The Cactus Air Force

Guadalcanal — 1942

Some Background

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941 (an event that crippled the United States Pacific Fleet), Japan intended to seize a number of Pacific atolls for their own use.  Doing so would increase their access to natural resources and locations suitable as advanced military and naval bases.  Advanced Pacific Rim bases would extend the defensive perimeter of the Japanese home islands.  In addition to their successful attack against the US Fleet, the Japanese also seized control of Hong Kong, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Wake Island, New Britain, and Guam.

The Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942) and the Battle for Midway Island (June 1942) thwarted additional Japanese efforts to seize advance bases.  Both battles were significant because (1) the Allied forces [Note 1] demonstrated to the world that the Empire of Japan was not invincible, and (2) the battles enabled the Allies to seize the initiative and launch a counter-offensive against the Japanese.  The United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand chose the Solomon Islands as their place, and August 1942 as their time.

Allied intelligence learned that the Japanese Imperial Navy (JIN) occupied Tulagi in May 1942 and had established a seaplane base in the Solomons.  They also discovered that the Japanese had embarked on the construction of an air base suitable for long-range bombers at Lunga Point on the island of Guadalcanal.  If the Allies failed to interdict Japan’s efforts, Japanese air forces would be in a position to disrupt allied lines of communication between Australia/New Zealand, and the United States.  Only one month earlier, in July, Australian reserve (territorial) battalions fought a stubborn action against Japanese advances in New Guinea.  Although victorious, Australian reserves were seriously depleted.  The arrival of the Second Imperial Force (Australia) in August (returning from the Mediterranean) allowed Australian forces to deny Japan’s seizure of Port Moresby, and Milne Bay.  The Australian victory, with supporting American forces, was Japan’s first land defeat in World War II.

The author of the plan to attack the Solomon Islands was Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet.  The US Marines invaded Tulagi and Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942 [Note 2], capturing the partially completed airfield at Lunga Point, although the airfield required additional work before the allied forces could use it.

Assembling Air Forces

Major Lofton R. Henderson, USMC

The Americans renamed the field after Major Lofton R. Henderson, USMC [Note 3], who lost his life during the Battle of Midway while in command of VMSB-241.  The first allied aircraft to land on Henderson Field was a patrol bomber (designation PBY) on 12 August.  Eight days later, 31 Marine Corps Wildcat (F4F) fighters and Dauntless (SBD) dive bombers landed from the fast carrier USS Long Island.  Following them on 22 August was a squadron of U. S. Army Air-Cobra (P-39).  Additionally, B-17s began operations from Henderson Field (although the large bombers had an abysmal record against Japanese targets) [Note 4]. 

This ensemble of multi-service personnel and their dwindling collection of outdated, dilapidated, and inferior combat aircraft became known as the Cactus Air Force — “Cactus” being the Allied code name for Guadalcanal.  Henderson Field barely qualified as an airfield.  The Japanese designed it in an irregular shape, half of it sitting within a coconut grove, and its runway length was inadequate the wide range of for Allied aircraft.  Even after combat engineers began their work to improve the field, it remained in such poor condition that it caused as many losses to aircraft as those lost in air combat.  Rain, which was ever present on Guadalcanal, transformed the field into muddy swamp.  Some of the allied aircraft were too heavy for the matting used for expeditionary airfields; takeoffs and landing also damaged the field.  Despite these on-going problems, Henderson Field was essential to the U.S. effort of confronting the Japanese, distributing critical combat resupply, and evacuating wounded personnel.  Henderson Field was also vital as an alternate airfield for Navy pilots whose carriers were too badly damaged to recover them.

In mid-August 1942, Guadalcanal was very likely one of the most dangerous places on earth.  Allied naval forces were under constant threat of attack by Japanese air and naval forces.  To safeguard carriers and their air groups from possible submarine or enemy carrier aircraft, once the amphibious force disembarked at Guadalcanal, the U. S. Navy withdrew its carriers, transports, and resupply ships from the Solomon Islands.  This placed Allied ground forces at risk from Japanese naval artillery and air attack.  The Allies needed aircraft—badly.  Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF)-123 (flying F4Fs) began its operations at Henderson Field in mid-August.  One squadron was insufficient to demand, however.  The Allies needed more aircraft —sooner rather than later.  Higher headquarters scheduled the arrival VMF-223 and VMTB-232 on Guadalcanal around 16 August.  The pilots and aircraft arrived on 20 August, but because the demand for shipping exceeded available transport, ground crews became stranded in Hawaii; ground crews would not arrive on Guadalcanal until early September.  The formula was simple —no ground crews, no operational aircraft.

The delay of ground crew at a critical period prompted Admiral John S. McCain, Sr. [Note 5] to order Major Charles H. “Fog” Hayes, serving as the Executive Officer, Marine Observation Squadron (VMO)-251 to proceed to Guadalcanal with 120 Seabees of the advance base force (operationally known as CUB-1) [Note 6] to assist the 1st Marine Division combat engineers in completing Henderson Field and then serve as ground crewmen for the Marine fighters and bombers presently en route.  Ensign George W. Polk, USN [Note 7] commanded the Seabee detachment.

Henderson Field, OFFiCIAL USMC PHOTO

The men from CUB-1 embarked aboard ship and departed Espiritu Santo on the evening of 13 August, taking with them 400 55-gallon drums of aviation fuel, 32 55-gallon drums of lubricant, 282 bombs (100 to 500 pounds), belted ammunition, tools, and critically needed aviation spare parts.  They arrived on Guadalcanal on 15 August and began assisting Marine engineers with their task of enlarging the airstrip.  Despite daily assaults by Japanese aircraft, Marine engineers and Seabees completed the field on 19 August.  CUB-1 technicians installed, tested, and operated an air-raid warning system in the Japanese-built field control tower.

VMF-223 with 19-aircraft and VMSB-232 with 12 planes arrived on 20 August; all aircraft arrived safely at Henderson Field and the pilots immediately began combat operations against Japanese aircraft over Guadalcanal.  As immediately, the Sailors of CUB-1 began servicing these aircraft with the tools and equipment at their disposal.  Aircraft refueling was by hand crank pumps when they were available but otherwise tipped over on the wings and funneled into the gasoline tanks.  Loading bombs was particularly difficult because hoists were rare; bombs had to be raised by hand … 100-500-pound bombs.  Belting ammunition was also accomplished by hand.  The gunners on the dive bombers loaded their ammunition by the same laborious method.

CUB-1 personnel performed these tasks for twelve days before the arrival of Marine ground crews.  As with all military personnel on Guadalcanal, CUB-1 crews suffered from malaria, dengue fever, fungus infections, sleepless nights, shortages of food, clothing, and supplies.  Living conditions on Guadalcanal were some of the most difficult ever faced by Marines.  Pilots and ground crews lived in mud-floored tents in a flooded coconut plantation called Mosquito Grove.  Everyone on Guadalcanal was subjected to mortal danger.  Japanese aircraft and artillery bombarded the airfield nearly every day.  On the night of 13-14 October 1942, two Japanese battleships fired more than 700 heavy shells into Henderson Field.  Ensign Polk’s men remained on the island until 15 February 1943.

For the first five days after the arrival of the Marine aviators, there was no “commander” of the air component; instead, the senior aviator reported directly to Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, Commanding General, 1st Marine Division.  Technically, the Cactus Air Force was under the authority of Rear Admiral McCain, but as the local senior-most commander, Vandegrift and his operational staff exercised direct authority over all air assets, whether Army, Navy, or Marine.

