Combat Leader

Introduction

Valor, audacity, and fortitude are words and phrases that describe (or used to do), all of America’s Armed Forces.  America’s Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines are each replete with examples of individual and organizational esprit de corps.  What these men and organizations do in combat mirrors their mission and their training; how well they do it reflects the quality of their leaders and their individual 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 of the Marines is replete with examples of courage under fire, refusal to quit, and victory without fanfare.  We don’t know 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 infinitesimal size of the early Corps, they displayed small unit camaraderie and self-confidence, and esprit de corps.  They were American Marines.  Their successes in battle far outnumbered their failures, and while they may have withdrawn, they never quit the fight.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, and 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.  So well did those Marines acquit themselves that the Marine Barracks Washington was the only government building spared by the British Army when they burned that city.  Marine Barracks, Washington, is the oldest structure in Washington, D. C. today.

Outside the number of readers of this blog, few people today are aware of 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 way to the “Halls of Montezuma.”  And during the Civil War, Marines fought at sea and onshore.  During the Spanish-American War, while the War Department and senior Army staff argued about who should do what, the Navy and Marine Corps were already ashore fighting.

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

The Crucible

The goal of military training in the United States is to ensure that when the politicians send the nation to war (as they frequently do), or send them into conflicts short of war, that America’s armed forces will be able to accomplish strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.  Ultimately, the goal of training is to develop individual combat skills within the fighting force and rehearse those individuals as a team to enable them to win battles quickly, efficiently, and with the lowest loss of life.  Because warfare continues to change in terms of technology and methodology, training is constant.  But there are no lessons in warfare greater than those learned in actual combat.

“Here lies the bones of Lieutenant Jones, a graduate of our finest institutions.

He died last night, in his very first fight, when he applied the school solution.”

During the Battle for Guadalcanal, America’s first major offensive in the Pacific War, American losses included 7,100 killed and 7,789 wounded.  The battle lasted six months and two days, from 7 August 1942 to 9 February 1943.   The Battle for Tarawa took place ten months later (between 20-23 November 1943).  Marines gave up 1,009 killed and an additional 2,101 wounded, with 88 missing/presumed dead.

There is no comparison between these two battles.  Both involved heavy fighting and horrible death, but the difference was that the Battle for Tarawa only lasted three days.  Had that fight lasted as long as the Guadalcanal campaign, it would have cost the United States well over 60,000 dead.  Another distinction is that the ratio of killed to wounded at Tarawa reflects the savagery of the fight.  Twenty percent of the Marines who landed at Tarawa were killed or wounded, but organizational losses were much higher.  The 2nd Amphibious Battalion, for example, lost half of its men and all but 35 of its 125 amphibian tractors.

The number of men lost at Tarawa within a period of only 76 hours caused a firestorm of controversy back in the United States — most of it involved heartbroken parents who found an ear with the American press, but some too from among the military hierarchy.  Douglas MacArthur was astounded by the losses and questioned the wisdom of Admiral Nimitz’s “frontal assault” strategies in the island-hopping campaign.  But the fact is that battles are not served up with clean linen.  Mistakes are always made in great undertakings, and in war, people die and receive horrific injuries.  The hard reality is that when war becomes necessary, its human and material costs are immaterial.  What matters most is winning.

But it is from within the confines of such horrors that the men who survive them learn how to conduct combat operations more efficiently — and quicker.  The one lesson never learned by politicians is that prolonged wars are never beneficial to anyone.

Additional background

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 help create those jobs.  It was also a time of restructuring the Armed Forces.

The War Department was disbanded; in its place, a Department of Defense, which incorporated the service secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  But, toward achieving his goals for a nation at peace, Truman placed the military services on the chopping block.  Every service experienced sharp cuts in manpower and equipment.  Truman reallocated funds away from defense toward social programs. Suddenly, there was no money to repair airplanes, tanks, or radios.  There was no money for annual rifle requalification, no money for training exercises, and hardly any money to feed, clothe, and see to the medical needs of active-duty personnel.

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 miraculously survived.

Cold War Goes Hot

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 to back them up, a full aviation division.[1]  Various sources tell us that the number of invading troops was between 90,000 —150,000 men.  An additional 30,000 men were part of the reserve force.

