Air Balloons and Such

Every Marine, regardless of military occupational specialty, is a rifleman.  There are specialists in the Marine Corps, of course —people trained to perform a specialized task, which, when combined with all other specialties, form the Marine Corps Team.  The Marine team has but one purpose: winning battles.  In contrast to the United States Army, which consists of several corps (three infantry divisions and supporting elements form a single corps, three such corps form a field army), the Marines are a single corps (three divisions, three air wings, and supporting elements).

Because the Marine Corps is a much smaller organization, which is the way we like it, Marines do not have the luxury of employing cooks or communicators that only cook and communicate.  Every Marine is a rifleman, including combat pilots, administrators, supply pogues, truck drivers, field engineers, and computer technologists.  Whether a general or a private, the Corps trains every Marine to pick up a rifle and kill an enemy.  The notion that every Marine is a rifleman makes the Marine Corps unique among all U.S. Armed Services.  The Corps’ distinctive training creates a common bond between Marines: officer and enlisted, men and women, whether ground, air, or logistics combat elements.  Marine aviators, for example, are hell on wings; they are also a lethal force on the ground should it become necessary.  Every Marine earns the title, Marine.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when Marine First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham reported to the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland, for duty under instruction.  He was the nucleus of what would become the Marine Corps’ air combat element.  A few short years later, Congress declared war against Imperial Germany, and the United States entered the First World War.  This event became the catalyst for the Navy and Marine Corps air arm, and a greatly accelerated growth in both Navy and Marine Corps manpower and combat technologies.

In those days, responsibility for procuring aircraft fell under the Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics (Also, BuAer).  Marine graduates of the U.S. Navy Flight School, Pensacola, Florida, became Naval Aviators.  Since those early days, the Navy and Marine Corps have developed aviation equipment, strategies, and tactics common to their unique “naval” mission of protecting the fleet through air superiority and projecting naval power ashore.  Marine pilots, however, provide close air support to ground forces —and this they do better than any other aerial arm of the Department of Defense.

At the beginning of the First World War, the entire Marine Corps consisted of a mere 511 officers and 13,214 enlisted men.  At the end of the “war to end all wars,” 2,400 officers and 70,000 men served as Marines.  Initially, HQMC assigned Captain Cunningham to command the Marine Aviation Company at Philadelphia.  Since there was only one aviation company, this simple designation was enough.  These early aviators’ mission was traditional, which is to say, attack and destroy enemy aircraft and provide intelligence on enemy forces’ location and movement.  Suddenly, the Marine Corps incurred a separate mission requiring different equipment types and a different aeronautical skill set.

With the expansion of Marine aviation, Captain Cunningham’s Aviation Company became the 1st Marine Aeronautic Company (1stMAC) with a workforce ceiling of ten officers and 93 men. 1stMAC’s mission was flying anti-submarine patrols in seaplanes.  HQMC approved a new aviation unit, designated as 1st Aviation Squadron (AS-1), to support the Marine Brigade in France. AS-1’s mission was to provide reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions.  The strength of the 1st Aviation Squadron was 24 officers and 237 enlisted men.

Following the war in Europe, Navy and Marine Corps planners distributed aviation personnel and equipment to Naval stations to support operating forces throughout the east coast of the United States and those in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  In the post-war environment, with less money available to sustain air combat forces, the Marine Corps began its desperate struggle to convince Congress that it should maintain, as a minimum, prewar levels of aviation personnel, bases, and equipment.  Leading the charge in this endeavor was Major Cunningham, who strenuously argued for Marine Corps aviation’s permanent adoption.

Congress officially limited the Marine Corps’ strength to one-fifth that of the U. S. Navy, in total, approximately 27,000 Marines.  Due in no small measure to Cunningham’s efforts, Congress approved an additional 1,100 Marines for aviation units.  Congress also approved permanent Marine Corps Air Stations at Quantico, Virginia, Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego, California.  On 30 October 1920, Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune approved an aviation table of organization[1] for four squadrons, each consisting of two flights. Simultaneously, the 1st and 4th Aviation Squadrons supported combat operations in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the 2nd and 3rd Aviation Squadrons trained at Quantico, Virginia.  By 1924, the Marine Corps had two air groups, each consisting of two squadrons.  The second air group took up station in San Diego, California.

As previously mentioned, the Marine Corps petitioned Congress for funds to maintain its air arm.  Part of this effort involved demonstrating to Congress and the American public the utility and worthiness of Marine Corps aviation.  To this end, the Marine aviators found it necessary to combine tactics and air strategy with headline-hunting public exhibitions.  One of these involved a march of 4,000 Marines from Quantico, Virginia, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  In this demonstration, the ground combat element maintained constant contact with aircraft along the route of march and provided air resupply of the men on the ground.

Additionally, Marine pilots continually tested new equipment and flying techniques, including record-breaking long-distance flights and air show competitions.  In the 1920s, air races became an American institution.  Marines sometimes flew navy aircraft in these competitions. Sometimes, they flew their own squadron’s aircraft. They occasionally flew experimental planes, testing not only their endurance but also the reliability of aircraft prototypes.  During this period, Notable pilots included First Lieutenant Ford O. Rogers, Major Charles A. Lutz, and Captain Arthur H. Page, Jr.

Arthur Hallet Page, Jr. was the first Naval Academy graduate to enter the Marine Corps Aviation program.  He may have been typical of aviators in his day, or at least he seems to have been the sort of fellow popularized in Hollywood films of that period —the flamboyant devil-may-care fellow.  From available sources at the USNA, we believe Captain Page had a colorful personality, a remarkable character, and was the embodiment of mature judgment.  He was good looking; a natty dresser had a good singing voice, possessed a near-professional dancing ability, and was frequently in the company of beautiful women.

Page was also a daring, foolhardy risk-taker —but a man others might describe as lucky as hell.  He graduated from the USNA, Class of 1918 (one of fourteen graduates) a year early due to the emerging European War.  Second Lieutenant Arthur H. Page, Jr., became a Naval Aviator (No. 536) on 14 March 1918.  His aviator number tells us how many Navy and Marine Corps pilots preceded him.

Capt A. H. Page, Jr., USMC

Today, we have few details about Page’s military career.  For the most part, early assignments appear typical of young officers.  He received his wings at the NAS Pensacola (1918). He then served several tours of duty attached to the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia —which may not have had anything to do with base security or operations (1919-20, 1923-24), service with the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade in Haiti —likely duties involving flight operations (1920-21), assignment as a flight instructor at NAS Pensacola (1924-25), as a student at Marine Corps Schools, Quantico (1925-26), service with the 3rd Marine Brigade in China (1926-28), an assignment at Marine Corps Base, San Diego, California (1928), and duty with the East Coast Expeditionary Force (1929).  His final assignment was at Headquarters Marine Corps (1929-30), during which time he engaged in flying exhibitions (previously discussed).

We also know that the Marine Corps established its first balloon detachment on 28 June 1918 under Captain Page’s command, very likely at Quantico.  The detachment’s mission artillery spotting in support of the 10th Marine Regiment (artillery), which in 1918 trained at Quantico for service with the American Expeditionary Forces.  After the Armistice on 11 November 1918, there being no need for the 10th Marines in France, HQMC deactivated the regiment in April 1919.

An aside:  Change within the Navy and War Departments, particularly involving aviation, was never easy.  Senior officers within both departments were simply the product of their training and experience and somewhat intractable in their national defense views.  Even following the First World War, Army and Navy leaders remained unconvinced that aviation should assume a more significant national defense role.  They may have maintained this view had it not been for the relentless efforts of William Lendrum Mitchell (1879-1936), an Army aviator.  Mitchell believed that “floating bases” was necessary to defend U.S. territories against naval threats, but the CNO, Admiral William S. Benson, dissolved navy aeronautics in 1919 (a decision later reversed by Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt).  It was a bit of service rivalry that senior navy aviators argued that land-based pilots no more understood naval aviation demands than ground commanders understood airpower capabilities.  They resisted any alliance with Mitchell.  Despite these attitudes, Mitchell urged the development of naval air service, arguing that air-delivered bombs would become a serious threat to enemy ships.  Not even Roosevelt agreed with Mitchell’s proposals in 1919.