Colonel William W. Wallace served temporarily as the first air group commander.  On 3 September, Brigadier General Roy S. Geiger [Note 8] arrived to assume command as Commander, Aircraft, Guadalcanal (also, COMAIRCACTUS) and of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.  By the time of Geiger’s arrival, air squadrons had already suffered significant losses.  The pilots were sick, undernourished, and demoralized.  Geiger changed that.  By his personality, energy, and positive attitude, General Geiger raised the collective spirits of squadron survivors.  The cost to Geiger, in the short-term, was that within a few months, the 57-year-old Geiger became seriously fatigued.  Eventually, General Vandegrift relieved Geiger of his duties and replaced him with Geiger’s Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Louis E. Woods [Note 9], who was one of the Marine Corps’ outstanding aviators.

Ground Combat Interface

As previously mentioned, the Japanese started construction of the airfield at Lunga Point in May 1942.  The landings of 11,000 Allied forces on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and the Florida Islands on 7-8 August 1942 was a complete surprise to the Japanese—and they weren’t too happy about it.  As a response to the Allied landings, the Imperial General Headquarters ordered the Imperial Japanese Army’s (IJA) 17th Army (a corps-sized command under Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake), to retake Guadalcanal.  His advance force began to arrive on Guadalcanal on 19 August.  Allied planes operating from Henderson Field challenged Japan’s slow-moving transport ships, which had the effect of impeding Hyakutake’s efforts.  On 21 August, General Hyakutake ordered a force of just under a thousand men to seize the airfield.  Known as the Battle of Tenaru, Marines soundly defeated the IJA’s first attempt.

The IJA made a second attempt on 12-14 September, this time with a brigade-size force of 6,000 men.  Known as the Battle of Edson’s Ridge, the Marines repelled that attack, as well.  Convinced that the Japanese were not through with their attempts to reclaim Lunga Point, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, commanding all Allied land forces in the Solomon Islands [Note 10], ordered the strengthening of defenses at Henderson Field.  He additionally ordered his Marines to increase combat patrolling in the area between Lunga Point and the Matanikau River.  IJA forces repulsed three different company-sized patrols operating near the Matanikau River between 23-27 September.  Between 6-9 October, a battalion of Marines crossed the Matanikau and inflicted heavy losses on the IJA 4th Infantry Regiment, forcing a Japanese withdrawal [Note 11].  

By 17 October, IJA forces on Guadalcanal numbered 17,000 troops, which included the 2nd Infantry Division (under Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama), one regiment of the 38th Infantry Division, and artillery and tank units.  The IJN ordered heavy and light cruisers to support Hyakutake and conduct bombardments of Allied positions, including Henderson Field, warranted because the Cactus Air Force posed significant threats to Japanese transports ferrying replacements and supplies from Rabaul [Note 12].  On 13 October, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto dispatched a naval force under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita to bombard Henderson Field.  Kurita’s force included two battleships, one light cruiser, and nine destroyers.  Beginning at 01:33, the Japanese Navy fired just under 1,000 rounds into the Lunga Point perimeter.  The Japanese attack destroyed most of the aviation fuel, 48 of the Cactus Air Force’s 90 aircraft, and killed 41 men —of which were six CAF ground crewmen.  As devastating as this attack was, Seabees restored the airfield to operating conditions within a few hours.

As Japanese infantry under Lieutenant General Maruyama began their march toward Lunga Point, aircraft of the 11th Air Fleet at Rabaul attacked Henderson Field with 11 G4M2 bombers and 28 A6M2 Zero fighters.  The Cactus Air Force responded with 24 F4F Wildcats and 4 P-39s.  A large and complex air battle ensured.  Allied aviators could not determine how many losses they imposed on the Japanese, but on F4F received extensive battle damage with no loss of its pilot.   

Just after nightfall on 23 October, two battalions of Japanese infantry (supported by tanks) attacked Marine positions behind a barrage of artillery.  Marines quickly destroyed all nine tanks and responded with devastating artillery fire.  Forty Marine howitzers fired 6,000 rounds into the attacking Japanese.  The Japanese broke off their attack shortly after 01:00 hours.  Partly in response to this attack, 2/7 (under LtCol Hanneken) redeployed to the Matanikau and assumed advanced defensive positions.  LtCol Louis B. “Chesty” Puller’s 1/7 (with around 700 men) was the only battalion left to defend Henderson Field, a 2,500-yard perimeter on the southern face of Lunga Point.  Puller’s outposts reported enemy movement at around 21:00 hours.

Heavy rain began falling an hour or so before, the torrential downpour inhibiting the advance of a Japanese infantry regiment.  In the dark of night under a pouring rain, a Japanese battalion more or less stumbled into Puller’s defensive line at around 22:00.  The Marines repulsed the Japanese advance, but the Japanese commander believed that his battalion had taken Lunga Point.  At around 00:15, the IJA’s 11th Company of the 3rd Battalion assaulted the perimeter held by Marines from Alpha Company.  Within thirty minutes, the Marines destroyed the 11th Company.

Further west, at around 01:15, the 9th Company charged into positions held by Charlie 1/7.  Within around five minutes, a machine-gun section led by Sergeant John A. Basilone, killed nearly every member of the 9th Company.  Ten minutes after that, Marine artillery had a murderous effect on the IJA regiment’s assembly area.  Puller requested reinforcement at 03:30.   The 3rd Battalion, 164th US Infantry rushed forward and quickly reinforced Puller’s perimeter.  Just before dawn, the Japanese 3rd Battalion, 29th Infantry penetrated Allied artillery and assaulted the Marine position.  1/7 Marines killed most of these men, but about one-hundred Japanese broke through the American defense and created a bulging salient in the center of Puller’s line.

With daybreak on 24 October, the Japanese 2nd Battalion joined the assault, but the Marines soon defeated them, and they withdrew almost as quickly as they had appeared.  Puller ordered his Marines to attack and eradicate the 100-or-so enemy soldiers within the salient, and to search and destroy any Japanese remaining alive forward of the battalion’s perimeter.  Marines performing these tasks ended up killing around 400 additional enemy troops.  But the battle was far from over.  IJN platforms began to pummel the Marines just after midnight.  A destroyer assault force chased away to US minesweepers, destroyed the US tugboat Seminole and an American Patrol Torpedo Boat.  Just after 10:00, Marine shore batteries hit and damaged one Japanese destroyer.  Cactus Air Force dive bombers attacked a second Japanese navy assault force which caused the sinking of a Japanese cruiser.  While this was going on, 82 Japanese bombers and fighters from the 11th Air Fleet attacked Henderson Field in six separate waves throughout the day.  The Cactus Air Force also attacked Japanese Aircraft, inflicting the loss of 11 fighters, 2 bombers, and one reconnaissance aircraft.  The Allies lost two aircraft, but recovered the crews.

After completing mop-up operations, ground Marines began improving their defense works and redeploying troops to strengthen the line.  In the West, Colonel Hanneken tied in with the 5th Marines; Puller’s Marines and the soldiers of 3/164 disentangled and repositioned themselves to form unit cohesive defenses.  The 1st Marine Division reserve force, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2) moved in behind 1/7 and 3/164.  The IJA still had more to say to the Allied forces at Lunga Point.

