Marine Fighting Spirit

Introduction

Valor, audacity, and fortitude are words used to describe America’s Armed Forces.  The histories of the military services are replete with examples of individual and organizational esprit de corps.  What these men and organizations do in combat mirrors their mission and training; how well they do it reflects the quality of their leaders and the unit’s fighting spirit — their willingness to improvise, adapt and overcome — their ability to sustain serious injury and keep on fighting.

America’s Marines have been at this now for going on 250 years.  The history book of the U.S. Marines is awash with examples of courage under fire, refusal to quit, and victory without fanfare.  We don’t know very much about the kind of training the Continental Marines experienced in preparing them for war with Great Britain in 1775, but we do know that despite the small size of the Corps back then, that handful of Marines distinguished themselves and laid the foundation for what a United States Marine Corps should one day become.

They were American Marines.  Their successes in battle far outnumbered their failures, and while they may have been forced to withdraw from the field of battle, they never quit the fight.  Within two weeks of mustering on the stern of the Continental Navy’s flagship USS Alfred, these early Marines were en route to their first battle — which occurred at New Providence, Nassau, on 3 March 1776.  It wasn’t the bloodiest of battles, but they did their part in helping the navy accomplish its mission.  That’s what Marines do.

The British overwhelmed the Marines at Bladensburg during the War of 1812, but by that time, every other American military unit had already left the field of battle.  The American Marines acquitted themselves so well that the British honored them by sparing the Marine Barracks in Washington (then the headquarters of the United States Marine Corps) from destruction.  The Marine Barracks was the ONLY government building spared — and this explains why Marine Barracks, Washington, is the oldest structure inside the nation’s capital.

Outside this blog’s small number of readers, few Americans today know the Marine Corps’ battle history.  As naval infantry, American Marines protected their country’s interests from the coast of North Africa, throughout the Caribbean, in the Falkland Islands, Sumatra, West Africa, and in the Seminole Wars.  During the Mexican War, Marines seized enemy seaports along the Gulf and the Pacific Ocean.  A battalion of Marines fought under General Winfield Scott at Pueblo and carried the fight all the Halls of Montezuma.” During the American Civil War, Union Marines fought on land and sea.

The farther Marines get from one battle, the closer they get to their next.

The Cold War

At the conclusion of World War II, President Harry S. Truman wasted no time demobilizing the armed forces.  He was intent on making a smooth transition from a wartime economy to one that fulfilled the needs of a nation at peace.  Veterans were returning home from four long years of horror; they needed jobs, and Truman believed that it was the government’s duty to do what it could to help create those jobs.  It was also a time of restructuring of the Armed Forces.  The War Department was disbanded; in its place, a Department of Defense incorporated the service secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  But, in achieving these goals, Truman placed the military services on the chopping block.  Every service experienced sharp cuts in manpower and equipment.  Suddenly, there was no money to repair airplanes, tanks, or radios.  There was no money for annual rifle requalification, no training exercises, and hardly any money to feed, clothe, and see to the medical needs of active duty troops.

During this time, the Marine Corps had but one advantage over the other services.  They all “gave up” one-third of the wartime strength, of course, but while combat veterans in the Army, Navy, and Air Force dwindled to about twenty percent of their total force, the Marine Corps retained half of their combat officers and noncommissioned officers — the men who had led the way through the Pacific, and somehow miraculously survived.

Boiling Korea

When the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) invaded South Korea in the early morning hours of 25 June 1950, they did so in overwhelming numbers.  It was a mechanized/combined arms force involving thirteen infantry divisions, an armored division of well-trained, superbly equipped troops, and a full aviation division to back them up.  Various sources tell us that the number of invading troops was between 90,000 —150,000 men.  An additional 30,000 North Korean soldiers were held “in reserve.”

General Douglas MacArthur, serving as Supreme Allied Commander, Far East, was headquartered in Tokyo, Japan.  Within this United Nations (U.N.) The command consisted of several subordinate commanders, including Commander, U. S. Seventh Fleet, Commander, U.S. Eighth Army, and Commander, U.S. Fifth Air Force.

