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.


Special Landing force

America’s flashing sword

Background

Late in October 1914, two Ottoman warships (operating under the command of German officers) conducted a raid in the Black Sea.  They bombarded the Ukrainian port of Odessa and sank several ships.  Two days later, the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany against Russia.  Before the end of the year, the central powers had badly mauled British and French forces on the Western Front and effectively cut off overland trade routes by blockading the entrance to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles and cutting Russia off from resupply.

Winston Churchill, 1914

Although the idea to attack the Ottoman Empire originally came from French Minister Aristide Briand, the United Kingdom defeated the motion because the British hoped to convince the Turks to join the Allied effort.  Later, however, First Sea Lord Winston Churchill (who was then 41-years old) proposed a naval campaign to attack the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli, a peninsula located in the southern portion of  East Thrace, east of the Aegean Sea and west of the Dardanelles.  Churchill’s plan intended to threaten Constantinople, protect the Suez Canal, and open up a warm-water supply route through the Black Sea.

All good plans fall apart sooner or later.  In this case, the First Sea Lord didn’t know much about military operations beyond the small unit level and virtually nothing about naval warfare.  Consequently, the intelligence used to formulate the Gallipoli campaign was flawed.  After eight months of fighting, each side lost a quarter of a million men.  It was a resounding defeat for the Entente Powers, Turkey gained international prestige, and Churchill nearly lost his political career.  However, the operation did help propel the Turks toward their war of independence eight years later and prompted Australia and New Zealand to reconsider their relationship with the British Empire.

Following the First World War, the Gallipoli campaign led many military theorists to conclude that amphibious warfare was folly.  These experts decided that given the weapons of modern warfare, there was no way that a seaborne organization could force its way ashore and defeat a well-entrenched enemy.  It was not a belief shared by intellectuals in the United States Navy and Marine Corps, who began a protracted study of amphibious warfare capability in the 1920s.  They became convinced that successful amphibious operations were possible and set about discovering how to do it.

Between 1921 and 1939, Navy-Marine Corps war planners created the capabilities necessary for success in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II.  Through innovative thinking, trial, and error, the work accomplished by Navy and Marine Corps officers allowed the allied powers to project military power across vast oceans, wrest the continent of Europe away from the Axis powers, and seize Pacific bases on the long road to Japan.  Not only did the Navy-Marine Corps develop Amphibious Warfare Doctrine, but they also taught it to the armies of the United States and Great Britain for use in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the invasion of the Atlantic.

Since then, the Navy and Marine Corps have continually evaluated and improved US amphibious doctrine.  Today, naval operations include pre-positioned logistics ships, carrier-borne close air support of amphibious forces, and vertical lift assault capabilities.  These competencies are what makes the Navy-Marine Corps team relevant to America’s national defense — even despite the ridiculous assertion of General of the Army Omar Bradley, who while serving as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1949 said, “I predict that large scale amphibious operations will never occur again.”  He could not have been more wrong.  General Bradley was apparently unaware of the observation by Karl von Clausewitz in 1832: “A swift and vigorous transition to attack — the flashing sword of vengeance — is the most brilliant point of the defense.”  Modern naval warfare capability is America’s flashing sword.  The only question is whether political leaders have the will to employ it in the nation’s defense.

Organizational Overview

The Navy and Marine Corps meet the challenges of a wide range of contingencies through task force organization.  All naval task forces are mission-centered, which is to say that both the Navy and Marine Corps organize their combat units for one or more specific missions.  All Marine Corps combat units are capable of becoming part of an air-ground task force, referred to as MAGTF, which consists of a ground combat element (GCE), air combat element (ACE), and a combat logistics element (CLE).

MAGTFs are organized under a single commander and structured to accomplish one or more specific missions.  According to official Marine Corps doctrine, “A Marine air-ground task force with separate air-ground headquarters is normally formed for combat operations and training exercises in which substantial combat forces of both Marine aviation and Marine ground units are part of the task organization of participating Marine forces.”

The basic organization of a MAGTF is the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) — generally organized as follows:

  • The MEU command element (CE) includes a colonel (commanding officer) supported by a regular staff: S-1 (Manpower), S-2 (Intelligence), S-3 (Operations/Training), S-4 (Logistics), S-6 (Communications), naval gunfire liaison, and other special staff personnel.  The MEU CE includes about 200 Marines and sailors.
  • The GCE is a reinforced infantry battalion called a battalion landing team (BLT), commanded by a lieutenant colonel.  A BLT is a reinforced battalion consisting of three rifle companies, a weapons company, and a headquarters and service company.  Depending on the MEU’s mission, reinforcements may include an artillery battery, armored vehicle platoons, reconnaissance platoons, attached U. S. Navy field corpsmen, and a detachment of combat engineers.  All members of the BLT are trained to conduct seaborne operations in several landing craft variants and tiltrotor vertical assault operations.  A BLT will contain between 950-1,200 Marines.
  • The ACE is usually a composite air squadron (reinforced) commanded by a lieutenant colonel.  The ACE includes a medium tiltrotor squadron augmented by detachments of heavy, light, and attack helicopters, one detachment of amphibious flight deck capable jet aircraft, and a Marine air control group detachment with tactical air, traffic control, direct air support, and anti-aircraft defense assets.  The ACE also includes headquarters, communications, and logistical support personnel.  The number of personnel in a typical MEU ACE is around 600 troops.
  • The CLE is Combat Logistics Battalion.  A major or lieutenant colonel commands the CLB, responsible for providing service support, intermediate maintenance, intermediate supply, transportation, explosive ordnance technology, utilities, and bulk fuel.  The CLB consists of approximately 400-500 Marines.

The size of a MAGTF may expand if its mission increases in scope.  A more extensive operation may demand a larger MAGTF organization, such as a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB).  The MEB consists of a regimental combat team (RCT), a composite Marine Aircraft Group, and a Combat Logistics Regiment.  The officer commanding an MEB is usually a brigadier general.  The MEB can function as part of a joint task force, as the lead element of a Marine Expeditionary Force, or alone.

Any mission that exceeds the capability of a brigade will involve a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF).  A MEF commander is usually a lieutenant general who exercises operational authority over a reinforced Marine infantry division, reinforced Marine aircraft wing, and a Combat Logistics Group.

Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force

The Navy’s Amphibious Ready Group consists of an amphibious task force (ATF) and an amphibious landing force called Special Landing Force (SLF).  The ARG/SLF  was first established in 1960.  The SLF deployed to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) as part of the first deployment of American ground forces.  The 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines (BLT 2/9) served as the SLF to support the Marine expeditionary landing at Da Nang in March 1965.  In mid-April, III MAF temporarily dissolved the SLF because its amphibious assets were required to support the 3rd Marine Amphibious Brigade (3rdMAB) landing at Chu Lai.

Subsequently, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT) and the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (CG FMFPac) outlined the advantages of maintaining an amphibious capability in support of the Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) — a dedicated force for conducting amphibious raids, assaults, and floating reserve.

President Lyndon Johnson’s formal commitment of US military forces to RVN in March 1965 presented General William C. Westmoreland (COMUSMACV) with a dilemma.  As a military assistance/advisory commander, Westmoreland lacked sufficient ground combat forces to meet threats imposed by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces operating in the central highlands.  Without adequate ground troops, General Westmoreland had no way of defending US military installations, particularly those in the area of Qui Nhon, where the threat of VC hostilities was most imminent.  US Army units and allied forces from South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand would not arrive in RVN until June.  Westmoreland didn’t like it, but he had no choice but to turn to the Marines for security.  Accordingly, the National Military Command Center (NMCC) directed the Commanding General, Third Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF), to provide air/ground security operations until the arrival of the Army’s ground combat forces.

III MEF[1] headquarters was located in Okinawa.  Its ground combat subordinate was the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv), also located in Okinawa.  3rdMarDiv routinely provided two BLTs to the Commander, US Seventh Fleet (COMSEVENTHFLT), to satisfy the landing force requirement for two special landing forces (designated SLF(A) and SLF(B)).  Tasked to provide Marines to support COMUSMACV, III MAF requested the support of COMSEVENTHFLT), who promptly made the ARG/SLF available to Westmoreland.

Action in the Central Highlands

Qui Nhon was a densely populated agricultural region located along the coastal plain southwest of Da Nang.[2]  Population density and agricultural production were the magnets that attracted VC[3] and NVA forces in the area.  Within three days of the NMCC’s tasking, the Special Landing Force conducted combat operations in the central highlands.

Operations in and around Qui Nhơn could not have been better timed.  The Marine’s surprise assault threw the VC force structure into confusion and delayed their hostilities along the coastal plain, but the landing also helped facilitate the gathering of local intelligence and allowed the Marines to test hypotheses for the pacification of local civilians.  The actual operation was uneventful, but it did demonstrate the flexibility and responsiveness of the ARG and the SLF to achieve limited objectives within a more extensive operation. 

In mid-August 1965, Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) intelligence officers communicated their belief that the 1st VC Regiment was preparing to attack the Marines at Chu Lai in Quảng Tri Province.  The basis for this assessment was an early July VC assault that overran ARVN units stationed at Ba Gia.  Accordingly, III MAF developed a plan to launch a preemptive assault against the enemy regiment, then located on the Van Tuong Peninsula, ten miles south of Chu Lai.  Its precursor was Operation Thunderbolt, conducted adjacent to the Trà Bồng River, a two-day area security/information collection mission jointly assigned to the 4th Marines and 51st ARVN Regiment.

The Marine assault against the 1st VC Regiment, designated Operation Starlight, occurred between 18-24 August 1965.  It was the first major offensive campaign conducted by the US military in South Vietnam.  Colonel Oscar Peatross commanded the RLT.  His subordinate commanders and their battalions included Lieutenant Colonel Joseph R. Fisher, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines (2/4), Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. Muir, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines (3/3), and Lieutenant Colonel Charles H. Bodley, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines (3/7), which operated as the SLF reserve force.

The combined arms assault of three battalions of Marines on the 1,500-man 1st VC Regiment, located in and around the village of Van Tuong, was overwhelmingly effective; the Marines reduced the communist regiment to half of its effective strength.

Meanwhile, in late July, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), approved Operations Dagger Thrust and Harvest Moon.  Dagger Thrust was a series of amphibious raids on suspected enemy concentrations along the coastal regions of South Vietnam.  Of the five raids, only two produced significant contact with communist forces, but three uncovered notable stores of arms and munitions.  The raids were so effective that the enemy never knew when the Marines would come — only that they eventually would come, and the result of their visitations would not be pleasant.  As a consequence, some VC soldiers began floating their resumes for a new line of work.

In December 1965, Operation Harvest Moon was a reaction to the 1st VC Regiment’s attack on the Regional Force garrison at Hiệp Đức near the entrance to the Quế Son Valley.  Initially serving as a reserve force, heavy fighting prompted the operational commander to commit the SLF, quickly turning the tide against the Viet Cong regiment.  The staggering losses imposed on VC forces by the Marines caused General Võ Nguyên Giáp to increase the NVA’s footprint in South Vietnam, and this redirection of the American’s attention would enable new VC cadres to infiltrate population centers.  Apparently, Giáp assumed that the U. S. Marine Corps was a one-trick pony.  He was wrong.

By 1969, the ARG/SLF had conducted sixty-two amphibious landings against VC/NVA elements operating inside the Republic of Vietnam.  The SLFs made significant contributions to MACV’s operational mobility and flexibility by offering a timely striking power.

Among the significant benefits of the two SLFs were their flexibility, the element of surprise from “over-the-horizon” assaults, and their on-shore maneuverability.  Once ashore, operational control of the SLF passed from the ARG Commander to the senior ground combat commander.  Another plus was the SLF’s self-sustaining character, which stood in contrast to regular force ground units that relied on static functional organizations for airlift, logistics/resupply, fire support, and medical triage capabilities.

In the early 1990s, the Navy-Marine Corps planners began a re-examination of the ARG/SLF concept and developed an innovation they termed Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG).[4]  Currently, there are nine ESGs, ten Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs), and several Surface Warfare Action Groups (SWAGs).  ESGs allow the Navy to provide highly mobile/self-sustaining naval forces for missions in all parts of the world.  The ESG incorporates the capabilities of CSGs, SWAGs, ARGs, and MEUs to enhance the capabilities of combat commanders within six geographical regions.

Currently, there are seven Marine Expeditionary Units — three under the I Marine Expeditionary Force (US West Coast), three operating under the II Marine Expeditionary Force (US East Coast), and one operating under the III Marine Expeditionary Unit (Japan).

No one in the Navy and Marine Corps wants to go to war, but they know how to go to war.  They are America’s flashing sword.  Quite frankly, only an idiot would like to see these forces come knocking on their door, but we will need the Navy-Marine Corps combat team until the world has finally rid itself of idiots.

Sources:

  1. Bean, C.  The Story of ANZAC from 4 May 1915 to the Evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula.  Canberra: Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, 1921 (11 editions).
  2. Broadbent, H.  Gallipoli: The Fatal Shore.  Camberwell: Viking Press, 2005.
  3. Cassar, G. H.  Kitchener’s War: British Strategy from 1914-1916.  Lincoln: Potomac Books, 2004.
  4. Halpern, P. G.  A Naval History of World War I.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
  5. Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History (Fourth Edition).  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] Temporarily changed to III MAF because the government of RVN objected to the word “expeditionary.”

[2] My reference to places in Vietnam, used in past tense, speaks to events in locations that then existed.  Since the end of the Vietnam War, the government of Vietnam has renamed many of the hamlets, villages, and districts of the former South Vietnamese republic.  Qui Nhơn is now known as Quy Nhơn.

[3] Short name for the National Liberation Front of Southern Vietnam, an armed communist revolutionary organization that operated in South Vietnam and Cambodia.  The VC organized both regular and guerrilla forces to combat the South Vietnamese and United States military forces.

[4] ESGs are part of the Navy’s Expeditionary Task Force concept.


Tampico & Veracruz, 1914

Porfirio Diaz

It is probably fair to say that Mexico and the United States, with few exceptions, never achieved the status of good neighbors.  There are reasons for this, of course.  For a summary of this long-troubled relationship, please visit Old West Tales.[1]  José De La Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori served as President of Mexico for 31 years.  Some historians claim that he was a ruthless dictator; others picture him as a bit kinder.  Either way, he was a Mexican patriot who developed a worldview that was consistent with his background and experience.  He first served as president from 1876 to 1880 and again from 1884-1911.  Throughout this period, Diaz was legally elected to the presidency.[2]  That he was a no-nonsense chief executive, there can be no doubt.  The reality of politics is that it is a ruthless business, and in Mexican history, there has never been a shortage of bandit revolutionaries.  This particular history, of course, helps to explain present-day Mexico.  In any case, circumstances forced President Diaz to resign from the presidency on 25 May 1911, and he subsequently fled to Spain, where he lived the balance of his life.

