Marines in Panama, 1903-04 (Part II)

But what most people do not know

BGen G F Elliott 1904
BrigGen George F. Elliott USMC

On 18 December 1903, Secretary of the Navy William Moody directed the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Brigadier General George F. Elliott [1], to personally report to the President of the United States.  His orders from President Roosevelt were to proceed in person, taking passage aboard USS Dixie, from League Island to Colón, Panama.  Take command of the entire force of United States Marines and seamen that is or may be landed for service in the State of Panama.

The president’s order was significant because no Commandant had been ordered into the field since Colonel Commandant Archibald Henderson was sent to Florida to deal with the Indians in 1836.  No Commandant has been ordered to the field since.

General Elliott was ordered to Panama because of Roosevelt’s reliance on the US Navy and Marine Corps in numerous diplomatic crises during his administration [2].  Faced with the possibility of conflict in Panama in late 1903, Roosevelt instinctively reached out for sea power.  This time, however, he needed the land element of the Navy-Marine Corps team. When, on 3 November, Panamanian revolutionaries declared their country’s independence, Colombia threatened the use of force to recover its lost province.  General Elliott’s presidential mission was one of the most strategically audacious gambits of the early 20th century because when he sailed south to assume command of the rapidly growing force of U.S. Marines on the isthmus, he carried with him plans for the invasion of Colombia and the occupation of one of its major cities.

Based on Colombia’s behavior in early to mid-1903, President Roosevelt anticipated that Colombia would likely attempt to retake its lost province. In mid-November, Washington began forwarding intelligence reports to US military and naval commanders concerning Colombian troop movements —reports that estimated that up to 15,000 soldiers were on the move toward Panama.

Rear Admiral Henry Glass (Commander, Pacific Squadron) at Panama City and Rear Admiral Joseph Coghlan (Commander, Caribbean Squadron) at Colón believed that Panamanian weather would be their allies.  Both officers remained confident of the fighting spirit and strength of the U. S. Marines in Panama.  Both admirals reported to Washington that there was no chance that a Colombian force would advance upon them until after the dry season. Admiral Glass must have developed a case of indigestion a few days later after learning that a Colombian expedition of 1,100 men had already tested an overland route into Panama.

President Roosevelt had himself received that same report from a separate source in Colombia.  The President was told that the Colombians intended to establish a forward base at the mouth of the Atrato River, near the Panamanian border.  Moreover, American diplomats were reporting deep-seeded anger toward Americans in the capital city, Bogota.

The new government of Panama was still in the process of organization.  It did not have a force able to defend against a significant assault by Colombian forces —and it was clear to all concerned that Colombia intended to reclaim its province.  It was up to the Americans to defend Panama, which meant that it was up to the Marines.

As reports of a likely invasion started flowing in to his headquarters, Admiral Glass wired Washington for instructions on the extent of his authority to defend the new republic.  On 10 December, Secretary Moody drafted a reply that would order Glass to establish camps of fully equipped Marine battalions at inland points to forcibly prevent hostile entry by land into the State of Panama.  The draft also directed that he maintain good communication between these camps and Navy vessels, cut trails, buy or hire pack animals as necessary to support overland expeditions.  Moody’s order was never sent, however.  When Moody presented his draft to the President, Roosevelt ordered him to hold off until the matter could be considered in greater depth.

The next day the Secretary of the Navy, presumably acting on Roosevelt’s further consideration, transmitted an order that marked a dramatic shift in the rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Panama: “Establish strong posts, men and Marines with artillery in the direction of the Yavisa or other better positions for observation only and rapid transmission of information but do not forcibly interfere with Colombian forces advancing by land.”

Moody changed the rules of engagement further a week later. He directed Glass to assume an almost completely defensive role.  In doing so, he retreated from previous instructions from Washington, which ordered Glass to defend all territory within 50 miles of the Panama Railroad, which carried a vast amount of commercial goods across the narrow isthmus and thus represented the most commercially and strategically important Panamanian national asset. According to this clarification, telegrammed in cipher, Moody’s instructions to Glass on 11 December were to maintain posts in the vicinity of Yavisa for observation only.  Do not have post beyond support from ships or launches.  Withdraw your posts if liable to be attacked.  It is the intention of the Government to continue active defense against hostile operations to the vicinity of the railroad line on the Isthmus and for its protection. Disregard all previous instructions that may appear to conflict with these.

Roosevelt’s earlier threats may have been bluster, but it is also possible that Colombia’s military expedition caused Roosevelt to reconsider America’s long-term interests in the region.  There’s also a third possibility: Roosevelt decided to shift his strategy for dealing with Colombia.  His new strategy?  A Marine assault in Colombia.

General Elliott assumed his duties as the tenth Commandant of the Marine Corps on 3 October 1903 —one month before the revolution in Panama.  Elliott was the only Marine Corps Commandant educated at the US Military Academy at West Point.  Elliott made the unusual decision to accept a commission in the Marines late in 1870.  Subsequently, his exemplary performance of duty in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and in the Philippines during the insurgency against the American occupation resulted in his rapid promotion.  Then, in mid-December 1903, the president called upon his knowledge of tropical warfare in dispatching him to Panama.  After meeting with Secretary Moody on 18th December, General Elliott proceeded to assemble his force.  Elliott made it clear to his officers that the men needed to be prepared for service in “heavy marching order” as well as for rapid movement and sustained combat.

On 11 December, the auxiliary cruiser USS Prairie departed Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with a battalion of Marines under the command of Major Louis C. Lucas.  Arriving at Colón on the 13th, Lucas took his battalion into camp at Bas Obispo.  At League Island, the auxiliary cruiser USS Dixie, recently returned from delivering Major John A. Lejeune’s nearly 400 Marines to Panama, embarked Elliott’s two additional Marine battalions, the first under the command of Major James E. Mahoney, the second led by Major Eli K. Cole.  With a combined force of 635 Marines and his staff of seven officers and 11 enlisted men, Elliott departed Philadelphia on 28 December and arrived at Colón on 3 January 1904.  The Provisional Marine Brigade was formed.

General Elliott’s priorities included establishing his Marines in the field and realigning the command structure to match the size of his force. Elliott ordered Major Cole’s battalion to proceed to Empire, a town along the railroad approximately 30 miles from Colón; there they would take quarters alongside Lejeune’s battalion.  It had come ashore on 4 November to coerce a Colombian battalion into leaving the newly declared republic.  Lejeune’s men then spent the intervening month providing light security and communications relay before receiving orders to move into base camp at Empire.  Major Lejeune’s professionalism and attention to detail (as well as the welfare of his Marines) led him to order an extensive reworking of the existing facilities of the former French Canal Company’s buildings at Empire.  New freshwater and sewage systems were installed, jungle growth cleared, and the houses for the Marines cleaned and disinfected with healthy doses of carbolic acid.  Only then did Lejeune allow his Marines to move into the quarters they would occupy for most of the next year.  Lejeune’s and Cole’s battalions were designated 1st and 2nd Battalions, respectively, 1st Marine Regiment, Colonel W. P. Biddle, Commanding.

