Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

Among those interested in military history, particularly American military history, there are two prevailing opinions about American Marines.  The first is that Marines are quite good at amphibious warfare.  However, those with greater understanding realize that the Marines are more than amphibians; they are chameleons.  Marines aren’t just good at completing their traditional mission of projecting Naval power ashore; they are doubly good at fulfilling every mission.  What makes this even possible is the attitudes common among Marines: Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.

American Marines did not invent amphibious warfare; some form of it has been with us for at least 3,000 years.  Julius Caesar, the quintessential field commander, made amphibious landings and developed ship-borne artillery to support his landing forces.  From all this experience through three millennia, we know there are two kinds of amphibious operations: those that were highly successful and those that were a complete disaster.  Of the latter, no greater example exists than the spectacularly unsuccessful amphibious assault on Gallipoli, where of the 499,000 troops landed by Allied forces, half were killed, injured, or rendered incapacitated due to sickness and disease.

During the period between world wars, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps developed specialized amphibious warfare doctrine and equipment.  In the 1920s, two events propelled the Marine Corps to the forefront of amphibious inquiry.  The first was the introduction of the Marine Corps Schools (M.C.S.) at Quantico, Virginia.  The creation of Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune, M.C.S., provided an environment that encouraged enlightened thinking in matters of warfare.  Within this school, scholarly officers began asking “what if” questions about the future of war involving the United States.  The second event was the rise to prominence of Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hancock “Pete” Ellis, United States Marine Corps.

By this time, it was well known that Japan had seized several Pacific islands from the Germans during World War I.  Marine scholars began to suspect that Japan was starting to fortify these islands.  Lieutenant Colonel Ellis (Note 1) published a study in 1921 entitled Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia.  He predicted and outlined every move the Japanese would eventually follow in World War II and warned that the United States would face a fanatical enemy defending heavily fortified islands.  He also predicted the application of advanced warfare technology, such as aircraft carriers, torpedo planes, and long-range bombers.

From these inquiries, Navy and Marine Corps planners devised new troop organizations, new amphibious landing craft, a process for coordinating naval artillery and sea-borne air assault strategies, and logistical methodologies.  Navy planners scheduled exercises within the Caribbean area to test hypotheses, and it was from these lessons that a formal amphibious doctrine was eventually developed — including the seizure of objectives and the defense of advanced naval bases.

By 1927, the Marine Corps was officially tasked as an advanced base force.  On 7 December 1933, Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson issued General Order 241, which transformed the Advanced Base Forces into the Fleet Marine Forces (FMF).  From that point on, the U. S. Marine Corps became America’s quick reaction force.  By 1934, Marine Corps tacticians had developed effective amphibious techniques, and in that year, the Marine Corps published the Tentative Landing Operations Manual.  It was tentative because the Navy and Marine Corps continued to test emerging ideas about amphibious operations.  They accomplished this through annual fleet landing exercises.  Much of this early information remains relevant to current operations.

It will suffice to say that these preparations proved invaluable in World War II when the Marines not only spearheaded many of the attacks against Japanese-held islands in the Pacific but also trained the U.S. Army divisions that also participated in the island-hopping campaign.  What the U.S. Army knew about amphibious operations in the planning and execution of Operation Torch (North Africa, 1942) they obtained from the doctrine developed by the Marine Corps in the two previous decades and overseen by Marine officers assigned to General Eisenhower’s staff.

Three months before war broke out on the Korean peninsula in 1950, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Omar N. Bradley famously said, “The world will never again see a large-scale amphibious landing (Note 2).” Three months after that, the Marine Corps made an amphibious landing at Inchon, Korea — the master strategy of U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur.

“The ability to furnish skilled forces to meet emergencies on short notice has long been a hallmark of the U. S. Marine Corps.  When the call to arms sounded for the Korean War in June 1950, the Corps was handicapped by the strictures of a peacetime economy.  Nevertheless, a composite brigade consisting of a regiment and an air group was made available within a week’s time.

