Leading from the Front

EGA BlackThe post-World War II period was no easy time for the American people.  At the conclusion of the war, Americans were exhausted. They needed a normal economy; they needed peace; they wanted to get on with their lives.  President Harry Truman, in seeking cost-cutting measures, ordered a one-third reduction of the Armed Forces.  Between 1945-50, Washington, D. C. was a busy place.  War veterans were expeditiously discharged, the War Department became the Department of Defense, the Navy Department was rolled into DoD, the US Army Air Force became the United States Air Force, and the missions and structures of all services were meticulously re-examined. In terms of the naval establishment, about one-third of the Navy’s ships were placed into mothballs; in the Marines, infantry battalions gave up one rifle company  —Marine Corps wide, this amounted to a full combat regiment.

There was more going on inside the Truman administration, however.  In 1949, Secretary of State Dean Acheson produced a study titled United States Relations with China with Special Reference to the Period 1944-1949.  The short title of this document was the China White Paper.  It took Acheson 1,000 pages to explain how America’s intervention in China was doomed to failure.  China’s premier, Mao Zedong was overjoyed to hear of this.  Then, on 12thJanuary 1950, Acheson addressed the National Press Club; in his discussion of the all-important defense perimeter, Mr. Acheson somehow failed to include the Korean Peninsula and Formosa as being places that the United States was committed to defend.  Upon learning of this, North Korea’s premier Kim Il-sung called Moscow and requested a meeting with Joseph Stalin.

Thus, when North Korea launched their attack on South Korea on 25th June 1950, no one in America was prepared to defend our South Korean ally.  There had been no money for combat training, insufficient munitions for live-fire training, not enough fuel for military aircraft, and no replacement parts for military vehicles.  It was a situation that affected every military command, no matter where it was situated.

In Japan, the US military maintained its occupation forces throughout the main islands.  It was good duty: there was no training, only limited flying, and only rudimentary vehicle maintenance.  There were plenty of personnel inspections, though, and lots of liberty for the troops. Senior military officers played golf, company officers learned how to keep out of sight, and unsupervised NCOs engaged in black market activities.  As for the troops, they were content with drinking Japanese beer and chasing skirts (or, if you prefer, kimonos).

As with the Marines, Army units were understrength.  Unlike the Marines, the Army’s rolling stock was inoperable and senior divisional staff were either incompetent or lazy in the execution of their duties.  Quite suddenly, the US was once more at war and the ill-trained occupation forces were rushed into a North Korean Army meat-grinder in South Korea.

In South Korea, American military units were also understrength.  Units located in and around Seoul were mostly administrative, communications, or military police units. Eighth US Army, headquarters in Taegu, included three infantry divisions: 24th, 25th and 1st Cavalry.  All of these units were lacking in men, equipment, and combat experience. Most of the troops were conscripts. Junior officers were a puzzle. Senior officers were hoping to bide their time until retirement.  The Army of the Republic of Korea (ROKA) had a force of about 58,000 men when the North Koreans launched their invasion.  ROKA was ineffective in stopping the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) for several reasons.  These soldiers were armed but had no infantry training; their officers lacked leadership, and every time the ROKA confronted the NKPA, they were soundly defeated.

When the NKPA invaded South Korea, American military units and personnel stationed in Seoul  hightailed it south to avoid capture.  Elements of the 24th Division, fed piecemeal into South Korea, were chewed up almost as soon as they arrived.  No US Army unit was prepared to confront the 80,000-man NKPA invading force, which included ten mechanized infantry divisions.  In mid-July, NKPA forces mauled and routed the 24th Division at the Battle of Hadong, which rendered the 29th Infantry Regiment incapable of further combat service.  NKPA forces also pushed back the 19th Infantry Regiment, which opened up a clear path to Pusan in southern South Korea.

At Camp Pendleton, California, the 1st Marine Division received a warning order.  A regimental combat team was quickly organized around the Fifth Marine Regiment (5th Marines): three understrength battalions under Lieutenant Colonel (Colonel select) Ray Murray.  Marine Aircraft Group 33 was attached as the air element, forming the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Edward Craig.  Craig’s deputy was Brigadier General Thomas H. Cushman, who also headed the reinforced air group.

As the brigade made sail on 14 July 1950, the balance of the 1st Marine Division was rapidly reorganizing: Marines were ordered to immediately report from the 2nd Marine Division, various Marine Corps bases and stations. Recruitment staffs were reduced. Reserve units were activated and dispatched to Camp Pendleton.  Many reserve units included men who had yet to attend recruit training.  The Seventh Marine Regiment (7th Marines) was reactivated.  Marines from all across the United States streamed in to find their slot in either the 1st Marines or 7th Marines.

