Airborne Marines

USMC-USN Parachutist BadgeSimilar to the development of U. S. Marine Corps raider battalions, the genesis of airborne qualified Marines came from our European allies during World War II.  In May 1940, the Commandant of the Marine Corps tasked his Plans and Policy branch to conduct a feasibility study for the utilization of Marine parachute troops.  General Holcomb asked his staff to plan for one battalion of infantry at full strength, one platoon of 75-mm pack howitzers (two guns per platoon), issued three units of fire for all weapons, three days of rations and water, adding light anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons as appropriate, and no vehicles beyond hand-drawn carts.

While the plans and policy branch considered the Commandant’s proposal, various naval attaches began collecting reports on the use of parachute forces by Germany, Russia, and France.

The plans and policy branch considered the Commandant’s proposal and came up with three possible scenarios where parachute units might be employed as a Marine combat force:

  • As a reconnaissance and raiding force with limited ability to return to its parent organization or base. In this application, planners assumed that the unit’s objective was sufficiently vital to the interests of the force commander that he was willing to sacrifice the entire organization to complete it, or
  • As a spearhead or advance unit whose mission would be to seize and hold a strategic objective until the arrival of larger, reinforcing organizations, or
  • As an independent force operating for extended periods as a guerrilla force within enemy held territory.

HOLCOMB T 001By October 1940, the Commandant decided that an element from one infantry battalion of each regiment would be trained as “air troops.”  Each air troop battalion would host a company of parachutists, estimating a total airborne force of 750 parachute qualified Marines.  The Commandant’s decision had nothing to do with transforming amphibious troops into air assault forces, but rather to increase the combat capability of the Marine infantry division —the same rationale he used in approving raider battalions.

Two Marine officers and 38 enlisted men reported to the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey for parachute training in late October 1940.  By early November, they had completed tower training and were sent to Quantico, Virginia for added physical conditioning prior to making their first jump.  A second group of Marines (3 officers and 44 enlisted men) began their initial training at the end of December.  Both groups graduated from parachute training on 26 February 1941, each man qualified as parachute jumpers and riggers.  Additional training occurred throughout the Spring and by mid-summer, a total of 225 jumpers had graduated from the Lakehurst course.

But NAS Lakehurst was inadequate for the training of so many Marines in such a compressed period of time, so Captain Marion L. Dawson, USMC was sent to San Diego in February 1941 to prepare additional facilities there.  In March, the entire graduating class of the second training group was transferred to San Diego to form the 1st Platoon, Company A, 2nd Parachute Battalion.  They were later joined by the third graduating class, who formed the 2nd Platoon, Company A.

Meanwhile, Company A of the 1st Parachute Battalion was formed at Quantico, Virginia on 10 July 1941 and to avoid confusion while in the process of growing a new battalion, Company A of the 2nd Parachute Battalion (San Diego) was renamed as Company B, 1st Parachute Battalion.  The parachute battalion headquarters element was activated on 15 August 1941, with Captain Marcellus J. Howard, USMC as its first commanding officer.  Howard relocated his emerging battalion to New River, North Carolina for further training on 28 September.  The 1st Parachute Battalion was fully formed on 1 March 1942, while the 2nd Parachute Battalion was activated on 23 July 1941 under the command of Captain Charles E. Shepard, Jr. and declared at full strength on 3 September 1942.

There were no shortages of volunteers for parachute training, but the requirements for entering the program were quite strict.  A successful applicant had to be unmarried, athletically inclined, above average in intelligence, between the ages of 18-32 years, and have no physical or mental impairments.  Extra pay was authorized for Marines who completed parachute training, which amounted to an additional $100 for officers and $50.00 for enlisted men, and this may have been a factor in the number of Marines who applied for parachute training.

War was declared against Japan after their attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and this resulted in a sudden demand for combat Marines.  The formation of specialized battalions put a tremendous strain on the Marine Corps because it was still in the process of putting together the manpower needed to expand regular conventional forces.  A decision to establish two parachute training schools at New River, North Carolina and San Diego, California would ensure that the Marines could assemble and provide replacements to three parachute battalions.  There were no barracks for these trainees, so they quartered in tents during their ten weeks of training. Each class consisted of 36 Marines and each school started a new class each week.  Eventually, parachute training school was reduced to six weeks of training, totaling 361 hours of instruction.

Parachute training was divided into three two-week phases, the first being ground training.  Phase I included parachute tactics, map reading, demolition training, techniques of fire, scouting, patrolling, water survival, and weapons familiarization.  Phase II included parachute packing, rigging, flotation training, and the handling of cargo containers.  Phase III involved actual jumping, beginning with controlled and free tower jumping, suspension lines, and six actual jumps.  At the completion of Phase III, Marines were presented with the parachute qualification wings.  Not everyone who began training successfully completed it —the washout rate was 40%.

Putting together the facilities for parachute training was only one of the problems facing the Marine Corps.  There was also the problem of staffing these schools with qualified instructors, which eventually forced the Marine Corps to select its instructors from the operating forces —men who had successfully completed jump school.  There was also a problem with acquiring sufficient numbers of parachutes for use in training Marines how to use them.

The Allied defeat of Japanese naval forces at Midway and the Coral Sea stopped Japan’s advance in the Pacific.  Japanese losses were substantial, losing over 400 carrier and land-based aircraft and five aircraft carriers.  Such losses forced Tokyo to assume a defensive posture.  Japan’s new military reality was to establish a strong defensive perimeter of the Japanese home islands; its focus was to transform Truk in the Caroline Islands into an impregnable stronghold.  To accomplish this, the Japanese would have to strengthen Rabaul on New Britain in the Solomon Islands.  Part of this defensive structure was eastern New guinea, Guadalcanal, and Tulagi in the southern Solomons chain.

Guadalcanal 002Fortified airbases in the foregoing named locations allowed the Japanese to meet Allied air and seaborne attacks by shuttling their own assets from one base to the next.  By mid-June 1942, the Japanese airfield construction program had begun in earnest, including at Guadalcanal, Florida, and Savo Islands.  The primary purpose was to cut communications between the United States and Australia and forestall any Allied offensive operations.  While setting in a robust defensive structure, the Japanese retained its threat to vital supply bases in New Caledonia, New Hebrides, and Fiji.

The 1st Parachute Battalion departed from the United States on 7 June 1942, arriving at Wellington, New Zealand on 11 July 1942.  Within a week, the battalion sailed to Koro, Fiji Islands where it began training and rehearsing for the assault on Guadalcanal—Code named Watchtower.

The Allied expeditionary force supporting Watchtower consisted of 75 ships and transports, including vessels of both the United States and Australia, which assembled off the Fiji Islands on 26 July 1942.  There was only time for one rehearsal landing exercise before departing for Guadalcanal on 31 July.  Overall command of the 16,000 (mostly) U. S. Marines fell under Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift.  Of the total assault force, 3,000 were scheduled to land on Tulagi and nearby islands of Florida, Gavutu, and Tanambogo.  Brigadier General William H. Rupertus, then serving as the Assistant Division Commander, 1st Marine Division, would lead the Tulagi-Gavutu-Tanambogo force.

Bad weather permitted the Allied force to arrive off station unseen by the Japanese on the morning of 7 August, but the Japanese did pick up increased radio traffic from the Allied expeditionary force and planned to send out reconnaissance aircraft at daybreak.  The landing force split into two groups for the assault on Guadalcanal and the Florida islands.  At daybreak, aircraft from the USS Wasp began bombing Japanese targets, destroying 15 seaplanes at anchorage near the islands.  Pre-assault naval bombardments were directed at Tulagi, Gavutu, Florida, and Tanambogo.

Tulagi Map 001The island of Tulagi is two miles long and a half mile wide; it lies just south of Florida Island and 22 miles directly north across Sealark Channel from Guadalcanal.  A ridge rising over 300 feet above sea level marks the northwest-southeast axis of the island.  Around two-thirds of the way down from its northwest tip, the ridge is broken by a ravine and then rises again in a triangle of hills, designated Hill 208 in the southeast and Hill 281 in the northeast.

Tulagi had been the seat of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, with the governor’s residence and other offices on its northeast side.  About 3,000 yards east of Tulagi are the small islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo, which are joined by a 500-yard long causeway.