BrigGen “Billy” Mitchell USA

Convinced that he was right on this issue, Mitchell became publicly critical of the Army and Navy’s senior leadership, judging them as “insufficiently far-sighted” regarding airpower.  Despite their misgivings, the secretaries of War and the Navy agreed to a series of joint Army/Navy exercises that incorporated captured or decommissioned ships as targets.  Mitchell believed that the nation’s spending on battleship fleets was a waste of money; he intended to demonstrate how easily aircraft could defeat the Navy’s dreadnaughts.  Mitchell received public support for the joint exercise when the New York Tribune revealed that the Navy had cheated on its test results.

Despite his popularity with the press, Mitchell’s criticism of Army/Navy leadership made him a pariah in both departments.  Nevertheless, the joint exercise proceeded with bombing attacks on a former German battleship by Army, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots armed with 230, 550, and 600-pound bombs.  Air-delivered bombs’ success and the German ship’s sinking caused the Navy to suspend shipbuilding and focus more on the possibilities of naval air power, but there were also political ramifications.  For starters, the Navy’s perceived weaknesses embarrassed President Harding —the blame of which fell at Mitchell’s feet.

As for Mitchell, his prickly personality left him with few friends in the Army hierarchy, a condition that only grew worse after Mitchell appeared before a Congressional committee and criticized his superiors and senior Navy officers.  In 1925, a tragic accident involving the airship Shenandoah prompted Mitchell to accuse senior Army/Navy leaders of gross incompetence and treasonable administration.  As Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, President Coolidge ordered Mitchell court-martialed.  The court-martial proceeding was more on the order of a media circus. Mitchell’s defense attorney was a sitting congressman.  Of the thirteen officers detailed as judges, which included Major Douglas A. MacArthur, none had an aviation background.  In its deliberations, the court ruled that the truth or falsity of Mitchell’s accusations were immaterial to the charge against him: Violation of the 96th Article of War, “Bringing disgrace and reproach upon the military services,” which included six specifications.  When the court found General Mitchell guilty of the charge and all specifications, he resigned his commission.

Despite Mitchell’s pissing-contest with Army/Navy leaders, the Marine Corps continued its experimentation with aviation platforms and aerial balloons.  Between 1924-29, the Marine Corps established a balloon observation squadron (designated ZK-1M).  Captain Page, meanwhile, continued evaluating experimental aircraft while challenging his aeronautical skills.  He flew the Curtiss F6C-3 plane to victory in the Curtiss Marine Trophy Race on 31 May 1930, defeating a field of mostly Navy pilots.  The F6C-3 was a member of the Hawk family of biplane fighters that, because of its performance evaluations by Navy/Marine Corps aviators, went through a series of design modifications to make it suitable for naval service.  Captain Page lost his life while participating in the Thompson Air Race in 1930.  There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots; there are no old bold pilots.

By the spring of 1940, planners at HQMC were acutely aware of the problems associated with defending advanced bases against enemy air attack.  To address these issues, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) convened a board of senior officers to study air defense aspects.  It became the duty of the Anti-Aircraft Defense Board to formulate policies suitable to both the Navy and War Departments.  One agreement concerned the division of responsibility for barrage balloons and kite defenses protecting U.S. military installations.  Under this agreement, the Army assumed air defense responsibility for permanent naval bases. Simultaneously, the Navy would develop shipboard defenses and “at such advanced bases as are not defended by the Army.”

On 27 December 1940, the Secretary of the Navy assigned responsibility for anti-air defenses (not defended by the Army) to the Fleet Marine Forces.  From that point forward, Marine advanced base battalions assumed responsibility for the anti-aircraft defense mission at Guantanamo, Midway, Johnson Island, Palmyra, Samoa, Wake, Guam, and “any future location seized by American forces.” The CNO subsequently asked various bureaus and offices to comment or offer suggestions on the extent to which the Marine Corps should enter the barrage balloon field.  There were two views:

  1. The Director, Navy War Plans Division opined that balloons were unreliable anti-air defense mechanisms and noted that the small size of several advanced base locations (islands) meant that balloon defenses would be ineffective except against dive bombers. Moreover, the placement of such balloons would have to be so as not to interfere with friendly air operations, which would require moveable barge platforms.  At no time did the War Plans Division mention any reliance on carrier-based attack aircraft.
  2. The Director, Fleet Training Division expressed confidence in the efficiency of balloon defenses. He relied on the United Kingdom’s experience in London’s defense; it appeared to him that 50-100 balloons would provide adequate anti-air defenses.  Based on this one assumption, the Director envisioned that the Marine Corps would require two to four squadrons of 24 balloons each and around 200 men per squadron.  There was also the problem of availability because requisitions for Army balloon equipment strained industrial production capacities.
Barrage Ballon (Samoa)

The CMC took immediate steps to procure balloons, not only for the initial issue but also for replacement balloons.  HQMC also recalled to active service retired Major Bernard L. Smith[2] and placed him in charge of the Corps’ barrage balloon development.  During World War I, while serving as an assistant naval attaché in France, Major Smith’s study of lighter-than-air craft made him an “expert” in the field of balloon defense mechanisms.

In late April 1941, Major Smith (assisted by Captain Aquillo J. Dyess and Captain Robert S. Fairweather) established a training school at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia.  Smith led his officers and ten enlisted men to the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey, for a two-week course of instruction in the art of flying British-made Mark-5 and Mark-6 balloons.  Returning to Quantico, Smith and his Marines prepared course curriculum and liaised with balloon manufacturers.  When, more than a year later, Smith and his staff had yet to receive their first student, HQMC directed Smith to move his cadre to New River, North Carolina, where it became part of the Marine Corps Training Center, Camp Lejeune.

Still without students, Smith’s “school” essentially became a balloon research/development center; the Navy’s Anti-Aircraft Defense Board provided Smith with several varieties of British prototypes.  Smith was also involved in the study of rockets and fuses suspended from aloft balloons.  By late 1941, the arrival of balloon equipment allowed Smith to commence teaching balloon defense’s art and science.  Concurrently, HQMC directed the establishment of the 1st and 2nd Barrage Balloon squadrons to further order that defense battalions incorporate these squadrons into training and operations.  Typically, HQMC wanted to review the defense battalion’s evaluations of the practicality of barrage squadrons.  By early December, Smith advised HQMC that the 1st Barrage Balloon Squadron (designation ZMQ-1) was ready for deployment. In late December, Smith’s report was timely because the Army requested the Marines provide a squadron to defend the Panama Canal Zone.  Administratively, ZMQ-1 fell under the Fifteenth Naval District; operationally, the squadron supported the Army’s artillery command. ZMQ-1’s “temporary” assignment lasted through mid-September 1942.

Barrage Balloon maintenance facility

Meanwhile, ZMQ-2, under Captain Henry D. Strunk, joined the 2nd Marine Brigade in Samoa.  War with Japan led the Marine Corps to activate six additional Barrage Balloon Squadrons, although planners estimated a need for as many as twenty squadrons by 1944.  To meet this demand, HQMC increased Smith’s training unit’s size to five officers and 43 enlisted men.  In April 1942, HQMC assigned ZMQ-3 to the Pacific command; by September, the squadron was operating on the island of Tulagi —but with significant restrictions.  Concerned that deployed balloons would attract enemy aircraft to vital airfields and logistics storage areas, senior Navy and Marine Corps officers curtailed the use of balloons at Tulagi and Guadalcanal.  Instead, squadron personnel performed ground defense (infantry) duties.  ZMQ-3 departed Tulagi for Noumea, where it joined with ZMQ-1, ZMQ-5, and ZMQ-6.  HQMC ordered the deactivation of ZMQ-4, serving in Samoa, on 20 February 1943.  The unavailability of helium at forward bases hindered squadrons’ performance, as in Noumea’s case, forcing unit officers to alter their tactics: they only launched their balloons when an enemy attack was imminent.

