Americans Stepping Up — Part II

The All-Volunteer Force

In 1968, President Richard Nixon created a commission to advise him on setting up an all-volunteer force (AVF).  Referred to as the Gates Commission, its members considered manpower issues, logistics matters, attrition, retention, and long-term pensions and benefits accorded to careerists.  They also had to evaluate combat effectiveness, combat sustainability, and the kind of individual that would make an ideal candidate for volunteer military service.  It was an enormous task because the questions demanded in-depth research across a wide range of disciplines: economics, psychology, sociology, and legality.  Some of the critical elements in deciding whether to proceed were budgetary because if the government wanted to create an AVF, then it would have to offer bonuses to enlist and reenlist, higher pay tables, and improved benefits

The new AVF became law in 1971 when President Nixon ended the draft and reduced the role of the Selective Service System to one of the pre-emergency registration programs.  These changes became effective in 1973.  Current law requires that all male citizens between the ages of 18-25 register with the SSS.  In the event of a national emergency, and if authorized by Congress and the President, registered individuals could be rapidly called up for military service.  At the same time, the government could compel individuals claiming conscientious objection to war for service in alternative (non-military) services to the country.

AVF Mixed Results

Since the implementation of the AVF, the active-duty force has become younger.  Forty-nine percent of active-duty personnel are between the ages of 17-24.  Today, 15% of the active-duty enlisted force is female (compared to only 2% of the force during the draft years), and 16% of the commissioned ranks are female.

Unlike the draft years, where only 42% of the forces were high school graduates, 92% of today’s service members graduated from high school.  Among officers, 95% graduated from a four-year college or university, and 38% hold advanced degrees.

The AVF also created a more extensive “career force,” which means the number of married military personnel has increased.  Again, 49% of the enlisted force structure is married, and 68% of the commissioned officer structure is married.  These statistics significantly increase the government’s annual military manpower expenditures.

Most volunteers come from lower-to-middle class families.  For the most part, upper-class people have no interest in serving their country.  Racially, black Americans are over-represented in the AVF, presumably because these individuals have the most to gain from military service.  America’s minorities generally do not benefit from public education, whereas the military provides valuable vocational training that enhances their post-military service employment opportunities.  Conversely, Hispanics are under-represented in the AVF, possibly due to issues relating to immigration status.

The problems

The strength of effectiveness of the AVF relies on quality leadership.  Many will argue that Americans aren’t getting quality leadership in 2022, beginning with the Commander-in-Chief and filtering down through department and service secretaries and the senior-most positions of the various military services.  In essence, the problems include:

  • Persistent allegations that rather than focusing on combat readiness and effectiveness, the policies of top leaders (both civilian and military) place greater emphasis on social engineering and widespread social justice activism.
  • Americans are wary of protracted conflicts where there is no apparent national interest.
  • After training young men and women to fight, government officials are too quick to prosecute them for war crimes in conflict areas where the enemy dresses in civilian clothing and hide behind their women and children.
  • Rules of engagement seek more to protect enemy aliens than they do the safety and security of US combat forces.
  • US policies (such as the application of politically correct mandates) prevent rather than encourage battlefield victories.
  • Protracted conflicts obligate service-members to two or more combat tours within the period of their three or four-year enlistments.
  • Military personnel, particularly those from the lower enlisted ranks to the middle commissioned ranks, have lost confidence in their military leaders and no longer trust them to keep faith with those who work in the trenches, at home or abroad.  As one example, the downsizing of the military increases the operational tempo of those who remain in uniform.  Many feel that the service chiefs sacrifice the welfare of the troops for their own advancements — that the senior flag officers aren’t speaking clearly or powerfully enough to civilian leaders, who haven’t a clue about military service or operations.
  • While the government relinquishes military equipment to the enemy (Afghanistan), the military’s operational equipment is inadequate to their assigned missions.  Cuts in recruitment and training endanger the front-line forces; the troops are working harder, with less, and senior leaders concentrate more on making Congress happy than they do in maintaining combat-ready troops.

Conclusions

American military volunteers have stepped up to the plate in defense of their homeland.  Throughout all our history, despite the piffle in some quarters about America’s greatest generation, today’s young soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are second-to-none in categories of military service prominence.  And yet, morale within all the services is at an all-time low.

While most of the military’s large budget goes toward cost overruns and armament industry profits for producing second-rate weapons systems, large segments of our front line troops are required to attend racial sensitivity training (a re-hash of the old Human Relations Training discarded in the mid-1970s), and they are fed up with being called racists or misogynists.

Meanwhile, promotion for white soldiers has been placed on hold until the army adjusts the racial or gender balances.  People who warrant promotion based on merit are denied promotion because of the government’s policy of reverse discrimination.  It’s purely and simply reverse racism with the accompanying danger of “volunteer forces,” leaving the military drastically unprepared as they take their discharges at the end of their enlistments. Suppose that happens, and there is every indication that it is happening. How does the Biden government intend to address the problematic aggressive behaviors of America’s most likely enemies, China, Russia, and Iran?  Without an AVF, Biden will likely have to arm himself and fight any subsequent battles alone.

Americans Stepping Up — Part I

Background

The United States compelled military service in six wars: The Revolutionary War, Civil War, First World War, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.  In most of these instances, war was already upon us before we realized that our standing military didn’t have sufficient manpower resources to sustain a large number of battle casualties.  Before the United States entered into World War II, Congress passed, and President Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act, 1940.  It was the country’s first “peacetime” military draft.  Between 1940-1973, during peace and war, the government compelled military service because there were insufficient volunteers with which to fully staff a force-in-readiness, but the numbers of individuals needed have always been within the purview of the President of the United States because it is the President’s budget that decides staffing levels relative to the military’s tables of organization.[1]

Colonial and Early American Period

During the colonial period, the primary means of military defense involved militia units.  Colonial (and later, the law of the United States) required able-bodied men to enroll in a local militia, undergo minimal training, and serve for limited periods in times of war or emergency.  The bedrock of this system was the several states because, under the Articles of Confederation, the central government could not compel the states to do anything.  Nevertheless, the states had no hesitation in requiring their men to serve in the state’s militia.  Generally, these militia inductees would serve for one year after the states placed them into service with the Continental Army.

In ratifying the U. S. Constitution, states acknowledged the power of Congress to impose mandatory military service, particularly Article I, Section 8, Clauses 11 through 16.  Despite its authority to maintain a military force, Congress was not always disposed to doing so.  The House of Representatives publicly derided President James Madison when he asked for 40,000 men to serve during the War of 1812.

American Civil War

Although most of the Union forces were volunteers, the first national conscription occurred during the Civil War — about 2% of the 2.2 million men fighting for the Union Army.  Within the Confederate States, however, military officials imposed conscription almost immediately.  The popular reaction to this law was violent and widespread because many southern whites viewed it as a form of slavery.  There were more “desertions” in the southern states than in the north because the Confederacy (a) had far fewer volunteers, and (b) the application of conscription standards was much harsher.

World War I

Initially, President Woodrow Wilson (who campaigned on keeping the United States out of the European War) imagined he could rely on volunteers to man the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), but when 73,000 men responded to calls for military service, Wilson signed into law the Selective Service Act of 1917.  The law offered exemptions for married men, religious objectors, and essential occupations (such as railroad workers).  Initially, the law applied to males aged 21 to 31, but this later increased to include 18-45-year-old men.

In that year, ten million men registered for the draft.  By 1918, the government had registered 24 million men.  Ultimately, 3 million men found themselves in uniform … the success of which is frequently explained by the censorship laws imposed by the Wilson administration.  Despite these successes, there was widespread opposition to the military draft in 1917-18.  The Army court-martialed any draftee who refused to wear a uniform declined to bear arms or submit to military authority.  Some of these men received sentences of up to twenty years in prison, but those men were the fortunate cases.  Other convictions included 17 death sentences, 142 life sentences and sent 345 men to work in labor camps.  Other war protestors were arrested, charged, and convicted for sedition and obstruction of the law.

World War II

By the summer of 1940, Germany was marching through Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and France.  Most Americans supported military conscription because 67% believed that the Axis Powers posed a danger to the security of the United States.  Roosevelt’s Selective Training and Service Act was the nation’s first peacetime military draft and established the Selective Service System (SSS) as an independent agency responsible for identifying and inducting young men for military service.  Initially, the law set a limitation on 900,000 men for training at any one time and mandated one year’s service.

After Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor, Congress amended the STSA to require service for the duration of the war, plus six months for those between 18 to 64 years.  During World War II, the SSS registered 49 million men and inducted ten million.

Between 1942 and 1945, federal law enforcement agencies investigated 373,000 draft evaders, charging, and sentencing 16,000 men for draft evasion.  Of those opposed to the draft, most were of  African descent living in the northern cities who were encouraged to refuse service by the Nation of Islam.  Another minority group included 300 Japanese-Americans whom Roosevelt interned.  The government charged all of these men with felony draft evasion and most served time in federal prison.  Only 72,000 men registered as conscientious objectors in World War II; of those, 6,300 went to jail for refusing to answer their draft notices.

The Cold War Period

While the American people were willing to accept compulsory military service when the nation was at war or responding to other national emergencies, they also expected that the government would universally apply mandatory service.  This sense of fairness began to erode in the 1960s when the government required service from some people but not others.  For example, the SSS compelled single men over married men, poor men over those from wealthy families, proportionally more blacks than whites and offered exemptions to college students when those with no interest in attending college received notices to appear.

Politically, Americans differed with one another over the concept of compulsory service.  Democrats, who’ve been most responsible for America’s involvement in lethal conflict, saw no problem forcing men into uniformed service, while Republicans and Libertarians insisted that the federal government had no right to impose military service on anyone.  War protestors not only demonstrated against the Vietnam War, but they also demonstrated against the draft.  Some of these men were even willing to serve a prison sentence (felony draft evasion) than serve in Vietnam, while others of their number simply moved to Canada.

(Continued next week)



Notes

[1] Officially, Table of Organization and Equipment, prescribes what a military unit should look like and how it should be equipped, to achieve its assigned combat mission.  Generally, within a service organization, all combat units are structured the same (infantry, artillery, armor, fighter vs. bomber groups, etc.) and non-combat organizations mirror one another according to their assigned roles and missions are part of the so-called supporting establishment.

Symbol of Command

The Marine Leader’s Sword

Introduction

One thing that stands out about the American republic is that it was born in war.  As statesmen declared the independence of the United States in a somewhat eloquent indictment of King George III, tens of thousands of British soldiers and sailors converged on the American colonies to subdue the rebellion by force.  The war would last eight years.  The revolutionaries armed themselves with weapons that primarily served as hunting weapons; the British military was better armed.

The critical task of supplying colonial troops with the weapons needed to defeat their British enemy fell upon the Congress.  In 1775, few factories in America were capable of producing firearms, swords, and other weapons, but none were capable of producing them in the quantities needed to sustain an army for several years.

At the height of the war, more than fifty-thousand men were under arms: another thirty-thousand troop served in state guard and militia units.  To arm these men against the well-supplied British regulars, Congressional agents gathered weapons from various sources on two continents.  Patriots had begun to store weapons in anticipation of hostilities between themselves and British regulars, some of which came from British armories and storehouses, provisional magazines, and supply ships.

At the beginning of the Revolution, Continental military officers relied on soldiers to bring their weapons from home — their hunting weapons, which included fowling pieces, smooth-bore Brown Bess muskets (suitable for use with ball or shot), and after 1776, the shotgun.  These weapons also included outdated or barely serviceable firearms from the French and Indian Wars and weapons captured from enemies.  It wasn’t a sufficient number of weapons.

It wasn’t long before congressional agents began issuing contracts to produce weapons.  The domestic arms industry struggled to expand to meet demand, but they simply could not meet the need to sustain American troops through a protracted conflict.  Congressional agents turned to France and Spain, who were too happy to supply arms to the Americans.  Shipments from France began in 1776and continued through 1783.

The Edged Weapons

Edged weapons played a critical role in the Revolutionary War.  Battles such as the Guilford Courthouse (North Carolina) were decided in bloody hand-to-hand combat where bayonets, swords, axes, and tomahawks were used with lethal effectiveness.  The battle was a victory for the British, but they marched off with far fewer men than before the battle began.

Infantrymen in close combat, no longer able to load and fire their long guns, relied on hanger (hunting) swords or bayonets.  Hunting swords were short, cut-and-thrust weapons used by German Jaegers and  American riflemen.  The bayonet was the most widely used edged weapon throughout the ages because it transformed muskets/rifles into a spear — which terrified inexperienced/poorly trained troops.  The officer’s small sword was a pervasive civilian pattern worn as part of a gentleman’s formal attire and the most common sword carried by officers during the Revolution.  Officer’s swords were light, straight, and slender in design; Cavalry swords were heavier, longer, and curved.[1]  Shown right, pre-Revolutionary gentleman’s sword owned by Richard Varick, Aide-de-Camp to General Washington.

The Marines

Marine Corps officers and noncommissioned officers have carried swords since the American Revolutionary War.  Presumably, the swords carried by officers ashore were gentleman’s swords, while officers and enlisted men serving aboard ship used cutlasses.[2]  What made cutlasses appropriate aboard ships was that they did not hinder or trip fighting men as they boarded enemy ships, climbed the rigging, or battled an enemy in close-in fighting.  The broad, heavy blade of the cutlass was sufficient for crushing skulls or decapitating heads.

The Continental Navy cutlass was the cousin of the cavalry saber but designed and constructed for fighting at sea, on crowded decks, in rolling seas.  Unlike the cavalry saber, the cutlass did not have the advantage of a galloping horse behind it, so its weight and the muscled arm of an experienced sailor or Marine had to be sufficient to kill the enemy, and the shorter time it took to do that, the better for whoever wielded it.  A large, enclosed handguard shielded the swordsman’s hand.

The cutlass was a highly specialized weapon that evolved from the falchion (shown right).  Between 1740-1780, the cutlass was a sturdy but straightforward instrument with an imported blade and a crude wooden cylinder for a hilt.  The single-edged blade was curved so slightly that it might appear straight at first.  One of the first Americans to make this weapon was Richard Gridley.  Even after 1775, the American cutlass was a crude affair, so whenever possible, rebels captured and used the superior British cutlass, the hilt of which was made of blackened iron.  The grip was hollow for a better balance.

The NCO’s

When serving ashore, starting in the 1820s, Marine NCOs began wearing distinctive short sabers with a cast brass eagle head hilt and curved blades.  In 1859, a completely new sword pattern emerged, originally patterned on the U.S. Army infantry officer’s sword (model 1850).  The Marine NCO sword may be patterned after the foot officer’s sword, but with significant differences.  The Army sword had heavy wide blades, while the early Marine NCO swords had highly polished blades.  These swords were finally incorporated into Marine Corps regulations in 1875 even though they were in use since 1859, and in fact, with slight modifications, remain in service today.  The M1859 Marine Corps NCO Sword is the oldest weapon in continued (unbroken) service in the U.S. weapons inventory.

Today’s NCO Sword features a cast-brass hilt with a half-basket handguard.  It has a leather-wrapped grip bound with twisted brass wire, a slightly curved, single-edged blade, beautifully etched, with a wide central fuller and short false edge.  The NCO sword comes with a black leather scabbard with two brass mounts.

Marine Officer’s Sword

The current Marine Corps Officer’s Sword is patterned on the Mameluke Sword allegedly presented to First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon by the Ottoman Empire, Viceroy Prince Hamet, on 8 December 1805, as a gesture of respect and praise for the Marine’s performance in combat at the Battle of Derna.  Subsequently, in 1825, the Commandant of the Marine Corps adopted the Mameluke Sword for wear by officers.[3] 

In 1859, the Marine Corps prescribed a completely new sword pattern for Marine Corps officers; it was the same sword prescribed for NCOs with differences in brass hilts, scabbard mounts, and hand grips.  The grips of NCO swords were wrapped in leather, while the officer’s grips were covered by sharkskin.  In 1875, Marine Corps regulations again prescribed the Mameluke Sword for wear by commissioned officers; it has been an item of a Marine Corps Officer’s seabag ever since.