LWT Waller 001
Colonel L. W. T. Waller USMC

Major James Mahoney’s battalion proceeded to Bas Obispo, where it quartered alongside Major Lucas’ Marines.  These two units comprised the 2nd Marine Regiment, Colonel L. W. T. Waller [3], Commanding.  Both regiments, together counting approximately 1,100 men, formed the Marines’ 1st Provisional Brigade, Panama, Brigadier General George F. Elliott, Commanding.

General Elliott’s priorities also included reporting to the senior Navy officers in country to present his orders.  He first called on Admiral Coghlan at Colón.  Shortly thereafter he rode a train across the isthmus to meet with Admiral Glass.  To each he presented a letter from the Secretary of the Navy, part of which read: “The Department forwards herewith, in the charge of Brigadier General Elliott, USMC a plan for the occupation of Cartagena, Colombia.  As will be seen, the plan contemplates occupation against a naval enemy, but the information it contains, and the strategy involved may be readily applied to the present situation.”

The plan General Elliott presented was almost certainly a regional modification to several operational plans formulated during the late 1890s.  The plan was a bold military and diplomatic strategy that reflected well on the sophistication of American military planning that had been noticeably lacking throughout most of the nineteenth century.  After nearly five years of frustrating American involvement against jungle-based Filipino insurrectionists, and two months of armed reconnaissance in Panama, Roosevelt recognized the utter futility of defending Panama’s numerous bays, ill-defined borders, and porous mountain passes.  He therefore chose to forgo a defensive strategy in favor of offensive action on a battlefield of his own choosing.

Rather than defend Panama in the event of a Colombian attempt to regain its lost province, the president instead planned to embark his Marine Brigade on waiting ships for an amphibious assault on the Colombian port city of Cartagena —the country’s chief source of tariff revenues.  The naval force would then capture the port and its defense installations before subduing the city itself.  The plan, if successfully executed, would have placed Roosevelt in position to dictate the terms of a subsequent peace settlement with the Colombian government.

In the meantime, General Elliott instituted a training program to maintain his Marines at a high level of combat readiness. Simultaneously, he dispatched his forces on quick “out-‘n-back” expeditions that fulfilled the dual purposes of maintaining security while building the Marine’s understanding of the surrounding countryside.

On 21 January, General Elliott reported that he had constructed rifle ranges in the two camps and directed the regiments to practice their marksmanship with rifles and automatic weapons.  The Marines also practiced assault tactics, entrenching procedures, and the construction of obstacles to slow and confuse a counter-attacking enemy force.  In short, General Elliott knew that these were the skills his Marines would need to capture and defend Cartagena.  Marine commanders dispatched reconnaissance parties throughout the small country to map roads and trails. This effort resulted in the first comprehensive survey of the isthmus of Panama.  The Leathernecks’ morale and discipline, meanwhile, remained high—with a few minor exceptions, of course.

Word soon came to the Marines —a rumor— that a group of Colombian insurgents planned to poison their water supply.  General Elliott acted immediately: he ordered that any individual attempting to tamper with the water supply would be shot on sight.  Admiral Glass quickly reminded the General that “a state of war does not exist on the Isthmus of Panama,” and perhaps Elliott should simply take additional precautions to guard his water barrels. General Elliott no doubt appreciated the Admiral’s advice, but he let his order stand.

Meanwhile, Secretary Moody wrote to update Elliott on the situation at hand.  After expressing his pleasure with the professionalism displayed by the Commandant and his staff throughout their deployment to Panama, the Navy secretary informed him that “If Colombia actually begins hostilities against us, a Brigade of the Army will proceed to the Isthmus.” This force, Moody cryptically explained, would allow Elliott to disengage his force in Panama and turn his attention to another duty that would “be important.”

If Colombia decided to accept the new status quo in Panama, the secretary suggested Elliott’s force might take part “in some operations connected with the winter maneuvers.” Moody also enjoined Elliott to communicate frequently with Washington and made clear who the intended recipient of the communiqués would be:  Let the Department know through the proper channels of your daily operations. Remember the Department is always annoyed by long silence, and please also remember that the Army, which has only a couple of officers down there, is furnishing the President every day with pages of cipher cable, much of which, though dealing with small matters, is of considerable interest.  Let your scouting be thorough and extending a long distance and give us daily accounts of it.

On 12 January 1904, following a cabinet meeting, Secretary of War Elihu Root issued a statement denying any plan on the part of the United States to dispatch troops to Panama to fight Colombian forces. This appears to have been classic disinformation.  While Army troops would be dispatched to Panama in the event of a Colombian invasion of the new republic, the real strategic response would come from the Marines on the ground in Panama.  But they were not intended to battle Colombians in Panama; they would fight Colombians —in Colombia.

By the end of January 1904, General Elliott’s brigade of Marines, backed by ships of the Pacific and Caribbean squadrons, were ready to assault Cartagena to ensure the continued independence of Panama.  The invasion, of course, never took place.  Colombia protested, probed, and negotiated, but never made a serious attempt to reoccupy its former province and, hence, never triggered Roosevelt’s audacious plan.

A treaty between Panama and the United States, the Isthmian Canal Convention, was ratified by the U.S. Senate on 23 February 1904 and signed by President Roosevelt two days later.  According to its terms, the United States guaranteed the independence of the Republic of Panama.

General Rafael Reyes-Prieto, commander-in-chief of the Colombian Army and presumptive political heir to the country’s presidency, had traveled to Panama shortly after the revolution in an attempt to lure the nascent republic back into the Colombian fold, but on realizing he would be unsuccessful, he continued on to the United States.  There, he was treated with every courtesy, but when the question of Panama’s independence was raised, it was understood, in the words of a contemporary observer, “that what has been done could not be undone.”  Reyes came to understand that American public opinion was behind Roosevelt’s policy of upholding the revolution in Panama.

Rafael Reyes 001
Rafael Reyes Prieto

Finally, Reyes held out hope that the $10 million promised to Colombia under the rejected Hay-Herrán Treaty might still find its way into the country’s treasury.  And by the end of January 1904, rumors that Colombia would “sooner or later receive a certain financial consolation for her loss of territory provided she abstains from violent proceedings” were circulating throughout Washington. That’s what happened. By the middle of March, Colombian troops operating along the Panamanian frontier were withdrawn and the government declared that it did not intend to invade its former territory.  In 1921, the U.S. Senate ratified the Thomson-Urrutia Treaty that provided Colombia $25 million for the loss of Panama.

A large portion of the 2d Marine Regiment was withdrawn from Panama on 14 February 1904 and redeployed to Guantanamo Bay to take part, as Secretary Moody had previously suggested, in annual winter maneuvers.  General Elliott and his staff departed two days later, leaving Colonel Waller in command of the 800 remaining Marines.  That arrangement lasted until 7 March, when Waller took a battalion back to League Island, leaving Major Lejeune behind with his original battalion of 400 men to provide security and reconnaissance on the isthmus.  Lejeune’s command remained for another nine months.  But U.S. Marines would remain a presence in Panama until 1912, when Captain John F. Hughes finally departed with his force of 389 men —except that I was there with BLT 2/8 in 1964 and again as part of an advance party in 1990.