Beginning in 1911, Mexico suffered through a number of revolutionary contenders for the presidency, including Bernardo Reyes, Francisco Madero, Pascual Orozco, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Ricardo Magon, Jose Maria Pino Suarez, Venustiano Carranza, Aureliano Blanquet, Plutarco Calles, Mario Velasques, Felix Diaz, Victoriano Huerta, and Alvaro Obregon.  The Mexican revolution lasted until 1920.

President James Monroe (1817-1825) was the first executive to formulate US policy toward Latin America, referred to as the Monroe Doctrine.  President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) issued his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904, but we must credit President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) for implementing the US policy that refused to recognize any revolutionary leader not elected by popular vote.  In 1913, President Wilson refused to acknowledge the presidency of General Victoriano Huerta,[3] who had been installed as president (by agreement with U. S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson).[4]  According to President Wilson’s biographer, the president stated, “There can be no certain prospect of peace in America until General Huerta has surrendered his usurped authority.”

Admiral Mayo

Civil upheaval in Mexico threatened the safety of American citizens and the properties of Americans doing business there.  Owing to Wilson’s concern for American lives and business interests, Admiral Henry T. Mayo, Commanding the US Fifth Squadron, Atlantic Fleet, was dispatched to Tampico, Mexico in 1914.[5]

Admiral Mayo’s squadron included USS Dolphin, USS Connecticut, USS Minnesota, USS Chester, and USS Des Moines.  Tampico, a central oil-producing region, was besieged by Constitutional forces.  Generally, the relationship between the U. S. Navy and President Huerta’s federal garrison remained cordial.  For example, on 2 April, Admiral Mayo directed the captain of his flagship USS Dolphin to render honors to Mexico to honor the commemoration of General Porfirio Diaz’s capture of Puebla from the French in 1867.  Dolphin fired a 21-gun salute.

Typically, at the end of duty hours, ship’s work permitting, ship captains allowed crew members to boat ashore and engage in recreational activities, such as baseball, with the local townsmen.  On 6 April, Constitutionalist rebel forces under Colonel Emiliano Nafarrete occupied La Barra, Doña Cecilia, and Arbol Grande.  General Ignacio Zaragoza, the Tamaulipas governor and commander of the federal garrison, sent his gunboat Veracruz to shell the rebel forces that had stationed themselves behind oil storage tanks.  Admiral Mayo played it straight.  He sent a letter to both leaders stating that while he intended to remain neutral, he would take all steps to protect American lives and property.  Admiral May began to evacuate Standard Oil Company executives, workers, and their families but refused to land troops to cover its refinery.

After additional rebel attacks near the Iturbide Bridge on 7-8 April 1914, foreign nationals began asking for refuge on Admiral Mayo’s ships.  The U. S. Consul in Tampico sent an urgent message requesting help in evacuating the American population.  On the evening of 8 April, Mexican rebels detained a Marine Corps courier from the US Consulate, but he was released unharmed after an hour.  Meanwhile, running short of fuel, USS Dolphin’s skipper, Captain Ralph Earle, visited the American Consulate on 9 April, where he arranged refueling from a German national named Max Tyron.  Captain Earle agreed to take fuel delivery from Mr. Tyron’s dock, located near the Iturbide Bridge.

USS Dolphin, 1914

The duty of taking possession of this fuel fell to Ensign Charles C. Copp, who organized a whaleboat and crew to proceed to Tyron’s dock, pick up the fuel, and return to Dolphin.  Ensign Copp and his crew were unarmed; the American flag was flying fore and aft on the whaleboat.  Neither Copp nor anyone in his crew was able to speak Spanish.  While loading the fuel, an armed squad of Zaragoza’s soldiers surrounded the sailors.  Two crewmen, Coxswain G. H. Siefert and Seaman J. P. Harrington, remained on the whaleboat, but they too were taken at gunpoint.  Mexican soldiers escorted the men to Colonel Ramón Hinojosa.  Hinojosa released the sailors to continue their work but informed them that they would not be permitted to leave the dock without Zaragoza’s permission.

Mr. Tyron took a launch out to Dolphin to inform Captain Earle and Admiral Mayo of what happened.  Mayo ordered Earle to seek the release of his men under strong protest to the government of Mexico.  Earle, accompanied by Consul Miller, met with Zaragoza, who apologized — offering that his soldiers were ignorant of the laws of war.  Within an hour, Hinojosa released the sailors, and they returned to their ship with the fuel.[6]

Admiral Mayo viewed the incident as an insult to American sovereignty, grave enough in Mayo’s opinion, to demand reparations.  Mayo ordered Commander William A. Moffett to deliver a note to Zaragoza informing him that seizing men from a naval vessel, flying the United States flag, was an inexcusable act of war.  Admiral Mayo further demanded a formal repudiation, punishment of the individual responsible, and that he hoist the American flag in a prominent position ashore and render a 21 gun salute, which Mayo would return from Dolphin.

General Zaragoza referred the matter to the Mexican ministry of war in Mexico City.  President Wilson learned about this incident from William Jennings Bryan.[7]  The president told Bryan, “Mayo could not have done otherwise.”  President Wilson then added that unless the government of Mexico complied with Mayo’s dictate, grave consequences might result.

At the time, Nelson J. O’Shaughnessy was the American chargé d’affaires in Mexico City.[8]  Roberto Ruiz, Mexico’s foreign minister, paid a visit to O’Shaughnessy on 10 April and informed him of the incident.  Ruiz’ opined that Admiral Mayo should withdraw his demand.  After all, Zaragoza did apologize.  O’Shaughnessy and Ruiz met with President Huerta later that day.  Huerta agreed with Ruiz.  After the meeting, Mr. O’Shaughnessy released a statement to the press that indicated Zaragoza had detained Marines, not sailors, and that the Mexicans had paraded them through the streets of Tampico.  None of that was true, but its effect on the American people was electric.

On 12 April, President Huerta decided that Zaragoza’s verbal apology was sufficient.  In his opinion, the United States was given ample satisfaction.  The Mexican government would not apologize further, nor would any Mexican officials salute the American flag.  The next day, O’Shaughnessy further informed the press that either the salute would be rendered — or else.  On 14 April, President Wilson ordered Vice Admiral Charles Badger to sail the Atlantic Fleet into Mexican waters.  When President Huerta learned of Wilson’s order, he was elated, thinking it was the best thing to happen during his administration. Still, on 16 April 1914, Huerta agreed to a simultaneous saluting which signified that both sides were satisfied with the end of a conflict which “at no time” had been severe.

Despite Huerta’s reversal, Wilson decided that the Atlantic Fleet would remain in Mexico to prevent any incidents of ill-will or contempt for the United States — which Huerta had exhibited in the past.  Wilson had misunderstood Huerta’s meaning by “simultaneous.”  President Wilson warned Huerta that he would consult with Congress on 19 April with a view of taking such actions as may be necessary to enforce respect for the flag of the United States if Huerta did not render proper honors to the flag of the United States.

True to his word, on 20 April, President Wilson sought Congressional approval for the employment of the Armed Forces.  President Wilson intended to seize Vera Cruz “to get rid of Huerta” and his illegitimate authority in Mexico.  Wilson also learned on 20 April that a large shipment of arms and munitions were en route to Mexico from Germany.  Thus, the unfolding incident was far more involved than the issue of Huerta’s disrespect to the nation’s colors.  Congress provided its consent that same evening, and President Wilson immediately ordered landings at Vera Cruz, seizure of the city’s customs house, and directed the interception of arms from Germany.[9]

On to Veracruz

On the morning of 21 April, Rear Admiral Frank F. Fletcher began preparations for the seizure of Veracruz.  His orders were simple and direct: seize the customs house, prohibit off-loading war materials to Huerta’s forces or any other Mexican political party.  Landing operations under Navy Captain William Rees Rush began at approximately 11:00 when Marines of the 2nd Advanced Base Regiment from USS Prairie and Bluejackets from USS Florida started their movement to shore.[10]  A provisional battalion was also formed from the Marine Detachments, USS Florida, and USS Utah, who accompanied the Bluejackets into Veracruz.

Commanding the port of Veracruz was Mexican General Gustavo Maass, who, despite the American Consul’s warning not to interfere, could not surrender his post to the Americans.  He ordered the 18th Regiment under General Luis Becerril to distribute rifles to citizens of Veracruz and prisoners in the La Galera military prison and then proceed to the waterfront.  He then ordered the 19th Regiment under General Francisco Figueroa to defend the piers.  Finally, Maass sent a telegram to the Minister of War, General Aurelio Blanquet.  General Blanquet ordered Maass not to resist the landing but withdraw his forces to Tejería.

Once ashore, Captain Rush exercised overall command of the Bluejackets while Lieutenant Colonel Wendell C. Neville assumed command of the Marines.[11]  In furtherance of Admiral Fletcher’s objectives, Rush dispatched three companies of Bluejackets to occupy the customs house, the post office, and the telegraph office.  Colonel Neville directed his Marines to capture the railroad terminal, roundhouse, train yard, cable office, and the power plant.

Although most of Maass’s troops accompanied him to Tejería, liberated prisoners under Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Contreras (and a few civilians) opposed the Marines as they made their way inside the city.  The first casualty was a navy signalman stationed at the top of the Terminal Hotel.  At around 13:30, the U. S. Navy intercepted and detained the ship Ypiranga before its crew could unload its shipment of arms and munitions.

At the end of the first day, American casualties included four dead and 20 wounded.  Given these shootings, Admiral Fletcher decided that he had no choice but to expand his operations to include the entire city.  The following day, Fletcher ordered Rush and Neville to occupy Veracruz.  To accomplish this, Admiral Fletcher signaled USS San Francisco, USS Minnesota, USS Hancock, and USS Chester to land their Marine Detachments, bringing the number of Marines and Bluejackets ashore to around 3,000 men.

Marines began their advance into Veracruz at 07:45 on 22 April.  The Marines, experienced in street fighting, made an orderly and tactical movement, but a regiment of Bluejackets under Captain F. A. Anderson, without experience in urban warfare, marched in parade formation toward the Mexican Naval Academy.  Mexican partisans, who had barricaded themselves inside the parade ground, easily targeted Anderson’s Bluejackets, which halted his advance.  After Captain Anderson signaled for naval gunfire support, USS Prairie, San Francisco, and Chester pounded the Naval Academy, ending Mexican resistance.

As Marines and Bluejackets continued their advance, Colonel John A. Lejeune led the 1st Advanced Base Regiment (originally bound for Tampico) ashore.  By nightfall, more than 6,000 Americans occupied Veracruz, including a small aviation detachment from USS Mississippi.  The aviation detachment’s participation marked the first time naval aircraft became targets of ground fire.

Meanwhile, Colonel Joseph H. Pendleton assembled the Fourth Marine Regiment (4th Marines) at Puget Sound.  The regimental headquarters units incorporated the 25th, 26th, and 27th Marine companies.  After sailing from Washington State aboard the USS South Dakota, the regiment added four additional companies from Mare Island (31st, 32nd, 34th, and 35th companies).  Along with USS Jupiter, the task group proceeded to Mazatlán (west coast of Mexico), joined later by USS West Virginia, and reinforced by the 28th and 36th companies.  Pendleton’s 4th Marines was a contingency reserve.  There was no landing by the 4th Marines in Mexico.

A third provisional regiment of Marines, assembled in Philadelphia, arrived at Veracruz on 1 May under the command of Colonel Littleton W. T. Waller, who, upon landing, formed a Marine Brigade and assumed overall command of the 3,141 Marines.  Pending the arrival of an Army brigade under Brigadier General Frederick Funston, Admiral Fletcher declared martial law.[12]  Once the Army arrived in Veracruz, seagoing Marines and bluejackets withdrew back to their respective ships, and Admiral Fletcher turned over control of the port city to General Funston.

After Venustiano Carranza overthrew President Huerta, the United States withdrew its armed forces from Veracruz on 23 November 1914.  Subsequently, relations between the United States and Mexico improved somewhat. However, the American occupation of Veracruz did lead to several anti-American revolts in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Uruguay.  Mexico expelled resident US citizens from Mexican territories, and the British government criticized Wilson’s policies in Mexico.  On a positive note, however, the US occupation of Veracruz did persuade Mexico to remain neutral during World War I.  After the Zimmerman affair, however, the United States and Mexico returned to their traditional rocky relationships.

Sources:

  1. Cooper, J.  Woodrow Wilson: A Biography.  New York: Vintage Books, 2011.
  2. McBride, W. M.  Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1865-1945.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
  3. Millett, A. R.  Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps.  New York: The Free Press, 1991.
  4. Quirk, R.  An Affair of Honor: Woodrow Wilson and the Occupation of Veracruz.  Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1962.
  5. Santelli, J. S.  A Brief History of the Fourth Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1970.
  6. Sweetman, J.  The Landing at Veracruz, 1914.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1968.

Endnotes:

[1] See also, a six part series of the relationship between the United States and New Spain, Mexico, and Mexican Texas, beginning with Spanish America (24 June 2019).

[2] The statement only suggests that while he may have availed himself of corrupt voting irregularities, a tradition in Mexican politics, he didn’t seize power through force of arms.

[3] Victoriano Huerta (1850-1916) was a Mexican military officer and the 35th President of Mexico who seized power from  Francisco Madero in 1913, installed Pedro Lascuráin Paredes as his puppet, who then appointed Huerta as Secretary of the Interior.  Within an hour, Lascuráin  resigned the presidency — an action that brought Huerta into the presidency.

[4] President Wilson removed Henry Wilson from office as a result of making the so-called Embassy Agreement.

[5] Henry Thomas Mayo (1856-1937) graduated from the USNA in 1876, served in a number of career progressing billets, including his service as aide-de-camp to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.  After graduating from the Naval War College, he commanded several capital ships.  He was promoted to rear Admiral in 1913.

[6] Admiral Mayo criticized Ensign Copp for allowing foreign soldiers to seize his vessel. 

[7] A three time candidate for the presidency, Bryan served as Wilson’s Secretary of State.

