RIVER FIGHTS: The Middle Years

War with Mexico

The US Navy added to its growing experience in inland operations during the Mexican War.  When hostilities began, Commodore David Conner, commanding the Home Squadron, blockaded the Mexican Gulf Coast.  The blockade forced the enemy to use inland waterways and overland routes to move supplies.  San Juan Bautista, 74 miles up the Tabasco River from Frontera, was a distribution center for contraband war materials.  The river had ample depth to accommodate large vessels but there were significant obstacles in planning for an assault.  The river’s current was strong, dense vegetation provided good cover for riflemen and snipers.  The river also took a sharp (and hazardous) “S” bend (called the Devil’s Turn) and there were two strategically placed forts guarding the approaches to San Juan Bautista.   Normally, sailing vessels alone would have little chance of success —but at this time, the US Navy was incorporating steam engines into the fleet.  The Home Squadron had several small steam-powered ships of war.

On 23 October 1846, a naval expeditionary force under Commodore Matthew C. Perry crossed the sand bar at Frontera and seized the town with little to no resistance.  Then, with three steamers and four other vessels, proceeded upriver to San Juan with a 200-man landing party.  The journey took around 33 hours.  Anticipated resistance 9 miles below San Juan never materialized because the Mexican garrisons fled as soon as they could see the American ships closing for action.

Arriving at San Juan before noon on 25 October, Perry demanded the town’s surrender.  When the Alcalde[1] returned an insolent reply, Perry fired on the central flag staff, destroying it.  Perry spared the town but to keep shipping out of the hands of insurgents and gun runners, he seized two Mexican steamers, five schooners, and several smaller craft.  When Mexican riflemen opened fire on Perry’s squadron, Perry had his cannon rake the streets, which effectively ended all interest in firing on the Americanos.  Neither of the two towns was occupied, but Frontera was blockaded for six months.  When the blockade was lifted, Mexican smugglers began their activities anew.

In mid-June 1847, Commodore Perry was ready to ascend the Tabasco River for the second time.  This time, Perry assembled a larger force.  An advocate of naval infantry drill and landing party training, Perry formed a naval brigade of 2,500 officers, seamen, and Marines.  Captain J. Mayo was appointed to command the brigade.  Perry’s squadron included four small steam warships, six schooners, bomb brigs, and numerous ships’ boats.

At the first elbow of the Devil’s Turn, lead ships encountered small arms fire from dense chaparral banks.  Ships’ fire silenced the shooters, but obstructions had been placed in the river around the turn.  Well-manned breastworks on the shore provided a Mexican firing platform.  After reconnoitering the obstructions, Perry landed his brigade for the nine-mile march overland to San Juan.

While Perry led his naval brigade through the swamps and  jungle, Lieutenant David Dixon Porter[2] assumed command of the flotilla and worked his ships through the obstructions.  Perry’s combined force successfully routed 600 Mexican troops at Accachappa and moved on to Fort Iturbide situated just below San Juan.  Fort Iturbide had a battery of six guns and 400 infantry troops.  Porter led the flotilla into Mexican fire and then, under the protective cover of ship’s cannonade, he released a landing party to assault the fort.  The Mexicans broke before the charge.  When Perry and the brigade arrived, the American flag was already flying above the fort.

In two separate instances, Perry demonstrated the value of coordinated tactical inland penetrations.  The operation against San Juan Bautista was a valuable lesson for the US Navy; it would come in handy again in the not-too-distant future.

The Rude War

The U. S. Navy’s main advantage over the Confederate States of America in 1861 was that the south had no navy at the beginning of the Civil War.  Accordingly, the Union navy had, and retained, its control of the sea at all stages of this conflict.  The U. S. Navy implemented three broad strategies: (a) naval blockade of southern coastal regions, (b) amphibious assault and capture of port cities and strong points, (c) splitting the Confederacy along the Mississippi River (and tributaries) and seizing inland waterways to crush Confederate resistance.  The Union navy’s effective 3,000-mile blockade and the imbalance of opposing naval forces resulted in its ability to focus on coastal and inland riverine operations[3].

Commander John D. Rodgers, placed in overall charge of riverine operations for the navy, selected vessels and readied a force under Army control in northwestern waters with its headquarters near Cairo, Illinois (at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers).  From this location, Union vessels could influence river traffic in Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri.  Rodgers purchased and converted river steamers into wooden gunboats: Tyler, Lexington, and Conestoga.  Through the War Department, Rodgers contracted for seven additional gunboats (named for the cities they would defend).  These “city class” vessels became the backbone of the river fleet.  They were 175-feet long, had a 50-foot beam, and the top deck was shielded with heavy armor.  Thirteen guns included old-fashioned 42-pounders (supplied by the Army), and 8-inch and 32-pound navy guns.

While the city class boats were under construction, the wooden gunboats made significant contributions to the Union effort.  These former sidewheelers, unarmored and vulnerable, could not have challenged a seagoing warship or stout fortification but they did achieve good results.  In a nation with few and exceedingly poor roads, they controlled the river highways.  Moreover, they provided mobility and speed of movement of troops and supplies, surprise attack, and flexibility in strategy and tactics, and rapid exchange of information between and among field commanders.

Strong southern sentiment permeated the Ohio and Mississippi river systems.  One effect of the gunboats was that they discouraged secessionists and gave confidence to Unionists.  Fence-sitters stayed out of the way.  Alfred Thayer Mahan[4] was convinced that the riverine force was of inestimable service in keeping alive attachment to the Union and preventing secession by Kentucky and Missouri.

The Battle of Belmont (Missouri) was joined on 7 November 1861, the first combat test in the Civil War for Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant.  On 6 November, Grant moved his 3,000 troops by riverboat from Cairo to assault the Confederate outpost near Belmont, which was across the river from the rebel stronghold at Columbus, Kentucky.  Grant and his men went ashore on the Missouri side and marched overland to Belmont.  Grant succeeded in surprising and over-powering the Confederates[5], but they were quickly reorganized and reinforced by Major General Leonidas Polk.  Grants victory was short lived as Polk endeavored to cut off Grant’s withdrawal.  It was only through the gunboats that Grant and the Union survivors made good their escape[6].

River gunships were effective, but they could not aggress rebel fortifications.  This mission would fall to the semi-ironclad ships ordered by Rodgers, who was replaced by Flag Officer[7] Andrew Hull Foote, U. S. Navy.  Foote is remembered as an aggressive officer who, along with Grant, combined their forces to attack and defeat Fort Henry.  There could be no question among Confederate officers that they had no answer to the Navy’s riverine warfare strategy.

Damn the Torpedoes

As the Mississippi River Flotilla steadily beat the CSA Army and Navy into submission, Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut[8] prepared for service in the Gulf of Mexico.  During his assault of New Orleans, Farragut moved his entire fleet up the Mississippi River to contest the heavy guns at Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philips.  During the five-day bombardment, Farragut employed a mortar flotilla built especially for riverine operations.  The rebels put up an exceptional defense of New Orleans but were eventually overpowered by Farragut’s relentless assault and the threat of Union guns over New Orleans’ levees convinced the citizens to submit to Union authority.  What made Farragut’s victory sweet was that New Orleans was the only southern city with a chance of matching the Union’s overwhelming riverine forces.

Meanwhile, behind Foote’s gunboats, one catastrophe after another descended upon the Confederates, whose armies could not match the Union advantages in riverine operations, which were expanded into the Tennessee River and down and across the state of Mississippi.  Rather than arteries of life for the Confederacy, they became highways of death.  Advancing behind the gunboats, Grant’s army cut off western Tennessee.  More than any other factor, gunboats were the deciding factor at the Battle of Shiloh.

From New Orleans, Farragut’s heavy ships, while suffering much damage in the restricted and turbulent Mississippi, forged ahead to Vicksburg, a mighty fortress with batteries situated high on the bluff where Farragut’s guns could not effectively reach.  And, with Confederate forces numbering around 33,000, it would take more than Farragut’s 3,500 men to defeat that fortress.  Eventually, after a siege lasting a year, Vicksburg did fall to Grant’s army of  77,000 men.  Confederate casualties numbered 32,687 (3,202 killed, wounded, or missing in action, 29,495 surrendered).

Thus far, the Navy demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of naval warfare on inland waters.  The Navy’s ability to control the sea made riverine warfare possible.  The Navy’s exercise of its control made riverine warfare flexible.  Seagoing ships were adapted to fight in lakes and rivers to oppose shore batteries.  The Navy learned not only how to build riverine vessels, it learned how to fight them through an appreciation for local environments and conditions and devising appropriate circumstantial responses.

In 1898, the U. S. Navy-Marine Corps was ready for the Spanish-American War.  The U. S. Army was not.  A few years later, the Navy dusted off the lessons it learned from previous periods and addressed head-on the challenges associated with the Philippine Insurrection and the Boxer Rebellion.  In the Philippines, riverine warfare facilitated an end to the violence.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, a flotilla of shallow draft gunboats protected American life and property in war-torn China.  Along more than 1,500-miles of the Yangtze River, riverine patrols faced hostile Chinese war lords, snipers, and bandits; landing parties were kept on a moment’s notice for intervention or defense.  Natural dangers, such as swift currents, fast rising tides, and navigational obstacles were as formidable as any encountered by Commodores Barney, Perry, or Farragut.

Sources:

  1. Affield, W. Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat’s Cox’n’s Memory of Vietnam. Hawthorne Petal Press, 2012.
  2. S. Army Field Manual 31-75: Riverine Warfare. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Army, 1971
  3. Friedman, N. US Small Combatants.
  4. Fulton, W. B. Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969.  Washington: Department of the Army, 1985
  5. Joiner, G. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  6. Marolda, E. J. Riverine Warfare: U. S. Navy Operations on Inland Waters.  Annapolis: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2006
  7. Rowlands, K. Riverine Warfare: Naval War College Review, Vol 71, No. 1. Art. 5., Annapolis: Naval War College, 2018

Endnotes:

[1] Mayor.

[2] Porter was a rather extraordinary naval officer from a prominent American family.  Porter began his naval career at age 10.  In 1824, after receiving a reprimand, Porter’s father resigned from the US Navy and accepted Mexico’s appointment as their navy’s commander-in-chief.  David Dixon Porter became a midshipman in the Mexican navy at age 12.  In 1829, Porter received an appointment to the USNA.  He was then 16 years old and a bit too salty for the culture of the Academy.  Were it not for the intervention of Commodore James Biddle, Porter would not have received his commission in the US Navy.  The second naval officer to achieve the rank of admiral, Porter served with distinction for over  62 years.

[3] There is no intent to suggest that the Confederate navy didn’t offer considerable challenges to the Union navy … only that it lacked the experience and traditions of the US Navy.  The CSA navy made a gallant attempt to offset its disadvantages with technological innovation (iron clads, submarines, torpedo boats, mines) and a stout defense of ports and harbors.  In February 1861, the CSA navy had a total 30 vessels; 14 of these were seaworthy.

[4] Mahan was a Navy captain (advanced to rear admiral after retirement) and historian who is generally regarded as the most influential American strategist of the 19th century.  He served as president of the Naval War College and became a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt.

[5] Grants men were so elated by their victory that they began celebrating and drinking strong beverages.  To regain control over his men, Grant ordered the rebel camp set afire.  Unbeknownst to Grant, wounded rebel soldiers were burned to death inside medical treatment tents.

[6] Grant suffered 607 casualties (120 KIA, 383 WIA, 104 captured or MIA), the Confederates 641 (105 KIA, 419 WIA, 117 captured or MIA).

[7] Flag Officer was an impromptu rank.  Foote was promoted to captain in 1861.  When assigned to command the Mississippi River Squadron, which technically came under the War Department, he was advanced to flag officer (equivalent to Commodore) in recognition of his authority and responsibility.  Foote was a heroic officer with long distinguished service.  In 1862, Foote was promoted to Rear Admiral.  He died unexpectedly while on active service in 1863.

[8] Farragut was the adopted brother of D. D. Porter.  He was the nation’s first rear admiral, first vice admiral, and first full admiral in the U. S. Navy.  In April 1862, Farragut captured New Orleans, which gave the Union control of the lower Mississippi.

RIVER FIGHTS: The Early Days

The purpose of the United States Navy is to defend America’s shores; the best way of doing that is by prosecuting war in the other fellow’s backyard.  American sea power achieves its greatest advantage by keeping an enemy’s main force away from America’s shore.  Our Navy controls the oceans for America’s use; it denies to our every foe access to the oceans and skies.  The enemy’s coastline is America’s naval frontier.  Our history over the past few hundred years tells us that our Navy’s strategy has worked out quite well for the American people.

The U. S. Navy is no one-trick pony and naval warfare isn’t confined to vast oceans or hostile coastlines.  Whether projecting naval power at sea, in the air, or ashore, the Navy is prepared to employ the full spectrum of its arsenal: surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, naval guns, sophisticated aircraft, missiles, and shallow draft watercraft.  And then, whenever our enemies need a real ass­-kicking, the Navy asks for a handful of Marines.

Our understanding of the past helps us to better serve the future.  Naval technology in our early days was somewhat limited to ships of the line, cutters, barges, experimental submarines, and small boats (craft suited to rivers and estuaries).  Today we refer to combat operations on rivers as “Riverine Warfare,” and the US Navy has been doing this since the Revolutionary War.  In the modern day, watercraft intended for this purpose is designed and constructed for a specific operational environment.  In earlier times, watercraft used for riverine operations involved whatever was readily available at the time. 

Revolutionary War

The first significant example of riverine operations occurred on Lake Champlain in 1775-76.  Lake Champlain is a 136-mile long lake with connecting waterways north into Canada and southward toward New York City.  They were waterways that offered a prime invasion route to early settlements and colonies and involved a bitter struggle through the end of the War of 1812.  Our revolutionary-period leaders understood that the British would attempt to separate New England from other colonies by controlling Lake Champlain waterways.  Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold seized Ticonderoga on 19 May 1775 and Crown Point a few days later.  These were audacious operations that provided American patriots with badly needed cannon and munitions.

Arnold made a bold move to control Lake Champlain.  He hastily armed a captured schooner, pressed north to St. John’s on the Richelieu River, and in a pre-dawn riverine raid, surprised the British garrison.  He captured a 70-ton British sloop, seized numerous small boats, and helped himself to military stores, provisions, and arms before returning to Lake Champlain.  In one  stroke, the Americans had gained control of Lake Champlain, which thwarted British plans for their upcoming campaign season.

Arnold’s success at St. John’s was followed up with failure at Quebec, which precipitated the American evacuation of that city.  British and American interests initiated a vigorous ship/boat-building effort on Lake Champlain.  In the British mind, control of Lake Champlain had not been finally settled, but they did look upon Arnold as someone who needed their close attention.  For the British to utilize the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River highway to split the colonies, they had to first dispose of Arnold’s naval force.

From their base at St. John’s, the British rapidly constructed 29 vessels (some had been built in England and assembled in St. John’s).  The British squadron included Inflexible, Maria, Carleton, Thunderer, Loyal Convert, twenty gunboats, and four long boats.  Under Captain Thomas Pringle, the squadron commander, were 670 well-trained sailors and Marines.  In total, Pringle commanded 89 6-24-pound cannon.

The arms race of 1776 was on.  Spurred by the restless driving force of Benedict Arnold, the Americans sought to keep pace with the British at their Skenesborough shipyard, near the southern end of Lake Champlain.  They worked with scant resources, green timber, and a hastily assembled force of carpenters.  Drawing on his own experience as a sailor and his newly acquired knowledge of the waters in which he would fight, Arnold prepared specifications for a new type of gondola particularly suited to his task.  He wanted a small vessel of light construction that would be fast and agile under sail and oar. He hoped to offset the disadvantages of restricted waters with greater maneuverability against the slow moving, deeper draft British ships whose strength he could not match.

In all, Arnold fought fifteen American vessels, including the sloop Enterprise, the schooners Royal Savage, Revenge, and Liberty, eight of his newly designed gondolas, and three galleys.  He manned his squadron with 500 men from troops made available to him by General Philip Schuyler and from whatever was available from along waterfront taverns. With pitch still oozing out from the planking in his ships, Arnold, now a brigadier general, set a northward course.  On 10 October, Arnold stationed his flotilla west of Valcour Island where the water was deep enough for passage yet narrow enough to limit British access.  Pringle’s main failure was in conducting a proper reconnaissance of the area, so his fleet sailed past Valcour Island under a strong north wind, which required that he return direction from a leeward position.  The battle raged for most of the afternoon.  Arnold expended 75% of his munitions and his ships were badly cut up.  Taking advantage of the north wind and a foggy night, Arnold slipped through the anchored British ships and escaped.  By the 13th, British ships began to overhaul Arnolds fleet, or ran them aground.  Arnold managed to escape to Ticonderoga with six ships and the loss of (an estimated) 80 men.

Having regained control of Lake Champlain, the British quickly seized Crown Point.  General Horatio Gates and Arnold prepared to defend Ticonderoga but the British instead returned to Canada and went into winter quarters.  Circumstantially, Arnold had been thoroughly beaten on the “inland sea” but had scored a strategic victory.  A British advance southward was delayed for another year and the Continental Army had additional time to build its strength.

During the War of 1812, restricted naval warfare was again seen on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain.  This strategy also focused on inland waterways.  Initially, the British controlled the Great Lakes, which facilitated their capture of Detroit and the invasion of Ohio.  In September 1812, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, USN took command of the lakes along the Erie-Ontario frontier in order to thwart a British invasion from that direction.  Both sides strengthened their positions.  Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry, USN assumed command of all naval activity on Lake Erie, under the direction of Commodore Chauncey from Lake Ontario.  Commanding British naval forces was Commodore R. H. Barclay, RN operating on Lake Erie.  Barclay and Perry both began vigorous ship-building programs; neither side could well afford men or supplies, so corners were cut whenever possible.  Barclay had an advantage over Perry in ships, but through remarkable leadership and effort, Perry closed that gap.

On 10 September 1813, Perry joined Barclay in a desperate battle.  Perry had nine ships to Barclay’s six and an advantage in weight of broadside.  Barclay’s guns had a greater range, however, and Perry was always in danger of being destroyed.  In fact, Perry’s star came very close to setting on Lake Erie.  One of his two heavy ships failed to close with the British, rendering Perry’s flagship Lawrence a shamble.  Decks ran red with blood; 80% of his crew became casualties; defeat seemed inevitable—but not to Master Commandant Perry.  Embarking with a courageous boat crew, he rowed across the shot-splashed water, boarded the uninjured Niagara issued his orders, and steered the ship to victory.  Within a few short months, Perry had assembled a fleet, gave the United States control of Lake Erie, the upper lakes, all adjacent territory, and guaranteed to the United States its freedom of movement on these vital waterways.  Through Perry’s efforts, the United States also laid claim to the Northwest Territory.

Commodore Joshua Barney distinguished himself during the War of 1812, as well.  See also: The Intrepid Commodore.

In the defense of New Orleans, Commodore Daniel T. Patterson demonstrated keen insight and raw courage against attacking British ships.  Patterson correctly predicted that the British would assault New Orleans rather than Mobile and further, that their advance would be along the shortest route, through Lake Borgne and Lake Ponchartrain.  He deployed a riverine force of five gunboats, two tenders, and his two largest ships as a means of forcing the British to delay their arrival in New Orleans.  In doing so, he gave General Andrew Jackson time to complete his defensive works in Chalmette.  See also: At Chalmette, 1815.

The shoreline of the modern United States is 12,383 miles.  Even in America’s early days, the US shoreline was a considerable distance to protect and control.  Before and after the War of 1812, buccaneers, filibusters, and other intruders plagued the United States.  Using longboats, the Navy hunted down pirates through coastal estuaries, Caribbean inlets and lagoons, or waging guerrilla war against hostile Indians.  Their mission took sailors and Marines into the dank and dangerous swamps and bayous of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Whether employing large ships, ironclads, tin cans, rafts, or canoes, the Navy proved time and again that it had flexibility and adaptability in riverine operations, which has become part of the Navy’s proud heritage. 

The Pirates

Pirates had long infested the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, fueled in no small measure by the rapid growth of American commerce.  In the early 1820s, pirates attacked merchant ships nearly 3,000 times.  The associated financial losses were staggering; murder, arson, and torture were commonly inflicted upon American seamen.  Commodore James Biddle, USN, took on the pirates, filibusters, and free-booters.  In command of the West Indies Squadron, Biddle mounted raids in open longboats, manned by sailors for days at a time in burning sun or raging storm.  He reached into uncharted bays, inlets, and small but treacherous rivers—to locate, close with, and destroy the buccaneer menace.

