Operations in the Dominican Republic, Part II

1917-4 EGAOn 1 June 1916, Marines aboard USS Sacramento, USS Panther, and USS Lamson went ashore to seize the strategic ports at Puerto Plata and Monte Cristi.  Monte Cristi was taken without any resistance, but the Marines at Puerto Plata had to fight their way into the town, which was defended by 500 irregular forces supporting General Arias.  Captain Herbert J. Hershinger, leading the Marines at Puerto Plata was killed; the first Marine killed in the Dominican Republic.  Dominican loses were estimated as light because the Marines exercised great restraint while entering the city.  Colonel Kane added four rifle companies as reinforcements for the Marines at Monte Cristi and Puerto Plata.

Admiral Caperton messaged the Navy Department for additional Marines for the Dominican Republic campaign.  On 4 June, Major General Commandant George Barnett ordered the 4th Marine Regiment to proceed from San Diego, California to New Orleans. A week later the 4th Marines, Colonel Joseph H. Pendleton [1] (Uncle Joe), commanding, embarked aboard USS Hancock for passage to Santo Domingo.  The regiment arrived in DomRep on 21 June and by his seniority, Colonel Pendleton assumed command of all land forces.  The colonel and his staff began preparations for an assault against Arias’ stronghold at Santiago.

PENDLETON J 001
Brigadier General Pendleton USMC National Archives

Pendleton planned for two columns of Marines to converge simultaneously on Santiago.  The 4th Marines with artillery would march by road from Monte Cristi; a second column consisting of the 4th and 9th companies, reinforced by Marines from ship’s detachments aboard USS Rhode Island and USS New Jersey would follow a rail line inland from Puerto Plata [2].  These two groups would form up at Navarette and aggress Santiago.  The first column, the largest number of Marines —with the longest route of march, would temporarily halt its march at a half-way point to rest and resupply.  The second column would seize the railroad connecting Santiago with the seacoast, thus establishing a main supply line for the combined force in its assault and later occupation of the Santiago.

Before commencing operations, Colonel Pendleton issued specific orders to his men that defined their mission and the principals that would govern their conduct in the Dominican Republic [3].

“… our work in this country is not one of invasion; we are here to restore and preserve peace and order, and to protect life and property, and to support the Constituted government.  Members of this command will therefore realize that we are not in an enemy’s country, though many of the inhabitants may be inimical to us, and they will be careful to so conduct themselves as to inspire confidence among the people in the honesty of our intentions and the sincerity of our purpose.  Officers will act toward the people with courtesy, dignity, and firmness, and will see that their men do nothing to arouse or foster the antagonism toward us that can be naturally expected towards as armed force that many interested malcontents will endeavor to persuade the citizens to look upon as invaders. Minimum force should be used at all times, but armed opposition or attack will be sharply and firmly met and suppressed with force of arms.”

—Joseph H. Pendleton, Colonel, Commanding

Colonel Pendleton’s Marines, consisting of 34 officers and 803 enlisted men began their 75-mile march on 26 June 1916.  He organized his force with the expectation of ambush and combat.  An advance guard of Marines mounted on locally procured horses led the column along the Santiago Road.  They preceded the main body at a distance of 800-1,000 yards.  The supply train consisted of 24 mule-pulled carts, 7 motorized trucks with trailers, 2 motorized water carts, a water wagon, a tractor pulling four carts, with eleven Ford touring cars [4] followed the main body of troops. Supplies were guarded by the 6th Company.  A signal detachment maintained a tenuous telephone line between Colonel Pendleton’s headquarters and the coastal base.

On day one, the Marines marched sixteen miles without meeting enemy resistance. That night, however, one of the trucks that had been dispatched for water came under fire.  Corporal Leo P. Carter, from the 13th Company, received serious wounds.

DomRep Marines 002
Marines march to Santiago

A major engagement occurred on the next day near Las Trencheras.  Dominican rebels had prepared trenches on two hills, one behind the other, which blocked the road to Santiago.  It was a strong position, but disadvantaged by flat ground, covered with thick brush high enough to conceal advancing Marines —yet, not thick enough to dissuade the Marine advance.  On 27 June, Captain Chandler Campbell of the 13th Company, placed his field artillery at a position commanding the enemy’s trenches.  The field guns were reinforced by machine gun squads. At 0800, Campbell opened fire on the trenches; under this fire, Marine riflemen advanced.  At about 1,000 yards, the Marines encountered heavy (but inaccurate) fire.  With few casualties, the Marines fixed bayonets and assaulted the Dominicans. The insurgents, not willing to engage the Marines in close combat, fled to their secondary positions.  Campbell adjusted his fires and the Marines continued their assault.  The battle lasted barely 45 minutes before the enemy executed a rapid withdrawal. They left behind five dead comrades. Marines experienced 1 killed and four wounded.

