U.S. Marine Corps reconnaissance forces are a vital element of the Marine Corps Air-Ground Task Force whenever an expeditionary force commander faces uncertainty on the battlefield. Marine Corps reconnaissance provides timely intelligence to command and control for battlespace shaping, allowing the MAGTF to act or react to changes in combat operations. While reconnaissance assets may operate in specialized missions, they are unlike the unconventional Special Operations Command’s force counterparts. Marine Corps Divisions and Force Reconnaissance units support infantry directly involved in the ground commander’s force of action options.
Many of the types of reconnaissance missions conducted by Marines are characterized by depth of penetration — a factor that increases mission time, risk, and support coordination needs. Divisional reconnaissance units are responsible for the commander’s area of influence, the close and distant battlespace. Force reconnaissance platoons are employed farther in the deep battlespace (area of interest).
Missions & Structures
The primary missions assigned to Marine Corps reconnaissance units include (but may not be limited to) the following:
- Plan, coordinate, and conduct amphibious-ground reconnaissance and surveillance to observe, identify, and report enemy activity and collect other information of military significance.
- Conduct specialized surveying, including underwater surveys and/or demolitions, beach permeability and topography, routes, bridges, structures, urban/rural areas, helicopter landing zones, parachute drop zones, aircraft forward operating sites, and mechanized reconnaissance missions.
- When task organized with other forces, equipment, or personnel, assist in specialized engineer, radio, mobile, and other special reconnaissance missions.
- Infiltrate mission areas by necessary means, including surface, subsurface, and airborne operations.
- Conduct counter-reconnaissance.
- Conduct Initial Terminal Guidance for helicopters, landing craft, parachutists, air delivery, and re-supply.
- Designate and engage selected targets with organic weapons and force fires to support battlespace shaping. This includes designation and terminal guidance of precision-guided munitions.
- Conduct post-strike reconnaissance to determine and report battle damage assessment on a specified target or area.
- Conduct limited-scale raids and ambushes.
Marine Corps Reconnaissance Organizations include —
- First Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division (Camp Pendleton, California)
- Second Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division (Camp Lejeune, North Carolina)
- Third Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division (Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Japan)
- Fourth Reconnaissance Battalion, 4th Marine Division, Marine Corps Reserve Forces, San Antonio, Texas.
Each battalion comprises five companies: Headquarters Company and four line companies designated Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Force. Each line company consists of a headquarters element and two platoons: a reconnaissance and surveillance (R&S) Platoon and a visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) Platoon.
Deep Reconnaissance Platoons (DRPs) are units within Recon Battalions that carry out the role of Force Reconnaissance. The first DRPs were formed in 1975 when Congress reduced the size of the Marine Corps. Force reconnaissance was reduced to a single regular company, with the 1st and 3rd Battalions receiving a 23-man DRP. These units took on greater importance in 2006 when all active duty Force Recon companies were transferred to the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) and became Marine Corps Special Operations Battalions. Force Recon Marines not serving in an MSOB became part of the DRPs, and placed in the Delta Companies of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Recon Battalions.
Today, the standard recon platoon consists of a platoon commander (First Lieutenant), Platoon Sergeant (Gunnery Sergeant), Field Radio Operator (Corporal/Sergeant), Special Equipment NCO (Sergeant), Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman (Petty Officer 3rd, 2nd, or 1st Class).
The platoon consists of three Recon Teams, each with a team leader (Staff Sergeant/Sergeant), an Assistant Team Leader (Sergeant or Corporal), Radio Operator (Sergeant or Corporal), Assistant Radio Operator (Lance Corporal), Point Man (Corporal or Lance Corporal), Slack man (Corporal or Lance Corporal). Note: the slack man is the second man in the order of march. His mission is to keep his eye on the point man, particularly the areas to the point man’s left and right flank.