At 0800 on 7 August, the 1st Raider Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson and 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines under Lieutenant Colonel Harold E. Rosecrans made an unopposed landing on the western shore of Tulagi.  Coral formations kept the landing craft from reaching the shore, which required that the Marines had to wade ashore from about 100 meters from the beach.

Japanese forces at Tulagi and Gavutu were assigned to the 3rd Kure Special Naval Landing Force and an aviation detachment.  The assault at Gavutu was not simultaneous with the landing at Tulagi, however.  Insufficient numbers of landing craft delayed the 1st Parachute Battalion’s assault for four hours while the 1st Raider Battalion and 2/5 were completely ashore.

The 1st Parachute Battalion under Major Robert H. Williams finally made their assault in three waves beginning at noon on 7 August 1942.  After landing, Company B made some progress inland before the Japanese garrison was able to implement their defense plan.  Earlier naval gunfire had destroyed the seaplane ramp at Gavutu, forcing Marines in the second and third waves to land at a more exposed location.  Japanese machine gun fire inflicted heavy casualties on the Marines of Company A and Company C; one Marine in ten was either killed or wounded, including the battalion commander, who was quickly replaced by the executive officer, Major Charles A. Miller.

Tanambogo 001Marines from Company A and Company C quickly employed their Browning 1919 Machine guns and mortars under the direction of Captain George Stallings to suppress enemy fire, allowing more Marines to push inland.  As reflected on the map at left, Gavutu and Tanambogo are little more than mounds of coral averaging around 50 meters above sea level, except for two hills, one on each islet, numbered 148 and 121, reflecting their height in meters.  Japanese on both islets were well entrenched in bunkers and caves constructed on and within both of these hills and organized with mutually supporting fields of fire.  Marine planners had significantly underestimated the strength of the Japanese garrisons.

After a battle lasting well over two hours, the Marines were able to work their way to the top of Hill 148 and began destroying Japanese positions with demolition charges, hand grenades, and in some cases hand-to-hand fighting along the slopes of the hill.  From the apex of Hill 148, Marines were able to suppress Japanese fire coming from Tanambogo.  Major Miller radioed a request to General Rupertus for reinforcements before mounting an assault on Tanambogo.

Most of the defenders on Tanambogo were aviation personnel, some of which were armed with no more than hand sickles and gardening tools.  General Rupertus detached one company from the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines (1/2) on Florida Island to assist in securing Tanambogo.  Rupertus was advised by his staff that a single company would not be sufficient but Rupertus apparently knew better and ordered the company to assault the Islet.  The Marines from 1/2 were hit by overwhelming machine gun fire as they approached the landing area, which resulted in many casualties among the Navy landing craft crews.  Three landing craft were heavily damaged.  Realizing that his position was untenable, the company commander ordered the remaining boats to depart with wounded Marines aboard; he and twelve of his men who had already landed sprinted across the causeway seeking cover on Gavutu.  Japanese casualties on Tanambogo on 7 August was only ten killed in action.

Throughout the night, Japanese defenders staged isolated attacks against the Marines on Gavutu, their movements concealed by heavy thunderstorms.  General Vandegrift alerted 3/2 to standby for a reinforcing assault.  The battalion began its landing at Gavutu at 10:00 on the morning of 8 August; once ashore, 3/2 assisted 1st Parachute Battalion in the destruction of all remaining Japanese defenders, which was completed in two hours.

At this time, 3/2 prepared to attack Tanambogo across the causeway and 1st Parachute Battalion was assigned to provide covering fire.  Dive bombers and naval artillery were also requested, but when aircraft dropped their ordnance on Marines on two occasions, killing several of them, further air support was called off.  Accurate artillery was provided by USS San Juan, however, which lasted for 30 minutes.

The 3/2 assault began at 16:15, by landing craft and across the causeway, and with the assistance from two light tanks[1], the attack began making headway against the stout Japanese defense.  One of these tanks became hung up on a tree stump and, isolated from its infantry support, was surrounded by a group of about 50 Japanese.  They set fire to the tank, killing two of its crewmen and severely beat the other two crewmen before most of these men were killed by Marine Corps rifle fire.  There were 42 bodies around the defeated tank, including the remains of senior officers and pilots.

Throughout the day, Marines methodically destroyed the Japanese-held caves with demolition charges.  By 21:00, most of the Japanese defenders were dead, but a few holdouts continued to attack the Marines at night with several hand-to-hand engagements.  By noon on 9 August, all Japanese resistance on Tanambogo ended.  476 Japanese were killed, 70 Americans joined them.  Most of the 20 prisoners were construction workers.

Paramarines 001On 9 August 1st Parachute Battalion was moved to Tulagi to reinforce the 1st Raider Battalion and took up positions as a security force near the government buildings.  A month later, the 1st Parachute Battalion and 1st Raider Battalion, both under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson, executed a raid in the vicinity of Taivu near the village of Tasimboko, Guadalcanal.  The Raiders landed at Taivu Point and advanced toward Tasimboko, while the Parachute Marines landed 2,000 yards east of the village and took up positions to protect the flank and rear of the Raider advance.  Following an intense fire fight with Japanese defenders of Tasimboko, the combined force entered the village and destroyed food, medical equipment, and military stores.  Before dark on 8 September 1942, the two battalions withdrew to its embarkation point.

Several days later, again in conjunction with the 1st Raider Battalion, 1st Parachute Battalion was ordered to occupy the ridge southeast of Henderson Field[2] on Guadalcanal.  Enemy activity increased on 11 September and reached a peak during the night of 13-14 September when the Marine perimeter repulsed strong and repeated attacks by Japanese forces.  This battle would become known as the Battle of Bloody Ridge, also the Battle of Edson’s Ridge.  This action severely mauled General Kawaguchi’s force, against whom the previous raid had been staged.

On 18 September the 1st Parachute Battalion was withdrawn from Guadalcanal and transported to New Caledonia for rest, refit, and retraining.  Between September 1942 and the spring of 1943, the 1st Parachute Battalion was re-indoctrinated in jump techniques, parachute packing, patrolling, scouting, and platoon, company, and battalion sized operations.

Paramarines 002The 2nd Parachute Battalion arrived at Wellington, New Zealand on 31 October 1942 and remained in camp until January 1943 when it was transported to Noumea to undergo further training with the 1st Parachute Battalion.

The 3rd Parachute Battalion under Major Robert T. Vance was organized on 16 September 1942 and assigned to the 3rd Marine Division in general support of Amphibious Corps Operations, Pacific Fleet.  Dispatched to Noumea to join the other two parachute battalions, 3rd Parachute Battalion arrived on 27 March 1943.  Five days later, the 1st Parachute Regiment was activated, consisting of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Parachute Battalions, Regimental Weapons Company, and the Headquarters & Service Company.  Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Williams, having recovered from his wounds on Gavutu, assumed command of the Regiment.

A 4th Parachute Battalion was formed on 2 April 1943 under Lieutenant Colonel Marcellus J. Howard, but the battalion remained in training status until it was disbanded on 19 January 1944.

In early September 1943, Allied headquarters directed several reconnaissance patrols to Choiseul to gather intelligence on Japanese dispositions, force concentrations, and their normal patrol activity.  The reconnaissance patrols involved clandestine elements of the New Zealand armed forces, US Marines, and US Navy personnel.  These units operated for several days in the southwestern part of the island and in the northwest.  Contact was made with coast watchers seeking suitable sites for airfields and beaches capable of landing operations.  From these missions, it was determined that the terrain was unsuited for dropping troops by air and if troops were landed at all, it would require an amphibious operation.  Owing to numerous coral reefs off shore there were very few beaches on the island suitable for an amphibious assault —but one of these was at Voza, the site of an abandoned village.

After being transported to Guadalcanal for pre-combat assignments, the 1st Parachute Regiment was moved to Vella Lavella.  While encamped, the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Parachute Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Victor H. Krulak[3], was summoned to the I Marine Amphibious Corps headquarters on Guadalcanal.  He was advised of an impending operation on the island of Bougainville[4], scheduled to begin on 1 November 1943.  Krulak’s mission was to lead a raiding force onto the island of Choiseul and create as great a disturbance as possible in order to confuse the enemy and mask the true location of the main assault.  Upon return to Vella Lavella to plan his operation, he was aided by Australian coast watchers who provided vital information on enemy forces and dispositions.