The Brigade (with its full complement of equipment) arrived in South Korea on 2 August 1950.  Before the end of the day, General Craig led his infantry to establish the 8th US Army reserve at Changwon, 40 miles northwest of Pusan. On 6th August, the 5th Marines were attached to Major General William B. Kean’s 25th Infantry Division and moved an additional 13 miles southwest to Chindong-ni.  On that very night, Company G, 3/5 was rushed forward to defend Hill 342.  The Marines lost 11 men that night but inflicted 30-times that number of enemies killed.  The NKPA suddenly realized that there was a new sheriff in town.

Eighth Army units began to attack but were frequently overrun by counter-attacking NKPA forces.  Whenever this happened, the Marines were sent in to repel the NKPA, seal the gap in the lines, and restore American control over that sector.  This happened so frequently that Marine grunts developed a sense of contempt for the Army.  This attitude wasn’t entirely fair, but completely understandable.  The Marines began calling themselves “the Fire Brigade.”  The fact was that two-thirds of Marine officers and mid-to-senior NCOs in the 5th Marines had served during World War II.  They knew how to fight —they knew how to win battles.

They added to that experience between 15 August and 15 September; the 5h Marines were engaged in bloody combat almost from their first week in South Korea.  Commanding the 1st Marine Division, Major General Oliver P. Smith [1] arrived in theater at the end of August and began planning for an amphibious invasion of Inchon.  It was an audacious plan because of erratic tidal conditions in Inchon.  The Marines would have only so many hours to force their landing, and it would have to be carried out in increments —which meant that the lead units would be without reinforcements for between 12-20 hours.  General Craig’s Brigade was folded back into the 1st Marine Division.  BLT 3/5 under Lieutenant Colonel Bob Taplett spearheaded the Division assault.

After the 1st Marine Division and 7th Infantry Division knocked in the door to Inchon, Eighth Army tasked the Marines with clearing operations inside Seoul.  Urban warfare at its worst.  No sooner had this mission been accomplished, MacArthur placed the 1st Marine Division and the 7th Infantry Division under Major General Edward Almond, US Army, commanding X Corps.  The Marines landed at Wonson on the east coast of the Korean Peninsula on 26 October 1950; 7th Infantry Division landed at Iwon in early November.  Smith’s orders were to establish a base of operations at Hungnam.  For an account of the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, click here.

As with many young men of his day, Stanley J. Wawrzyniak dropped out of school to pursue adventure in the US military.  He initially joined the U. S. Navy with service as a hospital corpsman.  As it turned out, the Navy wasn’t Wawrzyniak’s cup of tea, and so he accepted discharge at the end of his enlistment and joined the Marines.  He was serving with the 5th Marines on 25 June 1950. He was one of 2,300 Marines sent to square away the South Korean peninsula.  Since few people could pronounce his Polish last name, everyone just called him “Ski.”

The Silver Star Medal

Silver Star 001On 28 May 1951, while serving with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, Staff Sergeant Wawrzyniak’s platoon assaulted a well-defended Chinese communist position.  Without regard for his own personal welfare, while under heavy enemy fire, Wawrzyniak moved forward shouting words of encouragement to his men as they advanced against the hail of enemy mortar and small-arms fire to gain the enemy position.  Although painfully wounded in the assault, Sergeant Wawrzyniak refused first-aid in order that he might remain to supervise the treatment and evacuation of other wounded Marines.  The initiative and aggressiveness displayed by Sergeant Wawrzyniak reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Naval Service. 

The Navy Cross [2]

Navy Cross 001On 19 September 1951, Staff Sergeant Wawrzyniak, while serving as Company Gunnery Sergeant, Company F, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, led an assault in his company’s final push against a heavily fortified and strongly defended enemy hill-top position.  During the assault, Sergeant Wawrzyniak courageously exposed himself to enemy small-arms and grenade fire while moving and maneuvering his force and marking enemy positions and targets.  As the squad neared the crest of the hill, Wawrzyniak observed an enemy position that threatened the squad’s entire left flank.  Wawrzyniak single-handedly charged the emplacement, killed all of its occupants, and although painfully wounded, he immediately rejoined the attack. Seizing an automatic rifle from a fallen comrade when his own ammunition was exhausted, he aggressively aided the squad in overrunning the enemy position, directed the pursuit of the fleeing enemy, and consolidated the ground position.  By his daring initiative, gallant determination, and steadfast devotion to duty in the face of hostile opposition, Staff Sergeant Wawrzyniak served to inspire all who observed him, contributing materially to the successes achieved by his company, thereby upholding the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

The Navy Cross (Second Award) [3]