Sources:

  1. Wicks, D. H. “Dress Rehearsal: United States Intervention on the Isthmus of Panama, 1886.  Pacific Historical Review, 1990
  2. Collin, R. H. Theodore Roosevelt’s Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Latin American Context (1990)
  3. Graham, T. The Interests of Civilization: Reaction in the United States Against the Seizure of the Panama Canal Zone, 1903-1904.  Lund Studies in International Relations, 1985.
  4. Nikol, J. and Francis X. Holbrook, “Naval Operations in the Panama Revolution, 1903.” American Neptune, 1977.
  5. Turk, R. “The United States Navy and the Taking of Panama, 1901-1903.”  Military Affairs, 1974.

Endnotes:

[1] George Frank Elliott (30 Nov 1846-4 Nov 1931) was promoted to Colonel in March 1903, and advanced to Brigadier General on 3 October 1903 when he assumed the post of Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[2] See also: Handsome Jack.

[3] See also: He Served on Samar; Major Waller’s CourtSergeant Major Quick.

Marines in Panama, 1903-04 (Part I)

Roosevelt TR 001
President Theodore Roosevelt

Arguably, the most important action President Theodore Roosevelt ever took in foreign affairs related to the construction of the Panama Canal.  It was controversial abroad —it was controversial at home.  Those who opposed the canal claimed that Roosevelt’s actions were unconstitutional.  If true, then so too were Thomas Jefferson’s actions when he acquired the Louisiana Territory.  At different times, the congressional do-nothings accused Roosevelt of usurping their authority. They must not have known Roosevelt very well; he was a man of action.

Some background

A canal across the isthmus of Panama was first discussed in 1534, when Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain ordered a survey for a route through the Americas that would shorten the voyage for ships traveling between Spain and Peru.  In 1668, the British physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne speculated that such an undertaking would be a good idea; after all, it only involved “but a few miles” across the isthmus.  A little more than 100-years later, Thomas Jefferson (then US minister to France), suggested to the Spanish that they proceed with their project; after all, it would be far less treacherous than sailing ships around the tip of South America. Besides, he added, the tropical ocean currents would naturally widen the canal thereafter and it would be easy to maintain it.

By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, numerous canals were constructed in other countries.  Engineers were learning how to do this.  The success of the Erie Canal in the 1820s was inspiring, and the collapse of the Spanish Empire in the New World led to a surge of American interests in building an inner-oceanic canal.

Of course, in the first eighty-years following independence from Spain, Panama was a department (province) of Colombia.  Panama voluntarily joined Colombia in 1821.  It was not a happy marriage, however, and the Panamanians made several attempts to secede, notably in 1831 and again during the Thousand Days War of 1899-1902.  Among the indigenous people, the struggle was one for land rights [1] under the leadership of Victoriano Lorenzo [2].

Panama outline mapEarlier, in 1826, American officials attempted to open negotiations with Gran Colombia (present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama) to gain a concession for the construction of a canal.  Fearing domination by an American presence, Gran Colombian president Simón Bolívar and officials of New Granada politely declined American offers.

The British also opened discussions about constructing an Atlantic-Pacific canal in 1843  but in the absence of any Colombian interest, no plan was ever formulated.  Moreover, negotiations to construct a isthmus-wide railroad were similarly ignored.   However, in 1846, New Granada officials and the United States negotiated the so-called Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty. The treaty granted the United States transit rights through Panama, and, while acknowledging the right of the United States to protect these transit rights, also pledged America’s neutrality in matters pertaining to the internal affairs of New Granada.

With the discovery of gold in California in 1848, renewed interest in a sea-to-sea canal was undertaken by William H. Aspinwall, an American shipping magnate. His efforts resulted in a steamship route from New York City to Panama, and from Panama to San Francisco, with an overland portage through Panama.  It was one of the fastest routes between San Francisco and the East Coast of the US —about 40 or so days in total.  Nearly all of the gold taken from California was shipped through this routing.  The ever-competitive Cornelius Vanderbilt similarly established steamship routes to Nicaragua [3] and an overland route to the Pacific.

Between 1850-55, the United States constructed a railroad in Panama; it became a vital link in trade (and later, the route for the Panama Canal).  Late in 1855, the engineer William Kennish published a report entitled The Practicality and Importance of a Ship Canal to Connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Twenty-two years later, two French engineers surveyed the route and submitted a French proposal for a canal through Panama.

In March 1885, Colombia reduced its military presence in Panama in order to address rebellions in other areas.  With a reduced military footprint, Panamanian rebels began an insurgency.  The US Navy was dispatched to protect US personnel and property.  Establishing a base of operations at the city of Colón, the American Navy was soon challenged by the Chilean Navy, who at the time had the strongest naval force in the Americas.  The Chilean cruiser Esmeralda was dispatched to seize and control Panama City.  Esmeralda was instructed to “stop by any means possible the eventual annexation of Panama by the United States.”  Note: I’m not quite sure how Chile intended to accomplish this with their ships on the Pacific Coast, and most of the US Navy on the Caribbean side of Panama.

Meanwhile, undaunted, the French proceeded with their Panama Canal operations between 1881-94.  Ferdinand de Lesseps [4] was able to raise considerable funds for this undertaking, mostly from revenues generated by the Suez Canal, but in practical terms, the undertaking in Panama was far more complex than the Suez project due to the terrain and tropical climate.  As time progressed, the French discovered that they were completely unprepared for such an undertaking in Panama.  There were no similarities between the Suez Canal and one like it in Panama.  Tropical Panama was a nest of poisonous snakes, spiders, and insects.  The rainy season transformed the Chagres River into a raging torrent exceeding ten feet above normal in depth.  Moreover, Panama was a land of malaria and other diseases.  By 1884, the death rate among French workers averaged 200-men per month.  Labor recruiters in France downplayed these conditions by not mentioning them.

Bunau-Varilla 001
Phillipe Bunau-Varilla

Eventually, French money ran out.  By 1889, the French had expended $287-million; twenty-two thousand men died from diseases and accidents, and more than 800,000 investors lost their money, which must have been devastating.  Work was suspended on 15 May 1889; the scandal became known as the Panama Affair, and those deemed responsible were hauled into French courts —including Gustave Eiffel [5].  Despite this setback, another company was formed in 1894, but its efforts were mostly confined to managing the Panama Railroad, maintaining costly French equipment, and the sale of idle assets.  By then, the French were hoping to recoup $109-million. Eventually, its manager, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla [6] became convinced that canal efforts should pursue a lock-and-lake project rather than a sea-level canal modeled after the Suez project.

In 1898 Manuel Antonio Sanclemente was elected President of Colombia; José Manuel Marroquin-Ricaurte became his Vice President.  On 31 July 1900, Marroquin executed a coup d’état by imprisoning Sanclemente at a location a few miles outside of Bogota. Due to the mysterious disappearance of the President, Marroquin declared himself the sole power in Colombia.  In plain language, he became a dictator.  The absence of Sanclamente from the capital became permanent upon his death in prison in the year 1902.

The (centralist) Colombian constitution of 1886 denied to Panama the right of self-government; all power was vested within the Colombian regime.  When Panamanians declared their independence on 3 November 1903, there was no Colombian Congress.  As we will see, Marroquin’s coup d’état did not work out to the overall best interests of the Colombian people.