“With a reputation built largely on amphibious warfare, Marines of the 1st Brigade were called upon the prove their versatility in sustained ground action.  On three separate occasions within the embattled Pusan Perimeter — south toward Sachon and twice along the Naktong River — these Marine units hurled the weight of their assault force at a determined enemy.  All three attacks were successful, and at no point did Marines give ground except as ordered.  The quality of their performance in the difficult days of the Pusan Perimeter fighting made them a valuable member of the United Nations team and earned new laurels for their Corps.” —Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., General, U. S. Marine Corps, Commandant of the Marine Corps (1952 – 1955)

What General Shepherd did not say, of course, was that by the time President Truman and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson finished destroying our defense structure, none of our military services were prepared for another conflict.  The magnitude of the task accomplished by the Marine Corps in the first ten weeks of the Korean War may be fairly judged from the fact that on 30 June 1950, the 1st Marine Division consisted of only 641 officers and 7,148 enlisted men.  The 1st Marine Aircraft Wing had less than 500 officers and only 3,259 enlisted men.

On 2 August, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade was pressed forward into the Pusan Perimeter with a scant 6,600 infantry and aviation officers and enlisted men.  The Brigade became known as the Fire Brigade; it was also a light brigade because every one of the regiment’s battalions and attachments was understrength.  This meant that the Marines going into combat would do so without an organic reinforcing reserve capability.  One may wonder how this was even possible.  The answer, of course, is that American Marines always get the job done —no matter what it takes.  They improvise.  They adapt.  They overcome.


1.  Colonel Ellis (1880–1923) served as an intelligence officer whose work became the basis for the American campaign of a series of amphibious assaults that defeated the Japanese in World War II.  His prophetic study helped establish his reputation as one of the foremost naval theorists and strategists of his era, to include foreseeing a preemptory attack by Japan and island-hopping campaigns in the Central Pacific.  Colonel Ellis became the Marine Corps’ first spy whose mysterious death became enclosed in controversy.

2.  USMC Operations in Korea, 1950-1953 Volume I.

Captain Evelyn Waugh (Royal Marines)

He might have been the best sort of English writer.  He drank too much, smoked too much, never attended chapel, hardly ever attended classes at Oxford, and in 1927, polite society deemed him morally unsuitable for the institution of matrimony.

He also kept unsuitable company and were it not for his father’s allowance of £4.00 weekly, he would have had to give up drinking altogether.  He wanted to become a writer but initially could not find a publisher who was very interested in his efforts.  The main thing standing in his way was his profanity.  Fortunately for him, social and publishing standards were soon low enough to support his many detestable habits.  His first work in 1928, titled Decline and Fall, was very well received.

Those who argued amongst themselves that Evelyn Waugh was not suitable for marriage were rewarded with news of his divorce in 1928.  It was a messy affair and left him a bitter man.  Mr. Waugh was a rolling stone for the next ten years, gadding about the world, writing travel advisories and occasional articles for London newspapers.

In 1939, the thirty-six-year-old writer applied for a commission in the Royal Marines.  Given their reputation for rigorous training, no one knows why Evelyn Waugh chose the Royal Marines.  According to Waugh’s biographer, field training caused him so much pain that he could not even pick up a pen to write letters home — but the British have a tradition of taking on challenges and seeing them through, no matter what.

After his commission, Waugh revealed himself as an inadequate leader — he was entirely too curt with his men, who deeply resented him.  In a short time, he was removed from command and assigned to the regimental staff as an intelligence officer.  A year later, he was in a Marine Commando unit working for Colonel (later, Brigadier) Robert Laycock. Waugh’s editors claim that his books about World War II closely paralleled Waugh’s actual wartime adventures. If true, then his readers should presume Brigadier Laycock to be as mad as a hatter — but such descriptions do not seem reflective of Laycock, who had a distinguished career during and after the war.

Waugh’s account of World War II is titled Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender.  The trilogy was later made into a film titled Sword of Honor, starring Daniel Craig (2001).  If you enjoy reading fictional history, you’ll appreciate these books as a glimpse into a remarkable period.  He was also the author of Brideshead Revisited.