Krulak’s operation consisted of three rifle companies reinforced by a communications platoon, a regimental weapons detachment, and a detachment from an experimental rocket platoon.  In total, the force would consist of 30 officers and 626 men.  2nd Parachute Battalion was loaded into four fast transports and departed Vella Lavella in the evening of 27 October 1943, landing unopposed near Voza[5].  Krulak led his men about a mile inland and set up a base camp.  On 28 and 29 October, patrols were sent out to reconnoiter Japanese positions at Sangigai to the southeast and along the Warrior River in the north.

The attack on Sangigai began at around 11:00 on 30 October when Company E opened fire on the Japanese garrison there.  The Japanese quickly retreated toward the mountains directly into the path of Company F which had executed an envelopment of the village, flanking the enemy position.  Company E immediately moved into the village, secured it, and destroyed all buildings and facilities, a barge, and around 180 tons of supplies.  By 0800 the next morning, the raiders had returned to their base camp having lost 6 Marines killed in action, 12 wounded (including Krulak) while killing 75 Japanese soldiers.

A second raiding party under Major Warner T. Bigger was sent north to Nukiki and then overland to the Warrior River.  This group mortared Japanese installations on nearby Guppy Island, which started several large fires.  After encountering stiff enemy resistance, the party was withdrawn by landing craft.  Krulak continued to send out patrols on 1 and 2 November.  By 3 November, the Japanese recognized that the American force was small and began to close in on the beachhead and after laying minefields and booby traps, Krulak’s battalion was withdrawn during the night of 3-4 November[6].

On 22 November 1943, the 1st Parachute Battalion under Major Richard Fagan embarked 23 officers and 596 Marines on four infantry landing craft (also, LCIs), and headed for Bougainville.  The battalion arrived off Empress Augusta Bay on 23 November and after going ashore, the battalion went into reserve under I Amphibious Corps, being administratively attached to the 2nd Raider Regiment.  Four days later, 1st Parachute Battalion was task organized (reinforced by Company M of the 3rd Raider Battalion and an artillery forward observer team from the 12th Marines) for a raid on Japanese supply facilities near Koiari, south of Cape Torokina.

The movement of 1st Parachute Battalion from Cape Torokina to Koiari took about an hour by LCI.  Fagan intended to come ashore some distance from the Japanese supply depot and approach the enemy from the rear, but it was soon discovered that the landing had taken place in the center of the supply depot tactical zone.  The Marines quickly formed a defensive perimeter, as they were surrounded on three sides by Japanese forces and had their backs to the sea.  A fierce battle raged for several hours.  With casualties mounting and ammunition running low, Fagan requested to be withdrawn.  Shortly before 18:00, three destroyers arrived offshore and began delivering artillery support to the flanks of the beleaguered battalion.  Naval gunfire was augmented by 155-mm howitzers from Cape Torokina.  Thus, protected on three sides by artillery fire, Fagan was able to load his Marines on rescue boats.  1st Parachute Battalion suffered 15 killed in action (KIA), 99 wounded, and 7 Marines unaccounted for.

On 3 December, the 1st Parachute Battalion was joined by its parent regiment (less the 2nd Battalion), which two days later was sent to occupy a forward position of the 3rd Marine Division front.  During this time, the Marines were under constant attack and harassment by Japanese forces.  On 10 December, the parachute Marines were withdrawn and replaced by the 9th Marines and 21st Marines and moved into Division reserve.  On 22 December 1st Parachute Battalion, the regimental weapons company, and a platoon from H&S Company were attached to the 2nd Raider Regiment as a relief for the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (1/3) near Eagle Creek.  This unit was later relieved by the 132nd Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division on 11 January 1944.

By mid-January 1944, all parachute battalions were embarked aboard troop transport ships for return to the United States.  The Marine Corps was in the process of creating six (6) infantry divisions and five (5) aircraft wings, circumstances that could not justify retaining specialized battalions such as Raider or Parachute battalions/regiments.  Beyond this, none of the battle areas in the central and south Pacific region lent themselves to parachute drops, with the exception of one combat drop at Tagaytay Ridge in the Philippines, which was successfully conducted by the U. S. Army’s 11th Airborne Division in 1945.  With this one exception, all US parachute units normally fought as regular infantry organizations.

There were four essential factors to explain why, after spending the time and money to train Marines as parachutists, they were never used in that capacity.  As previously stated, island terrain simply did not lend itself to a successful airdrop insertion of combat troops, nor were there a sufficient land-based staging area for parachutists or aircraft.  Next, the Marine Corps did not have sufficient aircraft to airlift more than a single battalion; it would have taken six squadrons of transport aircraft to accomplish the movement of two parachute regiments.  Finally, the distances between suitable rear area staging areas and forward area combat zones exceeded the range of fully loaded transport aircraft.

The parachute battalions were always a “luxury” that the Marine Corps could ill-afford (the costs of training, specialized equipment, etc.) but they had certainly made noteworthy contributions to the Pacific war and their professionalism brought credit to the reputation of the Marine Corps.  This would all become apparent a year later when many of these disbanded units were rolled into the newly created 5th Marine Division, which went ashore during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Note: Parachute qualified Marines continue to serve in limited numbers, either as members of reconnaissance units or as members of the Raider Battalion community, brought back into active service in 2014.

Sources:

  1. Hoffman, J. T. Silk Chutes and Hard Fighting: USMC Parachutes Units in World War II.  Washington: USMC Historical Division, (1999).
  2. Johnstone, J. H.  USMC Parachute Units.  Washington: USMC Historical Division, (1961).

Endnotes:

[1] The light tank, M-3 (unofficially, M3 Stuart) was named for J. E. B. Stuart of Civil War fame.

[2] The initial construction of this airfield was begun by the Japanese Imperial Army; after it was seized by Allied forces, the airfield was renamed in honor of Major Lofton Henderson, USMC, Commanding Officer of VMSB-241, who was killed during the Battle of Midway —the first Marine Corps aviator killed in the battle.

[3] Lieutenant General Krulak served at the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific from 1 March 1964 to 1968.  Krulak’s son Charles served as the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995-1999.

[4] Bougainville Island is the principal island of Papua New Guinea and the largest of the Solomon Islands archipelago.  It is named after the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville discovered some time in 1768.

[5] Voza is located along the coast of Choiseul Island northwest of the village of Sangigai.  The island itself runs 75 miles in length and up to 25 miles in width at its widest point.

[6] One of the patrol boats providing security for Krulak’s force was commanded by a young lieutenant by the name of John F. Kennedy.

Memorial Day

Memorial Day

 

With a sober heart we pray

On this solemn Memorial Day

And recall those who gave their all

So that our Nation yet stands tall

So many wars and rivers of tears

Shed by mothers, fathers, and dears

They sacrificed their lives for us

As did our Lord … so long ago

Dear Lord, have mercy on those who serve

Love them, protect them, bring them home

Bless them Lord, and should they die

Take them home with you to abide.

For it is said, “ … no greater love than this

A man gives up his life for a friend.”

With this in mind, we must recall

Those who gave us … their all.

 

A Brave Australian

Captain Albert Jacka, V.C., M.C.

AUS ARMY 001I could not disagree more with the “journalist” Tom Brokaw when he labeled our fathers and grandfathers from World War II the “greatest generation.”  Sociologists and other eggheads want us to know that the greatest generation followed the lost generation of World War I and preceded the silent generation of the 1960s.  Balderdash.  There may have been good reasons for disillusionment among the World War I generation, it was, after all, a horrible war.  Bad memories plague all combat veterans for the balance of their lives.  The silent generation (1928-1945) was hardly silent in mounting massive numbers of anti-war protest in the 1960s[1].

My problem with Brokaw is that in singling out one generation over another he renders a tremendous disservice to those who fought in all our wars, beginning with the American Revolution.  A terrible price was paid in each of these.  Were the soldiers of World War I less brave than those of World War II?  Were the men of World War II any more courageous than those who fought in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq?  Personally, I have room in my heart for all these men; the horror of war significantly changed, and sometimes shortened, their lives.  They experienced diminished lifespans, painful war disability, and tormented sleepless nights for the balance of their time on earth.

Service men and women of all generations are worthy of our interest and respect.  Many of these stand out because they participated in momentous events, others because of their personal bravery.  Every combat soldier runs the risk of death or serious injury, and yet when it is time to muster for battle, they overcome their basest fears, they “fall in,” they perform their duty, and they stand as one.

