In 1775, the population of the British Colonies was 2.4 million people. It sounds like a large number, but it wasn’t. About a third were fiercely loyal to the British Crown from that seemingly large number. Another third, at least initially, had no interest in the moaning between loyalists and patriots. When the Continental Congress authorized George Washington to assemble an army in defense of the American colonies, there were only around 40.000 “able-bodied” men to serve as an armed force — including those associated with colonial militias. When Congress decided to establish a naval power, Washington well-understood the necessity, but he did not understand the need to create the Continental Marine Corps. Two battalions of men raised to serve as marines meant two fewer battalions available to General Washington’s field army.
The issue of Army vs. Marines has always been one of service rivalry. It’s not about their respective missions; they’ve always had a different task. But it was always about funding. For every dollar Congress allocated to the Navy and Marines, there was one less dollar for the Continental Army. There was not a lot of money back then.
With no interest in maintaining a standing army after the Revolutionary War, the U.S. Congress disbanded the Continental Navy and Marine Corps and all but a small army force to address hostilities with native populations. As conflicts with Indians increased, Congress authorized the establishment of a brigade-sized unit designated the Legion of the United States. After that, the size of the U.S. Army was dependent upon congressional funding and the demand for frontier defense. Congress established the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps in 1798 to address the Quasi-war with France, and later, the Barbary Coast wars.
While the Army conducted land engagements during the War of 1812, Marines performed their traditional role aboard U.S. Navy ships. Afterward, Army and Marine Corps units fought together during the Seminole and Creek Indian Wars.
The role of the Marines during the American Civil War was small, although not entirely insignificant. Still, the fact was that Army units participated in more of the Union’s riverine operations than Marines. It wasn’t until the Spanish-American War that the Marine Corps demonstrated its capabilities as an amphibious force in projecting Navy power ashore.
In 1913, the United States Army consisted of around 127,000 officers and men, its size wholly inadequate to the prosecution of a land war. The First World War began in 1914; the grueling task of building a world-class army took the United States three years and considerable sums of money. In 1917, comparatively few Army officers or NCOs had any conventional combat experience — and those with service in hostile environments confronted unconventional battles with native Americans or Philippine insurgents.
Despite its small size, the U. S. Marine Corps was composed of officers and non-commissioned officers with combat experience. Through the Secretary of the Navy, the Commandant of the Marine Corps offered to make these resources available to the Army for service in France. The Army’s senior leadership had little interest in involving Marines. Eventually, however, the Marines did become involved in World War I even though the Commanding General, American Expeditionary Force, General John J. (Black Jack) Pershing harbored misgivings about using the Marines in a combat role.
After reporting to General Pershing, the Marines of the 4th Brigade performed logistics duties and underwent combat training exercises under French tutelage until Pershing decided that they were sufficiently trained for land warfare. Through the persistence of Brigadier General John A. Lejeune, Commanding General of the 4th Brigade, Pershing finally assigned the Marines to the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division. Lejeune eventually assumed command of the Army division — the first Marine Corps officer to command an Army combat command.
If General Pershing had anything in common with his counterparts of the Imperial German Army, it was that neither believed that the American Marines would pose much of a threat to the battle-hardened German Army.
The Marines’ second engagement of World War I took place in the wheat fields and forests of a vast hunting preserve named Belleau Wood. This battle became the hallmark of the Marine Corps’ battle reputation as expert marksmen and their tenacity in combat. In this one battle, the Fourth Brigade of United States Marines demonstrated that the Americans were not only in France to fight — they were in France to win.
On 6 June 1918, the 4th Marine Brigade (comprising the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion) attacked the German 237th Infantry Division, which held a line through the heavily wooded Belleau Wood. In preparing for this assault, the French commander of XXI Corps significantly underestimated the enemy’s strength. The 237th was a combat-hardened organization. No one on Pershing’s staff expected the Marines to succeed, but then again, sending them against a numerically superior force would at least provide them with land warfare experience and may even solve Pershing’s problem of dealing with Marines.
Conventional tactical wisdom suggested that for the Marines to prevail in land warfare, they would need a 3-to-1 numerical advantage over the German defenders. The Marines did not have that advantage. They also did not have any artillery support. The Germans should have annihilated the American Marines by every measure, but that’s not what happened. Overcoming tremendous odds, the Marines persevered and defeated the enemy in their sector. Along with co-located army units, they helped push the Germans back ten miles from their former front-line position. This massive “upset” convinced the German high command that their strategic clock was running out.
After the Battle of Belleau Wood, American journalists showered the Marines with glowing press reports. For the first time, the American people learned that there were United States Marines, and they were effective at kicking the hell out of Imperial Germany’s battle-toughened army.