General Maruyama regrouped his beleaguered forces, adding the 16th Infantry Regiment from his force reserve.  At around 20:00 on 25 October and extending into the early morning hours of the 26th, the Japanese made numerous frontal assaults against the Marine/Army line (Puller/Colonel Hall).  The Marines employed well-aimed small arms, automatic weapons, artillery, and canister fire from 37-mm guns directly into the attacking force with devastating effect.  Marines completely wiped out the headquarters element of the 16th Infantry Regiment, including the regimental commander and four of the regiment’s battalion commanders.  Another attack came at 03:00 on 26 October.  Colonel Akinosuke Oka’s 124th Infantry Regiment hit the Matanikau defenses manned by LtCol Hanneken’s 2/7.  Fox Company received the brunt of Oka’s attack.  Machine-gun section leader Mitchell Paige destroyed many of his attackers, but the Japanese managed to kill all of the Marines except for Paige and an assistant gunner in their assault.  By 05:00, Oka’s 3rd Battalion managed to push the remains of Fox Company out of their defensive positions.  Major Odell M. Conoley, Hanneken’s executive officer, quickly organized a counter-attack, leading the survivors of Fox Company and elements of Golf and Charlie companies to retake the ridge line.  Within an hour, the Japanese pushed the Japanese back, which ended Colonel Oka’s assault.  2/7’s casualties included 14 killed and 32 wounded.  Oka’s losses exceeded 300 dead.

Aftermath

Six Marine aviators in the Cactus Air Force received the Medal of Honor: Major John L. Smith, USMC, CO VMF-223; Major Robert E. Galer, USMC, CO VMF-224; Captain Joseph J. Foss, USMC, XO VMF-121 (Former Governor of South Dakota); Lieutenant Colonel Harold W. Bauer, USMC, CO VMF-212; First Lieutenant Jefferson J. DeBlanc, USMC, VMF-112; and First Lieutenant James E. Swett, USMC, VMF-221.

Medals of honor awarded other personnel included Major Kenneth D. Bailey, USMC (KIA), Sergeant John Basilone, USMC, Corporal Anthony Casamento, USMC, Platoon Sergeant Mitchell Paige, USMC [Note 13], Major Charles W. Davis, USA, Colonel Merritt A. Edson, USMC, Sergeant William G. Fournier, USA, Specialist Lewis Hall, USA (KIA), Signalman First Class Douglas A. Munro, USCG, (KIA), Rear Admiral Normal Scott, USN (KIA), and Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, USMC.  

In all, 20 Marine Corps aviation squadrons served on Guadalcanal.  Joining them, at various times, were ten U. S. Navy air squadrons (5 operating from USS Enterprise), two USAAF squadrons, and one Royal New Zealand air squadron.   

Sources:

  1. 1.Braun, S. M.  The Struggle for Guadalcanal (American Battles and Campaigns).  New York: Putnam, 1969.
  2. 2.Christ, J. F.  Battalion of the Damned: The First Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge, 1942.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007
  3. 3.De Chant, J. A.  Devilbirds.  New York: Harper Bros., 1947.
  4. 4.Mersky, P. B.  U.S. Marine Corps Aviation—1912 to the Present.  Nautical Publishing, 1983.
  5. 5.Paige, M.  My Story, A Marine Named Mitch: The Autobiography of Mitchell Paige, Colonel, United States Marine Corps (Retired).  Palo Alto: Bradford Adams & Company, 1975.
  6. 6.Sherrod, R.  History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.
  7. 7.Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History (Fourth Edition).  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1]The Allied forces in the Pacific during World War II were the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Soviet Union, and China.  As a practical matter, given the requirements of global war at other locations in the world, and limitations of certain Allied countries to participate in the conflict, the US played the largest role in the Pacific War.

[2] The Guadalcanal campaign lasted through 9 February 1943.

[3] Initially identified by the Japanese as simply Code RXI, the incomplete airfield became the focus of one of the great battles of the Pacific war in World War II.  Major Henderson (1903-1942) was a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy (Class of 1926) and served in China, various Caribbean stations, and aboard the carriers Langley, Ranger, and Saratoga.

 [4] B-17 aircraft were unsuitable for use against Japanese ships at sea.  High altitude bombing of moving targets could hardly yield the results of Torpedo/Dive Bomber aircraft.  Moreover, B-17 crews were young, inexperienced airmen who, while doing their level best, could not engage enemy ships with precision.

 [5] At the time, Admiral McCain served as Commander, Aircraft South Pacific (1941-42).  He was the grandfather of John S. McCain III, former Navy aviator POW and US Senator from Arizona.

[6] See also: Building the Hive.

[7] George W. Polk enlisted with the Naval Construction Battalion at the beginning of World War II.  He also served as a “volunteer” dive bomber and reconnaissance pilot, receiving combat wounds and suffering from malaria, which required nearly a year of hospitalization.  After the war, Polk joined CBS news as a journalist.  Communist insurgents murdered him while he was covering the Greek Civil War in 1948.

[8] Roy Stanley Geiger (1885-1947) was a native of Florida who completed university and law school before enlisting in the US Marine Corps.  While serving as a corporal in 1909, Geiger completed a series of professional examinations to obtain a commission to second lieutenant on 5 February 1909.  After ten years of ground service, Geiger reported for aviation training in 1917 and subsequently became Naval Aviator #49 on 9 June.  Geiger was variously described as curt, cold, ruthless, and determined.  Geiger became the first Marine Corps general to command a United States Army during the Battle of Okinawa. 

[9] Lieutenant General Woods later commanded the tactical air forces under the 10th U.S. Army during the Battle of Okinawa.

[10] The 7th Marine Regiment arrived on Guadalcanal on 18 September, adding an additional 4,157 men to Vandegrift’s ground combat element.

[11] Meanwhile, Major General Millard F. Harmon, Commander, U. S. Army Forces, South Pacific, convinced Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, Commander, Allied Forces, South Pacific, to reinforce the Marines immediately; one division of Marines, he argued, was insufficient to defend an island the size of Guadalcanal.  Subsequently, the U. S. 164th Infantry Regiment (North Dakota Army National Guard) arrived on Guadalcanal on 13 October 1942.

[12] Allied naval forces intercepted one of these Japanese bombardment missions on the night of 11 October, resulting in a Japanese defeat at the Battle of Cape Esperance. 

[13] Colonel Paige died on 15 November 2003, aged 85 years.  He was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient of the Guadalcanal campaign.

Fidelity, Honor, Valor

Captain George W. Sachtleben, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines

Introduction

In January 1969, responsibility for combat operations in the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ) (Also, I Corps), which included the five northern-most provinces of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) rested with the Commanding General, III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF), who was then Lieutenant General Robert E. Cushman, Jr.   Cushman commanded 81,000 Marine and Army combat troops situated throughout the Quang Tri, Thua Thien, Quang Nam, Quang Tin, and Quang Ngai.

(a) Major General Charles J. Quilter commanded 15,500 Marines of the First Marine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW), which included 500 fixed and rotary wing aircraft at Chu Lai, Da Nang, Phu Bai, and Quang Tri.

(b) Major General Ormond R. Simpson commanded the 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv) just outside Da Nang, a force of 24,000 ground-combat Marines primarily assigned to Quang Nam Province.

(c) Major General Raymond G. Davis commanded the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv), 21,000 ground-combat Marines from Dong Ha, whose primary responsibility was Quang Tri Province.

(d) An additional 10,000 Marines provided combat logistics support to the MAW and two infantry divisions under Brigadier General James A. Feely, Jr., at Da Nang.

(e) An additional 1,900 Marines served in the Combined Action Program under Colonel Edward F. Danowitz — tasked with providing local area security to local villages and hamlets.