Nearly all nations have decorations to bestow upon men (and now, women) who outperform all others during the crucible of war.  Countries assign seniority over their medals, a precedence from highest to lowest honors.  In the United States, we award Purple Heart Medals to those wounded or killed in action.  The highest decoration in the United States, awarded for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty is the Medal of Honor, first authorized by the Department of the Navy in 1861.

Victoria CrossThe highest military decoration of the British Empire[2] (now, United Kingdom-British Commonwealth) is the Victoria Cross, authorized in 1854 (during the Crimean War).  The Victoria Cross distinguishes those demonstrating conspicuous bravery, valor, self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.  It differs from earlier forms of recognition for gallantry in the sense that the Victoria Cross did not discriminate according to birth or class.  Queen Victoria presented the first medals at Hyde Park in 1857.  Today, the highest military decoration of Australia (a British Commonwealth nation) is the Victoria Cross of Australia, generally awarded by the Governor-General of Australia[3].

In 1915, Australia was part of the British Empire.  One hundred five years ago, the London Gazette published a brief announcement stating that King George V[4] had awarded Lance Corporal Albert Jacka the Victoria Cross.  No one in London knew who Albert Jacka was because he was a somewhat obscure young man from Australia.

Albert was born on a dairy farm just outside Winchelsea, Victoria, Australia on 10 January 1893.  He was the fourth of seven children born to Nathaniel Jacka and his English-born wife Elizabeth.  He attended primary school, as most children of that period did, and then began working with his father as a freight hauler.  When the Great War began, Albert was a 21-year old employee of the Forestry Department at Heathcote.  His work involved the installation of fencing, clearing fire breaks, and planting saplings.  At the time, he was one of twenty such employees.

JACKA A LCPL 001Albert enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) on 8 September 1914; after initial training, he joined the 14th Battalion, 4th Brigade.  Turkey’s affiliation with the Axis powers prompted the dispatch of the 4th Brigade to the Middle East as part of the 1st Australian Division.  Their mission was to guard the Suez Canal and undergo additional pre-combat training.  Jacka’s first combat action exposed him to violent brutality.  He was but one of thousands of young men who participated in the ill-conceived Australian landing at Gallipoli[5] on 25 April 1915, a battle that began the disastrous nine-month campaign that claimed the lives of more than 8,000 young Australians.

At 0330 on 19 May 1915, the Turks launched a small-unit assault against the ANZAC[6] line at Courtney’s Post.  After tossing hand-grenades into the Australian position, the Turks leapt into the trench.  Jacka’s squad received the brunt of the explosions; three of Jacka’s men died instantly from the effects of the grenades with the rest of them receiving wounds from grenade fragments and gun fire.  Lance Corporal Jacka alone remained unaffected.  Jacka ordered the evacuation of his men while he alone remained behind to provide covering fire.  He held off the Turks until the platoon commander sent up a few reinforcements.

Jacka Assault 1915Jacka was not a big man.  He stood just over 5’ 6” tall, but his pre-military service employment had developed him into a muscular man of considerable strength.  He was also a man devoted to his unit, his mates, and a man possessed of rugged determination.  With only three men initially sent to reinforce him, Lance Corporal Jacka ordered them to fix bayonets.  He would lead the charge back to Courtney’s Post, they would follow him.  With this small force of four men, Jacka launched a counterattack against the Turks.  In the ensuing fight, one additional Australian fell, mortally wounded; concentrated Turkish rifle fire forced Jacka to withdraw his fire team and call for additional reinforcements.

When those reinforcements arrived, Jacka organized them.  He instructed them to lay down a base of fire against the Turks.  After his men took up their firing positions, Jacka crawled out of the trench, crossed an area of “no man’s land,” and re-entered the trench behind the Turks.  He then assaulted the Turks, shooting five of them, bayoneting two others, and taking three prisoners of war.  Jacka then held Courtney’s Post alone until daybreak when additional soldiers re-manned the trench.

As the war continued, casualties mounted.  The Battle of Chunuk Blair, an Australian attempt to break out of the beachhead, added thousands more to the list of dead and wounded.  In their hemmed in positions, the Australians had no tactical advantage.  In recognition of his sustained courage under fire, Lance Corporal Jacka’s commanding officer promoted him to corporal in late August, again to sergeant two weeks later, and by mid-November, he served as company sergeant major.

In July 1915, the British government announced that King George had awarded Jacka he Victoria Cross.  He was then 22-years of age, making him the first Australian to receive the VC during World War I.  The award also entitled him to £500 per month, which at the time was an enormous sum of money.

In early December 1915, after nine months of fighting with no strategic or tactical gains, and with an excess of 26,000 casualties, the Australians began their withdrawal from Gallipoli.  Jacka’s battalion withdrew to Egypt where, after a few weeks, Jacka’s command assigned him to officer training school.  Passing with high marks, Jacka received his commission to second lieutenant.  During this time, the Australian Imperial Force received replacements and underwent a period of reorganization.  Some of the combat experienced men from the 14th Battalion transferred to the 46th Battalion; the 4th Brigade combined with the 12th and 13th to form the 4th Australian Division.

Over the next three years Jacka’s battlefield bravery in France and Belgium became an inspiration to those back home.  One Australian battalion began calling itself “Jacka’s Mob.”  Yet, despite becoming a hero to the folks back home, Jacka fell out of favor with the officers in his chain of command.  Apparently, Jacka began to criticize and question the orders passed down through the ranks, which in Jacka’s opinion, foolishly placed his men in harm’s way.

In late July, Jacka found himself embroiled in the Battle of Pozières near the French village of the same name during the Somme Campaign.  The costly fighting ended with the British in possession of a plateau north and east of the village and positioned to menace the German position at Thiepval.  According to one Australian historian, “the Pozières  ridge is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.”  Jacka again demonstrated exceptional bravery on 7 August.

In the early dawn hours, German troops swept through the ANZAC ranks and at one point, infiltrated Jacka’s position.  At the end of the assault, only seven Australians remained uninjured.  Jacka was one of the wounded.  As the Germans began rounding up Anzac prisoners Jacka formed the surviving men and led them in an attack.  Jacka’s small force made a vigorous assault upon the Germans and engaged them in hand-to-hand fighting.  Jacka received multiple wounds during the engagement and just as the Germans began to encircle the eight men, Aussie reinforcements arrived.  Many Germans were killed, more than fifty taken prisoner, and the Australian captives freed.

Jacka finally fell with his seventh combat wound when a bullet passing through his body just under his shoulder.  Four of the seven men who fought with him died in the assault.  As Jacka was lifted from the ground and placed on a stretcher, one orderly remarked that he must be the bravest man in the Australian Army.  Such a statement, obviously communicated with respect and admiration, is probably not true; there were many brave men serving in the Australian Army during World War I.  Not everyone’s courage was recognized or reported upon.  Nevertheless, Jacka’s superior officers remembered his border-line insubordination and, therefore, were hesitant to recommend him for a second combat award.

Medically evacuated to Britain, Jacka received the Victoria Cross at Windsor Castle in September 1916.  It was a great honor, of course, but he was at the same time resentful that his actions at Pozières were not similarly recognized.  Jacka received a promotion to lieutenant in December 1916 and resumed his regular duties.

In March 1917, Jacka was promoted to captain and appointed to serve as the 14th Battalion’s intelligence officer.  In early April 1917, the 4th Australian Division operated on the western front under the 1st ANZAC Corps of the British Fifth Army, which was then engaged in support of the Third Army in the Battle of Arras.  The operation called for a flanking movement and time was of the essence.  The lack of artillery dictated the use of a company of (12) tanks to crush the barbed wire and lead the attacking force into the Hindenburg Line.  The tanks were late in arriving, however, and the 4th Australian Division’s attack was therefore delayed.  The 4th Australian Divisions adjacent command, the 62nd Division did not receive the message to postpone the attack and its forward element advanced into the Bullecourt defenses resulting in 162 casualties before they withdrew back into the British line.  The mistake was costly too because by advancing before the Fifth Army was ready for a coordinated effort, the Germans were made aware of the Allied intention.