Senior Army officers deeply resented all the press attention paid to the Marines. It was as if the Army wasn’t even present. After all, Army officers complained, the Marines were part of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division — not the other way around. Of course, the Marines didn’t have anything to do with this “good press,” but that didn’t seem to matter. One of these complaining officers was a captain of artillery by the name of Harry S. Truman.
For almost 150 years, the Army and Navy conducted their operations cooperatively, when required. Cooperation meant that Army and Navy commanders would agree whenever they could in matters of coordinated efforts. This arrangement was workable because the Army was off fighting in the Indians for most of this period, and the Navy was showing the American flag overseas. In any case, “cooperation” was always personality-dependent. If the Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy could cooperate, they did when it suited them, and if not, they did not. In one communication between Secretary of War Lindley Garrison and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels (Wilson Administration), Garrison wrote:
“Joe, I don’t give a damn about the Navy, and you don’t care a damn about the Army. You can run your machine, and I will run mine. I am glad if anyone can convince me I am wrong, but I am damn sure nobody lives who can do it. I am an individualist and not cut out for cooperative effort. I will let you go your way, and I will go mine.”
The drive for the unification of the services first took shape following World War I. The Institute for Government Research (later, Brookings Institute) began a series of studies for the reform of the executive branch, which prompted the involvement of Congress and a proposal that the executive departments follow the “single purpose” principle. President Harding’s representative, Walter Brown, suggested the consolidation of the Secretaries of War and Navy under a single defense secretary. Brown further suggested assigning all functions not related to national defense elsewhere. Ultimately, the effort failed in Congress.
If the U.S. Army wasn’t happy with the Marine Corps in 1918, they were livid with Brigadier General Billy Mitchell in 1925. Mitchell’s 1925 recommendation for an autonomous air force and his public statements accusing the Army and Navy of intransigence in matters of aviation safety resulted in Mitchell’s court-martial. General Mitchell resigned from the Army shortly after, but this bruhaha did result in considering the merits of a separate air force. The so-called Morrow Board wasn’t keen on an independent air force, but it did see the wisdom in creating a somewhat separate Army Air Corps (1926).
Another attempt for unification occurred in 1932, but this was dismissed because Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur vigorously opposed it and because the Depression demanded everyone’s full attention.
The topic of unification didn’t come up again until 1943 when Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall addressed the Joint Chiefs of Staff with a proposal for a post-war unification effort. Marshall expressed concern for the need for “unity of command” and “economy.” He proposed a single department under a civilian cabinet secretary.
World War II
The Army’s deep-seated resentment toward the Marine Corps from the First World War reared its head again at the beginning of World War II. There were the same budgetary arguments, of course, and the Army continued to insist that land warfare was their mission — and the Marines should confine themselves to small naval raids. Since President Roosevelt’s son was a serving major in the U.S. Marine Corps, the Army’s whinging fell on deaf ears.
President Roosevelt ordered the Army to assume responsibility for land engagements in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Western Europe at the beginning of World War II. Roosevelt appointed Douglas MacArthur to command U.S. and Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific.
FDR assigned the Central and Northern Pacific area to Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who served as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command. While the Central Pacific Island campaigns were principally Navy-Marine Corps operations (augmented by Army air and ground units when required), Marines also augmented MacArthur’s campaign in the Southwest Pacific. Marines so impressed MacArthur that he would turn to them again — in another war.
The Boiling Point
Many Army officers continued to harbor deep resentment toward the Marines for receiving what they believed was a disproportionate share of the credit during the Battle of Belleau Wood. Between 1920-1939, the War Department argued for the disbandment of the Marine Corps but working against such arguments was the evolution of a circle of Marine Corps intellectuals — warriors/scholars — who paved the way for a United States victory in the Pacific War beginning in the 1920s. These officers not only accurately predicted what would happen, but they also pinpointed the enemy and, with that expectation, developed amphibious warfare doctrine, the process for loading/unloading amphibious ships, established the advance base force and associated operations, defense battalions, landing craft, and close air support of ground troops.
In 1943, while serving at Noumea, New Caledonia, Lieutenant Colonel Merrill B. Twining listened to two senior U.S. Army officers expressing their opinion about the recently concluded Guadalcanal campaign and the future organization of the armed forces. They condemned the Marines for intruding into the Army’s customary land warfare sphere. One of those officers, Major General J. Lawton Collins, hinted that the days of the U.S. Marine Corps were numbered.
General Collins parroted Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, who believed that if the Marine Corps was needed, it should be a very small organization. Marshall vowed to “see that the Marines never won another war.”
Having learned of these moaning sessions, Marine Corps veteran officers distrusted and disrespected these Army officers. Amid World War II, as Japanese Imperial forces were killing Marines, the Marines had discovered a new enemy: the U.S. Army.