The Mystery of O’Bannon’s Sword

Almost everyone, Marine or otherwise, knows about “Chesty” Puller.  My guess is that hardly anyone outside the Marine Corps knows about Presley O’Bannon, who has become a Marine Corps legend.  It has become a tradition in the Marine Corps to name its buildings in honor of those who distinguished themselves as Marines.  One such building at Quantico, Virginia, is O’Bannon Hall.  Literally, every Marine Corps second lieutenant wants to grow up and become like First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon.  He is, to Marines, a man from history who embodies what a Marine should be: Courageous, daring, and resourceful.  I know something of Lieutenant O’Bannon, primarily from my research on the Barbary Wars.  What I know of his sword, however, I picked up from the writings of Brigadier General E. H. Simmons, USMC (deceased).[4]

Presley Neville O’Bannon

As indicated previously, the popular story is that O’Bannon received the Mameluke Sword from Prince Hamet in recognition for his daring exploits during the Battle of Derna.  It may be accurate, but in the absence of written records, we aren’t entirely sure.  But there is a more plausible story, which is just as interesting.

To recap the event, First Lieutenant O’Bannon, a Navy midshipman, and six privates provided the backbone to a force of mercenaries raised and hired by U.S. Naval Agent William Eaton, himself a former U.S. Army officer.  Eaton hired these mercenaries in Egypt and, with O’Bannon as his second in command, marched 600 miles across the Libyan desert, intending to reinstate Hamet Qaramanli to his rightful throne.  Hamet had been forced out of Tripoli by his brother, Yusef, who seized the throne for himself.  Normally, this family matter would not have peeked the interests of the U.S. government, except that in May 1801, Yusef cut down the flagpole in front of the U.S. Consulate and declared war on the United States of America — an insult to the United States that could not be left unanswered.[5]

President Jefferson reciprocated by sending a naval squadron to the Mediterranean (the forerunner of today’s Sixth Fleet), but not much was accomplished in “demanding satisfaction” until Commodore Samuel Barron assumed command of the squadron in September 1804.  Serving under Barron was Mr. Eaton, a scholar of Arabic language and somewhat of an eccentric.

On 27 April 1805, Eaton assaulted the walled city of Derna under cover of smoothbore naval gunfire from the 18-gun brig USS Argus (captained by one of the navy’s greatest commanders, Master Commandant Isaac Hull), the sloop USS Hornet, and the schooner USS Nautilus.  Observing the action ashore, Master Commandant Hull reported: “At about half after three we had the satisfaction to see Lieutenant O’Bannon and Mr. Mann, midshipman of the Argus, with a few brave fellows with them, enter the fort, haul down the Enemy’s flag, and plant the American ensign on the walls of the battery.  And on turning the guns of the battery on the town, they found that the enemy had left them in great haste, as they [the guns] were found primed and loaded.  In two hours, the city was taken.”

So impressed was Hamet with O’Bannon’s courage that he presented him with a jeweled Mameluke scimitar.  This operation was later quite favorably noted by British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, calling it “The most daring act of the age.”  The problem is not with the operation, which is well-documented.  The problem, for Marines, is whether O’Bannon actually received a Mameluke sword from Hamet Bashaw.  If he did, where is it?

According to General Simmons, there are several claims (and possible answers) to the question, noting that senior European officers popularly wore the Mameluke (style) sword.  Napoleon had one.  The Duke of Wellington had one.  Senior flag officers in Great Britain continue to wear the Mameluke sword during ceremonies while in evening dress.  In other words, there were no shortages of Mameluke Swords from the early to mid-1800s.

There is a Mameluke Sword at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis that has “a claim” for being the genuine O’Bannon sword.  According to the curators, after receiving the sword from Hamet, Lieutenant O’Bannon passed it to his executive officer, Midshipman George Washington Mann — and it has remained in possession of the Mann family until it was loaned to the museum.

Midshipman Mann was the son of Colonel George Mann, born in Annapolis in 1783.  Colonel Mann owned an Inn on Conduit Street, which claims to be one of many places where General George Washington rested his weary head — and might account for Colonel Mann naming his son after the nation’s first Commander-in-Chief.

Mann entered naval service in 1801 and was posted to the Mediterranean Squadron.  In 1804, Midshipman Mann served aboard USS Argus, whose Marine Detachment Commander was First Lieutenant Presley N. O’Bannon.  O’Bannon himself received his commission as a second lieutenant of Marines in 1801 and served in the Mediterranean in 1802.  Argus was the ship that transported William Eaton to Alexandria, Egypt, in 1804.  To assist Eaton in his mission, Master Commandant Isaac Hull detached O’Bannon, Mann, and six privates to accompany him ashore.  Eaton’s mission was to locate Hamet Qaramanli in Egypt and, if possible, restore him to his rightful throne.  This particular story ends with the Battle of Derna (1805).

Afterward, Midshipman Mann returned home due to an injury to his eye, presumably received during the fight, but returned to active service in 1807.  The Navy advanced him to Lieutenant in 1809, and he served until 1811 when he resigned his commission and returned home.  The Mann family continues to live in the Annapolis area.

There is no question that the Mann family’s Mameluke sword is genuine.  However, the question remains whether it is the sword presented to Lieutenant O’Bannon.  The question arises from the fact that there is a near-identical Mameluke scimitar in the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, Massachusetts, presented to Master Commandant Isaac Hull by William Eaton, accompanied by a letter written to Hull by Eaton on 14 January 1805.  In this letter, Eaton stated, “Kourshek Ahmet Pasha has given you a present of a superb saber which he intends for you, worth $200, all the gentlemen with me received the same compliment.”[6]

Presley Neville O’Bannon was one of the gentlemen present with Eaton when the swords were presented (i.e., more than one).  Midshipman Mann was also present.  The swords were given to “the gentlemen” in advance of the Battle of Derna, not as a reward for deeds accomplished but in anticipation of an event yet to come.  The Battle of Derna was fought between 27 April – 13 May 1805.  This brings us back to the question, “Where is Lieutenant O’Bannon’s sword?”

William Eaton returned to the United States in November 1805 through Norfolk, Virginia.  At a dinner in his honor held in Richmond, both Lieutenant O’Bannon and Midshipman Mann received toasts in absentia as “… the heroes who first planted the American banner on the walls of Derna.”  The following month, Mr. John Love, a delegate to the Virginia Assembly representing Fauquier County, where O’Bannon was born, proposed that Virginia honor O’Bannon with “… a handsome sword with such appropriate devices thereon as they may think proper.”  Mr. Love’s proposal sailed through both houses of the state legislature.  In January 1806, the governor presented the measure to the Council of State, which named a committee to select an appropriate design for the sword.

Six months later, the committee submitted its proposal to Major John Clarke, Superintendent of the Virginia Manufactory of Arms, Richmond.  The sword design was elaborate with, among other things, the head of a bearded and turbaned Moslem for a pommel and an engraving on the hilt of O’Bannon raising the flag over Derna.  Major Clarke had only just finished the blade in 1809 when he was replaced as superintendent by Mr. John Carter of Richmond.  Carter completed the sword in July 1810.

Meanwhile, Captain O’Bannon had resigned his commission, married Matilda Heard in Frederick County, Virginia, in 1809, and relocated to Kentucky in the same year.  O’Bannon didn’t receive the Virginia sword until the fall of 1812.[7]

At the time of Captain O’Bannon’s death, he was living in the home of his cousin John O’Bannon, in Henry County, Kentucky.  He also died without a will.  It wasn’t until an article about Captain O’Bannon appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1917, written by John Presley Cain (a collateral descendant of O’Bannon), that the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) began looking into the O’Bannon story.  Mr. Cain, having revealed O’Bannon’s burial place on a farm just outside Pleasureville, Kentucky, prompted the DAR to seek the permission of his descendants to move his remains to the Frankfort Cemetery.  O’Bannon was reinterred there on 14 June 1920.

At the ceremony, Miss Margaret Mosely (Kansas City), a third-great niece of O’Bannon, brought the Virginia Sword and had it displayed unsheathed and crossed with its scabbard on top of the gravestone.  In 1941, Mrs. Margaret Mosley-Culver donated the Virginia Sword to the U.S. Marine Corps Museum.  To add to the confusion, the Virginia Sword has been variously described as a Mameluke Sword, which it is not.  It more closely resembles a U.S. Army infantry officer’s sword.

There is also some myth associated with Lieutenant Colonel Commandant Archibald Henderson’s decision to prescribe the Mameluke Sword for wear by Marine Corps officers.  After the U.S. Congress disbanded the Continental Navy and Marine Corps at the end of the Revolutionary War, the only military secretary was the Secretary of War until 1798, when Congress re-established the Navy Department.  During those “in-between” years, uniform regulations fell under the purview of the Secretary of War.  It wasn’t until 1804 that the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Robert Smith, authorized “yellow-mounted sabers with gilt scabbards” for Marine Corps officers.  The wording of the regulation allowed Marine officers to wear just about any sword that met that vague description.

Why Henderson prescribed the Mameluke Sword remains a mystery.  Part of the legend is that O’Bannon and Henderson had (at some point) served together and that Henderson so admired O’Bannon that he prescribed the Mameluke Sword for all Marine Corps officers.  It is an interesting story, but according to General Simmons, unlikely.  If the two men ever met, it was probably a brief encounter.  Henderson did not enter Marine Corps service until 1806; O’Bannon resigned in 1807.

In any case, Henderson’s uniform regulations of 26 April 1825 prescribed the officer’s sword as follows: “All officers when on duty either in full or undress uniform, shall wear a plain brass scabbard sword or saber, with a Mameluke hilt of white ivory and a gold tassel; extreme length of the sword three-feet, one-inch only to serve as a cut and thrust — the hilt in length four-inches and three-quarters, width of scabbard one-inch and seven-eighths, width of blade one-inch.”  This, according to General Simmons, describes Henderson’s own sword exactly.

Between 900-1250 A.D., Egyptian dynasties included several ethnic/cultural groups, such as the Ikhshidids, Fatimids, and Ayyubids.  They were primarily served and guarded by Mamelukes, individuals of Turkic, Caucasian, Eastern, and Southeastern European origin.  The Mameluke was both free-born warriors and indentured fighters — a class of Egyptian knights whose influence increased within the Moslem hierarchy.  The increase in political influence was worrisome to the Ayyubids, as it should have been.  One Moslem historian describes the origin of the Mameluke as “enslaved Christians.”  Accordingly, Moslems looked upon the Mameluke as “infidels,” or unbelievers who refused to surrender to the will of Allah.

In 1250, a Mameluke became Sultan of Egypt, and his heirs ruled Egypt through 1517.  But even when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Mamelukes maintained a considerable hold over the sultanate.  The word Mameluke in Arabic, by the way, means “one who is owned.”  It refers to non-Arab people “enslaved” to Moslem rulers.  Their reputation as fighters (and their uniforms) impressed Napoleon and his marshals.[8]  The French recruited Mamelukes as personal guards and adopted their swords, which, as we can see today, are displayed in numerous paintings of high French officers — such as Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste Antoine Marcelin Marbot.

The sword’s earliest form was a light horseman’s weapon intended for slashing.  When the British manufacturer Wilkinson Swords straightened the blade, they ruined the sword as a weapon, which may no longer matter to anyone since the sword is no longer the first choice in offensive or defensive weapons.

In 1859, Marine First Lieutenant Israel Green commanded a Marine Detachment with service under Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, who was ordered to put down an insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  As it turned out, Colonel Lee was quite pleased with the Marines’ performance at Harper’s Ferry, but Lieutenant Green was considerably less satisfied with his Mameluke Sword.  On cue from a young cavalry lieutenant named James Ewell Brown Stuart, Green rushed John Brown and his men in the firehouse.  Green burst through the door and cut down on the older man’s neck as hard as possible, which bent the sword almost double and did little more than irritate Mr. Brown.  That would not have happened with an M1911A1 at 10 yards.

The Marine Corps prescribed a different sword for officers and NCOs in that same year — one that would cut something more resistant than a birthday cake.

Endnotes:

[1] The difference between swords and sabers is that swords are straight blade weapons, while sabers are (generally) shorter in blade length and curved. 

[2] The cutlass was a relatively short-bladed slashing sword — the shorter length most suitable for shipboard action.

[3] The Mameluke Sword (style) is also worn by flag rank officers in the British Army, and for officers of major general rank in the Australian Army.

[4] Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons (1921-2007) served with distinction in three wars, later serving as the Director, Marine Corps History and Museums, both on active duty and into retirement.  He authored numerous books about the History of the Marine Corps; whatever General Simmons didn’t know about the Marine Corps probably isn’t worth knowing.

[5] Yusef no doubt felt confident that this insult would go unanswered because the U.S. Congress had been paying the Qaramanli family bribes for fifteen or so years; anyone who pays bribes deserves no respect — or so he thought.

[6] At the time, Egypt was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire.  Kourshek Ahmet Pasha was the Viceroy of Egypt.

[7] Presley and Matilda’s union was, according to sketchy accounts, not a very happy one.  The O’Bannon’s were divorced in 1826, remarried in 1832, and then in 1843, Matilda was committed to an insane asylum in Lexington.  Captain O’Bannon passed away in 1850.  Their only child died of cholera in 1835.  My guess is that if O’Bannon left the Marine Corps to marry Matilda, he later in life regretted doing so. 

[8] There is evidence of Mameluke Swords in use by Europeans during the Crusades, likely taken from dead Islamists.  General Simmons believed that the Mameluke Sword may have existed before the time of Christ, notably in Damascus.


Battle of the Generals

Introduction

Seniority in the United States Armed Forces is determined by rank, date of rank, and in the case of two officers promoted to the same rank on the same date, by the last lineal number.  It sounds confusing, but it isn’t.  And it’s important because seniority determines assignments, tactical commands, promotions, and general courtesy.  In the early days, seniority determined appropriate honors rendered to senior officers (generally, field grade and flag rank officers).

In the modern-day, seniority works on two different levels.  For officers serving at different ranks, seniority is determined by rank.  An Army colonel is senior to an Army captain, and the captain is senior to a lieutenant.  The system extends across the armed services.  An Army major is senior to an Air Force captain, and a Navy commander is senior to both.  Whenever officers serve at the same rank, their seniority is determined by their date of promotion to that rank.  If two officers advance to the same rank on the same day, seniority is determined by the date of promotion to their previously held rank.

Seniority in the Civil War

Officer seniority was an issue in both the United States Army and Confederate States Army.  Some modern historians credibly argue that the pettiness of seniority and military etiquette did as much to damage the internal efficiency of the Confederate States Army as did any battle in which the Union won.  The Union Army experienced similar problems among its senior officers, of course, but in the Confederacy, the animosity and rancor among senior officers was debilitating.[1]

The Confederacy’s problem in this regard may have started with Confederate President Jefferson F. Davis, who always had a high opinion of himself — a man who also graduated from the U. S. Military Academy (Class of 1828) and who distinguished himself in combat in the Mexican-American War.

Synopsis

Jefferson Davis

Davis (USMA Class of 1828) (23/33) was more politician than a soldier.  He resigned from the Army in 1835 to pursue plantation farming in Mississippi.  In that same year, both he and his wife Susan (a daughter of Zachary Taylor) contracted either yellow fever or malaria.  Susan died in 1835, and Jeff was slow to recover.  From 1836-1840, a somewhat reclusive Davis confined himself to the plantation.  He first entered Mississippi politics in 1840, serving as a state convention delegate through 1844.  As presidential elector in 1844, he campaigned vigorously for James K. Polk.  In 1844, he won a seat in the U. S. Congress.

In 1846, while still serving in the House of Representatives, Davis raised a volunteer regiment for service in the Mexican-American War and commanded it as a US Volunteer Colonel. However, he distinguished himself in combat during the war — at least sufficiently to convince President Polk to offer him a commission as a brigadier general, but Davis respectfully declined. His insistence on replacing his regiment’s muskets with the M1841 rifle caused a life-long feud with the U. S. Army’s Commanding General, Winfield Scott. He had a broader vision.

Following the war, Davis served as a U. S. Senator (1847-1851), as Secretary of War (1853-1857), and again in the Senate (1857-1861).

When Mississippi seceded from the Union on 9 January 1861, Davis sent a telegram to Governor John J. Pettus, offering his services as the pleasure of his home state.  On 23 January, Pettus appointed Davis to serve as major general of the Army of Mississippi.  At the constitutional convention (of southern states) in early February, delegates considered both Davis and Robert Toombs (Alabama) as a possible Confederacy president; Davis won handily, assuming his office on 18 February 1861.  Davis, himself, did not believe anyone was more qualified to serve the Commander-in-Chief of the Confederacy’s armed forces.

Creating the Confederated States of America was no easy task.  Established on 8 February 1861, the Confederacy initially included seven Southern states: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas — soon joined by Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland may have joined the Confederacy had it not been for the rapid occupation of those states by the Union Army.  President Jefferson Davis had his hands full trying to organize an effective government.  Of course, he needed an army, and he needed good men to lead it — and this is where the trouble began.