From the American perspective in 1900, if there was any lessons to be learned from the Spanish-American War, it was that the United States needed a canal somewhere in the Western Hemisphere.  The question to be answered was “where.”  There were two possibilities: a canal across the isthmus of Panama, or a canal across Nicaragua.

Meanwhile, in order to liquidate French interests in Panama, project manager Phillipe Bunau-Varilla wanted $100-million; eventually, he would end up settling for $40-million.

José Manuel Marroquín
José Manuel Marroquin-Ricaurte

In 1902, the United States Senate voted in favor of the Spooner Act, a commitment to pursue the Panamanian option —provided that the US could obtain the necessary rights from Colombia.  President Marroquin authorized his Ambassador to negotiate a treaty with the United States. Thus, on 22 January 1903, US Secretary of State John Hay and Colombian Charge-de-affairs Dr. Tomás Herrán signed a treaty for the construction of a canal in Panama.  Colombia would gain $10-million and an annual payment, and the United States would achieve a renewable lease in perpetuity for the land proposed for the canal. The US Senate ratified the treaty in March.

President Marroquin wielded absolute power in Colombia.  It was entirely up to him whether to accept the Hay-Herrán accord or reject it.  He decided to reject it —and in order to provide an excuse for doing so, he devised the plan of summoning a special session of Congress —a puppet congress that would do as they were told.

By July 1903, when the course of internal Colombian opposition to the Hay-Herrán Treaty became obvious, a revolutionary junta emerged in Panama. The junta was led by José Augustin Arango, an attorney for the Panama Railroad Company.  He was aided by Manuel Amador Guerrero and Carlos C. Arosemena, all of whom represented prominent Panamanian families.  Arango was the brain of the revolution; Amador was the junta’s visibly active leader.

With financial assistance arranged by Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a French national representing the interests of de Lesseps’s company, native Panamanian leaders conspired to take advantage of the United States’ interest in a new regime on the isthmus.

In August 1903, Theodore Roosevelt became convinced that Colombia was likely to repudiate the agreed-to treaty.  At the President’s direction, Secretary Hay, personally and through his Minister [7] at Bogota, repeatedly warned Colombia that grave consequences might follow a rejection of the treaty.  There were two possibilities: one was that Panama would remain loyal to Colombia.  In this case, Roosevelt was prepared to occupy the isthmus of Panama and dig his canal anyway.  Subsequently, Roosevelt and Hay met with Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, who informed the president of the likelihood of a revolt by Panamanian rebels, whose desire it was to sever their ties to Colombia.  Bunau-Varilla expressed his hope that should such a thing occur, that the United States would support Panama.

This information was confirmed on 16 October by two US Army officers (Captain Humphrey and Lieutenant Murphy), who had recently returned to Washington from Panama.  They informed President Roosevelt that, in their opinion, Panama would most-assuredly revolt against the Colombian government.  The Panamanian people were united in their criticism of the government in Bogota; the people were disgusted by Marroquin’s silence on the pending treaty —but that Panamanians would likely await the results of Colombia’s puppet congress before making their move —sometime around the end of the month.  President Roosevelt then directed the Navy to station warships at several locations in Panama and be ready to respond to any crisis that may arise.

The possibility of ratification did not wholly pass away until the close of the session of the Colombian Congress on the last day of October. To no one’s surprise, Colombia’s legislature unanimously voted to reject the treaty.  Having thus voted, the Congress was immediately dismissed.

Marines in Panama 1903
US Marines guard rail depot, Colon, Panama 1903

Panama declared its independence on 3 November 1903. President Roosevelt enthusiastically recognized the new government on 4 November.  US warships blocked sea lanes against any possible Colombian troop movements on 5 November.  Meanwhile, in Panama, practically everyone on the isthmus, including Colombian troops stationed there, joined the revolution.  Initially, there was no bloodshed.  But on 6th November four hundred new Colombian troops were landed at Colón.  USS Nashville arrived at Colón at about the same time.  When the Colombian commander foolishly threatened the lives of Americans in Colón, Nashville’s commanding officer landed his Marines and sailors to protect them.  Through a mixture of firmness and tact, Commander Hubbard not only prevented any assault on American citizens, but he also persuaded the Colombian military commander to reembark his troops for Cartagena.  On the Pacific coast, a Colombian ship shelled Panama City; one man was killed —the only life lost in the entire revolution.

On 16 December, the Marines from Nashville were relieved by a 400-man Marine Battalion from USS Dixie under the command of Major John A. Lejeune [8], USMC.

No one connected with the American Government had any part in preparing, inciting, or encouraging the revolution, and except for the reports of our military and naval officers, which I forwarded to Congress, no one connected with the Government had any previous knowledge concerning the proposed revolution, except such as was accessible to any person who read the newspapers and kept abreast of current questions and current affairs.  By the unanimous action of its people, and without the firing of a shot, the state of Panama declared themselves an independent republic. The time for hesitation on our part had passed.

 —President Theodore Roosevelt

The rights granted to the United States in the so-called Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty were extensive. They included a grant “in perpetuity of the use, occupation, and control” of a sixteen-kilometer-wide strip of territory and extensions of three nautical miles into the sea from each terminal “for the construction, maintenance, operation, sanitation, and protection” of an isthmian canal.

The United States was also entitled to acquire additional areas of land or water necessary for canal operations and held the option of exercising eminent domain in Panama City. Within this territory, Washington gained “all the rights, power, and authority . . . which the United States would possess and exercise if it were the sovereign . . . to the entire exclusion” of Panama.

The Republic of Panama became a de facto protectorate of the United States through two provisions: the United States guaranteed the independence of Panama and received in return the right to intervene in Panama’s domestic affairs.  In exchange for these “rights,” the United States was to pay the sum of $10 million and an annual payment (beginning 9 years after ratification), of $250,000 in gold coin. The United States also purchased the rights and properties of the French canal company for $40 million.  In 1977, President Jimmy Carter agreed to relinquish US control of the Panama Canal Zone effective at midnight on 31 December 1999.  Carter’s action was the end of a process that began at the direction of President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.

Unsurprisingly, Colombia was the harshest critic of United States foreign policy at the time —but President Roosevelt wasn’t quite finished with Colombia just yet …

Continued next week …

Sources:

  1. Wicks, D. H. “Dress Rehearsal: United States Intervention on the Isthmus of Panama, 1886.  Pacific Historical Review, 1990
  2. Collin, R. H. Theodore Roosevelt’s Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Latin American Context (1990)
  3. Graham, T. The Interests of Civilization: Reaction in the United States Against the Seizure of the Panama Canal Zone, 1903-1904.  Lund Studies in International Relations, 1985.
  4. Nikol, J. and Francis X. Holbrook, “Naval Operations in the Panama Revolution, 1903.” American Neptune, 1977.
  5. Turk, R. “The United States Navy and the Taking of Panama, 1901-1903.”  Military Affairs, 1974.
  6. Hendrix, H. J. Commander, USN.“TR’s Plan to Invade Colombia.”  S. Naval Institute, Proceedings Magazine.

Endnotes:

[1] Hispanic society was nothing if not harsh.  If you weren’t born into wealth (which is to say, entitled to land), then you would never achieve a higher station in life.  It remains that way to this very day.