(f) In addition to these Marines, III MAF controlled combat operations involving a force of 50,000 U. S. Army troops involving elements of the 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized), Colonel James M. Gibson, Commanding, the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) under Major General Melvin Zais, both Army units serving under the US XXIV Corps, Lieutenant General Richard G. Stilwell, U. S. Army, based at Phu Bai.  

(g) An additional 23,800 soldiers of Major General Charles M. Getty’s 23rd Infantry (Americal) Division operated in Quang Tin and Quang Ngai Provinces.

(h) General Cushman also exercised operational control over the United States Army Advisory Group (USAAG), who advised and assisted RVN military units operating in the I CTZ.

Enemy forces operating in RVN’s I CTZ included 123 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalions and 18 Viet Cong (irregular) (VC) battalions involving 90,000 troops.  There were additionally around 23,500 guerrillas and 16,000 political and quasi-military cadres and another 30,000 North Vietnamese regulars operating in Laos but within striking distance of the I CTZ.  These forces were controlled by five separate headquarters elements.

In January 1969, the communist forces were still reeling from their massive defeat during the Tet 68 campaign [Note 1]; it forced NVA and VC commands to reconsider their strategy for I CTZ.  Rather than attempting to defeat the American and RVN forces through massive assault, they adopted the policy of prolonging the conflict through small unit hit and run tactics, sapper attacks, harassment, terrorism, and sabotage.  Their focus became severing lines of communications, attacking rear area support bases, storage facilities, and defeating RVN’s pacification efforts.  Driving these strategies and tactics was the differences in terrain from II CTZ to the northwestern areas of I CTZ.  NVA regular units concentrated their forces in the uninhabited jungle-covered mountainous areas, close to border sanctuaries.

The Fight

In the Marine Corps mindset, defense is a temporary tactic used to dig in for the night, or rest, regroup, and resupply their combat forces before continuing the attack.  Locating the enemy, viciously attacking him, and destroying him is how wars are won.  But this wasn’t the national policy of the United States.  The mission in Vietnam was to defend South Vietnam — which gave up initiative to the enemy.  Marine and Army commanders hated this with a passion, but those were their orders.  But Major General Raymond G. Davis, commanding the 3rdMarDiv wasn’t about to sit around waiting for the enemy to attack him.  Soon after assuming command of his division, he ordered his regimental commanders to go find the enemy, and kill him.  General Cushman completely agreed with Davis’ thinking — as did Lieutenant General Herman Nickerson, Jr., when he replaced Cushman as CG III MAF on 26 March 1969.

General Davis’ idea of mobile operations depended on the helicopter, of course, but Ray Davis was no one trick pony.  He also sought to exploit intelligence gathered by small sized reconnaissance patrols, which were continuously employed throughout the 3rdMarDiv TAOR, which supplemented electronic and other human intelligence sources.  The recon patrols were called StingRay operations, who mission was to find, fix, and destroy the enemy with all available supporting arms.  StingRay operations were augmented by even smaller “snoop and poop” patrols, known as Key Hole forays.  Their mission was to “observe,” not engage.

On 9 April, Colonel Edward F. Danowitz [Note 2] relieved Colonel Robert H. Barrow as Commanding Officer, 9th Marines.  Danowitz was determined to continue the aggressive operations planned and executed by Colonel Barrow under General Davis’ policy of finding the enemy and killing him.

Despite the success of the 9th  Marines in Operation Dewey Canyon and the 3rd Marines in the Vietnam Salient, intelligence reports indicated that several regimental size enemy units were again infiltrating into the northern area of their Base Area 611, south of the salient, specifically elements of the 6th and 9th NVA regiments, the 675th Artillery Regiment, and various support elements.  Air reconnaissance indicated as well that the NVA were repairing Route 922 and that significant numbers of enemy were returning to the A Shau Valley and eastward into Base Area 101, which was located astride the Quang Tri/Thua Thien political boundary.

To counter these enemy infiltrations, elements of the 3rdMarDiv and 101st Airborne were ordered to execute Operation Apache Snow in the northern A Shau Valley and southern Da Krong River Valley, cut the enemy supply and infiltration routes at the Laotian border, locate and destroy enemy forces, base camps, and supply caches.  Operating under Lieutenant General Stilwell, XXIV commander, 1st Battalion and 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9 and 2/9) were assigned the task of occupying the southern Da Krong and blocking enemy escape routes into Laos along Route 922.

Movement to Contact

The 2/9 Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel George C. Fox.  Apache Snow began on 10 May when Lieutenant Colonel Thomas J. Culkin’s 1/9 leap-frogged over 2/9 and assaulted Fire Support Base Erskine, which overlooked the upper Da Krong and Route 922.  For the Marines, the timing was perfect because the enemy units had yet to reconstitute infantry regiments following their defeat in Dewey Canyon.  Culkin’s aggressive patrolling resulted in several skirmishes with enemy forces in transit, but each time the enemy refused the Marine’s invitation to dance. Fox’s 2/9, located 5 miles north, patrolled FSB Razor and LZ Dallas in an area north-northeast of Erskine.  They too encountered numerous small sized enemy units, who were also quick to fade into the jungle.

While the Da Krong remained relatively quiet, the same could not be said for the A Shau Valley, where four US Army battalions and an ARVN battalion encountered a well-defended hut and bunker complex on Hill 937 and commenced operations to clear it of elements of the 9th and 29th NVA regiments.  The battle lasted a week, concluding on 20 May 1969 with 500 enemy dead on the; Army casualties were 44 killed, 297 wounded.  Soldiers from the 187th renamed this hill complex “Hamburger Hill.”  Subsequently, surviving elements of the NVA regiments withdrew into Laos and avoided further contact with US and ARVN forces operating in the A Shau Valley.

The 3rdMarDiv continued to maneuver its battalions in western Quang Tri, which reduced the enemy’s threat.  During June, the 9th Marines initiated two simultaneous operations, named Cameron Falls and Utah Mesa, which targeted the 304th NVA Division attempting to establish a presence south of Route 9.  Evidence from reconnaissance missions indicated that elements of the NVA division had infiltrated into the lower Da Krong Valley, and were moving east and north  along Route 616 and the river.  A series of rocket attacks on combat base Vandegrift signaled the start of planned NVA pressure on allied positions by the 57th NVA Regiment.  Colonel Danowitz’s Marines were assigned the mission of searching for and destroying enemy forces within an area bordered in the North by Song Quang Tri, in the South by the Da Krong River, on the East by FSB Shepherd, and on the West by FSB Henderson.  This area was considered critical to the security of Vandegrift and the Ba Long Valley, which led to the population centers of Quang Tri and Dong Ha.

Cameron Falls began on 29 May.  2/9 moved unopposed toward FSB Whisman, which the battalion occupied; 3/9 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Oral R. Swigart, Jr., occupied FSB Shepherd.  At Whisman, 2/9 Marines began to shore up their defensives with obstacles, fighting holes, claymore mines, and trip flares.  At 0215 on 1 June, a small enemy force began probing 2/9’s defenses and ran up against a listening post manned by Golf Company.  Two Marines were killed, but he FSB was alerted.  Aggressive reaction by Golf 2/9 resulted in 19 enemy killed with two taken prisoner.