[8] Nelson O’Shaughnessy (1876-1932) was a career diplomat born in New York City, was well-educated, gaining degrees from Georgetown University, St. John’s College, Oxford University, and the Inner Temple in London.  His earliest posts were at diplomatic missions in Denmark, Russia, Austria-Hungary, 1905-1911, and most notably in Mexico, 1911-1914, where his service gained him national notoriety.  As chargé d’affaires, O’Shaughnessy represented the interests of the United States in Mexico after the recall of the Ambassador following the coup of Victoriano Huerta in 1913.  A Republican, O’Shaughnessy alienated himself from President Wilson’s Democratic administrations by his cordial relationship with Huerta.

[9] Germany had long sought to incite a war between Mexico and the United States.  Another Mexican-American war would reduce the possibility of bringing the United States into the European war and slowed the export of American arms to the European allies.  For quite some time before World War I, Germany aided Mexican revolutionaries by arming them, funding them, and advising them.  German Naval Intelligence Officer Franz von Rintelen attempted to incite war between the US and Mexico by giving Victoriano Huerta $12 million in cash.  The German saboteur Lothar Witzke, who was responsible for bombings at Mare Island (San Francisco) and in New Jersey was operationally based in Mexico City.

[10] The Marine Corps Advanced Base Force was the Corps’ first task organized combat unit made up of coastal and naval base defense forces generally of battalion or regimental sized units (depending on its mission).  Initially, Neville’s unit was more or less on the same level as a reinforced battalion landing team which expanded in size once the Marines went ashore.

[11] The term “bluejacket” is generally used to denote a British or American sailor and often used to distinguish sailors performing landing force operations ashore from Marines.

[12] “Fighting Fred” Funston (1865-1917) was a Medal of Honor recipient with combat experience gained in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars.  In 1896, Funston was a volunteer with the Cuban Revolutionary Army who fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain.  Suffering with malaria, Funston returned to his home to recover.  In preparation for war with Spain, Funston was commissioned a colonel with the 20th Kansas Infantry.  He was promoted to Brigadier General in recognition of his undaunted courage under fire during the Philippine Insurrection.  Funston was not a favorite of Mark Twain, an avowed anti-Imperialist, who denounced Funston in an article published in the North American Review.  Funston’s public argument with Republican Senator George Frisbie Hoar resulted in President Theodore Roosevelt reprimanding Funston and ordering him to remain silent on public issues.  Funston was promoted to Major General in November 1914.  Funston died of a heart attack while attending a concert in San Antonio, Texas.


The Road to War

U. S. Marine Corps Defense Battalions

Some Background

The Marine Corps mission, now a long tradition, is to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, or to repel the enemy’s assault by fire and close combat.  No matter what occupational specialty assigned, every Marine is a trained rifleman.  Up-close and personal is how Marines fight.  As an organization, the Corps has two essential purposes: (1) making Marines, and (2) winning battles.

People who seek to join the Marine Corps are already psychologically unique because every potential recruit knows what the Marine Corps will expect from them from the very beginning of their enlistment process.  Knowing this, however, is insufficient.  Every enlisted recruit and every officer candidate must measure up to the Corps’ uncompromising high standards.  They must demonstrate that they have what it takes to serve as a US Marine.  They do this either at recruit training depots or at the officer candidate school — which is where they earn the title, MARINE.

Marines are naval infantry.  Between 1775-1900, Marines primarily served in ship’s detachments, navy yards, and provisional forces for expeditionary service ashore.  Between 1900-1940, Marines participated in irregular warfare and counter-insurgency operations in support of American foreign policy.  Conventionally, Marines served with enviable distinction in the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and in the Middle Eastern Wars.

Organizationally, the Marine Corps is composed of its Headquarters element (Headquarters Marine Corps) (HQMC), its supporting establishments (Marine Corps Bases and Air Stations), and the Operating Forces.  The Operating forces (presently) consist of three infantry divisions, three air wings, three logistical commands, and their reserve counterparts.  The Marine Corps organizes its deployed forces as Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs), which range from battalion landing teams to reinforced infantry divisions.  While war strategies are matters for senior (flag rank) officers, battlefield tactics frequently fall within the purview of Marine noncommissioned officers (NCOs). 

The structure of the Marine Corps (1775-present) has been an evolutionary process.   At its beginning, Congress authorized the recruitment of two Marines battalions and directed that their officers organize them for service aboard ships of war as riflemen.  Historically, the size of the Marine Corps has expanded and contracted to meet the nation’s demands in times of peace and war.  In the Revolutionary War period, for example, the size of shipboard detachments depended on the ship’s size to which assigned. The size of the Marine Corps depended on the missions assigned to it by Congress.  Following the Revolutionary War, the new U.S. Congress determined that it could no longer afford to maintain a naval force, so both the Navy and Marine Corps disbanded between 1783-1798.  The Navy and Marine Corps have continuously served the American people since 1798; their size in ships and manpower ceilings is always a matter for the Congress to decide.

Sea Change

1898

Victory over Spain in 1898 was a pivotal event because it propelled a somewhat backwater United States onto the world stage and had a sudden and significant influence on the growth of the US Navy and Marine Corps.  With victory over Spain came vast territorial acquisitions that included the Philippine Islands, Guam, Samoa, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.  These were in addition to already existing US interests in Central America (Nicaragua and the Isthmus of Panama).  Territorial acquisition meant that the United States would have to defend these faraway places, and the only service that could do that was the US Navy — challenges never imagined before 1898.

Realizing that the post-Civil War Navy was initially out of its depth in this new world order, the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) established the General Board of the Navy in 1900.  The Board’s membership included the Navy’s most senior officers, men who were at the end of their careers upon whom he could rely on offering deliberate and objective analyses of world events and offering recommendations on a wide range of issues — from ship design to naval strategy and contingency planning and training.  The General Board undertook the development of war plans for responding to anticipated threats against the US East Coast, the Antilles, and, eventually, the Panama Canal.

Initially, the General Board of the Navy viewed Great Britain as a “most likely” threat to American interests and sovereignty.[1]  With greater allied cooperation with the United Kingdom, however, the General Board turned its attention toward Imperial Germany,[2] especially after Spain sold its Central Pacific territories to Imperial Germany and German military construction projects  in the Pacific and coastal China.  Japan’s victory over Imperial Russia in 1905 forced the US to consider conflict with the Japanese, as well.[3]

In late 1901, the Navy General Board demanded that (then) Major General Commandant Charles Heywood develop a four-company infantry battalion for expeditionary and advanced base defense training.  The Navy Board envisioned a Marine battalion that could rapidly deploy (ship to shore) in defense of American territories as part of the Asiatic Fleet and do so without awaiting the arrival of US Army units from the United States.  The writings of Captain Dion Williams,  (then assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence), emphasized the importance of the Navy’s ability to refuel its ships from Pacific coaling stations.  Since it was incumbent upon the Navy to defend those advanced bases, the Navy turned to the Marine Corps for this purpose.

One achieves an understanding of warfare by reading history and then thinking about an event’s causes, its actors, what they did, why they did it, the mistakes they made, and the consequences of conflict.  Learning how to prepare for war is a bit more complicated — often involving many years of trial and error.  In 1907, a battalion under Major Eli K. Cole[4] participated in a training exercise in Subic Bay, the Philippine Islands.  It took his Marines ten weeks to set emplace 44 heavy shore battery guns.  The lesson the Marine Corps learned from this exercise pointed to the wisdom of pre-staging men and material as “rapid response” elements of the naval expeditionary forces.  Cole’s exercise prompted the Navy Board to recommend establishment of permanent advanced bases within the Navy’s defensive sphere.

In 1913, Major General Commandant William P. Biddle ordered a Marine Corps Advanced Base Force.  He named it the 1st Advanced Force Brigade.[5]  Biddle further re-designated the Brigade’s two regiments as the Fixed Defense Regiment (under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles G. Long)[6] and the Mobile Defense Regiment (under Colonel George Barnett).[7]

World events temporarily interfered with the Corps’ effort to improve the Advanced Base Force concept.  In 1914, the President dispatched a Marine expeditionary force to Vera Cruz, Mexico.  The Marines used this event to test and validate previously developed theories;[8] these, in turn, providing essential lessons for ongoing developments in Marine Corps force structure.

SgtMaj Dan Daly USMC

During World War I, the 4th Marine Brigade operated as one of two brigades within the US Second Infantry Division.  The 4th Marine Brigade consisted of the 5th Marine Regiment, 6th Marine Regiment, and the 6th Machine-gun Battalion.  A fully deployed combat brigade was a significant increase in overall Marine Corps strength, but the American Expeditionary Force in Europe was not the only iron in the fire.  HQMC formed an additional expeditionary brigade for service in the Caribbean and Central America during the so-called banana wars.  In 1919-1920, post war reductions in funding forced the Marine Corps to disband several infantry regiments/separate battalions.

In 1921, Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune continued the work undertaken in previous decades — work that actually continues today.  Each achievement, methodological or technological, becomes the foundation upon which new ideas emerge — and so it goes.   In 1933, creating and perfecting the Advanced Base Force led to the creation of the Fleet Marine Forces (Atlantic and Pacific) — which became an integral part of the United States Atlantic and Pacific Fleets.

The primary mission of the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) was the seizure and temporary defense of advanced bases, in concert with US fleet operations.  In the 1920s and 1930s, the United States participated in a series of naval conferences designed to reduce the likelihood of war by limiting armaments (i.e., the size of national navies).  It was, at best, a romantic assumption.  The US Congress began thinking defensively, prompting a significant reduction in the size of the military services.  Defense is not how the Marine Corps wins battles; senior Marine officers remained focused on offensive operations and defensive thinking had no appreciable impact on the readiness planning of the Fleet Marine Force.

 The vast range of US territories and the requirement to defend them continued as a vital interest to the Navy and as a primary responsibility of the Marine Corps.  A formal review of responsibilities assigned to the Army and Navy, designed to avoid duplication of effort, determined that the Army should confine itself to continental land operations. The Navy should focus its attention on the security of overseas territories and possessions.

By 1937, the Navy began to consider creating Marine Corps security detachments, particularly at vulnerable locations in the Pacific, in conjunction with Plan Orange.  Initially, the Navy Board envisioned security detachments as battalion-sized organizations.  In 1938, the Navy Board recommended the placement of defense battalions at Midway, Wake, and Johnston Islands —in sufficient strength and size to repel minor naval raids.

Defense battalions were coastal artillery units armed with 5-inch guns (6), anti-aircraft guns (12), machine guns (48 .30 caliber) (48 .50 caliber), searchlights (6), and sound locators (6).  The Battalion’s usual complement involved 28 officers and 482 enlisted men, but a battalion’s size depended on the specific size of the area the battalion was charged to defend.  Once ashore, owing to the size of naval guns, the Battalion would become “immobile.”  In effect, once defense battalions assumed their positions, there would be no retreat.[9]

Initially, the Marine Corps envisioned four defense battalions; their importance (in relation to the Marine Corps as a whole) was significant.  Of the Corps’ total strength (27,000 officers and enlisted men), 9,000 Marines would serve as part of the Fleet Marine Force, and 2,844 of those would serve in defense battalions.

Defense battalions began to form in late 1939.  By 7 December 1941, there were seven active battalions: the 1st, 2nd, 6th, and 7th formed at Marine Corps Base, San Diego, California; the 3rd, 4th, and 5th formed at Parris Island, South Carolina.  The 5th Defense Battalion was the first such battalion to deploy to a potentially hostile shore.

Under the command of Colonel Lloyd L. Leech, the 5th Defense Battalion deployed to Iceland in June 1941 as part of the 1st Marine Brigade (Provisional).  In addition to the 5th Defense Battalion, the Brigade included the 6th Marines, 2nd Battalion, 10th Marines, and various other supporting units to reinforce British forces charged with blocking any German attempt to seize Iceland.  To facilitate training and instruction for the American Marines, the brigade commander assented to the 5th Defense Battalion’s incorporation into the British air defense system.

Over time, it became increasingly unlikely that Germany would seize Iceland.  However, while the Pacific command urgently needed the 1st Brigade, its eventual reassignment was contingent upon the arrival in Iceland US Army units to replace the Marines.  Before Pearl Harbor, statutory provisions precluded the assignment of non-volunteer troops to overseas locations.  Army conscripts could not serve in Iceland until a state of war existed between the United States and its adversaries.  The Brigade was finally relieved by Army units in March 1942.

Of the remaining defense battalions, all but one (2nd) deployed to the Pacific before Pearl Harbor.  The 2nd Defense Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Raymond E. Knapp, joined the 2nd Marine Brigade in Samoa in January 1942.  Already serving in Samoa was the 7th Defense Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Lester A. Dessez.[10]  The 7th Defense Battalion was the first FMF unit to operate in the South Pacific theater of operations.

The 3rd Defense Battalion formed in late 1939.  After initial training, the Battalion embarked for Pearl Harbor in April 1940.  In September, the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific ordered elements of the Battalion to Midway Island.  The entire Battalion reformed at Midway in February 1941.  In September 1941, the 6th Defense Battalion replaced the 3rd Battalion at Midway, which then returned to Hawaii and participated in defense of Pearl Harbor. Also, in Hawaii on 7 December 1941, was the 1st Defense Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Bert A. Bone, and the 4th Defense Battalion, under Colonel Harold S. Fassett. 

The preceding may seem like an orderly process, but it was far from that.  Moving large numbers of Marines and their heavy (and expensive) equipment is never easy, rarely tidy, and always compounded by higher headquarters.  For instance, in 1939, the 1st Defense Battalion formed by renaming the 2nd Battalion, 15th Marines, and then reorganizing it, re-equipping it, and re-positioning it to serve in its new role.  In February 1941, the 1st Defense Battalion arrived at Pearl Harbor from San Diego.  No sooner had the Battalion arrived when higher authority split it apart into subunits and redistributed them throughout the Central Pacific.  FMF Pacific (also, FMFPac) dispatched Detachment A, 1st Defense Battalion to Palmyra Island (arriving 10 March).  A month later, HQMC renamed the unit “Marine Detachment, 1st Marine Defense Battalion, Palmyra Island.” Additional subunits became Marine Detachments at Johnston (mid-July) and Wake (late-July).  Thus, on 7 December 1941, the 1st Defense Battalion had subunits on three atolls with their headquarters element remaining at Pearl Harbor.

