis’ initial assignment was as Adjutant, Wisconsin National Guard; he was later assigned to a French division. Lejeune was able to persuade Pershing to form a Marine Brigade around the Fifth and Sixth Regiments under his command; when approved, Ellis became the Brigade Adjutant. When Lejeune later assumed command of the Second US Division, he assigned Ellis the additional duty of Division Inspector. Major Ellis is credited with the planning of the St. Mihiel (Champagne) Offensive, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and the attack and capture of Mont Blanc. Senior officers attributed the success of these operations to Ellis’ brilliance in planning, aggressive tactics, his personal courage, and his resourcefulness under demanding conditions. Brigadier General Wendell Neville recommended Ellis for accelerated promotion to full colonel. While Ellis never saw that promotion, he did receive the Navy Cross, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Croix de Guerre, and Legion d’honneur Chevalier.
Ellis returned to the United States in November 1919. Within a few months, however, Ellis found himself hospitalized with diagnoses of deep depression, delirium, and neurasthenia —all of which stemmed from his acute alcoholism. In these days, the Marine Corps was much like a fraternal organization. Most officers knew one another on a personal basis. Additionally, military authority did not recognize alcoholism as a serious disease; it was, rather, seen as something of a character flaw. It was a condition prompting friends and superiors alike to cover up the problem. Foremost among these friends of Pete Ellis was John A. Lejeune, who had been covering up for Ellis since his shooting demonstration in the Philippines.
Medical authorities returned Ellis to full duty in April 1920 and within a few weeks, Ellis reported to Brigadier General Logan Feland in Santo Domingo where Ellis helped to form the Guardia Nacional. It was a short-lived assignment, for within a few months, both Feland and Ellis received orders to report to Marine Corps headquarters. Lejeune assigned Ellis to head the intelligence section within the Division of Operations and Training.
During this assignment, Ellis prepared an essay regarding the details of military and civil operations required while eradicating subversives and insurgents. He titled his report “Bush Brigades,” and although later printed in the Marine Corps Gazette (March, 1921), its controversial nature caused authorities to initially pigeonhole the document.
Toward the end of 1920, General Lejeune and his senior staff began to focus on contingency war plans in the event of hostilities in the Pacific against Imperial Japan. Revising War Plan Orange, which implemented the study of the Marine Corps’ role in amphibious operations, Major Ellis produced the prophetic document titled, Operation Plan 712: Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia. The underlying notion here was that in the event of hostilities between the United States and Japan, Marine Corps Advanced Base Forces would support the United States Naval Fleet.
The Territory of Hawaii constituted the only support for the U. S. Navy due to a lack of adequate facilities in the Philippines and Guam. Ellis was convinced that Hawaii would become a primary target for Japanese attack. Moreover, Japan had already occupied the Marshall, Caroline, and Palau Islands, which flanked the US lines of communication in the region by more than 2,300 miles. Ellis concluded that Japan would initiate the war, and furthermore, that Japan would remain close to their own territorial waters until encountered by the United States Fleet. Along with these predictions, Ellis anticipated great losses to the Marine forces during an amphibious assault. He advised war planners to avoid blue-water transfers, suggesting instead finalization of task force arrangements before leaving base ports.
Major Ellis concluded:
- A major fleet action will decide the war in the Pacific
- The US Fleet will be 25% superior to that of the enemy
- The enemy will hold his main fleet within his own defensive line
- Preliminary activities of the US fleet must be accomplished with a minimum of assets
- Marine Corps forces must be self-sustaining
- Long, drawn out operations must be avoided to afford the fleet its greatest protection
- Fleet objectives must include adequate anchorage
In April 1921, Lieutenant Colonel Ellis submitted an official request to the Commandant of the Marine Corps to conduct a clandestine reconnaissance mission to the Central Pacific. At the same time, he submitted his undated resignation, in order to prevent embarrassment to the United States should his operation turn out to be a less than completely clandestine affair. Shortly afterward, Ellis was back in the hospital for additional treatment.
On 4 May 1921, Acting Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., approved Ellis’ request —but this was not a simple matter of giving Ellis a thumbs up. By this time, Ellis was a highly rated American intelligence officer. Ellis had to convince the entire command structure of the Marine Corps that his was a worthy plan with a high likelihood that the plan could be carried out. Additionally, the Office of Naval Intelligence had to concur, along with the Chief of Naval Operations.
As part of his cover, Ellis became a sales representative with the Hughes Trading Company, partially owned by (medically retired) Marine Lieutenant Colonel John A. Hughes, whom Ellis had known since 1902. Thus cleverly disguised, Ellis visited relatives in Kansas, proceeded to San Francisco, and shipped to New Zealand and Australia aboard the American President Lines in May 1921. He arrived in the Far East in September 1921, and was again hospitalized in Manila, now adding dysfunctional kidneys to his other alcohol-related issues.