The German troops feared Allied tanks, the result of which prompted the Germans to concentrate their crew-served weapons on these terrifying weapons and the Germans learned that the tanks were vulnerable to armor piercing projectiles.  On the night of 8 April, Jacka conducted a reconnaissance patrol into “no man’s land” to investigate German defenses before a scheduled Allied attack.  While laying markers to guide assault troops, he captured a two-man German patrol.  For this action, Jacka would eventually receive a bar (indicating second award) of the Military Cross.  The Battle of Bullecourt, however, was a disaster for the Australians of the 4th Brigade … much of this attributed to the incompetence of the Fifth Army commander, some of it because the British were only beginning to come to terms with the concept of tank-infantry coordination.  Of approximately 3,000 Australians attached to the 4th Brigade, 2,339 men were either killed or wounded.

In June, Captain Jacka was appointed to command Company D, 14th Battalion and led his company through the Battle of Messines Ridge.  During this engagement, Company D overran several machine gun positions and captured a German field gun.  On 8 July, Jacka was again wounded by sniper fire near Ploeqsteert Wood.  After two months of hospitalization, he returned to the front in late September and took command of the 14th Battalion during the Battle of Polygon Wood.

In May 1918, Jacka suffered injury from a mustard gas attack outside the village of Villers-Bretonneux, his condition made worse by also being shot in the trachea.  His wound and condition were so severe that he was not expected to survive.  He was eventually returned to the United Kingdom for a long recuperative period.

Jacka returned to Australia on 6 September 1919 and he was discharged from military service on 10 January 1920.  Albert Jacka never fully recovered from his wounds, which were several and severe.  He passed away in 1932, aged 39 years.  Captain Jacka was one hell of a soldier, fierce and dangerous to an opposing enemy.  There are those in Australia who believe that Captain Jacka deserved three awards of the Victoria Cross; some argue that it was only British snobbery that kept him from being so recognized, but historians refute this claim.  Jacka’s superiors, the men he too-frequently criticized, were Australians and it was they who refused to recommend him for subsequent awards of the Victoria Cross.

Jacka A PortraitWar is horribly brutal.  War time events create memories that never go away.  People who experience war relive it in their minds for the balance of their lives.  They experience flashbacks and nightmares for the rest of their days.  People who never experienced combat may empathize with our combat veterans, but they will never fully understand combat.  If the folks back home fully understood war, they would never again allow their governments to send their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers or sisters into the jaws of death.  Lessons from the past are always useful in the present, but only if we are wise enough to learn from them.  So far in human history, we either have not learned anything, or we conveniently ignore the facts.

All the men and women of our armed forces are brave, no matter what war they fought in, irrespective of war time era and Tom Brokaw is wrong to suggest one greater than another.  If this were not true, then our young men and women would never don a military uniform.  That said, some of our men and women are more than brave; they are incredibly so.  One of these incredibly brave men was an Australian named Albert Jacka.

Sources:

  • Grant, I.  Jacka, VC: Australia’s Finest Fighting Soldier(South Melbourne, Victoria: Macmillan Australia, 1989.
  • Lawriwsky, M.  Hard Jacka: The Story of a Gallipoli Legend(Chatswood, N.S.W.: Mira Books, 2007.
  • Macklin, R.  Jacka VC: Australian Hero(Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2006.

Endnotes

[1] I often wonder if these people protested the wars in Korean and Vietnam as much as they protested having to serve their country.

[2] 1497-1997

[3] The Governor-General of Australia is the British monarch’s representative in Australia and serves as head of state.

[4] Grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II.

[5] The landing at Gallipoli was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, then serving as First Lord of the Admiralty.

[6] Australian-New Zealand Army Corps

A Last Full Measure

I don’t do book or movie reviews because I’m not qualified.  Occasionally, however, I do offer summaries, not so much of the book or film, but of events that I find interesting, touching, or otherwise significant.  One of these is the story of U. S. Air Force Staff Sergeant William H. Pitsenbarger (1944-1966).  It truly is an extraordinary story and I enthusiastically recommend the 2019 film The Last Full Measure.

Pitsenbarger grew up in a small town just outside Dayton, Ohio.  While still in high school, Bill Pitsenbarger contacted a local Army recruiter about enlisting with an option for Special Forces (Green Beret) training.  When he spoke to his parents about his interests, they refused to give their permission.  Upon graduation from high school, Bill Pitsenbarger joined the Air Force on the delayed entry program.

Pitsenbarger 001At the completion of basic training at San Antonio, Texas, Pitsenbarger volunteered for pararescue training[1].  In 1963, this included Army parachute school, survival, evasion, resistance, and escape training, and air crash rescue and firefighting.  Bill Pitsenbarger’s first assignment after his initial training was Hamilton AFB, California.  While assigned to Hamilton AFB, Pitsenbarger performed a period of temporary additional duty in the Republic of Vietnam.  At the conclusion of this temporary assignment, Pitsenbarger volunteered to return to Vietnam for a regular tour of duty where he reported for duty with Detachment 6, 38th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Bien Hoa Air Base just outside Saigon (now, Ho Chi Minh City).  Detachment 6 included five aircrews that flew three Kaman HH-43F “Huskie” Helicopters commanded by Major Maurice Kessler, USAF.

The 2nd Battalion, 16th US Infantry arrived at Vung Tau, South Vietnam, on 10 October 1965 attached to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One).  Initially, 2/16 encamped at Ben Cat, north of Saigon.  The division wasted no time getting this newly arrived brigade adapted to the combat environment.  Operations Bushmaster and Bloodhound involved aggressive patrolling adjacent to Highway 13 and the Michelin Rubber Plantation, followed by Operation Mastiff (February 1966) and Abilene (March-April 1966).

Operation Abilene was a search and destroy mission targeting the 274th and 275th Viet Cong Regiments of the 5th Division.  Abilene employed two brigades of the US 1st Infantry Division with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and 161st Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery assigned in support.  Initially, the Viet Cong avoided battle and contact with the communists was sporadic.

Major General William e. DePuy[2], as commander of the Big Red One, devised a plan to lure the VC into attacking his force.  He assigned Company C, 2/16 to act as the bait.  Once the VC attacked Company C, DePuy planned to rush in additional rifle companies to surround and destroy the Viet Cong force.  At the time, the strength of Company C was 134 soldiers; it was only marginally effective as a US rifle company.

On 11 April 1966, as Charlie Company moved through the Courtenay Rubber Plantation, its understrength platoons encountered sporadic fire from communist snipers who attempted to kill the Americans one at a time.  This intermittent fire allowed VC forces to maneuver around the outnumbered Americans.  By 1400, it became apparent that VC officers were systematically directing their men to encircle the Americans.  The communists had taken DePuy’s bait, but through “piss poor” planning, thick jungle prevented the 2nd Battalion’s other companies from surrounding the VC or reinforcing Charlie Company.  Worse, friendly artillery fire further decimated the few men now surrounded by a superior enemy force.

Desperate fighting continued through the night; the soldiers of Charlie Company threw everything they had at the Viet Cong, including tear gas grenades.  While established in a tight perimeter with mutually supporting crew-served weapons fire, the enemy was still able to breach the company’s lines —in the process of exfiltration, slitting the throats of soldiers wounded and awaiting medical evacuation.  After five hours of brutal combat, what remained of Company C formed a tight perimeter protected only by supporting artillery, delivered at the rate of five rounds per minute.

Kaman HH-43 001
USAF HH-43 Huskie

It was in this setting that the Joint Rescue Center dispatched two HH-43 Huskie helicopters to extract wounded soldiers of C/2/16INF near Cam My, 35 miles east of Saigon.  Upon reaching the extraction site, the helicopter crew lowered Senior Airman Bill Pitsenbarger, USAF to the ground to prepare wounded soldiers for evacuation.  It was then that Pitsenbarger learned that the company medic was one of the wounded, that his wounds were enough to warrant aeromedical evacuation, and that he needed to remain on the ground to provide medical support to the men of Charlie Company.  Pitsenbarger continued to provide life-saving treatment to the wounded and load them aboard returning helicopters.

The Air Force crew wanted Pitsenbarger back aboard the aircraft, but he elected to remain with the beleaguered company.  Enemy small-arms fire struck one of the helicopters and its engine began to lose power.  Pitsenbarger waived the helicopter off and continued administering to the wounded soldiers.  The intensity of the enemy fire precluded further evacuations.  For the next several hours, Pitsenbarger tended the wounded, hacking splints out of jungle vines, building improvised stretchers out of saplings, and when the infantry troops began running out of ammunition, Pitsenbarger gathered it from the dead and distributed it to those remaining alive.