Captain Waugh tells us of one of his experiences and (possibly) reveals why he was an inadequate leader of troops.  During training, a British captain injured his knee during parachute training and was rushed to the nearest military hospital.  It was a medical clinic run by the Royal Air Force.

After x-rays, the captain was transferred to an army clinic, where he was treated and retained overnight.  The following day, two officers from his training unit went to visit him, not realizing that he had been transferred away from the R.A.F. facility.

The two officers entered the facility and checked in with the medical staff attendant at the front desk.

“I beg your pardon,” said the one officer, “we have come to see Captain Crouchback.”

The attendant answered, “Right.  Well, d’you know where to find him?”

“Actually, no; perhaps you can tell us.”

“I’m sure I don’t know.  Did you say ‘captain’?  Well, there you go … we don’t take army blokes here.”

“He came in yesterday for an emergency x-ray.”

“Right.  Well, I suppose you can try radiology, then.”

“Where’s that?”

After rolling his eyes, the airman said, “Check the board out front; it should tell you.”

Captain Freemantle turned to his companion and said, “I suppose it would be no good putting that man on a charge for insolence.”

“Not in the slightest,” said Captain de Souza.  “Insubordinate behavior isn’t an offense in the air service.”

New Georgia


Some people claim that Americans are insufferably arrogant—but it may not be accurate except for Texans.  But even if it were true, American arrogance doesn’t hold a candle to the haughtiness of the Japanese.  In the First World War, the Empire of Japan aligned itself with the Allied powers; in World War II, they joined the Axis powers.  Given their history through the 1920s, the Japanese sense of superiority was second to none.  By 1930, the Imperial Japanese Army Staff was convinced that their island nation of 130 million people could conquer Korea, China, the Philippines, Indochina, and Burma — with a subsequent eye on India — and, while doing it, could also defeat the world’s two most powerful nations: the United Kingdom and the United States.

The result was inevitable.  Japanese arrogance led militarists to underestimate the industrial capacity and willfulness of the Allied powers while overestimating their own.  Until the Second World War, the Japanese had gotten away with their “sneak attacks” on China and Russia.  At a time when the United Kingdom had its hands full in Europe, the United States had only just begun to mobilize its armed forces.  The Japanese decided that the time was right to initiate another series of lightning assaults — and did so at Pearl Harbor, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Guam.  By late 1941, the Japanese scored victory after victory.  The success of these operations convinced the Japanese that their army, navy, and air forces were invincible.

Their first snag occurred on 8 December when the Japanese tangled with a battalion of 450 Marines at Wake Island.  It took the Imperial Japanese Navy fifteen days to take the island away from those Marines.  Japanese losses included two destroyers, one submarine, two patrol boats, 30 destroyed or damaged aircraft, and 551 men.  American casualties included 94 Killed or wounded Marines, 433 captured, twelve aircraft destroyed, 70 civilian construction crew killed, and 1,104 civilians interned (180 of whom died in captivity).

The Japanese might have learned something important from this misadventure were it not for their arrogance — but by then, they were already committed to a course of action that would become a disaster for the Japanese people.  Elsewhere, the Japanese seized the Netherlands Indies, and Malaya for much-needed oil.  Moreover, beyond their desire for self-sufficiency, Japan needed to consolidate its hold over Asian Pacifica. 

Consolidation meant setting up an Imperial defense structure — a line along which the Japanese could thwart any Allied effort to encroach into these new Japanese territories.  It was a very long defense line — looping from the Kuriles through Wake to the Marshall Islands, the Gilbert Islands, westward to the Bismarck Archipelago, Timor, Java, Sumatra, Malaya, and Burma.  The task of defending such a large area was far more than the Japanese military could handle.  By the time senior Japanese officers came to this realization (in the spring of 1942), it was already too late to change the game plan.  In any case, Japanese culture would not allow senior officers to acknowledge their errors.  Japanese arrogance hastened their ultimate defeat.

The Japanese Target Rabaul

In January 1942, Japanese troops overpowered an Australian garrison at Rabaul, located on the southwest Pacific Island of New Britain (now part of New Guinea).  Having taken Rabaul, the Japanese wasted no time transforming it into a significant base and anchorage and garrisoning the island with more than 100,000 troops.