Biddle utilized his heavy ships as the backbone of his riverine force and as sea-going bases for smaller craft.  This strategy steadily reduced piracy through such stellar efforts of Lieutenant James Ramage, USN and Lieutenant McKeever, who commanded the Navy’s first steamship to see combat action on the high seas, USS Sea Gull.  McKeever levelled the pirate base at Matanzas, Cuba in April 1825.  When buccaneers realized that their occupation was becoming less profitable and increasingly hazardous, they started looking around for other work.

Swamp Wars

Between 1836-42, Seminole and Creek Indian wars in the Florida Everglades produced a conflict uncannily like that waged in Southeast Asia 125 years later.  In 1830[1], the US Congress passed the Indian Removal Act to remove Florida tribes to reservation lands west of the Mississippi River.  Shockingly, many of these Indians refused to cooperate with the Congress.  Unsurprisingly, a band of Seminoles attacked and massacred a US Army detachment under the command of Major Francis Dade.  The event occurred in Tampa in December 1835.  Almost immediately, the US government moved more soldiers into Florida and Commodore A. J. Dallas’ West Indies Squadron landed parties of Marines and seamen to add weight to the military presence there.

The frustration of fighting a shadowy enemy who was completely at home in the swampy wilderness and rivers in West Florida prompted the Army to ask for naval assistance delivering supplies, establishing communications, and mounting operations along the Chattahoochee River.  One of the first naval units assigned was led by Passed Midshipman[2] J. T. McLaughlin.  In addition to his duties, McLaughlin served as Aide-de-Camp to Lieutenant Colonel A. C. W. Fanning.  McLaughlin was seriously wounded by Indians at Fort Mellon in February 1837.

As the pace of war quickened, the Navy’s riverine force grew.  The Navy purchased three small schooners in 1839, which operated in the coastal inlets to chart the water, harass the Indians, and protect civilian settlements.  In addition, McLaughlin, then a lieutenant, commanded many flat-bottomed boats, plantation canoes, and sharp-ended bateaux which he used to penetrate the Everglade Swamps.  In effect, McLaughlin commanded the “mosquito fleet,” a mixture of vessels manned by around 600 sailors, soldiers, and Marines.

Sources:

  1. Affield, W. Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat’s Cox’n’s Memory of Vietnam. Hawthorne Petal Press, 2012.
  2. S. Army Field Manual 31-75: Riverine Warfare. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Army, 1971
  3. Friedman, N. US Small Combatants.
  4. Fulton, W. B. Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969.  Washington: Department of the Army, 1985
  5. Joiner, G. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  6. Marolda, E. J. Riverine Warfare: U. S. Navy Operations on Inland Waters.  Annapolis: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2006
  7. Rowlands, K. Riverine Warfare: Naval War College Review, Vol 71, No. 1. Art. 5., Annapolis: Naval War College, 2018

Endnotes:

[1] In 1830, Democrats controlled the US House of Representatives.  Another shocker.

[2] In the 19th century, this term was used to describe a midshipman who had passed the examination for appointment to ensign but was waiting for a vacancy in that grade.  A passed midshipman was also occasionally referred to as a “sub-lieutenant,” but neither of these were ever official naval ranks.

Alamo of the Pacific, Part II

Wake Island Prisoners of World War II

—By James W. Wensyel

Early on the morning of December 8, 1941[1], Wake Island hummed with activity. For months, the wishbone-shaped Pacific atoll of three small islands–Wake, Wilkes and Peale–less than 10 miles long and barely above sea level, had been the site of construction work. Working feverishly to complete an airstrip and defensive fortifications were 449 U.S. Marines of the 1st Defense Battalion, commanded by Major James P.S. Devereux; Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF)-211, equipped with 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats, led by Major Paul A. Putnam; 71 Naval personnel; a five-man Army radio detachment, commanded by Captain Henry S. Wilson; and 1,146 American civilian construction workers of the Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases Company, managed by Dan Teters –all under the overall command of Commander Winfield S. Cunningham.

War with Japan was imminent, and an airstrip on Wake, about 2,000 miles west of Hawaii, would allow American heavy bombers to strike the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands. And, if Guam were lost to the Japanese, Wake would be one of the closest American outposts to the Japanese mainland. Each day work began early and finished late. There were no other diversions on the tiny, barren atoll, and the defenders all realized that war could begin at any time.

Around 7 o’clock that morning an Army radio technician on Wake picked up a radio alert from Hawaii: ‘Hickam Field has been attacked by Jap dive bombers. This is the real thing.’ Devereux shouted for his bugler, Alvin J. Waronker, and soon the clear notes of ‘General Quarters’ sounded across the atoll.

At 8:50[2] the Marines raised the American flag on its staff, something Marines did every morning all over the world, and Waronker began to sound ‘To the Colors.’ In the past he had had trouble with the bugle call, never getting it quite right, but this time he did not miss a note, and for several minutes all activity stopped as each man stood at attention and saluted the flag. Devereux recalled: ‘The flag went up, and every note was proud and clear. It made a man’s throat tighten just to hear it.’ Not long after the flag raising, 36 Japanese Mitsubishi G3M2 Nell bombers crossed Wake in three V-formations. Soon their fragmentation bombs, accompanied by a steady drumming of machine-gun fire, tore the island to pieces. For Wake’s defenders, the war had begun.

Japanese land-based aircraft from Roi in the Marshalls, later joined by aircraft from approaching Japanese carriers, pounded the atoll day after day. Before each attack, a dwindling number of American Wildcat fighters rose to meet them. At 3 a.m. on December 11, a Japanese invasion task force commanded by Rear Adm. Sadamichi Kajioka, consisting of a light cruiser, six destroyers, two troop carriers and two armed merchantmen, confidently approached Wake’s beaches. Marine gunners let them close to 4,500 yards before their 5-inch naval guns opened fire. Their patience was rewarded with the sinking of one Japanese destroyer and damaging of the cruiser and three additional destroyers. Kajioka retreated, now knowing that Wake would not be taken without a fight.

By the 21st, the last of the Wildcats had been destroyed in dogfights over the atoll. With nothing left to fly, Putnam’s aviators were assigned duty as riflemen. Japanese airplanes now roamed over the island at will, pounding American positions in preparation for a renewed attempt to seize the atoll.

In the dark, rain-swept early morning hours of December 23rd, Kajioka returned, his fleet bolstered by four heavy cruisers and various other warships, including landing craft, to assault Wake’s beaches with more than 900 well-trained infantrymen of the Special Naval Landing Force. At 2:35 a.m., the first Japanese landing barge ground ashore. Soon a desperate battle was being fought across the atoll between groups of men fighting with rifles, bayonets, grenades and fists. The Americans fought hard, but more Japanese landed and pushed them toward the island’s center. Teters’ civilian construction workers, many of whom had manned anti-aircraft guns earlier in the fight, now took up rifles and grenades to fight beside the American servicemen.

At dawn, Devereux and Cunningham, separated but talking over the single phone line between the islands, took stock of the situation. The American flag still flew from a battered water tower, the highest point on Wake, but Japanese flags fluttered everywhere else. Reports from the three islands were discouraging; there were simply too many Japanese and too few Americans. Cunningham radioed Pearl Harbor: ‘Enemy on island. Issue in doubt.’

Meanwhile, enemy planes continued bombing and strafing while Japanese ships, beyond the range of the few remaining shore batteries, shelled pockets of American resistance. Devereux, unable to contact his remaining strongpoints, had no idea what was happening a few yards beyond his own command post. Later he would reflect: ‘I tried to think of something …we might do to keep going, but there wasn’t anything …We could keep on expending lives, but we could not buy anything with them.’

Cunningham, as the ranking officer, made the inevitable decision to surrender. The naval commander phoned Devereux to tell him the depressing news. The major gulped, then quietly agreed, ‘I’ll pass the word.’

Devereux and Sergeant Donald R. Malleck, who carried a white cloth tied to a mop handle, then walked across the island, ordering surviving Americans to lay down their weapons. Stunned defenders threw away rifle bolts, destroyed delicate range-finding instruments, drained hydraulic fluid from recoil cylinders and then surrendered. Eighty-one Marines, eight sailors and 82 civilian construction workers had been killed or wounded.

The Japanese, however, paid a heavy price for their victory. The fight for Wake Island had cost them two destroyers and one submarine sunk, seven additional ships damaged, 21 aircraft shot down and almost 1,000 men killed.

Enraged by their losses, the Japanese treated their prisoners —military and civilian— brutally.  Some were stripped naked, others to their underwear.  Most had their hands tied behind their backs with telephone wire, with a second wire looped tightly from their necks to their wrists so that if they lowered their arms, they would strangle themselves. Personal valuables were taken, and wounds ignored.

The prisoners were then jammed into two suffocating concrete ammunition bunkers. Later they were herded to the airstrip and made to sit, naked, on the blistering hot concrete. When the Japanese set up machine guns nearby, most of the prisoners expected to be executed. That night, bone-chilling winds replaced the heat. The prisoners sat there, still waiting for food, water or medical treatment. The unfortunate prisoners remained sitting on the airstrip for two days. Finally, they were given food, much of it spoiled by the heat, and water, contaminated from being placed in unclean gasoline drums. Piles of assorted clothing seized earlier were placed before them; an individual had little chance of finding his original clothing. Marines found themselves in civilian dress, civilian workers in Marine khaki. Private First Class Carl Stegman, Jr., was dressed in a bloodstained shirt, ill-fitting Marine trousers and a pair of sneakers.  Lieutenant John Manning would begin his captivity in a pair of Marine trousers and two oversized, hip-length rubber work boots.

After returning his prisoners’ clothes, Kajioka, resplendent in white dress uniform and gleaming samurai sword, read a proclamation to the assembled prisoners. When he concluded, a Japanese interpreter informed the Americans that “the Emperor has graciously presented you with your lives.”  To which a resolute Marine croaked, “Well, thank the son of a bitch for me!”

During the next 10 days the prisoners were given small amounts of food taken from the remaining stores on the island. They cared for their own wounded with whatever supplies they could obtain.

On January 11, 1942, Kajioka informed the prisoners that they would soon be transferred. This was alarming news because although they had been poorly treated by their captors, both sides had come to some accommodation with one another. Now all that would change.

The next day most of the prisoners were taken to the merchant ship Nitta Maru.  Before boarding, however, they were forced to run a gantlet of cursing and spitting Japanese sailors who struck them with clubs, fists and heavy belts. Crowded into the ship’s hold, they next confronted a Japanese officer who shouted the rules that would govern them.

Thousands of miles from home, crammed into Nitta Maru‘s dimly lit hold, with several buckets for toilets, no heat or ventilation and confronted by brutal guards, the prisoners’ future was bleak. Even so, they were luckier than the 380 prisoners the Japanese kept on Wake to rebuild the island’s defenses. Those unfortunates would slave away until October 1943, when, in retaliation for the strikes on the island by a U.S. Navy task force and fearful of an Allied invasion, the Japanese garrison murdered them all.

It took Nitta Maru six days to reach Yokohama, Japan. During that time the prisoners never left the ship’s hold and were given only tiny amounts of food.  Not understanding Japanese was no excuse for prisoners who failed to instantly obey their captors’ shouted orders. Beatings were commonplace.  In one instance a Japanese guard thought he saw PFC Herman Todd talking without permission.  The private was ordered to jump up and grab an overhanging beam. As Todd hung suspended above the deck, a Japanese bayonet was thrust at his stomach while a Japanese petty officer beat him with a pick handle.

Once they had reached Yokohama, eight American officers and 12 enlisted men were sent to a prison camp in Japan while the remainder of the men continued on to Shanghai, China.  On the voyage to China, Lieutenant Toshio Sato, commander of the Japanese guard detachment, selected five Americans, three seamen and two Marines, at random, blindfolded and bound them, and took them on deck. There, surrounded by 150 Japanese sailors, the Americans were made to kneel. Sato then read to the Americans in Japanese: “You have killed many Japanese soldiers in battle. For what you have done you are now going to be killed … as representatives of American soldiers.”  The bewildered, frightened Americans understood none of his speech.  Perhaps it was just as well, for when Sato finished speaking the five unfortunates were beheaded.  Their bodies were then used for bayonet practice before being thrown overboard.

After landing at Woosung the prisoners were forced to march five miles to what the Japanese called the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp —seven gray, ramshackle single-story buildings with no fresh water or plumbing and limited electricity. To deter escape, the camp was surrounded by barbed wire, electric fences and four constantly manned guard towers.

The prisoners were housed in large, open rooms called sections. Within each section 36 men slept shoulder to shoulder on wooden pallets. Although the temperature seldom exceeded 20 degrees, most of the men wore ragged garments and many had no shoes. There was no heat. In the cold, crowded rooms disease spread quickly. Enforcement of prison rules was simple —if any man in a section misbehaved, all were punished.

At Woosung the Japanese commissary routinely issued food for only 300 prisoners. Rations provided only about 500-600 calories per man per day.  Each of the Wake prisoners would lose at least 60 pounds during his captivity at the prison.

The Americans would never forget Woosung.  The bleak loneliness, bitter cold winds whistling through their flimsy huts, wormy stone-studded rice and dawn-to-dusk work made a lasting impression.  The excesses of the Japanese guards only added to their misery. Although a few of them adopted a live-and-let-live attitude toward the Americans, most of the guards were brutal.

The worst of the Japanese at Woosung was Isamu Isihara, a civilian interpreter who enjoyed beating the helpless Americans.  Although he was a civilian who had once driven a taxi in Honolulu, Isihara wore a samurai sword and insisted that the prisoners treat him as an officer.  Without reason or warning he would fly into a rage, and the prisoners dubbed him the ‘Beast of the East.’

Sergeant Bernard O. Ketner later recalled: “I was severely beaten by Isihara. He struck me four times … with a saber.  Later … the sentry held a bayonet against my abdomen [while] they beat me with their fists … I was kicked in the testicles twice.  Isihara spit in my face and called me a white American son of a bitch.  I was then thrown into the brig for four days, two of which I was given no food.”

When the former British governor general of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Young, refused to salute him, Isihara tried to behead Young with his sword.  Finally, Japanese military officers took the sword away. Instead, Isihara resorted to a leather riding crop with a leaded handle that could be used as a blackjack.

Commanding the Woosung prison camp was Colonel Goichi Yasue, notorious for his violent and unpredictable temper.  He organized the prisoners into 10-man’shooting squads,’ explaining that if “one-man escapes, the other nine die.”

Yasue, whom the Marines called ‘Useless,’ died in March 1942, and was replaced by Colonel Satoshi Otera, dubbed ‘Handlebar Hank’ by the Marines for his moustache. Otera, more concerned with his personal comforts than with his duties, could also be very harsh. In one instance he discovered a hole in a 100-pound bag of sugar and in retaliation denied all of his prisoners food for 72 hours.

The Japanese captors’ attitude toward their prisoners was based on Bushido, the code of the samurai warrior. Bushido taught blind loyalty to the emperor and a disregard for death. A soldier should die before surrendering. Those who surrendered to the enemy surrendered everything, even their lives. Thus, the prisoner became the slave of his captor, to be spared or killed as the captor wished.  As an interrogator explained to the prisoners, “You gave up everything when you surrendered. You do not even own the air that is in your bodies—you are the slaves of the Japanese.”

At Woosung life became a war of wills.  Devereux recalled: “The main objective of the Japanese … was to break our spirit, and on our side was a stubborn determination to keep our self-respect whatever else they took from us.  That struggle was almost as much a part of the war as was the battle we fought on Wake Island.”

Colonel William H. Ashurst, Commander of the Marine Detachment captured at the U.S. Legation at Tientsin, his executive officer, Major Luther A. Brown, and Devereux ensured that their fellow Marines would never succumb to their captors.  Ashurst and Brown, using Brown’s battered copy of the Army field manual, The Rules for Land Warfare, repeatedly confronted Japanese officers with their violations of the Geneva Convention of 1929, prescribing proper treatment of prisoners of war.

Devereux insisted on the same military discipline found at a stateside Marine base. He also insisted that the Marines exercise every day, despite their weakening bodies. Some hated him for maintaining such practices, but later, when they saw that they were winning the mental battle with their captors, most respected him for leading the way.

Despite the terrible conditions inflicted on them, American prisoners saluted their officers, maintained their chain of command, and walked with pride and dignity. They held their own religious services and, using fellow prisoners as instructors, began a series of classes —including history, English, photography, beekeeping and navigation.  They leveled a field for softball and soccer and began a vegetable garden.

Occasionally they scored small victories against their captors that encouraged them to fight on.  Put to work repairing roads, the prisoners instead widened or deepened potholes or loose-packed the dirt so the holes would soon get worse. Assigned to clean weapons, they polished the metal until it was too thin to be safely fired, lost parts, hid bearings, loosened bolts or substituted incorrect parts.

Survival was never easy.  Soon after their arrival at Woosung, the prisoners began to die of illness, untreated battle wounds and malnutrition.  Others died more violently. In June 1942, a young Japanese sentry playfully pulled the trigger of his rifle, and Lonnie Riddle, a civilian construction worker, fell dead at his feet.  Two months later Seaman Roy K. Hodgkins was electrocuted while trying to recover a softball from beneath an electrified fence.  Later, Marine Corporal Carroll W. Boncher died when he accidentally fell against the same fence.

After nearly a year at Woosung, the Americans were moved to another prison camp at Kiang Wang.  By now they were hardened to days with little or no food, brutal guards and backbreaking work, but it all became even worse upon their arrival at Kiang Wang, which Devereux called “the worst hellhole in our captivity.”

At Kiang Wang, Japanese engineers ordered the Americans to build what they described as a playground complex for Japanese children.  The prisoners were forced to engage in a year-and-a-half’s labor to complete the complex, which they called the “Mount Fuji Project.”  Divided into six-man work teams, the prisoners first cleared an area 600 feet long by 200 feet wide, all by hand. Each team had a few crude spades and perhaps a mattock.  They were forced to remove the soil in large woven baskets slung on their backs.

When they had cleared the large area, they began to build an earthen mound 45 feet high, a miniature Mount Fujiyama.  As it grew, the prisoners laid a narrow-gauge railroad track up its slope.  Then they pushed small mine cars, loaded with dirt and stone, to its summit.

When American officers realized that the ‘children’s playground’ really was to be a large rifle range for the Japanese army, they protested, citing Article 31 of the Geneva Convention forbidding prisoners of war to work on military projects.  Otera, however, dismissed their complaint with a sharp retort, “Japan did not sign the Geneva Convention.”

By the summer of 1943, as a result of their sparse prison diet and 12-hour workdays, the prisoners were living skeletons, plagued by dysentery, tuberculosis, pellagra, influenza and malaria.  Month after month of hunger, cold, pain, bone-weary fatigue, loneliness and despair were severely trying the prisoners.  Despite the privation, there was only one rule –survive.

Many prisoners remembered that only the occasional delivery of packages of food, medicine and clothing from home, and the personal, and dangerous, intervention of two men saved their lives.

Loved ones heard little from the prisoners but continued sending them packages and letters.  Most mail got as far as the prison camp but never reached the intended recipient.  Japanese guards pilfered the packages or kept them in supply rooms for months before delivering them to the prisoners.  By September 1943, an estimated 1,000-1,500 pieces of mail had reached the prison camp, but only 719 of them had been given to the prisoners.  Christmas mail arrived on December 23, 1943 but was not delivered until April 12, 1944.  Mail that did reach the men, however, kept them apprised of the war’s progress.  Although Japanese censors read each letter and would not deliver obvious reports of Allied victories, some cleverly disguised messages slipped through.  In one case, the prisoners learned of the American victory at Midway Island. ‘Uncle Joe and Uncle Sam met at the halfway house and had one hell of a fight.  Uncle Sam won,’ read the letter.

Critical to the Americans’ survival was the intervention of Edouard Egle, a Swiss representative of the International Red Cross.  Because they saw their Shanghai War Prisoner Camp as a model for the world, the Japanese allowed Egle far greater access to the American prisoners there than other camps.  Egle was a very competent, compassionate man.  Between 1942 and 1945, he constantly risked Japanese retaliation by insisting upon providing medical and dental help for the prisoners and by supplying them with food and medical packets.  Although Japanese guards looted the packets, enough got through to help the Americans survive.