With the arrival of darkness, Bill Pitsenbarger borrowed a rifle from a fallen soldier and joined with members of Charlie Company in forming a night perimeter.  During the night, enemy fire took the life of Bill Pitsenbarger.  The next morning, reinforcements arrived at the battle site to discover the young Airman’s body on the perimeter, his rifle in one hand, his medical kit in the other.

While serving in Vietnam, Senior Airman Bill Pitsenbarger completed 250 pararescue missions.  His selfless courage under fire at Xa Cam My prompted his command to recommend him for the Medal of Honor.  Instead, the Air Force posthumously awarded Pitsenbarger the Air Force Cross (AFC).  Not everyone agreed with this decision.  For the next 34 years, Air Force squadron mates and surviving members of Charlie Company worked tirelessly to have his AFC upgraded to the Medal of Honor.  They accomplished their mission on 8 December 2000 when the Secretary of the Air Force presented his surviving and still-grieving parents with their son’s much deserved Medal of Honor and a posthumous promotion to Staff Sergeant (E-5).

Medal of Honor Citation:

USAF Medal of Honor 001
USAF Medal of Honor

Airman First Class Pitsenbarger distinguished himself by extreme valor on April 11, 1966 near Cam My, Republic of Vietnam, while assigned as a Pararescue Crew Member, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron.  On that date, Airman Pitsenbarger was aboard a rescue helicopter responding to a call for evacuation of casualties incurred in an on-going firefight between elements of the United States Army’s 1st Infantry Division and a sizable enemy force approximately 35 miles east of Saigon.  With complete disregard for personal safety, Airman Pitsenbarger volunteered to ride a hoist more than one hundred feet through the jungle, to the ground.  On the ground, he organized and coordinated rescue efforts, cared for the wounded, prepared casualties for evacuation, and insured that the recovery operation continued in a smooth and orderly fashion.  Through his personal efforts, the evacuation of the wounded was greatly expedited.  As each of the nine casualties evacuated that day were recovered, Pitsenbarger refused evacuation in order to get one more wounded soldier to safety.  After several pick-ups, one of the two rescue helicopters involved in the evacuation was struck by heavy enemy ground fire and was forced to leave the scene for an emergency landing.  Airman Pitsenbarger stayed behind, on the ground, to perform medical duties.  Shortly thereafter, the area came under sniper and mortar fire.  During a subsequent attempt to evacuate the site, American forces came under heavy assault by a large Viet Cong force.  When the enemy launched the assault, the evacuation was called off and Airman Pitsenbarger took up arms with the besieged infantrymen.  He courageously resisted the enemy, braving intense gunfire to gather and distribute vital ammunition to American defenders.  As the battle raged on, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to care for the wounded, pull them out of the line of fire, and return fire whenever he could, during which time, he was wounded three times.  Despite his wounds, he valiantly fought on, simultaneously treating as many wounded as possible.  In the vicious fighting which followed, the American forces suffered 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached, and airman Pitsenbarger was finally fatally wounded.  Airman Pitsenbarger exposed himself to almost certain death by staying on the ground and perished while saving the lives of wounded infantrymen.  His bravery and determination exemplify the highest professional standards and traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Air Force.

Staff Sergeant Pitsenbarger’s combat awards include the Medal of Honor[3], Airman’s Medal, two Purple Heart medals, Air Medal, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross.

See also: A Jolly Green Miracle.

A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors.

–John F. Kennedy.

Sources:

  1. Tilford, E. Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia, 1961-75, Office of USAF History, 1980 (PDF)
  2. Deeter, J. William H. Pitsenbarger: A Hero of Piqua and America.  This local life, Troy Ohio, undated

Endnotes:

[1] Pararescue training began in 1946 in the U. S. Army Air Corps.  The mission of ARS was saving the lives of airmen downed as a result of disasters, accidents, crash landings at locations beyond their assigned air base.  The far-flung nature of Army/Air Force operations created a demand for a larger pararescue service, which was separate and distinct from local base rescue units.  Pararescue teams include a physician, and four medics additionally trained in field medicine, rescue operations, parachute training, and basic infantry tactics.  The Vietnam war was a pivotal conflict for USAF PRTs; the demand for qualified pararescue men was high and the program significantly expanded.  The use of helicopters enlarged  areas of operations and demanded a shift in tactics.  The USAF created “rescue packages,” some of which involved forward air controllers, escort helicopters and A-1 “Sandys,” airborne rescue coordination flights and heavy helicopters commonly referred to as Jolly Green Giant (HH-3 and HH-53).

[2] A highly decorated infantry officer with service in World War II, the Korean War on detached duty with the Central Intelligence Agency, as an attaché in Hungary, Chief of Staff Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and from March 1966, as Commanding General, 1st US Infantry Division.

[3] Although the Air Force upgraded Pitsenbarger’s Air Force Cross to the Medal of Honor, he was the first USAF enlisted man ever to receive the Air Force Cross.  In total, only four USAF enlisted men have received the Medal of Honor.

Dangerous Dan

Fairbairn Sykes 001Born in Herefordshire, England in 1885, William E. Fairbairn illegally joined the British Royal Marines in 1901.  He was only fifteen years old.  He so much wanted to join the Marines that he somehow convinced his recruiter to falsify his paperwork.  Upon completion of his initial training, Fairbairn was immediately sent to Korea where he got his first taste of close combat.  Along with getting battle-tested in war, Fairbairn realized that his very life could depend upon his ability to defend himself with bayonet or fighting knife.  He began studying martial arts disciplines that originated in Korea.  It was the beginning of his effort to become a master of combat.

In 1907, the British Legation Guard seconded Fairbairn to the International Police Force in Shanghai; it was the toughest assignment a police officer could get.  As a junior officer, he was assigned to one of the cities red-light districts.  It was also the most dangerous part of the most dangerous city in the entire world.

Shanghai’s inner-city warlords controlled the gangs of outlaws; they, in turn, ran large areas within the city.  These were seriously dangerous men who would brook no competition from either gangsters or police officers.  The gangs ran everything illegal, from deviant behavior and opium to the kidnapping and ransom of the children of wealthy parents, to cold-blooded murder.

Not long after arriving in Shanghai, Officer Fairbairn was patrolling in the brothel district when he encountered a gang of criminals who threatened his life.  They threatened the wrong man.  Fairbairn attacked these gangsters, but he was quickly overwhelmed by their numbers and he received a life-threatening beating.  When he woke up in the hospital days later, Fairbairn noticed a plaque near his bed advertising the services of one Professor Okada, a master of jujitsu and bone setting.  Through many hours of off duty study, William Fairbairn earned a black belt in both jujitsu and judo.

Fairbairn 002Fairbairn (pictured left) served 30 years with the Shanghai police.  In this time, he was involved in over 600 encounters with armed and unarmed assailants.  His innate courage, determination, and acquired skillset in hand-to-hand combat always took him through to safety.  On one particular evening, Fairbairn entered into another dangerous situation with a Japanese officer and fellow expert in the martial arts.

At this time, extreme hostility existed between China and Japan.  As Fairbairn approached and greeted the Japanese officer, he noticed that there were around 150 Chinese men and women sitting bound on a nearby Japanese naval vessel.  When Fairbairn inquired what was in the offing, the Japanese officer informed him that the Chinese persons were going to be executed.  Fairbairn insisted that the Japanese officer release the Chinese at once and he would take them into custody.  The Japanese officer refused.

Calmly, with a measured voice, Fairbairn warned the Japanese officer, paraphrasing: Do what you have to do, but one day we’ll meet again, and I’ll make sure you pay for this wrongdoing.  The Japanese officer released all prisoners to Fairbairn.

Over many years, Fairbairn acquired practical knowledge in the field of law enforcement, self-defense, and close combat.  He decided to incorporate his experiences into a new practical street defense system.  He called it Defendu.  He borrowed from various martial arts and included his own “down and dirty” non-telegraphic strikes that were easy to apply and highly practical and effective in real-world situations.  Defendu also included various kicks, mainly designed to damage an attacker’s legs and knees.

In addition to his hand-to-hand combat skills, Fairbairn also developed new police weapons and equipment (bullet-proof vests, batons), firearms training courses, and specialized training for police anti-riot forces.