Eighteen months later, the Imperial Japanese Staff ordered a withdrawal of their land forces back toward the home islands.  Within that time, allied forces thwarted the Japanese from taking Alaska, defeated the Imperial Navy in the Coral Sea, and sank four Japanese aircraft carriers during the Battle of Midway.  These losses were unrecoverable.  At Midway, Japan lost most of its experienced combat pilots.  The losses were substantial enough to cause Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to question his ability to engage the British and Americans head-on.

New Georgia

By seizing Rabaul, the Japanese painted a giant target on their backs.  The Allied commanders adopted an aggressive counteroffensive that called for a series of amphibious assaults on selected Japanese-held islands as part of a drive toward the Philippines and the Japanese home islands.  It was an island-hopping strategy that counted on the belief that isolating Japanese defensive forces (such as those at Rabaul) would be as effective as destroying them in combat — as far less costly to Allied troops.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed General Douglas MacArthur to serve as Commander, Southwest Pacific Area, and directed him to generate a plan to deal with Japanese objectives in that theater of operations.  While MacArthur was working up his battle plan, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, then serving as the Chief of Naval Operations, began working on a plan of his own.  General MacArthur saw the task as suitable for an Army operation; King disagreed.  Island hopping would require the overall command of a Navy admiral.  Both officers petitioned the President for his approval.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had already signaled his preference that the United States prioritize military and naval efforts against Nazi Germany.  He turned to the Army Chief of Staff, General of the Army George C. Marshal, to solve the problem.  Marshal developed a compromise plan involving three stages.  The first stage would be the responsibility of the Navy’s Pacific commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, and the other two would proceed under MacArthur’s direction.

Allied leaders agreed that Japanese naval and military strength at Rabaul made New Britain a priority.  However, at this early stage in the war, the United States lacked sufficient amphibious landing craft and was still in the process of building combat divisions.  Taking Rabaul was simply not immediately feasible.  Instead, the Allies agreed to surround and cut off Rabaul through amphibious operations with limited objectives.  The effort became known as Operation Cartwheel and involved New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Stage One was Operation Watchtower — a naval campaign against Tulagi, Guadalcanal, and the Santa Cruz Islands.  The commander of Watchtower was Vice Admiral William F. Halsey.  MacArthur’s task was to capture the northeastern coast of New Guinea and the central Solomon Islands and, once accomplished, destroy, or disrupt Imperial Japanese forces at Rabaul and outlying air bases.  At this stage in the war, both Halsey and MacArthur competed for men and material adequate for their several tasks.

Guadalcanal turned into a long engagement (7 August 1942 – 9 February 1943), but the fighting wasn’t over when the Japanese withdrew.  Another long, grueling campaign opened in New Guinea and several islands in the Solomon Chain. 

Dislodging the Japanese from New Guinea became a monumental task involving the combined efforts of the army and naval forces of the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.  These tasks would last through late August 1945.

One crucial step in this process would be the capture of the New Georgia island group — and the most vital objective on New Georgia was the Japanese airbase at Munda Point, located on the main island’s southwest tip.  What made this a monumental battle was that most of the Allied land forces experienced combat for the first time.

Marine Raiders seized the Russell Islands on 21 February 1943, and although the Marines landed unopposed, the landing itself prompted the Japanese to begin fortifying their advanced bases by sea.

To counter the Japanese reinforcement effort, General MacArthur ordered air assaults against Japanese shipping and aircraft — known as the Battle of the Bismarck Sea (early March 1943) (see map).  Japanese losses in both men and material were significant.

Admiral Yamamoto countered by initiating Operation I-Go, an ongoing series of air attacks against Allied airfields and anchorages at Guadalcanal and New Guinea.  Isoroku Yamamoto was a distinguished graduate of the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy.  He was a wounded combat veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, a graduate of Harvard University, and served two tours of duty as a naval attaché in the United States.  His English was impeccable.