Shortages of helium wasn’t the only problem plaguing ZMQ squadrons.  The task of logistical resupply in the Pacific was incredibly difficult.  Since senior commanders in the Pacific questioned barrage balloons’ utility, balloon squadrons had a lower priority for resupply than did the most-forward units.  Army logisticians paid scant attention to the needs of the attached Marines.  Back in Washington, the demands placed on BuAer to prioritize the resupply of aircraft squadrons similarly left the balloon squadrons only marginally effective.  For example, each balloon squadron required 4,000 high-pressure hydrogen cylinders.  The Marine’s demand for 14,500 cylinders per month fell considerably short, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.  To help coordinate balloon activities and address logistical shortfalls, HQMC ordered Major Charles W. May to assume command of the Marine Barrage Balloon Group on 10 January 1943.

One wartime epiphany was the Marine Corps’ realization that anti-aircraft guns had a greater effect on the enemy than the barrage balloons did.  In the spring of 1943, the Marine Corps’ Commandant asked the U.S. Army to assume full responsibility for aerial balloon activities.  The Commandant’s decision made perfect sense because, at that time, all Marine balloon squadrons served under the operational control of the U.S. Army.  In June, the Army agreed to absorb the balloon mission, making 60 officers and 1,200 enlisted Marines available to serve in other (more critical) combat units.  Beginning in March 1943, Marines of ZMQ-5 began training with 90mm anti-aircraft guns; ZMQ-6 followed suit.  By August, manning anti-aircraft guns became the primary focus of training and operations.  ZMQ-2 disbanded on 21 August, with all its Marines joining the 2nd Defense Battalion.

All barrage balloon squadrons ceased to exist by December 1943, and all Marines assigned to them transferred to the Marine Corps’ defense battalions.  Luckily, these Marines were not only skilled balloonists; they were also deadly as hell in their new assignment as anti-aircraft gun crewmen and as a rifleman, the essential role of every Marine.

Sources:

  1. Updegraph, C. L. S. Marine Corps Special Units of World War II.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1972.
  2. Barrage Balloons, Aerospace Power Journal, Summer 1989.
  3. 225th AAA Searchlight Battalion Veterans Association, online.
  4. Hillson, F. J. When the Balloon Goes Up: Barrage Balloons for Low-Level Defense.  Maxwell AFB: U.S. Air Force Command and Staff College, 1988.

Endnotes:

[1] The purpose of military tables of organization (and equipment) (also, T/O and T/O&E) is to standardize the personnel staffing of military units according to their mission and includes the numbers and types of weapons and accoutrements required by such organizations to complete their mission.

[2] Major Smith was the 6th Marine officer designated as a naval aviator.

First Marine Battalion, 1898

John Davis Long served as Secretary of the Navy during the presidency of William McKinley.  Long’s appointment was not without controversy.  Apparently, President McKinley made the appointment without a wink or a nod from Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.  The situation involved some political infighting, which is always the case in national politics.  However, to appease Lodge, McKinley appointed Theodore Roosevelt to the Navy Department’s number-two position.  Roosevelt’s appointment satisfied Lodge because, given Long’s reputation as a hands-off manager, he could count on Roosevelt to “run the show.”

Theodore Roosevelt Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1898

Regarding increasing tensions with Spain, Secretary Long (and others) were doubtful these disagreements were likely to end in an armed conflict, but if it did, Secretary Long was confident that the United States would win it in short order.  Accordingly, Long took no actions to prepare for a state of war with Spain.  Long’s nonchalance was a source of irritation to Roosevelt.  In January 1898, out of concern for the safety of Americans in Cuba, Long ordered the USS Maine to Havana as a show of force.  Within a month, tensions between the US and Spain had reached the crisis stage; with Roosevelt’s insistence, Long finally began to prepare for war.  On 15 February 1898, the USS Maine exploded while at anchor, causing massive casualties.  Of the 26 officers, 290 sailors, and 39 Marines aboard the Maine, 260 men lost their lives, including 28 Marines.

The sinking of the Maine produced a public demand for satisfaction, sentiments echoed by Roosevelt.  Ten days later, Secretary Long took a day off from work.  His absence enabled Roosevelt to issue a series of directives designed to increase the Navy’s readiness for war, including an order to Commodore George Dewey to assume an aggressive posture in the Spanish Philippines.  When Long returned to work, he countermanded some of Roosevelt’s directives, but he did increase his interest in naval preparations for war.

On 16 April, five days before the war began, Secretary Long ordered the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General Charles Heywood, to organize one battalion of Marines for expeditionary duty with the North Atlantic Squadron.  Heywood’s battalion was named the First Marine Battalion.  Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, USMC, was appointed to command it.

Robert W. Huntington LtCol USMC Commanding Officer

The US Congress declared war on Spain on 25 April, effective retroactively from 21 April 1898.  Colonel Huntington had nearly 40 years of active duty service when he assumed command of the First Marine Battalion; he was a veteran of the American Civil War.  On 17 April, Huntington organized his battalion into four companies.  The Commandant’s earlier proposal for a second battalion was never implemented because, at the time, the Marine Corps did not have enough enlisted men to form another battalion while at the same time fulfilling its usual task guarding naval installations.  The First Marine Battalion was instead expanded to six companies: five rifle companies and one artillery company.  Each company had an authorized strength of 103 enlisted Marines, 1 First Sergeant, 4 sergeants, 4 corporals, 1 drummer, 1 fifer, and 92 privates.  The battalion command element included the Commanding Officer (CO), Executive Officer (XO), Adjutant, Quartermaster, and a Navy surgeon.  The battalion color guard included one sergeant and two corporals.

The battalion quartermaster, Major Crawley, excelled in provisioning the Marines for combat duty, and the battalion was ready to deploy on 22 April.  On that date, the Marines marched down to the pier and boarded USS Panther.  Citizens observing the movement from the sidelines cheered their Marines; there was no lack of enthusiasm for a war with Spain.  Panther was underway by 20:00 that very night.  The battalion, numbering 650 officers and men, produced over-crowded conditions aboard a ship designed to carry 400 combatants.  Each meal required three separate servings.

Panther pulled into port at Hampton Roads, Virginia, to await its naval escort[1].  While in port, Major Percival C. Pope and First Lieutenant James E. Mahoney reported to LtCol Huntington for duty at sea and on foreign shore.  The ship continued her journey on 26 April with USS Montgomery as her escort.

The ship’s overcrowded conditions caused some tension and conflict between the ship’s captain and the Battalion commander.  At issue was the duties of Marines while embarked and the right of the navy to discipline Marines.  When Panther arrived in Key West, Florida, Commander George C. Reiter[2], Commanding Officer of Panther, ordered Huntington to disembark his Marines and set up a camp ashore.  Major General Commandant Heywood demanded to know why Reiter ordered the Marines ashore, particularly since Panther was the only troop carrier available to transport the Marines.  Reiter explained that sending the Marines ashore relieved the crowded conditions aboard ship.

Colonel Huntington’s battalion remained ashore for two weeks.  During that time, they exchanged their heavy winter uniforms for summer weight clothing.  Marines with too much leisure time always find ways of getting into mischief, so Huntington ordered a training program involving rifle marksmanship, field sanitation, and company, platoon, and squad tactics.  Marines who were not engaged in one form of training or another were assigned shore patrol duty to ensure that the Marines behaved themselves while on liberty.

With the receipt of new Colt model machine guns, Huntington ordered his machine gunners to attend instruction on crew-serve weapons’ care, maintenance, and employment.  He also provided instruction in fighting in the tropics, the importance of boiling water, and mess cooks learned how to create healthy menus and prepare nutritionally sound meals to help prevent dysentery and diarrhea.  Navy Assistant Surgeon John Blair Gibbs[3] joined the battalion on 1 June 1898.