[2] The political struggle in Panama was one between federalists and centralists following independence from Spain.  Under the centralist regime, Panama was established as the Department of the Isthmus; during federalist regimes, it was the Sovereign State of Panama.

[3] The genesis, perhaps, of America’s problem with Nicaragua.  At this time, the Nicaraguans (wisely) did not trust the motives of the American government.

[4] Vicomte de Lesseps (1805-1894) was a French diplomat, entrepreneur, developer of the Suez Canal, and the Chief Operating Officer for the Panama Canal project.

[5] Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (1832–1923) was a French civil engineer and a graduate École Centrale Paris.  He made his name building various bridges for the French railway network, most famously the Garabit viaduct.  He is best known for the world-famous Eiffel Tower, built for the Universal Exposition in 1889 in Paris and his contribution to the construction of the Statue of Liberty in New York.

[6] Bunau-Varilla (1859-1940) was a French engineer, soldier, diplomat, and entrepreneur.  Through American lawyer William Nelson Cromwell, he became quite influential with Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary of State, John Hay.

[7] American diplomats accredited to foreign governments from the time of Benjamin Franklin through the late-nineteenth century held the rank of Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, or in abbreviated terms, “Minister.”  Within the diplomatic corps, the term Ambassador (short for Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary) is a diplomatic agent of the first class.  The term Ambassador has become the generic title for the chief of a diplomatic mission.  Before the twentieth century, only major powers sent and received ambassadors.  The term “extraordinary” was originally applied to an envoy sent on a special mission, as opposed to “ordinary,” which meant an envoy in residence.  Today the term Extraordinary is widely used in diplomatic circles.  The term “plenipotentiary” originally meant having the authority to conduct normal diplomatic business, as opposed to the function of negotiating treaties, which required special authority.

[8] John A. Lejeune later served as Commanding General, US 2nd Army Division in World War I and the Thirteenth Commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps.

Marine Detachments (1775-1998)

Resolved, That two Battalions of marines be raised, consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant Colonels, two Majors, and other officers as usual in other regiments; and that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken, that no persons be appointed to office, or insisted 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 insisted 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.

Continental Congress, 10 November 1775

OLD EGA 001This was the instrument that created the Marine Corps.  The entire purpose of the Marines back then was to serve aboard ships of the Continental Navy —its original purpose and duty, but the concept of such employment goes back much further in history.  Roman ships had detachments of naval infantry whose purpose it was to take the battle to the decks of enemy ships, but seagoing marines have been a fact of naval warfare long before then —which is to say marines in some form or fashion, even if not referred to as such.

We cannot speak of American Marines 2,500 years ago, of course, but we do know that the first American Marines were British colonialists who first served as such under Colonel Alexander Spotswood and Colonel William Gooch (both of whom served as lieutenant governors of the colony of Virginia) during the War of Jenkin’s Ear in 1741.  Four battalions were raised for this purpose, but the enterprise did not end well for those men.  Most were defeated by rampant tropic diseases, which made them ineffective as a fighting force.

After the Congress’ authorization for a Corps of Marines, Tun Tavern [1] in Philadelphia became the main recruitment office for Marines.  Here, able bodied seamen were lured into Marine Corps service for six and two-thirds dollars per month, a daily ration of bread, one pound of pork or beef, potatoes or turnips, or a half-pound of peas, and a half-pint of rum.  Recruits were also promised butter once a week, pudding twice each week, and an allotment of cheese three times a week. Their uniforms included green overcoats and white trousers —so long as clothing was available.

Samuel_Nicholas
Captain Samuel Nicholas

In 1775, the owner of the Inn was a man named Samuel Nicholas [2].  Nicholas was commissioned a captain of Marines and charged with the initial recruitment effort.  He was responsible for leading the first 300 Marines in a raid at New Providence Island in the Bahamas to seize war materials greatly needed by General George Washington.  Ultimately, the Marines seized two forts in the face of almost no British resistance and helped themselves to available guns, powder, cannon balls, mortars, and various caliber of shells.  Marines did receive three rounds of British cannon fire, but no one was injured.

On their return voyage, the Continental Navy suddenly faced the twenty or so guns HMS Glasgow at Block Island.  When the smoke cleared, seven Marines lay dead and four others required treatment for serious wounds.  British casualties included four killed or wounded.

Seagoing Marines (also referred to as seadogs) were involved in many of the battles in the American Revolution.  Marine sharpshooters stationed on platforms above the masts delivered devastating fire to the decks of enemy ships. Occasionally, the Marines would conduct raids ashore along America’s long coastline.

When peace finally came in 1783, the Congress decided that it could no longer afford a naval establishment and the Continental Navy and Marine Corps were disbanded.  Up until then, the Continental Marines had consisted of 124 officers and 3,000 enlisted men.  There was no naval force in the United States between 1783 and 1794; in that year, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates, all of which would have stationed aboard them detachments of US Marines.  They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and so it was with the reemergence of the Navy and Marine Corps.  Moorish raiders operating in the Mediterranean and Atlantic seaboard had begun seizing US flagged vessels and holding them, their cargoes, and crews, for ransom.  In 1793 alone, the US lost eleven merchantmen to Barbary pirates.  Added to this, European wars continued to involve American ships and the newly-created United States of America was forced to break free of its isolationist policies.

Three frigates were launched in 1797; they were christened USS United States, USS Constellation, and USS Constitution.  A congressional act on 1 July of that year reactivated the Marine Corps.  The Act called for five lieutenants, eight sergeants, eight corporals, three drummers, three fifers, and 140 privates to man these ships in Marine Detachments.  From this point forward, the strength of the Marine Corps seagoing Marines continued to grow.

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson, who was no friend of the American Navy, decided that the country could ill-afford to maintain the naval establishment.  Ships were decommissioned or dismantled, and the Marine Corps was cut to 26 officers and 453 enlisted men.

Yet, even as the President was looking to reduce America’s debt, the Navy-Marine Corps team had managed to create turmoil among French privateers operating in the West Indies during the so-called Quasi-War [3] (1798-1800).  The war was “quasi” because it was undeclared.  The French were surprised by the fighting skills of America’s fledgling Navy, among whose senior officers included Stephen Decatur, Silas Talbot, and William Bainbridge.

Overwhelmed at sea, French ships withdrew to littoral areas of the West Indies and adopted the tactics of ambushing American commercial ships.  Undaunted, the US Navy pursued the French into shallow waters.  USS Delaware was the first American warship to claim a French prize.  USS Constellation captured the French ship Insurgente, a 40-gun ship of the line, on 7 February 1799.  Constellation also captured the 52-gun Vengeance after a five-hour battle in 1800.  Both of these vessels sustained heavy damage, however.

Lieutenant Bartholomew Clinch commanded the Constellation’s Marine Detachment during both sea battles; his Marines were recognized for delivering devastatingly accurate fire upon the French ship.  Lieutenant James Middleton led a landing party of Marines from USS Merrimack and USS Patapsco to defend the port of Curacao from a French raid.  Marines were also employed to seize an English ship being held under heavy cannon fire at Puerto Plata in Santo Domingo.