Admiral Yamamoto was not someone the Allies wanted to contend with.  Unbeknownst to the Japanese, high-ranking Allied commanders regularly read Japan’s coded radio signals.  When MacArthur became aware that Yamamoto was organizing a command liaison visit to Bougainville, having first obtained presidential authorization, he ordered the Army Air Corps to locate Yamamoto’s aircraft and shoot it down.  This was accomplished on 18 April 1943.  Yamamoto’s death was a massive blow to the Imperial Japanese Staff.  The only senior Japanese naval officer who came close to Yamamoto’s capabilities was Admiral Mineichi Koga. 

Vice Admiral Halsey’s task of capturing dozens of islands was a complicated undertaking — for a wide range of reasons.  While stateside commands and Pacific Area Commanders pushed forward the men and materials needed for the Solomon Islands campaign, it fell upon Halsey to protect these ships until off-loaded.  Moreover, shipping channels around the islands involved in the operations were narrow, making Halsey’s ships vulnerable to Japanese shore batteries, aerial attacks, and submarine operations.  Sub-surface coral reefs and barrier islands also impeded Navy operations.

Admiral Halsey decided to begin his assault by launching amphibious operations against smaller (outlying) islands before landing troops on the main island of New Georgia — the focus of which was to capture the Japanese airfield at Munda Point.  Munda Point would play a critical role as an Allied air base supporting ongoing operations toward Bougainville and Rabaul.

The campaign against secondary islands began on 30 June 1943.  The assault on mainland New Georgia started a few days later.  With Marine Corps attachments, the U.S. 43rd Infantry Division landed on the southern shore on 2 July.  The 1st Marine Raider Battalion, working with two battalions of the U.S. 37th Infantry Regiment, landed on the island’s northwestern coast on 5 July.

Both amphibious landings were successful, but simultaneous drives inland quickly bogged down.  The island’s terrain was rugged, with natural obstacles impeding progress.  Infantry, artillery, and logistical support troops fell prey to the tropical heat, malaria, ringworm, fungal infection, dysentery, and beriberi.  It wasn’t long before these young fighters became exhausted.  Japanese soldiers steadfastly resisted every foot of the Allied advance.  At night, when the Allied forces collapsed into the defensive fighting positions, endless Japanese banzai attacks shattered their morale, exhausted them even more, and the ever-present smell of death became a constant reminder of the horror of war.

In one incident involving the U.S. 43rd Infantry, crafty Japanese tactics terrorized the American soldiers and confused them to the extent of fighting and killing their own men, both by shooting them and stabbing them to death with their bayonets.  In one report, a regimental commander stated, “Some men knifed each other.  Men threw hand grenades blindly, often in the wrong direction.  Some grenades hit trees and bounced back and exploded among the Americans.  In the morning, there was no trace of dead Japanese — but dozens of dead and wounded Americans.”  The Allied advance bogged down even more as these troops exhibited shell shock and combat fatigue.

U.S. Army Lieutenant General Oscar Griswold, Commanding General XIV Corps, arrived on New Georgia Island on 11 July.  His assessment was depressing.  The U.S. 43rd Infantry Division was “shot.”  Shortly after receiving his report, Griswold was ordered to take over land operations in New Georgia.  His first act was to pull his men back for much-needed rest and resupply.  The delay was operationally justified but also gave the Japanese time to refine their defensive positions.

Griswold’s renewed attack began on 25 July 1943 with the U.S. 43rd Division, U.S. 25th Division, and U.S. 37th Division working as a team to provide mutual support.  U.S. Marine Sherman tanks, artillery, naval gunfire, and air support aided in the advance until the corps ran into heavily fortified Japanese bunkers.  As the Allies maneuvered for field advantages, Japanese snipers picked off soldiers carrying flamethrowers, and isolated tanks were overrun and destroyed.  Japanese night operations continued to play havoc among the American combat divisions during the advance.

But the Americans soon learned how to fight the Japanese and began to give as well as they received.  Young combat leaders learned how to coordinate their operations with adjacent units and became more efficient in delivering artillery and mortar fire.  It was a rapid (and deadly) learning curve.  In only four days, the Japanese began to pull back to their final defensive line before Munda Point.