After his hospitalization in Manila, Ellis traveled to Yokohama, Japan where he arranged for authorization to travel to the mandated islands. Unfortunately, Ellis’ drinking problem was getting worse by the day. At one point, Ellis disclosed details of his mission to an attending physician in September 1922. The physician immediately met with the local Naval Attaché, who, acting on the instructions given to him by the Ambassador, ordered Ellis to return to the United States on the next ship. Ellis ignored these orders, cabled for $1,000 from his pay account, and shipped out for Saipan.
Ellis’ days were by now numbered. Not only were agents of Naval Intelligence keeping tabs, so too were Japanese intelligence agents. It is at this point that one should wonder, “Is there anyone in the Far East who did not know what Colonel Ellis was up to?” From this point on, Japanese officials kept track of his every move. They no doubt watched him as he prepared detailed maps and charts of Saipan, of the Carolines, Marshalls, Yap, and Palaus. They followed Mr. Ellis to Kusaie, Jaluit, the Marshals, Kwajalein, Ponape, Celebes, and New Guinea. While in Koror, Ellis met a Palauan woman whom he married, but the fact is that Ellis was getting worse by the day.
Japanese police were called to investigate a looting in the home of Mr. William Gibbons, a friend of Colonel Ellis. As it turned out, Ellis looted the man’s home, looking for whiskey. Later that day, sympathetic Japanese police delivered to Ellis two bottles of American whiskey, which he promptly consumed. The Japanese knew how to deal with a drunk. The next morning, May 13, 1923, Colonel Ellis was dead and all of his maps, all of his papers were confiscated by Japanese authorities; none of those has ever been seen again.
Normally a story ends with the death of its main character, but not so with the story of Pete Ellis. In Early July 1923, the U. S. Navy sent Chief Pharmacist Mate Lawrence Zembsch to retrieve Ellis’ body and return it for proper burial in the United States. Chief Zembsch had previously treated Ellis, so he would be able to positively identify the body. Chief Zembsch traveled to Palau via Japanese steamer, returning to Yokosuka on August 14, 1923 babbling incoherently. In his possession was an urn that allegedly contained the remains of Colonel Ellis. Chief Zembsch had been heavily drugged. By the end of the month, Zembsch had improved to the point where he could answer questions. On 1 September 1923, Zembsch’s wife arrived early for her daily visitation. She intended to stay only until lunch, after which investigators would begin to question Chief Zembsch about his trip to the Palaus.
As Mrs. Zembsch prepared to leave her husband, at 11:42 AM on 1 September 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck, transforming the Naval Hospital into a pile of splinters. Chief Zembsch and his wife perished. What did remain was a small urn in a security vault of the hospital, a small note taped to the outside reading Ashes of LtCol Earl H. Ellis, USMC, died Palau, 12 May 1923.
The story of Colonel Pete Ellis is interesting, but also disappointing. In spite of his brilliance as a planner, he was not a very good spy. The officers who sent him out to do this kind of work, including one preeminent officer who lectured all Marines about leadership, knew that Ellis was physically and mentally unsuitable for doing it —and yet, he allowed Ellis to proceed. A Tokyo news dispatch tends to support my proposition: published in mid-May 1923 the report stated, “Colonel Earl Ellis of the United States Marine Corps was accidently killed in a prohibited area of the Caroline Islands.”
Some believed that the whiskey provided to Ellis had been poisoned, including Brother Gregorio Oraquieta, SJ. He stated that it was his understanding that the Japanese poisoned Ellis while residing on the Palau Islands. The fact is, it probably did not matter whether the Japanese poisoned him. Lieutenant Colonel Pete Ellis had been a dead-man-walking for a very long time. Now we must ponder whether this fiasco made the lives of occidentals living under Japanese authority in Micronesia more difficult.
 My blog-friend friend “Christian Soldier” will positively hate reading this.
 “Bug House” is a term used for stir crazy. Ellis’ comment may be our earliest indication that he was prone to calm his restless spirit with intoxicating liquors.
 As a member of the Triple Entente, Japan began to occupy the Northern Marianas in 1914. At the conclusion of World War I, many formerly German-held islands in the Pacific were entrusted by the League of Nations to Japanese control as the “South Pacific Mandate.”
 Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident, Thomas E. Devine, Richard M. Dailey, American Traveler Press, 1987
3 thoughts on “Pete Ellis —Oracle”
Very interesting story. Yes, disappointing ending.
A shame such a brilliant man effectively ended his own life. He ably predicted what did in fact occur in the Pacific War … amazing foresight. Disappointing that Marine Corps leadership stood by and watched a good man destroy himself. Thank you for your comment.
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