Suffering these depredations at the hands of the American Navy and Marines, the French soon signaled their interest in ending the war —but not before Marines from USS Enterprise captured nine French privateers, defeated a Spanish brig, and re-captured eleven American vessels.  In December 1800, Enterprise also defeated L’Aigle and Flambeau with much credit given to Marine sharpshooters.

Firing Pennsylvania
Firing the Philadelphia

President Jefferson’s frugality campaign came to an end when he realized that Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian, and Tripolitan raiders were costing the Americans several million dollars a year, or roughly one-fifth of the nation’s income, paid either as ransom for captured Americans, or in bribes paid to allow US merchantmen to sail in Mediterranean waters.  In 1805, Tripoli’s pasha foolishly declared war on the United States by capturing USS Philadelphia and imprisoning its crew, which included 44 Marines.  To prevent the Tripolitans from using Philadelphia against the American Navy, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a raid into the harbor aboard the captured French ketch, USS Intrepid, boarded Philadelphia, overpowered the pirates, and burned the ship to its waterline. An eight-man squad of Marines participating in this raid was led by Sergeant Solomon Wren.

One of the more audacious actions during the Barbary Wars was the overland expedition led by William Eaton and Marine First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, who had recruited mercenaries and marched six-hundred miles through the Libyan desert to attack the fort at Derna.  After heavy fighting, during which Eaton was wounded, O’Bannon’s remaining force assaulted the fort and defeated it.  This was the first time the United States flag was raised over foreign territory and the origin of the words to the Marine Corps Hymn, “…to the shores of Tripoli.”

Seven years later, during the War of 1812, Marine Lieutenant John Marshal Gamble became the only Marine Corps officer to command a U. S. Navy ship, the captured British whaling ship Greenwich.  Lieutenant Colonel Gamble retired from active service in 1834.

During the War of 1812, a young officer by the name of Captain Archibald Henderson served aboard USS Constitution, distinguishing himself in engagements with HMS Java, Cyane and Levant.  He was brevetted to Major in 1814.  Colonel Henderson was later appointed to serve as the fifth Commandant of the Marine Corps, a post he would retain for 38-years.  He was brevetted to Brigadier General in January 1837.

Numerous men of Marine Corps fame served as seagoing Marines, including Henry Clay Cochrane, John Twiggs-Myers, Smedley D. Butler, and John Quick.  An overview of combat service involving ship’s Marine Detachments includes:

  • Barbary Wars
  • Florida Indian Wars
  • Operations in Haiti
  • Firefighting at St. Thomas, Virgin Islands
  • Falkland Islands engagement
  • Slave suppression operations in South America
  • Diplomatic security in Japan
  • Operations ashore in China to protect American lives and property
  • Fiji Island raids to avenge the murders of American seamen
  • Union and Confederate forces in the American Civil War
  • Combat operations in Korea, 1870s
  • Peace-keeping missions in Haiti and Egypt
  • Spanish-American War (Philippines and Cuba)
  • Panamanian revolution and construction of the Canal

With the outbreak of the so-called Great War, Marine Corps senior officers began planning for a significant increase in troop strength.  The demand for amphibious/land forces began to outpace the requirement for shipboard detachments.  These continued, of course, but in smaller numbers.

During World War II, Marine Detachments performed strategic raids as part of the Atlantic and Pacific fleets.  In 1942, the Marines serving aboard USS Philadelphia (CL-41) landed at Safi, French Morocco to secure the airfield until relieved by Army units.  On 6 June 1944, shipboard Marines participated in the Normandy invasion by detonating floating mines blocking the path of US Navy ships operating in the English Channel.  They also manned secondary batteries aboard Navy cruisers and battleships.  On 29 August 1944, during the invasion of southern France, Marines from USS Philadelphia (CL-41) and USS Augusta (CA-31) went ashore to take charge of 700 Germans who had been manning fortified garrisons around the French harbor in Marseilles.  In the Pacific, the seadogs manned naval guns as Japanese kamikaze bombers attempted to destroy Navy vessels operating off the coast of Okinawa.  On 2 September 1945, Marines aboard the USS Missouri participated in ceremonies accepting Japan’s unconditional surrender to allied forces in Tokyo Bay.

The end of World War II propelled the world into the atomic age and cold war with the Soviet Union and China.  With war at an end, the United States reexamined its military footprint.  Under President Truman, the size of the military was sharply reduced.  Both the Navy and Marine Corps were reduced by one-third of their operating forces. The National Security Act of 1947 (Title 10, United States Code 5013) reaffirmed the seagoing mission of the Marine Corps: “… the Marine Corps shall provide detachments and organizations for service on armed vessels of the U. S. Navy and shall provide security detachments for the protection of naval property at naval stations and bases.”

Due to significant cutbacks in the operating forces under the Truman administration, the Navy and Marine Corps were barely able to respond to North Korean aggression in 1950.  Ships that had been mothballed were reactivated.  The same carriers, battleships, and cruisers that had served in World War II were brought back for the Korean War.  There would be no sea battles, however.  Off shore navy platforms provided air support and battleships and cruisers provided naval gunfire support to the land forces.

The cold war produced significant advances in technology.  The US Navy continued to protect sea lanes throughout the world and participated in operations in Lebanon, Santo Domingo, Formosa, Cuba, and a then relatively unknown placed called Viet Nam.  Marine Detachments continued to serve aboard cruisers, battleships, and carriers, but their roles were changing.  Some of these ships had been transformed into nuclear powered vessels; additional security was needed to safeguard “special weapons.”

On 29 July 1967, while serving at Yankee Station, an aircraft aboard the USS Forrestal (CVA-49) exploded setting off a series of fires and secondary explosions.  This was another important function of seagoing Marines: firefighting. Among the casualties from this incident were 134 sailors killed, 64 seriously wounded.  On 14 January 1969, another fire erupted aboard USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) while operating off the coast of Hawaii, resulting in 28 deaths, 128 injuries, the destruction of 15-aircraft, and a monetary loss of more than $128-million.  Few events are more deadly at sea than a shipboard fire.

In the post-World War II period, the duties of seagoing Marines were set forth in U. S. Navy Regulations (1047): “A Marine Detachment detailed to duty aboard a ship of the Navy shall form a separate division thereof.  Its functions shall be (1) Provide for operations ashore, as part of the ship’s landing force; or as part of the landing force of Marines from ships of the fleet or subdivisions thereof; or as an independent force for limited operations.  (2) To provide gun crews.  (3) To provide internal security of a ship.  (4) To provide for the proper rendering of military honors.  In addition to these duties, Marines also provided the ship’s captain with a Marine orderly, brig sentries, and guards for special weapons.

Eventually, the Navy replaced their deck guns with guided missiles and computer-controlled weapons systems.  There was no longer a need for Marines to man antiquated naval guns.  USS Oklahoma (CL-91) was the Navy’s last gun cruiser.  She was retired in the late 1970s, replaced in 1979 by the amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19).  Her sister ship was USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20), placed in service in 1981. Initially, both of these ships had Marine Detachments, but because of their mission of directing amphibious operations, and because these ships incorporated Marines especially trained for planning and conducting amphibious operations, the detachments were deemed excess to requirements and were removed.