From information provided by the prisoners, Colonel Fox learned that the 57th NVA Regiment’s command post (CP) was located to the southwest of Whisman.  The 2/9 commander issued a warning order to Fox and Golf companies to prepare for a sweep of the suspected location of the enemy CP; additional intelligence indicated that a large enemy force was moving northeast toward Hill 824.  Danowitz redirected the attack toward Hill 824 with two companies from 2/9 in a sweep northeast along the Da Krong River, and two companies of 3/9 advancing east from FSB Shepherd.  Swigart reported the terrain and vegetation exceedingly difficult — the twelve foot high elephant grass restricted air movement, making the advance exceedingly hot.  As elements of 2/9 and 3/9 converged on Hill 824, both battalion commanders reported that the enemy force was deployed around the hill in considerable strength.

Contact

On 5 June, Hotel Company 2/9 encountered a well-fortified NVA battalion on the southern bank of the Da Krong.  The initial engagement was a fight that lasted 12 hours.  The best description of this fight comes from the Silver Star award citation issued to Captain George W. Sachtleben, of Chicago, Illinois:

The President of the United States takes pleasure in awarding the Silver Star to Captain George W. Sachtleben, United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action  while serving as Commanding Officer, Company H, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division in connection with operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam.

On the afternoon of 5 June 1969, during operation Cameron Falls, two platoons of Company H advanced on a trail along the Da Krong River eight miles southwest of the Vandegrift Combat Base when they initiated contact with a company-sized North Vietnamese Army force occupying well camouflaged positions on a cliff overlooking the trail.  Due to their location, the Marines were extremely vulnerable to the heavy volume of enemy rocket-propelled grenade, small arms, and automatic weapons fire, but continued to fight from a narrow ledge with their backs against the river.

Despite suffering serious wounds sustained during the initial moments of the fire-fight, Captain Sachtleben skillfully deployed his forces to counter the hostile attacks, directed the accurate delivery of supporting arms fire, and organized the movement of casualties to a relatively safe area.

Throughout the fight, he completely disregarded his own safety as he boldly moved about the hazardous area shouting instructions and encouragement to his men.  After establishing an initial perimeter, he directed a limited assault which secured a toe-hold on a portion of one cliff looming over his position.

Throughout the night and the following morning, he directed both offensive and defensive actions which thwarted or repulsed repeated North Vietnamese Army attacks.  Although aware that the enemy was reinforcing and faced by the fact that his company was running dangerously low on ammunition, that his key officers and noncommissioned officers were wounded, and that his men were nearing exhaustion, Captain Sachtleben fearlessly deployed his men, directed their fire, and fought with such tenacity that the North Vietnamese force broke contact late in the afternoon of the second day and retreated away from the Marines.

Captain Sachtleben’s’ dynamic leadership and valiant actions inspired all who observed him and were instrumental in his company accounting for 54 enemy killed as his company decisively defeated the North Vietnamese Army force.  By his courage, bold initiative, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of great personal danger, Captain Sachtleben upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service. 

A subsequent sweep of the area revealed a dozen more enemy remains, enemy bunkers, caves, and senior officer’s living quarters.

Final Tribute

The United States Marine Corps paid tribute to Captain Sachtleben at Arlington National Cemetery, shown below:

Sources:

  1. Sergeant Stanley R. Richard, United States Marine Corps.
  2. Smith, C. R.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: High Mobility and Standdown, 1969.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1988.

Endnotes:

[1] The number of enemy battalions went from around 94 in mid-1968 to around 23 in early 1969.

[2] Born in Chicago and raised in New Jersey, Edward Danowitz entered the Marine Corps in 1942 and served in World War II, Korea, the Dominican Republic, and in Vietnam.  He retired in 1972.  After his military service, he joined the faculty at Rollins College where he taught the Russian and Spanish languages.  He passed away in 2013 at the age of 92 years.

U. S. Special Forces

Special Forces Insignia

 You can place everything civilians know about the military into a thimble.  It isn’t entirely their fault, of course.  So, it comes as no surprise that civilians are likely to ask such questions as, What is the difference between a Green Beret and an Army Ranger?  Or they might ask, Who’s the best, the Green Berets, Rangers, or Marines?

The answers to such deeply insightful questions will always depend upon who’s been asked.  How would one expect a soldier or sailor to answer?  A Marine, for example, might offer the questioner a contemptible stare and then just walk off without answering.  Marines do have a sense of humor, but it has its limits.  One of the best-ever answers originates with a former Green Beret sergeant major by the name of David Kirschbaum:

You tell the Marines to take a hill and they’ll frown, mutter, and bitch about it, but they’ll eventually salute, organize a platoon, and they’ll head straight for that hill.  They’ll fight and kill whoever gets in their way of taking that hill, and even if there is only one PFC left in the bunch, he’ll seize that hill and organize himself for keeping it.

If you tell the Rangers to take a hill, they’ll salute and then go plan for a few days, write a lot of operation orders, develop patrol plans, argue about the scheme of maneuver, and finally decide who ought to be in charge.  And then in the execution of taking that hill, they’ll find the absolutely worst terrain available for their route of march, which will preferably include swamps overrun with poisonous snakes and steep cliffs protected by predatory birds, and they’ll wait for the worst weather imaginable, but they’ll finally go through the swamps and climb the cliffs, and they won’t feel right unless they’ve lost half their force due to exhaustion or snake bite.  But if there’s even one Ranger remaining, he’ll take the hill.

If you tell the Special Forces to take that hill, the first thing they’ll do is ask you why.  So, you have to explain why.  And then they’ll offer a disrespectful stare which is called silent contempt, and then they’ll just go away.  In a few days, they might take that hill.  Or they might take another hill that they liked better because the evidence was so blatantly obvious that their hill was the better choice that you can never argue with them about it.  Or they might pull some sort of a deal and persuade the Marines to do it.  Or, after a few days you might find them at the club completely ignoring the order to take the hill.  And if challenged about their failure to take the hill, they’ll soon convince you that the order was a stupid idea and in not taking the hill, they very likely saved you from a court-martial —for which you are in their debt.”

Most people know the Special Forces soldier by his headgear: the Green Beret.  They probably do not know that the US Army Special Forces traces its roots in unconventional warfare to the Alamo Scouts of the Sixth US Army in the Pacific during World War II, the Philippine Guerrillas [Note 1], the First Special Service Force [Note 2], and several operational groups within the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).  Note: the OSS was not a US Army command, but a large number of officers and enlisted men were assigned to the OSS and later used their experience in forming the US Army Special Forces.  During the Korean War, men like Colonel Wendell Fertig and Lieutenant Colonel Russell W. Volckmann (former Philippine Scouts) used their wartime experiences to formulate the doctrine of unconventional warfare that became the foundation of the Special Forces.

In February 1950, the US government recognized a quasi-independent Vietnam within the French Union.  The US was considering granting aid to the French forces opposing the communist insurgency of Ho Chi Minh.  The US agreed to provide military and economic aid, and with this decision, American involvement in Indochina had begun.

In 1951, Major General Robert A. McClure selected Colonel Aaron Bank (formerly of the OSS) to serve as Operations Branch Chief of the Special Operations Division, Psychological Warfare Staff at Fort Brag, North Carolina.  Within a year, the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was formed under Colonel Bank at the Psychological Warfare School (later designated the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center).  In 1953, the 10th SFG was split, with the 10th deploying to Germany, and the remaining men forming the 77th Special Force Group, which in May 1960 was re-designated as the 7th Special Forces Group.

On 7 May 1954, the French were overwhelmingly defeated by the Viet Minh (Communist supported Viet Nam Independence League) at Dien Bien Phu.  Under the Geneva Armistice Agreement, Vietnam was divided into North Vietnam and South Vietnam.  Between 1950-54, US officials had an opportunity to observe the struggle of France with the Vietnamese insurgency and become familiar with the political and military situation … but one has to wonder, what did these officials do with all that familiarization?