Withdrawal from advancing Marines was a pattern established for most engagements with Dominican insurgents.  The Marines had superior arms, employed small unit maneuver, and deadly accurate fire.  No Dominican rebel would hold their position against such a force.  Still, the Marines had several disadvantages: there were insufficient Marines to cover such a large territory, lacked mounted or motorized transportation, communications were poor, and the Marines had no way of forcing the enemy to stand and fight.  Time after time, the enemy broke ranks and ran away, only to return later to harass the Marines with sniper fire.

After Las Trencheras, Colonel Pendleton’s column pushed on toward Santiago. Aside from sniper fire and an occasional night attack, the enemy offered no substantial resistance.  Poor roads and inadequate bridging did more to slow Pendleton’s progress than did any rebel defense.  Despite its challenges, the supply train kept pace with the main body. Fuel was sparse, but so too was forage for animals.

The insurgents made their second major stand on 3 July at Guayacanas.  A decisive engagement in the advance to Santiago, the Marines once more faced an entrenched enemy and thick undergrowth in the advance to contract.  This time, field guns could not locate the concealed enemy, but machine gunners displayed laudable gallantry.  They hauled their heavy guns through the brush to within 200 yards of the opposing line and laid down deadly accurate fire.  First Sergeant Roswell Winans, trying to clear his jammed Colt machine gun, stood up under fire to clear a stoppage and keep his weapon in action.  He was the first Marine of the 4th Regiment to win the Medal of Honor.

Infantry and machine gunners pressed the frontal attack while the 6th Company under Captain Julian C. Smith [5], fought off a rebel force that had slipped around the Marines in an attempt to attack the supply train.  As before, the enemy broke ranks and fled, leaving behind 27 dead and 5 men who surrendered to the Marines.  The Marines lost one man killed and ten wounded.  Colonel Pendleton’s force reached Navarette during the next day.

The second column, commanded by Captain Fortson, marched along the rail line repairing bridges, track, and roadbed.  Many of these men rode in improvised military trains consisting of four boxcars and a dilapidated locomotive.  In front, the Marines pushed along a flatcar, upon which they had mounted a 3-inch gun.  The gun proved devastatingly effective in disbursing insurgents at Llanos Perez.  Captain Fortson was replaced in command by Major Hiram Bearss [6] who was remembered by Marines as someone with a peculiar fondness for force marches.

BEARSS 001
Hiram Iddings Bearss Photo from Public Domain

Major Bearss resumed the advance on 29 June, but shortly encountered a force of about 200 rebels entrenched across the railroad line at Alta Mira.  Bearss sent the 4thCompany over a mountain trail to turn the defender’s right flank, while the rest of his force, supported by the train, advanced along the railroad.  This combination of frontal and flank assault forced the insurgents back to a secondary blocking position in front of a railroad tunnel.  As lead elements began their assault, Bearss and 60 men charged through the 300-yard-long tunnel to prevent the rebels from damaging or destroying this crucial link in the rail line.  When Bearss and his Marines emerged from the tunnel, they observed the enemy running in full retreat toward Santiago.  The engagement lasted about 30 or 40 minutes.  Two Marines received wounds, including Second Lieutenant Douglas B. Roben.  The enemy losses included 50 dead.

After making extensive repairs to the rail line and constructing a bridge, the rail column, which encountered no further resistance, joined Colonel Pendleton’s main force at Navarette on 4 July 1916.  With his force united, Pendleton was poised to enter Santiago. On 5 July, civic leaders of that city sent a peace commission to Pendleton to inform him that Arias had concluded an accord with Admiral Caperton to cease all resistance.  As General Arias was in the process of discharging his followers, the peace commissioned asked the Marines to delay their entry into the city, which they assured Colonel Pendleton, would be unopposed. Colonel Pendleton agreed to the delay but using caution (should Arias change his mind), rushed his Marines forward to occupy the remaining defenses between his camp and the city.