Egle also provided clothing for the ragged prisoners (critical during the bitter-cold winter months), some heating stoves, books, seeds and livestock for the prisoners’ farm.  Learning that four American doctor-prisoners, aided by a kindly Chinese doctor, had set up a small hospital in the prison compound and were performing surgery with razor blades, closing incisions with common thread or fishing line, and treating dysentery with grains of burnt rice scraped from cooking pots, he provided them with medical instruments and other desperately needed supplies and equipment.

In March 1944, with the prisoners’ situation desperate, Egle personally delivered six food parcels and a pair of coveralls, a cap and a pair of boots to each prisoner.  For some of the men it was their first change of clothing in two years.

The prisoners also remembered the kindness of an American civilian, ‘Shanghai Jimmy’ James, a Minnesotan who, at the outbreak of the war, owned four American-style restaurants in Shanghai that the Japanese somehow allowed to continue operating for some time.  At Christmas 1942, Shanghai Jimmy provided a Christmas tree with trimmings, cigars, cigarettes and a hot turkey dinner for the Woosung prisoners, a tremendous boost to both health and morale.  He continued to send food, medicine and other help to the prisoners until he, too, was interned in the prison camp.

In the spring of 1945, the Americans’ lot improved.  The prisoners received a shipment of food and medical packets, and the Mount Fuji Project finally ended.  More important, their captors saw that the war was winding down.  The Allies’ drive across the Pacific was nearing Japan, and American warplanes had begun bombing Shanghai. The Japanese now knew that the war would soon end, and the Allies would be the victors.  The guards now made the occasional friendly gesture to their prisoners.

Japanese frustration at the course of the war and at the prisoners’ continuing resistance, however, still made life hazardous and uncertain. The Kiang Wang prison was located between two military airfields.  American airstrikes against these facilities endangered their countrymen.  Sometimes Japanese guards, angered at the bombing, took out their frustration on the prisoners.  On January 20, 1945, for example, when prisoners cheered U.S. North American P-51 fighter planes shooting down a Japanese plane, furious guards bayoneted three of them[3].

While listening to a clandestine radio, the prisoners learned that the Allies were nearing Japan. Then Boeing B-29s, en route to bomb Japanese installations around Shanghai, appeared overhead.  On another occasion, American fighter planes buzzed the prison compound, so low that the prisoners reveled in the pilots’ waves of encouragement.  The Americans were getting too close for the Japanese, who were not about to release the Kiang Wang prisoners. On May 9, 1945, they loaded them aboard a train for a five-day trip to Fengtai, eight miles southwest of Peking. During the long train trip from Kiang Wang to Fengtai the only successful escape occurred. Five Americans —two Marines captured from the legation at Tientsin, two Wake Island Marines and one Marine pilot— jumped from the prison train.  Finally found by Chinese Communist troops, they walked for 42 days through more than 700 miles of occupied China before reaching friendly territory and freedom.

The Fengtai prison, a large brick warehouse surrounded by a moat, barbed wire and guard towers, held more than 1,000 prisoners in an area 200 yards long by 146 yards wide. Prisoners slept on Fengtai’s hard concrete floor and used a single spigot for water.

Fortunately, the Americans’ stay in Fengtai was brief.  On June 19, they again were crowded into boxcars for another hard ride, this one to Pusan, Korea, where they were held in shacks, stables and warehouses until a ship could be found to carry them across the Tsushima Strait to Japan.

At dusk on June 28, the prisoners boarded a small coastal steamer for the hazardous 12-hour trip across the strait to Shimonoseki, on the southwestern tip of Honshu.  At Shimonoseki they were crowded into another train.

Seeing the mass destruction American bombers were wreaking everywhere on the Japanese homeland while riding on the train, one Marine exclaimed, ‘I never saw such destruction in all my life.’  They were in Osaka during a B-29 raid and, while changing trains in Tokyo, narrowly escaped death or injury when an angry civilian mob attacked them as their Japanese guards looked the other way.

At Osaka some of the prisoners were diverted to a prison camp at Sendai.  Most of them, however, continued to the northern tip of Honshu, where they were ferried across narrow Tsugaru Strait to Hakodate, site of the group’s final prison.

Hakodate’s guards were brutal.  A Marine recalled: ‘The Japanese required every prisoner to stand up and bow or salute every member of the guard whenever they passed by.  If the prisoner was … slow … the guards beat him.  Prisoners were beaten because they could not understand the Japanese language….’

Most of the prisoners worked 12-hour shifts in a coal mine; others worked in a lumberyard.  Some Marine prisoners labored in an iron mine seven days a week, with a daily ration of three small bowls of rice and soybeans or a small teacup of soup made from weeds.  Civilian foremen beat prisoners to encourage better production or, it seemed to the Americans, for the fun of it.  In one instance, three Japanese civilians were beating Marine Sergeant Bernard H. Manning when PFC Norman H. Kaz interfered. Japanese guards then beat Kaz senseless before tying him to a pit timber at the bottom of the mine shaft.  Then, for two weeks he was beaten every day, emerging with a pair of black eyes, a broken nose and several teeth knocked out.

After they had been at Hakodate for several weeks, however, the Americans noticed that the attitudes of their guards and civilian supervisors changed. The brutal interrogations and beatings ended, prisoners were fed a bit better, and their captors even began to smile cordially at them. One day a Japanese guard explained to one of the prisoners, “Very soon we will all be friends again.”

In late July 1945, Japanese officers treated American officers to a formal dinner at which they offered many toasts to their guests, bowed often and professed friendship with the Americans.  Finally, a senior Japanese officer stood and proposed a toast to “everlasting friendship between America and Japan.”  The other Japanese smiled, nodded and waited for an appropriate response from the Marines.

The American officers sat quietly for a long moment, the gaunt, haggard men looking uncertainly at each other. Then, Major Luther A. Brown, for so long a thorn in his captors’ side, stood, looked about and said matter-of-factly, “If you behave yourselves, you’ll get fair treatment.”

There were other encouraging signs.  On August 15 a mine official suggested that Leonard Mettscher work in another part of the mine because it would be “less dangerous there.”  And on the same day, the prisoners’ work ended early, an unprecedented gesture.  From scraps of a Japanese newspaper they also learned that the Soviet Union had entered the war, attacking Japanese-held Manchuria.

The next day the prisoners woke to find their prison unguarded. Fearful of reprisals by local civilians, the Americans stayed inside the camp.  Later that day, Japanese boy-soldiers, so small that the tips of their bayonets stood high above their heads, appeared at the camp’s perimeter, apparently more intent on protecting the prisoners from civilian assault than in preventing their escape.  That night the prisoners’ rations were increased.

On the 17th they learned about the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  On the 23rd several Marines scaled the prison’s fence and ventured around the nearby village.  Seeing them, young Japanese guards begged them to return to the safety of the camp. The following morning, a Japanese army colonel assembled the prisoners to announce that Japan had surrendered to prevent further bloodshed.

The prisoners now decided to wait for the U.S. Army’s arrival rather than wander around the countryside of a defeated nation.  On August 28 and 30, B-29s parachute-dropped 55-gallon drums crammed with food, medicine and clothing to the war-weary prisoners, a sure sign that their rescue was near.  Many of the men, so long deprived of adequate food, became sick from the feast that followed.

On September 1, Hakodate’s prisoners used colorful cargo chutes to fashion an American flag and, using a Japanese bugle, for the first time in three years, nine months and 21 days Marines sounded ‘To the Colors’ as they hoisted their makeshift flag above the prison camp.  Cautiously, more adventuresome Americans now began to explore the area outside their prison.  On September 9, during the last airdrop of clothing and provisions, a parachute bearing a fuel drum packed with supplies malfunctioned, killing a Marine and two Army prisoners.  They were the last Wake Island prisoner casualties of the war.

Several days after these final tragic deaths, troopers from the 1st Cavalry Division reached Hakodate. For the prisoners there the long war was at last over.

This article was written by James W. Wensyel and originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of World War II magazine.  For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine!

Endnotes:

[1] Date/Time variation is accounted for by the International Dateline.

[2] Colors are raised each morning at 0800, without variation.

[3] It is certain that had the situation been reversed, the Americans would have done the same.

Alamo of the Pacific, Part I

Some Background

wake-islandWake Island is so small, it was probably one of those statistical anomalies that Alvaro de Mendana ever found it in 1586.  As was the custom back then, Mendana claimed the island for Spain, and may have even planted a flag —but since no one lived on the island, it was probably a ho-hum moment.  I imagine the ship’s crew was disappointed, too.  Then, in 1796, England’s Samuel Wake, of the merchantman William Henry, stumbled upon the atoll and named it after himself.  Again, owing to the absence of humankind, no one’s feelings were hurt.  Then on 20 December 1840, USS Vincennes brought the explorer Charles Wilkes and the naturalist Titian Peale to the atoll where they conducted a series of surveys and lent their names to the other two islands of the atoll (now consisting of Wake, Wilkes, and Peale).

Wake Island (a US unorganized territory) (something it has in common with Washington, D. C.) is one of the most isolated places in the world.  Discounting Air Force/Space Force personnel stationed at Wake Island, the nearest human population to Wake Island is in the Marshall Islands, 592 miles away.

During the Spanish-American War in 1898, an American troop ship bound for the Philippines stopped at Wake, and because Major General Francis V. Greene regarded Wake Island as a war trophy, hoisted the Stars and Stripes over the island and proclaimed it a territory of the United States.   At the Treaty of Paris (ended the Spanish-American War) Spain relinquished all claims of sovereignty over Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, all islands in the West Indies, and all islands within approximately 116 degrees of latitude and 127 degrees longitude east near and including the Philippine archipelago.

The treaty was amended at the Treaty of Washington three years later adding several additional islands located southwest of the island chain of Palawan that had been omitted from the original treaty; no other specific islands or locations of any kind were included —and since Wake Island did not fall within the boundaries of either treaty, it technically remains within the auspices of the Spanish crown.  Nevertheless, possession being nine-tenths of the law, the United States retains possession of the Wake Island atoll.

Advanced Bases

Commercial shipping after 1850 became increasingly dependent on coal-fired ships.  Twenty years later sailing ships were becoming a thing of the past.  The consequences of coal-fired ships is quite extraordinary.  There would be no commercial advantage to coal-fired ships if there were no dependable coaling stations at strategic locations throughout the world.  Without coaling stations in the Pacific Rim, the United States would not have been able to compete with other western nations for a share of Asian trade.  The economic advantages of coaling stations thus becomes self-evident.

The actual location of these coaling stations (no doubt in consultation with the US government) was a decision left in the hands of the shipping companies, and this too makes perfect sense.  Shipping companies, after all, determine their own shipping routes, in turn governed by trade relationships.  Commercial interests could lease land for coaling stations, but they could not guarantee the security of the stations, coal, employees, or ships.  Only governments can do that … through treaties enforced by navies, of course.  It was this situation that led the United States to its interests in the Pacific Rim.

Over time, an international naval presence prompted occasional uprisings by local natives, some of which were provoked by competing nations (Germany, for example).  In any case, coaling stations morphed into advanced base structures.  Protecting America’s advanced bases became a focus of the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps.  Marine security forces (initially as Marine Barracks) eventually evolved into Marine Defense Battalions of the Fleet Marine Forces, which included coastal artillery.

Modern academics, particularly those in liberal colleges and universities, tell us that American Imperialism is a shameful thing because it involves policies aimed at extending political, economic, and cultural influence over areas beyond its boundaries.  The argument is simplistic.  Every nation seeks to influence areas beyond their borders and do so in a myriad of ways: military conquest, gunboat diplomacy, negotiating treaties most favorable to themselves, economic penetration, and intervention when necessary to protect their interests and investments.  No matter what the academics say, imperialism is not a uniquely American idea.  Global trade is the fuel of the world economy and has been for several hundred years and it is natural to seek trade relationships favorable to one’s own country.  In defense of America’s global trade policies (going back in time, of course), European and Asian nations were happy to parcel up large sections of China for their own purposes; the United States was alone in arguing for an “Open Door” approach, which recognized Chinese sovereignty and sought to protect its administrative integrity.  Protecting US advanced bases wasn’t so much an example of imperialism as it was common sense.

In the 1930s, the development of aircraft capable of flying across the Pacific Ocean produced a similar set of circumstances for the United States.  Lacking the ability to fly non-stop across the Pacific Ocean, commercial aircraft companies considered mid-Pacific coaling stations as one solution to their refueling problem, and it made sense that these (mostly) island locations could also provide mechanical repair services and offer some respite to passengers and crew. 

Japanese Interests in the Pacific

Anyone who can argue with a straight face that the Japanese mounted a sneak attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii is simply unaware of the history of America’s advanced bases in the Pacific.  Let’s look at it.

During the First World War (1914-18), Japan participated as an ally of the Entente Powers[1] and played an important role in securing the sea lanes in the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans from Imperial Germany’s naval domination.  Taking advantage of Germany’s preoccupation with the European war, Japan seized German possessions in the Pacific and in East Asia.  Japan accomplished this without a large-scale mobilization of its military and naval forces (this would occur later, in the 1920s).  The story of Japanese preeminence in the Pacific is a long one, and somewhat complicated, but it is enough to note here that Japan used World War I as a springboard for expanding its sphere of influence throughout the Pacific, in China, and in Southeast Asia.

In the early 1920s, particularly after observing the comportment of Japanese diplomats at the Washington and London Naval Conferences, American strategists correctly predicted Japanese behavior over the next two decades.  From 1933-40, Japan became a threat to the peace and stability of the entire Pacific rim.  America’s isolated advanced base structure was jeopardized by Japanese militarism.

In January 1941, the United States began construction of submarine and aviation facilities on Wake Island, which lies some 2,400 miles west of Honolulu, Hawaii.  Designated U. S. Naval Activity Wake, the atoll became an American outpost from which Navy and Marine Corps aircraft could patrol the likely approaches to the US territory of Hawaii.  Ultimately, as history teaches us, Wake Island protected nothing at all.  The Pacific Ocean is vast.  Wake Island is very small.  Navy and Marine Corps aircraft were limited in their fuel range.

Summary of the Battle

Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack and the Battle for Wake Island were simultaneous operations.  For Hawaii, the battle was over in a few hours.  At Wake Island, the battle raged for sixteen days.  At 0800 on 7 December 1941, the Marines raised the American flag over Wake Island.  It is something Marines do every morning.  Fifty minutes later, 36 Japanese bombers on their way to Pearl Harbor pummeled the Island’s facilities.

The Japanese returned to Wake in force on 11 December 1941, meeting for the first time the spirited resolve of the American people and their military.  The battle, when joined, involved 499 Marines of the 1st Defense Battalion and VMF-211 Detachment (12 pilots, 38 enlisted mechanics), 71 sailors of the Naval Activity Wake, and 6 soldiers.  The island also contained 1,146 civilian construction workers.  In terms of armaments, the Marines manned six coastal artillery pieces, 12 anti-aircraft guns, and 12 fighter/bomber aircraft.  Over the next 16 days, the Marines lost all of their aircraft in aerial combat, suffered 52 killed, 49 wounded, and 2 men missing in action.  Of the total contingent of military personnel, 433 became prisoners of war.  In addition to these military losses, 70 civilian workers were killed, and 1,104 were detained as prisoners of the Japanese.  180 civilians died while in captivity.

The Japanese invading force included two aircraft carriers, two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, eight destroyers, two patrol boats, two troop ships, one submarine tender, three submarines, and 2,500 Japanese infantry troops.  Japanese losses included two destroyers sunk, two patrol boats sunk, heavy damage to two troop ships, the loss of 30 aircraft, 484 troops killed in action, 125 wounded in action, and 2 missing in action.  Japan’s first invasion attempt had failed.

For the first few days, it seemed as if the Marines might successfully defend the island against the Japanese, but the Americans at Wake suffered Japan’s relentless aerial bombings and strafing.  An American naval relief force from Hawaii was considered, but after the devastating losses at Pearl Harbor, US high command finally decided that the Marines and sailors at Naval Activity Wake were on their own.  The US could simply not afford the loss of another capital war ship, and certainly not one of its few aircraft carriers.

When the second Japanese landing force arrived on 23 December, it overwhelmed Wake Island defenders.  The Marines kept up their stout defense for five hours, but the Naval Activity Commander, Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham, decided that it would be prudent to surrender all hands.  In total, 1,616 Americans were taken prisoner and transported to Japan and China.  The Japanese retained nearly a hundred civilians on the island to perform labor.  On 5 October 1943, the Japanese marched these men to one side of the island and executed them with machine gun fire.  One civilian escaped and carved a memorial to his into a large rock, which read, “98 US PW 5-10-43.”  The message remains today.  Unfortunately, this escaped civilian was later recaptured and executed.

(Continued next week)

Endnotes:

[1] From the French word for friendship, understanding, or agreement, this was an alliance between the Russian Empire, the French Third Republic, and Great Britain; it formed a counterweight to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy during the same conflict.  Unlike the Triple Alliance, the Triple Entente did not provide an alliance of mutual defense.

Airborne Marines

USMC-USN Parachutist BadgeSimilar to the development of U. S. Marine Corps raider battalions, the genesis of airborne qualified Marines came from our European allies during World War II.  In May 1940, the Commandant of the Marine Corps tasked his Plans and Policy branch to conduct a feasibility study for the utilization of Marine parachute troops.  General Holcomb asked his staff to plan for one battalion of infantry at full strength, one platoon of 75-mm pack howitzers (two guns per platoon), issued three units of fire for all weapons, three days of rations and water, adding light anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons as appropriate, and no vehicles beyond hand-drawn carts.

While the plans and policy branch considered the Commandant’s proposal, various naval attaches began collecting reports on the use of parachute forces by Germany, Russia, and France.

The plans and policy branch considered the Commandant’s proposal and came up with three possible scenarios where parachute units might be employed as a Marine combat force:

  • As a reconnaissance and raiding force with limited ability to return to its parent organization or base. In this application, planners assumed that the unit’s objective was sufficiently vital to the interests of the force commander that he was willing to sacrifice the entire organization to complete it, or
  • As a spearhead or advance unit whose mission would be to seize and hold a strategic objective until the arrival of larger, reinforcing organizations, or
  • As an independent force operating for extended periods as a guerrilla force within enemy held territory.

HOLCOMB T 001By October 1940, the Commandant decided that an element from one infantry battalion of each regiment would be trained as “air troops.”  Each air troop battalion would host a company of parachutists, estimating a total airborne force of 750 parachute qualified Marines.  The Commandant’s decision had nothing to do with transforming amphibious troops into air assault forces, but rather to increase the combat capability of the Marine infantry division —the same rationale he used in approving raider battalions.

Two Marine officers and 38 enlisted men reported to the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey for parachute training in late October 1940.  By early November, they had completed tower training and were sent to Quantico, Virginia for added physical conditioning prior to making their first jump.  A second group of Marines (3 officers and 44 enlisted men) began their initial training at the end of December.  Both groups graduated from parachute training on 26 February 1941, each man qualified as parachute jumpers and riggers.  Additional training occurred throughout the Spring and by mid-summer, a total of 225 jumpers had graduated from the Lakehurst course.

But NAS Lakehurst was inadequate for the training of so many Marines in such a compressed period of time, so Captain Marion L. Dawson, USMC was sent to San Diego in February 1941 to prepare additional facilities there.  In March, the entire graduating class of the second training group was transferred to San Diego to form the 1st Platoon, Company A, 2nd Parachute Battalion.  They were later joined by the third graduating class, who formed the 2nd Platoon, Company A.

Meanwhile, Company A of the 1st Parachute Battalion was formed at Quantico, Virginia on 10 July 1941 and to avoid confusion while in the process of growing a new battalion, Company A of the 2nd Parachute Battalion (San Diego) was renamed as Company B, 1st Parachute Battalion.  The parachute battalion headquarters element was activated on 15 August 1941, with Captain Marcellus J. Howard, USMC as its first commanding officer.  Howard relocated his emerging battalion to New River, North Carolina for further training on 28 September.  The 1st Parachute Battalion was fully formed on 1 March 1942, while the 2nd Parachute Battalion was activated on 23 July 1941 under the command of Captain Charles E. Shepard, Jr. and declared at full strength on 3 September 1942.