The Japanese refused to give up anything without a massive fight, which the Americans gave them between 29 July and 5 August.  Within two weeks of the final battle, Allied aircraft were using Munda Point against Japanese forces at other locations in the Solomon Islands.

As the fight for Munda Point was going on, other Allied troops made amphibious landings in the northern portion of New Georgia at Viru Harbor (on the south coast), Wickham Anchorage (on Vangunu Island and Rendova).  Additional fighting erupted on Arundel Island in August and September.  After U.S. and New Zealand troops landed on Vella Lavella, the Allied Commander was able to terminate the operation on 7 October 1943.


It is not known when the Japanese realized that they could not hold on to their line of defense for the home islands, much less the Solomons, but what became readily apparent in short order was that the Pacific War campaigns became battles of attrition.  It may have been Yamamoto who first came to that conclusion.  The Japanese could not replace their war dead — and it was only a matter of time before Imperial Japan collapsed upon itself.  After the Solomon Islands campaign, the Japanese embarked upon a new defensive strategy: defense in depth.  The Japanese were willing to sacrifice everyone and take with them as many Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen as possible.

Soon enough, Admiral Yamamoto’s replacement, Admiral Mineichi Koga, would fall back to the island of Bougainville, where it would be easier to reinforce and resupply.  There were several problems with this Japanese thinking.  First, to briefly return to the arrogance problem, the Japanese had difficulty admitting to mistakes — especially those of high magnitude.  Second, after having embarked upon this ruinous course of action, there was no way to reverse course and “save face.”  Third, Admiral Koga was no Yamamoto.

In fairness to Admiral Koga, the entire Solomon Islands fight was overwhelming to the Japanese, whose industrial production was inadequate to the military’s demand.  In comparison, American shipyards were producing one Liberty ship per day.  Additionally, geography didn’t favor the Japanese strategic plan.  The Solomon Island chain included six major islands and dozens of smaller ones.  The distance of the chain was five-hundred miles.  North of Guadalcanal lay eleven “main islands” of the Central Solomons.  New Georgia was the largest of these.  Bougainville was the northernmost island in the chain, some 300 miles distant.  Bougainville is 130 miles long and 30 miles wide — and this is where Koga decided to fight.

Given his seniority, Admiral Koga was no student of warfare — or history.  In earlier decades, the Japanese were fascinated by the German war machine — and yet, the Imperial Japanese Staff seemed unaware of the lessons taught by Carl von Clausewitz.  The Japanese didn’t concentrate their limited forces on land or sea and suffered the consequences.  In this case, the effects were two massive atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  But even then, the fighting on Bougainville continued from November 1943 until mid-August 1945.

Note: For a treat in the history of the Pacific War, visit Pacific Paratrooper.

Corpsman Up!


Some time ago, archeologists discovered the bones of tuna and sharks in a shallow cave on an island north of Australia.  Carbon dating measured these remains to be 42,000 years — suggesting that whoever consumed those fish also harvested them from the deep sea.  Scientists conclude that humans have had well-developed maritime skills for a very long time.

The earliest known boats, dated 10,000 years old, were found in France and the Netherlands.  Archeologists argue that wood and common boat-building materials do not preserve well, so it is likely that boats existed much earlier.  They know, through other sources, that the colonization of Australia and nearby islands in Southeast Asia began 45,000 years ago — requiring that men cross the sea in boats big enough to accommodate them.  Humans lived in “near-shore” locations 165,000 years ago — and it is an interesting argument to say also, “… then it is likely those people harvested fish from the deep sea,” as well.  Unfortunately, we lack direct evidence that this is true.

But we know that mankind traveled throughout the Mediterranean region for the past 5,000 years, and many of these people made their living from the sea, either directly or through maritime trade.  The Northmen began their Atlantic Ocean explorations between A.D. 800 – 1,000.  And we know that developing marine technology enabled humankind to build bigger ships capable of traveling great distances at sea.

Sea travel facilitated global migration, exploration, commerce, and conflict.  There would have been no European colonization of the New World without ships to take people to new places and keep them connected to their homeland.  As people began to spend more time at sea, health conditions developed that required treatments at sea.