In July 1954, the US Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam (USMAAGV) numbered 342 officers and men.  Three months later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower promised direct aid to the provisional government of South Vietnam, which at the time was led by Premier Ngo Dinh Diem.  Between 1954-56, Viet Minh cadres were busy forming action committees to spread communist propaganda and organize South Vietnamese citizens to oppose their own government [Note 3].  In 1955, both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union announced that they would provide direct aid to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (also, DRV or North Vietnam).  In August 1955, Premier Diem rejected for the third time Hanoi’s demand for a general election throughout both North Vietnam and South Vietnam to settle the matter of unification.  In October 1955, Diem proclaimed the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), which became the official government of South Vietnam.

On 24 June 1957, the 1st Special Forces Group was activated on Okinawa; within a year, a team from this unit trained fifty-eight soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) at a commando training center located at Nha Trang.  These trainees would later become the nucleus for the first Vietnamese Special Forces units.

In 1959-60, communist insurgents (known as Vietnamese Communists (also, VC) grew in number and began terrorizing innocent civilians.  Clashes between government forces and VC units increased from around 180 in January 1960 to nearly 550 in September.  Thirty Special Forces instructors were sent from Fort Bragg to Vietnam in May to set up an ARVN training program.

On 21 September 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced a program to provide additional military and economic aid to the RVN.  On that same day, the 5th Special Forces Group was activated at Fort Bragg.  It was at this point in 1961 that President Kennedy took an interest in special forces operations and he became the patron of the Special Forces program within the Army.

Up until 1961, the RVN and US mission in Saigon focused their attention on developing regular ground forces, which for the most part had excluded ethnic and religious minority groups.  Late in that year, the US initiated several programs that would broaden the counterinsurgency effort by developing paramilitary forces within these minority groups.  The development of these groups became a primary mission of Special Forces teams in Vietnam.  It was a difficult mission; one that required an understanding of Vietnamese culture, the culture of minority groups (i.e., Montagnards), and a great deal of patience.

In 1961, the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas undertook an examination of the responsibility of the US Army in the cold war and the so-called “wars of liberation” as practiced by communists around the world.  One focus that evolved from this examination was doctrine needed to counter subversive insurgencies, particularly in RVN.  When asked to identify units and numbers of forces needed and best prepared to deal with counterinsurgency operations, the Army selected as its vanguard unit the Special Forces, which at the time numbered around 2,000 troops.

Throughout the Vietnam War, the US Army Special Forces excelled in every aspect of unconventional warfare.  As with the other American armed forces in Vietnam, however, the deck was stacked against them from the start [Note 4].  At the conclusion of the war, after Democrats in Congress reneged on America’s deal with Vietnam in the post Vietnamization phase, many veteran special forces soldiers left active service in disgust.  We won all the battles, but the politicians back home handed a victory to the North Vietnamese from the jaws of their resounding defeat.  The utter shame of American history was not the men who stepped up to serve during the Vietnam War, it was the Congress of the United States who not only turned its back on our South Vietnamese ally, but on the men and women who served in Vietnam as well.

The Green Berets do not refer to themselves as such.  They either refer to themselves as “Special Forces” or SF.  Sometimes they are known as “Sneaky Pete,” and “Snake Eaters.”  They do know how to eat snakes, but I have it pretty good authority that it’s not a preferred or regular diet (although it’s probably better tasting than the current government faire of Meals Ready to Eat (MRE’s) (also, Meals rejected by Ethiopians).  

The John Wayne film, The Green Berets, wasn’t really about the Special Forces soldier; it was more of a composite picture of soldiers one might find in the Special Forces.  According to the retired special forces soldiers I know, the SFG of the 1960s is a far cry from the modern organization.

In the early days, the SF soldier was an individual we might call a natural woodsman.  They were men to volunteered for duty with Special Forces because they preferred being in the boonies to being in garrison and having to take part in weekly parades, repetitious routines, and the chicken shit associated with regular army life.  There was some formal training, of course, and it is true that these fellows had a knack for learning foreign languages, but most of the men received on-the-job training (OJT) in special forces operations teams.  One former Green Beret described it as working hard when it was time to work and playing hard when it was time to play.  Perhaps too much drinking and chasing skirts while on liberty, but these men were, indeed, the quiet professionals who never lost their focus on their mission.

The primary element of a Special Forces company is an operational detachment, commonly referred to as an A Team.  It consists of 12 soldiers: 2 officers, and ten sergeants.  All members of the A Team are Special Forces qualified and cross trained in different skills.  The team is almost unlimited in its ability to operate in hostile or “denied” areas, able to infiltrate and exfiltrate by air, land, or sea.  It can operate for indefinite periods of time in remote locations without any outside help or support—self-sustaining, independent teams who regularly train, advise, and assist US and allied forces and agencies and capable of performing a myriad of special operations.  Every member of the A Team is lethal.

Besides the A Team commander (a captain), the second in command is a Chief Warrant Officer.  The captain is responsible for ensuring and maintaining the operational readiness of the team; he may also command or advise an indigenous combat force up to battalion size units.  His executive officer (second in command) serves as the tactical and technical expert.  He is multi-lingual, supervises plans and operations, and is capable of recruiting, organizing, training, and supervising indigenous combat forces up to the battalion level.

The A Team Sergeant is a Master Sergeant, the senior enlisted man, responsible for overseeing all Team operations, supervising subordinate enlisted men, and the person who runs the show on a daily basis.  Because of his interaction with the team enlisted men, he is sometimes referred to as the Den Daddy.  He is capable of stepping up to second in command should the need arise, or assuming command should the team commander and XO become incapacitated.

The Operations Sergeant is a Sergeant First Class (E-7) who coordinates the team’s intelligence, including field interrogations.  He is capable of training, advising, or leading indigenous combat forces up to a company size unit.

The team has two (2) weapons sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  These are the weapons experts who are capable of employing every small arm and crew served weapon in the world.  They are responsible for training other team members in the use of a wide range of weapons.  As tactical mission leaders, they are capable of employing conventional and unconventional tactics and techniques.  They are responsible for the tactical security of the A Team.

The team has two (2) engineer sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class, and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  These men are experts in demolitions.  They are lethal with a capital L.  They are the builders and destroyers of structures and serve as key players in civic action missions.

There are two (2) medical sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class, and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  The SF medic employs the latest in field medical technology and limited surgical procedures, capable of managing any battlefield trauma injury, supervising preventative medicine, and as such is an integral part of civic action programs.  Upon completion of the SF training, they are certified “paramedical” personnel, which includes advance trauma life support, limited surgery and dentistry, and even veterinarian procedures.

There are two (2) communications sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class, and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  These are the Comm Guys, or sometimes referred to as “Sparks.”  They are the lifeline of the team, able to establish and maintain sophisticated communications via FM, multi-channel, and satellite devices.  Theirs is unquestionably the heaviest rucksack on the team.

In addition to their primary responsibilities, team members are often assigned other duties.  The best scrounger very often acts as the supply sergeant.  A scrounger is someone who can steal from other units without getting caught.  One member with peculiar culinary skills might serve as the team cook.  