By early December, Marine defense battalions defended Midway, Johnston, Palmyra, Samoa, and Wake.  The global war plan, then in effect, renamed “Rainbow Five,” called for the development of air bases at all these sites.  After 7 December, the United States had to concede Guam (and its small naval facility) to the Japanese owing to its position in the center of the Japanese-held Marianas Island group.  The Navy’s intention behind creating these small forward bases was two-fold.  Samoa would help protect communication routes in the Southwest Pacific; Midway, Johnston, Palmyra, and Wake were offered for the protection of Oahu installations.  None of the forward bases provided much protection, however.

At Pearl Harbor

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor started at 0755 on 7 December 1941.  The assault lasted two hours.  The defense battalions offered limited (and generally ineffective) opposition to Japanese forces.  This generally poor performance was not the fault of the defense battalions, however.  Japan’s attack was a surprise event well-timed for Sunday morning.  Accordingly, all US responses were haphazard. 

Before the Japanese attack, the United States was already preparing for hostilities — albeit with only limited intelligence information.  Hawaii-based commanders heard nothing from Washington beyond cautionary advice.  Reacting with caution, senior commanders ordered all munitions secured at widely dispersed locations.  Motor vehicles were carefully stored in are motor pools, berthed ships and parked aircraft were lined up neatly for ease of monitoring security — in case Japanese agents attempted to sabotage American military equipment.  When the Japanese attacked, air defense positions had no ammunition with which to shoot down enemy planes.  Within a few moments of the attack, air and ground commanders ordered munitions, but there  were no vehicles available to transport it.  By the time ammunition did arrive, the Japanese attack was over.

Within six minutes of the beginning of the Japanese attack, Marines from the defense battalion had machine guns set up and engaged the enemy.  These were the only weapons used in the defense of Pearl Harbor.  It was a bit too little. 

Within mere hours after Japan’s attack, Navy and Marine commanders took steps to reinforce outlying island garrisons, rushing substantial numbers of Marines to Midway, Johnston, and Palmyra.  These Marines and their equipment came from the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Defense Battalions. Midway’s assets included 17 Scout/Bombers, ferried to the island commander via the aircraft carrier USS Lexington.  Once the ship returned to Pearl Harbor, additional flights were direct over-ocean movements.  The distance from Pearl Harbor to Midway was 1,137 miles.

Guam

The situation on Guam was bleak.  Lieutenant Colonel William K. McNulty’s 122 Marines (and 15 additional Marines serving on detached duty with the Guamanian Police Force) were overwhelmed by Japanese forces.

Johnston Island

Johnston Island, a spec of sand in the middle of the ocean, was too small and too close to the Hawaiian Islands to risk a land assault, but it was a tempting target.  Major Francis B. Loomis, serving as the 1st Defense Battalion executive officer, was present at Johnston Island when the Japanese made their move against Pearl Harbor.  As the senior officer present, Loomis assumed overall command of American military assets.

The first contact the Johnson Island Marines had with the Japanese occurred on 12 December when a submarine surfaced  8,000 yards off Sand Island and began firing green star clusters, which exploded high overhead.  Marines returned fire with a 5-inch gun, and the submarine withdrew.  Three days later, two Japanese ships opened fire and damaged several buildings and an oil storage facility.  Again, the Marines answered with a 5-inch gun, and the enemy ships withdrew before suffering any damage.  On the nights of 18, 21, and 22 December, enemy submarines returned to deliver harassing fire.  By the end of the month, reinforcements arrived from Hawaii, adding another 5-inch battery, another 3-inch battery, and 16 more machine guns —but the Marines heard no more from the Japanese for the duration of the war.

Palmyra Island

Palmyra Island experienced a single Japanese attack on 24 December.  A Japanese submarine surfaced 3,000 yards offshore and fired its deck guns at a dredge in the lagoon.  The 5-inch battery drove the submarine away.  Lieutenant Colonel Bone, commanding the 1st Defense Battalion, arrived with reinforcements at the end of December.  The Palmyra garrison became 1st Defensive Battalion in March.  Spreading Marines all over the Central Pacific had the effect of diminishing unit cohesiveness within the defense battalions.  To solve this problem, local commands absorbed the various “detachments” into their organizations.

Wake Island

By mid-December world attention was focused on events unfolding at Wake Island.  The unfolding battle electrified everyone.  On 7 December 1941, the Wake Island detachment totaled barely 400 officers and men, including 9 officers and 200 enlisted men who had only joined the detachment in the previous month.  The detachment commander was Major James P. S. Devereux.  The Island’s air support squadron included 12 F4F-3 Wildcats of Major Paul A. Putnam’s VMF-211 detachment, which arrived on 4 December.[11]  Putnam reported to Devereux, who reported to the Island Commander, Commander Winfield S. Cunningham, USN.

There were no optimists among the Marines of Wake Island.  Devereux’s detachment was understrength; one battery of 3-inch guns was completely unmanned.  Two other batteries could field only three of four guns (each), and Echo Battery had no height-finding equipment.  Ground and anti-air crew-served weapons were only half manned.  The detachment had no radar and no sound-locator equipment.  By the time Wake Marines learned of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, VMF-211’s dawn patrol was already aloft.  Putnam dispersed his remaining aircraft, and the detachment’s Marines manned their posts.

Shortly before noon on 8 December (Wake Island was in a different date-time-zone from Hawaii), 36 Japanese bombers attacked Wake Island, their bomb load mostly hitting the airstrip where seven of the eight parked Wildcats were destroyed, exploding aviation gas storage tanks, and killing 23 of the 55 enlisted aviation ground crewmen.  The bombers returned each day for the next six days, always at the same time of day.  Each day, the Japanese inflicted more damage and took more lives.  At 0300 on 11 December, a Japanese assault force appeared offshore.  Warships moved in after dawn to begin raking fire prelude to troop landings.  By 0615, the Marines had severely damaged the cruiser Yubari and sunk the destroyer Havate.  Additionally, Marines damaged a light cruiser, two destroyers, and a troop transport.  The Japanese withdrew to Kwajalein Island.

In the following week, Marines lost an additional three aircraft to Japanese bombers, half their trucks, and engineering equipment, most of their diesel fuel and dynamite, and the motor pool, warehouse, machine shop, and the blacksmith shop was wholly destroyed.  The Japanese destroyed the last two Wildcats on 22 December during aerial combat.  By this time, the Marines at Wake Island were running a pool on their expected shelf-life.

At dawn on 23 December, another Japanese assault force appeared offshore.  One-thousand Imperial Japanese Army and 500 Imperial Japanese Navy prepared to land on Wake Island.  Marines engaged the first wave of Japanese at 0245, but none of the 5-inch guns were able to take destroyers/transports under fire.  The 3-inch guns inflicted some damage, but not enough to hinder the landing.  Lacking any infantry support, overwhelming Japanese forces pushed the Marines back to secondary defensive positions.  Gun crews, in defending themselves, had to forsake the big guns.  By 0500, the Marines realized that the dance was about over.  At dawn, enemy carrier-based fighters and bombers arrived overhead.  Devereux advised Cunningham that he could no longer maintain organized resistance.  With Cunningham’s concurrence, Devereux surrendered his force to the Japanese landing force commander.

The story of Wilkes Island unfolded differently, however.  At Wilkes, the battle raged so fiercely that at daybreak, Captain Wesley Mc. Platt[12] not only destroyed the Japanese landing party after the initial Japanese assault, but he also reorganized his men and ordered a ruthless counterattack, killing every Japanese soldier he could find, one after another.  Captain Platt was out of contact with Devereux and did not know of the surrender until around 1330 when Platt saw Devereux approaching a Japanese officer.  Platt was not a happy camper, but he obeyed Major Devereux’s order to relinquish his arms to the Japanese.

Midway

Admiral Yamamoto’s plan for seizing Midway Island was typically complex.[13]  He also based his assumptions on faulty intelligence.  He believed that only two aircraft carriers were available to the Pacific Fleet after the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.  After the repair of USS Yorktown, the Navy had three carriers: Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown.  He also misread the morale of  the US Armed Forces and the general American population.  Admiral Yamamoto was a crafty fellow, but he did not know that the Americans had broken the naval code.  The key for the Americans was learning that the Japanese designation of Midway Island was JN-25.

Lieutenant Colonel Harold D. Shannon ordered his 6th Defense Battalion to “general quarters” as soon as he learned of the Japanese attack at Wake Island.  It was a sensibly prudent order, but its effect was that it kept his Marines on edge for an extended period.  No action developed that day, but shortly after dark, the Japanese destroyers Akebono and Ushio arrived offshore.  Their mission was to harass the Island’s defenders and determine the placement of Marine shore batteries.  Two Japanese rounds hit the Island’s power plant and disrupted the communications center.[14]  As the two ships set up for their second run into the beach, Shannon ordered his Marines to engage enemy targets at will.  Battery A’s 5-inch guns remained silent due to the break down in communications, but Battery B and Battery D opened up with their 5-inch naval artillery and 3-inch anti-aircraft guns.  The .50 caliber machine-guns fired once the destroyers were within range.  The Japanese ships withdrew shortly afterward.

Reinforcements and resupply soon arrived from Hawaii.  Among the heavy weapons were 7-inch guns removed from World War I ships that had been in storage for many years.  Midway Island was well-armed and adequately manned to repel an enemy assault; the American defenders responded to several Japanese probing raids early in 1942.  Aviation assets at Midway included both Navy and Marine Corps combat aircraft.  The Navy had four PBY squadrons (31 Patrol planes), and six Grumman TBF Avengers from VT-8.  Marine Corps aircraft included Scout/Bomber squadron VMSB-231 (17 SB2U-3 Vindicators), and the remainder of VMF-221 (arriving at Midway from USS Saratoga with 14 F2A-3 Brewster Buffaloes).  Following the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Pacific Fleet quickly replaced lost aircrews with additional Navy and Marine Corps air squadrons.

In May 1942, FMFPac reinforced the 6th Defense Battalion with three additional 3-inch batteries, a 37-mm anti-aircraft battery, a 20-mm anti-aircraft battery, and two rifle companies from the 2nd Raider Battalion with five light tanks in direct support.  FMFPac ordered all Marine aircraft at Midway consolidated under Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-22.  The MAG received 16 SMD-2 Dauntless Diver Bombers and seven Grumman Wildcat fighters.

As the Battle of Midway Island began on 4 June 1942, it became apparent that the defense of the atoll was of secondary importance to the air engagements at sea, but Midway was the bait that had drawn Yamamoto’s task forces within range of US carrier aircraft.  The Marines ashore were, however, ready for any eventuality.  PBYs from Midway first spotted Japanese naval units at 0900 on 3 June.  Army B-17s launched that afternoon to bomb the Japanese fleet, but none of the bombs hit their targets.  At 0545 on 4 June, Navy PBYs fixed an approaching air assault position consisting of over 100 Japanese torpedo, dive bombers, and escort fighters (numbers estimated).  US aircraft were in the air within ten minutes to intercept them.  Japanese Zeros easily destroyed Marine buffaloes, but not without losing several bombers and fighters of their own.  The survivors arrived over Midway at around 0630.  The Japanese attacked lasted thirty minutes.  Marine anti-air defenses claimed ten kills and seemed anti-climactic, but Japan’s air assault was what the Navy fleet commander wanted.  As these planes returned to their carriers, US aircraft followed them.

The Battle of Midway’s significance was that it signaled the end of the United States’ defensive war and the beginning of America’s offensive.  In these early days of a long war, the Defense Battalions’ Marines had played their role and contributed to the war effort.  With the arrival of additional Marines, most of whom had enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor, many found their way into the Defense Battalions.  By the end of 1942, the Marine Corps had 14 defense battalions.  Two years later, there were twenty such battalions.

Guadalcanal and beyond

The assault of Guadalcanal was the first American land offensive in the Pacific war.  The 3rd Defense Battalion provided support to the 1st Marine Division’s landing.  The landing force commander split the Battalion to support simultaneous operations at Guadalcanal and Tulagi.  The Battalion’s machine-gun sections and 90-mm anti-aircraft guns[15] went ashore in the first assault waves.  Similarly, the 9th Defense Battalion supported the assault on the Munda Peninsula in July 1943.  By this time, defense battalions employed 155-mm and 40-mm guns.  On Vella Lavella, the 4th Defense Battalion’s 90-mm gun was the Japanese pilot’s worst nightmare.  Both the 9th and 14th Defense Battalion went ashore with the landing forces at Guam in 1944.  When Japanese aircraft were no longer capable of threatening Marine occupied terrain, senior officers decided that the battalions had served their purpose.  HQMC disbanded most defense battalions after the war —but one (sort of) remains today.  One Marine responsibility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is to defend the naval base.  This mission is similar to that of the World War II-era defense battalion.

Sources:

  1. Cole, E. K.  Advanced Base Force Training.  Philadelphia: 1915.
  2. Davis, H. C.  Advanced Place Training.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1911.
  3. Jackson, R. H.  History of the Advanced Base.  Records of the General Board of the Navy, 1913.
  4. Jackson, R. H.  The Naval Advanced Base. Records of the General Board of the Navy, 1915.
  5. McBride, W. M.  Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1865-1945.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  6. Millett, A. R.  Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps.  New York: The Free Press, 1991.
  7. Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1974.

Endnotes:

[1] Incorporated as War Plan Red.

[2] Incorporated as War Plan Black.

[3] Incorporated as War Plan Orange.

[4] Eli Kelley Cole (1867-1929) graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1888, served as a naval officer for two years, and transferred to the US Marine Corps in 1890.  In 1915, Cole, Williams, Earl H. Ellis, John H. Russell, and Robert H. Dunlap were the Marine Corps’ deepest thinkers.  While commanding the 1st Provisional Brigade in Haiti, he received the Navy Cross Medal.  He later commanded the US Army’s 41st Infantry Division during World War I, and served as the first Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.  He passed away while still serving on active duty.

[5] The forebear of the 1st Marine Division.

[6] Designated 2nd Regiment, Advance Base Brigade on 18 February 1914 (today, 1st Marines).

[7] Designated 1st Regiment, Advance Base Brigade on 18 February 1914 (today, 2nd Marines).

[8] Fleet exercises were important rehearsals in the development of amphibious warfare and the establishment of advanced base defenses, including the art and science of loading/un-loading ships, transfer of equipment from ship to shore, employment of shore artillery, signal science, combat engineering, harbor construction/defense, and the employment of automatic weapons.

[9] See also, Wake Island (in three parts).

[10] Colonel Dessez’ also formed and trained the 1st Samoan Battalion (infantry) (territorial reserve).