Commanding the Eighth Army was Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, U. S. Army.  His subordinate commands included the U.S. 24th Infantry Division, 1st Cavalry Division, and the U.S. 25th Infantry Division — all of which were stationed in Japan as part of the post-war Allied occupation force.  At the end of June 1950, because of Truman’s cuts to the military services, not one of the Army’s occupation divisions was prepared for a national emergency.[1]  In the Republic of Korea, the South Korean (ROK) armed forces numbered less than 70,000 men.  The one thing the South Koreans shared with the U.S. Eighth Army was that the men were poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly led.

Eventually, all U.N. ground forces were organized under the U.S. Eighth Army.  By the time General Walker was able to organize an armed response, the NKPA had already overrun 90% of the South Korean peninsula.  The only terrain in possession of U.N. forces was a 140-mile perimeter around the port city of Pusan (southeast South Korea).  Throughout July and August, General Walker’s forces suffered one defeat after another.  Casualties were mounting, and the morale of these “U.N.” forces was at an all-time low.  Within thirty days, the U.S. Army suffered 6,000 casualties.  The losses borne by the ROK Army were massive.[2]

General MacArthur asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for a Marine regiment to help stem the tide of the invading NKPA.  To clarify: General of the Army Douglas MacArthur wanted a regiment of Marines to stem the tide of 150,000 communist troops — when the NPKA had already mauled two Army infantry divisions in 30 days.  What MacArthur received, instead, was a Marine combat brigade — which became the lead element of a re-constituted 1st Marine Division.

A Marine expeditionary brigade is an awesome organization because it incorporates ground, air, and service support elements designed to make the brigade a self-sustaining combat powerhouse.  The 1st (Provisional) Marine Brigade (1stMarBde) began forming at Camp Pendleton, California, on 7 July, its core element was the 5th Marine Regiment (with reinforcing elements: artillery, tanks, engineers, communications) and Marine Aircraft Group 33 (three fixed-wing squadrons and a helicopter squadron).

What made the 1stMarBde extraordinary was the circumstances under which it was formed.  Truman’s cuts were so devastating to the Marine Corps (owing to its already small size) that on 25 June 1950, there was but one infantry regiment at Camp Pendleton — in reduced strength.  The regiment had three battalions (and a headquarters element), but each was short one rifle company; each rifle company was short one rifle platoon.  These reductions simply meant that the Marines would have to fight harder.

The brigade pulled into Pusan Harbor on 2 August; what the Marines discovered was that they were outnumbered and out-gunned by a formidable enemy.  US Marine combat commands during the Korean War operated within the Eighth Army.  General Walker decided to use these Marines as a stop-gap force.  Whenever the NKPA mauled and routed an American Army unit, Walker sent Marines to re-capture the Army’s forfeited positions.  Were it not for this handful of Marines, the Pusan Perimeter would have collapsed, and the NKPA would have succeeded in pushing the tip of America’s spear into the sea.

As previously mentioned, the Marine Brigade was dangerously understrength — but what the Marines brought to the table was exceptional officer and NCO leadership, combat experience, and an unparalleled fighting spirit.  When the NKPA met the US Marines for the first time, they quickly realized that they had foolishly underestimated the lethality of the Marine Corps Air/Ground Team. 

The Fire Brigade began combat operations almost immediately inside the Pusan Perimeter.  The North Korean Army may have had their way with our poorly trained army, but the Marines would have none of it.  US Marines introduced many NKPA soldiers to their worst (and last) day.

Overall command of the brigade fell to Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, USMC.  His assistant was Brigadier General Thomas J. Cushman, who commanded Marine Aircraft Group-33.[3]  Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray (selected for promotion to colonel) served as Commanding Officer, 5th Marines.[4]  Below Murray, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (also, 1/5) was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George R. Newton;[5] Lieutenant Colonel Harold S. Roise led 2/5,[6] and 3/5 was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert D. Taplett.[7]  The skill and determination of these field commanders and the fighting spirit of their men won every battle.  When the Marines of the fire brigade went to Korea, they went with the finest combat commanders available, with combat-tested Noncommissioned Officers and a body of men who exhibited the highest qualities of the United States Marines.