Shipboard accidents injured seamen.  Crewmen became sick of a lack of proper hygiene and nutrition or from consuming tainted foods over long periods.  Such men were also susceptible to infectious diseases — all of which demanded the attention of the ship’s captain — a man who could not make a living without a healthy and effective crew.

To treat injuries and diseases while underway, ship owners and navies began to hire people with medical training.  The Navy called them surgeons and surgeon’s mates.  Over time, medicine and surgery have matured, and ship surgeons have helped pioneer lifesaving methods and procedures at sea and on foreign shore.

In 1812, the United States Ship Constitution crew included one surgeon and two surgeon’s mates.  The surgeon was Dr. Amos Evans.  His training included three years apprenticed to Dr. George Mitchell, a physician of Elkton, Maryland.  At best, Dr. Mitchell provided only rudimentary training, expanded in lectures by such men as Benjamin Rush at the University of Pennsylvania.  Once certified as a physician, Dr. Evans became the U.S. Navy’s first fleet surgeon.  As for Dr. Evans’ surgeon’s mates, it was up to them to train those men.  A good surgeon usually meant good training — but the opposite was also true.

Beginning of the Modern Navy

After being left to languish in the twenty or so years following the end of the American Civil War, the U.S. Navy was saved by the intelligence and pragmatism of such men as Farragut, Porter, and Dewey.  There were others, of course.  Arguably, the worst seaman ever to reach the rank of Admiral (even in retirement) was Alfred Thayer Mahan — the U. S. Navy’s greatest scholar aided and abetted by a man who never served in the Navy at all, Theodore Roosevelt.

U.S. Navy Medical Corps

Saving lives is serious business.  Saving lives at sea or in a firefight on foreign shore requires more than paramedic training.  It first demands the kind of individual willing to place their patient’s life ahead of their own.  The American Navy began looking for these kinds of people in the early 1890s.

A hospital corpsman does not become a corpsman without extensive training, with emphasis placed on the word extensive — which is nothing like the kind of training a surgeon’s mate received while aboard ship.  In the U.S. Navy, medical/hospital training is the one thing every doctor, nurse, and corpsman can depend on for the entire service period.  It is a wide-ranging syllabus that never ends, which was why the Navy created the Hospital Corps in the first place.  It is from the Navy Hospital Corps that we produced the term “Hospital Corpsman.”

U.S. Marines call their Corpsmen “Doc,” and as an aside, there is no one the average Marine respects more than the FMF Corpsman who could save his life.  Navy Corpsmen train in several occupational specialties, from pharmacist and lab technician to independent duty Corpsmen and Fleet Marine Force Hospital Corpsman.   The training begins with what the Navy calls “A” School.  Today, this is a 19-week program involving the basic principles and techniques of patient care and first aid — a process whereby better training accompanies enhanced knowledge of medical science.

The first basic school opened its doors in 1902 when the Navy spearheaded the concept of a Hospital Corps training on the campus of Naval Hospital Portsmouth, Virginia.  Coursework for the “Naval Hospital Corps Training School” involved three months of instruction in nursing, elementary anatomy, physiology, elementary hygiene, medical material, pharmacy, bandaging and splints, first aid, and discipline and drill.

Upon course completion, each graduate was assigned to a naval hospital for practical (on-the-job) instruction before being detailed to a ship or station.  On 15 December 1902, the Navy bestowed certificates to the first graduating class of “Corps School.” Owing to the alphabetical order in which the Navy issued its graduation certificates, Hospital Apprentice Max Armstrong of Oskaloosa, Iowa, became the Navy’s first Hospital Corpsman.

Advanced schools for further training began after 1910, with the first independent duty corpsman school (IDCS) starting during World War I.  On 18 June 1914, the Navy established the Hospital Corps School at the Naval Training Station in Newport, Rhode Island.  NHCS wasn’t the Navy’s first foray into hospital training, of course, but it did represent the start of an unbroken commitment to training Corpsmen which continues to this day (now at Joint Base-San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston).