[11] One of Putnam’s flight officers was Captain Frank C. Tharin, a graduate of the US Naval Academy (1934).  While serving on Wake Island, Tharin distinguished himself through his courage and aeronautical skill against overwhelming Japanese air forces.  He was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star Medal, and two Air Medals.  Tharin spend the war in a Japanese POW camp.  I worked for LtGen Tharin in 1968 at a time when Tharin served as the Operations Deputy to the Commandant of the Marine Corps.  General Tharin passed away in 1990.

[12] Wesley McCoy Platt survived the war as a POW.  The United States subsequently awarded him the Silver Star Medal, Legion of Merit, and Purple Heart Medal.  During the Korean War, Colonel Platt died of wounds while serving on the staff of Major General Oliver P. Smith, USMC, who commanded the 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir.

[13] Warfare is by its nature complex; overly complicated war plans simply increase the likelihood of failure at critical moments of the battle.  

[14] First Lieutenant George H. Cannon, a communications officer, received severe wounds from Japanese guns but he refused evacuation until the communications center was once more up and running.  Cannon died shortly afterwards. He received the Medal of Honor posthumously, the first Marine to receive the nation’s highest medal during World War II.

[15] The round of the 90-mm gun weighed 23 pounds.  It had a maximum range of 39,500 feet.


One Face of War

Private First Class John Wilson Hoffman, USMC

Lott, Texas is a small town in Falls County.  The settlement began in 1889 with the construction of the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railroad.  The town was named after Uriah Lott, who at the time was president of the railroad company.  In 1889, the settlement involved a total of around two-hundred folks.  They were church-going people, as evidenced by the fact that Lott, Texas had three churches in 1892.  There were also two cotton gins, and two gristmills.  In 1892, there were 350 people living in Lott and by then the town had a weekly newspaper.  In eight more years, the town had grown to 1,200 citizens.  Besides those working for the railroad, there were local farmers who raised corn and cotton.

But Lott was typical of small Texas towns.  Economic conditions were meager, and folks scratched out their existence through hard work barely rewarded.  And, as with most other Texas communities, the Great Depression took its toll and people began to move away.  In 1930, only 650 people were recorded living there in the national census.  Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration helped, of course.  Government subsidies encouraged diversification from farming into stock raising and truck farming.  Even now, though, economic opportunities are limited, and the town relies heavily on the speed trap along State Highway 44/US Highway 77.  In 2010, 759 people lived in Lott, Texas.

One of its citizens, born and raised for a time in Lott, was John Wilson Hoffman.  One of four children, John was born in 1922.  His parents, John Wilson Hoffman, Sr., and Sadie Hoffman, moved their family to Houston in 1929.  John graduated from Stephen F. Austin High School in the class of 1940 and the 18-year old went to work for Lindle Air Products Company as a shipping clerk.  In August 1942, John was 20-years-old, the nation was at war, and the young patriot John Wilson Hoffman, Jr. joined the United States Marine Corps.

J. W. Hoffman

After recruit training, the Marines assigned Hoffman to the 18th Marine Regiment — combat engineers with the 2nd Marine Division.  The regiment was not slated to participate in the Battle of Guadalcanal, but the 6th Marine Regiment was organizing and needed men to fill their ranks.  In mid-December 1942, John Hoffman was one of several dozen engineers transferred to the 6th Marines and Hoffman ended up in Lima Company, 3/6.  The regiment shipped out to New Zealand for pre-combat training.

The ladies of New Zealand are lovely to look at, and young Marines are easy to fall in love — as did John W. Hoffman, and he was so much in love with his New Zealand lassie that he didn’t want to leave her.  When 3/6 sailed for the Solomon Islands, John was not among them.  In fact, no one saw Hoffman again until 7 January 1943, when he surrendered to New Zealand police in Wellington.

When 3/6 returned from Guadalcanal in late February 1943, Hoffman was waiting for them at Camp Russell.  Hoffman received a court-martial for missing his movement.  During war, this is a serious offense — but it could have been worse.  Had his superiors charged him with desertion in time of war, he may have faced a death penalty.  Hoffman was found guilty of “missing movement,” and sentenced to ninety days in the brig.  He was also fined $15.00 per month for three months.  It doesn’t seem like much of a fine, but Hoffman was only making $50/month in 1943.

After three months of confinement in a Marine Corps brig, Hoffman was a changed man.  Upon release, he returned to his unit, stayed out of trouble, and applied himself to combat training.  His transformation from a love-starved puppy to a fighting grunt was so impressive that his company commander promoted him to Private First Class (PFC).

John Hoffman had become a “squared away” Marine.  When Lima Company mustered for their next combat assignment, John Hoffman was present and accounted for.  What no one in Lima Company knew was that their next assignment would take them to a tiny atoll in the middle of a very large ocean.  The atoll had a name — Tarawa.  The island was Betio.

Far above the station of mere privates, America’s war planners had been looking for an air base capable of supporting operations across the mid-Pacific — to the Philippines in the South, and to Japan in the North.  The need for advanced bases led these war planners to focus their attention on the Mariana Islands, which at the time were heavily defended by the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy.  Before the US could seize the Marianas group, they would have to control the Marshall Islands, but the Marshalls were cut off from direct communications with Hawaii by a Japanese garrison  on the small island of Betio, on the western side of the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.  Before the Americans could concentrate on the Mariana Islands, they would have to neutralize the Japanese on Betio.

Betio Island is Tarawa’s largest.  It is located about 2,400 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor.  Despite its size on the atoll, it is infinitesimally small.  It is a flat island, two miles long, triangle shaped, and at its widest point, only 800 yards from shore to shore.

If Evans Carlson’s diversionary raid at Makin Island accomplished anything at all, besides getting good Marines killed, it was that it sent a signal to the Imperial Japanese that their Island defenses were vulnerable to American attack — and that the Americans viewed the Gilbert Islands as an important objective. 

Thus warned, the Japanese reinforced Betio with its 6th Special Landing Force (Japanese Marines).  In total, the Japanese island commander, Rear Admiral Tomonari Saichiro, commanded 5,000 defenders.  An experienced engineer, Saichiro directed the construction of the Betio defenses.  Saichiro’s plan was to stop the Americans before they reached the island’s shore; and if that failed, then to make the American’s pay dearly for their audacity.  The Evans Carlson gave the Japanese a year to perfect Betio Island’s defenses.

The Gilbert Islands campaign was the largest invasion force yet assembled for a single operation in the Pacific.  There were seventeen aircraft carriers, twelve battleships, twelve cruisers, sixty-six destroyers, and thirty-six troop transports.  Aboard the transports were the 2nd Marine Division and the US 27th Infantry Division — totaling 35,000 troops.  The Marines began their assault at 0900 on 20 November 1943.  The 6th Marines, under the command of Colonel Maurice G. Holmes, would dedicate the 1st Battalion (William K. Jones, commanding) and 3rd Battalion (Kenneth F. McLeod, commanding) in the third and fourth wave assaults at Green Beach.[1]

It was at Green Beach, during the fourth wave attack, that Private First Class John Wilson Hoffman, Jr., met his end.  As Lima Company moved up to relieve elements of the 1st Battalion, an enemy bullet found Hoffman and instantly killed him.  The Marines of Lima Company gently laid his body to rest along with thirty other members of his company.  They did their best to mark the grave site as lethal battle raged around them and the Marines continued to move forward under heavy Japanese resistance.  It was a horrific battle.  The movement of tanks, artillery, and troops soon obliterated the grave marker.

As with so many other Marines who died at Betio over a period of 72-hours — 1,009 killed, 2,101 wounded — the Marine Corps eventually notified Hoffman’s parents that their son’s remains were unrecoverable.  History Flight[2] recovered John Hoffman’s body, where it had lain undisturbed on Betio Island for 76 years.  John Hoffman finally came back home to Texas in the spring of 2020.  There was no one left alive in John’s family who remembered him.

Some gave all.

Sources:

  1. Alexander, J. H.  Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
  2. Graham, M. B.  Mantle of Heroism: Tarawa and the Struggle for the Gilberts.  Presidio Press, 1998.
  3. Hammel, E. & J. E. Lane.  Bloody Tarawa.  Zenith Press, 1998.
  4. Smith, H. M.  Coral and Brass.  New York: Scribeners & Sons, 1949.

Endnotes:

[1] The 2nd Battalion (Raymond G. Murray, commanding) was assigned to assault and occupy the outer islands of Tarawa.  Murray later commanded the 5th Marines during the Battle of the Pusan Perimeter during the Korean War and in that capacity, participated in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.  Both Jones and Murray achieved flag rank with Jones retiring as a lieutenant general and Murray as a major general.

[2] History Flight is a privately operated non-profit organization dedicated to researching, recovering, and repatriating the remains of American servicemen from World War II through the Vietnam War period.  Since 2003, History Flight has recovered 130 missing servicemen in both the ETO and PTO.  John Hoffman’s remains were one of these.


Mayaguez

Crisis in Command

One could refer to this incident as the last episode of the Vietnam War, but doing so would only present half the picture.  Cambodia was also involved — and Laos — and China, and the Soviet Union.  We could probably call it a Southeast Asian War or the Third Indochina War.  But no matter what one chooses to call it, by mid-May 1975, the American people were gut-wrenchingly tired of Southeast Asia.

In over 25 years of direct or indirect combat operations, the American people gave up 58,000 of their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers.  Seventy-five thousand Americans sustained severe wounds; of those, more than 23,000 were permanently disabled, including five thousand who lost limbs and over a thousand multiple amputees.

Beyond this, the United States government squandered the nation’s wealth — with untold billions spent shoring up French Imperialism, bribing Vietnamese officials, bombing North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In the final analysis, the United States of America walked away from the entire episode with nothing to show for its mind-numbing costs.  Not one presidential administration, from Harry S. Truman to Gerald Ford, had any intention of winning that war.

The Trigger

SS Mayaguez

In the middle of May 1975, just weeks after the fall of Saigon, the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian Reds) “coast guard” seized a United States flagged ship named SS Mayaguez.  Following Phnom Penh’s fall on 17 April, the communists moved to control Cambodia, including its offshore islands.  Khmer Rouge and (north) Vietnamese forces clashed over territory claimed by both countries.  Operating in defense of Cambodian territory, the Khmer navy/coast guard instituted coastal patrolling to prevent Vietnamese incursions — and because of their belief that the CIA used merchant shipping to conduct intelligence-gathering operations along coastal areas.[1]

Within this tense environment, the Khmer navy captured seven Thai fishing boats on 2 May and charged them with territorial violations.  They also pursued a South Korean freighter on 4 May.  On 7 May, the Khmer navy seized a Panamanian-flagged ship near the island of Poulo Wai and questioned its crew for more than 36 hours.  Five days later, the Khmer navy fired on a Swedish vessel in the same area.  On that same day, the Khmer Rouge dispatched a company-sized unit to occupy Poulo Wai.  None of the merchant ships operating off the coast of Cambodia knew about this transfer.

Cambodia asserted its sovereignty twelve nautical miles outward from the shoreline of its mainland and all claimed islands — and had done so since 1969.[2]  In 1975, Poulo Wai Island was a potential site for oil exploration, explaining Cambodia’s sensitivity to foreign trespass.  The US had no interest in Poulo Wai other than suppressing what it believed to be a base for Cambodian pirates’ operations. 

On 12 May, the US container ship SS Mayaguez (owned by Sea-Land, Inc.[3]) transited near Poulo Wai en route from Hong Kong to Sattahip, Thailand.  At 1418, a Khmer navy swift boat approached Mayaguez and fired a shot across her bow.  Seven Khmer Rouge seamen boarded Mayaguez and ordered the captain to proceed to Poulo Wai.  The ship transmitted a mayday, which was picked up by an Australian vessel.  Mayaguez was carrying 107 cargo containers, 77 of which were US government and military cargo — including material from the United States Embassy in Saigon.

SS Mayaguez’ SOS call prompted notification to the US Embassy Jakarta, which transmitted the information to the National Military Command Center in Washington.  The National Security staff notified President Ford of the incident the next morning (Washington time).  Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger urged Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger to direct the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command, Admiral Noel Gayler, to launch a reconnaissance aircraft to locate Mayaguez — but even before any analysis of photographs, Kissinger and Deputy National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft had already decided that the crisis deserved a decisive response.  In the wake of the United States’ recent withdrawal from Cambodia and Vietnam, both Kissinger and Scowcroft believed that the US’s reputation was at stake.[4]  Presidential advisors also wanted to avoid another USS Pueblo incident.[5]  President Ford directed Kissinger to petition China for its help in releasing the Mayaguez.

President Ford and Kissinger drafted a press release to the American public stating that the seizure of a US-flagged ship was an act of piracy.  Technically, it was no such thing.  Meanwhile, Secretary Schlesinger ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to locate the ship and undertake measures to prevent its movement to the Cambodian mainland.  Kissinger sent a terse note to the Chinese Liaison Office in Washington demanding the “immediate release” of the ship and its crew.  The Chinese liaison office refused to accept the message, however — apparently, the Chinese were not in the mood for accepting demands from a country recently defeated by a nation of rice farmers.

In compliance with Schlesinger’s instructions, the Pacific command launched aerial reconnaissance missions from the Philippines and Thailand and diverted the USS Coral Sea from its course en route to Australia.  Pacific Command also dispatched a guided-missile destroyer with escort toward Mayaguez’s last known location.  Admiral Gayler also issued a warning order to the III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF), placing them on standby.  III MEF passed the mission through the 3rd Marine Division to the 9th Marine Regiment on Okinawa and to the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines (1/4) at Subic Bay, Philippine Islands.  As a rapid reaction company from 1/4 assembled at Cubi Point Naval Air Station for possible airlift to Thailand, a Battalion Landing Team (BLT) from the 9th Marines began its pre-deployment procedures on Okinawa.

On 13 May, an Orion aircraft identified a significant radar return near Poulo Wai and dropped flares on the suspected location of Mayaguez.  Young Khmer Rouge sailors, believing that they were under attack, opened fire.  Both photo-reconnaissance aircraft, already low on fuel, withdrew.  Replacement aircraft also received gunfire from Khmer ground forces.

Within a few hours after seizing the ship, the Khmer navy officials ordered the master of the Mayaguez, Captain Miller, to get underway.  He was instructed to follow a swift boat toward the Northeast.  Orion aircraft continued to track the ship’s movement.  Admiral Gayler ordered the Commanding General, 7th US Air Force, Lieutenant General John J. Burns, USAF, to assume operational control over US military recovery efforts.  Burns marshaled rotary-wing aircraft for a possible air assault mission.