In selecting his most senior generals, the men who would lead the Confederate States Army, he chose Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, and P. G. T. Beauregard.  He would eventually choose another two to serve as full-general, but these were Davis’ initial selections.[2]

Samuel Cooper

Sam Cooper (USMA Class of 1815) (36/40), whom almost no one knows anything about, was, despite his northern roots (New York), an advocate of states’ rights.  His service in the U. S. Army was primarily that of a staff officer who eventually attained the rank of colonel.  He briefly served as interim Secretary of War in 1857 and, in this capacity, first formed a strong friendship with Jefferson Davis.  Cooper received two general officer appointments on the same day, first to brigadier general, and full general, on 16 May 1861.  Davis appointed Cooper as Adjutant General and Inspector-General of the Confederate States Army.[3]

Albert Sidney Johnston

Albert S. Johnson (USMA Class of 1828) (8/41) had a most colorful background.  Davis regarded him as the nation’s finest field commander.  In addition to his service in the U. S. Army, Johnston served as a general officer in the Republic of Texas, as the Texas Republic’s Secretary of War, as a colonel in the U. S. Army during the Mexican-American War, and as a brevet brigadier general (permanent rank colonel) during the Utah War and commander of the Military Department of the Pacific.  He resigned his commission at the outbreak of the Civil War, initially enlisting as a private in the Los Angeles Rifles, a secessionist group in Southern California.

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee (USMA Class of 1829) (2/46) was a Virginia aristocrat and an Army engineer of some distinction who served 26 years in that capacity before transferring to the Cavalry in 1855 as a lieutenant colonel.  Lee was prominent during the Mexican-American War as a staff officer and engineer.  He served in command of the Army detachment sent to quell disturbances at Harpers Ferry in 1859, and he commanded Fort Brown, Texas, in 1860-61.  When General David E. Twiggs surrendered U. S. forces to Texas after its secession, Lee returned to Washington, where he was appointed to command the 1st Cavalry Regiment and promoted to Colonel.  Two weeks later, President Lincoln offered Lee advancement to major general.  Lee declined the promotion and, upon the secession of Virginia, resigned from the U. S. Army.[4]

Joseph E. Johnston

Joseph Eggleston Johnston (USMA Class of 1829) (13/46) was from a distinguished family of Scots whose grandfather and father both served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.  With his mother being the niece of Patrick Henry and his brother and father-in-law being members of the U. S. Congress, Johnston was politically well-connected.  Joe Johnston was the only Confederate general to have served as a general officer in the Union Army before his resignation to join secession.  This is important because Johnston, although in the same graduating class as Lee, was Lee’s senior officer in the Union Army.

When he returned home to Virginia, the governor offered him an appointment to the Virginia State Army as a major general.  Shortly after that, state officials notified him that Virginia only needed one major general, and so they decided to offer that commission to Robert E. Lee.  He could have, however, an appointment as a brigadier general, serving under Lee.  Given that Lee was junior to him in the Union Army, his proposal was unacceptable, and he declined the offer.

Jeff Davis thereafter offered Johnston a commission as brigadier general in the CSA, which he accepted.  Initially, Johnston’s assignment was command of the CSA forces at Harper’s Ferry.  Shortly thereafter, he assumed command of the Army of Shenandoah.

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard

P. G. T. Beauregard (USMA Class of 1838) (2/45) was an Army engineer, brevetted to Captain in 1847 for excellence as a staff officer (planning officer) under General Winfield Scott during the Mexican-American War.  He served as an engineer for the next 13 years, repairing old forts and building new ones in Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana.  Beauregard was born in Louisiana to an aristocratic French-Creole family.  Well-educated in private schools, Beauregard was brought up speaking French, never learning English until he was twelve years old.

Beauregard’s brother-in-law was John Slidell, a prominent attorney, politician, and former United States Minister to Mexico (1844-46).  In January 1861, the War Department appointed Beauregard to serve as Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy.  Before assuming office, however, Louisiana seceded from the Union, and the War Department canceled his appointment.  Incensed, Beauregard promptly resigned his commission and returned home to Louisiana.

With his political connections, Beauregard expected the Governor of Louisiana to appoint him as the general officer commanding Louisiana state militia.  The appointment, instead, went to Braxton Bragg, who in turn offered Beauregard a colonelcy.[5]  Instead, Beauregard enlisted as a private in the New Orleans Guards but at the same time wrote to Jeff Davis offering his services as a general officer in the CSA.  A common rumor was that Davis was considering him as the Commanding General of the CSA — which infuriated Bragg to no end.  On 1 March 1861, Davis appointed Beauregard a brigadier general, the first general appointee in the CSA.  His first assignment was the command of Charleston harbor.  

Essentially, General Beauregard was the officer who initiated hostilities with the United States on 12 April 1861. After negotiations failed to convince the Commanding Officer, Fort Sumter, Major Robert Anderson, to surrender to Confederate authority, Beauregard ordered his artillery to bombard the fort — an assault lasting 34 hours. Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter on 14 April.  

Shortly after ordered Beauregard to assume command of the Alexandria Line at Manassas.  In July, Davis promoted Beauregard to full general, with seniority behind Joseph E. Johnston.

Back to Joe Johnston

Joseph Eggleston Johnston (1807-1891) came from a distinguished family of Scots.  Both his grandfather and father fought in the American Revolution.  His mother was a niece of Patrick Henry.  His brother, Charles, served as a Congressman from Virginia.  He married Lydia McLane, whose father was a Congressman from Delaware.[6]  He was politically well-connected, an aristocrat of sorts and perhaps, full of himself.

Despite Johnston’s promotion to full general in August 1861, he stewed over his lack of seniority.  On 12 September 1861, Johnston wrote a letter to President Davis to explain his point of view:

“It (the ranking of senior generals) seeks to tarnish my fair fame as a soldier and as a man, earned by more than thirty years of laborious and perilous service.  I had but this, the scars of many wounds, all honestly taken in my front and in the front of battle, and my father’s Revolutionary sword.  It was delivered to me from his venerated hand, without a stain of dishonor.  Its blade is still unblemished as when it passed from his hand to mine.  I drew it in the war, not for rank or fame, but to defend the sacred soil, the homes and hearths, the women, and children — aye, and the men of my mother Virginia, my native South.”[7]

Johnston additionally complained to Davis that the president’s rankings were “in violation of my rights as an officer, of the plighted faith of the Confederacy and the Constitution and the laws of the land. […] I now and here declare my claim that I still rightfully hold the rank of first general in the armies of the Southern Confederacy.”  President Davis responded to Johnston’s letter, accusing the general of being “one-sided” whose complaints were “as unfounded as they are unbecoming.”  President Davis did nothing to resolve this problem, and, to be honest, I’m not sure why Davis kept him on the payroll.

The long-held system of seniority and etiquette explains why Johnston refused to subordinate himself to Robert E. Lee and others.  At the time he resigned from the U. S. Army, Johnston was a regular Army brigadier general.  Lee, upon his resignation, was a colonel.  Ultimately, however, both Lee and Johnston ended up as generals in the Confederate States Army — and Lee ended up being senior to Johnson because he had served, albeit briefly, as a Confederate major general.

As for trying to understand Johnston’s pettiness, there are several possibilities to consider.  Johnston was obviously a prideful man and mindful (possibly obsessed) with his prerogatives as a senior military commander. There are no small egos among high-ranking military officers. The concept of teamwork probably didn’t apply so much during the Civil War as it does today.  Still, there were other issues, such as Johnston’s unwillingness to listen to the advice and recommendations of his subordinate commanders, his ability to admit to or take responsibility for serious errors in planning, judgment, and his inability to acknowledge that in some cases, he was out of his depth.

However, commanding a field army well is a gargantuan task.  It’s more than directing maneuver elements; there is also the question of logistics, which along with weather, is a war-stopper.  On the one hand, he must win the battles and do it with whatever manpower he has available to him.  Excessive battlefield casualties limit his next moves.  He has to control the battlespace, which means choosing the time and place to fight as much as he is able.  During the Civil War period, rural Virginia was still a wilderness.  Having only one plan up his sleeve simply won’t do.

A series of small battles took place in Virginia following the First Battle of Bull Run (also, First Battle of Manassas), many of which resulted in inconclusive outcomes: Greenbrier River, Camp Allegheny, Cockpit Point, Hampton Roads, Yorktown, Williamsburg, Eltham’s Landing, and Seven Pines.

Command and control were quite difficult in 1862. At Seven Pines on 31 May – 1 June 1862, General Joseph E. Johnston attempted to overwhelm two Federal corps that he thought were isolated south of the Chickahominy River.  Although Johnston’s Confederates did succeed in driving General McClellan’s forces back, as well as inflicting heavy casualties, his assaults were not well-coordinated.  

On 1 June 1862, Johnston was seriously wounded and evacuated from the field, relinquishing command to Major General Gustavus Woodson Smith.  President Davis rushed Robert E. Lee to assume command of Johnston’s Army of Northern Virginia within a day.[8]

In 1862, it was not likely that Johnston had a “deputy commander,” so the next senior general would usually “take charge” should the commanding general become a casualty.  Here’s the problem, though: Before Smith became a major general, he was a U. S. Army captain.  No general can effectively lead an army that has not led or fought a division — which goes a long way in explaining General Smith’s nervous breakdown on 1 June 1862.  President Davis’ decision was a good one, and General Lee retained command of the Army of Northern Virginia until the war’s end.

But Johnston’s problem wasn’t only with President Davis and General Lee; he had little regard for Braxton Bragg and John Bell Hood, as well.

In the spring of 1864, while in command of the Army of Tennessee, Johnston engaged William T. Sherman between Chattanooga and Atlanta.  By this time, John Bell Hood had lost two of his limbs and yet could ride twenty miles a day while strapped to his saddle.  General Hood was a fire-eater and had little patience with Johnston’s apparent timidity.  He may have wondered why a senior general needed so much encouragement to act.  It wasn’t that Johnston was afraid of being injured; he had more than a few scars from battle wounds — it was, instead, that Johnston was afraid to fail.  It made Johnston, in Hood’s view, far too cautious.  Ironically, on one of the rare occasions when Johnston acted decisively at the Battle of Cassville, General Hood demurred on the battlefield.

Johnston’s strategy involved a series of delaying withdrawals.  Force withdrawal is, on occasion, a worthwhile strategy if its purpose is to maneuver the enemy into a position of disadvantage.  Johnston, however, seemed to focus his efforts on avoiding battle rather than engaging the enemy.  Over several weeks, General Hood sent messages to Richmond that criticized Johnston’s behavior.  The issue came to a head when President Davis ordered General Bragg to travel to Atlanta to investigate Hood’s claims.

After meeting with Johnston, Bragg interviewed Hood and General Joseph Wheeler, who testified that they had urged Johnston to attack rather than withdraw.  Hood claimed that Johnston was ineffective, timid, and weak-willed, saying, “I have, general, so often urged that we should force the enemy to give us battle as to almost be regarded reckless by the officers high in rank in this army [Johnston and Corps commander, William J. Hardee] since their views have been so directly opposite.”

Of course, Hood’s letters were insubordinate and subversive, but at least in Hood’s mind, necessary if the purpose of the war was to win important battles.  Historians today claim that Hood’s letters were self-serving and not entirely honest.[9]

But Hood was not alone in his criticism.  General Hardee reported to Bragg, “If the present system continues, we may find ourselves at Atlanta before a serious battle is fought.”  Presented with the facts of Johnston’s behavior, nearly every Confederate general agreed with Hood, Wheeler, and Hardee.

On 17 July 1864, President Davis relieved Johnston of his command.  Davis initially planned to replace Johnston with Hardee, but Bragg urged that he give control of the Army of Tennessee to Hood.  While it was true that Hood had impressed Bragg, it was also accurate that Bragg harbored ill feelings toward Johnston from bitter disagreements during earlier campaigns.

Davis temporarily promoted Hood to full general and gave him command of the army just outside Atlanta.  The Confederate Senate never confirmed hood’s appointment.  The 33-year old John Bell Hood was the youngest man on either side to command an army.  In Lee’s opinion, Hood was “a bold fighter on the field, but careless off.”  But Hood was well known by his Yankee classmates as temperamentally reckless and rash; they would use that knowledge to their advantage.  Davis’ decision to relieve Johnston was controversial and unpopular — besides which, Hood could no more hold Atlanta than Johnston.

In Johnston’s letter to Davis after his relief, he remarked of Hood, “Confident language by a military commander is not usually regarded as evidence of competency.”  Of this incident, Mary Chestnut recorded, “We thought this was a struggle for independence.  Now it seems it is only a fight between Joe Johnston and Jeff Davis.”[10]  Even though eventually restored to command, Johnston could never forget the perfidy of Davis, Bragg, and Hood.  Johnston later wrote, “I know Mr. Davis thinks he can do a great many things other men would hesitate to attempt.  For instance, he tried to do what God failed to do — make a soldier out of Braxton Bragg.”

Johnston’s End

History remembers Joe Johnston kindly.  His battle history is second to none: Manassas, Seven Pines, Vicksburg, Dalton, Resaca, Adairsville, New Hope Church, Dallas, Picket’s Mill, Kolb Farm, Kennesaw Mountain, Peachtree Creek, Averasboro, Bentonville, Morrisville Station, and the Bennett Place.  For him, it was a long war.  He afterward published his memoirs in Narrative of Military Operations, which was highly critical of Jefferson Davis, John Bell Hood, and Braxton Bragg.

He also built a life-long friendship with his former enemy, William T. Sherman — the officer to whom he surrendered in 1865.  Sherman once opined, “No officer or soldier who ever served under me will question the generalship of Joseph E. Johnston.  His retreats were timely, in good order, and he left nothing behind.”  Afterward, because of Johnston’s gentlemanly behavior, he would not tolerate anyone speaking ill of Sherman in his presence.  When Sherman passed away on 14 February 1891, Johnston served as an honorary pallbearer at his funeral, keeping his hat off during the burial rites to show his respect.  The weather was cold and rainy, and Johnston caught a cold, which developed into pneumonia.  Joseph E. Johnston died ten days later.  He was 84 years old.

Sources:

  1. Bonds, R. S.  War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta.  Westholme Publishing, 2009.
  2. Bowman, S. M., and R. B. Irwin: Sherman and His Campaigns: A military biography.  Richardson Publishing, 1865.
  3. Davis, S.  Texas Brigadier to the fall of Atlanta: John Bell Hood.  Mercer University Press, 2019.
  4. Johnston, J. E.  Narrative of Military Operations: Directed, During the Late War between the States.  Appleton & Co., 1874.
  5. Jones, W. L.  Generals in Blue and Gray: Davis’s Generals.  Stackpole Books, 2006.
  6. Miller, W. J.  The Battles for Richmond, 1862.  National Park Service Civil War Series, 1996.
  7. Symonds, C.  Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography.  Norton, 1992.
  8. Woodworth, S.  Jefferson Davis, and His Generals: A Failure of Confederate Command in the West.  University of Kansas Press, 1990.

Endnotes:

[1] All senior officers in both the Union and Confederacy attended the same school, used the same textbooks, had the same teachers, and graduated within a few years of each other.  They served together in the various military departments, in the Indian wars, and in one capacity or another, in the Mexican-American War (1846-48).  Later, as senior field commanders, they all knew what their opponents were likely to do.  With few exceptions, they all had inflated egos.

[2] Prior to the Civil War, the senior rank of the Army (discounting George Washington) was Major General, although the position was often filled by brigadier generals.  With the expansion of the military during the Civil War, as massive number of combat commands, both Union and Confederate armies expanded their command structure to accommodate much larger units.  Depending on circumstances and the availability of general officers, Brigadier Generals commanded brigades (consisting of from three to five regiments); major generals commanded divisions (three or four brigades); lieutenant generals commanded corps (three to four divisions), and generals command armies (three to four corps).

[3] What we know about the internal workings of the Confederacy today we owe in large measure to Sam Cooper, who maintained concise records and later turned these documents over to the U. S.  government at war’s end.  

[4] Robert E. Lee was an intellectual, a gentleman, and a pro-Union southerner whose final decision to resign his commission and join with his state was prompted by his loyalty to his home state.  His last US Army rank was colonel, and that is the insignia he wore on his uniform throughout the Civil War, rather than the insignia of a full general.  In Lee’s opinion, he had done nothing to warrant his full-general rank. 

