It took the United States a few years to enter into the conflagration we today call World War I, but when the Congress authorized military action, an immediate expansion of the Marine Corps was ordered. A number of regiments were brought into existence for employment in Europe and in areas outside the war zone. By late 1918, the Marine Corps had 14 active regiments. Only four of these would serve in Europe; the rest were ordered for service in the Caribbean, or remained stationed in the United States.
The Eighth Marine Regiment (8th Marines) was activated at Quantico, Virginia on 9 October 1917. The regiment initially consisted of four units: Headquarters Company, and the 105th, 106th, and 107th Rifle Companies [Note 1]. The regiment was augmented by the 103rd, 104th, 108th, 109th and 110th Rifle Companies on 13 October. Two additional companies were organized on 22 October: 111th and 112th Companies. Major Ellis B. Miller was designated as the regimental commander. He was a 37-year old Marine from Iowa.
At this time, Marine Corps regiments lacked a battalion structure, but in 1917, the Marine Corps adopted the deliberate policy of shaping its regiments to conform to the US Army’s regimental structure. The reason for this was that Major General Hugh L. Scott, serving as Army Chief of Staff, insisted that Marines deployed to France be organized identically with US Army units [Note 2]. This made perfect sense in terms of deploying combat forces on the Western Front. Marine regiments would henceforth be organized with a headquarters company and three infantry battalions. Each battalion would consist of a command element and four rifle companies. The size of regiments would average 3,000 men.
The first orders received by the 8th Marines indicated that it could be sent to Texas for a possible thrust into Mexico.
Relations between Mexico and the United States had been strained since the Mexican-American War (1846-48). Since then, Texas and other border states had been subjected to bandit raids from Mexico and insurrections from within Hispanic communities in South Texas. The Mexican Revolution (1910-20) only increased these tension.
In 1914, Mexican authorities arrested nine sailors while their ship was anchored in Tampico. The Mexicans released the sailors, but the US Naval commander demanded an apology and a 21-gun salute. The Mexicans did apologize, but refused to offer the 21-gun honors. As President Wilson consulted with Congress over the matter of a possible invasion of Mexico, US intelligence assets learned that a steamer with German registry was attempting to deliver weapons and munitions for Victoriano Huerta, who had seized control of the Mexican government [Note 3]. In response, Wilson authorized the Navy to seize the port city of Veracruz.
In 1916, the Mexican Bandit Pancho Villa crossed the US border with a sizable force and attacked the New Mexico town of Columbus. Villa assaulted the resident detachment of the 13th Cavalry Regiment, burned the town, seized 100 horses, and made off with other military supplies. Eighteen Americans died during the assault; Villa lost about 80 of his banditos.
In January 1917, British Intelligence intercepted a cable from the German Foreign Office addressed to Mexico’s president proposing a military alliance; should the United States enter the war against Germany, a Mexican invasion of the southern portion of the US border would be rewarded by the recovery of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. President Carranza referred the matter to a military commission, which concluded that the proposed invasion of former Mexican territory would be neither possible or desirable.
With this as a backdrop, the 8th Marines were ordered to Fort Crockett near Galveston as a contingency force should it be necessary to seize and hold the oil fields at Tampico. The regiment departed for Galveston aboard the USS Hancock on 9 November. A week later, the Marines were creating a campsite at Fort Crockett.
In August 1918, the 9th Regiment and Headquarters, 3rd Provisional Brigade arrived at Fort Crockett. The 8th Marines became part of that Brigade. The Marines remained at Fort Crockett until the end of the war with Germany, but it was not necessary to deploy these Marines into Mexico. Meanwhile, Mexican officials were well aware of the presence of these Marines and their purpose. The placement of these Marines may have materially avoided further conflict with Mexico.
The regiment returned to Philadelphia on 25 April and was deactivated the next day. By the end of 1919, a decision was taken to reactivate the 8th Marines for service in Haiti—an intervention that would not go away [Note 4]. A reorganization of Marine Corps units in Haiti, precipitated by an overall reduction in the post-war strength of the U. S. Marine Corps, began in December 1919. The 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment (3/2) was redesignated 1/8 with its field and staff [Note 5], 36th, 57th, 63rd, 65th, 100th, 148th, and 196th rifle companies. 8th Marine headquarters was not activated until the following month.
On 5 January 1920, the 8th Marines command element was activated at Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti. Field and Staff, 1/8 was deactivated and its personnel transferred to Headquarters Company, 8th Marines. 8th Marines headquarters assumed control of subordinate numbered companies. This was the organization of the 8th Marines for the next five years. The regiment operated with less than 600 men; it’s commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel Louis M. Little. Colonel Little was an asset in Haiti because he was fluent in the French language.