The rebels did capitulate, and on 6 July, the Marines marched into Santiago to establish the 4th Regiment’s headquarters and communications with other Marine units in Santo Domingo City.  With organized resistance broken, Marine detachments took up the mission of finding and arresting rebel leaders.  It was easier assigned than accomplished, however, as there was no distinction between bandit and bandit leader.  Beyond arresting malcontents, the Marines began helping local communities in the reconstruction of the nation’s economy.  Major Bearss and Captain Wise were instrumental in organizing a freight and passenger transportation entity.  It wasn’t a glamorous arrangement, but reestablishing rail transportation was far better than having no operational railroad at all.

Before the end of July, the Marines were well into controlling the Dominican military situation, but the political situation remained dicey.  On 25 July 1916, the Dominican Congress elected Dr. Francisco Henriquez y Carvajal as provisional president.  Henriquez promised not to seek reelection when his six-month appointment expired. His government, however, was supported and influenced by pro-Arias factions in the legislature.  President Henriquez refused to agree to two conditions set by the United States for granting his regime diplomatic recognition, which the US believed were indispensable to political stability in DomRep. First, that the Dominicans must allow American authorities to collect and disburse all of the country’s revenues, and second, that the Dominican military be replaced by a national constabulary under American supervision.  It was a deadlock that lasted into the fall of 1916.  Then, despite his earlier assurances, Henriquez decided to run for reelection.

Henriquez’ intransigence along with an increase in violent clashes between Marines and Dominican insurgents foreshadowed a reemergence of political deterioration within or near the capital city.  The most serious of these occurred at Villa Duarte on 24 October.  A detachment of Marines attempted to apprehend a noted bandit by the name of Ramon Batista, who seized a rifle and resisted arrest.  Other Dominicans rallied to his aid and a shoot-out ensued during which Captain Low and Sergeant Frank Atwood were killed, along with Batista and three Dominicans.  Continued public disorder and political obstinacy led the United States to conclude that it was time to take the next step.  On 29 November, Captain Harry S. Knapp [7], USN (having succeeded Admiral Caperton commanding US forces) issued a proclamation placing the Dominican Republic under the military jurisdiction of the United States.  Knapp asserted that the Dominican government stood in violation of the Treaty of 1907.

The US military government mission included returning DomRep to a condition of internal order that would enable it to observe the terms of the Treaty, and the obligation of restoring DomRep to the family of nations.  The United States thus assumed control of all Dominican finances, law enforcement, judiciary, and its internal administration.  According to Knapp’s proclamation, Dominican laws were to continue in effect so far as they did not conflict with the objectives of the occupation.  Ordinary administration of both civil and criminal justice would remain the responsibility of Dominican courts and officials, except in cases involving American military personnel and/or any resistance to the military government. In those cases, matters would be resolved by US tribunals.  Captain Knapp enjoined all Dominicans to cooperate with the American government, promising that occupation forces would respect the personal and property rights of all citizens and lawful residents.

As might be anticipated, most Dominicans received this news somewhat unenthusiastically, but Knapp anticipated less violence as its result. In Colonel Pendleton’s opinion, most people wanted an intervention, but were afraid to say so.  Whatever they actually believed, most Dominicans seemed content to comply at least passively with Knapp’s decrees.

Of course, resistance did flare up, most of it isolated and minor, with the most serious incident taking place at San Francisco de Macoris where the governor, Juan Perez and a band of his pro-Arias followers, occupied the Fortaleza [8] in the provincial capital and refused to surrender their weapons to American forces.  Governor Perez, in violation of an order to disarm, now became the focus of the Marines.  On the night of 29 November 1916, First Lieutenant Ernest C. Williams [9] led a detail of twelve Marines from the 31st and 47th Rifle Companies, 4th Regiment, in a surprise assault against the Fortaleza.  The two companies awaited the opportunity to support Williams as he and his hand-picked men rushed the gate, opened it, and rushed inside before guards could erect a barricade.  Insurgents opened fire, wounding eight of Williams’ party, but within ten minutes, Perez and his followers had either surrendered or fled.

Other scattered clashes resulted in Marine casualties, including Captain John A. Hughes, who suffered severe leg injuries during a routine patrol near San Francisco de Macoris on 4 December.  By the end of the year, senior military officials believed that the Dominicans were quieting down and settling in to American occupation.  As an indication of this belief, Marine companies of the Provisional Regiment retired from service in DomRep, leaving behind the 4th Regiment in occupation of northern Santo Domingo with its headquarters at Santiago.  1st Regiment headquarters and staff remained at Santo Domingo City while subordinate organizations were returned to the United States. Redesignated 3rd Provisional Regiment, this headquarters controlled the Marine units remaining in the southern part of the country.  Together, 3rd and 4th Regiments constituted the 2nd Provisional (Marine) Brigade under recently promoted Brigadier General Pendleton.