The impact of specially trained corpsmen was a gradual but significant innovation.  Within two years of the school opening in Portsmouth, Corps School graduates represented twenty-five percent of the entire Navy Hospital Corps.  By October 1909, graduates comprised more than half of the active Hospital Corps.

Today, a Navy Hospital Corpsman who wants to serve with the Marines must jump through a few extra hoops.  The applicant must complete eight weeks of training at one of two Field Medical Training Battalions (FMTBn) at Camp Johnson, North Carolina, or Camp Pendleton, California.  It takes a lot of work to earn the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) Qualification Badge — which tends to make successful FMF Corpsmen just a bit cockier than most.

The training is challenging because in the field, far away from a physician or field hospital, the FMF Corpsman must know many different things about keeping a wounded Marine alive.  In effect, your “Doc” is all there is.  The thing to remember, when you read or hear about some tough battle the Marines just went through, there were Navy Corpsmen not an arm’s length away.

First Doc

The first U. S. Navy Hospital Corpsman to receive the Medal of Honor while serving alongside U.S. Marines was John Henry Balch.  He was born on 2 January 1896 in Edgerton, Kansas.

Balch enlisted in the U.S. Navy on 26 May 1917, requesting training and assignment as a Navy Hospital Corpsman.  Upon graduation from recruit training, he entered NHCS as a Hospital Apprentice, with later service at the Navy Recruiting Station, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

After service at the Washington Navy Yard and U.S. Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland, on 27 July 1917, Hospital Man Balch transferred to the U.S. Marine Corps for duty with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment (3/6).  At the time, 3/6 served with the 4th Marine Brigade, U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces in France.

In November 1917, the Navy advanced Balch to Pharmacist’s Mate Third Class.  He advanced again to PhM2 on 10 May 1918 and PhM1 on 17 May 1918.

During the Battle of Chatêau-Thierry, PhM1 Balch was wounded while serving on the line, but not sufficiently to keep him out of the war.  When the 6th Marines assaulted Belleau Wood, Balch was beside them in the ranks.  This fight lasted for three weeks.  Of the 2,400 men engaged in that battle, 1,300 were killed or wounded.  During the initial assault, Balch worked steadily for more than sixteen hours, continuously exposing himself to enemy fire while running to render medical aid to injured or dying Marines.

Later, during the Battle of the Somme-Py on 5 October, PhM1 Balch again displayed exceptional bravery by establishing an advanced aid station under heavy enemy artillery fire, for which he received the nation’s highest award, the MEDAL OF HONOR.


For gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, with the 6th Regiment, U.S. Marines, in action at Vierzy, on 19 July 1918.  Balch unhesitatingly and fearlessly exposed himself to terrific machinegun and high-explosive fire to succor the wounded as they fell in the attack, leaving his dressing station voluntarily and keeping up the work all day and late into the night unceasingly for 16 hours.  Also, in the action at Somme-Py on 5 October 1918, he exhibited exceptional bravery in establishing an advanced dressing station under heavy shellfire.

Following World War I, PhM1 Balch accepted his honorable discharge from active service and traveled to Chicago, Illinois, to seek civilian employment.  On 19 August 1919, Rear Admiral Frederic D. Bassett, Jr. presented Balch with the Medal of Honor at a ceremony conducted at the YMCA, Chicago.

On 2 September 1942, John Henry Balch rejoined the U.S. Naval Reserve, received a commission as a Navy Lieutenant, and served in the United States, Australia, and the Philippines throughout World War II.  Commander Balch retired from the naval service on 1 June 1950.  He passed away on 15 October 1980 and laid to rest in Riverside National Cemetery, Riverside, California.

In addition to the Medal of Honor, Commander Balch was also the recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star Medal with two gold stars (indicating three awards), Purple Heart Medal, Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V Device, World War I Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, French Croix de Guerre with Fourragère, Italian War Merit Cross, and the Portuguese War Cross.  Commander Balch’s wartime service in two world wars made him one of the U.S. Navy’s most highly decorated officers and the first U.S. Navy Corpsman to receive the Medal of Honor while serving with the U.S. Marines.