A flight of two F-111’s marked the ship’s position, which was then nearing Koh Tang Island.  Soon after, F-4 Phantoms arrived and began firing into the water ahead of Mayaguez, indicating to Captain Miller that he was to halt.  It was then that the Khmer naval commander ordered the ship’s crew into two fishing boats for transfer to Koh Tang Island.

Meanwhile, the Navy’s flotilla — Coral Sea, Holt, and Wilson — signaled that they would not arrive on station until 15 May.  None of these ships carried a Marine landing force.  USS Hancock (CVA-19), with a small contingent of Marines, would not arrive until 16 May, and USS Okinawa (LPH-3), with a BLT, would not arrive until 18 May.

On Okinawa, III MAF assigned the Special Landing Force (Task Force 79.9) to recover Mayaguez.  Company D, 1/4 was designated as the unit that would actually take Mayaguez, but General Burns wanted a more significant force.  Ultimately, the 3rdMarDiv assigned BLT 2/9 as its air assault force.  The battalion flew to Thailand on the morning of 14 May.  Only a few of the 1,100 officers and NCOs of 2/9 had any combat experience.

Seventh US Air Force earmarked nineteen of its helicopters to participate in the air assault.  Nine of these were HH-53C (Jolly Green) aircraft, and ten were CH-53s.  The HH-bird was capable of aerial refueling; the CH-53 was not.  Meanwhile, General Burns developed a plan to re-take Mayaguez with an assault force from the 56th Security Police Squadron.  He intended to drop 75 SPS volunteers on the containers aboard the ship on 14 May.

En route to Cambodia’s Southeast coastal region, one of the CH-53s (call sign Knife 13) crashed, killing all on board (18 police and five crewmen).  President Ford subsequently canceled General Burns’ plan because, beyond the loss of one aircraft and 23 men, these large helicopters were too heavy to land on shipping containers.  Instead, President Ford decided to await the arrival of the Navy and Marines.  However, President Ford ordered Burns to stop any Cambodian boats moving between Koh Tang and the mainland.

Early on 14 May, at Koh Tang, the Khmer navy loaded the Mayaguez crew onto a fishing vessel and, with an escort of two swift boats, headed toward the mainland at Kampong Som.  Air Force F-4s, A-7s, and an AC-130 gunship sunk one fast boat and convinced another to turn back.  Orbiting pilots reported the presence of 30 to 40 Caucasians on the fishing boat.  One senior pilot opined that he might be able to shoot the rudder off the fishing boat to stop its progress.

By this time, communicators had established a link between the White House situation room, the Pacific Command in Hawaii, and General Burns’ headquarters at Nakhon Phanom.  General Burns relayed the pilot’s idea for shooting off the fishing boat’s rudder to the White House, which NSC staffers immediately denied.  Ford decided that if anything, the Air Force should only drop tear gas onto the fishing boat but gave the go-ahead to sink all patrol boats.

Acting JCS Chairman, U. S. Air Force General David C. Jones, provided the NSC staff with a range of military options.  One major complication for the rescue operation was that no one knew for certain the Mayaguez crewmen’s location.  There was a long list of things the forward area commander didn’t know.

The NSC decided to proceed with a Marine assault to retake Mayaguez with a simultaneous attack by Air Force and Navy assets on Koh Tang and against Khmer naval vessels.

The Air Force’s tear gas assault did not affect the fishing boat, and it proceeded to Kampong Som.  Upon arrival, the ranking Khmer area commander wisely refused to allow the boat to dock; he anticipated a massive retaliatory attack by American aircraft.  The redirected fishing boat proceeded to Koh Rang Sanloem undetected by orbiting aircraft.

Marines from Delta Company 1/4 arrived in Thailand during the early-morning hours of 14 May; insofar as the American high command knew, the Cambodians detained crew members at Kampong Som, so higher authority canceled the planned assault on Mayaguez.  Delta Company Marines did what they always do … they waited for someone higher on the totem pole to make up their minds.  Meanwhile, Marines from BLT 2/9 began arriving at U-Tapao, Thailand.

That afternoon, President Ford ordered General Burns to proceed with a simultaneous assault on Koh Tang and Mayaguez; the assault would begin at sunrise on 15 May.  Since the Americans had no information about Koh Tang, the 2/9 Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Randall W. Austin, and his operations officer boarded a Beechcraft U-21 to conduct aerial reconnaissance of the island.

The problem with Colonel Austin’s aerial reconnaissance was that he could not get close enough to the island to see anything worthwhile without compromising the upcoming assault.  All Colonel Austin could tell about Koh Tang for sure was that heavy jungle foliage covered the island and that there were only three (potential) landing zones for an air assault.  He found two of these on the northern section of the island, which he designated East Beach and West Beach, and another beach located center of the island’s eastern shore.  The center beach was too narrow for vertical assault operations.

From photographs taken by reconnaissance flights, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimated an enemy footprint of between 150-200 Khmer Rouge with heavy weapons.  Colonel Austin never received this information; he proceeded with his planning on the generally held assumption that only a small number of Khmer navy irregulars were on the island.

Austin planned a two-company air assault, assigning the mission to Company E and Company G (Echo and Golf) 2/9.  They would fly to Koh Tang aboard three USAF CH-53s and three USAF HH-53Cs to seize and hold Koh Tang.  Two additional helicopters would make a diversionary thrust toward West Beach; the main assault would occur at East Beach.  From that East Beach, Austin planned to proceed to a small compound believed to be the location of Mayaguez’s crewmen.  Flight time from U-Tapao to Koh Tang was two hours.

Fifty-seven Marines from Delta Company 1/4, including a detachment of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians, a team of volunteers from the Military Sealift Command, and a Cambodian linguist, were transferred by helicopter to USS Holt, from which they would re-take Mayaguez.

Acting JCS Chairman Jones briefed President Ford and the NSC Staff on the operation plan.  Jones wanted to incorporate B-52s from Guam in bombing Kampong Som and the Ream Naval Base, but the president believed the B-52s were “excessive” and limited aerial bombing to carrier-based aircraft.  With that modification, President Ford approved the operation and gave the go-ahead.

None of the Mayaguez crewmen were at Koh Tang.  Moreover, island defenses included around 150 Khmer defenders.  These troops had not been placed on Koh Tang to counter an American assault but rather to prevent a Vietnamese takeover of the island.  The island’s commander had set up two heavy machine gun emplacements on East Beach with interlocking fires and well-developed defensive positions every twenty or so meters behind a sand berm.  The commander also set up one heavy machine gun at West Beach and armed those defenders with RPGs, 75-mm recoilless rifles, and mortars.

Meanwhile, the senior Khmer commander at Rong Sang Lem interviewed Captain Miller.  Miller was asked to contact the American military and persuade them to call off their anticipated attack; the Cambodian did not want an engagement with the Americans.  Miller told this commander that if he could return to the ship, restart her engines, it may be possible to contact his company in Bangkok, and they, in turn, could communicate with the US military.  The Cambodian military commander decided to return Captain Miller and nine of his crew to the ship the following day.

The operation to retake Mayaguez occurred the next morning, beginning at about 0600.  Delta Company Marines successfully conducted one of the few hostile ship-to-ship boarding operations since the American Civil War; the ship was secure within an hour.

On to Koh Tang

At about the same time, eight USAF helicopters approached the Koh Tang landing zones.  At West Beach, the first helicopter section (two aircraft) to arrive received heavy machine gunfire.  The aircraft with call-sign Knife 21 safely offloaded its Marines, but enemy fire destroyed one of its engines.  After disembarking the Marines, Knife 21 struggled into the air only to ditch two miles offshore.  Inbound Knife 22 also received damage while in-flight, forcing it to withdraw with Marines still on board — including the Gulf Company commander.

Thirty minutes later, CH-53s approached East Beach and encountered intense automatic weapons and RPG fire.  Knife 31 was hit by two RPGs, causing it to crash in a ball of fire fifty meters offshore.  The aircraft’s co-pilot, five Marines, and two Navy corpsmen were killed in the crash; another Marine drowned while swimming away from the wreck. Three additional Marines were killed by Khmer automatic weapons while trying to reach the shoreline.  Ten surviving Marines and three USAF crewmen were forced to swim for two hours before being rescued from the sea.  Among the surviving Marines was the battalion’s forward air controller, who used a USAF survival radio to call in A-7 strikes against the enemy position — doing so until the radio’s batteries failed.

An RPG hit Knife 23, which blew off the aircraft’s tail section, causing it to crash land on East Beach.  Twenty Marines and five aircraft crewmen safely exited the aircraft and set up a hasty defensive perimeter.  Knife 23’s co-pilot used his survival radio to direct airstrikes.  This group remained cut off for twelve hours.

Knife 32, inbound to East Beach, was hit by an RPG and aborted its landing.  After dumping his fuel, the pilot proceeded to rescue three of Knife 21’s crewmen.  The remaining inbound helicopters were diverted from East Beach to West Beach and landed their Marines; an AC-130 gunship, call-sign Specter, was called in to suppress Cambodian defensive fires.  Knife 32, Jolly 41, and Jolly 42 eventually landed 81 Marines on West Beach.  Gulf Company’s executive officer assumed command; Jolly 43 landed 29 Marines a half-mile further southwest.

By 0700, 109 Marines and five USAF crewmen were on Koh Tang, but in three isolated beach areas, each in close contact with Khmer Rouge defenders.  Marines on the northern end of West Beach attempted to link up with Colonel Austin’s command element but were beaten back by overwhelming enemy fire.  Lance Corporal Ashton Loney lost his life in this attempt.  Although isolated, the Marines could employ their 81-mm mortars for fire support, and communicators set up a makeshift radio net for directing air support operations.

An effort to extract the Marines on East Beach failed when Jolly 13 received severe damage in the attempt; with fuel lines ruptured, the aircraft flew to Rayong, Thailand.  Of the eight birds assaulting Koh Tang, enemy fire destroyed three and damaged five birds sufficiently to remove them from further operations.  Because only three helicopters of the assault force remained operational, two aircraft initially assigned to sea and rescue operations, Knife 51 and Knife 52, became part of the airlift element.  These five birds picked up the second wave of the Marine assault force and headed back toward Koh Tang.  Enemy fire damaged the fuel lines of Knife 52, which had to abort its landing; Knife 41 and Jolly 43 likewise aborted their landings and remained in a holding pattern offshore.

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s press minister announced that the crew of Mayaguez would be released and went further to explain why the ship had been “detained” in the first place.  The White House then engaged the Cambodian government in a war of press releases.  President Ford immediately took credit for the release of Mayaguez crew members when their release had nothing to do with Ford.  Meanwhile, the president ordered airstrikes to continue until the successful withdrawal of the assault force.

Acting JCS Chairman Jones determined that since the Mayaguez’s crew had been returned to US control, there was no reason to reinforce the Marines at Koh Tang.  The JCS notified all American forces to “ceasefire” and withdraw.  General Burns ordered the return of Austin’s second wave, but Austin convinced him that reinforcements were needed to prevent the Khmer Rouge from overrunning the Marine positions.  Austin ordered an additional one hundred additional Marines ashore.  At that point, there were 225 Americans on Koh Tang, 205 Marines on West Beach, and 20 Marines and five airmen at East Beach.

By 1400, enemy fire at West Beach had diminished substantially; the Khmer defenders’ main force had moved back from the shoreline with a minimal force remaining to keep pressure on the Marines.  Colonel Austin contacted the airborne command post for permission to push across the northern end of the Island to link up with the isolated Marines at East Beach.  He was advised to hold until another helicopter extraction attempt was made.  Jolly 11 and Jolly 43 made their attempt at 1415 but were repulsed by heavy fire.  Jolly 43 was forced to land aboard the Coral Sea.  Jolly 43’s pilot reported that he had received fire from one of the swift boats partially sunk the previous day. A-7’s soon arrived to destroy the boat.

At 1610, a USAF OV-10, call-sign Nail 68, arrived to take over air support functions above Koh Tang.  The arrival of Nail 68 was the first time the Marines had dedicated overhead fire support direction.  At 1700, the Khmer Rouge commander moved his men back to a previously established ammo dump.  Thus, resupplied with ammunition, the Khmer Rouge could re-engage the Marines.  At 1815, Jolly 11, though sustaining battle damage, was able to extract the Marines and airmen from East Beach.  Once the bird was clear, a C-130 dropped a daisy-cutter 15,000-pound bomb on the area of East Beach.  The bomb’s massive shockwave extended over the Marines at West Beach.  Colonel Austin directed that no more such bombs be employed, as they endangered his Marines.

In the darkness of the night, Knife 51, Jolly 43 (hastily repaired), Jolly 44 (brought online from a repair facility at Nakhom Phanom) began extracting the Marines from West Beach.  Knife 51 extracted forty-one Marines and flew them to the Coral Sea.  Jolly 43 extracted fifty-four Marines.  As Jolly 44 picked up forty-four Marines, the 66 remaining Marines came under intensive Khmer fire and were in danger of being overrun. 

The flight time to Coral Sea was around thirty minutes; to shorten the extraction time, First Lieutenant Robert Blough, USAF, delivered his Marines to USS Holt, which in a moonless night was a difficult maneuver.  Once the Marines had been offloaded, Blough returned to Koh Tang and picked up an additional thirty-four Marines.  Lieutenant Blough, whose aircraft began experiencing mechanical issues, flew the Marines to Coral Sea.

At 2000, Knife 51 landed and began loading Marines in the dark.  The only light available came from the muzzle flashes of enemy weapons.  Captain Davis and Gunnery Sergeant McNemar began combing the beach, looking for stragglers.  USAF Technical Sergeant Wayne Fisk stood on the ramp of his aircraft as two additional Marines appeared from the brush.  Fisk asked Davis if all his Marines were accounted for; Davis replied in the affirmative.  Nevertheless, Fisk combed the beach one last time, looking for stragglers and finding none, Knife 51 launched for the Coral Sea.

Because of the intensive enemy fire and no way to communicate with the Khmer defenders, the bodies of Marines and airmen killed in action were left where they fell, including LCpl Loney at West Beach.