[5] Braxton Bragg may have been the worst general officer on either side of the Civil War.  He lost nearly every engagement, shifted responsibility for his failures to junior officers, excessively disciplined subordinates.  He detested LtGen Leonidas Polk, a subordinate, who had a close relationship with President Jefferson Davis.  Bragg’s failures as a field general are among the primary reasons for the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy.

[6] Joseph and Lydia Johnston had no children.  Lydia passed away in 1887; Johnston passed away of a heart attack on 21 March 1891.  

[7] Craig L. Symonds book, Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography, W. W. Norton, 1992. 

[8] Union armies were named after rivers; Confederate armies were named after the places where the fought.  Earlier, however, both the Union and Confederates has an “Army of the Potomac.”  The confusion of this forced the Confederates to adopt a different naming convention.  

[9] Steven E. Woodworth wrote that Hood had, more than General Hardee, urged Johnston to withdraw his force.

[10] Mary Boykin Miller Chestnut, A Diary from Dixie.

This post previously published at Old West Tales.


Inglorious

Introduction

On 15 April 1861, two days after South Carolina militia bombarded Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring an insurrection against the laws of the United States.  In total, there were only 15,000 men in U. S. Army uniform —  hardly enough men to impose Lincoln’s will on eight seceding states, so to suppress the Confederacy and restore federal authority, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers for 90-days service.  Apparently, Mr. Lincoln was thinking that forcing southern states into compliance would be an abbreviated affair.  He later accepted the voluntary service of 40,000 additional troops with three-year enlistments.  These combined actions increased the strength of the Army to around 200,000.  Whether prudent, Mr. Lincoln’s actions prompted four other states to secede.

In the North

During April, thousands of bright-eyed, excited, adventurous young men streamed into the nation’s capital to join the fight and defend the nation’s capital.  The Army’s General-in-Chief was Lieutenant General Winfield Scott.  His plan for suppressing the rebels was to send an army of 80,000 men down the Mississippi River and capture New Orleans.  As the Army strangled the southern economy, the Navy would blockade all Southern ports along the eastern United States and western Gulf Coast of Florida.  The press was not particularly kind to General Scott or his scheme of maneuver.

In July 1861, thousands of young men were wearing army uniforms and encamped at various locations around the city of Washington.  With members of the press and politicians wagging their tongues daily, political pressure was building for Mr. Lincoln to do something.  Lincoln’s problem was that his Army Commanding General was 75-years-old.  Who would lead these young men into battle?  The president’s ultimate selection was both political and expedient.

Irvin McDowell was a graduate of the United States Military Academy, class of 1838.  McDowell was a competent staff officer with limited command experience.  In April 1861, McDowell was an Army major assigned to the office of the Adjutant General.  In less than a month, McDowell advanced from Major to brigadier general.  The staff officer suddenly found himself in command of the Military Department of Northeast Virginia and Army of Northern Virginia — on paper, around 35,000 men organized into five infantry divisions.  No one knew better than McDowell that he was entirely out of his depth.

Politics ruled the day, however.  With everyone clamoring for Lincoln to do something, he did.  He placed 35,000 men in uniform.  There was no time for much combat training, of course, and McDowell was at least smart enough to realize that this was a problem.  After voicing his concerns to Lincoln, the president told McDowell, “You are green, but they are green also; you are all green alike.” One can only imagine what McDowell was thinking about that sage advice.  But McDowell was more than out of his depth as a field commander.  Thanks to Confederate spy/socialite Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the Confederacy had a copy of McDowell’s battle plan for Manassas.

In any case, Brigadier General McDowell’s battle plan was exceedingly ambitious.  He intended to make a diversionary attack with two divisions, send a third against the Confederate flank, cut off the railway line to Richmond, push the rebels out of Manassas and save the city of Washington.  After reading McDowell’s battle plan, Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard, commanding the Alexandria Line, must have laughed.  McDowell couldn’t have accomplished that even with an experienced army.  He would be facing around 24,000 Confederate and state militia.

In The South

In 1861, Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnson served as Quartermaster General of the U. S. Army.  When his home state seceded from the Union, Johnson resigned his commission and returned to Virginia.  Initially, Virginia officials offered Johnson a commission as a major general in the state militia but later rescinded it and instead offered him a commission as a brigadier general.  Virginia only needed one major general, and they preferred Robert E. Lee to Johnson.  Johnson’s problem was that in the Union Army, he was a brigadier general, while Lee was only a colonel.  Seniority matters, so, rather than serving under someone junior in rank, Johnson accepted a commission as a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army.

Johnson was a talented officer with considerable experience throughout his tenure in the U. S. Army, but there was between him and Confederate President Jefferson Davis a strained relationship.  Initially, Davis appointed Brigadier General Johnson to relieve Colonel Thomas J.  Jackson of his command at Harpers Ferry; he later ordered Johnson to assume command of the Army of Shenandoah.  In this capacity, Johnson would be in a position to support Brigadier General Beauregard at Manassas.

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (also known as P. G T. Beauregard) was the brother-in-law of John Slidell, a lawyer, politician, and businessman.  Slidell previously served as U. S. Minister to Mexico (1844-45).  In January 1861, the War Department appointed Beauregard to serve as Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point.  Five days later, Louisiana seceded from the Union, and the War Department revoked Beauregard’s appointment.  Beauregard vigorously protested such treatment and soon after resigned from the U. S. Army and returned to his home in Louisiana.  Beauregard anticipated that the governor of Louisiana would offer him command of the state militia, but that position was instead offered to and accepted by General Braxton Bragg.  Bragg offered Beauregard a colonelcy, but there was an issue of pride once again, and Beauregard instead enlisted as a private in the Orleans Guards.

Again, President Davis came to the rescue and, on 1 March 1861, appointed Beauregard a Brigadier General and placed him in command of the defenses at Charleston, South Carolina.  Beauregard was the first general officer appointment of the Confederacy, but the process of general officer appointments was haphazard.  In a few months, Beauregard would become a full (four-star) general, one of only seven promoted to that rank, but he would end up junior to four others: Samuel Cooper, Albert S. Johnson, Robert E. Lee, and Joseph E. Johnson.

On 12 April, Beauregard ordered the commencement of hostilities with Fort Sumter, a bombardment lasting 34 hours.  President Davis later summoned Beauregard to Richmond for a new assignment.  He would assume command of the Alexandria Line.[1]  Beauregard immediately began planning for the defense of Manassas, including a concentration of forces along with those of General Johnson at Harpers Ferry.  Johnson was senior to Beauregard, but he was unfamiliar with the Manassas area and ceded tactical planning to Beauregard.  President Davis had great confidence in Beauregard as a field commander, but less with his ability as an operational planner.  Beauregard tended to formulate overly complicated schemes of maneuver without due consideration for logistics, intelligence, and political realities.

Bull Run

There is nothing particularly glorious about battle except, perhaps, in the minds of those who’ve never experienced it.  When the fighting is finally over, there is, of course, deep gratitude among survivors, and a peculiar bonding takes place among those survivors — for a little while — until everyone returns home and the nightmares and guilt arrive.  The guilt isn’t reflective of what combatants had to do in combat.  It’s for having the audacity (or luck) of living through it.  Many of their friends didn’t.

No doubt, the young men of both armies, whether officer or enlisted, had similar thoughts.  Aside from the excitement of a great undertaking, no doubt caused by increased adrenalin, there was also fear — a fear so palpable, one can smell it. Ordinary people fear death, of course, but what concerned these youngsters most was the prospect that fear would paralyze them.  Fear is a powerful thing — no one wants to be a coward.  Youngsters worry about such things.  They fear that in an unannounced split second when it occurs to them that running away offers life and remaining behind guarantees death, they will choose to run away.  A reasonable person will conclude that remaining behind in a fight that they’re losing is an irrational response to utter chaos — but there is nothing rational about combat, and adrenalin is an equally powerful antidote.

Two untrained armies began moving toward one another in mid-July 1861.  Oh, they may have had enough training to know how to line up, and maybe even how to wheel right or left, but they didn’t know (or trust) their officers, they barely knew their NCOs, and they may not have known the name of the man standing next to them.  The bonding process among combatants had yet to take hold.  It was a time when there was no leadership — only followership.  How the man standing next to them reacted to gunfire or exploding artillery influenced how they, themselves, responded to such trauma.  Watching someone running to the rear was a powerful incentive to join him — and so too was witnessing the decapitation of the next man in line.  Panic in the ranks can arrive as fast as flood water, and no one is immune to its effects without intense training and prior experience on the line.

The morning of 16 July began shaping up as a genuine goat-rope; it only got worse as the day progressed.  Formed regiments milled around along the roads while their officers tried to organize them into a line of march, and the men waited patiently while their officers and NCOs struggled to figure it out.  Hurry up and wait is an American military tradition.

After hours of fumbling about, General McDowell finally led his army out of Washington.  It was the largest army ever formed on the North American continent —  around 28,000 men (18,000 infantry) present.  Army commanders mustered everyone they could get their hands on — even Marines.

With pressure from the War Department to bolster McDowell’s army, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells ordered the Commandant of the Marine Corps to form a battalion of “disposable” Marines for duty in the field.  In 1861, U. S. Marines were seagoing infantry; they were not trained for field duty.  Major John G. Reynolds assumed command of the Marine battalion and reported to McDowell.  None of the Marines had any field equipment — all of them were raw recruits.  The best they could do in the upcoming fight was to help resupply artillery units with powder and shot.

McDowell hoped to have his army at Centerville by 17 July, but the troops were unaccustomed to marching long distances.  The distance from Washington to Manassas was 30 miles.  En route, formations would bunch up along the road, stop, wait, and start again.  Some soldiers, bored with the walk (it was hardly a march), would break formation to wander off into an orchard to rest and pick apples from the trees.  They were an undisciplined lot and largely ignored the orders of their officers and NCOs to “get back in ranks.”

On 17 July, Beauregard encamped his army near Manassas — the men busily preparing their defenses along the south bank of Bull Run.  His left flank, under Brigadier General Evans, blocked the stone bridge.  General McDowell was initially confident that he would overwhelm a numerically inferior enemy and equally optimistic that Brigadier General Robert Patterson, whose orders were to engage General Johnson’s Army of the Shenandoah, would prevent Johnson from reinforcing Beauregard.

Weather and climate are among the more critical factors of warfare because it affects both strategy and tactics. July in Northern Virginia is hot and humid, and that’s what it was on 21 July 1861. Rain-swollen rivers impede the flow of troops and supplies.  Muddy roads bring everything to a halt.  Rain prevents muskets from firing — which often necessitated bayonets and hand-to-hand combat.  Wind and rain made everyone miserable.  The exposure to the elements made people sick.  Heat and humidity cause heat casualties.  In short, weather can be a war stopper.

By the time McDowell reached Manassas, he was under a great deal of stress.  The ninety-day enlistments of several regiments were about to expire.  He also received word from Patterson that General Johnson had slipped out of the Shenandoah Valley.  If true, McDowell would face 34,000 rebels rather than 22,000.  On the morning of 22 July, two of McDowell’s commands, their enlistments having expired, left the field.  Despite his pleadings, the soldiers had no interest in remaining on the field.  In McDowell’s mind, time was running out.  He began making rash decisions.  He was starting to panic, and his subordinate commander’s lost confidence in his leadership.

By the time the shooting started, Beauregard’s and Johnson’s armies were tied in with one another, and more reinforcements were on the way.  McDowell received a string of faulty intelligence.

The Battle

The Union forces began their day at 02:30 when two divisions under Hunter and Heintzelman (12,000 men) marched from Centerville toward Sudley Springs.  General Tyler’s division (8,000 men) marched toward Stone Bridge.  In many places, the road approach to Sudley Springs was inadequate for so many men, artillery, and supply wagons in many places being no more than rutted footpaths.  The Union advance slowed to a crawl.  Fording Bull Run did not begin until 09:30, and the Union advance was no surprise to the Confederates.  When the two forces finally engaged that morning, it was more of an exercise in maneuver warfare than frontal assault or envelopment.  McDowell’s commanders struggled to get their men in position.

However, when the Union forces finally did strike the Confederate line, the rebel line collapsed, sending inexperienced boys into a panicked retreat.  The Union might have pursued them were it not for the exceptional artillery support from men like Captain John D. Imboden.  McDowell’s failure to press his advantage gave the Confederates time to reform their line.

At this time, Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson’s Virginia Brigade came forward in support of the re-organizing Confederate defense.  Jackson, accompanied by J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry and Wade Hampton’s Legion, quickly set up a defensive line along the Henry House Hill ridgeline.  Hampton’s Legion thoroughly decimated the New York 79th, whose troops began a helter-skelter retreat.  The only Union soldier from the NY 79th who advanced under Hampton’s withering fire was Colonel James Cameron, the regimental commander.[2]  As Cameron advanced, his men abandoned him and ran to the rear.   Cameron was soon killed.

To shield his men from the Union’s direct fire, Jackson posted his five regiments on the reverse slope of Henry House Hill.  Jackson then placed thirteen artillery pieces to best defend the line, all out of sight of the Union troops.  The Confederate’s smooth-bore guns gave them an advantage over the Union artillery’s rifled guns because the Union guns were too close to their enemy’s positions and fired their more powerful pieces over the heads of the Confederate troops.[3]

Stonewall Jackson

When Confederate Brigadier General Barnard E. Bee (Commanding 3rd Brigade) complained to Jackson that the Union was driving them (forcing them back), Jackson calmly replied, “Then, sir, we will give them the bayonet.”  Bee then returned to his brigade and exhorted them, “There [pointing] is Jackson standing like a stone wall.  Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer.  Let us rally behind the Virginians!”   

It was Jackson’s refusal to yield the line that gave him the nickname Stonewall Jackson.  Afterward, Jackson’s brigade launched a crushing assault against the Union line, capturing Union artillery and quickly sending hundreds of Union soldiers to the rear.  Jackson’s brigade devastated these troops with fire and bayonet.  Still, nothing spooked the Yankees more than the rebel yell, which Jackson (a college professor at the Virginia Military Institute) knew it would.  It was the first time Union troops heard the rebel yell, but it would not be the last time.  It was this daring assault that changed the course of the Battle of Bull Run.

At about 16:00, two Confederate Brigades (Early’s and Smith’s) assaulted Howard’s Union Brigade on Chinn Ridge and pushed it off the hill, delivering devastating casualties.  It was not long before the young boys dressed in Union uniforms decided to live another day.

McDowell’s decision to withdraw was anything but orderly.  Rather than controlling their men and easing their panic, Union officers were running foot races with their soldiers to see who could get back to the city of Washington first.  McDowell ordered Miles’ division to form a rearguard, but those troops were only interested in protecting themselves.  McDowell’s army didn’t rally until they reached the outskirts of Washington.  To President Davis’ great dismay, neither Johnson nor Beauregard pressed their advantage on the retreating Union.[4]  Had they done so, Washington might have fallen to the Confederates at the beginning of the war.

That evening, President Lincoln received his much-awaited report on the battle of Manassas, but it wasn’t what he was hoping to hear.  The message, in abbreviated form, was: “The day is lost.  Save Washington.”

Conclusion

This is the story of two numerically powerful armies, both untrained, both (for the most part) poorly led, and both leaving behind a large number of casualties.  McDowell lost 2,708 men (481 killed, 1,011 wounded, and 1,216 missing).  Generals Johnson and Beauregard lost 1,982 men (387 killed, 1,582 wounded, 13 missing).  On the morning of 21 July 1861, the ranks of both armies contained young boys who were excited beyond measure and full of vinegar.  At the end of the day, some of those boys were broken, discouraged, or dead.  In one single day, the survivors had learned all they would ever need to know about combat.  It would never get any better, but it would get worse.  Whether north or south, everyone who fought that day knew that this one battle was only the beginning of unspeakable carnage.

There would be a second battle at Manassas — in about a year.

Sources:

  1. Alexander, E. P.  Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander.  Gary W. Gallagher, ed.  University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
  2. Beatie, R. H.  Army of the Potomac: Birth of Command, November 1860-September 1861.  Da Capo Press, 2002.
  3. Detzer, D.  Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861.  Simon & Schuster, 2001.
  4. Longstreet, J.  From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America.  Da Capo Press, 1992.

Endnotes:

[1] The Orange and Alexandria Railroad linked markets in northern and central Virginia.  Construction of the railroad began in 1850 and extended to Manassas and Gordonsville in 1851 and 1853.  It was a primary communication route between Richmond and northern Virginia.  The Alexandria Line became a strategic prize coveted by both Union and Confederate forces at Manassas, Bristoe Station, and Brandy Station.