There were no shortages of volunteers for parachute training, but the requirements for entering the program were quite strict.  A successful applicant had to be unmarried, athletically inclined, above average in intelligence, between the ages of 18-32 years, and have no physical or mental impairments.  Extra pay was authorized for Marines who completed parachute training, which amounted to an additional $100 for officers and $50.00 for enlisted men, and this may have been a factor in the number of Marines who applied for parachute training.

War was declared against Japan after their attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and this resulted in a sudden demand for combat Marines.  The formation of specialized battalions put a tremendous strain on the Marine Corps because it was still in the process of putting together the manpower needed to expand regular conventional forces.  A decision to establish two parachute training schools at New River, North Carolina and San Diego, California would ensure that the Marines could assemble and provide replacements to three parachute battalions.  There were no barracks for these trainees, so they quartered in tents during their ten weeks of training. Each class consisted of 36 Marines and each school started a new class each week.  Eventually, parachute training school was reduced to six weeks of training, totaling 361 hours of instruction.

Parachute training was divided into three two-week phases, the first being ground training.  Phase I included parachute tactics, map reading, demolition training, techniques of fire, scouting, patrolling, water survival, and weapons familiarization.  Phase II included parachute packing, rigging, flotation training, and the handling of cargo containers.  Phase III involved actual jumping, beginning with controlled and free tower jumping, suspension lines, and six actual jumps.  At the completion of Phase III, Marines were presented with the parachute qualification wings.  Not everyone who began training successfully completed it —the washout rate was 40%.

Putting together the facilities for parachute training was only one of the problems facing the Marine Corps.  There was also the problem of staffing these schools with qualified instructors, which eventually forced the Marine Corps to select its instructors from the operating forces —men who had successfully completed jump school.  There was also a problem with acquiring sufficient numbers of parachutes for use in training Marines how to use them.

The Allied defeat of Japanese naval forces at Midway and the Coral Sea stopped Japan’s advance in the Pacific.  Japanese losses were substantial, losing over 400 carrier and land-based aircraft and five aircraft carriers.  Such losses forced Tokyo to assume a defensive posture.  Japan’s new military reality was to establish a strong defensive perimeter of the Japanese home islands; its focus was to transform Truk in the Caroline Islands into an impregnable stronghold.  To accomplish this, the Japanese would have to strengthen Rabaul on New Britain in the Solomon Islands.  Part of this defensive structure was eastern New guinea, Guadalcanal, and Tulagi in the southern Solomons chain.

Guadalcanal 002Fortified airbases in the foregoing named locations allowed the Japanese to meet Allied air and seaborne attacks by shuttling their own assets from one base to the next.  By mid-June 1942, the Japanese airfield construction program had begun in earnest, including at Guadalcanal, Florida, and Savo Islands.  The primary purpose was to cut communications between the United States and Australia and forestall any Allied offensive operations.  While setting in a robust defensive structure, the Japanese retained its threat to vital supply bases in New Caledonia, New Hebrides, and Fiji.

The 1st Parachute Battalion departed from the United States on 7 June 1942, arriving at Wellington, New Zealand on 11 July 1942.  Within a week, the battalion sailed to Koro, Fiji Islands where it began training and rehearsing for the assault on Guadalcanal—Code named Watchtower.

The Allied expeditionary force supporting Watchtower consisted of 75 ships and transports, including vessels of both the United States and Australia, which assembled off the Fiji Islands on 26 July 1942.  There was only time for one rehearsal landing exercise before departing for Guadalcanal on 31 July.  Overall command of the 16,000 (mostly) U. S. Marines fell under Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift.  Of the total assault force, 3,000 were scheduled to land on Tulagi and nearby islands of Florida, Gavutu, and Tanambogo.  Brigadier General William H. Rupertus, then serving as the Assistant Division Commander, 1st Marine Division, would lead the Tulagi-Gavutu-Tanambogo force.

Bad weather permitted the Allied force to arrive off station unseen by the Japanese on the morning of 7 August, but the Japanese did pick up increased radio traffic from the Allied expeditionary force and planned to send out reconnaissance aircraft at daybreak.  The landing force split into two groups for the assault on Guadalcanal and the Florida islands.  At daybreak, aircraft from the USS Wasp began bombing Japanese targets, destroying 15 seaplanes at anchorage near the islands.  Pre-assault naval bombardments were directed at Tulagi, Gavutu, Florida, and Tanambogo.

Tulagi Map 001The island of Tulagi is two miles long and a half mile wide; it lies just south of Florida Island and 22 miles directly north across Sealark Channel from Guadalcanal.  A ridge rising over 300 feet above sea level marks the northwest-southeast axis of the island.  Around two-thirds of the way down from its northwest tip, the ridge is broken by a ravine and then rises again in a triangle of hills, designated Hill 208 in the southeast and Hill 281 in the northeast.

Tulagi had been the seat of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, with the governor’s residence and other offices on its northeast side.  About 3,000 yards east of Tulagi are the small islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo, which are joined by a 500-yard long causeway.

At 0800 on 7 August, the 1st Raider Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson and 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines under Lieutenant Colonel Harold E. Rosecrans made an unopposed landing on the western shore of Tulagi.  Coral formations kept the landing craft from reaching the shore, which required that the Marines had to wade ashore from about 100 meters from the beach.

Japanese forces at Tulagi and Gavutu were assigned to the 3rd Kure Special Naval Landing Force and an aviation detachment.  The assault at Gavutu was not simultaneous with the landing at Tulagi, however.  Insufficient numbers of landing craft delayed the 1st Parachute Battalion’s assault for four hours while the 1st Raider Battalion and 2/5 were completely ashore.

The 1st Parachute Battalion under Major Robert H. Williams finally made their assault in three waves beginning at noon on 7 August 1942.  After landing, Company B made some progress inland before the Japanese garrison was able to implement their defense plan.  Earlier naval gunfire had destroyed the seaplane ramp at Gavutu, forcing Marines in the second and third waves to land at a more exposed location.  Japanese machine gun fire inflicted heavy casualties on the Marines of Company A and Company C; one Marine in ten was either killed or wounded, including the battalion commander, who was quickly replaced by the executive officer, Major Charles A. Miller.

Tanambogo 001Marines from Company A and Company C quickly employed their Browning 1919 Machine guns and mortars under the direction of Captain George Stallings to suppress enemy fire, allowing more Marines to push inland.  As reflected on the map at left, Gavutu and Tanambogo are little more than mounds of coral averaging around 50 meters above sea level, except for two hills, one on each islet, numbered 148 and 121, reflecting their height in meters.  Japanese on both islets were well entrenched in bunkers and caves constructed on and within both of these hills and organized with mutually supporting fields of fire.  Marine planners had significantly underestimated the strength of the Japanese garrisons.

After a battle lasting well over two hours, the Marines were able to work their way to the top of Hill 148 and began destroying Japanese positions with demolition charges, hand grenades, and in some cases hand-to-hand fighting along the slopes of the hill.  From the apex of Hill 148, Marines were able to suppress Japanese fire coming from Tanambogo.  Major Miller radioed a request to General Rupertus for reinforcements before mounting an assault on Tanambogo.

Most of the defenders on Tanambogo were aviation personnel, some of which were armed with no more than hand sickles and gardening tools.  General Rupertus detached one company from the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines (1/2) on Florida Island to assist in securing Tanambogo.  Rupertus was advised by his staff that a single company would not be sufficient but Rupertus apparently knew better and ordered the company to assault the Islet.  The Marines from 1/2 were hit by overwhelming machine gun fire as they approached the landing area, which resulted in many casualties among the Navy landing craft crews.  Three landing craft were heavily damaged.  Realizing that his position was untenable, the company commander ordered the remaining boats to depart with wounded Marines aboard; he and twelve of his men who had already landed sprinted across the causeway seeking cover on Gavutu.  Japanese casualties on Tanambogo on 7 August was only ten killed in action.

Throughout the night, Japanese defenders staged isolated attacks against the Marines on Gavutu, their movements concealed by heavy thunderstorms.  General Vandegrift alerted 3/2 to standby for a reinforcing assault.  The battalion began its landing at Gavutu at 10:00 on the morning of 8 August; once ashore, 3/2 assisted 1st Parachute Battalion in the destruction of all remaining Japanese defenders, which was completed in two hours.

At this time, 3/2 prepared to attack Tanambogo across the causeway and 1st Parachute Battalion was assigned to provide covering fire.  Dive bombers and naval artillery were also requested, but when aircraft dropped their ordnance on Marines on two occasions, killing several of them, further air support was called off.  Accurate artillery was provided by USS San Juan, however, which lasted for 30 minutes.

The 3/2 assault began at 16:15, by landing craft and across the causeway, and with the assistance from two light tanks[1], the attack began making headway against the stout Japanese defense.  One of these tanks became hung up on a tree stump and, isolated from its infantry support, was surrounded by a group of about 50 Japanese.  They set fire to the tank, killing two of its crewmen and severely beat the other two crewmen before most of these men were killed by Marine Corps rifle fire.  There were 42 bodies around the defeated tank, including the remains of senior officers and pilots.

Throughout the day, Marines methodically destroyed the Japanese-held caves with demolition charges.  By 21:00, most of the Japanese defenders were dead, but a few holdouts continued to attack the Marines at night with several hand-to-hand engagements.  By noon on 9 August, all Japanese resistance on Tanambogo ended.  476 Japanese were killed, 70 Americans joined them.  Most of the 20 prisoners were construction workers.

Paramarines 001On 9 August 1st Parachute Battalion was moved to Tulagi to reinforce the 1st Raider Battalion and took up positions as a security force near the government buildings.  A month later, the 1st Parachute Battalion and 1st Raider Battalion, both under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson, executed a raid in the vicinity of Taivu near the village of Tasimboko, Guadalcanal.  The Raiders landed at Taivu Point and advanced toward Tasimboko, while the Parachute Marines landed 2,000 yards east of the village and took up positions to protect the flank and rear of the Raider advance.  Following an intense fire fight with Japanese defenders of Tasimboko, the combined force entered the village and destroyed food, medical equipment, and military stores.  Before dark on 8 September 1942, the two battalions withdrew to its embarkation point.

Several days later, again in conjunction with the 1st Raider Battalion, 1st Parachute Battalion was ordered to occupy the ridge southeast of Henderson Field[2] on Guadalcanal.  Enemy activity increased on 11 September and reached a peak during the night of 13-14 September when the Marine perimeter repulsed strong and repeated attacks by Japanese forces.  This battle would become known as the Battle of Bloody Ridge, also the Battle of Edson’s Ridge.  This action severely mauled General Kawaguchi’s force, against whom the previous raid had been staged.

On 18 September the 1st Parachute Battalion was withdrawn from Guadalcanal and transported to New Caledonia for rest, refit, and retraining.  Between September 1942 and the spring of 1943, the 1st Parachute Battalion was re-indoctrinated in jump techniques, parachute packing, patrolling, scouting, and platoon, company, and battalion sized operations.

Paramarines 002The 2nd Parachute Battalion arrived at Wellington, New Zealand on 31 October 1942 and remained in camp until January 1943 when it was transported to Noumea to undergo further training with the 1st Parachute Battalion.

The 3rd Parachute Battalion under Major Robert T. Vance was organized on 16 September 1942 and assigned to the 3rd Marine Division in general support of Amphibious Corps Operations, Pacific Fleet.  Dispatched to Noumea to join the other two parachute battalions, 3rd Parachute Battalion arrived on 27 March 1943.  Five days later, the 1st Parachute Regiment was activated, consisting of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Parachute Battalions, Regimental Weapons Company, and the Headquarters & Service Company.  Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Williams, having recovered from his wounds on Gavutu, assumed command of the Regiment.

A 4th Parachute Battalion was formed on 2 April 1943 under Lieutenant Colonel Marcellus J. Howard, but the battalion remained in training status until it was disbanded on 19 January 1944.

In early September 1943, Allied headquarters directed several reconnaissance patrols to Choiseul to gather intelligence on Japanese dispositions, force concentrations, and their normal patrol activity.  The reconnaissance patrols involved clandestine elements of the New Zealand armed forces, US Marines, and US Navy personnel.  These units operated for several days in the southwestern part of the island and in the northwest.  Contact was made with coast watchers seeking suitable sites for airfields and beaches capable of landing operations.  From these missions, it was determined that the terrain was unsuited for dropping troops by air and if troops were landed at all, it would require an amphibious operation.  Owing to numerous coral reefs off shore there were very few beaches on the island suitable for an amphibious assault —but one of these was at Voza, the site of an abandoned village.

After being transported to Guadalcanal for pre-combat assignments, the 1st Parachute Regiment was moved to Vella Lavella.  While encamped, the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Parachute Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Victor H. Krulak[3], was summoned to the I Marine Amphibious Corps headquarters on Guadalcanal.  He was advised of an impending operation on the island of Bougainville[4], scheduled to begin on 1 November 1943.  Krulak’s mission was to lead a raiding force onto the island of Choiseul and create as great a disturbance as possible in order to confuse the enemy and mask the true location of the main assault.  Upon return to Vella Lavella to plan his operation, he was aided by Australian coast watchers who provided vital information on enemy forces and dispositions.

Krulak’s operation consisted of three rifle companies reinforced by a communications platoon, a regimental weapons detachment, and a detachment from an experimental rocket platoon.  In total, the force would consist of 30 officers and 626 men.  2nd Parachute Battalion was loaded into four fast transports and departed Vella Lavella in the evening of 27 October 1943, landing unopposed near Voza[5].  Krulak led his men about a mile inland and set up a base camp.  On 28 and 29 October, patrols were sent out to reconnoiter Japanese positions at Sangigai to the southeast and along the Warrior River in the north.

The attack on Sangigai began at around 11:00 on 30 October when Company E opened fire on the Japanese garrison there.  The Japanese quickly retreated toward the mountains directly into the path of Company F which had executed an envelopment of the village, flanking the enemy position.  Company E immediately moved into the village, secured it, and destroyed all buildings and facilities, a barge, and around 180 tons of supplies.  By 0800 the next morning, the raiders had returned to their base camp having lost 6 Marines killed in action, 12 wounded (including Krulak) while killing 75 Japanese soldiers.

A second raiding party under Major Warner T. Bigger was sent north to Nukiki and then overland to the Warrior River.  This group mortared Japanese installations on nearby Guppy Island, which started several large fires.  After encountering stiff enemy resistance, the party was withdrawn by landing craft.  Krulak continued to send out patrols on 1 and 2 November.  By 3 November, the Japanese recognized that the American force was small and began to close in on the beachhead and after laying minefields and booby traps, Krulak’s battalion was withdrawn during the night of 3-4 November[6].

On 22 November 1943, the 1st Parachute Battalion under Major Richard Fagan embarked 23 officers and 596 Marines on four infantry landing craft (also, LCIs), and headed for Bougainville.  The battalion arrived off Empress Augusta Bay on 23 November and after going ashore, the battalion went into reserve under I Amphibious Corps, being administratively attached to the 2nd Raider Regiment.  Four days later, 1st Parachute Battalion was task organized (reinforced by Company M of the 3rd Raider Battalion and an artillery forward observer team from the 12th Marines) for a raid on Japanese supply facilities near Koiari, south of Cape Torokina.

The movement of 1st Parachute Battalion from Cape Torokina to Koiari took about an hour by LCI.  Fagan intended to come ashore some distance from the Japanese supply depot and approach the enemy from the rear, but it was soon discovered that the landing had taken place in the center of the supply depot tactical zone.  The Marines quickly formed a defensive perimeter, as they were surrounded on three sides by Japanese forces and had their backs to the sea.  A fierce battle raged for several hours.  With casualties mounting and ammunition running low, Fagan requested to be withdrawn.  Shortly before 18:00, three destroyers arrived offshore and began delivering artillery support to the flanks of the beleaguered battalion.  Naval gunfire was augmented by 155-mm howitzers from Cape Torokina.  Thus, protected on three sides by artillery fire, Fagan was able to load his Marines on rescue boats.  1st Parachute Battalion suffered 15 killed in action (KIA), 99 wounded, and 7 Marines unaccounted for.

On 3 December, the 1st Parachute Battalion was joined by its parent regiment (less the 2nd Battalion), which two days later was sent to occupy a forward position of the 3rd Marine Division front.  During this time, the Marines were under constant attack and harassment by Japanese forces.  On 10 December, the parachute Marines were withdrawn and replaced by the 9th Marines and 21st Marines and moved into Division reserve.  On 22 December 1st Parachute Battalion, the regimental weapons company, and a platoon from H&S Company were attached to the 2nd Raider Regiment as a relief for the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (1/3) near Eagle Creek.  This unit was later relieved by the 132nd Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division on 11 January 1944.

By mid-January 1944, all parachute battalions were embarked aboard troop transport ships for return to the United States.  The Marine Corps was in the process of creating six (6) infantry divisions and five (5) aircraft wings, circumstances that could not justify retaining specialized battalions such as Raider or Parachute battalions/regiments.  Beyond this, none of the battle areas in the central and south Pacific region lent themselves to parachute drops, with the exception of one combat drop at Tagaytay Ridge in the Philippines, which was successfully conducted by the U. S. Army’s 11th Airborne Division in 1945.  With this one exception, all US parachute units normally fought as regular infantry organizations.

There were four essential factors to explain why, after spending the time and money to train Marines as parachutists, they were never used in that capacity.  As previously stated, island terrain simply did not lend itself to a successful airdrop insertion of combat troops, nor were there a sufficient land-based staging area for parachutists or aircraft.  Next, the Marine Corps did not have sufficient aircraft to airlift more than a single battalion; it would have taken six squadrons of transport aircraft to accomplish the movement of two parachute regiments.  Finally, the distances between suitable rear area staging areas and forward area combat zones exceeded the range of fully loaded transport aircraft.

The parachute battalions were always a “luxury” that the Marine Corps could ill-afford (the costs of training, specialized equipment, etc.) but they had certainly made noteworthy contributions to the Pacific war and their professionalism brought credit to the reputation of the Marine Corps.  This would all become apparent a year later when many of these disbanded units were rolled into the newly created 5th Marine Division, which went ashore during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Note: Parachute qualified Marines continue to serve in limited numbers, either as members of reconnaissance units or as members of the Raider Battalion community, brought back into active service in 2014.

Sources:

  1. Hoffman, J. T. Silk Chutes and Hard Fighting: USMC Parachutes Units in World War II.  Washington: USMC Historical Division, (1999).
  2. Johnstone, J. H.  USMC Parachute Units.  Washington: USMC Historical Division, (1961).

Endnotes:

[1] The light tank, M-3 (unofficially, M3 Stuart) was named for J. E. B. Stuart of Civil War fame.

[2] The initial construction of this airfield was begun by the Japanese Imperial Army; after it was seized by Allied forces, the airfield was renamed in honor of Major Lofton Henderson, USMC, Commanding Officer of VMSB-241, who was killed during the Battle of Midway —the first Marine Corps aviator killed in the battle.

[3] Lieutenant General Krulak served at the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific from 1 March 1964 to 1968.  Krulak’s son Charles served as the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995-1999.

[4] Bougainville Island is the principal island of Papua New Guinea and the largest of the Solomon Islands archipelago.  It is named after the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville discovered some time in 1768.

[5] Voza is located along the coast of Choiseul Island northwest of the village of Sangigai.  The island itself runs 75 miles in length and up to 25 miles in width at its widest point.

[6] One of the patrol boats providing security for Krulak’s force was commanded by a young lieutenant by the name of John F. Kennedy.

Death Rattlers

VMFA 323 Patch 001Somewhere between the first and fifth of August 1943, three young lieutenants, naval aviators all, swooped down upon a somewhat large rattlesnake resting in the area adjacent to the Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina, captured it, and took it with them to their newly commissioned squadron ready room.  The well-fed snake measured about seven feet in length.  Few people understand why lieutenants do anything.  Observing the antics of a lieutenant, most people roll their eyes and think to themselves, “But for the grace of God …”

In this case, however, the lieutenants were on a mission.  It was to find a nickname for their recently commissioned aircraft squadron.  With all squadron pilots assembled, it was unanimously agreed that Marine Fighting Squadron 323 (VMF-323) would be henceforth known as the Death Rattlers.  Its patch and nickname continue to exist today, as of this writing, for 77-years.  In 1943, VMF-323 was assigned to Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-32, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW).  The squadron’s first commanding officer was Major George C. Axtell, Jr[1].