First Encounter

General Walker assigned the brigade to the U.S. 25th Infantry Division (U.S. 25TH) on 6 August; Craig’s orders were to move forward and reinforce thinly spread elements of the Army’s 5th Regimental Combat Team (5 RCT) and the 27th Infantry Regiment (27 INF).  The 5 RCT tried to organize an assault against NKPA forces on 7 August; 27 INF was moving to the rear to serve as 8th Army Reserve.  To facilitate early relief of the 27th, Taplett’s 3/5 accelerated its departure from Changwon and arrived at Chindong-ni less than two hours later.  Serving with 3/5 were elements of 1st Battalion, 11th Marines (1/11) (artillery), and a platoon of engineers.  Murray ordered Taplett to relieve 2/27 INF on Hill 255.

Colonel Taplett was aware of increased enemy activity within his assigned tactical area of responsibility (TAOR).  With only two rifle companies available, Taplett established his area defense with wise use of attached units.  Slowly, additional units began to arrive from the Brigade, including Captain Kenneth J. Houghton’s Reconnaissance Company and a mortar platoon.  Because of the location of the units, Taplett fell under the operational control of Colonel John H. Michaelis, commanding 27 INF.

After reporting to Michaelis, Taplett did his due diligence by pre-registering artillery and mortar on the northern approaches to Chindong-ni and set his battalion in for the night.  Shortly before midnight, a heavy enemy assault on Hill 342 mauled the U.S. Army company defending it.  Michaelis ordered Taplett to send a reinforced platoon to relieve the beleaguered company.  Initially, with only six rifle platoons, Taplett begged off.  Rather than ordering Taplett to execute his last order, Colonel Michaelis deferred the matter (tattled) to Major General William B. Kean, commanding U.S. 25th.[8]

Hill 342 (342 meters above sea level) (1,100 feet) abutted another hill formation that exceeded 600 meters.  The NKPA wanted possession of the hill to facilitate cutting off the U.N.’s main supply route (MSR).  Taplett assigned this mission to Golf Company (1stLt Robert D. Bohn, Commanding), who detailed the mission to Second Lieutenant John H. Cahill, commanding the 1st Platoon.[9]

Bohn reinforced Cahill’s platoon with a radio operator and a machine gun squad.  Moving westward along the MSR, Cahill reached Michaelis’ command post (C.P.) within an hour.  Michaelis’ operations officer instructed Cahill to proceed 700 yards further down the MSR, where a guide would meet him and lead him to the 2/5th RCT for further instructions.

Lieutenant Cahill met his guide without difficulty, but apparently, the guide had become disoriented in the darkness.  After some delay, Cahill’s platoon reached the base of Hill 342.  Two shots rang out; two Marines fell wounded.  The Army guide advised Cahill to withhold his climb to the summit until daybreak.  Shortly after first light, Cahill discovered that U.S. soldiers had shot his men — nervous young men who were unaware that friendly units were moving through their security area.

Cahill and his Marines began their ascent at daybreak.  Shale rock made footing treacherous on the steep hill; the Marines struggled in full combat gear.  The sun burned down upon the Marines, and because they had not yet learned how to conserve their water ration, they soon found themselves approaching heat exhaustion.  Despite the heat, Cahill and his NCOs kept the Marines moving.  Two-thirds of the way to the top, enemy small-arms and machine gun fire added to their misery.  Nearing the top, Cahill instructed his NCOs to keep the Marines moving while he increased his pace; he needed to liaise with the army company commander.  Cahill ignored the enemy fire and proceeded to the top of the hill.

By the time the Marines struggled into the Army perimeter, they’d been climbing for more than three hours (342 meters = 1,122 feet).  Enemy machine gun fire killed one Marine and wounded six others (including Cahill’s platoon sergeant and his platoon guide).[10]  Eight additional men became heat casualties.  Of the 52 Marines that began the climb, only 37 remained combat effective.