World War II
But, of course, that’s not how the Marines have always conducted reconnaissance. Everything changes over time. In World War II, the first recon units were Scout & Sniper companies and the Scout (Tank) companies of the Marine Corps tank battalions. They existed around the same time the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions came online in 1941. At that time, each Regiment had a scout and sniper platoon attached to the Regimental Headquarters & Service Company. The Scout & Sniper units had a variety of tasks and missions and, on occasion, became involved in heavy combat. The problem was that given the nature of the Pacific War, there was not much “snooping and pooping” to be done against Japanese positions on small Pacific islands and archipelagos, so these specialized troops were often used as “spare” rifle platoons.
But you ask, why tanks? In World War II, Tanks were reinforcing units for Scout & Sniper companies for added speed and firepower. By themselves, Marine platoons facing Japanese regiments and divisions didn’t carry much punch. These later evolved into Division recon companies (and, after that, battalions). This concept of added punch was reintroduced in the 1980s with the Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) Battalions.
During the recapture of Guam, the 3rd Marine Division and the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade each had their own reconnaissance company. Major General Allen H. Turnage, commanding the 3rd Marine Division, split the division’s scout and sniper company into three platoons and attached one platoon to each Regiment. In the battle for Guam, Marine reconnaissance units played significant roles in the fights, particularly at night — when the Japanese preferred to launch Banzai charges.
Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) Colonel Tsunetaro Suenaga commanded the 28th Regiment of the 29th Division. He began probing Marine lines shortly after sunset on the night of the 24th – 25th July 1944. At 2130, Suenaga ordered an assault at the juncture of the regimental boundaries of the Division’s 4th Marines and the Brigade’s 22nd Marines. When the Japanese launched, they did so in overwhelming force, overran the forward-most lines, and began penetrating the thinly held rear areas. Using grenades, small arms, mortars, bayonets, and close-quarters combat, the Marines held off the charging Japanese.
In one instance, an assaulting Japanese unit reached the Marine howitzers, and heavy fighting ensued as Marines fought to deny the Japanese access to these weapons. It was an “all hands” event, as every Marine (cooks, bakers, clerks, supply men) rallied around First Lieutenant Dennis Chavez, Jr., commanding the Reconnaissance Platoon. Under his leadership and direction, the Marines stopped the Japanese assault. By dawn, the Suenaga’s infantry regiment no longer existed, and the Japanese colonel was seriously wounded and dying.
Commanding the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, Brigadier General Lemuel C. Shepherd was tasked to provide a blocking force across the Orote Peninsula on the night of 25th – 26th July 1944. In evaluating his defenses for the night, the Commanding Officer, 9th Marines (Colonel Edward A. Craig), was concerned that the junction between his Regiment and that of the 21st Marines may not be as strong as it need be should the Japanese once again attempt to exploit the allied lines. Accordingly, Colonel Craig set his Scout & Sniper Platoon in as a reinforcing measure.
At about 2330, a forward listening post reported increased enemy activity within its sector of responsibility. Thirty minutes later, the Japanese opened with artillery and mortar fire. This overwhelming demonstration of concentrated fire drove the lightly armed Scout/Sniper platoon back, but once these preparatory fires lifted, the Marine defenders rushed back to their previous positions and held the Japanese at bay, exhausted them, and depleted their ammunition, food, and water. This led General Hideyoshi Obata to withdraw his force from Guam’s southern region toward the mountainous central area, there to make a stand. It was then that the Marines began to engage the retreating enemy. Within ten days, the Japanese commander committed ritual suicide.
The last reconnaissance mission on Guam was a mechanized force consisting of two Scout companies and the H&S Company, 3rd Tank Battalion, and India Company, 21st Marines.
The Korean War
The United States wasn’t ready for the Korean War (1950 – 1953). We should have been, but we weren’t. In 1945, everyone in the world was sick and tired of war. Americans wanted to return home and get back to their lives — but thanks to the stress of combat, not everyone would be able to do that. But President Truman wanted it to be so, so he worked to put America back into a peacetime economy. To do that, in part, he gutted the U.S. Armed Forces — and the consequence of that was that what forces we did have were not ready to fight when the North Koreans attacked South Korea.