The suddenness of the Korean War caught the United States unprepared.  The men serving in forward units were young, inexperienced, and inadequately trained.  Their equipment was unserviceable.  There were shortages of ammunition and munitions.  Trucks wouldn’t run, radios wouldn’t work, planes couldn’t fly, and leaders couldn’t lead.  Within two weeks, US forces suddenly thrust into the heat of battle and suffered one defeat after another.  Within a month, the remains of thousands of young American soldiers were on the way home for burial and the United Nations forces.

General Douglas MacArthur, serving as Supreme Allied Commander, Far East, was headquartered in Tokyo, Japan.  Within this United Nations (UN) Command were several subordinate commanders, including Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet, and Commander, U.S. Eighth Army, and Commander, U.S. Fifth Air Force.  MacArthur was least happy with the Eighth Army’s preparedness for war (although it was hardly the fault of its commander).

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.  In June 1950, not one of these organizations was prepared for a national emergency.[2]  The South Korean (ROK) armed forces numbered less than 70,000 men in the Republic of Korea.  One thing the South Koreans shared in common with the Eighth Army was that the men were poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly led.

Eventually, all UN forces were organized under the US 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 remaining in the possession of UN forces was a 140-mile perimeter around the port city of Pusan (southeast South Korea).  As previously stated, General Walker’s forces suffered one defeat after another throughout July and August 1950, racking up 6,000 casualties within around 45 days.[3]  The morale of the US/UN forces was at an all-time low.

Under these dire conditions, General MacArthur asked the JCS for a Marine regiment to help stem the tide of the invading NKPA.  A single regiment, mind you — when the NPKA had already mauled two infantry divisions within 30 days.  What MacArthur received, instead, was a Provisional Marine Brigade — the lead element of the rapidly organizing 1st Marine Division.

The New Sheriff Arrives

For the uninformed, a Marine expeditionary brigade is an awesome organization, chiefly because it incorporates ground, air, and service support elements designed to make the brigade a self-sustaining combat powerhouse.  The 1st Marine Provisional Brigade (1stMarBde) began forming around the 5th Marine Regiment (5thMar) at Camp Pendleton, California, on 7 July 1950.  Brigade combat support elements included an artillery battalion, tank company, combat engineer company, communications company, reconnaissance company, and shore party battalion.  The brigade’s air combat element was Provisional Marine Aircraft Group Thirty-three (MAG-33), which included three fixed-wing squadrons and a light helicopter squadron normally based at the Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS), El Toro, California.[4]

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 — its personnel strength reduced by one-third and with most of its organizational equipment in depot storage.[5]  The regiment had three battalions (and a headquarters element), but each battalion was short one rifle company; each rifle company was short one infantry platoon.  These reductions simply meant that the Marines would have to fight harder.

The brigade pulled into Pusan Harbor on the evening of 2 August — with off-loading operations beginning almost immediately.  Troop leaders had already briefed their men about what to expect from this new enemy.  The Marines knew that they would be outnumbered, but they knew that not even superior numbers would save the North Koreans from their ultimate fate.  The one thing that seemed most noticeable the next morning, as battalions began to muster dockside, was the appearance of supreme confidence among those young Marines.

During the Korean War, US Marine combat commands operated within the Eighth Army.  General Walker decided to use the Marine Brigade as a stop-gap force.  Whenever the NKPA mauled and routed a US/UN Army unit, Walker sent the Marine Brigade to re-take the Army’s forfeited positions.  Had it not for these handfuls of Marines, the Pusan Perimeter would have collapsed, and the NKPA would have pushed the UN  forces into the South China Sea.

The First Provisional Marine Brigade was dangerously understrength, but what the Marines brought to the table was a foundation of 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 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 its way with our poorly trained army, but the Marines would have none of it.  Within a few days, American Marines began introducing NKPA soldiers to their worst (and last) day.

General Walker assigned Craig’s brigade to support the U.S. 25th Infantry Division (XX/25) under the command of Major General William B. Kean, U. S. Army.  In addition to the 1stMarBde, XX/25 included the U.S. 5th Regimental Combat Team (5RCT), U.S. 14th Infantry Regiment (III/14), U.S. 24th Infantry Regiment (III/24), U.S. 27th Infantry Regiment (III/27), and the U.S. 35th Infantry Regiment (III/35).  Altogether, Eighth Army HQ designated the division with all attachments as “Task Force Kean.”