In small but steady increments, ship’s detachments were reduced in the Navy fleet. In 1979, the Commandant of the Marine Corps changed the mission of seagoing Marines.  From that time, Marine duties involved little more than providing security for special weapons storage spaces, the transfer of such weapons aboard ship, provide security for the ship, provide gun-crews as required, and such other duties as may be assigned by competent authority.  Marines no longer performed landing operations or brig security.  In 1986, the Commandant specifically precluded Marines from performing any duty that would detract from their primary role of safeguarding special weapons.

Between the early 1980s and 1990s, the battleships USS New Jersey and USS Iowa were reintroduced into naval fleets.  When one of the gun turrets of the Iowa exploded, killing 47 crewmen, Marines helped in firefighting and damage control operations.  Still, the accordion effect of manpower management caused the Navy and Marines to again reevaluate the Marine Detachments.  By the early 1990s, the United States entered another dangerous period: international terrorism.  In meeting this demand, Headquarters Marine Corps created the Marine Corps Security Forces (MCSF) with the stated mission of providing trained personnel and cadres to security departments at designated naval installations. The MCSF also provided mobile training teams to support anti-terrorism training at navy bases.

Detachments of Marines served exceptionally well aboard US Navy vessels since Corps’ very beginning; this ended in 1998. The last Marine Detachment bid farewell to the USS George Washington (CVN-73) on 1 May 1998.  A 223-year tradition of service at sea came to an end. Time marches on.

MARDET CINCLANT
Marine Detachment CINCLANT

Personal note: it was my privilege to serve at Marine Detachment, CINCLANT/ CINCLANTFLT/SACLANT in Norfolk, Virginia from June 1964 to October 1966.  Today, the detachment is known as Marine Security Guard (MSG) Detachment, U. S. Fleet Forces Command.  At that time, it was the only non-seagoing detachment in the Marine Corps.  The two detachment commanders during this period were Major Figard and Major Kraynak. The executive officers were 1stLt Gaumont and 1stLt Ahern.  The First Sergeant was Donald A. Whiteside (retired in grade of Captain).  I was promoted to corporal and sergeant while stationed in Norfolk.

Endnotes:

[1] Tun Tavern was established in 1686 by Joshua Carpenter, the brother of Samuel who was a wealthy Quaker merchant.  The brewery and pub was located on King Street (later, Water Street) and Tun Alley, a caraway that led to Carpenter’s wharf.  The word “Tun” comes from old English meaning barrel or keg of beer.  The tavern became an early meeting place for a number of notable groups, including Freemasons in early America.

[2] While not officially appointed as such, Nicholas is traditionally regarded as the first Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[3] This conflict erupted during the administration of John Adams.  After the French monarchy was abolished in September 1792, the United States determined that its debt to France was cancelled. The French Republic thought otherwise and began to seize American ships and sell them as repayment of America’s debt.  The war was fought almost entirely at sea.

Behind the Lines

Two awards of the Navy Cross; a Legion of Merit; two Purple Heart medals; Officer Order of the British Empire; Chevalier du Legion of Honor; Medaille Militaire, three Croix de Guerre; Order of Quissam Alaoouite.  These were the personal decorations of one Marine during his service in World War II representing the gratitude of three allied nations.

ORTIZ PJ 001Friends and enemy alike called him Peter.  His eventual rank was colonel, but long before he arrived at that point, he was in the trenches, behind the lines in German-occupied North Africa and France.  His full name was Pierre Julien Ortiz (5 July 1913—16 May 1988) and he was a U. S. Marine attached to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Born in New York, his mother was an American of Swiss descent, his father a French-born Spaniard.  Educated in Europe, Peter spoke ten languages fluently.  There was a reason for this—at the age of 19, on 1 February 1932, Peter enlisted in the French Foreign Legion for a period of five years. He was assigned to North Africa and received his initial training at Sidi Bel Abbes, Algeria.  While serving in Morocco, he was promoted to corporal (1933) and sergeant (1935).  He received two awards of the Croix de Guerre during a campaign against the Rif [1].  During his service as an “acting lieutenant,” Peter was awarded the Médaille militaire [2].  The Legion offered Peter a commission as a second lieutenant, but he instead opted to accept his discharge in 1937.

With the outbreak of World War II and the neutrality of the United States at the time, Peter re-enlisted in the French Foreign Legion in October 1939; he was reappointed to the rank of sergeant.  In May 1940, he received a battlefield commission.  During the Battle of France, Peter was wounded during the process of blowing up a German fuel dump and was taken captive by the Germans.  He escaped in 1941 and made his way back to the United States.  On 22 June 1942, Peter enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps.  His previous training and experience prompted the Marines to commission him a second lieutenant after only 40-days service.  In December 1942, Peter was advanced to the rank of captain and placed in the service of the OSS.

With his in-depth knowledge of the region, with the cover of his assignment as Assistant Naval Attaché, Tangiers, the OSS sent him to North Africa, where he performed behind-the-lines reconnaissance operations.  According to Kermit Roosevelt [3], in his official history of OSS operations in World War II, “In War Report of the OSS and an official history of OSS operations in World War II, “Participation in this British operation constituted the first OSS experience in sabotage and combat intelligence teams in front areas and behind enemy lines.  That the jobs actually done by the handful of OSS men who joined the SOE Tunisian campaign were not typical of future activity was due as much to the exigencies of the battle situation as to the misunderstanding of their function by the British and American Army officers whom they served.” In other words, rather than conducting intelligence collection and sabotage missions, staid military officers ordered these men to locate and destroy Germans.  Highly qualified intelligence operatives were being under-utilized.

In February 1943, Peter Ortiz witnessed the American disaster at Kasserine Pass [4].  Ortiz found himself traveling alone across the battlefield area, observing the panicked flight of American soldiers.  Ortiz briefly fought alongside a British armored reconnaissance unit and then attached himself to an element of the US 1stArmored Division.  In this capacity, Ortiz fought a desperate action near Pichon.

In March, Ortiz was handed a series of deep-penetration missions.  One of these was launched on 18 March supporting General Robinett’s Combat Command Bravo.  Ortiz almost lost his life.  After setting up a base camp in the dead of night, Ortiz struck off alone in search of indications of the presence of enemy forces.  The weather was horrible, the knee-deep mud from days of rain hampered Ortiz’ progress. He was about to turn back when a burst of automatic fire shattered his right hand and wounded him in the leg. Ortiz fell to the ground and spotted a machine gun and vehicle thirty or so yards distant.  With his good left hand, he tossed a sticky bomb and scored a direct hit.  Avoiding further enemy fire, Ortiz managed to crawl back to his camp, despite his loss of blood and suffering from shock.  Ortiz was airlifted to the United States and assigned to Washington DC during convalescence.

When Peter was back on his feet, the OSS sent him for training in preparation for his new assignment with the Jedburgh Group [5].  His training was completed at the end of December 1943.  In early January 1944, Ortiz air-dropped into the Haute-Savoie region of the Alps, along with British SOE colonel H. H. A. Thackthwaite and French Colonel Pierre Fourcaud [6] of the French Secret Serviceas part of Operation Union I.  Their mission was to assess the capabilities of the maquis units operating in SavoieIsere, and Drome, and assist them in organization and supply.  After landing, Thackthwaite and Ortiz changed from the covert clothing into their military uniforms —thus becoming the first allied officers to appear in uniform in occupied France since 1940.  In Ortiz’ case, he wore his U. S. Marine Corps service uniform with American and French decorations and badges, which was designed to impress the French resistance. Colonel Thackthwaite later wrote of this: “Ortiz, who knew not any fear, did not hesitate to wear his Marine Corps uniform into town, which cheered the French, but alerted the Germans and the mission was constantly on the move.”