[2] Brother of U. S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron.

[3] One casualty of the Union artillery was 89-year-old Judith Carter, an invalid, who was confined to her bed inside Henry House.  Miss Carter was killed when Union artillery targeted the house, thinking that rebel snipers were shooting from upstairs windows.

[4] Jefferson Davis observed the fight from the battlefield, arriving at around 15:00 that afternoon.  


246th United States Marine Corps Birthday

In Celebration

Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve;
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes;
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.”

Third stanza of the Marine Corps Hymn

A bit of Marine Corps history:

As my regular readers should know by now, the United States Marine Corps celebrates its birthday on 10 November.  The Marine Corps Birthday is a unique celebration honoring all Marines and their families, past, present, and future.  It rekindles the connection of Marines since 1775.  My readers should also know that the Marine Corps has defended the United States and the American people in every one of those years.  On this day, we Marines honor our traditions with reverence and respect; we pay homage to the distinguished service of the Corps and of those who have worn our uniform.

The Second Continental Congress created the Marine Corps on 10 November 1775, eight months before America’s Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.  Congress created the Marines to serve alongside the Continental Navy — and have done so ever since.  The first Marine Corps Commandant was Major Samuel Nicholas.  During the 7-years of the Revolutionary War, the Marine Corps increased from its original two battalions to just over 2,100 Marines.  It was then, and remains, the nation’s smallest armed force.  Despite its small size, however, the battle history of the United States Marine Corps is second to none.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, Congress disbanded the Navy and Marine Corps.  Our founding fathers, having experienced the tyranny of the British Army, had no interest in maintaining “standing armies.”  In 1794, however, circumstances changed.  Beginning around 1785, Islamist pirates operating off the North African coastline seized American ships and held them, their crews, passengers, and their cargoes for ransom.

Initially, Congress thought that it might be cheaper to pay these brigands their money, but each year ransom demands increased until the United States was paying out about twenty-percent of its annual budget to Barbary Pirates.  President George Washington asked Congress to bring back the Navy and Marine Corps to deal with the pirates and guarantee America’s sovereignty at sea.  In 1794, the Navy (and Marine Corps) were placed under the Secretary of War.  However, in 1798, legislation was enacted to establish the Navy as a separate department, and the Navy and Marine Corps as separate branches of the armed forces.

Pursuant to Marine Corps General Order No. 47 (1921), the Commandant of the Marine Corps directed that the following be read aloud to all Marines on 10 November of each year:

(1) On November 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was created by a resolution of Continental Congress. Since that date many thousand men have borne the name “Marine”. In memory of them it is fitting that we who are Marines should commemorate the birthday of our corps by calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history.

(2) The record of our corps is one which will bear comparison with that of the most famous military organizations in the world’s history. During 90 of the 146 years of its existence the Marine Corps has been in action against the Nation’s foes. From the Battle of Trenton to the Argonne, Marines have won foremost honors in war, and in the long eras of tranquility at home, generation after generation of Marines have grown gray in war in both hemispheres and in every corner of the seven seas, that our country and its citizens might enjoy peace and security.

(3) In every battle and skirmish since the birth of our corps, Marines have acquitted themselves with the greatest distinction, winning new honors on each occasion until the term “Marine” has come to signify all that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue.

(4) This high name of distinction and soldierly repute we who are Marines today have received from those who preceded us in the corps. With it we have also received from them the eternal spirit which has animated our corps from generation to generation and has been the distinguishing mark of the Marines in every age. So long as that spirit continues to flourish Marines will be found equal to every emergency in the future as they have been in the past, and the men of our Nation will regard us as worthy successors to the long line of illustrious men who have served as “Soldiers of the Sea” since the founding of the Corps.

John A. Lejeune,
Major General Commandant

During the Marine Corps Birthday Ceremony, a traditional birthday cake is presented to those in attendance.  After the cake is cut, the first slice is first presented to the oldest Marine present, who then passes it to the youngest Marine.  It is a symbolic transfer of wisdom and understanding from the older brother to the younger.  This is a hallmark of Marine Corps training that begins at boot camp or officer’s candidate school and is repeated throughout a Marine’s entire service.  Understanding Marine Corps history and living up to the high standards of those who went before is an integral part of Marine Corps service.

Our Motto

The motto of the U. S. Marine Corps is Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful).  It reflects a Marine’s unwavering patriotism, tenacity, and their commitment to God, Country, Corps, and their brothers in arms.  The official march of the U. S. Marine Corps is titled The Semper Fidelis March by John Phillip Sousa.  Enjoy the following presentation by the United States Marine Corps Band.

The Marines are known by several nicknames, but some of these aren’t suitable for print and are largely a result of vile lies, misrepresentations, and Army-Navy jealousy.  But two of these nicknames are Leatherneck, which comes from the thick leather collar worn by Marines during the age of sail to prevent decapitation, and Devil Dog [Teufelhunden] which is what the German soldiers named Marines during World War I.

Our Hymn

The Marine Corps Hymn, is one of the most readily recognized songs in the world today and is the oldest of our country’s service songs.  The history of our hymn has been clouded by the passage of time and sometimes confused by inaccurate oral traditions, but there is never any confusion on the part of listeners of the Marine’s hymn.  It is as easily identified with the Marine Corps as the Star Spangled Banner is with the United States of America.

The Marine Corps Hymn has become a sacred symbol of the pride and professionalism of a Marine; when played or sung, all Marines rise to their feet and stand at attention for its duration.  The music to the hymn originated with the opera Geneviève de Brabant composed by the French composer Jacques Offenbach.  One listening to Couplets des Deux Hommes d’Armes will immediately recognize the tune.

We do not know who penned the words to the Marine’s Hymn — but tradition claims that it was an unidentified Marine sometime after 1867.  The first two lines of the verse were taken from the words inscribed on the Battle Colors of the Marine Corps: “To the Shores of Tripoli.”

The Battle Colors were so inscribed after the Barbary War of 1805.  Later, after the Marines participated in the capture of Mexico City and the Castle of Chapultepec (also known as the Halls of Montezuma) in 1847, the inscription on the Colors was changed to read, “From the Shores of Tripoli to the Halls of Montezuma.”  Whoever wrote the words to the Marine Corps Hymn reversed this order.

To all Marines and Friends of the Corps

Semper Fi

Our Secret Fighting Women

American intelligence-gathering and analysis before World War II was a function performed by four separate departments: the Navy Department, War Department, Treasury Department, and the State Department.  In the Navy, for example, the Office of Naval Intelligence (established in 1882) fell under the Bureau of Navigation.  ONI’s mission was to collect and record such information as may be useful to the Department of the Navy in both war and peace.  It was a mission that remained unchanged for sixty-two years.  Over time, ONI would expand their activities to include both foreign and domestic espionage whenever such operations were beneficial to the mission of the Navy.  Similarly, the State Department had its cipher bureau (MI-8) (which was shut down in 1929), and the Army had its Signal Intelligence Service.  None of these activities were coordinated, and seldom did the agencies share information between them.

Out of concern for this lack of coordination, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed his friend of many years, William J. Donovan, to devise a plan for a coordinated intelligence service modeled on the British Intelligence Service (MI-6) and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).  Donovan called his organization the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).  Eventually, OSS would manage 24,000 intelligence agents, 13,000 of which were American employees, between 1941-1945.

Donovan was looking for a unique sort of individual — a person with a doctorate who could win in a bar fight.  Some were academics, some were military officers and enlisted men, some were athletes, filmmakers, and a few were convicts.  Donovan employed them as spies, saboteurs, code breakers, analysts, map makers, forgers, and propagandists.  They became expert in penetrating enemy territory by parachute and from the sea.  They kidnapped people, blew up bridges and railroad yards, stole secrets, and put together the networks that did all of those things.

One-third of these people were women.  One of them was an actress named Marlene Dietrich; another was a woman named Margaret Mead, a pioneering anthropologist. Julia McWilliams developed a shark repellent.  Julia is more famously known as Julia Childs.  Another, Jean Wallace, was the daughter of the Vice President of the United States.  Several of these women were killed in the line of duty, such as Jane Wallis Burrell in 1948.

Virginia Stuart served the OSS in Egypt, Italy, and China.  At first, Virginia wasn’t sure what the OSS did, but she wanted to serve her country, and someone directed her to the “Q Building” (OSS headquarters in Washington where the Kennedy Center now stands).  Armed with a bachelor’s degree from Skidmore College, Virginia applied to the OSS in November 1943.  She was naturally adventurous, but there was a war on and most of her friends were participating in it in one form or another.  Her older sister, Edith, had joined the Navy as a chemist.  Virginia thought she might do that as well, but in 1943 the Navy was looking for scientists and medical personnel, not liberal arts majors.  Ultimately, the OSS hired Miss Stuart.  She was simply told, “Work hard, get the job done no matter what it takes, and keep your mouth shut.”

Stuart later recalled that the work in the Secret Intelligence Branch was grueling, the environment uncomfortable, the hours long, and that everyone became addicted to the caffeine in Coca Cola.  Initially, her job included assembling and making sense of hundreds of reports submitted in abbreviated form from secret agents in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  Everyone had a sense of urgency, and everyone realized that the information they were receiving was important, no matter how insignificant it may have seemed when it first arrived — everything from troop movements and decoded radio messages to logistics issues and plans for secret penetrations of enemy held territory.  The longer the war went on, the more information there was to analyze and categorize.  What stood out in Virginia’s memory from those days was that there were no “men’s jobs and women’s jobs.”  There was only the one job, and everyone did it.

All the information was classified, of course, but some of it was more secret than other.  She recalled that “Eyes Alone” material was quickly delivered to Colonel Donovan’s desk.  It was the “most important” because of its sensitivity or timing.

When an opportunity presented itself, Virginia requested overseas service.  After eight months of waiting, she was sent to work in Cairo.  She and three other women dressed in khaki uniforms boarded a ship, along with Red Cross workers and war correspondents.  No one was to know who they were, what they did, or where they were going.  Virginia was going to Cairo because that was the OSS forward headquarters for Middle Eastern operations.

Cairo was a place where one could hear dozens of languages: English, Italian, French, Yugoslav, and Turkish among them.  In addition to military personnel, there were politicians, academics with expertise in the economy, logisticians, and yes — even German spies.  OSS headquarters in Cairo was a converted villa with a secure code room in the basement.  It was a place where newspapers and magazines from around the world were read and analyzed.  The analysis required men and women who were not only fluent in several languages but also familiar with cultural nuances, which made the work even more challenging.  This unusual library of information had a wide range of uses, from people who needed to manufacture official-looking fake documents, to others who were looking for a slip of the teletype (so to speak).  Sometimes, OSS received information coded in classified advertisements.

A year later, the OSS dispatched Virginia Stuart to China.  A week later, Virginia learned that the United States had dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan.  There was no detailed information about the event, of course, and no one was sure what an atomic bomb was.  But while the world was focused on the bomb, secret agents parachuted into Manchuria dressed as Chinese Nationalist officers to conduct guerrilla raids against Japanese occupation forces there, and to help plan for the liberation of Japanese POW camps.  Eventually, Virginia married one of these men, a British-Australian colonel attached to MI-6.  Virginia Stuart, after her stint with OSS, married and raised a family in such places as the Philippine Islands, Honduras, and later became a news anchor in Rhode Island.

The end of the war signaled the end of OSS.  Few of the uniformed services chiefs appreciated Roosevelt’s OSS (General MacArthur and others) who felt that intelligence gathering, and analysis, belonged within their purview.  President Truman, an old Army hand from World War II, agreed with his generals.  Of course, none of these generals (or even Truman) seemed to understand that the OSS provided vital intelligence from a vast network of sources they could not have managed on their own.  Despite the fact that OSS technically worked for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Truman wanted the OSS to disappear.  He made that happen in July 1945.

But not even Truman on his silliest day was stupid enough to do away with the assets created by OSS over nearly five years.  At the end of World War II, the OSS continued to collect valuable intelligence information about the Soviet Union, which almost immediately began working against the interests of the free world.  Over a period of two years, what was once the OSS , transitioned into the CIA, and many of the people who worked for OSS found themselves doing essentially the same tasks for the renamed spy agency.

The contribution of our women to America’s secret service didn’t begin or end with World War II.  During the Revolutionary War, a woman known only to history as Agent 355, served as part of the Culper Spy Ring, and played a pivotal role in the arrest of British spy, Major John Andrew and the infamous traitor, Benedict Arnold.  Anna Smith, living in Long Island, helped communicate information to General Washington through a code system that depended on the way she hung her laundry to dry.[1]  It may not seem like much of an effort, but that is the nature of the clandestine service: vital information in drips and drabs, funneled to the people best positioned to make sense of it.

Women made ideal spies simply because men didn’t think they were capable of it.  Most of these women are unknown to us today precisely because they were very good at what they did, and also because once they had achieved such remarkable results, men simply forgot about them.

During the Civil War, Pauline Cushman, an actress, was a Union spy discovered by the Confederacy.  She was saved from hanging by the arrival of the Union Army mere days before her execution.  Sarah Emma Edmonds also served the Union cause, disguising herself as a male soldier, sometimes as a black man, at other times as an old woman, to spy on the Confederacy.  Harriet Tubman, in addition to helping to free enslaved blacks, served the Union Army in South Carolina by organizing a spy network and occasionally leading raids and spying expeditions.  Elizabeth Van Lew was an anti-slavery Virginian who smuggled food and clothing to Union prisoners and provided information about Confederate activities to Union officials.  It was this woman who cleverly placed Mary Elizabeth Bowser as a spy in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Not all the ladies were in the trenches during World War II, but this one was.  Virginia Hall was an American spy with the British SOE and about as tough as they come.  While on a hunting trip in Turkey, a gun accident caused her to lose her leg.  She named her prosthetic device “Cuthbert.”  In connection with the SOE and OSS, Hall led networks of agents in various specialized missions, rescued prisoners of war, and recruited hundreds of spies to work against the Nazis.  Her quick wit kept her two paces ahead of the Gestapo, who spent a lot of time and effort trying to find out who she was.  Hall was able to outpace the Gestapo because she was a master of disguise, and Germany lost the war knowing that whoever this woman was, she was the most dangerous of all Allied spies.  Virginia Hall is the only civilian woman to receive the Distinguished Service Cross.

Marion Frieswyk was a cartographer, who along with others in the OSS, produced three dimensional topographic maps of such places as Sicily in advance of the allied landings there in 1943.  Marion was a country girl with a knack for numbers.  At the age of 21 years, her ambition was to become a school teacher after graduating from Potsdam Teacher’s College in 1942, but the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii changed her plans.  A college geography professor encouraged her to apply to a summer graduate school course in cartography at Clark University; he told her that the war effort would demand trained map makers.  Out of her class of thirty students, the OSS recruited only two: Marion and a fellow named Henry.  The OSS offered to pay her $1,800 a year and she was soon off to the nation’s capital.

Customized map making was a new innovation in 1942.  The OSS spared no expense sending civilian employees around the world to procure existing maps; geographic researchers and draftsmen transformed these maps into detailed representations of places where the Allies would fight their battles.  As in the case of Sicily, Marion and others produced a number of topographic models —  it was a combination between artists’ studios and woodworking shops, where jigsaws were employed to produce precise 3-dimensional changes in elevation beginning at sea level.  The Sicily map was the first custom made topographic map ever made in the United States.

In 1943, Marion married her classmate from Clark University, Henry, the other student hired by OSS.  She and Henry were married for 64 years.  After the war, when Truman disbanded the OSS, Marion and Henry transferred to the State Department where they worked until the creation of the CIA.  Marion stayed with the CIA until 1952, resigning so that Henry could accept an assignment in London.  In recognition of Henry’s 25 years of government service in cartography, the CIA presented him with the Sicily Map that he had helped produce in 1943.

Most of these stalwart women from World War II have passed on, but courageous, hardworking, thoroughly dedicated women continue to serve the United States in the Central Intelligence Agency.  Gina Barrett, for example, is a 25-year veteran intelligence analyst with the CIA, who wrote the first report warning US officials about Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s — she was one of a team of six other women focused on the Middle East’s merchants of death, but Ms. Barrett is quick to point out that women have always played a role in America’s clandestine services.  Maja Lehnus is another woman, who in over twenty-nine years of CIA service, held six different leadership positions in the field of chemical, biological, and nuclear armaments.  Lehnus is the woman at CIA who does the worrying for things that most people don’t even know about — or even want to know about.