From late 1916 onward, the 2nd Brigade performed as an army of occupation to enforce the decrees of the military government and maintain public order. Initially, the DomRep was divided into two military districts: Northern District (4th Regiment) at Santiago, and Southern District (3rd Regiment) at Santo Domingo City.  In 1919, the military government created a third Eastern District to address the provinces of El Seibo and Macoris, which had become centers of banditry and political unrest.  The Eastern District fell under the auspices of the 15th Regiment, initially commanded by Colonel James C. Breckinridge [10].  The 15thRegiment had a strength of 50 officers and 1,041 enlisted men.  With the addition of the 15th Marines, the 2nd Brigade reached a peak strength of 3,000 officers and men.

The Marines assigned to the Dominican Republic had a wide range of duties and responsibilities and to ensure that they were able to carry them out with the most flexibility, the regimental commanders had wide latitude in deploying these Marines.  There were always a strong contingent stationed at important seaports because these Marines safeguarded the country’s economic and political centers, protected main lines of supply, and protected the customs houses, which remained the primary source of government revenue.  Marines were also stationed in the interior regions to protect Dominicans from bandits. The DomRep is a large country, which meant that the Marines had to be dispersed over wide areas.  It also meant that senior NCOs often had to make important, split second, far-reaching decisions that might otherwise be made by commissioned officers.  Marine NCOs were up to the task.  Frequently, a squad of eight Marines, led by a sergeant, patrolled 35 or 40 miles from their company headquarters.

Continued next week

Sources:

  1. Wiarda, H. J. and Michael J. Kryzanek. The Dominican Republic: A Caribbean Crucible.  Boulder: Westview Press, 1982
  2. Diamond, J. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books, 2005
  3. Fuller, S. M., and Graham A. Cosmas. Marines in the Dominican Republic, 1916-1924.  History and Museums Division, U. S. Marine Corps, 1974

Endnotes:

[1] Joseph H. Pendleton (1860-1942) joined the Marine Corps in 1884 and participated in combat operations during the Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, and a series of so-called Banana Republic wars.  He received the Navy Cross for heroic service in combat.  He retired in 1924 as a Major General.  Camp Pendleton, California is named in his honor.

[2] This northern coast operation was devised owing to the fact that there was no passable road for a large force and supply train from Santo Domingo across the central mountain range to Santiago.

[3] Similar in content to the instructions issued by James Mattis before the assault on Iraq in 2003.

[4] Presumably used to convey the regimental staff.

[5] Julian C. Smith (1885-1975) joined the Marine Corps in 1909 and served through 1946.  Lieutenant General Smith was a recipient of the Navy Cross and Navy Distinguished Service Medal.  He saw combat service in Vera Cruz, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, and in World War II, commanding Marine forces during the Battles of Tarawa and Peleliu.

[6] Hiram Bearss was a charismatic, aggressive leader who never felt the need to waltz when a tango would be more appropriate.  In contrast, Joseph Pendleton was a thoughtful and pragmatic leader who always tried to look at a given situation through the lens of his enemy.

[7] Harry Shepherd Knapp (1858-1923) was an 1878 graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy who ultimately reached the position of Vice Admiral.  He commanded USS Charleston, USS Florida, and Cruiser Force, Atlantic Fleet. He served as Military Governor of the Dominican Republic and Military Representative of the United States in Haiti. He served during the Spanish-American War and World War I.  He was the recipient of the Navy Cross.

[8] Dominican provincial capitals contained a stone-built square enclosure called a Fortaleza, which contained a barracks, offices, an armory, and occasionally, a small prison. It functioned as the political as well as military center of provincial government.

[9] Awarded the Medal of Honor.

[10] James Carson Breckinridge (1877-1942) was a member of the prominent Breckinridge family of the United States, which included six members of the House of Representatives, two US Senators, a cabinet member, two ambassadors, a vice president of the United States, college presidents, prominent ministers, military personnel, and theologians in Kentucky and Tennessee.  Colonel Breckinridge received the Navy Cross during World War I for service performed as a Naval Attaché in Russia, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Breckinridge retired from active service in 1941 with the rank of lieutenant general.

4 thoughts on “Operations in the Dominican Republic, Part II”

  1. While I did know a bit about the “Banana Wars”, I am shame-faced how thin my knowledge was. Now, thanks to Mustang, military history maven, I know very much more. Thanks to you, Good Sir.

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  2. Some say I am cold, mean and anti-social. I expect they are at least partially right. Maybe there is a reason.

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