VMF-323 began combat training almost immediately after its activation.  This squadron, as well as others being formulated, were desperately needed in the Pacific.  In September 1943, VMF-323 was transferred to one of the Air Station’s outlying fields, a Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Facility at Oak Grove.  Its first aircraft was the Vought F4U-1 Corsair[2].  In 1943, VMF-323 was one of eight Marine Corps Corsair squadrons.

F4U Corsair USMC 002In January 1944, VMF-323 was transferred to El Centro, California and reassigned to Marine Base Defense Aircraft Group (MBDAG)-43.  In California, squadron pilots worked to master instrument flying, gunnery, bomber escort, overland navigation, dogfighting, section flight tactics, field carrier landings, and strafing.  Field carrier landing training was a prelude to actual carrier landing qualification training.  When this training period was concluded, VMF-323 moved to Camp Pendleton, California. For Major Axtell, training new officers was a never-ending task since no sooner had he molded his pilots into skilled aviators, they would be transferred to another squadron and Axtell would have to begin the task of bringing along a newer pilot.  Axtell, a qualified instrument pilot before taking command of the squadron, insisted that all of his pilots develop that skill set.  Axtell believed that instrument flying would build self-confidence in his pilots and prepare them for future battles—which proved prescient.

VMF-323’s first casualty occurred on 17 March 1944 when Second Lieutenant Robert M. Bartlett, Jr., crashed his aircraft two miles south of the airbase while on a routine night familiarization flight.  In April, VMF-323 took part in two large-scale joint service air interception exercises.  On 25 May Second Lieutenant John A. Freshour and his passenger, Lieutenant Commander James J. Bunner, USN were killed when their Douglas SBD (Dauntless) crashed into a power line near Camp Pendleton’s airfield.  That month, Axtell focused his pilots on the art and science of dive-bombing and forcing his pilots to avail themselves of an intelligence reading room and a classified material library.  Major Axtell, young as he was, was a task-maker because in addition to learning, practicing, and becoming proficient in aviation skills, he also demanded that his pilots attend aircraft recognition classes and lectures on a host of technical topics —including the geography of Palau’s Islands, Philippines, the Sulu Archipelago, and other island areas these pilots could be assigned to.  A third pilot was lost when Second Lieutenant Glen B. Smith crashed at sea on a routine training flight.

On 7 September 1944, 30 pilots, 3 ground officers, 90 enlisted men, 24 aircraft, and repair parts boarded the USS Breton (CVE-23) as the squadron’s advanced element.  Its rear echelon of 20 officers, 167 enlisted men remained behind for further training.  VMF-323 would be assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.  Ten days later, the squadron catapulted the squadron to its destination at Emirau.  During takeoff, Second Lieutenant Gerald E. Baker crashed into the sea and was killed.  Upon arrival at Emirau, Axtell reported to the Commanding General, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing for duty.  For the next 30 days, VMF-323 conducted local flight training within a fifty-mile radius of the field.  Training included gunnery, dive-bombing, and squadron tactics.  On 24 October, Commander Task Group 59.6 ordered VMF-323 (Forward) to Espiritu Santo, a rear area supply base in the New Hebrides Islands.  On the same day, the Commanding General, FMFPac (Air) placed VMF-323 under his administrative control.

By 31 October, VMF-323 (Fwd) was fully located at Espiritu Santo and busily involved in setting up the squadron for air operations.  Between 9-28 November, the squadron participated in another round of familiarization flights, gun proficiency, bombing, and squadron tactics.  On 29 November, the squadron’s rear echelon arrived and rejoined the squadron.  MAG-33 attached the squadron on the same day.  Ordnance experts from MAG-33 began installing airborne rocket launchers almost immediately, necessitating additional training by squadron pilots and ground crews.  It was complicated; pilots needed to learn about glide angle, range, proper lead, rock effectiveness, safety, and the characteristics of various rockets.  Added to the already busy training routine was close air support of ground troops.  Unbeknownst to the squadron’s officers, they were being prepared for battle on the island of Okinawa.  As the pilots were practicing air combat maneuvers, the enlisted men were spending more time on the rifle range: Every Marine is a Rifleman.  Expected to develop proficiency with their sidearm, pilots went to the range, as well.  Finally, the squadron’s ground defense crews practiced with anti-aircraft machine guns.  There would be no gravel crunchers to provide security for VMF-323.

On 23 February, MAG-33 issued classified orders to the Commanding Officer, VMF-323: they would fly their 32 Corsairs to Okinawa in echelons.  Combat operations began on 10 April from Kadena airfield.  Weather conditions made Flying conditions poor.  When the dawn combat air patrol (CAP) launched at 0515 hours on their first day, First Lieutenant James L. Brown failed to join the flight.  Initially listed as missing in action, he was later declared killed in action.  On the next day, the airfield came under attack, but there was no damage or casualties.  The Death Rattlers’ first combat kill came that very morning, 11 April.  First Lieutenant Vernon E. Ball was readying for takeoff when a Japanese bomb hit the runway in front of his aircraft.  Ball calmly steered his aircraft around the bomb crater and took off.  Once airborne, Ball observed fellow squadron mate Al Wells shoot down the Japanese bomber responsible for cratering the runway.

On the afternoon of 12 April, a fourteen aircraft CAP noted the approach of Japanese aircraft from the north.  The Death Rattlers split into three divisions.  Six aircraft were diverted northwest from Ie Shima, flight leader Major Arthur L. Turner with Second Lieutenant Obie Stover as his wingman.  The second section was led by First Lieutenant Dellwyn L. Davis, with Second Lieutenant Robert J. Woods as his wingman.  The third section was led by First Lieutenant Charlie Spangler, with Second Lieutenant Dewey Durnford as his wingman.

The Marines were flying at 15,000 feet, 71-miles northwest of Ie Shima when they spotted a multi-engine Japanese bomber about eight miles distant and at an altitude of around 11,000 feet.  According to the Squadron’s official account:

Spangler and Durnford peeled off, followed by Davis and Woods.  Spangler closed from five o’clock and opened fire at 800 feet.  First, he knocked out the tail gunner and the top of the rudder, and then flamed the port engine.  Durnford was closing from seven o’clock, whereupon the Betty[3] turned on him, apparently trying to give the side blister gunner a shot.  Durnford opened fire at 200 feet, directing his fire at the cockpit.  Davis flamed the starboard engine from 100 feet and the Betty spiraled down in flames, exploding when it hit the water.

Meanwhile, a second six-plane element was directed to the Motobu Peninsula.  Captain Felix S. Cecot was flight leader with Second Lieutenant Leon A. Reynolds as his wing.  Captain Joe McPhail led the second section with Second Lieutenant Warren W. Bestwick.  Second Lieutenant Glenn Thacker flew with Second Lieutenant Everett L. Yager.  The enemy approached at about 18,000 feet.  The Marines climbed to 23,000 to gain an overhead advantage.  McPhail reported— 

I spotted some F4Us chasing Zekes[4]; I called out their position and rolled over.  Bestwick was on my wing.  On the way down, four Zekes appeared right under us at about 19,000 feet, flying almost abreast in two-plane sections.  I started firing at the rear plane on the right, at about 400 yards, above and behind.  My first burst was off, and the Zeke saw the tracers.  He made a couple of small turns, and then I started getting hits.  Pieces started coming off around the cockpit, and then he blew up.  The other three scattered.  I then pushed over and came home alone, being unable to find my wingman.

Berwick’s report stated …

Captain McPhail shot at the rear plane on the right.  His Zeke crossed under the rest of their formation and exploded in flames.  I picked the second plane of the first section and fired a long burst and saw it explode.  By that time, the first plane of the second section had broken off to the right and down, so I continued my run and fired a 20-degree deflection shot from behind.  This plane also exploded.  While looking for Captain McPhail, I saw my first Zeke spiraling down smoking, but I didn’t see my second Zeke after firing on him.

Lieutenant Thacker had followed Bestwick on the original pass going after the fourth Zeke in the formation.  He made an attack run on the Zeke and his guns knocked pieces from the fuselage, causing it to smoke.  The Zeke, however, rolled, pulled up tightly, and escaped.  Thacker claimed a probable kill as a result of his action.

At the same time, Captain Cecot dove from 23,000 feet to 5,000 to fire at a Jack[5].  The Jack rolled, Cecot fired at his belly and saw it smoking.  He was unable to observe further damage.  He too claimed a probable kill.

The remaining section, composed of lieutenants John Ruhsam and Robert Wade, were returning to Kadena because Wade’s landing gear could not be retracted.  Just south of Motobu, a Zeke dove out of the sun and made a pass at Wade’s plane.  Wade lowered his flaps and made a tight run.  The Zeke shot past, rolled, and dove to the deck.  Wade followed him down and was almost in firing position when Ruhsam opened fire with a 30-degree deflection shot and the Zeke burst into flames and crashed.

During this flight, all squadron pilots involved encountered Japanese aircraft for the first time.

VMF-323 flew a variety of close air support and bombing missions over the next few days, the seventh and last mission of 22 April was a record-breaker.  The last mission was an eight aircraft formation led by Major George C. Axtell, the squadron commander.  The flight departed Kadena at 1500 hours and did not return until around 1915.  During this flight, VMF-323 downed a record 24 (and three-quarters) enemy aircraft.  The squadron’s records reflect that the action was fast and furious.

Major Jefferson D. Dorah, Jr., squadron executive officer, burned five planes and exploded a sixth, all within twenty minutes.  Major George B. Axtell shot down five planes within fifteen minutes.  Twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Jeremiah J. O’Keefe also shot down five planes, one of which tried to ram him after it caught fire.

FA-18 Hornet 001Flying combat aircraft is a dangerous vocation.  This was true in 1945, it is more so now as our young men fly high-performance aircraft with exceptionally complicated technology.  Every moment of a training or combat flight is a teaching moment.  Bad things can happen to machines, and it is the human pilot that must respond to each “sudden” and sometimes catastrophic failure.  In April 1945, VMF-323 pilots learned about fire discipline.  Some used up their ammunition too quickly, wastefully, which at the moment the last round was fired, rendered that bird as combat ineffective.  Other pilots dropped their external fuel tanks too soon, which threatened their ability to return safely to base.  They learned from their mistakes, of course … or they died because of them.

VMFA-323 is the home squadron of my good (and long-time) friend Pablo, who occasionally comments here.  Pablo has been an aviator for more than 50 years.  That is … fifty years of accident-free flying.  He is a certified instructor pilot, a certified glider pilot, and certified to teach glider flying.  He is also a much-sought-after aviation safety instructor/lecturer.  He will attest to the risks associated with aviation and most likely agree that these innate risks, when combined with high anxiety combat maneuvering, makes military flying the most challenging vocation anyone could ever ask for.  It should not surprise anyone that there are aircraft mishaps, and that good young men and women die in them.  Given the operational tempo of our military air wings, what is surprising is that there are not more mishaps.

As Brigadier General Chuck Yeager (USAF) once said, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.”

Sources:

  1. Chapin, J. C. Fire Brigade: U. S. Marines in the Pusan Perimeter.  Washington: USMC Historical Center, 2000.
  2. Pitzl, G. R. A History of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323.  Washington: USMC Historical Center, 1987.
  3. Sherrod, R.  History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.

Endnotes:

[1] Lieutenant General George B. Axtell (1920-2011) was a World War II flying ace, recipient of the Navy Cross, and the youngest commanding officer of a Marine fighter squadron.  General Axtell served through three wars and retired from active service in 1974.  In addition to command of VMF-323, he also commanded VMF-452, VMF-312, Marine Carrier Air Group-16, Marine Air Control Group 1, Marine Aircraft Group 12, Force Logistics Command, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, and the Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic.  In addition to the Navy Cross, he was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, three awards of the Legion of Merit with combat valor device, two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and seven awards of the Air Medal.

[2] The Corsair was developed by the Chance Vought Aircraft Company, designed and operated as a carrier-based aircraft and entered service in the Navy-Marine Corps in 1942. It quickly became one of the most capable fighter-bombers in the US arsenal and, according to Japanese pilots, the most formidable American fighter in World War II.  The Corsair saw service in both World War II and the Korean War.  It was retired from active service in 1953.

[3] Betty was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi G4M twin-engine land-based bomber.

[4] Zeke was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

[5] Jack was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (lightning bolt), a Japanese Navy aircraft

The Warrior No One Forgot

Templer KnightPeople have admired chivalrous conduct for thousands of years, long before we invented a word for it.  It does not confine itself to mounted warriors wearing armor and confronting a determined enemy.  Chivalry was a code employed by a culture of warriors, which extends to the notion of good men skilled in warfare willing to place their lives and fortunes “on the line” in defense of innocents, in defense of the realm, in defense of religious beliefs.  The code was already in writing by the time of Charlemagne and is chronicled in La Chanson de Roland, which tells of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 A.D.  Historians have restored the code, which appears in summary form below:

  • To fear God and maintain His church (community)
  • To serve the liege lord in valor and faith
  • To protect the weak and defenseless
  • To give succor to widows and orphans
  • To refrain from the wanton giving of offense
  • To live by honor and for glory
  • To despise pecuniary reward
  • To fight for the welfare of all
  • To obey those placed in authority
  • To guard the honor of fellows
  • To eschew unfairness, meanness, and deceit
  • To keep faith
  • At all times, speak only truth
  • To persevere to the end in any enterprise once begun
  • To respect and honor women
  • Never refuse a challenge from an equal
  • Never turn one’s back upon a foe

Of these eighteen tenets, 12 relate to chivalrous behavior, as opposed to combat.  For people like me, they remain relevant and elemental in the behavior of true ladies and gentlemen and closely align themselves with the New Testament’s I Corinthians, 13.

If I speak in the tongues of men or angels but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all that I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; Love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others; It is not self-seeking, nor easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.

Love never fails.  But where there are prophecies they will cease.  Where there are tongues, they will be stilled.  Where there is knowledge, this too will pass away.  For we know in part, and we prophecy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I spoke as a child; I thought like a child.  I reasoned like a child.  But when I became a man, I put away the things of childhood.  For now, we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but we will see face to face.  Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three alone remain: faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love.

During the early and late Middle Ages, the code of chivalry was incorporated into rites of knighthood, standards of behavior expected of those who served the interests of others, more than their own interests[1].  They also included strict rules of etiquette and behavior.  The codes were so exemplary that poets, lyricists, and writers incorporated them into their tales.  Since most people were illiterate, wandering minstrels communicated these ideals throughout the land.  In the post-Roman period of England (c. 500 A.D.) Arthurian myths strengthened notions of personal fortitude and courage in the face of adversity, of honor, honesty, valor, and loyalty.

I believe these two things: (1) King Arthur was not a myth; (2) No organization in the world today better emulates the chivalrous code than the United States Marine Corps.  This is what I believe, but I do not exclude any other of western civilization’s stalwart military or public service organizations.  I only intend my statement to emphasize the frequency of such laudatory qualities within the brotherhood of the US Marine Corps.

The stories from antiquity, mythical or otherwise, serve as teaching moments.  There may not have been a greater general in all antiquity than Julius Caesar, but he was a flawed man (professionally and personally) whose mistakes were devastating to Rome and its people.  King Arthur too was an illustrious leader, a man whose human frailty led to his demise and that of his Camelotian kingdom.  Not too many years ago, the American people spoke of the Kennedy White House as Camelot, but revealed history tells us that Jack Kennedy and his lovely bride were troubled people whose personal behaviors destroyed them, their legacy, which deeply troubled their citizen-admirers’.

The bane of humankind is our moral frailty.

Historians have claimed that the Arthurian stories were legend or myth because there are no written records to validate them.  Nor is there any physical evidence that he ever lived —until recently.  British archeologists believe that they have uncovered the burial tomb of a man named Arthur that dates back in time to around 500 A. D[2].  Perhaps King Arthur was a myth, but I doubt it.  King Arthur is the warrior from antiquity that no one ever forgot.  His existence may not be as well documented as that of Jesus of Nazareth, but the evidence that does exist is enough to convince me that such a man did exist —but more to the point, his is a story that can help us discover who we are, and how we might use the lessons of time to improve ourselves; how we might better serve our families, our communities, and our nation.

Arthurian 001Many tales were written about King Arthur and his knights of the round table, most of which were romantic constructs that incorporated supernatural or mythical beings, which were clearly imaginative inventions.  Three hundred years earlier, however, Nennius[3] records Arthur as a historic figure in Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons), an account unfettered by flights of fancy.  The Britons, of course, were tribal Celts who occupied all of Britain before being pushed into Wales by the Romans, Angles, and Saxons.  Arthur was one of the last Britons[4] to make a successful stand against the Anglo-Saxon invasions, a conflict that continued through the rise and progeny of King Alfred the Great (847-99).  If Nennius correctly records the events of the time, given that present-day England was divided by squabbling tribes in the post-Roman period, then Arthur would not have adorned himself in shining armor.  He would wear the attire of a Celtic chieftain, which most likely incorporated the clothing and armor of late-Roman style.  There would have been no great castles, but something more on the order of wooden stockades incorporated with then-existing Roman fortifications/settlements.

Historic facts about this period of Romano-British England are more fascinating than the fanciful tales because history is more plausible.  Monk Nennius never told us where Arthur was born, but he did list his battles —notably his last battle at Badon, which occurred near Aquae Sulis (present-day Bath).  The significance of the battle was that the Britons prevailed over the Anglo-Saxon horde, pushing them back to the British Saxon Shore.  We know this from the Anglo-Saxon’s own records of the time, and from archaeological evidence.  That the Britons had a powerful, unifying leader, seems undeniable.

Was there such a place as Camelot?  Yes-and no.  Colchester, England is the site of the earliest Roman settlement, although evidence suggests that the settlement existed before the arrival of Romans in 55 B.C.  It was then called Camulodunon, which also appears on coins minted by the chieftain Tasciovanus between 20-10 B.C.  It would be easy to make this association, but Colchester is far removed from Aquae Sulis and there is yet another possibility.

In the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, there is a 7th-century work titled The Song of Llywarch the Old.  It contains one of the oldest references to King Arthur, composed of a series of poems attributed to a poet named Llywarch, who praises the exploits of a chieftain named Cynddylan, who died fighting the Anglo Saxons in 658 A.D.  Cynddylan, according to Llywarch, was the direct descendant of Arthur, which implies that Arthur once ruled the kingdom that Cynddylan ruled.  It was the kingdom of present-day Powys, Wales, which at the time covered the area described above, in the south and west-central England and east-central Wales.  The Anglo-Saxons eventually defeated the Britons, pushing them into the Welsh mountains where a modern-day county still retains the old kingdom’s name.  The Romans called this area Viroconium.

When Rome abandoned Britain in 410 A.D., most of their settlements were abandoned and Britain fell into the so-called Dark Ages.  Romans and their mixed-blood descendants, however, continued to occupy Viroconium.  It had been the fourth largest town in Romano-Britain after Londonium(London), Lindum Colonia (Lincoln), and Eboracum (York).  While the Anglo-Saxons quickly overran the largest cities (above), Viroconium was far distant from the invasive Germans and remained free and evolved into the Briton’s most important city in the early Dark Ages.  These ruins still exist with archeological evidence that the town went through a process of reconstruction around 500 A.D.  We know the town today as Wroxeter, which is 25 miles northwest of Worcester, my lovely bride’s hometown.  Ancient manuscripts tell us that Arthur ruled over the Briton’s most important city —which would have been Viroconium.

Still, Arthur is not a Welsh name.  The ruler of Viroconium around the time of Arthur was named Owain Ddantgwyn (pronounced Owen Thant-gwyn), which sounds nothing like Arthur.  During the early Middle Ages, British warriors were given honorary titles of real or mythological animals thought to represent their prowess in battle.  One of these was the Welsh word “Arth,” meaning Bear.  In Viroconium around 500 A.D., its ruler Owain Ddantgwyn was known as the Bear, hence, Arth.  Scholars today connect the Welsh word for bear with the Latin word for bear, Ursus, which then became, in later years, Arthur, a king, and a person who actually did exist.

The tales of King Arthur are entertaining, but the history of the real warrior is more fascinating.  Our admiration for such a fellow continues because, among other things, he helped create the code of honor that serves as our guide for achieving and maintaining nobility.