On 7 June 1898, the Navy Secretary ordered, “Send the Marine Battalion at once to Sampson without waiting for the Army.  Send Yosemite as a convoy escort.”  Huntington’s battalion re-embarked aboard ship and sailed for Cuba.  Major Pope, hospitalized with an illness, remained behind.

During the night of 9 June, Panther and Scorpion collided while at sea.  Scorpion suffered some damage to her fantail, but nothing critical.  Panther arrived at Santiago, Cuba, on the morning of 10 June, and Colonel Huntington reported to Admiral William T. Sampson, who, as Commander-in-Chief of the North Atlantic Squadron, served as the overall naval force commander.  Sampson directed Huntington to report to Commander Bowman H. McCalla, USN[4] aboard USS Marblehead, who would serve as landing force commander.

Commander McCalla entered Guantanamo Bay on 7 June to clear the outer harbor.  A Spanish artillery battery near the telegraph station at Cayo de Toro (on the western side of the bay) fired on the Marblehead and Yankee.  The Spanish gunboat Sandoval soon arrived down the channel from Caimanera to challenge the US presence there, but when Marblehead and Yankee opened fire, Sandoval withdrew.

The importance of Guantanamo Bay was its geography.  Guantanamo has an inner and outer bay, the latter offering good anchorage because of its depth.  The outer bay was an ideal location for coaling operations.  Because of its utility to the Navy, Admiral Sampson sent the Marines to protect ships at anchorage by denying Spanish troops the opportunity to fire at the ships from shore locations.

On 10 June, Commander McCalla ordered Marines from several ship’s detachments ashore to conduct reconnaissance missions inside Guantanamo Bay.  Captain M. D. Goodrell led forty Marines from USS Oregon and twenty additional Marines from USS Marblehead ashore.  Having completed his reconnaissance mission, Goodrell selected a bivouac site for the First Marine Battalion and afterward briefed Colonel Huntington on his designated position ashore.

By the end of the day on 10 June, U.S. Navy ships, including three cruisers (Marblehead, Yankee, Yosemite), the battleship Oregon, torpedo boat Porter, gunboat Dolphin, the collier Abarendo, transports Vixen and Panther and several privately-owned vessels containing journalists dominated Guantanamo’s outer bay.

Colonel Huntington’s battalion began its movement ashore at 1400 with four companies; two companies remained aboard ship to help with unloading supplies.  Company “C” was the first element ashore and assumed responsibility for area security as skirmishers at the top of a hill overlooking the bay.  Sergeant Richard Silvey planted the American flag on the hill, marking the first time the American flag ever flew over Cuba.  Two hundred feet below Company “C” was a small fishing village, which McCalla had ordered fired for health reasons.  The Commander prohibited everyone from entering these buildings.  The remainder of Huntington’s battalion went ashore on 11 June.

Colonel Huntington was not pleased with the bivouac site because it was vulnerable to attack from a ridgeline 1,200 yards to the rear of his position.  McCalla politely listened to Huntington’s complaint and then informed the colonel that he would remain where sited.  The navy needed the Marines to protect ships at anchor from enemy shore bombardment.

Spanish forces first attacked a Marine outpost late that night, killing Privates Dumphy and McColgan of Company “D.”  Due to nasty post-mortem injuries, their remains were difficult to identify.  Contrary to reports in the press, the Marine’s remains were not mutilated, per se, but McColgan did suffer 21 shots to the head, and Dumphy fifteen.  Later in the night, Spanish troops initiated five separate attacks on Marine position, all repulsed.  At about 0100, a Spanish force launched a concerted attack against the Marine perimeter.  During the assault, Spanish riflemen killed Assistant Surgeon Gibbs.  Well-camouflaged Spaniards continued to direct sporadic fire into the Marine perimeter.  Spain’s use of smokeless gunpowder made it difficult for Marines to detect firing positions.

On the morning of 12 June, after the death of Sergeant Charles H. Smith, Huntington moved the camp further down the hill, closer to the beach, to a place known as Playa de Este.  The Marines prepared fighting holes on the hill’s crest and designed earthworks in the shape of a square with a blockhouse in the center, and artillery pieces placed at each corner of the square and mutually supporting machine guns were positioned along the sides.  The earthworks stood chest-high; on the outside of the dirt walls, the Marines dug trenches, measuring five feet deep and ten feet wide.  That afternoon, another Spanish assault killed Private Goode Taurman.

Navy Chaplain Harry Jones, serving aboard USS Texas, having heard of the Marine deaths, volunteered to go ashore and conduct funeral services.  Throughout the services, Spanish sharpshooters targeted Chaplain Jones and harassed the Marines by firing into the makeshift church.  The undaunted Jones nevertheless performed the funeral rites with dignity and aplomb.

Aboard Panther, Commander Reiter’s obstinance continued as he balked at having to unload Marine ammunition and stores.  This problem was solved when Commander McCalla directed that Panther unload 50,000 rounds of ammo with the further admonition, “Do not require Huntington to break out and land his stores or ammo.  Use your own officers and crew.”

Ashore, Sergeant Major Henry Good was killed in a Spanish attack on the night of 12 June.  When the Spanish re-initiated their attack on the morning of 13 June, Colonel Huntington decided he’d had enough harassment by Spanish troops and ordered the destruction of a water-well in frequent use by the Spanish at Cuzco.  It was the only source of freshwater within twelve miles.  With two companies of Marines and fifty Cuban rebels, Captain George F. Elliott[5] proceeded to Cuzco with USS Dolphin providing naval gunfire support from the sea.  Journalist Stephen Crane[6] volunteered to act as Elliott’s adjutant if allowed to accompany the Marines; Huntington granted his request[7].

Sgt Quick in Cuba 1898 USMC Recruiting Poster

Approaching the Spanish defenses at Cuzco, the Marines encountered stiff enemy resistance.  Lieutenant Magill led fifty additional Marines and ten Cubans to reinforce Elliott.  Magill’s mission was to cut off the enemy’s line of retreat, but Dolphin’s naval artillery prevented his advance.  To redirect the ship’s fire, Sergeant John Quick volunteered to signal the ship and did so while exposing himself to intense enemy fire.  In recognition of his selfless devotion, Congress awarded Quick the Medal of Honor.

Ultimately, Spanish troops did escape the Marine assault, but not without incurring significant losses.  Elliott’s force suffered few casualties; two Cubans killed, and three Marines wounded.  Lieutenant Wendell C. Neville[8] was injured while descending the mountain during the engagement.  Twenty-three Marines suffered heat exhaustion and required medical evacuation.  Commander McCalla opined, “…the expedition was most successful, and I cannot say too much in praise of the officers and men who took part in it.”  Subsequently, Spanish probes and sniper attacks on Marine positions were rare.  On 15 June, naval gunfire destroyed the Spanish fort at Caimanera on the bay’s eastern side.

USS Resolute[9], loaded with stores for the Marines, arrived late in the day on 20 June.  Admiral Sampson ordered all stores located on the Panther transferred to Resolute.  On the 24th of June, McCalla ordered a reconnaissance in force to determine if Spanish forces still occupied the extremities of Punta del Jicacal, on the eastern side of Guantanamo Bay.  Early on the morning of 25 June, Huntington assembled 240 men and led them by boat across the bay.  Following the Marines were sixty Cubans under Colonel Thomas.  When the Marines went ashore, they discovered that the Spanish had already withdrawn.

On 3 July, during the naval battle of Santiago, the US Navy destroyed the Spanish navy.  With hundreds of Spanish seamen in the water, the American navy assumed responsibility for rescuing and caring for Spanish survivors.  Over the next several days, the Navy organized Marine guards to escort these prisoners to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Huntington was forced to give up sixty Marines for this duty, and additional Marines augmented them from ship’s detachments.