The first units to arrive in Korea were part of the occupation forces of the Eighth U.S. Army in Japan. They were among the most “not ready” and paid a dear price for their combat readiness status. Facing defeat after defeat, the North Koreans pushed United States/United Nations forces to the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. Three U.S. Army infantry divisions were hanging on by their fingernails, and General MacArthur asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a Marine Regiment to save the day.
Marine Corps leadership gave MacArthur a Brigade instead. One Rifle Regiment (-) with attachments, an artillery battalion, and a Marine Aircraft Group. One of those attachments was a 1st Marine Division Reconnaissance Company platoon led by Captain Kenneth J. Houghton. Houghton’s Marines played an essential role in the fighting in the Pusan Perimeter. In those days, indeed, every Marine was a rifleman — they would not have survived otherwise.
The remainder of the 1st Reconnaissance Company (known as Division Recon) arrived with the rest of the division during the landing at Inchon. Additionally, Able Company and Baker Company of the Second Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion arrived to reinforce Houghton’s Company. Second Recon quickly reorganized from an amphibious unit of nine-man boat teams to motorized units of four-man jeep teams. Jeep teams conducted deep reconnaissance as point elements for infantry advances and as amphibious raiding teams into North Korea from the U.S. Seventh Fleet. On one such raid, sixteen Recon Marines and twenty-five members of the Underwater Demolition Team successfully infiltrated Posung-Myon, and destroyed three tunnels and two railway bridges without losing a single man.
Following the 1st Marine Division’s withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir, a recon team infiltrated An-Dong, concealed themselves for four days while observing enemy activity, and remained in place while calling in air strikes on predominantly Chinese infantry units. They executed their mission and withdrew undetected.
The 1st Reconnaissance Company deactivated in June 1953 but was reactivated in 1958.
The Vietnam War
When Americans began serving in Vietnam, no one in America knew where Vietnam was. In 1944, people referred to it as Indochina, and Americans were working with local communist cadres to disrupt Japanese occupation forces. The first American died in Indochina in 1945. By 1947, U.S. military advisors were assisting the French in regaining their imperialistic hold over Indochina, a former French colony. At the same time, the Soviet Union was working just as hard with communists to disrupt the French. In 1954, Vietnamese nationalists defeated the French at the Battle of Diên Bien Phu. With the withdrawal of Imperial French forces came the Americans to offer military assistance and advice to the newly created Republic of Vietnam (R.V.N.).
U.S. Marine Corps involvement in Vietnam began on 2 August 1954 when Lieutenant Colonel Victor J. Croizat assumed his post as Marine Liaison Officer, U. S. Military Assistance and Advisory Group, Vietnam. For the next eight years, Marine activities in Vietnam involved advisory and operational planning duties. This began to change in mid-April 1962 when Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 362 (HMM-362), under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archie Clapp, deployed to South Vietnam. His mission was to provide combat service support to the fledgling Army of the Republic of Vietnam (A.R.V.N.). In the spring of 1964, Marine Detachment Advisory Team One, commanded by Major Alfred M. Gray Jr., arrived to collect signals intelligence, becoming the first Marine ground unit to arrive in the country.
Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 — the episode in which the President of the United States lied to the American people and Congress to have a war with the North Vietnamese, the United States further committed its Marines. The end of 1964 concluded the advisory and assistance phase of the Vietnam War — a crucial turning point had been reached. With a significant escalation of Marine Corps combat activities, Lyndon Johnson had his war.
The first American combat units in Vietnam were those of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (9thMAB), a composite unit formed from within the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv) on the island of Okinawa. 9thMAB came ashore from ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet on 8 March 1965. Its mission was to secure Da Nang Airbase and establish a beachhead at Red Beach, Da Nang.