In 1939, the British Secret Service recruited Fairbairn and commissioned him as an army officer.  Shortly after, with his demonstrated skills, colleagues and superiors alike began referring to Fairbairn as “Dangerous Dan.”  He, along with fellow close-combat instructor Eric Sykes, received commissions as second lieutenants on 15 July 1940.  Fairbairn and Sykes trained British, American, and Canadian commando units, including American ranger forces, in such areas as close-combat, combat shooting with the pistol, and knife fighting techniques.  Lieutenant Fairbairn was quite plain in his instruction: dispense immediately with any idea of gentlemanly rules of fighting.  His admonition was, “Get tough, get down in the gutter, win at all costs.  There is no fair play.  There is only one rule—kill or be killed.”

There are those today who never heard of William Fairbairn or Eric Sykes, but they may have heard of their most erstwhile invention: The Fairbairn fighting knife, also called commando knife … a stiletto-type dagger used by the British Special Forces in World War II.  Given all his combat-related innovations, some have suggested that William Fairbairn might have been the inspiration for Ian Flemings’ Q Branch in the James Bond novels and films.

Biddle AJD 001Significantly, Fairbairn also influenced training in the U. S. Marine Corps.  Anthony J. D. Biddle, Sr., (1874-1948) (shown right) was a millionaire, the son of Edward Biddle II, the grandson of Anthony Drexel, and the great-grandson of Nicholas Biddle —bankers and industrialists all.  His wealth enabled him to pursue the theater, writing, and Christianity on a full-time basis.  A. J. D. Biddle was the basis of the book and play titled My Philadelphia Father, and the film The Happiest Millionaire.  As a United States Marine, Biddle trained men in the art of hand-to-hand combat in both World War I and World War II.  He was a fellow of the American Geographical Society and founded a movement called Athletic Christianity.  In 1955, Sports Illustrated magazine called him boxing’s greatest amateur and a major factor in the re-establishment of boxing as a legal act and an estimable sport.

Colonel Biddle, as an expert in close-quarters fighting, wrote a book entitled Do or Die: A supplementary manual on individual combat.  It instructed Marines and members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on combat methods with open hand fighting, knife fighting, and bayonet fighting.  Within the book Do or Die, Biddle wrote in the Imprimatur, “Now come the very latest developments in the art of Defendu, originated by the celebrated Major W. E. Fairbairn, Assistant Commissioner of the Shanghai Municipal Police, and of jujitsu as shown by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel G. Taxis, U. S. Marine Corps, formerly stationed in Shanghai, who was an instructor in these arts.  Following a series of conferences with Colonel Taxis, several of his particularly noteworthy assaults are described in Part III of this manual.  Major Fairbairn is the author of the book, Get Tough.

Despite his lethal capabilities, Dangerous Dan was a well-mannered gentleman who never drank alcohol, never used profanity, and never boasted of his ability or accomplishments.  William Ewart Fairbairn passed away on 20 June 1960, aged 75, in Sussex, England.

Sources:

  1. Biddle, A.J. D. Do or Die.  Washington: The Leatherneck Association, Inc., 1937
  2. Fairbairn, W. E. Get Tough.  New York: Appleton-Century Company, 1942
  3. Fairbairn, W. E.   Shanghai: North China Daily News and Herald, 1926
  4. Fairbairn, W. E., and Eric A. Sykes. Shooting to Live.  London: Oliver & Boyd, 1942.
  5. Lewis, D. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops.  Kindle edition online.

Death Rattlers

VMFA 323 Patch 001Somewhere between the first and fifth of August 1943, three young lieutenants, naval aviators all, swooped down upon a somewhat large rattlesnake resting in the area adjacent to the Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina, captured it, and took it with them to their newly commissioned squadron ready room.  The well-fed snake measured about seven feet in length.  Few people understand why lieutenants do anything.  Observing the antics of a lieutenant, most people roll their eyes and think to themselves, “But for the grace of God …”

In this case, however, the lieutenants were on a mission.  It was to find a nickname for their recently commissioned aircraft squadron.  With all squadron pilots assembled, it was unanimously agreed that Marine Fighting Squadron 323 (VMF-323) would be henceforth known as the Death Rattlers.  Its patch and nickname continue to exist today, as of this writing, for 77-years.  In 1943, VMF-323 was assigned to Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-32, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW).  The squadron’s first commanding officer was Major George C. Axtell, Jr[1].

VMF-323 began combat training almost immediately after its activation.  This squadron, as well as others being formulated, were desperately needed in the Pacific.  In September 1943, VMF-323 was transferred to one of the Air Station’s outlying fields, a Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Facility at Oak Grove.  Its first aircraft was the Vought F4U-1 Corsair[2].  In 1943, VMF-323 was one of eight Marine Corps Corsair squadrons.

F4U Corsair USMC 002In January 1944, VMF-323 was transferred to El Centro, California and reassigned to Marine Base Defense Aircraft Group (MBDAG)-43.  In California, squadron pilots worked to master instrument flying, gunnery, bomber escort, overland navigation, dogfighting, section flight tactics, field carrier landings, and strafing.  Field carrier landing training was a prelude to actual carrier landing qualification training.  When this training period was concluded, VMF-323 moved to Camp Pendleton, California. For Major Axtell, training new officers was a never-ending task since no sooner had he molded his pilots into skilled aviators, they would be transferred to another squadron and Axtell would have to begin the task of bringing along a newer pilot.  Axtell, a qualified instrument pilot before taking command of the squadron, insisted that all of his pilots develop that skill set.  Axtell believed that instrument flying would build self-confidence in his pilots and prepare them for future battles—which proved prescient.

VMF-323’s first casualty occurred on 17 March 1944 when Second Lieutenant Robert M. Bartlett, Jr., crashed his aircraft two miles south of the airbase while on a routine night familiarization flight.  In April, VMF-323 took part in two large-scale joint service air interception exercises.  On 25 May Second Lieutenant John A. Freshour and his passenger, Lieutenant Commander James J. Bunner, USN were killed when their Douglas SBD (Dauntless) crashed into a power line near Camp Pendleton’s airfield.  That month, Axtell focused his pilots on the art and science of dive-bombing and forcing his pilots to avail themselves of an intelligence reading room and a classified material library.  Major Axtell, young as he was, was a task-maker because in addition to learning, practicing, and becoming proficient in aviation skills, he also demanded that his pilots attend aircraft recognition classes and lectures on a host of technical topics —including the geography of Palau’s Islands, Philippines, the Sulu Archipelago, and other island areas these pilots could be assigned to.  A third pilot was lost when Second Lieutenant Glen B. Smith crashed at sea on a routine training flight.

On 7 September 1944, 30 pilots, 3 ground officers, 90 enlisted men, 24 aircraft, and repair parts boarded the USS Breton (CVE-23) as the squadron’s advanced element.  Its rear echelon of 20 officers, 167 enlisted men remained behind for further training.  VMF-323 would be assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.  Ten days later, the squadron catapulted the squadron to its destination at Emirau.  During takeoff, Second Lieutenant Gerald E. Baker crashed into the sea and was killed.  Upon arrival at Emirau, Axtell reported to the Commanding General, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing for duty.  For the next 30 days, VMF-323 conducted local flight training within a fifty-mile radius of the field.  Training included gunnery, dive-bombing, and squadron tactics.  On 24 October, Commander Task Group 59.6 ordered VMF-323 (Forward) to Espiritu Santo, a rear area supply base in the New Hebrides Islands.  On the same day, the Commanding General, FMFPac (Air) placed VMF-323 under his administrative control.

By 31 October, VMF-323 (Fwd) was fully located at Espiritu Santo and busily involved in setting up the squadron for air operations.  Between 9-28 November, the squadron participated in another round of familiarization flights, gun proficiency, bombing, and squadron tactics.  On 29 November, the squadron’s rear echelon arrived and rejoined the squadron.  MAG-33 attached the squadron on the same day.  Ordnance experts from MAG-33 began installing airborne rocket launchers almost immediately, necessitating additional training by squadron pilots and ground crews.  It was complicated; pilots needed to learn about glide angle, range, proper lead, rock effectiveness, safety, and the characteristics of various rockets.  Added to the already busy training routine was close air support of ground troops.  Unbeknownst to the squadron’s officers, they were being prepared for battle on the island of Okinawa.  As the pilots were practicing air combat maneuvers, the enlisted men were spending more time on the rifle range: Every Marine is a Rifleman.  Expected to develop proficiency with their sidearm, pilots went to the range, as well.  Finally, the squadron’s ground defense crews practiced with anti-aircraft machine guns.  There would be no gravel crunchers to provide security for VMF-323.