Walker intended to initiate offensive operations against NKPA forces on 6 August.  Kean tasked the 1stMarBde and 5CT  to secure the area of Chinju from the NKPA 6th Division (NKPA/6).  Walker’s goal was the break up a suspected massing of NKPA troops near Taegu by forcing some NKPA troops southward.  Walker’s plan of attack was to move west from positions held near Masan, Seize Chinju Pass, and Secure a line as far as the Nam River.  The plan was only a contingency, however.  The success of Walker’s plan would depend on the arrival of the U. S. 2nd Infantry Division (XX/2) from the United States.

Overall command of the brigade fell to Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, USMC.  His assistant was Brigadier General Thomas J. Cushman, who also commanded Marine Aircraft Group-33.[6]  Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray (selected for promotion to colonel) served as Commanding Officer, 5th Marines.[7]  Below Murray, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (also 1/5) was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George R. Newton;[8] 2/5 was led by Lieutenant Colonel Harold S. Roise,[9] and 3/5 was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert D. Taplett.[10]  The skill and determination of these field commanders and the fighting spirit of their men won every battle.  The 1st Marine Brigade went to Korea with the finest combat commanders available, combat-tested Noncommissioned Officers, and a body of men who exhibited the highest qualities of the United States Marine.

To my knowledge, there has never been a shooting war without casualties.  Harkening back to the Pacific War, if there is one thing we know about amphibious operations, it is that there are no avoiding casualties during the assault phase, and this was particularly true when large numbers of Marines landed on small islands populated by fanatical enemies.  But from among the survivors of the great battles of World War II we will rediscover the gutsy Marine leaders who planned and executed America’s future battles — in Korea and Vietnam.

I have already mentioned the brigade commander, Brigadier General Edward A. Craig.  As a colonel, Craig served as the V Amphibious Corps’ operations officer during the Battle of Iwo Jima.  Craig was critical of Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith for his refusal to land the 3rd Marine Regiment when doing so would have provided much-needed relief to the Marines already ashore, and he argued, shorten the battle.

Colonel Raymond L. Murray, the Commanding Officer, 5th Marines, was an experienced combat officer with service on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan while in command of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines.  He was cited for conspicuous gallantry at all three battle locations, earning two Silver Star medals, the Navy Cross, and the Purple Heart.  Murray was awarded a second Navy Cross and two additional Silver Star medals during the Korean War.  Murray retired as a major general in 1968.

During World War II, Captain Kenneth J. Houghton participated in the Battle of Tarawa and the Battle of Saipan.  During the early days of the Korean War, he served as the Commanding Officer, Reconnaissance Company.  Houghton retired as a major general in 1977.

Changchon Ambush

At sundown on 11 August, Lieutenant Colonel Bob Taplett’s 3/5 dug in for the night on the road to Sachon.  The NKPA appeared to him somewhat disorganized.  For the first time since the North Korean invasion began, a sustained Eighth Army counterattack had not only stopped the communists but sent them into a withdrawal.  Taplett was about a day’s march from Sachon, while 5CT was racing along the shorter Chinju route northward, where enemy opposition had been light for the past two days.  Morale within the Army’s ranks seemed high, and radio traffic sounded optimistic.

General Craig was not at all optimistic.  Within the next 48 hours, the Marines were destined to carry out one of the most astonishing operations in the history of the Marine Corps: simultaneous battalion-sized assaults in opposite directions, 25 miles apart.  But at 0630 on 12 August, as 1/5 passed through 3/5 with the mission of seizing Sachon, there was no hint of any such development.  In fact, the front was quiet enough to make the senior NCOs nervous.  If one were to ask the company gunnery sergeant (pick any company), he’d tell you, “The enemy is up to no good, sir.”

1/5 moved out in column formation behind a 15-man detachment of the Recon Company under Captain Kenny Houghton.  Captain Tobin’s “Baker” Company followed behind.[11]  Two Marine tanks sandwiched in between the 1st and 2nd platoons.  Three more tanks were brought up to the rear of Captain Tobin’s company, followed by the rest of the battalion.

The eerie calm continued for another 4 or so hours.  At noon, with Sachon only four miles ahead, Captain Houghton led the battalion point around a bend into the thatched hamlet of Changchon.  Several Marines spied two skulking figures dashing for cover and opened fire.  When they did, the hills on both sides of the road erupted into flame.  Marine rifle fire had spooked the enemy into pre-maturely, revealing their ambuscade.  NKPA machine guns blazed away from the high ground in front and from both flanks.  It could have been a disaster for 1/5 Marines.