Attached to the 9thMAB was a Recon Platoon from Alpha Company, 3rd Recon Battalion. These Marines were the first to encounter hostile action from the Communist Viet Cong (V.C.) forces on 22 April 1965. A recon patrol from Delta Company, 3rd Recon Bn, operating ten miles southwest of Da Nang, exchanged fire with a larger force of V.C. The usual mission assigned to recon units is the collection and information about enemy forces and activities — not to engage the enemy in combat and certainly not to engage a much larger unit. Accordingly, the Recon platoon called in for reinforcements, and the fight was on. However, the V.C. unit withdrew through the dense jungle and “disappeared” before a major contest could develop. Two days later, a recon squad positioned a mile and a half south of Da Nang fell under a surprise attack by V.C. forces. The fight lasted a few minutes, but two Marines died that night.
These Marines were not the first Americans to die in Vietnam — and they would not be the last, not by a longshot.
Frank S. Reasoner
Frank Reasoner (1937 – 1965) was born in Spokane, Washington but was raised in Kellogg, Idaho, graduating from high school in 1955. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps three months before his eighteenth birthday.
Upon completion of recruit training in San Diego, California, Reasoner was promoted to Private First Class and ordered to infantry training at Camp Pendleton. Subsequently, the Marine Corps selected Reasoner for training as an airborne radio operator, where he completed training at the Naval Air Technical Training Center, Jacksonville, Florida, and the Communications-Electronics School in San Diego.
Reasoner’s first regular posting occurred with Marine Wing Service Group 37, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at El Toro, California. After his promotion to Corporal, he applied and was accepted to Naval Academy Preparatory School, Bainbridge, Maryland. In January 1958, the Marine Corps promoted Reasoner to Sergeant, and in June, having passed entrance examinations, transferred him to the Marine Corps Reserve while attending the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.
Upon graduating from the United States Naval Academy in June 1962 with a Bachelor of Science Degree, Reasoner also received his commission to Second Lieutenant. He was promoted to First Lieutenant in December 1962 and reported to the Officer’s Basic School in January 1963.
Upon reporting to the 1st Marine Brigade at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, Reasoner was assigned to Bravo Company, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, FMF. When Bravo Company was assigned to Vietnam in 1965, Lieutenant Reasoner went with it. On 20 June, he assumed command of Alpha Company, 3rd Recon Battalion.
On 12 July, First Lieutenant Reasoner led an 18-man patrol near Dai Loc, eleven miles southwest of Da Nang, when a company-sized V.C. unit attacked the patrol. During the engagement, Reasoner and three of his fellow Marines were killed in action. His MEDAL OF HONOR citation tells the story of what happened that day.
The reconnaissance patrol led by First Lieutenant Frank S. Reasoner had deeply penetrated heavily controlled enemy territory when it came under extremely heavy fire from an estimated 50 to 100 Viet Cong insurgents. Accompanying the advance party and the point that consisted of 5 men, he immediately deployed his men for an assault after the Viet Cong had opened fire from numerous concealed positions. Boldly shouting encouragement and virtually isolated from the main body, he organized a base of fire for an assault on the enemy positions. The slashing fury of the Viet Cong machine gun and automatic weapons fire made it impossible for the main body to move forward. Repeatedly exposing himself to the devastating attack, he skillfully provided covering fire, killing at least two enemy insurgents and effectively silencing an automatic weapons position in a valiant attempt to effect evacuation of a wounded man. As casualties began to mount, his radio operator was wounded, and Lieutenant Reasoner immediately moved to his side and tended his wounds. When the radio operator was hit a second time while attempting to reach a covered position, 1st Lt. Reasoner courageously ran to his aid through the grazing machinegun fire and fell mortally wounded. His indomitable fighting spirit, valiant leadership, and unflinching devotion to duty inspired the patrol to complete its mission without further casualties. In the face of almost certain death, he gallantly gave his life in the service of his country. His actions upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service.