Cahill and his remaining NCOs set their Marines in among the Army’s already established defensive perimeter — a wise move because service pride enjoined each man to maintain a high standard of military conduct.  The enemy killed two more Marines as their sergeant set them into defensive positions.  At noon, the fight atop Hill 342 became a siege.

As North Korean soldiers moved slowly to encircle the Americans, defending soldiers and Marines conducted themselves with determination, good discipline, and accurate defensive fire.  Since there was no infantry/artillery coordination in the Army, Cahill used his radio net to obtain artillery support from the 11th Marines to suppress enemy mortar fire.

If enemy small arms and mortar fire wasn’t enough, soldiers and Marines atop Hill 342 began running out of water and ammunition.  Cahill radioed 3/5 requesting air resupply.  When USAF R4Ds delivered the much-needed water and munitions, they dropped them behind enemy lines.  A second airdrop delivered by MAG-33’s VMO-6 was more successful, but not by much.  When the water cans came into contact with mother earth, they exploded.  Marines and soldiers nevertheless retained their precarious positions — but it wasn’t as if they had much choice in the matter.  The Americans had no way out.

Back on Hill 255

Throughout the early morning of 7 August, Colonel Taplett’s front around Chindong-ni became the focus of enemy shelling, ending at around 0400.  Cahill’s first reports to Taplett’s headquarters caused some anxiety.  Taplett concluded that the operation was quickly turning into a goat rope.  At around 0200, LtCol Roise’s 2/5 departed Changwon in a convoy that was too long and too slow.[11]

Roise reached Chindong-ni at around 0500 and entered a schoolyard at the base of Taplett’s hill.  The schoolyard became a bottleneck of vehicles, and the North Koreans used this opportunity to inflict injury and confusion with a steady barrage of mortar fire.  Roise’s battalion suffered one man killed and eleven more wounded; the accuracy of enemy fire kept the Marines undercover.  Murray’s headquarters element, following Roise’s unit, was held up on the road far outside Chindong-ni; had the enemy known this, the 5th Marines CP would have been a sitting duck.

Colonel Murray regained operational control of his battalions once he arrived at Hill 255.  Considering the enemy situation on Hill 342 and hostile activity north of the village, Murray ordered 2/5 to occupy and defend the expanse of Hill 255 above Taplett’s Company H and directed Newton’s 1/5 to occupy Hill 99.  This decision relieved Taplett’s Company G to support 3/5’s lower perimeter on Hill 255.  General Craig’s arrival at 0700 was heralded by renewed enemy shelling.

Craig’s advance hinged on 5 RCT’s success at the Tosan junction.  General Craig arranged for land lines to the Army regiment.  News from the front was not good.  5 RCT jumped off at 0630 — but not for long.  The NKPA 6th Division sat waiting just forward of the regiment’s line of departure. 

The situation atop Hill 342 kept the 5 RCT’s second battalion occupied with a fight for the Chinju Road.  The battalion progressed, but the roadway was choked with men, equipment, and refugees.  Shortly after 0700, Kean ordered Craig to provide a battalion for the relief of an Army unit at Yaban-san.  This would free 5 RCT to make a strike at the road junction two miles further west.  Murray ordered Roise to relieve the men atop Hill 342 and seize the rest of the problematic hill formation.

At 1120 Kean ordered Craig to assume control of all troops in the area of Chindong-ni until further notice.  Craig went forward to conduct personal reconnaissance, ascertaining that enemy resistance was relatively light but with few friendly gains because of the scattered and confused nature of the fighting.  The MSR between Sangnyoung-ni at the base of Hill 342 and the Tosan junction was still jumbled up, and well-placed enemy snipers confused the situation even more.

When Roise’s battalion reached the road junction where Cahill had met his Army guide the night before, he ordered Captain John Finn, Jr., commanding Company D, to ascend the North fork, which traced the eastern spur of Hill 342 and seize the entire hill.  Roise ordered First Lieutenant William E. Sweeney, commanding Company E, to pass behind Sangnyoung-ni and capture the western spur.  Roise took a chance with this maneuver because his battalion was dangerously understrength.