On 12 July, Commander McCalla ordered Huntington to quarantine the harbor at Guantanamo Bay.  It was more on the order of peacetime duty, which with time on their hands, the Marines began to create their own diversions.  Two Marines decided to raid stores aboard a privately-owned schooner in the harbor, and another was discovered buying liquor from a local source, which was prohibited.  Private Robert Burns, while on guard duty, shot and killed an enormous black pig.

USS Resolute

The First Marine Battalion broke camp on 5 August and boarded USS Resolute for operations at Manzanillo.  The Spanish commander was offered the opportunity to surrender but declined to do so as a point of honor.  Advised to evacuate the town of all civilians, the commander of USS Alvarado signaled that he intended to commence a bombardment at 1530 hours.  The shelling began in 1540 and lasted until 1615 when it appeared that flags of peace were flying over some of the town’s buildings.  Captain Goodrich, commanding Alvarado, sent a boat ashore flying a truce flag, but when the boat received enemy fire, the bombardments continued.  Gunfire terminated at 1730 for the night but resumed at 0520 the next morning.  After daylight, a boat from Manzanillo approached the fleet bringing word that officials had proclaimed a truce and the war was over.  Disappointment among the Marines was evident.

On 18 August, after taking aboard 275 men from an artillery battalion, Resolute embarked for Long Island, dropped off the soldiers, and then continued onward to New Hampshire … chosen by Commandant Heywood to provide the Marines some respite from the tropical heat.  General Heywood greeted his Marines as they came ashore, promoted six of the battalion’s officers for gallantry, and praised the men for their exceptional conduct.  On 19 September, Colonel Huntington received orders to disband the First Marine Battalion.

One remarkable aspect of the battalion’s experience in Cuba was the excellent health of the Marines.  There had not been a single case of yellow fever, dysentery, or diarrhea, which stood in contrast to other US troops’ experience, who were seriously affected by these illnesses.  Major Crowley reported that the use of distilled water for drinking and cooking, good field sanitation, and sufficient food and clothing enabled the Marines to return to the United States “fit for duty.”  Crawley was also insightful in purchasing empty wine casks for use as water containers, which increased the amount of water that could be kept on hand while encamped.

At a parade attended by President McKinley, Sergeant Quick received the medal of honor, and the president announced that a hospital in Kentucky would be named in his honor.

One aspect of the war that surprised Colonel Huntington and his Marines was the amount of favorable press coverage they had received during the conflict.  They were not only the first combat troops ashore, but they were also facing superior[10] numbers of the enemy in their engagements.  As a result of these press reports, the American public learned for the first time about the usefulness of the U. S. Marine Corps as a fighting force.  The press also praised the Marines for their general healthfulness and contrasted this result with the debilitating disease experienced by army units in the same conflict.

The Spanish-American War also demonstrated that the Marine Corps could play an essential role in future Naval operations and this was important because, as a result of the war with Spain, the United States had acquired Pacific bases that would require a military defense of the Philippines, Guam, and additional Pacific Ocean area advanced bases.  The war also illustrated how quickly a Marine Corps combat unit could be assembled and dispatched to foreign shore[11].  Subsequently, “combat readiness” became the hallmark of the United States Marines —and continues to this very day.

Sources:

  1. Clifford, J. H. History of the First Battalion of Marines.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1930.
  2. Collection of private papers, Colonel Robert Watkinson Huntington, USMC (Retired), Marine Corps University archives, and Gray Research Center, Quantico, Virginia.
  3. Documented histories, Spanish-American War, Naval History and Heritage Command, online.
  4. Feuer, A. B. The Spanish American War at Sea.  Greenwood Publishing, 1995.
  5. Stewart, R. W. The U. S. Army and the Forging of a Nation, 1775-1917.  Washington: Center of Military History, 2005.
  6. Sullivan, D. M. The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War, Volume 1, 1997

Endnotes:

[1] Panther required an escort because the ship was unable to defend herself at sea.

[2] Reiter was promoted to Rear Admiral (Lower Half) in 1905 and was detailed to Chair the Lighthouse Board until his retirement in 1907.

[3] The 40-year old Dr. John Gibbs was among the first medical doctors to receive an appointment as a surgeon in the US Navy Medical Corps.  He was instrumental in helping Colonel Huntington train his Marines in field sanitation, nutrition, and healthy cooking.  Within a few days, a Cuban sniper would kill Gibbs while he carried out his duties as a field surgeon.

[4] McCalla (1844-1910) was a Civil War veteran of the US Navy whose courage under fire and leadership earned him the respect and admiration of Navy and Marine Corps officers alike.  McCalla participated in the blockade of Cuba and was responsible for cutting submarine cables linking Cienfuegos with the outside world, thus isolating the Spanish garrison there, and led the invasion of Guantanamo Bay.  Advanced to Rear Admiral in 1903, McCalla retired from active duty service in 1906.

[5] Served as the tenth Commandant of the Marine Corps (1903-1910).

[6] Authored the Red Badge of Courage in 1895.

[7] On 18 June, Colonel Huntington received an order from McCalla not to allow any reporters near his camp or enter his lines without a pass from McCalla.  Any reporter attempting to do so was to be arrested as a POW and taken to the Marblehead.

[8] Awarded the Medal of Honor, served as fourteenth Commandant of the Marine Corps (1929-1930), died in office.

[9] Formerly, SS Yorktown, she was purchased by the US Navy on 21 April 1898 for service as an auxiliary cruiser/troop transport.

[10] Spanish forces outnumbered Americans 7 to 1.

[11] At the beginning of the war, the United States Armed Forces were unprepared for foreign conflict.  The Navy was barely adequate to its task, the Army was understaffed, underequipped, and under-trained.  The army’s only recent combat experience was the Indian wars in the American west.  What may have “saved” the Americans during this war was the fact that the Spanish were even less ready for war.  Thanks to the urgings of Theodore Roosevelt, Dewey’s Pacific Fleet was well positioned to strike the Spanish in Manilla Bay.  Operationally, it may have been one of the Navy’s greatest successes, although the Navy’s destruction of the Spanish fleet won the war in Cuba.

Re-Visiting World War I

—on Armistice Day, 2020

June 1918

The sweaty Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines marched wearily through the pitch-black of the night along a hard-packed wheel-rutted road.  German shelling had stopped a few hours earlier.  The respite allowed these Marines to reach La Voie du Chatel unmolested and take up their fighting positions in a clump of woods about a mile farther.  The battalion was down to three companies; the colonel had detached one rifle company to reinforce another battalion.

The wood contained little in the way of underbrush, so there was no way for the Marines to conceal themselves.  When dismissed from marching formation, the men broke ranks and began eating their cold rations. Some of the Marines remained on their feet, eating erect; others wearily sat on the ground to nibble and rest.  There may not have been much food, but there was plenty of tobacco, and the men took advantage of it.

Even after daybreak, the wood remained dim and damp from low cloud cover and early morning dew.  The Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Frederic Wise, a nineteen-year veteran of Marine Corps service, established his command post under a few trees on the edge of a thicket not far from the road that came down from Champillon.  Allied artillery began promptly at 0600 —right on schedule.   The thunder of distant guns brought slouching Marines to their feet, and they stood silently listening.  Then came the rifle and machine-gun fire heard from afar; it was ominously distinctive.  After a few moments, the Marines returned to what they had been doing, mostly resting.  They were tired.  Very tired.

After an hour or so, 2/5 Marines saw the walking wounded as they approached along the adjacent road.  Some of the men struggled by themselves; others walked in groups.  Some of the men had their arms wrapped in slings; others had bandages wrapped around their heads.  They all hobbled along, some using their rifles for crutches.  A few blinded men followed behind others with their hands resting upon the men’s shoulders ahead of them.  The injured men brought with them various accounts of the distant battle.   None of it being particularly good news.  The Germans had repelled their assault.  The attack was a disaster, they said.