Gold Star 001On 16 April 1952, while serving with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, an outnumbering enemy force launched an assault upon an outpost position.  The outpost commander and his immediate squad were cut off from friendly lines by intensive hostile fire.  Technical Sergeant Wawrzyniak unhesitatingly assumed command of the remaining Marines and promptly organized an effective defense against fanatical attackers.  With the position completely encircled and subjected to extremely heavy enemy machine-gun, recoilless rifle, mortar, and small-arms fire, Wawrzyniak repeatedly braved the hail of blistering fire to reach the outpost, boldly led the men back into the defensive perimeter, replenished their supply of ammunition, and encouraged them while directing fire against close-in enemy assaults. Although painfully wounded, Wawrzyniak refused medical treatment for himself and aided medical personnel in treating and dressing the wounds of his Marines.  By his outstanding courage, inspiring leadership, and valiant devotion in the face of overwhelming odds, Technical Sergeant Wawrzyniak upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

After the Korean War, Master Sergeant Ski was recommended for a commission as a Marine Corps officer.  In subsequent years, his reputation as a combat Marine followed him from post to station.  He somehow managed to add to his colorful legend with each successive assignment.

In 1960, Ski attended training at the Marine Corps Cold Weather Training Center.  While practicing a glacier rescue technique, he was accidently dropped by his belayer into a crevasse.  The fall caused serious internal injuries.  The only route out of the crevasse required a descent of 2,000 feet and traversing some 3-miles over extremely rough terrain.  Refusing to be carried out, Ski walked the entire way carrying his own rucksack.  During rest stops, Ski urinated blood.  When he later learned that his belayer was being blamed for the injury, Ski defended him, stating, “It wasn’t his fault; it was my fault for not making sure he was ready.”

Some months later, Ski was assigned as a student at the Escape, Evasion, and Survival Training Course.  Ski was assigned to lead an evasion team … which promptly disappeared and was unobserved by any instructor for four days. Ski’s team finished in first place for this training exercise, but then … Ski was used to finishing in first place. In his mid-30’s, he finished first at the Army’s Airborne and Ranger schools.  He didn’t brag about his accomplishments; he simply believed that an older, more experienced Marine ought to have finished first.

One of the duties of an adjutant is to communicate the orders of the commanding officer at assembled formations.  In one instance, Ski was ordered to read a letter of censure aloud at morning formation so that a Marine could be properly chastised for breaking the rules.  The problem was that the words used in the construction of this letter were a bit more than most of the assembled Marines could understand.  Realizing this, Ski shoved the letter into the hand of the Marine being chastised, telling him: “Here—you take this damn thing, read it, and don’t screw up again.”

As Ski was promoted through the ranks, it became a bit obvious to others that his career might be limited.  He was serving as a field grade officer, without a college education.  He also a bit profane; he spoke in a way that one might expect from a company gunnery sergeant, but not from a field-grade officer.  This was never a problem among his enlisted Marines but was a handicap when among senior officers, who regularly complained about Ski’s colorful language.

Typically, general officers like to be pampered —perhaps thinking that having made it all the way to flag rank, they’re somehow entitled to having everyone of lesser grade kiss their ass.  Ski didn’t kiss ass.  How he ever wound up being assigned as the Protocol officer at Marine Corps Base, Camp Butler, Okinawa confused almost everyone who knew him.  It was during this assignment that Ski managed to offend a visiting senior officer.

It was during the Viet Nam War and at that time, Okinawa camps served as staging and transit facilities for combat replacements.  Not to put too fine a point on it, Ski’s boss wasn’t too pleased when this VIP expressed his displeasure over something Ski had (or had not) done.  The Commanding General called Ski in to his office for one of his “get closer to Jesus” moments.  The General pointedly told Ski that if he ever screwed up another senior officer visit, he’d find himself in Viet Nam.  Major Ski could hardly wait for the next general officer visit.

The Bronze Star Medal

Bronze Star 001In Vietnam, Ski was assigned to serve as Executive Officer, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.  During this assignment, Ski was awarded two Bronze Star medals and his fourth Purple Heart.  Ski was always “at the front.”  Why? Because that’s where leaders are supposed to be.  Even as a battalion XO, he would somehow manage to involve himself in such things as security patrols [4].  Ski would never re-enter friendly lines until he was certain that every Marine on patrol had been accounted for.  At the conclusion of one of these missions, an NCO told him, “Sir … you’ve got more balls than brains.”

I served under in Wawrzyniak in 1972-73. He commanded Headquarters Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, which at the time was located on Okinawa.  In this assignment, Ski wore three hats: Battalion Commander, Division Headquarters Commandant, and Area Commander for Camp Courtney, Okinawa.  I was one of the 1,700 Marines assigned to Wawrzyniak’s battalion, at the time a staff sergeant.  In addition to my regular duties, he assigned me as a platoon commander in the 3rd Marine Division honor guard, which also supported the co-located Headquarters of the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).  Colonel Wawrzyniak always provided feedback after an honor guard detail.  It was either “Good fucking job, Marine,” or “Ya fucked up, didn’t ya?  Get your shit together.”