The CIA’s clandestine mission for women include a wide range of projects, from counter-terrorism to field operations, the technical aspects of bombs, and space weapons developments.  Most of these women are married with children and none of them look anything like an Albert R. Broccoli spy.  But the clandestine service is a tough row to hoe and the work can wear anyone down.  One such clandestine professional, whose identity is secret, is an explosives expert.  The job, she says, is unrelenting, and if someone working in this field doesn’t find a way to step away from it, it will eventually kill them.

There are no seductresses at the CIA, reports one woman.  That’s all Hollywood stuff.  There is no erratic behavior.  What there is, and has always been in the American secret services, are women like Virginia Hall, who are prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish their vital (to the United States) missions.

Eloise Page was one of 4,500 women employed by the OSS.  She began her career as a secretary; she retired as the third-highest ranking officer in the CIA’s operations directorate.  In the operations section, she had responsibility for planning and directing covert operations and recruiting foreign spies.  Page was the CIA’s first female station chief.  Suzanne Matthews followed Page’s pathway.  She joined the CIA as a secretary in 1975 and worked her way up to case officer.

Janine Brookner was another of the CIA’s shining stars.  She joined the agency in 1968.  The CIA offered her an analytical position, but she was adamant about wanting an assignment in operations.  Ultimately, as a senior case officer, Brookner infiltrated the Communist Party and recruited a highly placed Soviet bloc agent.  Today, Brookner is a Washington, D. C. lawyer.

Female employees of the CIA continue saving American lives every day.  Completing this daunting task requires constant vigilance and attention to detail.  The demand associated with this work requires compartmentalization, checking one’s emotions, and keeping a cool head under intense pressure.  Currently, women make up around 45% of the CIA’s workforce and 34% of the agency’s senior leadership.  The third and fourth most senior positions in the CIA are held by women.

Currently, there are 137 gold stars affixed to the CIA’s Memorial Wall, signifying CIA personnel killed in the line of duty.  Thirty-seven of these stars do not identify the name of the veterans because their names remain classified.  Eleven of those stars are for women, such as Barbara Robbins who died in Vietnam in 1963,  Monique Lewis who was killed in Beirut in 1983 and  Jennifer Matthews who was killed in Afghanistan in 2009.  Some of the women who lost their lives (as with their male counterparts) had a spouse and children at home.  Working insane hours protecting the homeland is one kind of sacrifice — giving up their life for the homeland is the ultimate sacrifice.


Endnotes:

[1] The British had their spies, as well.  Anna Bates disguised herself as a peddler of knives, needles, and other dry goods to the Continental army.  While she was doing that, she took careful note of the soldiers weapons, which the British believed was useful information. 

Leadership, Moral Courage, and Duty

Recently, a number of bloggers and pundits have brought into question certain decisions and actions of our senior military leaders.  Bloggers are by now famous for basing their opinions on something other than a complete understanding of how the military works, which is further complicated because some commenters offer their views without knowing all the facts.

For example, while it is true that the President is the Commander-in-Chief of our Armed Forces, the President does not become involved in every situation that challenges our joint/unified commanders.  A drone attack against suspected Taliban targets would not have warranted presidential involvement, but it may take the president’s authorization to bomb targets in Syria.  There are different protocols for a wide range of situations.

Additionally, political biases too often drive a pundit’s opinions.  It is a situation begging for intellectual dishonesty, and it does nothing to enhance the average citizen’s understanding of events in far-off lands.  If we criticize our senior military leaders, we must base our reproach on what transpires rather than what we think might have happened.

Still, there remains a question about the politicization of our Armed Forces, particularly among our flag officers (generals and admirals, one through four-star officers).  Are they knuckling under to the inexperienced (and often, incredibly flawed) dictates of civilian leadership to achieve promotion and plum assignments?   There is some justification for this concern, particularly in the argument that senior officers have acquiesced to demands for social engineering as a priority over the prime directive, which is the combat readiness of our armed forces and their operational efficiency.

There is nothing I can write that would be an improvement over the speech delivered by Douglas MacArthur at the U. S. Military Academy on 12 May 1962.  General MacArthur’s wise counsel follows sixty-one years of active service.  He had been retired only eleven years when he gave his address.  In my view, MacArthur’s remarks offer a clear view of what our senior-most military officers ought to be, how they should govern themselves while wearing the uniform of an active-duty officer, and how they should behave once retired.  But it is also my view that General MacArthur spoke to all military leaders, from the most junior non-commissioned officer to the highest-ranking commissioned officer.  Thus, the following words apply as much to leaders today as they did on the day of General MacArthur’s retirement.

General of the Army Douglas A. MacArthur

Sylvanus Thayer Award Acceptance Speech

12 May 1962

____________

General Westmoreland, General Grove, distinguished guests, and gentlemen of the Corps!

As I was leaving the hotel this morning, a doorman asked me, “Where are you bound for, General?” And when I replied, “West Point,” he remarked, “Beautiful place. Have you ever been there before?”

No human being could fail to be deeply moved by such a tribute as this [Thayer Award].  Coming from a profession I have served so long, and a people I have loved so well, it fills me with an emotion I cannot express.  But this award is not intended primarily to honor a personality, but to symbolize a great moral code — the code of conduct and chivalry of those who guard this beloved land of culture and ancient descent.  That is the animation of this medallion.  For all eyes and for all time, it is an expression of the ethics of the American soldier.  That I should be integrated in this way with so noble an ideal arouses a sense of pride and yet of humility which will be with me always.

Duty, Honor, Country

Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be.  They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.

Unhappily, I possess neither that eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination, nor that brilliance of metaphor to tell you all that they mean.

The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase.  Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.

But these are some of the things they do: They build your basic character.  They mold you for your future roles as the custodians of the nation’s defense.  They make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brave enough to face yourself when you are afraid.  They teach you to be proud and unbending in honest failure, but humble and gentle in success; not to substitute words for actions, not to seek the path of comfort, but to face the stress and spur of difficulty and challenge; to learn to stand up in the storm but to have compassion on those who fall; to master yourself before you seek to master others; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high; to learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep; to reach into the future yet never neglect the past; to be serious yet never to take yourself too seriously; to be modest so that you will remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.

They give you a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions, a freshness of the deep springs of life, a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of an appetite for adventure over the love of ease.  They create in your heart the sense of wonder, the unfailing hope of what is next, and the joy and inspiration of life.  They teach you in this way to be an officer and a gentleman.

And what sort of soldiers are those you are to lead?  Are they reliable?  Are they brave?  Are they capable of victory?  Their story is known to all of you.  It is the story of the American man-at-arms.  My estimate of him was formed on the battlefield many, many years ago, and has never changed.  I regarded him then as I regard him now — as one of the world’s noblest figures, not only as one of the finest military characters but also as one of the most stainless.  His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen.  In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give.

He needs no eulogy from me or from any other man.  He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy’s breast.  But when I think of his patience under adversity, of his courage under fire, and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words.  He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism.  He belongs to posterity as the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom.  He belongs to the present, to us, by his virtues and by his achievements.  In 20 campaigns, on a hundred battlefields, around a thousand campfires, I have witnessed that enduring fortitude, that patriotic self-abnegation, and that invincible determination which have carved his statue in the hearts of his people.  From one end of the world to the other he has drained deep the chalice of courage.

As I listened to those [old] songs, in memory’s eye I could see those staggering columns of the First World War, bending under soggy packs, on many a weary march from dripping dusk to drizzling dawn, slogging ankle-deep through the mire of shell-shocked roads, to form grimly for the attack, blue-lipped, covered with sludge and mud, chilled by the wind and rain, driving home to their objective, and for many, to the judgment seat of God.

I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I do know the glory of their death.  They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips the hope that we would go on to victory. Always, for them: Duty, Honor, Country; always their blood and sweat and tears, as we sought the way and the light and the truth.

And 20 years after, on the other side of the globe, again the filth of murky foxholes, the stench of ghostly trenches, the slime of dripping dugouts; those boiling suns of relentless heat, those torrential rains of devastating storms; the loneliness and utter desolation of jungle trails; the bitterness of long separation from those they loved and cherished; the deadly pestilence of tropical disease; the horror of stricken areas of war; their resolute and determined defense, their swift and sure attack, their indomitable purpose, their complete and decisive victory — always victory.  Always through the bloody haze of their last reverberating shot, the vision of gaunt, ghastly men reverently following your password: Duty, Honor, Country.

The code which those words perpetuate embraces the highest moral laws and will stand the test of any ethics or philosophies ever promulgated for the uplift of mankind.  Its requirements are for the things that are right, and its restraints are for the things that are wrong.

The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training — sacrifice.

In battle and in the face of danger and death, he discloses those divine attributes which his Maker gave when he created man in his own image.  No physical courage and no brute instinct can take the place of the Divine help which alone can sustain him.

However horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind.

You now face a new world — a world of change.  The thrust into outer space of the satellite, spheres, and missiles mark the beginning of another epoch in the long story of mankind. In the five or more billions of years, the scientists tell us it has taken to form the earth, in the three or more billion years of development of the human race, there has never been a more abrupt or staggering evolution.  We deal now not with things of this world alone, but with the illimitable distances and as yet unfathomed mysteries of the universe.  We are reaching out for a new and boundless frontier.

We speak in strange terms: of harnessing the cosmic energy; of making winds and tides work for us; of creating unheard synthetic materials to supplement or even replace our old standard basics; to purify seawater for our drink; of mining ocean floors for new fields of wealth and food; of disease preventatives to expand life into the hundreds of years; of controlling the weather for a more equitable distribution of heat and cold, of rain and shine; of space ships to the moon; of the primary target in war, no longer limited to the armed forces of an enemy, but instead to include his civil populations; of ultimate conflict between a united human race and the sinister forces of some other planetary galaxy; of such dreams and fantasies as to make life the most exciting of all time.

And through all this welter of change and development, your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable: it is to win our wars.

Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication.  All other public purposes, all other public projects, all other public needs, great or small, will find others for their accomplishment.  But you are the ones who are trained to fight.  Yours is the profession of arms, the will to win, the sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory; that if you lose, the nation will be destroyed; that the very obsession of your public service must be: Duty, Honor, Country.

Others will debate the controversial issues, national and international, which divide men’s minds; but serene, calm, aloof, you stand as the Nation’s war guardian, as its lifeguard from the raging tides of international conflict, as its gladiator in the arena of battle.  For a century and a half, you have defended, guarded, and protected its hallowed traditions of liberty and freedom, of right and justice.

Let civilian voices argue the merits or demerits of our processes of government; whether our strength is being sapped by deficit financing, indulged in too long, by federal paternalism grown too mighty, by power groups grown too arrogant, by politics grown too corrupt, by crime grown too rampant, by morals grown too low, by taxes grown too high, by extremists grown too violent; whether our personal liberties are as thorough and complete as they should be.  These great national problems are not for your professional participation or military solution.  Your guidepost stands out like a ten-fold beacon in the night: Duty, Honor, Country.

You are the leaven that binds together the entire fabric of our national system of defense.  From your ranks come the great captains who hold the nation’s destiny in their hands the moment the war tocsin sounds.  The Long Gray Line has never failed us.  Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country.

This does not mean that you are warmongers.

On the contrary, the soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

But always in our ears ring the ominous words of Plato, that wisest of all philosophers: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

The shadows are lengthening for me.  The twilight is here.  My days of old have vanished, tone and tint.  They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were.  Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears, and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday.  I listen vainly, but with thirsty ears, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll.  In my dreams, I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield.

But in the evening of my memory, always I come back to West Point.  Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.

Today marks my final roll call with you, but I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps.

I bid you farewell.

____________

These words, so eloquently delivered, must serve as our guide in determining the worthiness of our military leaders.  Duty, Honor, Country.  Even though we all recognize that civilian leadership must control the military, there is no obligation for any soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine to obey an illegal order or directive or any inherently inept order that could lead to a battlefield disaster.  No individual can fulfill his duty who does not have unshakeable integrity.  As officers and NCOs, our integrity demands that we place the good of our nation and those entrusted into our care ahead of personal comfort or advancement.  As General MacArthur said in 1951, our integrity will lead us to perform our duty as God gives us the light to see that duty.

There are consequences to performing one’s duty, of course.  One’s superiors may not agree with a leader’s decision — censure is always possible. Still, if we have relied upon our best judgment deciding, that is all anyone can ask of another.  Every leader must prepare to refuse an order, especially an illegal directive, particularly a foolish order.  “No, sir, I will not execute that order.  Here is my resignation.” If we do not have principled senior officers or our flag officers lack the moral courage to resist political pressure opposing a “proper” decision, then there is something substantially wrong with the process we employ in choosing our senior-most officers.  Every American military leader must realize that a bended knee is not one of our time-honored traditions.

India Three Four in Panama

Some Background

In the eighty or so years following independence from Spain, Panama was a province of Gran Colombia, a free association begun in 1821.  From that point onward, the people living in Panama made several dozen attempts to withdraw from their Colombian alliance, including the so-called Thousand Days War (1899-1902).  For the Panamanians, it was a struggle for land rights more than an issue of sovereignty.  Observing these machinations and with a growing interest in constructing a canal across the Isthmus, the United States under President Theodore Roosevelt began to engineer the separation of Panama from Colombia.

In November 1903, Panama declared its independence from Colombia.  To constrain Colombia from sending naval and ground forces to Panama, the United States re-introduced a Marine Corps presence in Panama under future commandant, Major John A. Lejeune.  Of course, this was not the Marines’ first deployment to Panama.  In 1856, Marines went to Panama to guarantee the security of American fortune hunters while en route to California via the Isthmus.

Given Roosevelt’s interest in constructing a canal, Major Lejeune realized that a Marine presence in Panama would continue.  So, with that foresight, Lejeune established a permanent barracks there in 1904.  Between 1904 and 1911, the principal mission of the Marine Corps was to safeguard the canal while under construction (and its workers/executive managers).  Marines established a permanent barracks at the US Navy’s submarine base at Coco Solo in 1923 — known simply as Marine Barracks (MB), Panama.  From that year forward, the size of the barracks expanded and contracted according to the needs of the Navy. 

In February 1945, the MB had 36 officers, three warrant officers, and 1,571 enlisted men at its peak strength.  The Marines also experienced several “re-designations” and relocations.  In 1943, Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC)  consolidated all Marines serving in Panama under the Marine Barracks, Fifteenth Naval District, Rodman, Canal Zone.  In 1987, HQMC renamed the barracks as Marine Corps Security Force Company (MCSFC), Panama.

Responsibility for the Canal Zone (CZ) security fell to the U. S. Army under the Commanding General, U. S. Army South (CG USASouth), headquartered in San Antonio, Texas.  USASouth became a subordinate command of the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), headquartered in Miami, Florida, as one of eleven unified combatant commands.  The mission assigned to the Marine Security Forces was in providing security for U. S. Navy installations in Panama.

Panama — US Relations

The agreement between Panama and the United States vis-à-vis the canal was that the United States would lease a twelve-mile swath of land across the Isthmus for 100 years, construct the channel, and control it as sovereign US territory during the period of the lease.  Over time, with technological advances in ship sizes, the canal proved no longer adequate for the largest naval and maritime vessels.  Within this period, relations between the US and Panama were not always amiable.  Marine battalion landing teams infrequently went to Panama as a show of force and a demonstration that the United States intended to exercise its control over canal zone operations, particularly during periods of political and civil unrest.[1]

By agreement between Panama and the US in 1977, complete control of the Panama Canal would shift to the Panamanians in 2000.  In 1981, however, General Omar Torrijos, then serving as “Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution,” the man who negotiated this treaty, died in a plane crash — which opened the door for General Manuel Antonio Noriega to succeed him as a revolutionary leader and de facto head of state in Panama.  During Noriega’s tenure, five men served as puppet heads of state to give Noriega’s dictatorship international credibility.

General Noriega consolidated his power in Panama by seizing control of the armed forces, renaming them as Panamanian Defense Forces.  By 1988, Noriega controlled the national police, the army and paramilitary organizations, the air forces, and the small naval force — in total (on paper), around 15,000 men.  In terms of combat troops, Noriega could field roughly 3,500 men organized as two light battalions in each of Panama’s thirteen military zones, ten independent companies, a cavalry squadron, and a handful of “special operations” forces.  Noriega’s air force consisted of 50 aircraft, and his navy operated twelve small vessels.  He also controlled 14 battalions of civilian laborers, the so-called Dignity Battalions, which consisted of unemployed workers shepherded by low-ranking officers and NCOs.