Knights in the sense of the Middle Ages never existed in the United States, of course —Americans eschewed the notion of kings or of men born into families of nobles.  Instead, we Americans believe that every person can obtain nobility by acting nobly.  The Knight’s Code of Honor that I borrowed (above) is a nifty tool for helping us achieve nobility —as a guide for the way we live our lives.

cropped-marine-recon-002.jpgAs for knights —we do have them, but we call them by another name.  Their standards are high, their tolerance for failure is low, they do remarkably brave things almost on a daily basis while never seeking recognition.  They are guardians of the weak, they succor the suffering, and live according to a unique code of honor.  These knights demand fairness, serve justice, always persevere, and they keep the faith.  In fact, it is their motto: Semper Fidelis.  We call these modern-day knights United States Marines.

“Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for a friend.”

—John 15:13

Remarkably, much about the US Marines is modeled on the warrior that no one forgot.  Personally, given who I am, I hope no one ever does forget.

Sources:

  1. Anderson, G.  King Arthur in Antiquity.  London: Roufledge (2004)
  2. Phillips, G.  The Lost Tomb of King Arthur.  Rochester: Bear & Company, 2016
  3. Dumville, D. N.  Sub-Roman Britain: History and legend.  1977

Endnotes:

[1] Our observation that chivalrous codes did exist does not suggest that every individual who took such oaths always observed them.  Every person has strengths as well as weaknesses; some of us have destructive character flaws.  In ancient society, and today, there are plenty of scurrilous fellows who took oaths for only one purpose, to advance themselves, and then violated them on a more-or-less on-going basis.

[2] Read: The Lost Tomb of King Arthur, by Graham Phillips, Rochester: Bear & Company, 2016.

[3] Nennius was a Welsh monk of the 9th century.  Nennius, who lived in Brecknockshire, present-day Powys, was a student of the bishop Elfodd of Bangor, who convinced ecclesiastics of his day to accept the Continental dating of Easter.  Much of Nennius’ effort was based on earlier works, notably De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which was written by Gildas between 500-579 A. D.

[4] Popular writers suggest that Arthur Pendragon was descended from a Welsh and Romano-British line, which given the history of Rome’s presence in Britain, and the areas in which they settled (Aquae Sulis (Somerset)-West Mercia (Wroxeter/Worcestershire)), the suggestion is credible.

At Chalmette, 1815

US FLAG 1814
U. S. Flag 1814

The War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States evolved from several factors: (1) British impressment of American sailors, (2) The Americans accepted for citizenship British deserters, (3) British frigates blockaded US harbors in their search for British deserters, (4) British supported native Americans and urged them to commit hostile actions toward American settlers, (5) American interests in expansion into the Northwest Territory, and (6) America’s internal politics, with one faction demanding a stronger central government and closer ties to Great Britain, with the opposing party demanding a smaller central government, preservation of slavery and states’ rights, westward expansion, and a stronger break with the British.

Hostility with Great Britain, which at the time had the world’s strongest navy and land army, did not favor the United States.  With few exceptions, senior American army officers —holdovers from the Revolutionary War— were elderly, full of themselves, tired, and incompetent.  The combination of these factors led to American defeats at Detroit, Queenston Heights, and Upper Canada.  Whether the United States succeeded or failed in this latest confabulation, the American people did not want another war with Great Britain; they were war-weary, which made James Madison a very unpopular president.

On the Continent, the United Kingdom was heavily committed to fighting Napoleon Bonaparte and could not immediately spare its army or the Royal Navy to confront the United States.  These circumstances led the British to develop a conservative strategy in North America: defend British territory on land, employ naval blockades of American harbors, and harass US naval shipping at sea.

MajGen Robert Ross
MajGen Robert Ross

Following the death of Major General Robert Ross, who commanded the British North American Army, killed in action near Baltimore, Maryland, the British war office appointed Major General Edward Pakenham[1] to succeed him.  In August 1814, the United Kingdom and the United States initiated diplomatic negotiations to end the war.  British Secretary of War Henry Bathurst issued Pakenham secret orders commanding him to continue prosecuting the war, even if he heard rumors of a peace treaty being signed because Bathurst feared that the United States Senate would refuse to ratify such a treaty.  Bathurst did not want Pakenham to endanger his troops or miss an opportunity to gain advantages over the American Army.

In December 1814, the British navy stationed sixty (60) ships in the Gulf of Mexico, east of the entrance to Lake Pontchartrain, under the command of Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane[2].  Aboard these ships were 14,450 soldiers.  An American flotilla of gunboats under the command of Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby-Jones[3], blocked their access to the lakes.  British forces under Captain Nicholas Lockyer attacked Jones with 1,200 British sailors and Marines in 42 longboats.  Each longboat was armed with a small cannonade.  In this engagement, known as the Battle of Lake Borgne, Lockyer captured Jones’ vessels.  Lockyer lost 17 of his men killed in action, with 77 wounded.  Jones lost 6 Americans KIA, 35 wounded, 86 captured[4].  Among the wounded were both Jones and Lockyer.

While Lockyer engaged Jones, General John Keane, commanding a force of three-thousand British soldiers, established a garrison on Pea Island (now, Pearl Island), which was about 30 miles east of New Orleans.  On 23 December, Keane led a vanguard force of 1,800 soldiers to the east bank of the Mississippi River, 9 miles south of New Orleans.  Unknown to General Keane at that time, New Orleans was undefended.  Keane bivouacked his force at the Lacoste Plantation pending the arrival of reinforcements in preparation for an assault on New Orleans.  When British officers commandeered the home of Gabriel Villeré, Villeré escaped through a window and warned General Andrew Jackson of the approaching British Army and informed Jackson of Keane’s position.

That very evening, Jackson led an assault force of 2,000 men to engage General Keane.  After achieving surprise and disrupting the British camp, Jackson withdrew his force back to the Rodriguez Canal, 5 miles north of Keane’s encampment.  General Jackson’s foray cost him 24 men killed in action (KIA) and 115 wounded in action (WIA).  General Keane reported 46 of his men KIA, 167 WIA, and 64 missing in action (MIA)[5].  General Pakenham’s force arrived in the field on Christmas day.  After conferring with Keane, Pakenham ordered a reconnaissance-in-force to test the Jackson defense.

Between 24 December and 8 January, General Jackson ordered his “rag-tag” army to construct, expand, or improve existing defensive positions.  Jackson’s command of 4,732 men included 968 US Army regulars, 164 sailors and Marines under the command of Major Daniel Carmick, 1,060 Louisiana militia and volunteers, 1,352 Tennessee militia, 986 Kentucky militia, 150 Mississippi militia, 52 Choctaw warriors, and a volunteer force operating under the pirate Jean Lafitte.

When completed, Jackson’s defensive line was substantial.  There were three lines of static defenses organized north of the Rodriguez Canal, which was fifteen feet wide and around eight feet deep.  The breastwork, which included felled timber and soil, protected riflemen from enemy musket fire.  Behind the defenses, Jackson constructed earthworks for his artillery.  In addition to eight batteries of artillery, Jackson had at his disposal naval guns aboard the USS Carolina, the steamboat Enterprise, and the grounded USS Louisiana.  Carmick’s force of sailors and Marines manned the western redoubt and helped coordinate naval gunfire from the vessels already named.

Soon after Pakenham’s main force on 1 January 1815, British artillery initiated a barrage of Jackson’s defenses.  The exchange of artillery lasted over three hours and ceased only when Pakenham had expended all available munitions.  Several of Jackson’s guns were silenced, which necessitated a realignment of artillery.  During the barrage, Major Daniel Carmick fell wounded from fragmentation striking his forehead.  Command of the naval forced passed to First Lieutenant Francois de Bellevue, USMC.

Battle of New Orleans
Battle of New Orleans, 1815

Initially, General Pakenham intended to launch an assault on Jackson’s position after first softening the American position with artillery fire.  Whether it was a matter of Pakenham not realizing that he was short of artillery munitions, or that his fire plan was deficient, or some other reason, Pakenham canceled the attack.  General Pakenham did not realize how close he had come to defeating Jackson.  Several of Jackson’s militia had abandoned their positions during the British barrage and were not likely to return.  Instead, Pakenham delayed his offensive until the entire force of 8,000 infantry was assembled ashore.

Pakenham’s force included eight battalions of Highlanders, the 14th Light Dragoons, elements of the 95th Rifle Brigade, and the 1st and 5th India Regiments.  Several hundred blacks, recruited from West Indies colonies reinforced the British order of battle and a force of undetermined size of native Americans under the war chief Kinache.

The British assault began on the morning of 8 January 1815.  Pakenham ordered a two-prong attack.  Colonel William Thornton was to cross the Mississippi from the west back during the night with a force of 780 men, move up-river, and storm the naval battery under Commodore Daniel Patterson.  Then, with captured American artillery, Thornton would turn those guns on the American line.  General Keane would lead his force along the river and position them shy of Jackson’s defensive line for a frontal assault.  General Samuel Gibbs (Pakenham’s deputy) would lead his column along the swamp, approaching the American on Jackson’s left flank.  Major General John Lambert would hold his brigade in reserve.

No military operation plan survives its first objective, and this was the case with Colonel Thornton, who was delayed twelve hours when a dam constructed on one of the canals failed, forcing his men to drag their boats through muddy ground.

Notwithstanding Thornton’s delay, Pakenham ordered his assault to begin before dawn.  Heavy fog and the pitch-black of the early morning hour wrapped his men as in a cloak, denying them a clear vision of what lay ahead.  As the fog lifted, Pakenham’s forward line encountered withering American fire.  Colonel Thomas Mullins, commanding the 44th East Essex Regiment, had forgotten the ladders and fascine[6] he needed to cross the Rodriguez Canal and scale the American breastwork.  When Mullins and most of his officers were killed, along with General Gibbs, the men became confused and floundered.

With his right-center struggling, General Pakenham ordered General Keane to detach his 93rd Highlanders and move across the open field and reinforce the British right flank.  During this movement, Keane fell wounded.  On Pakenham’s left flank, Colonel Rennie’s force managed to attack and overrun an American redoubt next to the river but was unable to hold the position or advance into the American line.

Jackson sent the 7th Infantry to recapture the redoubt.  After 30 minutes of intense combat, Colonel Rennie and most of his men lie dead.  On Pakenham’s right, British infantry threw themselves on the ground or into the canal to avoid American musket fire and grapeshot.  A handful of men made it to the top of the parapet, but they were soon killed or captured.  The 95th Rifles had managed to advance ahead of the main assault and were concealed in a ditch below the parapet, but without additional support, they were unable to advance further.

Jackson’s Americans repulsed the two-pronged British attack.

Pakenham Death
Death of MajGen Pakenham

While directing his troops on the field, grapeshot from US artillery shattered General Pakenham’s left knee and killed his horse.  As he was helped to his feet by his senior aide-de-camp, Major Duncan MacDougall, Pakenham was wounded a second time in his right arm.  Then, having mounted MacDougall’s horse, another salvo of grapeshot ripped through his spine and he fell to the ground mortally wounded.   With his second in command already dead (Gibbs), Major Wilkinson reformed the 21st Regiment and initiated a third assault.  Wilkinson was shot as he achieved the top of the parapet; the Americans, impressed with his courage under fire, carried him to safety behind the rampart.  The 93rd Highlanders, having no further orders, were caught in the open and were slaughtered by American artillery.  General Lambert, commanding the reserve brigade, assumed command of the British force.  Lambert led his reserve brigade onto the field.  Observing that the attack had failed, he ordered a withdrawal with the rifles of his brigade providing covering fire for the retreating army.

The British had but one success during the Battle of New Orleans: it was the delayed attack on the west bank of the river where Thornton’s brigade and detachments of Royal Navy and Marines attacked and overwhelmed the American line.  In this assault, Thornton was wounded, but his success had no effect on the outcome of the battle.  General Lambert directed Colonel Alexander Dickson, his chief of artillery, to assess the British position.  Dickson reported that no fewer than 2,000 additional men would be required to hold what they had.  On this advice, Lambert ordered a general withdrawal from the field.  In the American camp, Jackson believed that his defense strategy had failed and was preparing to withdraw when he received word that the British had already begun their withdrawal.

The battle was brief but costly.  Pakenham’s force suffered 285 killed, 1,265 wounded and gave up 484 prisoners[7] —all within 25 minutes.  The Americans lost 13 killed and 30 wounded.  Admiral Cochrane continued his naval bombardment of Fort St. Philip for another ten days but finally withdrew on 18 January.  In the Duke of Wellington’s final analysis, the failure of this campaign was the result of Admiral Cochrane’s shortcomings as Commander-in-Chief of British Forces and the failure of Colonel Mullins to carry the ladders and fascines onto the field.  There is little doubt that Colonel Mullins’ error cost Pakenham his victory at New Orleans.

After the battle, General Andrew Jackson commended the navy and Marines for their gallant conduct.  On Jackson’s recommendation, the Congress resolved on 22 February 1822, that “Congress entertain a high sense of the valor and good conduct of Major Daniel Carmick, of the officers, noncommissioned officers, and Marines under his command, in the defense of [New Orleans] on the late memorable occasion.”

US Marine Corps Major Daniel Carmick, wounded during Pakenham’s artillery barrage, died from his wound on 6 November 1816.  At the time of his service in New Orleans, Carmick was the second-ranking officer in the Marine Corps.  Lieutenant de Bellevue, later promoted to captain, resigned his commission on 9 March 1824.

One of the saddest footnotes to any battle exists in the aftermath of the Battle of New Orleans.  The fight actually occurred after a peace accord had been signed by British and American officials on 24 December 1814 —days before American and British forces confronted one another on 8 January 1815.  Word of the peace was not received in the United States until 11 February 1815.  In the final analysis, however, given Henry Bathurst’s secret directive to Pakenham, that is, to “continue the war even if he should hear rumors of a peace treaty”, the Battle of New Orleans would in all likelihood have taken place as it did even if word of the peace had reached American shores in time to avoid the conflict.  The Bathurst directive reminds us that great danger to our forces exists whenever civilian officials interject themselves into the prerogatives of a field commander.

Sources:

  1. Borneman, W. H.  1812: The War that Forged a Nation.  New York: HarperCollins, 2004
  2. Chapman, R.  The Battle of New Orleans: “But for a Piece of Wood.”  Pelican Publishing, 2013
  3. Drez, R. J.  The War of 1812, Conflict and Deception: The British Attempt to Seize New Orleans and Nullify the Louisiana Purchase.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014
  4. Patterson, B. R.  The Generals, Andrew Jackson, Sir Edward Pakenham, and the road to New Orleans: New York: New York University Press, 2008

Endnotes:

[1] Sir Edward Michael Pakenham (1778-1815) was the son of the Baron Longford and the brother in law of the Duke of Wellington.  Pakenham was an experienced military officer, with service as a dragoon in the Rebellion of 1798, in Nova Scotia, Barbados, and Saint Croix.  In 1803, he led an attack at Saint Lucia, where he was wounded, and in 1807 fought in the Danish Campaign at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1807.  He was wounded for a second time at Martinique.

[2] Cochrane, who was then servicing as a vice admiral, commanded the North America and Jamaica Stations.  Under Cochrane, Ross successfully burned the city of Washington and laid down the massive barrage at Fort McHenry, Baltimore, from which the Star-Spangled Banner was penned by Francis Scott Key.  Despite criticism of the Duke of Wellington directed at Cochrane, he was advanced to full admiral in 1819.  He passed away in Paris, France on 26 January 1832.

[3] Catesby-Jones (1790-1858) was appointed a navy midshipman in 1805 but lacking in education the Navy suggested he return home and study geography, navigation, and surveying as a measure to improve his future chances for an active naval assignment.  When the navy mobilized gunboats following the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, Catesby-Jones was assigned to gunboat 10, commencing active service in August 1807.  After distinguishing himself at the Battle of Lake Borgne in 1814, Jones continued his service as a navy officer, reaching the rank of commodore.  He passed away while serving on active duty in California.

[4] Attached to Jones were 35 Marines, three of which were killed and two wounded.

[5] The number of killed and wounded in this action may be accurate but given the placement of Keane’s encampment at the Villeré Plantation, the numbers reported as MIA seems questionable.  It is more likely that some of these MIAs deserted Keane.

[6] A rough bundle of brushwood or other materials used for strengthening an earthen structure or making a pathway across uneven or saturated terrain.

[7] 484 British riflemen had pretended to be dead; when the British force withdrew, these men stood up and surrendered to the Americans.

The War Begins in Earnest

Some background

Shortly after the Geneva Convention of 1954, CIA director Allen Dulles sent Colonel Edward Lansdale to initiate a series of clandestine operations against North Vietnam.  Lansdale initiated several operations, code named Nautilus, which included South Vietnam manned commando raids and the insertion of CIA recruited spies.  In 1963, the CIA and US Department of Defense jointly agreed that these covert operations should transfer to the DoD.  In January 1964, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG)[1] assumed responsibility for all covert operations in Vietnam[2].

USMACV-SOG-001Once MAC-SOG took control of covert operations in North Vietnam, the Pentagon issued Operation Plan (OPLAN) 34-63, which entailed a continuation of commando raids[3] and the expansion of electronic surveillance through US Navy ships and patrol boats based out of Da Nang.  OPLAN 34-A expanded covert operations with more ambitious missions to offshore assaults on coastal installations.  When US intelligence officers realized that some of their raiders had been turned by the North Vietnamese, US covert operations shifted more toward psychological operations, which involved spreading anti-Communist propaganda and deception.  The effectiveness of these clandestine measures remains questionable, but there was no doubt that both the USSR and China were actively supplying the Viet Cong (VC) with weapons and munitions, or that North Vietnam was funneling men and material into South Vietnam through Laos.

With US Navy ships collecting intelligence off the coast of North Vietnam, it was only a matter of time before the North Vietnamese challenged these encroachments, which were mostly converted minesweepers.  Occasionally, but always between midnight and 0300, North Vietnamese gunboats would approach these ships at high speed and then peel off and return to their island base of operations at a location above the 30th parallel.  North Vietnamese gunboats were threatening, but they never actually attacked the unarmed minesweepers.  Because the minesweepers were defenseless, the Navy decided to replace them with destroyers to continue electronic surveillance.  These were referred to as desoto patrols.  By sending out patrol boats to challenge US navy ships (which were always conducted beyond the internationally recognized 3-mile limit), US intelligence officers were able to collect useful information about North Vietnamese (Democratic Republic of Vietnam) (DRV) military and naval capabilities.  In time, the DRV replaced their gunboats with larger vessels and torpedo equipped frigates.

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963, the American presidency passed to Lyndon B. Johnson.  Johnson retained most of Kennedy’s cabinet and advisors —men who had helped craft and manage the Kennedy administration’s policies toward Southeast Asia.  Prior to his vice presidency, Johnson had been a long-serving member of the US Senate and the House of Representatives from Texas —but despite those bona fides, Johnson was uncertain about his own foreign policy credentials and this forced him to rely on Kennedy’s cabinet … men such as Robert S. McNamara[4], Dean Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy.

Ngo Dinh Diem 001
President Ngo Dinh Diem

President Kennedy (like his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower), was reluctant to involve the United States in another Asian war.  Neither of these men were hesitant to offer military assistance, in terms of advisors and material support, but neither could see how direct involvement would benefit either South Vietnam or US interests in Indochina.  Kennedy had, with some success, negotiated recognition of the Kingdom of Laos as a neutral state, but this agreement was almost immediately ignored by the DRV, who had previously used Laos to infiltrate men and material into South Vietnam —and continued to do so.  In signing the accord, Kennedy was naïve.  Neither did the President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem (or the US Ambassador to South Vietnam), believe that the Geneva Accord was a good idea.  Diem believed that the United States was more concerned about its own interests in Southeast Asia than it was about the security of South Vietnam —and of course, he was right.

Diem had long resented America’s heavy hand in its internal affairs.  For all of his short comings (at least, according to western standards), Diem was an intelligent man who was confronted by a plethora of domestic issues, not the least of which were well-entrenched urban gangsters, rural warlords, Buddhist activists opposing a Catholic head of state, and a determined Communist insurgency.  American diplomats did not seem to appreciate either Diem’s stress level or the fact that he was culturally Vietnamese.  His attitudes toward curtailing dissent were not so far removed from those of his North Vietnamese counterpart, Ho Chi Minh.  Diem was harsh in his suppression of dissidents and Kennedy, believing that Diem’s punitive policies were counterproductive to stabilizing South Vietnam’s (RVN) government, pushed back.  President Diem deeply resented this interference.  The US and RVN were at an impasse —and something had to give.