A boiling point erupted during the Battle of Saipan when Marine Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith, Commanding General, V Amphibious Corps, fired Army Major General Ralph C. Smith, a subordinate commander, who at the time of his relief, commanded the U.S. 27th Infantry Division.
The senior commander of the Saipan operation was Admiral Raymond A. Spruance. Below Spruance was Vice Admiral Richmond K. Turner, Commander, Northern Attack Force, and LtGen Smith. Smith exercised command authority over the 2nd Marine Division (2ndMarDiv), 4thMarDiv, and the U.S. 27th.
LtGen Smith’s three-division attack plan assigned responsibility to the 2ndMarDiv for the left flank of the assault. On the right flank, 4thMarDiv. In the center, the U.S. 27th. Both flanking divisions moved steadily forward in the attack, but tenacious Japanese defenders held up MajGen Smith’s advance for two days. The delay produced a critical situation on two accounts: first, because the longer it takes to defeat the enemy, the more costly the battle becomes. LtGen Smith was well aware of Admiral Spruance’s expectations about the length of this battle. Second, MajGen Smith’s delay in the advance placed both the 2ndMarDiv and 4thMarDiv in jeopardy of Japanese assaults on their right and left flanks, respectively.
Despite LtGen Smith’s urgings, MajGen Smith could not seem to move his two assault regiments forward. Consequently, LtGen Smith, after conferring with Admiral Spruance, relieved MajGen Smith from command and replaced him with Army MajGen Sanderford Jarman. Everyone in the Navy chain of command viewed MajGen Smith’s relief from duty as a wartime shuffling of ground commanders. Three other army commanders had been similarly relieved of their duties (two by senior Navy commanders), and there were no interservice repercussions. However, Smith’s relief created a firestorm that lasted well into the mid-1950s.
Holland M. Smith obtained his Marine Corps commission in 1904. He was a trained lawyer and a former member of the Alabama National Guard. Smith was known for his short temper, which was the genesis of his nickname, “Howling Mad.” He was a professional but abrupt officer who preferred field service to staff assignments. He was not prone to compromise, particularly in matters relating to his Marines. Smith’s contemporaries viewed his behavior as unnecessarily combative, often misguided, and almost always counterproductive. Despite these personality “flaws,” HQMC nominated Smith to attend the Army Staff College and Navy War College. Before Saipan, Smith commanded the Amphibious Force, Atlantic Fleet, and later, the Amphibious Force, Pacific Fleet. Under Smith’s firm guidance, the Marine Corps developed its pre-war amphibious assault doctrine. Before 1941, Smith supervised the amphibious training of the 1stMarDiv, 2ndMarDiv, 3rdMarDiv, and the 1st, 7th, 9th, 77th, 81st, and 96th Army divisions. General Smith knew how to do his job.
MajGen Ralph C. Smith was undeniably a good and decent man. He was quiet, calm, and his response always measured. He was also a highly decorated combat officer and an Army aviator. He was fluent in French and a graduate of the Army War College and École de Guerre. Despite his qualifications, Smith was unpopular among his subordinate officers. They resented “an outsider” taking command of the U.S. 27th (a national guard division) (their division). Rather than confronting these subordinates, or better yet, leading them by example, he ignored their undisciplined behavior. The effect of this was that the U.S. 27th Infantry Division performed as “sad sacks” in combat. There is no environment more critical than combat. And, on Saipan, Smith’s failures as a leader harmed his troops and those men of the 2ndMarDiv and 4thMarDiv. Since MajGen Smith wouldn’t do anything about it, LtGen Smith would — and did.
There is little question that LtGen Smith and MajGen Smith had incompatible personalities, but more importantly, there is a substantial cultural difference in the way the Army and Marine Corps view combat operations. The Army moves much slower in prosecuting land warfare, preferring to use supporting arms rather than infantry assaults. The core strategy of amphibious operations is the lightning-fast frontal assault (particularly in island operations). Marines see no value in prolonging an armed confrontation.
At the Battle of Iwo Jima, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal noted, “The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.” But even as Forrestal made this statement, the future of the Marine Corps was already in jeopardy. In Washington, certain Army officials and members of congress conspired to disband the Marine Corps. The leaders of this conspiracy were President Harry S. Truman and U.S. Army Chiefs of Staff, General George C. Marshal, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, General J. Lawton Collins, and General Omar Bradley. These men focused their post-World War II energies on disbanding the Marine Corps as part of the defense reorganization effort.
(Continued Next Week)
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 Douglas MacArthur served in the U.S. Army from 1903 until his retirement as Army Chief of Staff in 1935. He was thereafter appointed Field Marshal of the Philippine Army, where he served until FDR recalled him to active duty service with the Army in 1941.