On 23 February, MAG-33 issued classified orders to the Commanding Officer, VMF-323: they would fly their 32 Corsairs to Okinawa in echelons.  Combat operations began on 10 April from Kadena airfield.  Weather conditions made Flying conditions poor.  When the dawn combat air patrol (CAP) launched at 0515 hours on their first day, First Lieutenant James L. Brown failed to join the flight.  Initially listed as missing in action, he was later declared killed in action.  On the next day, the airfield came under attack, but there was no damage or casualties.  The Death Rattlers’ first combat kill came that very morning, 11 April.  First Lieutenant Vernon E. Ball was readying for takeoff when a Japanese bomb hit the runway in front of his aircraft.  Ball calmly steered his aircraft around the bomb crater and took off.  Once airborne, Ball observed fellow squadron mate Al Wells shoot down the Japanese bomber responsible for cratering the runway.

On the afternoon of 12 April, a fourteen aircraft CAP noted the approach of Japanese aircraft from the north.  The Death Rattlers split into three divisions.  Six aircraft were diverted northwest from Ie Shima, flight leader Major Arthur L. Turner with Second Lieutenant Obie Stover as his wingman.  The second section was led by First Lieutenant Dellwyn L. Davis, with Second Lieutenant Robert J. Woods as his wingman.  The third section was led by First Lieutenant Charlie Spangler, with Second Lieutenant Dewey Durnford as his wingman.

The Marines were flying at 15,000 feet, 71-miles northwest of Ie Shima when they spotted a multi-engine Japanese bomber about eight miles distant and at an altitude of around 11,000 feet.  According to the Squadron’s official account:

Spangler and Durnford peeled off, followed by Davis and Woods.  Spangler closed from five o’clock and opened fire at 800 feet.  First, he knocked out the tail gunner and the top of the rudder, and then flamed the port engine.  Durnford was closing from seven o’clock, whereupon the Betty[3] turned on him, apparently trying to give the side blister gunner a shot.  Durnford opened fire at 200 feet, directing his fire at the cockpit.  Davis flamed the starboard engine from 100 feet and the Betty spiraled down in flames, exploding when it hit the water.

Meanwhile, a second six-plane element was directed to the Motobu Peninsula.  Captain Felix S. Cecot was flight leader with Second Lieutenant Leon A. Reynolds as his wing.  Captain Joe McPhail led the second section with Second Lieutenant Warren W. Bestwick.  Second Lieutenant Glenn Thacker flew with Second Lieutenant Everett L. Yager.  The enemy approached at about 18,000 feet.  The Marines climbed to 23,000 to gain an overhead advantage.  McPhail reported— 

I spotted some F4Us chasing Zekes[4]; I called out their position and rolled over.  Bestwick was on my wing.  On the way down, four Zekes appeared right under us at about 19,000 feet, flying almost abreast in two-plane sections.  I started firing at the rear plane on the right, at about 400 yards, above and behind.  My first burst was off, and the Zeke saw the tracers.  He made a couple of small turns, and then I started getting hits.  Pieces started coming off around the cockpit, and then he blew up.  The other three scattered.  I then pushed over and came home alone, being unable to find my wingman.

Berwick’s report stated …

Captain McPhail shot at the rear plane on the right.  His Zeke crossed under the rest of their formation and exploded in flames.  I picked the second plane of the first section and fired a long burst and saw it explode.  By that time, the first plane of the second section had broken off to the right and down, so I continued my run and fired a 20-degree deflection shot from behind.  This plane also exploded.  While looking for Captain McPhail, I saw my first Zeke spiraling down smoking, but I didn’t see my second Zeke after firing on him.

Lieutenant Thacker had followed Bestwick on the original pass going after the fourth Zeke in the formation.  He made an attack run on the Zeke and his guns knocked pieces from the fuselage, causing it to smoke.  The Zeke, however, rolled, pulled up tightly, and escaped.  Thacker claimed a probable kill as a result of his action.

At the same time, Captain Cecot dove from 23,000 feet to 5,000 to fire at a Jack[5].  The Jack rolled, Cecot fired at his belly and saw it smoking.  He was unable to observe further damage.  He too claimed a probable kill.

The remaining section, composed of lieutenants John Ruhsam and Robert Wade, were returning to Kadena because Wade’s landing gear could not be retracted.  Just south of Motobu, a Zeke dove out of the sun and made a pass at Wade’s plane.  Wade lowered his flaps and made a tight run.  The Zeke shot past, rolled, and dove to the deck.  Wade followed him down and was almost in firing position when Ruhsam opened fire with a 30-degree deflection shot and the Zeke burst into flames and crashed.

During this flight, all squadron pilots involved encountered Japanese aircraft for the first time.

VMF-323 flew a variety of close air support and bombing missions over the next few days, the seventh and last mission of 22 April was a record-breaker.  The last mission was an eight aircraft formation led by Major George C. Axtell, the squadron commander.  The flight departed Kadena at 1500 hours and did not return until around 1915.  During this flight, VMF-323 downed a record 24 (and three-quarters) enemy aircraft.  The squadron’s records reflect that the action was fast and furious.

Major Jefferson D. Dorah, Jr., squadron executive officer, burned five planes and exploded a sixth, all within twenty minutes.  Major George B. Axtell shot down five planes within fifteen minutes.  Twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Jeremiah J. O’Keefe also shot down five planes, one of which tried to ram him after it caught fire.

FA-18 Hornet 001Flying combat aircraft is a dangerous vocation.  This was true in 1945, it is more so now as our young men fly high-performance aircraft with exceptionally complicated technology.  Every moment of a training or combat flight is a teaching moment.  Bad things can happen to machines, and it is the human pilot that must respond to each “sudden” and sometimes catastrophic failure.  In April 1945, VMF-323 pilots learned about fire discipline.  Some used up their ammunition too quickly, wastefully, which at the moment the last round was fired, rendered that bird as combat ineffective.  Other pilots dropped their external fuel tanks too soon, which threatened their ability to return safely to base.  They learned from their mistakes, of course … or they died because of them.

VMFA-323 is the home squadron of my good (and long-time) friend Pablo, who occasionally comments here.  Pablo has been an aviator for more than 50 years.  That is … fifty years of accident-free flying.  He is a certified instructor pilot, a certified glider pilot, and certified to teach glider flying.  He is also a much-sought-after aviation safety instructor/lecturer.  He will attest to the risks associated with aviation and most likely agree that these innate risks, when combined with high anxiety combat maneuvering, makes military flying the most challenging vocation anyone could ever ask for.  It should not surprise anyone that there are aircraft mishaps, and that good young men and women die in them.  Given the operational tempo of our military air wings, what is surprising is that there are not more mishaps.

As Brigadier General Chuck Yeager (USAF) once said, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.”

Sources:

  1. Chapin, J. C. Fire Brigade: U. S. Marines in the Pusan Perimeter.  Washington: USMC Historical Center, 2000.
  2. Pitzl, G. R. A History of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323.  Washington: USMC Historical Center, 1987.
  3. Sherrod, R.  History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.

Endnotes:

[1] Lieutenant General George B. Axtell (1920-2011) was a World War II flying ace, recipient of the Navy Cross, and the youngest commanding officer of a Marine fighter squadron.  General Axtell served through three wars and retired from active service in 1974.  In addition to command of VMF-323, he also commanded VMF-452, VMF-312, Marine Carrier Air Group-16, Marine Air Control Group 1, Marine Aircraft Group 12, Force Logistics Command, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, and the Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic.  In addition to the Navy Cross, he was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, three awards of the Legion of Merit with combat valor device, two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and seven awards of the Air Medal.

[2] The Corsair was developed by the Chance Vought Aircraft Company, designed and operated as a carrier-based aircraft and entered service in the Navy-Marine Corps in 1942. It quickly became one of the most capable fighter-bombers in the US arsenal and, according to Japanese pilots, the most formidable American fighter in World War II.  The Corsair saw service in both World War II and the Korean War.  It was retired from active service in 1953.

[3] Betty was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi G4M twin-engine land-based bomber.

[4] Zeke was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

[5] Jack was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (lightning bolt), a Japanese Navy aircraft