In the 1960s, before the Special Forces were recognized as a branch of the army, they were regarded as “unassigned.”  Another word for this was “bastard.”  In joining the special forces, a solder became part of a bastard unit.  The veteran soldiers preferred being bastards because it meant that they were generally ignored by the geniuses in Washington whose tactical skill set was operating a pencil sharpener.  Today, the conventional army has taken over the special forces … which means that pencil pushers now dictate to the field soldier how he must go about his business.  If you ask a veteran SF soldier, he’ll probably tell you that today’s SF is little different from the regular conventional army … but they do get to wear service insignia.

One of my favorites:

Staff Sergeant Schwartz had volunteered for the Special Forces.  His request was approved contingent on successfully passing a psychological examination.  On the date of his interview, Schwartz entered the medical officer’s office, removed his hat, and took a seat.  The doctor, who had been reviewing Schwartz’s medical record, looked up and observed a frog sitting on Schwartz’s head.  Having interviewed several Special Forces candidates that day, the doctor was unfazed.  He asked Schwartz, “So, what’s your problem?”  The frog answered, saying, “I don’t know, doc.  It started off as a wart on my ass.”

Endnotes:

[1] After the invasion of the Philippines by the Japanese in 1941, there were sixty American military and civilian commanders of forces throughout the Philippines who evaded capture or escaped Japanese imprisonment on the archipelago’s several islands.  With the help and assistance of the Filipino people, the Philippine Scouts formed resistance groups, which were eventually recognized by the American military and eventually supported and supplied by the USN submarine service.

[2] The First Special Service Force, also known as the Devil’s Brigade, was an elite American-Canadian commando unit in World War II under the command of the Fifth US Army, organized in 1942 under Colonel Robert T. Frederick, who commanded the brigade until 1944.

[3] At this time, the average Vietnamese citizen was not overly patriotic.  Occurrences outside of their immediate family, or outside their village of domicile, was of no great concern to them.

[4] For a discussion about the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, see (1) Viet Nam: The Beginning; (2) Viet Nam: The Marines Head North; (3) The Laotian Problem; (4) Counterinsurgency and Pacification, and (5) The War Begins in Earnest.  The reader may also be interested in From King to Joker: How administration policies moved America from greatness to mediocrity.

Meade River

20 November — 9 December 1968

Background

Twenty miles south of Da Nang, Vietnam, west of Highway 1, is a 36-square-mile area of flatland.  Numerous waterways and man made canals criss cross this area and these are separated by thick tufts of five-foot high elephant grass.  In 1968 it was an area ideal for concealing two battalions of enemy infantry, which at the time included the 1st Battalion, 36th Regiment of regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) R-20 Battalion.  The area was extremely dangerous to US and Republic of Vietnam (RVN) forces; firefights and ambuscades were frighteningly common.  The Marines called this area Dodge City

OPERATION MEADE RIVER was planned as part of the RVN’s Le Loi (Accelerated Pacification) Campaign [Note 1] — a series of operations designed to search for and destroy enemy forces.  On the morning of 20 November 1968, seven Marine battalions moved overland and by helicopter to establish a cordon around Dodge City.  While moving into initial staging areas, even before the sweeps began, Marines lost one KIA, suffered 25 WIA, and lost two helicopters.  It was not a good omen.  The 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines (2/7) jumped off at midday.  Their mission was to sweep from the western side of the cordon toward the rail lines.  At around 1630, Company G (Golf 2/7) encountered an NVA bunker complex in an area the Marines nicknamed The Horseshoe.  Enemy fire from these bunkers was intense and the Marines withdrew with six additional KIA.

On 21 November, Delta 1/1 and Lima 3/26 resumed the assault on The Horseshoe.  Heavy enemy fire stalled the advance.  The enemy had decided they weren’t leaving without a fight and the Marines were equally determined to give them one.  The Marines resumed their assault on 22 November.  Enemy machine gun fire devastated Echo 2/7 at close range as it began to cross a small stream; Marine losses were 7 KIA and 23 WIA.  It took the company ten minutes to disengage.  Concurrently, Delta 1/1 began its sweep from the North but they too were hit by intensive enemy fire with loses of 2 KIA and 17 wounded.

On 23 November, 3/26 moved from the Southwest toward the Horseshoe and joined up with 2/7.  Hotel 2/7 overran several enemy positions and was able to recover the remains of six Marines lost on 20 November.  Early on 24 November, Marines directed air and artillery against the Horseshoe; 2/7 reinforced by Kilo 3/26 renewed its attack.  Again, strong enemy fire halted the Marine advance.

Before jumping off on 25 November, 2/7 directed artillery fire into suspected enemy positions before continuing the attack.  There was no enemy resistance because the enemy had withdrawn during the night.  Over the next four days, the Marines continued to exert pressure on the enemy within the cordon.  It was grueling work for the Marines as they advanced through thick grass that concealed enemy defensive positions.  Meanwhile, 3/5 initiated an assault along Route 4 which necessitated the destruction of several bunker complexes.  As they approached a section called “The Hook,” the battalion encountered stiff enemy resistance.  The battalion lost 2 KIA and 28 wounded before pulling back to allow for air and artillery fire.

3/5 reinitiated offensive operations on 2 December but made no progress.  After additional air and artillery bombardments, 3/26 joined 3/5’s advance on 3 December and the Marines succeeded in penetrating the enemy’s intricate defensive positions during the next day.  After air dropping napalm on the enemy’s defenses on 5 December, Marines overran the bunker complex and discovered the remains of 87 enemy dead.

On 6 December, Echo 2/26 encountered a stubborn NVA bunker complex just south of the La Tho River.  Hotel 2/5 and Alpha 1/7 attacked the complex on the morning of 7 December but were quickly pinned down and suffered heavy casualties.  As forward observers called in for additional air and artillery support, the grunts withdrew to set up night defensive positions.  At around 1130 on 8 December, 3/26 supported by several armored personnel carriers from the ARVN 2nd Troop, 4th ARVN Cavalry aggressively attacked the complex finding 79 enemy dead from the previous day’s engagement.  For a time, Hotel 2/5 was pinned down by a final line of bunkers spewing hot lead through the Marine’s line of advance, but the equally stubborn Marines used explosives to destroy the bunkers one at a time, which killed an additional 39 NVA/VC defenders.

The highly pissed-off Marines of Alpha 1/7 viciously assaulted a series of 12 bunkers killing 47 NVA.  As the Marines pushed through the foliage to the bank of the river, they engaged another enemy unit attempting to escape into river killing an additional twenty NVA/VC.  Alpha gave up six of their men KIA.

On the night of 8 December, Lima 3/26 engaged an NVA unit, killing fifteen enemy with the loss of 5 Marines.  At sundown, India 3/26’s lead platoon found itself cut off from the rest of the company by intense enemy fire.  Staff Sergeant Karl G. Taylor, serving as the Company Gunnery Sergeant, led a rescue team to recover and evacuate the platoon’s more seriously wounded Marines.  After Taylor’s Marines had moved several wounded to safety, he returned with four volunteers to reach another group of wounded Marines who were laying exposed to enemy fire.  Finding the position too strong, Taylor instructed his volunteers to move back to the company line, and then arming himself with a grenade launcher, charged across the rice paddy while firing 40-mm grenades into the enemy position.  Although wounded several times, Taylor silenced the weapon.

Medal of Honor Citation Summary 

Navy Medal of Honor

While serving as Company Gunnery Sergeant on the night of 8 December 1968, Taylor was informed that the platoon commander of the lead platoon had been mortally wounded and that the platoon was pinned down by intense enemy machine gun fire.  Staff Sergeant Taylor with another Marine in support, crawled forward to the beleaguered unit through a hail of hostile fire, shouted encouragement and instructions to the men, directing them to covered positions.