Sometime later, behind the long line of injured men, came a group of motorized ambulances.  They stopped not far away, across the road from Colonel Wise’s command post, and began to set up a dressing station.  In the distance, the battle raged on.  After the ambulances came, the stretcher-bearers.  Someone had pressed these captured German soldiers into service.  The line of stretchers was not too long, and the Marines of 2/5 wondered if injured men told them exaggerated stories.  The stretcher men took their charges into the dressing station.  Some of the Marines wondered aloud at the foolishness of having medics so far from the battlefield.  Damn, Marines question everything.

At around 1100, a company of Army engineers passed by, moving toward Champillon.   Their captain soon appeared marching along behind them.  His face was pale, and he seemed much disturbed.  “The attack has failed,” he told the Wise.  “The Marines are cut to pieces.”  A few of Wise’s Marines, who stood nearby along the edge of the wood, heard this and muttered, “Bullshit.”  The captain soon continued on his way.

By noon, the distant fire slackened, but the men no longer paid any attention to it.  There was no excitement among them.  Some of the Marines slept; others sat around smoking.  Not long after, a runner came up the road with messages from Colonel Neville, the regimental commander.  Colonel Wise had orders to proceed with his Marines to the northeast edge of the wood, northwest of Luc-le-Bocage —there to await further orders.  The Sergeant Major passed the word, which prompted the NCOs to get their men on the road.  “Mount up.”   After mustering the men, the Marines stepped off in compliance with their orders.  One Marine noticed a German observation balloon hovering far above them and passed the word back through the ranks.  It was a bad sign.

An hour later, the Marines arrived at their newly assigned position on the wood’s northeast section.  The terrain was completely different; this section of wood afforded good concealment.  Company commanders dispersed their men, and sergeants inspected their positions, admonishing them to spread out—avoid bunching up, assigning them fields of fire.  Colonel Wise (post-war picture at right) walked among his Marines checking on his captains’ work —they, in turn, supervising the work of their lieutenants, and the sergeants, who already knew what to do, muttered “yes sir” and got on with it.  The veteran NCOs knew that setting into defensive positions is an ongoing process; there is always time to improve fighting positions —but there does come a time when the effort is less urgent, though no less critical.

When the Germans were not directing artillery fire against an allied advance, they used their big guns to harass suspected bivouac areas.  It seemed to the Marines that there was never any shortage of German artillery.  The enemy preferred shelling at night because it denied rest to the allied forces.  On this night, the shelling began at 2200.  Shell after shell poured into the wood.  The noise was deafening.  There was also the sound of shrapnel whizzing overhead, of trees crashing down.  The Marines leaned in closer to mother earth.  There were a few casualties, but not too many.  Then, as suddenly as the barrage had begun, it stopped.

At midnight, another messenger arrived —with new orders.  Colonel Neville ordered Wise to move his men again.  Wise had two hours to assemble his men, move them once more along the Lucy-Torcy Road, locate Colonel Feland[1], the regimental executive officer, and obtain orders about what next to do.  Wise signed for his orders and called for his captains.  Mustering the men in the dark after two hours of heavy shelling would be no easy task.  Wise sent out runners to find the Fifth Marines’ headquarters.  Locating Colonel Feland in the dark of night would be a miracle.

Wise already knew the score.  The battle of 2 June 1918 produced mixed results.  The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines had done rather well against the Germans, but the Germans severely mauled the 3rd Battalion.  The brigade’s objective had been the Bois de Belleau, and German resistance stopped the Allied advance.

Company officers and NCOs mustered the men as they came out of the woods in two’s and threes.  The Lucy-Torcy Road formed a defile between the high ground on both sides of the road.  On the right of the line of march was the Belleau Wood; Colonel Wise knew that the wood was teeming with German troops.  His map informed him that the road would open up into a sloping grain field about one-half mile distant.  It was not unlike a bottleneck from which his Marines would spill out onto a table.

When NCOs and officers finally organized their companies, and all hands accounted for, Colonel Wise stepped off, leading his Marines between those high banks.  But Wise was worried.  He knew they would soon encounter terrain that afforded no cover at all.  The night was still—the only noticeable sound was the crunching of booted feet.  There was no muttering in the ranks.  Wise thought the night was too still.  He didn’t have a good feeling about what lay ahead.  About 100 yards before the bottleneck, Wise halted his battalion and ordered them off the road.

When the road was clear of Marines, Colonel Wise called for a lieutenant and two rifle squads to reconnoiter the road ahead.  After a slow advance over a couple of hundred yards, rifle fire suddenly erupted from the left, the sound of which was unmistakably Springfield rifles.  Colonel Wise hollered out, “Ceasefire god damn it.  What in the hell do you mean by shooting us?  We’re Americans!”

The firing stopped —the shooters revealed themselves.  They were all that remained of the 3rd Battalion.  “Look to your right,” someone advised, “The Germans are in the Bois de Belleau.”  Colonel Wise no sooner started his men back the way they had come when the Germans opened fire with machine guns.  Their aim was low, but several Marines received wounds.  And then the entire German line opened up; most of the fire was indiscriminate and ineffective.  When Wise and his Marines returned to the battalion’s main body, he instructed his company commanders to take cover along the ridgeline on the left of the road and tie in with what remained of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.  Colonel Wise shuddered; he was well aware that had he led his battalion further down the road, the Germans might have destroyed 2/5.

While conferring with his company officers, Captain John Blanchfield suddenly grabbed at his groin and then fell to the ground.  A sniper’s well-aimed shot brought him down.  Two young NCOs picked him up and carried him to safety, but he was soon dead.  German fire continued unabated.  Overconfident, Germans began standing up and shooting at the Marines.  Germans also wounded Lieutenant Sam Cummings and several others; their comrades helped them along.  Some of these young men were beyond help.  The well-disciplined Marines held their fire.  There was no good reason to reveal their exact position.

When the NCOs had finally positioned their Marines, the battalion extended a mile in distance.  German fire continued, and it didn’t take much urging for the Marines to begin digging in —just in time for the arrival of more German artillery.

Colonel Wise made his way to his battalion’s left flank to find out about the remnants of 3/5.  He found fifty men; they were all that remained of a rifle company.  The lieutenant commanding the platoon had done a good job establishing defensive positions for his Marines.  They were in mutually supporting foxholes but nervous, which is not unusual.  The lieutenant apologized for firing on Colonel Wise; he explained that the Germans had been probing the Marine’s position for several hours.  Wise informed the young officer that he was now attached to the 2nd Battalion.

Within a half-hour, the soil being sandy and easily disturbed, 2/5 Marines were well-entrenched and expecting a German attack.  No attack materialized.  There were only persistent artillery and a constant stream of machine gunfire.  A continuous stream of machine-gun fire is not how experienced troops fire their automatic weapons; Wise suspected that the German troops were new to the line.

At 0900, Colonel Feland came up behind the ridge on foot.  He informed Wise that 1/5 was now on his left; there was little left of the Third Battalion.  He told the battalion commander, “Stay here and hold this ridge.”

Just as the Marines concluded that the German shelling couldn’t get worse, the German began to employ trench mortars on the Marine position.  Trench mortars were aerial torpedoes about four feet long and packed with explosives.  Once fired, they sailed through the air and landed along the top of the ridge; when they exploded, the entire ridge line shook.  The bombardment kept up for the whole of the day.  Gas shells fell, as well, but they were few.  In time, the regiment sent up a machine gun section to support the 1st and 2nd battalions[2].  No one entrenched on the Marine line could understand why the Germans did not launch a full-scale assault.  Had they done so, with so few men, no defense-in-depth, and no opportunity to establish secondary positions, the Germans would have crushed the First and Second Battalion of the 5th Marines.