A determined enemy wasn’t the Brigade’s only problem.  The Marines had been constantly on the move since 3 August; they were reaching an exhaustive state — made worse by high daytime temperatures.

Enemy fire began pouring in on Finn’s Marines; Captain Finn ordered his men to take cover in the rice fields bordering the roadway.  He had no valuable intelligence about the enemy’s battle plan, but he instructed his platoon commander to ignore the enemy fire coming from the direction of Tokkong-ni and focus on their advance on Hill 342.  Finn ordered Lieutenant Wallace to lead his Platoon through Taepyong-ni and climb the spur at its junction; Lieutenant Emmelman’s 3rd platoon would take the hill on the left of the spur; Lieutenant Oakley’s 1st platoon would hold the company’s right flank and climb the southern slope of Hill 342.  Finn’s Executive Officer (XO), First Lieutenant Hannifin, would establish the company C.P. and set up 60-mm mortars on the hill overlooking Taepyong-ni.

Captain Finn led his men forward over the same route taken by Lieutenant Cahill twelve hours earlier.  Terrain prevented him from hearing or observing the exertions of his men.  A few hundred yards from the summit, Finn radioed Roise to advise that his men were exhausted from their climb.  While Finn’s assault had scattered the enemy, the company lost five Marines injured by enemy wife, and twelve men had collapsed from heat exhaustion.  As Finn rested his men, Lieutenant Oakley climbed to the summit, met with Army and Marine commanders, and led them to Finn’s position.  The Army commander advised Finn to hold his men in place, rest them, and continue their climb in the morning  Roise approved the delay by radio.

Lieutenant Sweeney’s ascent was no easier.  Company E received sporadic enemy fire, but it was mostly ineffective.  The real enemy was the heat.  Sweeney rested his Marines at dusk; he had advanced midway to the summit of Hill 342.

Dawn Attack

During the hours of darkness, NKPA forces inched their way around the summit of Hill 342.  Just before dawn, the NKPA greeted defending soldiers and Marines with short bursts of automatic weapons and rifle fire.  The defenders returned fire and hurled grenades down the steep slope, but a small enemy force came close enough to mount an attack on the Northeast section of the defensive triangle.  After fierce hand-to-hand fighting at the point of contact, the American defenders forced an enemy withdrawal.  One of Cahill’s men died from bayonet and gunshot wounds; several other defenders received serious injuries.  Brushing aside light enemy resistance, Company D moved up to the summit.  Just as Company D entered the perimeter, the NKPA unleashed withering fire from positions that ringed the defensive area.

Finn set his company into the perimeter and ordered the Army and Marine units to withdraw.  Lieutenant Cahill had lost six killed and 12 wounded — a third of his original contingent of men, but the two beleaguered units managed to frustrate the NKPA’s effort to establish an observation post on Hill 342.

Company D fared no better in consolidating its control of the hill.  Captain Finn lost Second Lieutenants Oakley and Reid.  Lieutenant Emmelman received a serious head wound while directing machine gun fires, and Captain Finn was himself wounded in the head and shoulder.  As Navy corpsmen evacuated Finn and Emmelman, Lieutenant Hannifin, on the way up with mortars, learned that he was now the Company D commander.  Reaching the summit, Hannifin never had time to organize his defensive positions before the NKPA initiated a second assault.  Concentrated fire from the Marines pushed the communists back, but Company D had suffered six killed in action and 25 wounded men.

Enemy fire slackened off around mid-day.  While speaking with Roise on the battalion radio net, Hannifin collapsed from heat exhaustion.  Master Sergeant Harold Reeves assumed command of the company; Second Lieutenant Leroy K. Wirth, an artillery forward observer, assumed command of the company’s mortar section.  Reeves and Wirth continuously ranged forward of the company perimeter to call in air and artillery strikes.  Company D remained steady, and the NKPA lost interest in trying to dislodge them.  Captain Andrew M. Zimmer was dispatched from the regimental staff to assume command of Company D.