ORTIZ PJ 002
Peter Ortiz, behind the lines. Picture by Raymond Bertand.

The Union I team soon discovered that the French Resistance, while willing to fight, lacked everything needed in order to do that: arms, ammunition, radios, money, and clothing.  The team quickly organized base camps, medical facilities, and for the families of French fighters to receive stipends.  Morale among these men dramatically improved.  Then, as war materials arrived, the team began to train the resistance in their use.  While wearing his Marine Corps uniform, Ortiz helped to lead covert missions; he believed that his uniform would give courage to the resistance.

(Then) Captain Ortiz was also instrumental in helping downed airman evade German capture and reach the safety of neutral Spain. His role in rescuing four RAF flight officers in February 1944 resulted in his spectacular act of theft, one that infuriated the Gestapo, and led to the award of the Order of the British Empire.  In his citation, we can read: “In the course of his efforts to obtain the release of these officers, he raided a German military garage and took ten Gestapo vehicles, which he used frequently.  He procured a Gestapo pass for his own use, even though he was well-known by the enemy.”

During this same period, Ortiz (by now notorious in his reputation with the Germans) committed an even greater act of daring: A group of officers from the German 157th Division, which had previously suffered at the hands of Ortiz and his resistance, were drinking in a local bar … one that Ortiz regularly visited.  They were loudly cursing the “American Marine,” President Roosevelt, and the United States Marine Corps.  Sitting at a table in the bar was Ortiz dressed in civilian attire.

He soon returned to his safehouse, changed into his Marine Corps Uniform, armed himself with two .45 pistols, pulled on his civilian raincoat, and returned to the bar.  Ortiz ordered drinks for the German officers and when all had been served, Ortiz removed his raincoat, revealing his Marine Corps uniform with accoutrements. The German officers were stunned into silence.  Ortiz then produced the sidearms and said in German, “A toast to the President of the United States.”  When the Germans downed their drinks, Ortiz ordered another round.  “Gentlemen, a toast to the United States Marine Corps.”

The story has more than one version.  In one of these, following the German toast to the U. S. Marine Corps, Ortiz then shot all the officers, killing them.  Ortiz claimed that he didn’t shoot anyone.  He left them alive because, by letting them live, the story of his action would boost even more his legend and further erode German morale.  The story is true, even if it would make one of the greatest of all Marine Corps sea-stories, and so too is the account of Ortiz wearing his uniform throughout all of his “covert” operations (See picture of Ortiz, above).

The Union I team was evacuated to England to await reassignment on 20 May.  In England, Ortiz was promoted to major and awarded his first Navy Cross.  In August 1944, Ortiz returned to the Haute-Savoie as the leader of Union II.  He was supported by Gunnery Sergeant Robert LaSalle, Sergeant Charles Perry, Sergeant John Bodnar, Sergeant Fred Brunner, Sergeant Jack Risler, USAAF Captain John Coolidge, and a Free French officer named Joseph Arcelin.  Arcelin carried papers that identified him as a US Marine.  This mission reflected the OSS’ change in priorities in the post-D-Day period: readiness for Operation Dragoon and the Allied landings in southern France.  Union II was an operational group: heavily armed and capable of direct action against retreating Germans.

In addition to acts of sabotage, Union II resistance units were ordered to seize and hold key installations and, if possible, prevent their destruction by the Germans.  In spite of this increased activity, the Germans were not intimidated.  On 14 August, Ortiz and his men found themselves in unfamiliar territory and they narrowly avoided capture.  Ortiz’ luck finally ran out two days later when his team encountered a German troop convoy near the village of Centron.  The fighting was intense, and significantly outnumbered, mindful of German reprisals against innocent civilians, Ortiz consulted with his team and they agreed to surrender.

An officer named Major Kolb commanded the German force.  Ortiz spoke to Kolb in German, saying that he and his men would surrender provided that Kolb give his word as an officer and a gentleman that none of the villagers would be harmed.  Kolb, thinking that he opposed a company sized unit, agreed to these terms.  Kolb was furious when only Sergeants Bodnar and Risler emerged from cover.

Ortiz remained in German custody until April 1945, when he and three other prisoners escaped while being transported to another camp.  After ten days without food, the three men returned to their old POW camp, only to discover that the prisoners had taken control.  The camp was liberated by allied forces on 29 April.

In 1946, Peter Ortiz was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and released from active duty.  From 1946 on, Peter worked in Hollywood as an actor and advisor to such film directors as John Ford.  He appeared in a number of films, not all of them credited.  He played a supporting role in the 1950 Ford production of Rio Grande, which starred John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr., Chill Wills, and Victor McLaglen.  Ortiz played the part of Captain St. Jacques.

According to Peter’s son, who also served as a U. S. Marine, “My father was an awful actor, but he had great fun appearing in movies.”  Two Hollywood films were based on Peter’s exploits during World War II: 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), directed by Henry Hathaway, starring James Cagney and Richard Conte, and Operation Secret (1952), directed by Lewis Seiler, starring Cornel Wilde, Steve Cochran, and Karl Malden.  He  participated in several additional films, although not always in a credited role: Task Force (1949), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Sirocco (1951), Flying Leathernecks (1951), What Price Glory (1952), The Desert Rats (1953), and The Wings of Eagles (1957).

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Ortiz, Sr., retired from the U. S. Marine Corps Reserve in 1955.  In recognition of his extraordinary combat service, he was advanced to the rank of colonel upon his retirement.  Ortiz passed away in 1988 at the age of 74 years. He was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

Sources:

  1. Lacy, L. H. As a Young Man and Legionnaire, Ortiz: To Live a Man’s Life.  Phillips Publications, 2014
  2. Edwards, H. W. A Different War: Marines in Europe and North Africa.  USMC Training and Education Command, Quantico, Virginia, 2010
  3. Zimmerman, D. J. The Incredible Saga of OSS Colonel Peter J. Ortiz in World War II.  Defense Media Network, 2014.

Endnotes:

[1] A Berber speaking people of Northwestern Africa who derive their name from the Riff region in the northern edge of Morocco.  They belong to six separate tribal groups and five tribal confederacies.

[2] A decoration awarded for acts of bravery by the French Republic, the third highest decoration in France but the most senior award for military service.

[3] Highly energetic, unquestionably courageous, psychologically fragile son of Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States.

[4] The battle was the first major engagement between American and Axis forces in World War II. Inexperienced and poorly led American soldiers suffered many casualties and were quickly pushed back over 50 miles from their positions west of Faïd Pass.

[5] A clandestine group consisting of American, British, French, Dutch, and Belgian personnel whose mission was to collect intelligence, conduct sabotage, form and lead local resistance groups against German forces.

[6] Fourcaud (1898-1998) was among the first in France to rally to Charles de Gaullein 1940. He was prominent in the creation of the French Secret Service of post-War France, the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (SDECE).