As the Air Force birds pulled Marines off the beach, the Marine’s defensive perimeter was contracted to facilitate force protection.  Lance Corporal John S. Standfast, the squad leader of the third squad, third platoon, Echo Company, provided cover for Gulf Company during its withdrawal; Standfast directed the pullback of his own men.  As his men contracted, he and platoon guide Sergeant Anderson continually checked to account for all hands.  Before boarding his extraction helicopter, the Echo Company commander, Captain Mike Stahl, informed Captain Davis from Gulf Company that all his men were inside the perimeter.  Captain Stahl did not realize that three Marines of one of his machine gun teams had set up a firing position behind a rocky outcrop beyond the perimeter’s right flank.

As Knife 51 lifted off, Marines began insisting that some of the men were missing.  Knife 51’s pilot, First Lieutenant Brims, radioed the FAC that he believed there were still Marines on the island.  Captain Davis assured the FAC that all Marines were off-island.  Two hours later, Captain Stahl discovered three of his Marines were missing: Lance Corporal Joe Hargrove, Private First Class Gary Hall, and Private Danny Marshall — the machine gun team — were missing.  Sergeant Anderson was the last to see these Marines alive when he ordered them back to the shrinking perimeter.

At 2020, USAF Staff Sergeant Robert Veilie at the airborne command post received a radio transmission from an unidentified American asking when the next helicopter was coming to pick them up.  Veilie authenticated the transmission and radioed to advise Holt that Marines were still on the island.  Holt instructed Veilie to pass the instruct the Marines to swim out to sea where they could be rescued.  The Marines declined because only one of the three Marines could swim.  Veilie advised the caller to take cover since airstrikes were scheduled at their likely position.  After acknowledging Veilie’s instructions, whomever Veilie talked to went off the air, and no more was heard from him.

Aboard Coral Sea, the Commander, Task Force 73, Rear Admiral Robert P. Coogan, met with Colonel Austin, Commander Coulter, who had just arrived from Subic Bay with a 14-man Seal Team, Captain Davis, and Gunnery Sergeant McNemar to discuss possible courses of action.  Admiral Coogan suggested that Coulter take the Wilson’s gig ashore at first light with a white flag to see if he could recover the remains of those killed in action and any possible stragglers.  Coulter was cool to the idea; he preferred taking his men ashore for a nighttime reconnaissance.  Coogan refused this notion; his orders from COMSEVENTHFLT were to cease hostilities — and he had no confirmation that these “missing” men were still alive.  Despite Wilson’s efforts to spot Marines between East Beach and West Beach, which included cruising offshore and loudspeaker announcements in English and Cambodian, there was no indication that the three Marines were still alive.  Moreover, Coogan was certain more lives would be lost during any forced rescue attempt.

On 16 May, Hargrove, Hall, and Marshall were declared “missing in action.” On 21 July 1976, all three Marines were reported Killed in Action, bodies not recovered.

Except — they weren’t.

In 1999, the Khmer Rouge commander at Koh Tang Island approached the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting, who advertised that they were looking for additional information about Koh Tang’s event.  The man’s name was Em Son.  According to his memory, on the morning of 16 May, he ordered his men to search the West Beach for any remaining Americans.  Around a hundred meters into the search, one of the Khmer defenders was hit by M-16 fire.  The Cambodians fired mortars into the area and captured a wounded Marine.  Em Son’s description of the man matched that of Joseph Hargrove.  The Cambodians continued their search and located an abandoned M60 machine gun and other various equipment.  A few minutes later, the Khmer discovered the body of a black Marine, believed to be LCpl Loney.  They buried Loney and took their wounded prisoner to Em Son.  When the wounded Khmer soldier died, Em Son ordered Hargrove executed.

Em Son also testified that about a week later, he and his men noticed that their food stores were being disturbed.  On searching, they discovered boot prints in the soil.  They set up a night ambush and, on the third night of their vigil, they captured two Americans.  Em Son’s descriptions matched those of Gary Hall and Danny Marshall.  On instructions from Kampong Som, the two Americans were taken to the mainland and transferred to the Ti Near Pagoda, where they were stripped to their underwear and shackled.  A week later, on orders from Phnom Penh, each prisoner was beaten to death with, he said, a B-40 rocket launcher. Hall’s body was buried in a shallow grave near the beach; Marshall’s body was dumped into a nearby cove.

The next of kin of all three of these abandoned Marines received the Purple Heart Medal.  They weren’t the only casualties.  In total, forty-one Americans were killed in the rescue of Mayaguez — one more American serviceman killed than the whole crew saved in the operation.  These casualty numbers reflect the 23 SPS and aircrewmen who died in the helicopter crash, the 18 killed assaulting Koh Tang Island (which includes Hargrove, Hall, and Marshall), and eighty personnel wounded or injured during the operation. 

Sources:

  1.  Caro, R. A.  The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent. New York: Random House, 1991.
  2. Lamb, C. J.  The Mayaguez Crisis, Mission Command, and Civil-Military Relations.  Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, 2018.
  3. Rumsfeld, D.  When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency. New York: Free Press, 2018.
  4. Shafer, J. “The Honest Graft of Lady Bird Johnson: How she and Lyndon came by their millions.” Slate Magazine, 16 July 2007.

Endnotes:


[1] I have no evidence suggesting that this claim had any merit.  I will only observe that if it was true, it was very poor headwork inside the CIA and shipping company boardrooms if they agreed to conduct it.

[2] Cambodia had long claimed a twelve-mile territorial limit of adjacent seas.  Its national policy toward seizing, detaining, questioning maritime crews had been in effect since 1969.  Most countries since 1982 claim a twelve-mile territorial limit.  But in 1975, the United States (and many other countries) only recognized a three-mile territorial limit.

[3] A major shareholder in Land-Sea/Maersk was none other than the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson.  According to Robert A. Caro, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of President Johnson (The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent), Johnson used his political power and influence to build her fortune beginning in 1943.  “Johnson had worked at politics for years to achieve power; now he was working at politics to make money.”  According to award winning journalist Jack Shafer, “Under Texas law, Lyndon Johnson owned half of her profits.”  The truth of Johnson’s Indochina War may thus be revealed to us; he, as a sitting president, profited from the war through his wife ownership of stock in a company that became the primary shipper logistics and war materials to the Republic of Vietnam.

[4] America’s reputation was already a shamble since Harry S. Truman’s gross incompetence involved us in the easily avoided Korean War (which, as of this date, technically still continues) and laid the foundation for similar events in Indochina eleven years later.

[5] USS Pueblo (AGER-2), initially constructed for the US Army as a freight and supply ship during World War II, was transferred to the US Navy in April 1966 as a light cargo ship.  Her subsequent designation as an environmental research vessel was a cover for her real purpose, signals intelligence (known informally as a “Spy Ship”).  In early 1968, USS Pueblo engaged in surveilling Soviet naval activity off the Japanese coast and gathered electronic intelligence from North Korea.  Claiming that Pueblo was illegally operating in North Korean waters (North Korea at the time claimed 50 nautical miles of sovereign territory), North Korean gunboats fired upon Pueblo (killing one crewman), seized the ship, interned the crew as prisoners of war, mistreated the crew, tortured the ship’s commander, and demanded a written apology by the US government as a condition of releasing the crew.  The United States signed the admission, and the North Koreans released the crew in late 1968 but retained possession of the ship and all of its highly classified material (hardware and software).

The Atlantic War, 1939-45

Some background

Most people associate the World War II Era Navy and Marine Corps with the Pacific War — which is certainly accurate; the U. S. Navy was unquestionably the dominant force in the Pacific.  But the Allied powers could not have won the European war without superior naval power, as well.  Victory at sea was a keystone for allied triumph over the Axis power in all World War II theaters.

  • Pacific-Asian fronts
  • Europe (Nordic, Western, Eastern fronts)
  • Mediterranean, Africa, Middle East

Victory at sea involved the formidable task of keeping sea lanes open for the movement of troop transports,  combat equipment, raw materials, and food stores — in massive quantities earmarked for the United Kingdom, nearly isolated by hostile German forces.

Complicating the Navy’s Atlantic mission was the fact that theater area commanders had to compete for limited naval resources.  There were only so many aircraft carriers, only so many landing craft, only so many carrier-based aircraft — only so many men.  It was up to theater area commanders to find the best way of distributing these limited assets where they would do the most good.  As one can imagine, the Navy’s mission to protect ships, men, and material over vast areas of the world’s major oceans was no small undertaking — and neither was denying access to them by the Axis powers.

Within 15 years from the end of World War I, Germany began rebuilding its military and naval forces.  Between 1933 and 1939, without opposition and emboldened by European politicians who sought to avoid war at any cost, Germany seized and annexed Alsace-Loraine, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.  When Adolph Hitler discovered that the “free world’s” only response to this aggression was appeasement, and in concert with the Soviet Union, he launched a lightning invasion of Poland.  Allied powers responded to the invasion by declaring war on Germany, prompting Germany’s invasion of Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France — and then began its assault on the United Kingdom through aerial bombing and naval blockades.  Once Germany believed that it had neutralized the United Kingdom, Hitler foolishly invaded the Soviet Union.

Following the First World War, the United Kingdom decided to place all of its military aircraft under the Royal Air Force, completely neglecting its naval arm vis-à-vis sea-launched aircraft.  As a result of this poor thinking, the United Kingdom lost its maritime superiority.

In the years leading up to World War II, Royal Navy Aviation competed with the RAF for scant resources.  The decision taken by Britain’s war policy board was that strategic bombing must occupy a higher priority than seaborne attack aircraft — and did so even after the United States proved that long-range bomber aircraft were only marginally effective against moving ships at sea.  The use of B-24 Liberator aircraft against Japanese ships of war during the Guadalcanal campaign in 1942-43 reinforced the American’s earlier conclusion.

In 1939, the Royal Navy had a substantial base structure at both ends of the Mediterranean, at Alexandria, Egypt, Gibraltar, and Malta.  The French Navy had naval bases at Toulon and Mers-el-Kébir and deluded themselves into believing that the Mediterranean was “their sea.”

In September 1939, when the UK declared war against Germany, there were only seven aircraft carriers in the British fleet.  These were capital ships highly vulnerable to German submarines, battleships, and land-based aircraft.  Because the British had no carriers in the First World War, there was no battle-tested procedure for protecting aircraft carriers.

Substantial loses during the UK’s initial carrier operations underscored weaknesses of command decisions and employment doctrine.  HMS Courageous was lost in the second week of the war, sunk by the German submarine U-29HMS Ark Royal might have been lost in the following week were it not for defective torpedoes fired by U-39.  From these two incidents, the British Admiralty decided that carriers were too vulnerable for use as a submarine screening force.  In early June 1940, HMS Glorious was lost to German battleships off the coast of Norway [Note 1].

At the beginning of 1942, the U. S. Atlantic Fleet operated Carrier Division Three, which included the fleet attack carriers (CVA) USS Ranger, USS Hornet, and USS Wasp, and the escort carrier (CVE) USS Long Island.  Over the course of the war, American and British carriers became increasingly effective in a number of operational assignments — from providing air cover during amphibious operations to patrolling in search of enemy ships.

Unlike the Pacific war, where naval and ground commanders planned and implemented combat strategies and operations, European heads of government were the decision-makers in the Atlantic war.  Both Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler directly involved themselves in the details of operational planning; in contrast, Franklin Roosevelt left the details of fighting to his military commanders.

The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic was a contest of strategies between the Allied and Axis powers.  Both sides attempted to deny use of oceanic shipping.  British and American navies sought to blockade German shipments of raw materials from Norway; the Germans attempted to block American shipments of food and vital supplies to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.

Germany relied principally on its submarines, merchant raiders, battle cruisers, and land-based aircraft to destroy American shipping — of those, submarines were by far the most effective [Note 2].  Allied use of aircraft carriers contributed significantly to the ultimate success of the Battle of the Atlantic — used not only to protect convoys, but to locate and destroy German submarines, as well.  This success was the direct result of the Allied capture and deciphering German code machines.

In September 1939, Germany had fifty-seven submarines; twenty-two were suitable for combat operations in the Atlantic and only eight or nine could operate “on station” because of the time it took to return to their base for fuel, refit, and replenishment.  By March 1940, this small submarine force accounted for the sinking of 222 Allied ships — including two aircraft carriers, a cruiser, and two destroyers.  Germany’s application of underwater naval assault was “unrestricted,” evidenced by Germany’s sinking of the civilian passenger ship Athenia.

On land, it took Germany only six weeks to conquer France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands (10May-24 June 1940).  With the fall of France, Germany was able to establish a submarine base along the French coast, which brought their U-boats 1,000 miles closer to Allied convoy routes.

Within the space of two years, the production of German U-boats was sufficient to allow Germany’s Grand Admiral Erich Raeder and Admiral Karl Dönitz to begin employing submarines in groups (from eight to twenty) (the wolf pack).  In April 1941, German submarines destroyed half the convoy ships transiting from Halifax to Liverpool.  The action was significant enough to cause President Roosevelt to order the transfer of USS Yorktown, three battleships, and six destroyers from the Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic Fleet.  In September 1941, Roosevelt transferred 50 American destroyers to the Royal Navy [Note 3].  It was at this time that the United States Navy began escorting Britain-bound convoys as far as Iceland.  Despite these efforts, by the time the United States entered the war, German U-boats had destroyed 1,200 cargo ships.

American Attitudes, 1939-41

The American people well-remembered the terrible loss of life during World War I and they wanted nothing whatever to do with another European War.  Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for reelection with the promise of neutrality [Note 4].  When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Roosevelt declared American neutrality — but he also established a “neutral zone” in the Atlantic within which the United States would protect shipping.  The Navy assigned USS Ranger to patrol this “neutral” zone.

Even before 1939, Roosevelt’s opposition party in Congress watched developing world events and the president with growing concerns.  Members of Congress were well aware that Roosevelt was itching to involve himself in the European war, so in the 1930s, the congress passed a series of neutrality acts (1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939) that reflected the mood of the American people.  Americans had become isolationist and non-interventionist.  Whether these were carefully thought-out restrictions may not matter today, but the Acts made no distinction between victim or aggressor.

As Congress pushed back against Roosevelt’s apparent desire to engage in the emerging world war, Mr. Roosevelt crafted clever ways around congressional restrictions.  The so-called Lend-Lease program was enacted in early March 1941; it permitted President Roosevelt to provide Great Britain, Free France, the Republic of China, and Soviet Union with food, oil, and war materials [Note 5].   Congress earmarked more than  $50-billion for this purpose (about 17% of the USA’s total war expenditure) (in modern dollars, around $600-billion), most of which went to the United Kingdom.  Under this agreement, nations receiving war materials could use them until returned to the United States (or were destroyed).  Very little war material was returned to US control [Note 6].  The net-effect of Lend-Lease was that it removed any pretense of neutrality by the United States.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, President Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.  On 11 December, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States.  Mr. Roosevelt had his war.