Captain Tobin ordered First Lieutenant Hugh Schryver’s 1st platoon forward along the roadside ditches; three Marines took hits, but the platoon reinforced Houghton’s thin line, who were busily engaged in returning enemy fire.  Tobin then sent First Lieutenant David Taylor’s 2nd platoon up behind the three tanks.  The roadway was too narrow for the tanks to maneuver, and the soil on either side of the road was too muddy to support the weight, but as mobile fortresses, they added to Marine firepower.

Within mere minutes, NKPA ambushers pinned down Tobin’s entire company, including the company headquarters further down the road, which received automatic weapons fire from higher up on Hill 250.  Lieutenant Colonel Newton requested airstrikes through his air controller, First Lieutenant James Smith.  Air support was all Newton had available.  Within a few minutes, Marine Corsairs dropped ordnance on Hill 250, after which Tobin directed 2nd Lieutenant Dave Cowling to attack the high ground.  Able Company sent forward a rifle platoon and a machine gun section.  To these reinforcements, Colonel Newton assigned the mission of attacking Hill 301.

As Cowling’s 3rd platoon crossed the roadway, tanks and mortars added their fires to the airstrikes, but enough of the enemy’s automatic weapons survived to catch the 3rd platoon in a crossfire, which forced the Marines back.  Cowling lost one man killed, and four wounded.  Meanwhile, Able Company occupied Hill 301 without meeting any resistance.

Smith notified Newton that he had two Corsairs overhead with five minutes of fuel remaining.  Newton asked that the pilot search for targets of opportunity along the road from Changchon to Sachon.  The Marine aviators visited an enemy convoy and left them with a lasting impression.

3rd platoon fell back on Hill 301 as Newton ordered the Able Company Commander, Captain John Stevens, to secure the nearby high ground on the right side of the road.  Newton’s maneuvering left Hill 250 as the center of enemy resistance on the right.  Marines dropped 113 mortar rounds on the enemy’s positions, and additional airstrikes followed.  This concentration of fire silenced the enemy machine guns, securing Baker Company’s right flank.

Meanwhile, Baker Company’s other two platoons and Captain Houghton’s Marines had their hands full on the left flank.  A brisk exchange of fire continued until Marine artillery solved the argument.  One NKPA position after another disappeared in a burst of glory.  Newton called for three more airstrikes, and these opened the door for a 2nd platoon left flank assault.

Newton’s Marines cleaned up remaining NKPA positions, the climax of which was a group of the enemy approaching the crest of Hill 202 from the reverse slope.  Lieutenant Taylor dispatched Technical Sergeant Lischeski with a squad to prepare an appropriate welcoming committee.  Thirty-nine unsuspecting communists walked into the sergeant’s trap.  There was only one survivor, but even that was temporary.

The fight at Changchon lasted all afternoon, and darkness set in before Baker Company could complete setting in for the night.  Newton estimated that his enemy opposition was a reinforced NKPA company, the rearguard element for a withdrawing battalion.  In this action, 1/5 lost 3 killed in action, and 13 WIA.  After Newton’s companies had secured the high ground, medical personnel evacuated the battalion’s dead and wounded.

This was a single action, on a single day, at the beginning of the US/UN counteroffensive. 

Sources:

  1. Catchpole, B.  The Korean War.  Robinson Publishing, 2003.
  2. Fehrenbach, T. R.  This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History. Potomac Press, 2001.
  3. Montross, L., and N. A. Canzona.  U. S. Marine Corps Operations in Korea, 1950-1953, Volume I: The Pusan Perimeter. HQMC G-3 Branch, 1954. 
  4. Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History.  Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] Two of these infantry divisions were mixed Chinese/Korean organizations.

[2] See also, From King to Joker.

[3] 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.

[4] Despite several demonstrations during World War II of the advantages air/ground interface (close air support of ground forces), the Army was never interested in developing this capability until Marine aviators saved their bacon numerous times during the Korean War. 

[5] For the Marine Corps to meet this combat requirement, HQMC had to transfer men and material from the 2nd Marine Division and 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point, transfer people from the supporting establishment (supply depots, recruiting staffs, schools, and HQMC in Washington), and active Marine Corps reserve units.

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

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

[9] 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.

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

[11] In the 1950s, Army and Marine rifle companies were phonetically designated Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George, How, Item, Jig, King, and Love.


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Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

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