The Marines were well-aware of a rumor that Cacos bandits were planning to assault the capital city. The attack came at 0400 hours on 15 January 1920. Three-hundred bandits assaulted in three separate columns. Second Lieutenant Gerald C. Thomas commanded an urban patrol of twelve Marines. This patrol and a 50-man group of bandits surprised each other on one of the city’s side streets. Thomas ordered his Marines to hold their fire as the bandits marched toward them. When the bandits had advanced further, they opened fire on the Marines, but Thomas ordered his men to hold until the Cacos were directly in front of their position. The concentrated fire from the Marines literally destroyed the bandit formation, killing 20 insurgents. Thomas’ Marines suffered three wounded. The bandits retreated from the city [Note 6].
In pursuit of the bandit leader Benoit Batraville, Colonel Little adopted aggressive “search and destroy” operations. Marine patrols were constantly in the field looking for a confrontation with the insurgents. This attention forced the rebels to be constantly on the move. Batraville, however, managed to elude capture, which made the Marines even more determined to find and arrest him.
On 4 April 1920, the Marines experienced two significant encounters with the Cacos. At 0700, Sergeant Laurence Muth observed a group of bandits on the summit of Mount Michel. Muth instantly ordered his men to take firing positions and open fire. Unexpectedly, another group of bandits, who were planning to ambush the Marines, opened fire on Muth’s right flank. Sergeant Muth was killed in the first volley; in the ensuing firefight, ten bandits were dispatched but the Marines, being overwhelmed in numbers, withdrew. Sgt. Muth’s body was left behind. An enraged Colonel Little immediately dispatched 21 patrols, with himself leading one of them to the place where Muth was killed. Catching a group of Cacos off guard, the Marines initiated a firefight that resulted in 25 enemy killed. After the fight, Little discovered Sgt. Muth’s remains. He had been decapitated and his heart had been cut out.
Commanding the 100th Company, 8th Marines in the area of Marche Canard, Captain Jesse L. Perkins led his Marines into the countryside to search for Batraville. Personally leading a squad of eleven Marines on 19 May, Perkins became aware of a large Cacos camp within a six hour march. He proceeded to the location with the assistance of native guides. At 0600, Perkins and his Marines encountered an outpost a short distance from the enemy’s main camp. Perkins sent Second Lieutenant Edgar G. Kirkpatrick with seven Marines to envelop the camp site. Captain Perkins, Sergeant William F. Passmore, Sergeant Albert A. Tauber, and Private Emery L. Entrekin [Note 7] assaulted the camp. Although greatly outnumbered, Perkins gambled on the element of surprise. Panic ensued once the Cacos observed the Marines rushing toward their position. Disregarding enemy fire, Perkins and his Marines rushed forward while firing their weapons, momentarily stunning the rebels. Benoit Batraville then appeared to take charge of the rebels. Recognizing Batraville, Sergeant Passmore turned and fired at Batraville with his Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), killing him instantly.
At the sound of the rifle fire, Lieutenant Kirkpatrick immediately led his seven Marines into a flanking assault. The firefight lasted another 15 minutes resulting in 10 enemy killed and several more seriously wounded. Sergeant Muth’s pistol was found on Batraville’s body.
Although the Cacos leader had been killed, the Marines continued to conduct patrols in order to keep the rebels from reorganizing around a new leader. Many of these patrols were conducted on horses and mules, since these animals were an excellent form of transportation over rough terrain [Note 8].
Problems with Cacos insurgents abated over time, but the hills were infested with bandits who traditionally preyed on defenseless women who were taking their wares to market. To solve this problem, Colonel Little had his Marines disguise themselves as women. When attacked by robbers, the Marines drew their weapons and resolved the problem. After a few of these encounters, Haitian thieves left the women alone.
As the insurgency died down, the Marines undertook other duties, such as mapping the countryside, road construction, building sanitation facilities, and training the local constabulary. When the 8th Marines was no longer needed in Haiti, it was once again deactivated and all assigned Marines were transferred to the 2nd Marine Regiment. We will not hear of the 8th Marines again until the outbreak of World War II.
- Santelli, J. S. A Brief History of the 8th Marines. Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1976
- Rottman, G. L. U. S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle, 1939-45. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002
- At this time, rifle companies were numerically designated.
- Regiments not ordered for service in Europe maintained the traditional Marine Corps structure. After World War I, Marine Corps regiments gradually adopted the Army’s regimental system.
- A portion of the munitions shipment had originated with the Remington Arms Company.
- Naval forces had been sent to Haiti in 1915 to protect American and other foreign interests. A series of revolts and disturbances led to an insurrection of Cacos bandits. The intervention dragged on for years as Marines struggled to bring stability to a Republic in shambles. Given what we know about Haiti today, the effort was a waste of American lives, time, and money.
- At this time, field and staff was the accepted title for what would later become Headquarters & Service Company.
- Thomas later served as Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps and retired in 1956. He passed away in 1984.
- Perkins, Passmore, Taubert, and Entrekin were awarded the Navy Cross medal.
- While Marines did use horses and mules, at no time were Marines employed as cavalry units. Of further interest, the US Army never developed a cavalry organization until after the Civil War. Before that, the Army employed dragoons, which were mounted infantry.