Carriers and Their Functions

Large areas of the Atlantic were beyond the range of land-based aircraft in Canada, Iceland, and Great Britain.  The UK, with insufficient fleet resources, initiated programs to enhance convoy protection.  In 1940-41, Britain converted three ocean-going vessels, a seaplane tender, and an auxiliary cruiser  [Note 7] to help extend the protective range of land-based aircraft.  They called these vessels Fight Catapult Ships (FACs), Catapult Aircraft Merchant Ships (CAMs), and Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MACs).  Germany sank three of these ships in 1941 — the same year the British converted thirty-five additional merchant ships into catapult ships.

In January 1941, the United Kingdom began converting captured German merchant ships to escort carriers (CVEs).  While CVEs were slow and lightly armored, they did provide platforms for dispatching and retrieving land-based aircraft.  Britain’s first CVE was christened HMS Audacity.  The ship carried six operational aircraft with room for an additional eight, but because there was no hanger deck or elevator, aircraft were maintained on the flight desk.

In April 1941, the United States began converting merchant hulls to CVEs.  The first American CVE was christened USS Long Island.  A second American CVE was transferred to the UK, who christened her HMS ArcherArcher was capable of operating 15 aircraft.  The Americans constructed five additional CVEs, (transferring four to the Royal Navy): HMS Avenger, HMS Biter, HMS Dasher, HMS Tracker, and the USS Charger.

Lessons learned from USS Long Island led to substantial improvements to forty-four successive CVEs.  The new constructs were capable of carrying between 19-24 aircraft.  Thirty-three of these went to the United Kingdom.  Additional CVEs were constructed from tanker hulls, which were longer and faster than the merchant hull ships.

Aircraft carriers operating in both oceans had similar functions.  They supported amphibious landings, raided enemy ports, searched for enemy submarines, escorted merchant convoys, transported aircraft, troops, vital supplies, and served as training platforms for carrier-rated pilots.

The Turning Point

In the spring of 1943, German submarines assaulted 133 Allied ships, a major decline from previous periods.  The Battle for the Atlantic had taken an abrupt turn.  On 21 April, Germany sent 51 U-boats to attack a 42-ship convoy transiting from Liverpool to Halifax.  Designated Convoy ONS-5, the shipments were protected by nine naval escorts.  U-boats sunk thirteen ships; escort vessels and Catalina flying boats sunk seven U-boats and badly damaged seven more.  In total, for that month, Allied forces destroyed 43 German submarines.  For the next six months, beginning in May 1943, the Allies dispatched 64 North Atlantic convoys with 3,546 ships to Great Britain.  Not a single ship was  sunk en route.

Faced with such massive losses, Grand Admiral Dönitz ordered his submarines into the Central Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.  These were the areas used by the United States to transport men and materiel to the Mediterranean to support operations in Sicily and the India-Burma campaign.  To counter Dönitz’ strategy, the U. S. Navy authorized anti-submarine groups, which included destroyers and CVEs, to operate apart from convoys.  Between June – December 1943, Allied hunter-killer groups [Note 8]  destroyed 31 German U-boats, including ten of the so-called resupply submarines.  Admiral Dönitz’ strategy in the Central and South Atlantic fared no better than his North Atlantic scheme.

Hunter-killer battle groups were a team effort.  CVEs used the F4F Wildcat fighter to look for submarines, and when spotted (either by air or radar), dispatched TBF Avengers with bombs, depth charges, and torpedoes.  Allied destroyers and destroyer escorts served to screen the CVE hunter-killer groups [Note 9].

By the end of 1944, the Allied powers dominated the Atlantic.  Dönitz moved his submarine force around, but the US & UK were reading the admiral’s mail.  He ordered 58 U-boats to counter Allied landings at Normandy.  German U-boats sank four Allied ships at the cost of 13 U-boats.  After Normandy, Dönitz withdrew his submarines to Norwegian waters, which drew the Allies’ attention to the German battleship Tirpitz (a sister ship to Bismarck), which lay at anchor in Norway.  Tirpitz did very little during World War II, but the ship did offer a potential threat to Allied navies.  In early 1944, the Allies’ focus on Tirpitz deceived the German high command into believing that an Allied invasion of Norway was imminent.  Once Tirpitz was sunk in November 1944, the Royal Navy felt comfortable sending the carriers HMS Formidable and HMS Indefatigable to the far east to join the British Pacific Fleet.

At the beginning of 1945, HMS Implacable was the only Allied fleet carrier in the Atlantic, supported by 12 British and 10 American CVEs.  All other fleet carriers were sent to the Pacific Theater to finish the war with Japan even as the war with Germany continued.  Thirty German U-boats attacked a 26-ship convoy in February 1945, supported by German Torpedo-Bombers, but aircraft from CVEs Campania and Nairana drove the U-boats away with no loss of merchantmen.  Convoys bound for Russia continued through May 1945 [Note 10].

Marines in the Atlantic

We seldom read or hear about Marines who served in the Atlantic War.  This is very likely because fewer than six-thousand Marines participated in Atlantic, North African, and European campaigns during World War II.  Of course, before the war, US Marines served at various U. S. Embassies.

In 1941, about four-thousand Marines of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade served in Iceland through February 1942.  But given the expertise of U. S. Marines in amphibious warfare, the Navy Department assigned several senior Marine officers to serve as planners/advisors for invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy.  For example, Colonel Harold D. Campbell [Note 11], an aviator, was responsible for planning air support for the 6,000 man raid on Dieppe [Note 12].  Marines were also responsible for training four U. S. Army combat divisions in preparation for their amphibious assault of North Africa.  In North Africa, Marines from ship’s detachments executed two raids in advance of the main invasion: one operation involved seizure of the old Spanish Fort at the Port of Oran; a second raid secured the airfield at Safi, Morocco.  Both operations took place on 10 November 1942, the Marine Corps’ 167th birthday.

Fifty-one Marines served with the U. S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), participating in behind the lines operations in Albania, Austria, Corsica, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Rumania, Sardinia, and Yugoslavia from 1941 to 1945.  See also: Marines and Operation Torch, Behind the Lines, and Every Climb and Place.

At sea, Marines assigned to detachments aboard battleships and heavy cruisers served as naval gun crews during the North African, Sicily, and Normandy invasions [Note 13].  Reminiscent of the olden days of sailing ships, Navy ship commanders sent their Marine sharpshooters aloft to explode German mines during Operation Overlord (the invasion of Normandy) [Note 14].  On 29 August 1944, Marines from USS Augusta and USS Philadelphia participated in the Allied acceptance of the surrender of Marseilles and 700 German defenders.

When General Eisenhower assumed the mantle of Supreme Allied Commander, his staff consisted of 489 officers.  Of these, 215 were American officers, including Colonel Robert O. Bare, who served on the staff of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, Allied Naval Commander.  Bare worked on the plan for the Normandy invasion.  While serving with the British Assault Force, Bare was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.  At the completion of his tour in Europe, Bare participated in the Palau and Okinawa campaigns.  During the Korean War, Bare served as Chief of Staff, 1st Marine Division.

Colonel Jeschke (1894-1957)

Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk served Eisenhower as Commander, Western Naval Task Force.  Assigned to Kirk’s staff was Marine Colonel Richard H. Jeschke [Note 15].  Jeschke served Kirk as an assistant planning officer in the operations staff.  Of the total 1.5 million Americans serving in Europe, 124,000 were naval personnel.  Fifteen-thousand of those served on combat ships, 87,000 assigned to landing craft, 22,000 assigned to various naval stations in the UK, and Marine Security Forces, United Kingdom.  On 6 June 1944, Rear Admiral Don P.  Moon (Commander, Force Uniform), frustrated with delays in landing operations, dispatched Colonel Kerr ashore to “get things moving.”  Kerr diverted troops scheduled to land at Green Beach to Red Beach, which expedited the operation.  Colonel Kerr credited the low casualty rates during the landing to the accuracy and rate of fire of naval artillery.

The landing at Omaha Beach was a different story.  German defenses inflicted 2,000 casualties on a landing force of 34,000 men.  Rear Admiral John L. Hall dispatched Colonel Jeschke and First Lieutenant Weldon James ashore at Omaha Beach to observe and report back to him the effectiveness of naval gunfire support from USS Texas.

Colonel John H. Magruder II, USMC served as the naval liaison officer to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group.  Many Marine officers were assigned to various posts because of their fluency in foreign languages.  Magruder was fluent in Dutch.  Major Francis M. Rogers served as an interpreter for General Edouard de Larminent, Commander, II French Corps.  Rogers was fluent in both French and Portuguese.    

Sources:

  1. Allen, H. C.  Britain and the United States.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1955.
  2. Dawson, R. H.  The Decision to Aid Russia, 1941: Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.
  3. DeChant, J. A.  Marine Corps Aviation Operations in Africa and Europe.  Washington:  Marine Corps Gazette, 1946.
  4. Donovan, J. A.  Outpost in the North Atlantic.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1992.
  5. Edwards, H. W.  A Different War: Marines in Europe and North Africa.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1994.
  6. Eisenhower Foundation.  D-Day: The Normandy Invasion in Retrospect.  Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1971.
  7. Morrison, S. E.  The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963.
  8. Menges, C. A.  History of U. S. Marine Corps Counter-intelligence.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1991.
  9. Roskill, S.  The Navy at War, 1939-1945.  Chatham, Kent, Great Britain: Mackays of Chatham, 1960.

Endnotes:

[1] Glorious was ordered to help evacuate aircraft during the UK’s withdrawal from Norway.  The ship left the main body of the fleet when discovered by the German battleships.  German 11-inch guns literally ripped Glorious apart.  Alone, without aircraft aloft, and only 4-inch protective guns, Glorious had no chance of survival in a hostile sea.  Captain Guy D’Oyly-Hughes, commanding Glorious, was a former submarine skipper.  He decided to set out alone so that he could, once at sea, court-martial Wing Commander J. B. Heath, RN, and Lieutenant Commander Evelyn Slessor, RN, who had refused to obey an order to attack shore targets.  Heath admitted his refusal, but argued that his mission was ill-defined and his aircraft unsuited to the task.

[2] German submarines accounted for 70% of world-wide allied shipping losses.

[3] The agreement was also known as the Destroyers-for-Bases Agreement.

[4] In a joint statement issued on 14 August 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill announced their joint goals for the world following World War II.  Later dubbed The Atlantic Charter, it established an outline of objectives that included dismantling the British Empire, the formation of NATO, and a general agreement on tariffs and trade.  An American-British alliance was formed in 1939 with Roosevelt and Churchill secretly meeting eleven times.  The Atlantic Charter made clear Roosevelt’s support of Great Britain, but in order to achieve the charter’s objectives, the United States would have to become a participant in the war.  This could not happen, politically, unless there was first of all a cataclysmic event that propelled the United States into the war.  From 1939 forward, Roosevelt did everything he could to cause the Japanese to attack the United States —which they did on 7 December 1941.

[5] Canada had a similar program they referred to as “Mutual Aid.” 

[6] The Lend-Lease arrangement with China (suggested in 1940) involved a plan for 500 modern aircraft and enough war materials to supply thirty divisions of ground troops.  With the Chinese civil war “on hold” until the defeat of China’s common enemy (Japan), Roosevelt dealt independently with both sides through General Joseph Stilwell.  Neither Chiang Kai-shek nor Mao Zedong ever intended to return Lend-Lease equipment to the United States; rather, both sides intended to use these armaments on each other after war with Japan was settled.  As it turned out, American Marines died from weapons and ammunition manufactured in the United States when turned against them by Mao’s communist forces in 1945.

[7] OBVs were merchant ships pressed into service by the Royal Navy and converted into auxiliary carriers.

[8] The hunter-killer groups included US CVEs Card, Bogue, Core, Block Island, Santee, and HMS Tracker and Biter.  USS Block Island was the only American CVE sunk in the Atlantic War.

[9] At a time when the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty (1922) limited the construction of large battleships, the United States began building replacement ships for obsolete World War II destroyers.  The Navy produced 175 Fletcher-Class destroyers (DD), designed as torpedo attack ships with a secondary mission of anti-submarine warfare and screening for capital ships.  Destroyer Escorts (DE) were a smaller variant ship with specialized armaments capable of a smaller turning radius.  Both ships were referred to as “tin cans” because they were lightly armored.  They relied more on their speed for self-defense.  During World War II, the U. S. Navy lost 97 destroyers and 15 destroyer-escorts.

[10] Convoys to Russia during the war involved 740 ships in 40 convoys, which provided 5,000 tanks and more than 7,000 aircraft.  German U-boats destroyed 97 of these merchantmen and 18 escorting warships.  Germany lost three destroyers and 38 U-boats.

[11] Harold Denny Campbell (1895-1955) served in both the First and Second World War.  On 6 December 1941, Colonel Campbell assumed command of Marine Aircraft Group 11 at Quantico, Virginia.  In May 1942, he was personally selected by Lord Mountbatten to serve as a Marine Aviation advisor to the British Combined Staff.  After promotion to Brigadier General in 1943, Campbell assumed command of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing in Samoa and in 1944 commanded the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing in the Peleliu campaign.

[12] The raid was conducted by British and Canadian commandos.  Tagged as Operation Jubilee, the purpose of  the amphibious raid to test the feasibility of lightening raids for intelligence gathering and boosting the morale of “folks back home.”  It was a much-needed learning experience because aerial and naval support was inadequate, the tanks were too heavy for a “lightening raid” and the Allies under-estimated the strength of German defenses.  Within ten hours of the landing, the German army killed, wounded, or captured 3,623 British/Canadian commandos.  The British also lost 33 landing craft and a destroyer.  Operation Jubilee became a textbook lesson on what not to do in an amphibious operation.

[13] U. S. Navy battleships usually included a detachment of two-hundred Marines; battle cruisers usually had a detachment of around 80 Marines.

[14] I am trying to imagine a Marine sharpshooter 200 feet in the air on a pitching ship, shooting German anti-ship mines with any degree of accuracy.  Damn.

[15] Colonel (later, Brigadier General) Jeschke (1894-1957) served with distinction in both the Atlantic and Pacific campaigns: on Guadalcanal, and during the invasions of Sicily and Normandy.