On 1-2 November 1963, President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother (and chief advisor) Ngo Dinh Nhu were assassinated, an operation ostensibly planned and carried out by Diem’s senior military officers.  Almost no one believed that these incompetent generals could have pulled off such an intricate operation without the help of the American CIA.  If South Vietnam was unstable under Diem, his assassination made things worse.  Ho Chi Minh, while stymied by the American-backed event, couldn’t have been more pleased.

Prelude to War

President Johnson soon learned that earlier assurances by McNamara and Bundy that the RVN was making progress against the communist insurgency were ill-founded.  Secretary of State Dean Rusk warned Johnson that in fact, South Vietnam was in a deep spiral.  McNamara and senior DoD officials rejected Rusk’s arguments, but as it turned out, Rusk was right and South Vietnam was in dire straits.  Viet Cong attacks, performed at will, were increasing in frequency and lethality.

In late January 1964, South Vietnamese General Nguyen Khanh overthrew the ruling junta of Duong Van Minh (also known as Big Minh).  It was the second coup d’état in three months.  Amazingly, Johnson, who was not pleased with RVN’s progress in countering the communist insurgency, found encouragement in the coup and sought to bolster the Khanh regime.  In March 1964, Johnson sent McNamara to undertake a fact-finding mission in South Vietnam.  His report pointed to an easily discernible deterioration of popular morale and an acceleration of communist insurgencies.  McNamara advised Johnson to send more US military and economic support.

By this time, President Johnson was convinced that South Vietnam was about to fall into the hands of the communists.  He was determined not to become the first US president to lose the fight against communist aggression[5].  The emerging war in Vietnam became Johnson’s primary focus.  Ultimately, Johnson decided on a series of increasingly aggressive political strategies.

But 1964 was an election year in the United States.  When US Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge resigned his post and announced that he was running for the presidency, Johnson replaced him with retired US Army General Maxwell Taylor, formerly the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  On Taylor’s recommendation, Johnson also replaced General Paul D. Harkins as head of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (USMACV), with General William C. Westmoreland[6].  In making these changes, Johnson’s signal seemed clear enough: he was leaning toward a military solution to the conflict in Vietnam, rather than a diplomatic resolution.

President Johnson was also challenged for the presidency by Senator Barry Goldwater from Arizona.  Johnson was many things (a decent human being not being one of them), but he was a master politician.  With two very substantial challengers, Johnson increased his popularity[7] by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (passed into law on 2 July), but he also understood this alone would not be enough to take America to another Asian war.  Johnson would require the support of Congress to increase US involvement in South Vietnam.  In order to achieve congressional support, Johnson would need to demonstrate that North Vietnam was a bona fide threat to the peace and security of the Southeast Asian Mainland.

On 1 August 1964, South Vietnamese commandos raided a North Vietnamese radio transmitter located on an offshore island.  The very next morning, 2 August, the destroyer USS Maddox (DD 731) while cruising in international waters 28 miles off the coast of North Vietnam, engaged three North Vietnamese Navy (NVN) P-4 Motor Torpedo Boats[8] of Torpedo Squadron 135.  The Commander, Destroyer Division, 7th Fleet, Captain John J. Herrick, was aboard Maddox and exercised command authority over the Desoto mission.  Herrick ordered Commander Herbert Ogier, the ship’s captain, to have gun crews fire on the torpedo boats if they came within 10,000 yards of Maddox.  When the boats encroached upon the Maddox, Ogier ordered three rounds to warn off the NVN craft.

The NVN commanders were brothers, Van Bot, commanding T-333, Van Tu, commanding T-336, and Van Gian commanding T-339.  The attack commenced in numerical order with T-333 spearheading the attack.  The maximum effective range of their torpedoes was 1,000 yards (9/10ths of a mile).  Maddox’ gun range was 18,000 yards.  T-333 pressed home its assault astern Maddox with the two additional boats in trace.  Then, T-333 attempted to run abeam of Maddox for a side shot.  T-336 and T-339 fired first, but Maddox’ five-inch gun fire threatened the torpedo boats.  Both fired their torpedoes prematurely, all four missing their target.  T-333 fired its torpedoes, also without effect, but then fired at Maddox with its 14.5-mm (.57 caliber) deck gun.  The American destroyer received a single hit.  Altering course, crewmen observed torpedoes passing Maddox on her starboard side.

Within short order, four F-8 Crusaders from USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) arrived overhead and promptly attacked the NVN torpedo boats, forcing them to withdraw.  Several NVN crewmen were wounded, four were killed, and all three boats were seriously damaged.  There were no US casualties.  One of the four aircraft sustained damage to its left wing, but all birds returned to Ticonderoga.

On 3 August, USS Turner Joy (DD-951) was ordered to accompany USS Maddox for another Desoto mission.  On 4 August, Turner Joy’s radar picked up a number of blips believed to be approaching small, high-speed surface craft, but at an extreme range.  As a precaution, the two destroyers called upon Ticonderoga to furnish air support.  After nightfall, radar signatures suggested the convergence of patrol boats from the west and south.  Turner Joy reported that she sighted one or two torpedo wakes, ramped up her speed and began evasion maneuvers.  Turner Joy then began firing in the direction of the unidentified surface vessels.  Over the next two and a half hours, Turner Joy fired 220 five-inch shells; aircraft from Ticonderoga likewise fired on “suspected” torpedo boats.

This second attack on 4 August never actually happened[9], but together with the incident on 2 August, President Johnson claimed “unprovoked attacks” upon the sovereignty of the United States.  On 5 August, Johnson ordered bombing raids on North Vietnamese military targets.  Referred to in history as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Johnson asked for and received Congressional approval to escalate US involvement in the Vietnam War.

In North Vietnam, General Vo Nguyen Giap made a disturbing accusation.  Lyndon Johnson, he said, constructed the Desoto patrols in order to provoke North Vietnam into a response, so that Johnson could use such a response as an excuse for escalating the conflict in South Vietnam.  Giap’s allegation is probably true[10].  According to Ray McGovern, a retired CIA analyst (1963-90), the CIA, “not to mention President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy all knew full well that the evidence of an armed attack on 4 August 1964, the so-called ‘second’ Tonkin Gulf incident, was highly dubious.  During the summer of 1964, President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff[11] seemed keen on widening the war in Vietnam.  They stepped up sabotage and hit and run attacks on the coast of North Vietnam.”

James Bamford, author of the book Body of Secrets, who spent three years in the US Navy as an intelligence analyst, agrees with McGovern.  The primary purpose of the Maddox “was to act as a seagoing provocateur —to poke its sharp gray bow and the American flag as close to the belly of North Vietnam as possible, in effect shoving its five-inch cannons up the nose of the communist navy.  The Maddox’ mission was made even more provocative by being present at times that coincided with commando raids, creating the impression that Maddox was directing those missions.”  Accordingly, the DRV had every reason to believe that USS Maddox was involved in the commando raids.

Here’s what we know …

In the early afternoon of 4 August (Washington time), Captain John Herrick reported to the Commander in Chief, Pacific that “freak weather effects” on Turner Joy’s radar had made North Vietnamese attacks questionable.  He was clear in his statement: “No North Vietnamese patrol boats had actually been sighted.”  Herrick urged a full reevaluation of these events before any further action was taken.  It was too late.  President Johnson had already made his televised announcement.

Secretary McNamara later testified that he had read Herrick’s message after his return to the Pentagon in the afternoon of 4 August, but that he did not immediately contact the president to tell him that the premise of his justification for retaliatory air strikes was at that time, highly questionable.  Scholars now argue that had Johnson received accurate information, had he been informed of the Herrick message, he “might have demanded more complete information before proceeding with broadening the war.”  Personally, given what I know of Lyndon Johnson, I doubt it.

LBJ-001
Lyndon Baines Johnson

Johnson was up for reelection.  He informed congress that the USS Maddox was not involved in providing intelligence for raids into North Vietnam.  He stated clearly that North Vietnamese attacks were “unprovoked.”  This was a lie and he knew at the time that it was a lie.  As a result of this testimony, the US Congress passed a Joint Resolution granting Johnson authority to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without the benefit of a declaration of war. Johnson was empowered to “take all necessary steps, including the use of armed forces, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.”

Lyndon Johnson’s election as President of the United States in his own right allowed the administration to move forward with a more aggressive policy in Southeast Asia.  Mere days before the election, Communist guerrillas attacked the US air base at Bien Hoa killing four Americans, wounding scores, and destroying twenty-five aircraft.  Johnson decided (politically) not to respond to this attack so close to a national election, but on election day, he created an interagency task force to review US-Vietnam policy.  Chairing this task force was William Bundy (a former CIA analyst), the brother of McGeorge Bundy (serving as chief of the State Department’s Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs).

At the time of the election of 1964, owing to the political instability of South Vietnam, the US Military Assistance Command (USMACV) under General William Westmoreland, had grown to more than 20,000 men.  Of the over 800 Marines in Vietnam, most were assigned to the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ) (Also, I Corps), which consisted of the five northern-most provinces of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).  Sixty USMC advisors were assigned to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in I Corps.  Aviators assigned to Shufly at Da Nang were reinforced by a Marine rifle company for airfield security.  Additional Marines were assigned to the US Embassy in Saigon and the MACV staff.

In Washington, the government examined the possibility of sending US combat troops to RVN for the defense of critical US installations.  General Maxwell Taylor, serving as US Ambassador to the RVN, warned the administration against over-emphasizing static security and recommended that aggressive ARVN field operations was the best strategy for stabilizing the country.  Taylor was right in his assessment.

The possible employment of US forces was of special concern to the Marine Corps.  In 1964, the most combat-ready Marines in the Far East were those of the 3rd Marine Division, located on Okinawa, and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing at Iwakuni, Japan.  Both commands, under III Marine Amphibious Force, were task organized to support various contingency plans for Southeast Asia.

9THMAB-001Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the US Pacific Command activated the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (9thMAB)[12]under the command of the 3rdMarDiv Assistant Division Commander, Brigadier General Raymond G. Davis[13].  The ground combat element included the 9th Marine Regiment (9th Marines) and three battalion landing teams[14] (BLTs) and a Provisional Marine Air Group (ProvMAG) consisting of fixed wing and helicopter squadrons.  For the first several months, 9thMAB was a pre-positioned (mostly on paper) organization with a small headquarters at Subic Bay, Philippines.  Brigadier General John P. Coursey relieved General Davis in October.

On 22 January 1965, Brigadier General Frederick J. Karch[15] assumed command of the 9thMAB, which now consisted of two BLTs (1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9) and 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines (3/9)), both of which had been serving afloat with the Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force since the beginning of the year.  At this time, the Marine brigade was the US combat force most readily available for deployment to RVN.

Meanwhile, in Washington, President Johnson’s working group gave him three options: (1) Continue with the current approach (funding and limited military support); (2) Escalate the war and strike North Vietnam; (3) Pursue a strategy of graduated response.  After weeks of discussions, Johnson endorsed the third option and directed the task force to “flesh out” its implementation.

The Bundy Plan envisioned a series of measures of gradually increasing intensity[16].  (1) An escalation of military involvement and the presence of US military personnel would bolster national morale.  (2) Attack Viet Cong forces operating in South Vietnam.  (3) Pressure Hanoi into ending its support of the Communist insurgency.  The first phase of this plan was Operation Barrel Roll[17].

Johnson’s task force reflected his management style.  He would have none of Kennedy’s lengthy debates with policy staffers.  By tasking subordinates to develop broad planning initiatives, on an interagency basis, and frequently at levels far below that of senior white house officials, Johnson only considered recommendations that had already gained consensus before bringing them to his top aides.  President Johnson would only make key decisions in the presence of a limited number of his closest advisors.  Almost more than anything else, Johnson feared “leaks to the press.”

The problem, however, was that Johnson’s managerial style was frequently overwhelmed by events happening on the ground.  No amount of tinkering would allow his administration to escape the reality of the Vietnam War: unabated political instability in South Vietnam and Communist successes in the field (being fought, of course, in South Vietnam rather than in North Vietnam).  There were two problems with Johnson’s penchant for running the war from the white house: (1) With limited military experience, Lyndon Johnson was out of his depth[18], and (2) his meddling in the prosecution of the war seriously undercut the tactical prerogatives of his senior-most military officers.

The deterioration of South Vietnam’s political structure (and his apparent lack of confidence in his field commanders) led Johnson to take on an even larger role in handing the war.  In February 1965, Johnson dispatched his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, to assess the need for an expanded bombing campaign, which William Bundy’s interagency task force had anticipated a few months earlier.  At the time of Bundy’s visit, nine Americans were killed when VC elements raided Camp Holloway[19] and Pleiku.  This event provided the justification for expanding US military involvement —which of course, Bundy’s task force was already considering.  Another VC assault at Qui Nhon resulted in the death of 23 Americans with another 21 wounded.  Within days, Johnson approved a sustained bombing campaign[20] of North Vietnam that would last for the rest of his presidency.

The attacks on Pleiku and Qui Nhon underscored the vulnerability of bases that US planes would be using in the bombing campaign.  Accordingly, Johnson authorized the deployment of two Marine battalions to Da Nang in March 1965.  It was a decision that caused Johnson great anxiety because he realized the likely impact of sending Marines into a combat environment and its impact in the minds of the American people.

Meanwhile, the bombing campaign did not appear affect Hanoi or the Vietcong in any significant way.  By mid-March, Johnson was considering additional proposals for expanding the American combat presence in RVN.  By 1 April, he decided to increase the Marine Corps footprint in RVN by two additional battalions and changed their mission from static defense of airfields to one of “active defense.”  Realizing that four battalions of Marines would not be a sufficient force to stamp out the VC insurgency, he directed planners to expand the US military in Vietnam to 82,000 men.

Assessment

According to a 2005 article in The New York Times, Robert J. Hanyok, a historian for the National Security Agency, after reviewing all available information, concluded that the NSA distorted intelligence reports passed to policy makers regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident on 4 August 1964.  Hanyok said that “NSA staff deliberately skewed evidence to make it appear as if the attack had occurred.”  According to Hanyok, the incident began at the Phu Bai Combat Base where intelligence analysts mistakenly believed that the destroyers would soon be attacked.  This concern would have been communicated back to the NSA, along with evidence supporting such a conclusion, but the fact was that the evidence did not support their conclusion.  As the evening progressed, signals intelligence did not support a North Vietnam ambush, but NSA analysts were so convinced of an attack, they ignored 90% of the data that did not support their conclusion.  This, too, was excluded from information provided to the President.

Why?

John Hanyok explained, “As much as anything else, it was an awareness that Johnson would brook no uncertainty that could undermine his position.  Faced with this attitude, CIA analyst Ray Cline recalled, “We knew it was bum dope that we were getting from the 7th Fleet but we were told to only give facts with no elaboration on the nature of the evidence.  Everyone knew how volatile Johnson was; he did not like to deal with uncertainties.”  In other words, government bureaucrats wanted to avoid a presidential tantrum directed at them.

None of the foregoing supposes that war in Vietnam could have been avoided, particularly given the United States government’s previous twenty-years of involvement in Indochinese affairs.  Truman’s concerns about a domino effect of global communism were justified by the behavior of Communist states before and after World War II.  By the end of the Korean War, Americans were war weary.  Eisenhower wisely determined that the American people, the US economy, could not sustain another foreign conflict in 1954.  He also had hopes that limited engagement would provide the government of South Vietnam the time it needed to stabilize and solve its own problems.  Both Truman and Eisenhower underestimated the lengths to which Ho Chi Minh was willing to go in unifying Vietnam under the Communist flag —but neither man really knew the Vietnamese, their history or their culture.  John Kennedy’s idealism and naïveté worked against the long-term interests of the United States in Southeast Asia; his acquiescence in the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem made things worse.

Lyndon Johnson may be my least favorite character in history.  He was a self-serving gangster, a liar, and lacked the kind of leadership the American people must have in time of war.  Johnson’s war-time decisions traumatized the American people for a full generation —and I never actually touched upon the disaster that resulted from Johnson’s “great society” experiment with socialism.  The American people are still paying for that.

Along with the good they might do, men elected to the presidency have to accept the bad as well.  Presidents are mortal, after all.  The men they select to advise them, in many cases, have much to do with their successes or failures.  Truman’s confidence in Dean Acheson is one example, Kennedy’s and Johnson’s reliance on McNamara is another.

Richard Nixon was a deeply flawed man and did himself no honor in the matter of the Watergate Affair, but he did have an adequate measure of Ho Chi Minh and Pham Van Dong.  Today, we do not give Nixon enough credit for disentangling the United States from a war that could not be won.  But we must also acknowledge that the American people themselves contributed to the evolving disaster of Vietnam.  They, after all, voted in elections that chose such men as Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson; they in turn made bad choices in important cabinet positions.

The costs of the Vietnam War were high.  58,318 Americans died in the Vietnam War; 153,303 received combat wounds; 2,971 of those required hospitalization; 1,587 Americans remain listed as missing in action.  778 Americans were taken as prisoners of war, of those 116 died in captivity.  This should lead a rational person to the conclusion that if the United States is going to involve itself in war, given its costs, then we damn sure need to win it.  The American fighting man won every battle in Vietnam, but politicians in Washington handed the enemy a strategic victory.  Surely the American voter can do better than this …

“Critical analysis,” said Clausewitz, “is the application of theoretical truths to actual events.”  … theoretical truths of the principles of war to the actual events of the Vietnam War to produce an explanation for our failure there.  If we are to profit by our mistakes, we must understand that it was a violation of these truths, not evil or wicked leaders, that was the cause of our undoing.  As David Halberstam pointed out in The Best and the Brightest, one of the saddest aspects of the war is that it was waged by well-meaning and intelligent men doing what they thought best.  The tendency to find devils, however, is still with us.” —Harry G. Summers, Colonel, Infantry, U. S. Army (Retired)

Sources:

  1. Beisner, R.L. Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War.  New York: OUP USA, 2006
  2. Beisner, R. L. Patterns of Peril: Dean Acheson Joins the Cold Warriors, 1945-46.  Diplomatic History, Vol 20, 1996
  3. Berman, L. Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam.  New York/London: Norton & Company, 1989
  4. Courtois, S. and Nicolas Werth, Andrzej Paczkowski (et. al.). The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression.  Harvard University Press, 1997.
  5. Freedman, R. Vietnam: A History of the War. Holiday House, 2016.
  6. Hastings, M. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75.  Canada: HarperCollins, 2018.
  7. Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History.  New York: Viking/The Penguin Group, 1983
  8. Lacouture, J. Ho Chi Minh: A Political Biography.  Random House, 1968
  9. McNamara, R. S. and Brian Van De Mark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.  Vintage Books, 1995.
  10. Summers, Jr., H. G. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War.  Presidio/Random House, 1982
  11. Whitlow, R. H. S. Marines in Vietnam: The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era, 1954-1964.  History & Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1977

Endnotes:

[1] MAC-SOG was a cover name for a multi-service unconventional warfare task force under the direct control of the Pentagon.

[2] The US OSS and CIA knew early on that Ho Chi Minh was a thoroughly nasty man who should be opposed by freedom-loving democracies at every turn.  As outlined in The Black Book of Communism, Ho Chi Minh directed the Viet Minh in the conduct of a ruthless assassination campaign to remove all potential political opponents.  The campaign began around 1944 (although some argue as early as 1941).  Victims included Bui Quang Chieu, leader of the Constitutional Party and Ngo Dinh Khoi, brother of Diem, who headed the Party for Independence in North Vietnam.  Again, with reference to The Black Book, Ho Chi Minh and his successors orchestrated the murder of more than 1 million people between 1941 and 1980.

[3] Commando type insertions involved Vietnamese personnel so that the US could deny involvement.  Most were unsuccessful with the commandos frequently being captured and executed.

[4] If there is one man who is most culpable for America’s failed strategy in the Vietnam War, it is McNamara.

[5] Johnson wasn’t was interested in winning the fight as he was in not losing it.

[6] General Westmoreland was a proficient general, but two factors worked against him.  First, he was political, which is the bane of most senior (three and four star) officers.  Second, he didn’t have the courage to tell Johnson that he didn’t need the president’s help in running the war.

[7] Owing to President Kennedy’s assassination, American voters remained sympathetic toward Johnson.  Lyndon Johnson won the 1964 election with 303 electoral votes to Richard Nixon’s 219.