The Marines were still on that ridge on the third day.  They held out against German artillery and murderous machine-gun fire; they maintained their position.  The Marines had nothing to shoot at, except trees.  Owing to the Marine positions’ disbursement and the depth of their fighting holes, the third day passed with few casualties.  The supply sergeant sent up cold food in the evening with resupplies of ammunition.  The Marines, on fifty-percent alert, slept as well as they could.  German artillery began again on the morning of the fourth day.

At 0900, a runner came up with a message for the Battalion commander; the Brigade Commander, Brigadier General Harbord,[3] wanted to see Colonel Wise at his headquarters.  It was an unusual meeting.  Without going through the regimental commander, Harbord ordered Wise into the attack on Belleau Wood.  Wise went straightaway to the regimental command post to inform Colonel Neville of his orders and requested the return of his third rifle company.

General Harbord had given Wise carte blanch authority to execute his attack.  What Wise did not want to do was to use the same unsuccessful strategy employed by the 6th Marines.  Using the same old playbook would only cost his Marines more suffering.  What Wise wanted was to hit the Germans where they weren’t looking —from behind.

LtCol Wise called for his company commanders.  Captain Wass, Captain Williams[4], Captain Dunbeck, and First Lieutenant Cook soon appeared.  They were red-eyed, unshaven, and dirty.  Wise explained the mission assigned to 2/5, informed him of his plan, outlined the risks, and asked for their opinions.  They agreed with Wise; there was no good reason to launch a frontal assault.  Wise informed his officers that 2/5 would move out at 0400 for an attack before daybreak.  In addition to the standard allotment of 100 rounds of ammunition, each Marine would receive two bandoliers (60 rounds each).  Colonel Neville directed 1/5 relieve 2/5 on the line at midnight.  (Shown right, Captain Lloyd Williams, USMC).

For the rest of the day, company officers and NCOs readied their men.  The Marines displayed no excitement at all.  They were veterans and, as such, resigned to whatever fate had in store for them.  Colonel Wise conferred with Major Terrill, the officer commanding 1/5, and Major John A. Hughes, commanding 1/6, to confirm the midnight relief.  Hughes agreed with Wise’s plan.  A frontal attack would be suicidal, he said.  Hughes offered good insight as to the German defenses and the terrain.  Hughes told him that within the wood was a knoll that extended a mile long and about a half-mile wide.  The knoll rose sharply from the surrounding field; there was an outcrop of boulders cut with gullies and ravines with thick underbrush inhibiting good observation beyond a few feet.  Within this tangle, Hughes continued, were well camouflaged German machine gun nests, protected by fallen trees and woodpiles.  Hughes told Wise to expect sniper fire from ground and treetop positions, by shooters desperate to defend the wood.

Colonel Wise was thankful for his conversation with Hughes, and for the fact that he would not have to make a frontal assault against the German positions.  But his relief was short-lived.  At midnight, General Harbord sent forward another message, countermanding his earlier order and directing Wise to make a frontal assault from the Wood’s southern edge.  Major Hughes’ 1/6 would attack on the right of 2/5[5].  To make sure that the Germans knew the Marines were coming, Harbord ordered a rolling barrage of artillery beginning at 0400.  Wise was dumbstruck.  It was now necessary to change his entire scheme of maneuver.  He called up his company officers and gave them their new orders.

At 0300, the 2/5 was ready to attack.  The early morning hour was still.  Colonel Wise informed his officers that he would establish his command post to the right of the battalion line.  Birds began to chirp; Wise later remembered how amazed he was that there were any birds at all in those woods.  With his Marines positioned for the attack, Colonel Wise awaited the commencement of allied artillery.  The morning light slowly revealed an odd, very eerie looking terrain.

A rolling barrage began at 0400, rounds dropping several hundred yards in front of the Marine position.  A cultivated field extended upward to meet the thick wall of the Belleau Wood.  Artillery pushed dirt high into the air, tons of soil dropping back to earth in a disorderly fashion.  As the bombardment began to creep forward, German machine guns came to life.  The Germans could not see any Marines yet, but the barrage informed them of what direction the attack would come.

Platoon sergeants blew their whistles; on cue, the battalion began its movement forward, now in plain sight of the Germans.  They had the range of these Marines, and young men started dropping, but the line moved steadily on.  In Colonel Wise’s opinion, the Germans could not have done better if they had ordered the attack themselves.  Marines dropped one after another.  In time, the Marine advance disappeared into the wood, and suddenly, German machine-gun fire abated.  Now it was time for the Germans to die.  Company commanders sent word back to Wise: objective achieved; casualties many.

Marines began escorting prisoners to the battalion command post.  These men were from the Jaeger Division.  The prisoners told the Marines that there were 1,800 Germans inside the wood[6].  The Marine strength, before the attack, was half that.  The German soldiers taken as prisoners said that they were glad to be out of the war.

The Marines took the wood.  Every shred of post-battle evidence pointed to the fact that it was a horrific fight.  In front of the German machine-gun nests were dead Marines.  Inside the next lay the remains of Germans.  A strange silence engulfed the entire area.  Colonel Wise looked for Captain Williams.  He instead found Williams executive officer; Captain Williams was dead.  It was pure carnage.  As the Marines continued their advance, Germans feigning death rose and shot them in the back.  This behavior so thoroughly pissed-off the Marines that they stopped taking prisoners; they even shot Germans who had thrown down their weapons —not out of cruelty, but for survival.  A dead enemy can’t kill you.

What made attacking German machine gun positions so dangerous, beyond the obvious, was how the Germans positioned their automatic weapons: Germans protected the first emplacement with two carefully camouflaged machine-gun nests behind it.  As the Marines assaulted one such position, machine gun crews in the rear would wait until the Marines seized the forward nest before opening fire —which was essentially how Second Lieutenant Heiser, of Captain Dunbeck’s company, lost his life.  A stream of machine-gun fire decapitated him.  Among the German soldiers in Belleau Wood, machine gunners were the first to surrender.  Unhappily for them, U.S. Marines were not very inclined to accept their surrender.

Colonel Wise’s companies fought their way through the Belleau Wood, from one side to the other.  A lot of Marines died in the process of taking the wood.  The attack began after daylight, but in some places, the wood was as dark as night, visibility impaired by think foliage, complex terrain, a place with no discernible landmarks.  If one happened to turn entirely around twice, he would lose his sense of direction, and only a compass could set them straight.  The density of the wood’s underbrush made close combat savage, deadly work.  Up close and personal could not have been more personal.  What made the American Marines stand out from their U.S. Army contemporaries was elemental courage, gallantry, fortitude, and the mental and physical hardening and determination instilled into them by their drill instructors.

At the end of this fight, German soldiers still occupied the northeast sector.  Colonel Wise no longer had enough men to take it.  Moreover, he didn’t have a sufficient number of Marines to defend what he’d taken.  Half of 2/5 lay dead, dying or wounded on the field of battle.  Colonel Wise had to establish a defensive perimeter that extended nearly two miles with what remained of his battalion.  Everyone left alive knew that a counterattack was only a matter of time.  Colonel Wise approached Major Hughes and requested the loan of a company of Marines to press the remaining Germans, but just then, General Harbord’s courier told Wise not to bother cleaning up the Germans; Army artillery would do the job.  Colonel Wise shook his head because he knew artillery would do nothing to defend Belleau Wood.  Major Snow brought up two companies of combat engineers; Wise promoted them to infantry and set them into defensive positions.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of stretcher-bearers emerged from the wood.  For some, medical attention mattered; for most, it didn’t.  This carnage was the price of glory; a word one never hears from the lips of a combat Marine.  There is glory, of course, but only in the sense that young, well-trained American Marines can overcome their natural fear of death to accomplish that which is necessary, and in this process, distinguishing themselves at the most critical of times.