Manuel Noriega was a caudillo in the finest tradition of post-Spanish petty dictators.  He was arrogant, corrupt, dangerous, and stupid.  His arrogance led him to misjudge the United States’ continuing interest in the Canal Zone (CZ).  While the United States turned a blind eye to Noriega’s involvement in narcotics, Noriega’s time was fast running out.  In January 1988, two federal grand juries in Florida indicted Noriega on racketeering and drug trafficking charges.  Subsequently, puppet-President Eric Arturo Delvalle attempted to depose Noriega, but Noriega engineered Delvalle’s dismissal.  Civil disorder one more returned to Panama, with threats made to the lives and safety of American personnel and military installations.

The Culture War

As relations between the US and Panama deteriorated, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) issued a warning order to various military commands ordinarily responsible for the security of the canal zone.  Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, began updating their contingency plans for Panama.  With only one MCSFC in Panama, a platoon from the Marine Corps Security Force Battalion (at Norfolk, Virginia), known as a Fleet Anti-terrorist Security Team (FAST), was quickly dispatched to reinforce the Marines of MCSFC Panama. 

Of course, the FAST platoon was an inadequate measure, but the National Military Command Authority (NMCA) or JCS had yet to decide what to do about Noriega.  With so few men to provide security to naval installations, Major E. A. Keith, CO MCSFC Panama, had to prioritize his security concerns.  With the concurrence of the Commander, US Naval Forces (South), Keith identified the fuel storage facility, known as the Arraijan Tank Farm (ATF), as his first security concern. 

The ATF is located within two square kilometers of rolling grassland, surrounded by dense jungle,[2] which provided excellent avenues of approach should Noriega’s PDF attempt to seize the ATF or threaten the adjacent Howard Air Force Base.[3]  Major Keith did not have a sufficient number of men to maintain a formal defense perimeter around the ATF, so his only recourse was to employ irregular area security patrols.

Patrol leaders almost immediately reported the presence of PDF forces dressed in black field uniforms using night vision goggles (NVGs) and evidence of recently prepared foxholes in the jungle areas surrounding the ATF.  When Marines reported this intelligence up the chain of command, US Army South dismissed it out-of-hand, claiming that US troops prepared the fighting holes during recent training exercises.  US Army South also emphatically denied that Noriega’s PDF had any NGVs.  Subsequently, however, Navy intelligence officers learned that the Army had not conducted any training exercises adjacent to the ATF for several years; moreover, that the Army had (in fact) transferred NGVs to the PDF.

Despite the Army’s lack of interest in further reinforcing the MCSFC, the navy requested that the Marine Corps ready a combat brigade for possible deployment to the Canal Zone.  Accordingly, the 6th Marine Brigade (6thMEB) was issued a warning order.  In developing his operation plan, the Brigade Commander suggested an “all or nothing” approach.  Either the Brigade deployed as a fully functional combat brigade (two battalion landing teams, two combat aircraft squadrons) or not at all.

Even as the JCS fretted about a proper response to deteriorating conditions in Panama, 6thMEB received a “stand up” order on 31 March 1988.  While this was going on, the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic (CG FMFLant) ordered an advance combat element to proceed to Panama to reinforce the MCSFC.  The Marines viewed this advanced element as a nucleus for a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) around which a brigade might later form, although one without any air support.

Why was there no aviation support for the Marines?  Given the amount of Army and Air Force assets stationed at Howard Air Force Base, COMUSSOUTHCOM did not see a need for additional Marine Corps combat aircraft.  SOUTHCOM didn’t see a need for any Marines at all, but at that stage, the employment of Marines wasn’t up to SOUTHCOM if their mission was to reinforce security for naval installations.

The unit assigned as the brigade’s advance element was Company I, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines (India 3/4), under the command of Captain Joseph P. Valore.  Upon arrival in Panama on 6 April, Valore reported to Rear Admiral Jerry G. Gnecknow, Commander, Naval Forces, Southern Command.  Colonel William J. Conley, who served as brigade chief of staff, accompanied Captain Valore to Panama.  As part of the advance team, Conley’s mission was to arrange logistical support for the brigade, should it actually deploy.  Admiral Gnecknow assigned Colonel Conley as Senior Marine Officer, Naval Forces, Panama, when the brigade’s deployment did not appear likely.

The selection of India 3/4 (Reinforced) to serve as the brigade’s advance element was that the brigade earmarked its parent battalion as one of the brigade’s battalion landing teams and because the company, who at the time was the 2nd Marine Divisions air alert/rapid response team, had completed extensive pre-deployment training.  The 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines reinforced India Company with an 81mm mortar section, a Sensor Control and Management Platoon (SCAMP), a counterintelligence team, and a squad of combat engineers.  Colonel Conley assigned responsibility for securing the ATF  to Captain Valore, who embraced Major Keith’s aggressive patrolling strategy.  Suddenly, on 9 April, operational control of India Company passed from Admiral Gnecknow to the Commander, Joint Task Force (JTF), Panama — who also served as Commander, U. S. Army South.

At the time of his deployment, Captain Valore felt obligated to address two issues affecting his company’s performance in Panama.  The first was a standing policy decision that precluded armed Marines from chambering a round in their weapons until fired upon, and the second involved rules of engagement.  Captain Valore correctly believed that sending Marines into harm’s way with unchambered weapons was foolish; indeed, it is.  He raised this issue with Colonel Conley, who agreed with Valore and authorized the Marines to patrol with chambered weapons.  As to the rules of engagement, Conley allowed Valore’s Marines to “return fire if fired upon.”

What made these two issues “hot button” topics was the 1983 Beirut bombing incident.  Because of the restricted weapons policy, Marine sentries were unable to stop the bomb-laden truck that drove through the security perimeter and kill 241 American servicemen.  As to the rules of engagement, no one fired on the Marines standing guard that day — the terrorist simply drove through the perimeter at a high rate of speed.  Thus, Conley’s cautionary instruction, to “return fire if fired upon,” was woefully inadequate.  There are occasions when initiating hostile action is unquestionably appropriate.

But COMJTFPANAMA/COMUSARMYSOUTH had a different perspective.  He did not want Marines firing on Panamanians.  The mission, he argued, was to safeguard American interests in Panama, not make the deteriorating political condition worse.  In his view, the Marines — by their very presence — were making matters worse by their aggressive behavior.  At this point, one may wonder, what would be the purpose of arming military personnel to guard US installations if the men charged with executing that mission weren’t taking their responsibilities seriously?

This particular kerfuffle leads one to consider the cultural differences between the U. S. Army and the United States Marines.  There is a unique and very distinctive Marine Corps culture that sets the Marines apart from every other branch of service.  First, Marines never lose sight of their primary mission: winning battles.  Locating, closing with, and destroying the enemy is at the forefront of every Marine Corps mission.  It is the only reason Marines exist.  Second, a bended knee and/or erring on the side of caution in a kinder-gentler world is not a Marine Corps tradition.  Marines are warriors — it is their ethos.  There is something very different going on inside the heads of (too many) senior army officers.

So, while senior Army officers berated the Marines for doing what they’re best at, senior Marine Corps officers remained adamant: they would not employ a lethal combat company and then tie its hands by ridiculously simple-minded restrictions. 

Moreover, in 1988, a bolstered Marine presence in Panama resulted from the PDF’s aggressiveness, not the cause of it.  It may be true that army personnel in Panama were serving a fantasy tour, accompanied by their families, enjoying an exotic and leisurely lifestyle, but that wasn’t what India Company was doing in Panama.  India Company arrived in Panama in combat mode.

A test of each of the preceding presumptions transpired during the night of 10-11 April.  Soon after the arrival of India Company, unknown intruders began probing Marine positions at the ATF.  Early in the morning of 11 April, a Marine patrol operating in the northeast sector contacted an unknown number of intruders.  The patrol leader, Corporal Ricardo Villahermosa, determined to apprehend these unknown trespassers.  To accomplish that, Villahermosa split his force, intending to envelop them.  The jungle was pitch black, and the only sound was an occasional snap of vegetation, which suggested human movement.  A short time later, a flare accidentally “popped,” emulating the sound of the discharge of a weapon, and then ignited.  Marines from the split force opened fire, and Corporal Villahermosa was mortally wounded.  It was a frightful accident — but one that prompted a renewal of the ‘weapons ready’ debate.

Major General Bernard Loeffke,[4] U. S. Army, CG USASouth, also serving as JTF commander, critically challenged the Marines at a meeting on 12 April.  Major Alfred F. Clarkson, the operations officer of the MEB’s advance element, rigorously defended the “weapons ready” policy, informing General Loeffke in no uncertain terms that the Marine chain of command would not deny the use of weapons to their troops.  Doing otherwise, he said, was morally indefensible.  Colonel Conley concurred and made certain that Loeffke’s concerns did not impede Marine combat operations.

Shortly after nightfall on 12 April, remote battlefield sensors alerted Valore’s Marines that approximately 40 unknown persons were approaching the ATF perimeter.  SCAMP Marines confirmed the presence of these unknown persons, and a USAF AC-130 gunship provided the third verification.  Captain Valore immediately consolidated his force in the center of the ATF.  Soon after that, Marines received and returned fire into the line of tracers aimed at them from this unknown force.

To the west of the company, a SCAMP detachment reported another probe.  The detachment NCOIC, Sergeant Michael A. Cooper, requested illumination, revealing well-armed hostiles were moving toward his position.  Captain Valore approved Cooper’s request for a mortar fire mission, and sixteen HE rounds were dropped on the approaching hostile force.  Valore also authorized Cooper to return fire.  As Cooper engaged the hostiles, an additional force assaulted Valore’s company.  The Marines returned fire with an M19 chain gun that spits out 220 rounds of 40mm grenades, and the enemy withdrew.

At around 2200, General Loeffke arrived at Valore’s position in civilian attire, demanding to know what had transpired.  After Captain Valore briefed Loeffke, the general ordered him to cease fire and not re-engage unless first fired upon.  Loeffke also ordered the Marines to remain in place and allow the intruders to withdraw from the area.  Loeffke assured Valore that he had contacted the PDF command structure, who assured him that there were no Panamanian forces in the area.

In compliance with Loeffke’s order, Valore moved the SCAMP detachment back from the perimeter.  Through the use of NVGs, Valore witnessed several intruders administering first aid and evacuating casualties from the jungle.  Marines from the MCSFC, who had established a roadblock on the Pan American highway and observed the PDFs evacuation of dead and wounded, confirmed Captain Valore’s after-action report.

In the aftermath of this incident, Valore and his Marines were set upon by a bevy of Naval Investigative Service (NIS) and Army Intelligence Service (AIS) agents.  The repetitious questioning lasted several days.  Additionally, Loeffke ordered Valore and his Marines to submit to urinalysis testing — all of which were negative.

More than anything else, Major General Loeffke and his JTF Staff wanted to discredit Captain Valore, India Company Marines, and the U. S. Marine Corps.  Loeffke publicly stated that the Marines had fired at ghosts and shadows.  General Noriega and the anti-American Panamanian press exploited this opportunity and began planting stories about drug abuse among the Marines.  For their part, the Marine hierarchy closed ranks around Captain Valore and his Marines.  Colonel Conley rejected Loeffke’s and Noriega’s nonsense and may have even confided some concern about Loeffke’s loyalty to his superiors.

Undeterred, Loeffke replaced India 3/4 at the ATF with an Army battalion[5].  On 14 April 1988, Army sentries guarding the ammunition supply point came under fire from an unknown size of PDF forces.  The same night, an Army patrol of the 7th Special Forces Group operating west of Howard AFB came under fire.  It, therefore, became apparent to everyone (except General Loeffke) that the Marines did not imagine the PDF assault at the ATF.  In retrospect, the Marines developed the appropriate response to PDF aggression, and Loeffke’s general incompetence as a field commander countermanded it.[6]

Over the next several months, the PDF continued to initiate aggressive actions against US forces in Panama, but nothing on the scale of the firefight in April 1988, which suggested that Captain Valore’s response had the desired effect on PDF activities.  Between April and December 1988, the US decided on diplomatic maneuvers rather than military. 

This period of calm allowed the Marines to undergo additional jungle training and exercise command and control systems, particularly between the Army and Marines.  COMUSSOUTHCOM formally appointed Colonel Conley as commander overall Marine forces in Panama and Army units temporarily attached to the Marines for training.  Under Conley’s direction, Marine intelligence assets began to revise contingency plans based on needed updates to the “enemy situation” in Panama.

In mid-May 1988, India 3/4 went back on the line for another two weeks.  In addition to regular patrolling (day and night), the Marines improved their hardened observation and listening posts surrounding the tank farm and ammo depot and rehearsed rapid reaction operations.  Operations Purple Storm and Purple Blitz were joint-service exercises designed to improve command and control procedures between Marine and Army units and combat casualty evacuations.  Army and Air Force dog teams joined the Marines during their security patrols.  Army specialists installed a loudspeaker system designed to inform intruders that they were on US government property.  Air Force C-130 gunships flew nightly missions in support of the Marines.

Lima Company 3/4 relieved India 3/4 in June 1988.

Sources:

  1. Crandall, R.  Gunboat Democracy: US interventions in the Dominican Republic, Granada, and Panama.  Rowman & Littlefield Publications, 2006.
  2. Donnelly, T.  Operation Just Cause: The storming of Panama.  Lexington Books, 1991.
  3. Reynolds, N. E.  Just Cause: Marine Operations in Panama 1988-1990.  History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1996.
  4. Yates, L. A.  The US Military Intervention in Panama: Origins, Planning, and Crisis Management, June 1987-December 1989.  Army Center of Military History, 2008.

Endnotes:

[1] On 9 January 1964, grievances between native Panamanians and the “Zonians” (Americans living within the US-controlled Canal Zone) boiled over into a series of anti-American riots that resulted in an evacuation of the US Embassy in Panama City, assaults on US citizens — including the lynching of several US Army personnel — widespread looting and substantial damage to US-owned property.  The United States responded to this unrest by dispatching the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (BLT 2/8) to Panama to protect American lives and property.  At the time, I had the privilege of serving as a rifleman in Company E (Captain William R. Wildpret, commanding).  Echo Company was assigned responsibility for the security of the naval base at Coco Solo.

[2] The density of the jungle limited Marine patrols to about 500 yards over two hours.

[3] At this time, security for Howard Air Force Base was not a Marine Corps responsibility.

[4] USMA graduate in 1957, Loeffke has a degree in engineering, an MA in Russian language and Soviet Era studies, and a PhD in international relations.  He is a combat decorated officer, served as the Army Attaché with the US Embassy in Moscow, served on the White House staff, served as the Defense Attaché with the US Embassy in China, befriended Chinese general Xu Xin, is fluent in Chinese, and is a self-professed expert on Sino-American affairs.  After leaving the Army in 1992, Loeffke earned a medical degree and served as a physician in Bosnia, Haiti, Kenya, Iraq, Niger, and Darfur.  According to Loeffke, China is not the United States’ enemy.  While instructing at the USMA, Loeffke urged his students to increase their understanding of the Chinese and Russians as they are just like us.

[5] It normally takes an army regiment to replace a Marine rifle company.

[6] Documents uncovered after the December 1989 invasion of Panama confirmed the PDF assault on the Marines at the ATF.  Analysts subsequently concluded that the ATF was not the focus of the PDF, but rather the Marines themselves, as perpetrated by Noriega’s 7th Rifle Company, also known as Macho de Monte, one of Noriega’s few elite units, possibly reinforced by a few members of the Special Anti-terrorist Security Unit, and that they were likely augmented by several Cuban military advisors.


Operation Buffalo

July 1967

Some Background

As summarized in McNamara’s Folly, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara threw a costly wrench into the contest for control of the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ).  His inane plan not only escalated the material costs of fighting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), but it also dramatically increased the number of Marines, soldiers, and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops who were killed and wounded while building it.[1]

Not a single Marine commander favored the so-called McNamara Line in I CTZ.  Shaking his head in disgust, one Marine officer said, “With these bastards, you’d have to build the [wall] all the way to India and it would take the entire Marine Corps and half the Army to guard it — and even then, they’d probably burrow under it.”  Even the Commandant of the Marine Corps, in his testimony before Congress, rigorously opposed the McNamara Line.

The Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) assigned overall operational responsibility for I CTZ to the Third Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).  In land area, I CTZ involved roughly 18,000 square miles.   III MAF included the 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv), 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv), 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW), 3rd Force Logistics Command (3rdFLC), Provisional Corps, Vietnam, 1st Cavalry Division, 101st Airborne Division, Americal Division, Sub Unit 1, First Radio Battalion, 29th Civil Affairs Company, 7th Psychological Operations Battalion, and several ARVN and Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC) commands.

The McNamara Line placed US Forces in I CTZ in a dangerous position because in order to construct the barrier, III MAF had to divert Marines away from their combat assignments to build it.  With the 1stMarDiv operating near Chu Lai, in Quang Nam Province (65 miles south of Da Nang), responsibility for northern I Corps (abutting the demilitarized zone (DMZ)) fell to the 3rdMarDiv.  Despite the fact that the 3rdMarDiv was the largest Marine division ever formed in the history of the Marine Corps, it still didn’t have the men it needed to defend northern I Corps.

The task of building the McNamara Line fell upon Navy and Marine Corps combat engineers; Marine infantrymen provided much of the manual labor, and 3rdMarDiv regiments and separate battalions had to provide protection to those who labored in its construction.  Beside the already complicated matter of building the line, COMUSMACV wanted to project completed “yesterday.”

NVA commanders watched the construction activities with keen interest, no doubt asking themselves how the NVA could use the McNamara disruption to their advantage.  At the beginning of July 1967, the NVA had 35,000 troops assembled just north of the DMZ.  Their intention was to swarm across the Marine outpost at Con Thien, overwhelm US forces operating in Leatherneck Square,[2] and invade en mass all of Quang Tri Province.

Con Thien (The Hill of Angels) was important to the Marines because the location was situated high enough in elevation to provide an excellent observation post over one of the primary NVA routes into South Vietnam.  Moreover, anyone standing atop the 160-meter hill at Con Thien looking southeast could observe the entire forward logistics base at Dong Ha.

Operation Buffalo

The NVA (supported by heavy artillery and mortar fire) made two thrusts at Con Thien.   The first (and largest) of these attacks specifically targeted the Marine position at Hill 160.  Operation Buffalo commenced on 2 July.  Lieutenant Colonel Richard J. “Spike” Schening deployed his 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9) in and around Con Thien.  Alpha Company and Bravo Company operated north-northeast of a strong point along Route 561, Delta Company and H&S Company occupied the battalion’s perimeter, and Charlie Company was detached to provide security for HQ 9th Marines at Dong Ha.

According to the 9th Marine’s commander, Colonel George E. Jerue, “The TAOR assigned to the 9th Marines was so large that the regiment did not have the option of conducting security patrols on a regular basis.  The NVA, realizing these limitations, would withdraw from the area until after a patrol had completed its mission, and then re-infiltrate the area just cleared.”  It was for this reason that Alpha and Bravo companies were sent to control Route 561.

On the morning of 2 July, Captain Sterling K. Coates led his Bravo Company into its heaviest engagement of the Vietnam War.  Bravo Company and Captain Albert C. Slater’s Alpha Company moved abreast in a northward direction along Route 561.  Both companies stepped off at 08:00.  Alpha Company was on the right.  Route 561 was a ten-foot-wide cart path bordered by waist-high hedgerows.  Unknown to either Coates or Slater, two NVA infantry battalions were waiting for them behind well-prepared fighting positions.  The next few hours would transform the Hill of Angels into a meat grinder.

Within an hour, 2nd Platoon (2ndPlt) Bravo Company achieved its first objective, a small crossroad some 1,200 meters north of the trace.  Enemy snipers began taking 3rdPlt and the company command element under fire as soon as they reached the crossroad.  As Captain Coates shifted the 3rdPlt to suppress the enemy fire, the NVA intensified its delivery.  Coates halted the 3rdPlt’s advance and directed 2ndPlt to shift right in an attempt to outflank the enemy’s position.  At the same time, Captain Coates ordered 1stPlt to move forward for rear area security and/or reinforcement if required.  NVA fire halted 2ndPlt’s advance.  Within a few moments, Bravo Company began receiving heavy small arms fire from the front and both flanks.  With the Marines halted and assuming a defense, the NVA began to deliver artillery and mortar fire.

Alpha Company Marines tripped two booby traps, injuring several Marines.  The company advance was halted while Captain Slater called for a medevac.  Once the wounded Marines had been evacuated, Slater moved forward in an attempt to link up with Coates but was prevented from doing so by heavy enemy fire.

Bravo Company casualties were mounting by the second — its position rapidly deteriorating as the NVA successfully cut 3rdPlt and the command element from 2ndPlt.  With the Marines under heavy fire, enemy soldiers armed with flame weapons ignited the hedgerows on both sides of the road.  2ndPlt launched an assault to help 3rdPlt, but enemy artillery and mortar fire increased.  With a grass fire threatening to overwhelm them, Marines withdrew only to enter into a killing zone of NVA machine guns.

Enemy artillery killed Captain Coates, his radio operator, two platoon commanders, and the company artillery forward observer.  The Forward Air Controller, Captain Warren O. Keneipp, assumed command of Bravo Company, but without a radio operator, Captain Keneipp lost contact with 2ndPlt and had no control over subsequent events (please see comment below).  The company executive officer (XO) (2nd in command) was with 2ndPlt; his radio was the only source of comms with the battalion command post (CP), but cut off from the rest of the company, the XO was in no position to influence the action.

Staff Sergeant Leon R. Burns commanded 1stPlt.  He led the platoon forward to reinforce 2ndPlt and 3rdPlt, but enemy assaults hindered his advance.  Burns called in air strikes and specifically asked for napalm.  The strike delivered the much-needed munitions within twenty meters of the 1stPlt’s position.  After the airstrike, the enemy assault faltered, which allowed Burns to move forward and incorporate what remained of the 2ndPlt.  After placing his Marines into a hasty defense, the company’s Navy Corpsmen began treating their wounded Marines.

Upon learning that Alpha and Bravo companies had run into a hornet’s nest, and the Bravo Company commander had been killed, Colonel Schening dispatched Captain Henry J. Radcliffe (the Battalion Operations Officer) to take command of Bravo Company.  Radcliffe led forward an additional rifle platoon from Delta Company and four tanks.  First Lieutenant Gatlin J. Howell (the Battalion Intelligence Officer) accompanied Radcliffe because his familiarity with the terrain surrounding Con Thien.

Radcliffe’s arrival at the point of contact was timely because his relief platoon foiled an NVA attempt to encircle Bravo Company.  As the tanks and helicopter gunships dispersed the NVA, Delta Company moved forward with its two remaining rifle platoons.  Radcliffe directed the Delta Company commander to secure a landing zone.  Within minutes, Charlie Company began to arrive by helicopter from Dong Ha.

With additional support from Charlie and Delta companies, Radcliffe continued his assault.  When Captain Radcliffe made contact with Staff Sergeant Burns, he asked, “Where is the rest of Bravo Company?”  Burns answered, “Sir, you’re looking at all that’s left of Bravo Company.”

With Burns supervising the evacuation of wounded and dead Marines, Radcliffe continued forward to Bravo Company’s furthest advance.  At that point, Radcliffe established defensive positions and began attending to the 3rdPlt’s dead and wounded.  Lieutenant Howell, who had previously commanded 3rdPlt, quickly searched for Marines and helped move them back to the corpsman for triage.  At that moment, the enemy re-initiated artillery fire and the company’s withdrawal was made more difficult when two of the supporting tanks triggered landmines.

Radcliffe shepherded the casualties into the landing zone for medevac.  While waiting for the airlift, NVA dropped mortars into the LZ, inflicting even more casualties on the medical corpsmen and litter bearers.  By this time, the fog of war had completely descended upon 1/9’s forward elements.  With officers and senior NCOs killed and wounded, corporals took charge.  The NVA’s artillery assault on the landing zone precluded additional helicopter support, so ambulatory Marines began carrying their wounded brothers back to Con Thien.

Throughout the battle, Marine and naval gunfire engaged the enemy in a furious duel.  During that day, Schening’s CP received over 700 enemy artillery rounds.  Marine aircraft flew 28 sorties, dropping 90 tons of munitions on the well-fortified enemy positions.

Meanwhile, Captain Slater’s Alpha Company remained heavily engaged.  The number of Marine casualties brought the company to a standstill, prompting Slater to order his 3rdPlt to establish a hasty landing zone defense in the company rear area.  After the first flight of evac helicopters departed the zone, NVA hit the 3rdPlt with mortar fire and a ground assault.  Slater moved his 2ndPlt and command group to reinforce the 3rdPlt.  The NVA moved to within 50 meters of the company line before Marine fire broke the attack, but owing to the number of their casualties, Alpha Company was relegated to a defensive position until the NVA force withdrew later that evening.

As Colonel Schening moved his CP forward, he sent his XO, Major Darrell C. Danielson, ahead with additional reinforcements and transport to help evacuate the casualties.  When Danielson contacted the fifty remaining Marines, he organized a medical evaluation and called for medevacs.  Several Marines were bleeding out, everyone appeared to be in a state of shock.  Despite on-going enemy artillery and mortar fire, Danielson managed to extricate Alpha and Bravo companies back to Con Thien.

Colonel Schening reported his situation to the Colonel Jerue, the regimental commander: situation critical.  Jerue ordered Major Willard J. Woodring, commanding 3/9, to reinforce Schening[3].  Upon arrival, Schening directed Woodring to assume operational control of Alpha and Charlie companies (1/9).  Major Woodring directed a five-company assault on the enemy flanks while what remained of Bravo and the LZ security platoon from Delta company withdrew into Con Thien.  Woodring’s aggressive assault caused the NVA units to withdraw.  Later in the day, Staff Sergeant Burns[4] reported only 27 combat effectives remained in Bravo Company.  In total, 1/9 had lost 84 killed in action, 190 wounded, and 9 missing.  Of enemy casualties, no precise number exists.[5]

Enemy contact continued for the next three days.  At 09:00 on 3 July, an Air Force aerial observer reported several hundred NVA soldiers advancing on Marine positions north of Con Thien.  Echo Battery 3/12 dropped a massive number of rounds on the NVA position killing an estimated 75 communists.  To the east, Major Woodring called in artillery strikes for twelve hours in preparation for an assault scheduled for 4 July.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter A. Wickwire’s BLT 1/3 (Special Landing Force Alpha) reinforced the 9th Marines and tied in with Woodring’s right flank.[6]  Colonel George E. Jerue, commanding the 9th Marines, planned his assault to push the NVA out of the Long Son area, some 4,000 meters north of Con Thien.  Woodring began his assault at around 0630, encountering heavy resistance from well-concealed enemy positions southwest of Bravo Company’s engagement on 2 July.  A prolonged battle involving tanks, artillery, and close air support ensued for most of the day.  At 18:30, when Woodring halted his advance, 3/9 had lost 15 dead and 33 wounded.  Wickwire’s 1/3 had lost 11 wounded in the same action.

BLT 2/3 (SLF Bravo) under Major Wendell O. Beard’s BLT 2/3 effected an air assault at Cam Lo, joining Operation Buffalo at mid-afternoon on 4 July.[7]  This battalion moved west and then northward toward the western edge of the battle area toward Con Thien.

At daylight on 5 July, NVA artillery began firing on Marine units located northeast of Con Thien but kept its ground units away from the Marines as they advanced.  Meanwhile, search and recovery teams had begun the grim task of retrieving Bravo Company’s dead.

On 6 July, all battalions continued moving north.  Beard’s 2/3 ran into an enemy force supported by mortars less than two miles south of Con Thien.  Within an hour, 2/3 killed 35 NVA, while suffering 5 killed and 25 wounded.  Major Woodring and Colonel Wickwire advanced their battalions under intermittent artillery fire.  At around 09:00, Woodring decided to send a reinforced rifle company 1,500 meters to the north-northwest to cover his left flank.  Captain Slater’s Alpha Company, which now included the survivors of Charlie Company and a detachment from 3rd Recon Battalion, moved into position without enemy resistance and established a strong combat outpost.

Slater’s movement went unnoticed, but that wasn’t the case with the main elements of Woodring’s and Wickwire’s battalions.  Both units encountered heavy artillery fire.  By 16:00, neither of the battalions could go any further.  Wickwire had lost a tank but due to concentrated enemy artillery fire, was forced to pull back without recovering it.  Captain Burrell H. Landes, commanding Bravo Company 1/3, received a report from an aerial observer that 400 or more NVA were heading directly to confront Woodring and Wickwire.  A short time later, accurate NVA artillery fire began blasting the Marines.  As Woodring and Wickwire prepared to meet the approaching NVA under the enemy’s artillery assault, Captain Slater’s recon patrol reported that the approaching NVA was heading directly into Alpha Company’s position.

The NVA force was unaware of Slater’s blocking position until they were within 500 feet, at which time Slater’s Marines engaged the NVA.  Since the NVA didn’t know where the Marine’s fire was coming from, they scattered in every direction, some of them running directly into the Marine line.  Once the enemy had figured out where Slater’s Marines were positioned, they organized an assault.  The Marine lines held, however.  At one point, NVA troops began lobbing grenades into the Marine position.  Lance Corporal James L. Stuckey began picking the grenades up and tossing them back.  Stucky lost his right hand on the third toss when the grenade exploded as it left his hand.[8]  Stuckey remained with his fireteam throughout the night without any medical assistance.

While the Alpha Company fight was underway, elements of the 90th NVA Regiments attacked Woodring’s and Wickwire’s Marine with blocks of TNT.  Marines called in air support, artillery, and naval gunfire.  By 21:30, the Marines had repelled the enemy assault and caused the NVA regiment to withdraw.  At around 22:00, Woodring radioed Slater to return to the battalion perimeter at first light.

Alpha Company mustered before daylight on 7 July.  As the sun began to light the sky, Slater’s Marines discovered 154 dead NVA just beyond the Marine perimeter.  About an hour later, after Slater had returned to Woodring’s lines, the NVA unleashed a terrible barrage on Slater’s old position.  In front of Woodring and Wickwire’s battalion lay an additional 800 dead communists.  Later that morning, however, an NVA artillery shell found its way to 1/9’s command bunker, killing eleven Marines, including First Lieutenant Gatlin J. Howell,[9] who had gone to the aid of Bravo Company on 2 July.  Lieutenant Colonel Schening was wounded in the same incident.[10]

Operation Buffalo ended on 14 July.  Marines reported enemy losses at 1,290 dead, two captured.  Total Marine losses were 159 killed, 345 wounded.  The NVA attack at Con Thien was relatively short in duration but particularly vicious and the communists paid a heavy price.  Since the enemy dead were so horribly chewed up from air, artillery, and naval gunfire, the Marines were forced into counting the NVA solder’s water canteens for a sense of enemy dead.

Sources:

  1. Telfer, G. L. and Lane Rogers.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese, 1967.  Washington: Headquarters U. S. Marine Corps, 1984.
  2. Bowman, J. S.  The Vietnam War: Day by Day.  New York: Mallard Books, 1989.
  3. Nolan, K. W.  Operation Buffalo: USMC Fight for the DMZ.  Dell Publishing, 1992.

Endnotes:

[1] In this context, Robert McNamara was a war criminal.

[2] Located south of the DMZ, Leatherneck Square was a TAOR extending six miles (east-west) by nine miles (north-south); it’s corners were measured from Con Thien (northwest) to Firebase Gio Linh (northeast), and from Dong Ha to Cam Lo on its southern axis (an area of more than 54 square miles).  Between March 1967 to February 1969, 1,500 Marines and Navy Corpsmen were killed in this area, with an additional 9,265 wounded in action. 

[3] Awarded Silver Star Medal for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action between 2 July – 9 July 1967.  Colonel Woodring passed away in 2003.

[4] Awarded Navy Cross for this action.

[5] After 14 July, estimates of enemy KIA ranged from 525 to 1,200.

[6] Colonel Wickwire was awarded the Silver Star Medal for conspicuous gallantry for service on 6 July 1967.

[7] Retired Lieutenant Colonel Wendell Otis “Moose” Beard, a former NFL football player with the Washington Redskins, served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam Wars.  He was the recipient of the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart Medal.  He passed away in 1980. 

[8] Awarded Navy Cross Medal.

[9] First Lieutenant Howell was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his actions on 2 July 1967.

[10] Colonel Schening was also wounded at Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and during the Korean War.  This was his fourth Purple Heart Medal.  He was awarded the Silver Star Medal for service during the Korean War while serving as XO, Company C, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.  Colonel Schening passed away in 1996.