Company E relocated to a position 100 yards along the western spur and dug in.  NKPA harassment continued, but there was no more hard fighting on the crest of the hill.  Major Walter Gall, commanding Roise’s Weapons Company, dispatched a small patrol to see if they could dislodge enemy machine guns inside Tokkong-ni.  After a brief slug match, the enemy remained in control of the village.  After Gall’s patrol withdrew from Tokkong-ni, First Lieutenant Ira T. Carr unleashed his 81-mm mortars on the village, which brought enemy resistance to an end.

After 8 August, NKPA forces gave the Marines a wide birth.  Company D was withdrawn from Hill 342 on the afternoon of 9 August, replaced by a battalion of the 24 INF.  Members of the brigade who had no World War II experience could now claim they were combat veterans.  The Americans learned from enemy documents later captured that the soldiers defending Hill 342 had held off elements of two North Korean regiments of the 6th NKPA Division.

Lieutenant Cahill later offered a conservative estimate of 150 enemy dead on the slopes of Hill 342.  Colonel Roise estimated an additional 400 enemy KIA after its fight.  The North Koreans learned from the Marines in the Pusan perimeter that there was a new sheriff in town.  Marines would continue killing North Koreans in large numbers for the next several weeks.

Sources:

  1. Chapin, J. C.  Fire Brigade: U. S. Marines in the Pusan Perimeter.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 2002.
  2. Geer, A.  The New Breed.  New York: Harper Brothers, 1952.
  3. Daugherty, L. J.  Train Wreckers and Ghost Killers: Allied Marines in the Korean War.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 2003.
  4. Montross, L. And Canzona, N. A. U. S. Marine Corps Operations in Korea, 1950-53 (Vol.  I): The Pusan Perimeter.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1954.

Endnotes:

[1] See also, From King to Joker.

[2] Battles are not won purely on the size of opposing armies; they are won by the skill of their commanders and the fighting spirit (and capacity) of their men.  None of these conditions existed within the US/UN armed forces on 25 June 1950.

[3] Lieutenant General Thomas J. Cushman (1895-1972 ) was the recipient of two Legions of Merit medals and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.

[4] Major General Murray (1913-2004) was a highly decorated officer, having won two Navy Cross medals, four Silver Star Medals, a Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Purple Heart Medal.  Murray commanded 2/6, 3rd Marines, 5th Marines, 1st Infantry Training Regiment, and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC.  He fought at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Inchon, Seoul, the Chosin Reservoir, and the Vietnam War.

[5] Colonel Newton (1915-2003 ) was a graduate of the USNA, class of 1938, retiring in 1962.  While serving with the US Marine Legation Guard in Peking China, he was captured by the Japanese and held as a prisoner of war (1941-1945).  He was awarded the Silver Star medal for conspicuous gallantry on 23 September 1950 and the Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious service while commanding the 1stBn 5thMar  7 July – 12 September 1950.

[6] Colonel Roise (1916-91) was the recipient of two Navy Cross medals in the Korean War.  He served on active duty from 1939 until 1965 with combat service at Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, Pusan, Inchon, Seoul, and the Chosin Reservoir.

[7] Taplett was awarded the Navy Cross medal for his gallant service at the Chosin Reservoir.

[8] MajGen Kean assumed command of the US 25th Infantry Division in 1948.  The failure of his division to perform in combat rests directly with him.

[9] Bohn retired from active duty as a Major General in 1974.  Bohn was awarded two Silver Star medals, two Legions of Merit, two Purple Hearts, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal.

[10] The platoon guide is responsible for the resupply of ammunition, rations, and water.  He processes casualties, manages prisoners, and assumes the duties of the platoon sergeant when necessary.

[11] South Korean “roads” were unpaved, single-lane affairs that winded around the base of hills.  Driving at night was treacherous because vehicles drove in total darkness.  Added to the congestion of military vehicles was a steady stream of civilians trying to get out of the way of two conflicting armies.  Hidden among those civilian refugees were North Korean sappers.  “Goat Rope” was an adequate description of the activities on 7 August 1950.


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Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

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