At this time, III MAF was commanded by Lieutenant General Louis Metzger [5] (who was known by some as Loveable Lou). General Metzger was a no-nonsense general officer under whom I had previously served when he commanded the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade.

Metzger 001A World War II Era Marine, (then) Brigadier General Metzger demanded perfection from his officers.  His demeanor was gentlemanly, but direct.  He spoke with a baritone voice.  He never spoke at anyone, but rather engaged them in conversation.  Of course, throughout the conversation, he also engaged you with his eyes.  You knew that he was listening carefully to what you had to say —and he knew when someone didn’t know what they were talking about.  Whenever General Metzger asked a question, he expected a frank, honest, and well-thought-out response.  If one happened not to know the answer, all you had to do was say so and then go find out what he wanted to know.  If someone tried to bluff his way through a conversation with Lou Metzger, he’d eat you alive.  He always asked challenging questions —not to embarrass anyone, but because he expected a person of some position to know the answers to such questions..

During the Viet Nam War, 9th MAB had several important missions beyond providing the Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) with battalion landing teams.  One of these was the continual review of contingency operational plans —necessary at a time when the world situation was in a state of continual flux.  The General also had a photographic memory and the ability to speed read, comprehend, and analyze complex battle plans.  In this process of review, General Metzger wasn’t particularly pleasant whenever a staff officer knew less about these plans than he did —hence the label “Lovable Lou.”  Beyond his directness and his no-nonsense approach to serious matters, Metzger was an exceptional general officer.  One always knew where you stood with him.

Wawrzyniak 001A few years later as a lieutenant general in command of III MAF, Metzger was the senior-most officer of the “general mess,” the dining facility [6] for all officers serving in the 3rd Marine Division Headquarters and III MAF at or above the rank of colonel.  The General Mess included three general officers and around 15 or so colonels.  The only lieutenant colonel permitted to dine in the general mess was the Headquarters Commandant, who was also responsible for managing it.  One night at dinner, a somewhat grumpier than usual General Metzger had taken but a few bites of his salad when he threw his fork down on the table, looked down toward the end of the table where sat LtCol Wawrzyniak and said, “Damn it, Ski … why can’t we ever have fresh vegetables?”

Ski’s reply stunned everyone into silence.  “General, there aren’t any fucking fresh vegetables … so if you don’t like the fucking vegetables, then don’t eat the fucking vegetables.”  No one spoke to General Metzger in such a crude and insubordinate manner.  After what seemed like a very long pause Metzger said, “Okay, Ski … no need to get testy.”

Two very fine Marine Corps officers … both of whom it was my privilege to serve; two legendary Marines now long deceased.  These are the kinds of Marines who most effectively lead Marines to win battles. I think of Metzger and Wawrzyniak often, which in my own mind means that they live still.  How grand it would be to “return” to an earlier time and serve alongside them once more.

Few senior officers today are capable of filling either of these men’s combat boots —which is disturbing to me because our Marines deserve the best leaders— and these were two of the very best in their own unique style of leadership.  What Major Anthony J. Milavic once said about Ski is absolutely true: “Ski was a leader of Marines who knew each of us; communicated to each of us; and, each of us knew that he cared about us.  If he sometimes cursed at us, that was okay because he was always with us: at physical training, climbing a mountain, falling off a cliff, or in a combat zone —always  at the front— he was always with us.

Ski and Metzger are still with us … well, they’re with me anyway.  Memories.

Endnotes:

[1] See Also: Scholar-Warrior.

[2] United States’ second highest award for courage under fire in time of war.

[3] Ski was initially recommended for award of the Medal of Honor for this action.

[4] Security patrols are dispatched from a unit location when the unit is stationary or during a halt in movement to search the local area, detect the presence of enemy forces near the main body, and engage and destroy the enemy within the capability of the patrol.  It is standard to send out such patrols when operating in close terrain where there are limitations of observation and concentrated fires.

[5] Awarded two Navy Cross medals for exceptional courage under fire during World War II; Legion of Merit; two awards of the Bronze Star Medal.

[6] Military officers pay for their meals and other consumables at the end of each month.  Mess bills cost senior officers more than junior officers.

6 thoughts on “Leading from the Front”

  1. I never had the privilege of serving with either of these notable Marine leaders, however, the Corps use to be filled all manner of officers (and SNCOs) that inspired the junior Marines. They were war winners.

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  2. You did introduce me to Gen. Metzger, however I took myself off so as you could chat and he could see your successes.

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