Semper Fidelis

Post Script

The Battle of Belleau Wood exacted a heavy toll on the 4th Marine Brigade.  Within this brigade of 9,500 Marines, 1,000 lost their lives while in action, 4,000 more received serious battle wounds from gunfire or mustard gas —a 55% casualty rate.  Colonel Thomas Holcomb’s 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, suffered 764 casualties out of roughly 900-man assigned.  The battle ended in victory for the American Expedition Forces, but its significance went far beyond a single bloody engagement.

In subsequent years, the Marine Corps underwent a substantial reorganization and a change in direction, from its traditional role of serving in ship’s detachments to a multi-purpose force in readiness.  The Corps’ senior officers who were ultimately responsible for this reorganization were men who fought at Belleau Wood, including future commandants John A. Lejeune, Clifton Cates, Lemuel Shepherd, Jr., Wendell Neville, and Thomas Holcomb.

The list of Belleau Wood combatants also includes Roy Geiger, the only Marine to command a U.S. field army.  Charles F. B. Price commanded the 2nd Marine Division in World War II.  Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith commanded V Amphibious Corps in World War II, and Keller E. Rockey commanded the 5th Marine Division during the battle for Iwo Jima.  Merwin Silverthorn was a sergeant in the 5th Marines who later retired as a lieutenant general as one of the Marine Corps’ foremost authorities on amphibious warfare.

Modern Marines refer to these World War I veterans as the “Old Breed.”  The men identified above later shaped the Marine Corps in its new image: a force in readiness.  They created and implemented intense training programs, adopted new weapons, devised new battlefield tactics, emphasized the importance of contingency planning, and instituted rigorous education programs for officers, noncommissioned officers, and entry-level Marines.  Wisely, the Marine Corps learned many lessons from the Battle of Belleau Wood, and these lessons in turn prepared future Marines for World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle Eastern Wars.

Endnotes:

[1] Logan Feland (1869-1936) was a career Marine Corps officer who retired as a major general in 1933.  He participated in the Spanish American War while serving with the 3rd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry, and as a Marine Corps officer from 1899.  In every battle in which he served, Feland was at the forefront of the fight.  He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Army Distinguished Service Medal, and five awards of the Silver Star medal.

[2] At this particular time, all crew-served weapons were held in readiness by the brigade, distributed to regiments on an “as needed” basis.

[3] James Guthrie Harbord (1866-1947) was a senior officer of the US Army who, during World War I, commanded the 4th Marine Brigade during the battles of Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood.

[4] Captain Lloyd Williams commanded the 51st Company, 2/5.  He will live forever in the hearts of Marines for his famous reply to a French colonel.  As the Marines took their positions on 2 June, relieving elements of the French army, the colonel was attempting to acquaint the Americans with the realities of the situation outside Belleau Wood and not trusting his spoken English, wrote a note to Williams ordering him to retreat.  Captain Williams looked at the colonel coldly and said, “Retreat hell!  We just got here.”  Other Marine officers parroted Williams’ eloquence several times since then.

[5] Major Hughes later claimed that he received no such order from Harbord.

[6] It was actually around 2,500 Germans.

245th Anniversary of the U. S. Marine Corps

10 November 1775 — 10 November 2020

Who are these people who claim the title, U.S. Marine?

They are men and women who come from every part of the United States of America.  They are all high school graduates with many having college credits or degrees.  Many left their homes as teenagers seeking adventure; with an average age of 25-years, Marines are the youngest overall of all the uniformed services.  They are patriots—men and women who love their country enough to be willing to place themselves in harm’s way defending the American way of life.  When they left home, they left all the comforts of home to discover the unknown.

At recruit training or officer’s candidate school, they learned the basics of what it takes to become a Marine.  They learned that in the Marine Corps, learning is a lifetime endeavor.  Upon graduating from Bootcamp or OCS, every Marine receives his or her first Marine Corps Emblem, signifying that they have passed the test for becoming a United States Marine.  They then proceed to infantry training because every Marine is a rifleman.

There are dozens of occupational fields in the Marine Corps, many of these are highly technical areas that demand further training.  After their initial period of training, Marines are scattered to the four winds and the corners of the earth.  In the process of becoming a United States Marine, they discovered a new family —one composed of men and women who believe as they do, whose values and devotions equal their own.  They inherited a unique tradition of devotion to duty that exceeds those of any other service organization; it has been passed to them by every previous generation dating back to 1775.  In time, they will pass this tradition on to those who follow them.  Part of this tradition demands that they keep faith with their God, their Country, and their Corps.  In the Marines, no one cares what color skin you have; they only care about the content of your character.  There is no place in the Marine Corps for people of low character.

Marines seldom get enough sleep, yet their energy levels remain high.  They take great pride in their uniforms and work constantly to present the best possible military appearance.  No one ever wants to become a “raggedy assed Marine.”  They are professionals who work hard to develop, maintain, and enhance their unique skills.  They are scholars who constantly read about the art and science of warfare.  The more they learn, the more they want to know.

Marines are also known to play hard.  Some smoke and drink too much, but they are absolutely devoted to maintaining their personal and professional integrity, their honor, their commitment.  They are courageous in the face of great danger.  They do not behave bravely on the battlefield for the Corps; they do it for each other, but this is what makes the Marine Corps unique.  Tragically, Marines sometimes lose a brother or sister; when this happens, they honor them publicly and mourn them privately.

We don’t pay Marines enough money, but most never joined for money —they joined to serve.  All they ask in return for their many sacrifices is the gratitude of the American people, and the respect they have earned and deserve.  Sometimes, it’s the little things that matter most: letters from back home matter because there are occasions when Marines aren’t sure they’ll ever see home again.

Young Marines grow up fast, because serving as a leader is a weighty responsibility.  Most Marine corporals have more responsibility than do most corporate executives.  They learn to make hard decisions; they learn how to live with the consequences of those decisions.  Yet, in some other ways, Marines never grow up at all … almost every Marine has a wicked sense of humor.

Marines fight for freedom; that is, the freedom of people whom they’ve never met.  Some Marines experience the crucible of war and must learn how to deal with its physical and psychological effects.  No matter whether Marines served in combat or not, every Marine stands the chance of going into a war zone; Marines are known to volunteer for combat service.  Every Marine knows that tough training pays off.  They sweat in tough training, so they won’t have to bleed in combat.  All Marines give something of themselves in the service of their country —some Marines give all.

Never ask a Marine what it’s like to serve in combat —it is an experience that defies explanation.

Marines love their time-honored rites and ceremonies, for these are the things that strengthen their bond with fellow Marines.  When the going gets tough, it is this bond that nurtures them.  The future may be uncertain, but one thing is constant: a Marine can always count on a fellow-Marine.  It’s what Marines do.  Together, Marines learn how to deal with victory and tragedy.

At the end of their Marine Corps adventures, some Marines go back home and take up their lives where they left off … but none of these men and women are ever the same as when they left for boot camp because being a Marine is a lifelong endeavor.  There are no ex-Marines.

One-third of all Marines remain in the Corps because they have fallen in love with the uniqueness of the Marine Corps lifestyle.  They crave the challenges of adventurous service.  Some Marines remain in the Marines because the Corps has become their home.

You should know that Marines are great story-tellers.  Most of these stories contain embellishments; the more often they are told, the greater the embellishments become.  Eventually, their stories become legend —and in some cases, myth.  Elite forces tell such tales.  Some are hilarious, some are true, and some are both.  No matter what the tale, Marines always speak highly of their Corps.

The title Marine is earned the hard way and remains effective throughout a Marine’s lifetime.  It has no monetary value, but it is a priceless gift.  When Marines meet one another, in uniform or civilian attire, there is also the exchange of a nod, or perhaps a tight smile.  There is but one exception to the Marine for Life Rule: it is that no one can remain part of the Marine family who dishonors themselves or our Corps.

To those who are serving as Marines presently, to those who have gone before, I thank you for your sacrifices.  Remember the good times, and if you haven’t done so, I urge you to seek your peace for the unhappy moments.  Stand tall, always, because future generations will one day stand upon your shoulders.

I know this because I am a United States Marine.