[8] The P-4 was a 66-foot-long aluminum hulled boat armed with two torpedoes each mounted with a 550-pound TNT warhead.  The P-4 was capable of exceeding 40 knots per hour.

[9] Rear Admiral James Stockdale, a veteran of World War II, a naval aviator and prisoner of war in North Vietnam, and a recipient of the Medal of Honor, testified that the second incident, reported on 4 August, never happened.  Stockdale said, “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there.  There was nothing but black water and American firepower.”

[10] One should ask, What would be the US response to foreign attacks upon coastal military installations inside the territory of the United States?

[11] U. S. Army General Earle Wheeler served as Chairman of the JCS from 3 July 1964 to 2 July 1970.  From 1961-64, he served as Chief of Staff of the United States Army.  Wheeler was regarded by some senior officers as a “yes man,” and exactly what President Johnson was looking for in a JCS chairman —General Curtis LeMay being one of them.

[12] The designation “Amphibious” in task organizations was later changed to “Expeditionary.”  In 1965, the usage was 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade.

[13] Holder of the Medal of Honor.

[14] The BLT is the basic Marine unit in an amphibious or vertical assault.  It is a task organized infantry battalion reinforced with necessary combat support and combat service support elements (artillery, motor transport, tanks, amphibian tractors, engineers, communications, shore party, reconnaissance, and medical teams).

[15] A veteran of several amphibious campaigns in World War II.

[16] Which makes it apparent that no one in the Johnson Administration knew anything about Vietnam, its history, its people, or their culture.  It is equally apparent that few senior military officers were equipped to fight the war in Vietnam, that most accepted the erroneous notion that the United States could defeat North Vietnam through an air campaign, and no one understood the value of defeating an enemy on his own territory.

[17] A USAF and Naval Air campaign designed to disrupt North Vietnam’s logistical corridor, known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail from 1964 to 1973.

[18] While serving in the US House of Representatives, Johnson received a direct commission to lieutenant commander in the US Navy Reserve.  He was called to active duty after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and initially assigned to inspect shipyard facilities in Texas and on the West Coast.  Johnson, a trusted ally of Franklin Roosevelt, was later send by Roosevelt to obtain information of conditions in the Southwest Pacific Area.  While serving as an observer aboard a B-26 during a schedule air strike on New Guinea, the aircraft developed mechanical problems and was returned to its base of operations.  According to Johnson, however, his aircraft received battle damage and was forced back to base before reaching its objective.  Flight records reflect that the aircraft never came under enemy fire.  Nevertheless, General MacArthur awarded Johnson the silver star medal for “gallantry in action.”  He was the only member of the flight crew to receive an award.  Returning to Washington, Johnson gave MacArthur’s command a good report.

[19] Named in honor of Warrant Officer Charles E. Holloway, the first Army aviator assigned to the 81st Transportation Company killed in action.

[20] Operation Rolling Thunder.

Counterinsurgency and Pacification

Lessons learned from the Vietnam War

US Special Forces 001Early in US history, American military leaders relied on French and German advisors to help prepare the Continental Army for the American Revolution.  Since then, select members of the US Army have served as military advisors for more than a hundred years, beginning in the early 1900s.  During and after World War II, US military advisors have trained and advised the armed forces of Cambodia, Laos, Nationalist China, South Korea, South Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, and more recently, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  Whenever one thinks about US military advisors, they may envision someone wearing a green beret, and they’d be right.  The green beret is the headgear of the US Army Special Forces.  The basic mission assigned to the Green Berets is to train and lead unconventional or clandestine guerilla forces, but this mission has been expanded to include the training of conventional forces.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, US military advisors were assigned to Military Assistance Advisory Groups (MAAGs).  More recently, advisors are referred to as Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) or Military Transition Teams (MTTs).  ETTs and MTTs are composed primarily of US Marines, Army Special Forces, Navy Seals, and members of the Army national guard serving in the combat arms.  Members of the Air Force, Navy, and Army Reserve serve as advisors in matters and functions of combat service support.

Marines, by the way, have been “military advisors” for a very long time[1].  After the turn of the twentieth century, US Marines were dispatched to the so-called banana republics to protect American interests and restore order out of the chaos caused by rebels and/or bandits (although they were often one and the same)[2].  The process of restoring order frequently caused Marines to establish or reform constabularies, train constables, lead them, and monitor their development.  This was an advisory as well as a counterinsurgency role.  Marine Corps officers and NCOs were frequently assigned away from their regular units to serve in the Haitian gendarmerie, Dominican constabulary, and Nicaraguan national guard.

Background and overview

During the Vietnam War, US civilian and military advisors supported the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) in its endeavor to pacify urban and rural areas.  The concept of pacification evolved from counterinsurgency doctrine in the 1950s, which included a wide array of civil and military programs: martial training and readiness, economic development, land reform, and democratization.  None of these efforts could succeed without security forces (and their military advisors) to protect the people by seeking out and destroying communist terrorists.  In the RVN, there were three essential objectives of US/RVN counterinsurgency/pacification: (1) Prevent North Vietnam from conquering South Vietnam; (2) Countering the communist insurgency, and (3) preparing the South Vietnamese to survive on their own merits (Vietnamization programs).  Military and civilian advisors were key to each of these objectives, but none of these were easy to achieve for a wide range of reasons.  Among these difficulties were a lack of coordination between various US efforts, confusion about what pacification was trying to accomplish, an absolutely corrupt Vietnamese government, and a highly dysfunctional military high command.  This is a summary of a rather voluminous history.

First —the Marines

VMC PatchWhen the French colonial army[3] departed Indochina, they left behind a fledgling military force, which included a small riverine navy, and an assortment of army commandos who served as naval infantry.  Together, they constituted the river assault units, which some scholars claim was the only true French contribution to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).  In replacing the French, the United States established a robust effort to aid the RVN against the communist bloc-supported People’s Republic of Vietnam (PRV).

In 1954, the Vietnamese Joint-General Staff re-designated these army commando units as Marine Infantry of the Navy of the Republic of Vietnam (NRVN).  Organized into two landing battalions, they were again renamed in 1956 as the Vietnamese Marine Corps of the Navy (VMC).  Four years later, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) (North Vietnam) and the RVN were locked into a deadly conflict that became known as the Second Indochina War, which lasted from 1960-1975[4].  This war employed the full spectrum of armed violence, from individual terrorist acts and assassination and small unit guerilla actions to extensive land, air, and sea engagements.

There was no shortage of “the enemy.” There was the National Liberation Front (NLF) (also, Vietnamese Communists referred to as VC) and regulars of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) (also called People’s Army of Vietnam, PAVN).  The NLF mostly consisted of North Vietnamese communist agents, sent into the RVN between 1954-1956 to destabilize the government through insurgency.  It was also a civil conflict that involved international actors: The Democratic People’s Republic of China (Communist China), the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the Kingdom of Laos among them.

In 1961, the VMC was assigned to South Vietnam’s national reserve, used almost exclusively against political dissidents and urban and rural warlords.  In 1962, the JGS formed the VMC into a 5,000-man brigade.  In 1960, 1963, and 1964, the VMC involved itself in several coup d’état.

Several steps were necessary to transform these ARVN-trained men into Marines, chief among them was the authority to do so by the JGS.  Next, it was necessary to establish a boot camp unique to the Vietnamese Marines Corps.  Marines were given their own distinctive emblem that set them apart from the other branches of the South Vietnamese military.  Additionally, officers and enlisted men with promise were sent to Quantico, Virginia for advanced training.  By 1965, the VMC consisted of more than 6,500 men.  The brigade was organized into a headquarters element, two task force headquarters, five infantry battalions, an artillery battalion, and several smaller units of engineers, transportation, military police, field medical, and reconnaissance.  Marine headquarters was located in Saigon; its commandant also served as the brigade commander and answered to the JGS.  No longer attached to the Vietnamese Navy, VMC units were based at somewhat austere encampments at Song Than, Thu Duc, and Vung Tau.

Another VMC battalion was formed in 1966, but the Marines still lacked field armor, aircraft, and logistics support.  Within two years a VMC infantry division was formed from two brigades.  Two years after that, the VMC had three brigades (9 infantry battalions and 3 artillery battalions).  By the time American forces were withdrawn in 1975, the VMC had organized four brigades.  These were, in every sense, combat Marines.  During the Easter Offensive of 1972, Vietnamese Marines lost 2,455 killed in action (KIA) and another 7,840 wounded in action (WIA).

Second —VMC Advisors

Crossed Rifles (M1)The first U. S. Marine Corps advisory section was established in 1955.  It consisted of a lieutenant colonel and two captains as senior advisors and assistants attached to the Navy Section, Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam (MAAGV).  In 1961, the advisory effort was expanded to include battalion level infantry and artillery advisors, then consisting of eight officers and sixteen enlisted men.

In May 1964, the Marine advisory unit was transferred to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and became the Marine Advisory Unit (MAU), Naval Advisory Group, MACV.  An increase in manning was approved for 20 officers and 11 enlisted men.  In January 1965, the strength of the MAU was 25 officers, 2 enlisted Marines, and a Navy Corpsman.  The Senior Marine was now a colonel, in keeping with the rank of the VMC Commandant.

The mission assigned to the US Marines was ever-evolving.  Its principal effort remained at providing tactical advice and assistance, but the staff and logistical advisors played an important role as well.  In the 14 months between January 1968 and March 1969, the MAU was expanded to 49 officers/10 enlisted men.  In addition to a small administrative section, there were also advisors for principal staff officers, communications, and medical advisory elements.  Field advisors now existed at the brigade and battalion levels.

A drawdown of manpower began in 1972 because it was believed, at the time, that the VMC battalions no longer needed advisors.  The Easter Offensive of 1972 changed that thinking, however.  The advisory unit fully deployed its advisors to support the VMC division in the field.  Additional support was rendered by the 1st Air-Naval Gunfire Company (1stANGLICO), 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron of the U. S. Air Force, and the Army’s 14th Company, 1st Signal Brigade.  This team effort resulted in a victory for the VMC at Quang Tri City.

Subsequently, US Marine advisors performed as liaison officers to VMC battalions on an as-needed basis to coordinate supporting arms (artillery and air support).  By the time the US Marines were withdrawn from RVN, the VMC infantry division was self-sufficient.

Third—the other Marine Advisors

In 1935, US Marines began putting together a doctrinal publication they titled simply Small Wars Manual, published in 1940 as NAVMC 2890/Fleet Marine Force Publication 12-15.  The Marine Corps is well known for its professional reading program, and so, when the Marine Corps was deployed to the RVN, they brought with them the knowledge acquired during pacification programs in Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.  During these earlier operations, the Marines would first pacify the region of operations by locating and killing bandits and revolutionaries.  They would then establish and implement programs to administer local areas and train citizens to take over all such responsibilities.

CAP 001The first undertaking of the Combined Action Program (CAP) originated in the summer of 1965.  LtCol William W. Taylor, commanding 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, had an assigned tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) that included six villages and an airfield within an area of ten square miles.  3/4 was over-extended.  It was more “area” than the battalion could control.  From this situation came the suggestion from the Battalion Executive Officer, Major Zimmerman, that the Marines incorporate local militias into the battalion’s operations.  The idea was passed up the chain of command to LtGen Lewis Walt (Commanding III MAF), and LtGen Victor H. Krulak (Commanding FMFPac), both of whom had fought in the banana wars, who recognized the potential long-term value of such a plan.  Both Walt and Krulak agreed to the proposal.

Four rifle squads were integrated with local popular forces (PFs); assigned Marines were volunteers[5], each of whom were screened to determine their suitability for independent duty, and then assigned to local villages.  The rifle squad, when combined with PFs, would be able to protect the village from low-level VC threats.  It was a workable plan because the poorly trained PFs could learn from the Marines, and the Marines would gain information and understanding about the local population and surrounding terrain.  When the Marines weren’t training PFs, they engaged in local self-help programs and distributed CARE[6] packages, tools, and hygienic supplies.  The squad’s Navy Corpsman became the village “Doc.”  The arrangement produced a win-win situation.

The CAP went through expected developmental problems, of course.  Not every Marine commander supported the program; giving up trained combatants to engage with local populations.  The loss of personnel was painful to the battalions who were tasked to provide them.  The program became “official” in the summer of 1967; a local (inadequate 10 day) school was established near Da Nang.  CAP was one of the US Marine Corps’ signature contributions to the Vietnam War.  By 1969, the CAP involved 102 platoons, 19 companies, and 4 (supervisory) Combined Action Groups.  By the end of 1970, CAP units operated throughout the five provinces of I Corps.  See also: Combined Action Platoon (CAP) Vietnam (in six parts) by LtCol William C. Curtis, USMC (Retired).

Fourth —Everyone Else

As previously stated, the advisory effort in RVN involved far more than tactical advice and training.  There were also civilian advisors[7], for the most part working under a structure known as CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support).  CORDS was a unique hybrid civil-military structure directly under COMUSMACV.  General Westmoreland’s deputy for CORDS was a civilian by the name of Robert W. Komer[8].  Each Corps Tactical Zone commander, a Lieutenant General, was assigned a deputy for CORDS[9].  Below the Corps were provinces.  In Vietnam, a province might equate to a US State, below the province, districts (similar to counties), and below districts were villages.  A province chief was likely a senior ARVN officer (colonel), assisted by both a US military advisor and a civilian CORDS advisor.  A similar arrangement existed within districts, headed by lieutenant colonels or majors, with advisors.  District chiefs took on the responsibility of coordinating and supervising the combined action platoons.

Civilian advisors at the corps, province, and district levels coordinated among the various agencies working to pacify the RVN.  These included the activities of the United States Agency for International Development and the Central Intelligence Agency.  Because these functions were in many cases overlapping, close coordination was necessary between military and civilian advisors.

Given all this effort, most of it stellar by any measure, then why did the Republic of Vietnam fall to the communists of North Vietnam?  Earlier, I identified three essential objectives of counterinsurgency and pacification.  I also listed four hindrances to achieving the objectives.  What follows is my opinion, most likely useful to no one, except that it might provide a learning moment about our present military ventures, or even those in the future.

Conclusion

The United States overcame the challenge of interagency unity of effort.  The pacification/counterinsurgency/advisory efforts mostly overcame the confusion concerning a rather vague notion of winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.  But the United States failed to address the pervasive government corruption, and the US was unable to sort out the dysfunctional chain of command[10].  These last two alone were enough to derail every US effort to help the RVN to save itself.  The United States was unable to prevent a North Vietnamese invasion or its conquest of the RVN.  Part of this is explained by the fact that Republican President Richard M. Nixon made promises to the South Vietnamese that Democrats in Congress refused to honor.  Some might, therefore, argue that the fall of Saigon came as a result of insufficient American aid.  Let’s take a look at that …

The United States was either on the periphery or deeply involved in two Indochina wars.  In the second war, the American people gave up over 58,000 dead.  More than 153,000 were wounded.  Some of our boys are still listed as missing in action.  North Vietnam gave up 1.1 million killed in action; South Vietnam lost 250,000 combatants.  Both countries lost more than two million civilians (each).  Vietnam is the most heavily bombed country in the world’s long history.  More than 6.1 million tons of bombs were dropped compared to 2.1 million tons in World War II.  US planes dropped more than 20 million gallons of herbicides to defoliate Vietnam’s dense jungle; 5 million acres of forested land was destroyed and a half-million acres of farmland.

The Vietnam War cost the American people $168 billion.  In today’s money, that’s about $1 trillion.  US military operations cost $111 billion; another $29 billion provided non-military aid to the South Vietnamese.  These costs continue.  Compensation and benefits for Vietnam Veterans and their families continue to cost $22 billion annually.  Since 1970, post-war benefits paid to veterans and their families amount to $270 billion[11].

Following the Korean War, the United States entered into a period of economic recession.  In 1964, Congress passed a tax cut.  The next year, war costs along with President Johnson’s war on poverty created what is now referred to as the “Great Inflation.”  The top marginal tax rate[12] in that year fell from 91% to 70% which boosted economic growth sufficiently to reduce the level of US deficit spending.  Also, in 1965, Johnson signed Medicare into law, which helped create a heavier reliance on hospital care —resulting in substantial increases in healthcare costs.

The Vietnam War also accelerated the mechanization of the US agricultural industry.  In 1970, a quarter of the US population lived on farms or in rural communities.  Of those, 2.2 million men were called to the Vietnam Era service.  Farms compensated for this decrease in labor by purchasing larger machines and concentrating on fewer crops.  In the next year, the controversy over the conscription of 18-year old men who could not vote led to two additional changes in America: a voting age lowered to 18 years, and the beginning of an all-volunteer military force.

Finally, as a result of the Vietnam War, Americans began to distrust the federal government.  Americans learned that President Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was the underlying reason in 1965 for sending in Marines and the commencement of a massive bombing campaign over North Vietnam.  Americans also learned that the government conducted unauthorized wiretaps on Americans, and it has only gotten worse with NSA data mining, secret FISA courts, and fake news and dossiers.

Most Americans work hard for their living.  Most of us simply want to care for our families, improve our lot in life, and in terms of our obligations to America, we want to do the right thing.  We expect (and should expect) no less of our governments (federal, state, or local).  Our federal government’s decisions, particularly in matters of sending our young men to war, must be moral decisions.  Lying about the need for war is not moral behavior, or of surveilling our citizens, or collecting electronic metadata, or wasting taxes in areas of the world that do not warrant our generosity.  It all comes down to one thing: voting responsibly —because the people we choose to lead us have the power to send our youngsters into harm’s way.  We do need warriors in America; we do not need to waste them.

Sources:

  1. Klyman, R. A. The Combined Action Platoons: The U. S. Marine’s Other War in Vietnam.  Praeger, 1986.
  2. Melson, C. D., and W. J. Renfrow. Marine Advisors with the Vietnamese Marine Corps.  Quantico: History Division, Marine Corps University, 2009
  3. Sheehan, N. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.  New York: Random House, 1988
  4. Stoli, R.H. S. Marine Corps Civic Action Efforts in Vietnam, March 1965-66.  Washington: Headquarters Marine Corps, 1968
  5. West, B. The Village.  New York: Pocket Books, 1972

Endnotes:

[1] Military advising may come somewhat naturally to Marines since it has always been the senior’s responsibility to teach, train, advise, monitor, and correct the junior.  It is a cycle repeated now for going on 245 years.

[2] It remains popular among academics to criticize the so-called Banana Wars and the Marines who were sent into these Central and South American countries.  Criticism of US foreign policy may very well be warranted, but it now seems necessary to remind people that US Marines do not formulate American policy, they implement it.  Moreover, were it not for these banana wars, Marine officers and senior enlisted men would not have been as prepared for World War II, during which time they distinguished themselves by their knowledge, experience, courage, and calmness during times of utter chaos.

[3] Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient

[4] A clasp on the Vietnamese Campaign Medal reflects these dates.

[5] This information is part of the official record, but some Marines were “volunteered.”

[6] Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, an international humanitarian agency.

[7] Some of these civilians were former or retired military personnel or employees of the CIA.

[8] Dubbed “Blowtorch Bob” by US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge because of his brusque management style.  Under Komer, the Phoenix Program intended to identify and destroy VC operatives through counterterrorism, infiltration, assassination, capture, and often torture.  Komer, later replaced by William Colby (later, Director of the CIA), was said to have been responsible for 26,000 deaths and neutralization of over 81,000 VC.  Claims have been made that the Phoenix Program scraped up innocent civilians along with the VC, and whether or not this is true, the program was successful in suppressing VC political and insurgency activity.

[9] One of these advisors was John P. Vann, a retired Army officer.  In 1967, Vann was asked by Walt Rostow, one of President Johnson’s advocates for more troops, whether America would be over the worst of the war within six months.  Vann replied, “Oh hell no, Mr. Rostow.  I’m a born optimist.  I think we can hold out longer than that.”  For more on John Paul Vann, see also A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan.

[10] I returned to Vietnam in 2012.  Eight years ago, corruption was alive and well, and the political structure was as bad as it always was.  It has probably been this way for the past two-thousand years and gives us no hope for Vietnam as a future regional ally.

[11] 2.5 million US servicemen were exposed to Agent Orange, increasing veteran’s probability of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and birth defects.

[12] The rate at which tax is incurred on an additional dollar of income.  In the United States, the federal marginal tax rate for an individual will increase as income rises.  It is also referred to as a progressive tax scheme.  Democrats have never seen a tax they don’t adore.