With his companion, Taylor repeatedly maneuvered across an open area to rescue those Marines who were too seriously wounded to move themselves.  Upon learning that there were additional seriously wounded men lying in open area, exposed to the fire of an enemy machine gun position, Staff Sergeant Taylor led four Marines across the fire-swept terrain in an attempt to rescue the cut off Marines.  When Taylor’s advance was halted by devastating enemy fire, Taylor directed his Marines to return to the company command post.  He then took his grenade launcher and, in full view of the enemy, charged across the open rice paddy toward the enemy machine gun position, firing his weapon as he ran.

Although wounded several times, he succeeded in reaching the machine gun bunker and destroying it.  By this time, Staff Sergeant Taylor was mortally wounded, but his actions saved the lives of the isolated Marines.  By his indomitable courage, inspiring leadership, and selfless dedication, Staff Sergeant Karl G. Taylor upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.  

Richard M. Nixon

President of the United States

Who was Staff Sergeant Karl Taylor? 

He was born on 14 July 1939 in Laurel, Maryland.  After leaving high school, Karl worked for a construction company as a scraper operator.  On 15 January 1959, twenty-year old Karl and his brother Walter enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps at the recruiting station in Baltimore.  After recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina, Karl completed combat training with the 1st Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Geiger [Note 2], North Carolina.  Taylor’s first tour of duty was as a rifleman with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines.  After promotion to corporal, which made him eligible for duty as a Marine Corps Drill Instructor, Karl applied for and was accepted to attend DI School at Parris Island.  He served as a drill instructor until 1963.

In 1964, Taylor joined the 3rd Marine Division on Okinawa where he was assigned to Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines.  Taylor served his first combat tour when the division was sent to Vietnam in 1965.  Upon rotation back to the United States, Taylor served as a sergeant-instructor at Company A, Officer’s Candidate School, Quantico, Virginia.  He was promoted to staff sergeant on 1 September 1966.

SSGT Karl G. Taylor Sr.

In 1968, Taylor returned to Vietnam for his second combat tour of duty.  He was assigned as the Company Gunnery Sergeant, Company I, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines.

Taylor’s remains were returned to his family and he was interred at the Independence Cemetery, Washington County, Pennsylvania.  In addition to receiving the nation’s highest award for conspicuous gallantry, Taylor’s family was awarded his Purple Heart medal.  He was also entitled to wear the Combat Action Ribbon (two awards), the Presidential Unit Citation (two awards) [Note 3], and three awards of the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal.

Operation Meade River Terminated

On the evening of 8 December, the enemy still retained a narrow strip of ground between 3/26 and the Song La Tho.  Another push was ordered to eliminate these communists.  Along with Marine Corps artillery, the USS New Jersey directed its sixteen-inch guns on these remaining positions throughout the night and into the morning.  3/26 launched its final assault at 1100 on 9 December.  Despite the assault of overwhelming field and naval artillery during the night, remaining enemy forces tenaciously resisted the ground attack, but the Marines methodically and thoroughly eliminated the enemy wherever found. 

Operation Meade River officially ended at 1800 on 9 December.  The battle was a major event pitting determined Marines against equally resolved North Vietnamese and Viet Cong defenders.  The operation ended with 1,023 enemy dead, 123 prisoners taken, and an additional 71 VC were captured when discovered hiding among local populations.  Marines also destroyed 360 enemy bunkers and captured 120 tons of rice stores — but the cost was high.  108 Marines lost their lives with 510 wounded in action.  ARVN casualties were 2 KIA and 37 WIA.  Although initially vanquished, the persistent enemy soon began infiltrating snipers and before the end of December, Marines observed that communist forces were again preparing to launch assaults against Da Nang and Hoi An from Dodge City.  By that time, the Marines had turned their attention to another problem area which they called “Arizona Territory.”

Sources:

  1. Hunt, R.  Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds.  Westview Press, 1995. 
  2. Shulimson, J.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam, 1968: The Defining Year.  Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1997.
  3. White, J. P.  “Civil Affairs in Vietnam.”  Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D. C.

Endnotes:

[1]  Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) was a pacification program created on 9 May 1967 that included military and civilian components of the US and RVN.  The objective of CORDS was to gain support for the government of RVN from its rural populations influenced or controlled by insurgent communist forces (VC) and regular NVA.  One of CORDS successes was the integration of civilian and military efforts to combat the communist insurgency.

[2]  Named in honor of General Roy S. Geiger, USMC — one of the Corps’ first naval aviators and the only Marine to command a U. S. Army during World War II.

[3]  Although a combat decoration awarded to every Marine in the unit cited, the Presidential Unit Citation is roughly equivalent to the Navy Cross Medal in precedence of other unit awards.  

Sugar Loaf

The bended knee is not a Marine Corps tradition

Island of Okinawa

In 1944, the Japanese Empire was in agony.  Its Pacific defensive perimeter had been shattered and was suddenly a very narrow band.  The Co-Prosperity Sphere was little more than a memory.  The motherland was under threat of invasion.  Japanese industries were unable to replace the hundreds of airplanes destroyed by the Americans and their allies.  Worse, there were no experienced pilots to train them and no facility suitable for educating a new generation of combat aviators.  There were also limited quantities of fuel to propel aircraft.  The Imperial Japanese fleet was sitting at anchor at death’s door.  The Japanese high command was well aware of this, of course, but had no intention of surrendering to Allied forces.  National pride would not allow it.  There would be no withdrawals and no surrender.  Japan’s new strategy was to cause so many casualties that American public opinion would demand that Roosevelt end the war on terms favorable to the Japanese.

The island of Okinawa lies 330 miles southwest of the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu.  If an invasion of the Japanese home islands became necessary, Okinawa would be the place from which the allied attack would come.  The Japanese high command knew this.  In the White House, there was some doubt about whether a new wonder weapon under evaluation in the United States would work.  If it didn’t work, then an invasion of Japan would be inevitable.  General Douglas MacArthur told Roosevelt that he estimated a million more Americans would die in a land battle in Japan.  

On 7 September 1944, anticipating the need for an invasion of the Japanese home islands, Marine Corps headquarters ordered the formation of the Sixth Marine Division (6thMarDiv) in the southern Solomon Islands.  It was a typical Marine infantry division; three rifle regiments with three battalions each, and direct support battalions of engineers, artillery, field medical personnel, pioneer, motor transport, tanks, and headquarters and service battalions.  The division organization included the newly reconstituted Fourth Marine Regiment, the 22nd Marines, and 29th Marines.

The division was “new” to the Marine Corps, but it was in no way a “green” division.  The men who formed the division previously fought as part of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade on Guam and with the 2nd Marine Division on Saipan.  Half of the force in three regiments were combat veterans.  The division received its initial training as a combat organization on Guadalcanal.  Its first stop on the way to Japan was the island called Okinawa.

The Allied force landed on Okinawa on 1 April 1945.  The 6th Marine Division was but one element of the US Tenth Army, consisting of the XXIV Corps (four Army infantry divisions) and the III Amphibious Corps (three US Marine infantry divisions).  The 6th Marine Division was one of those.  To everyone’s astonishment, there was no opposition to the allied landing.

The Japanese had set their trap, and the Allies walked straight into it.  Japan’s strategy called for a defense in depth of Okinawa —a fierce defense similar to that of Iwo Jima, but with significant differences.  Commanding a Japanese force of between 96,000 and 130,000 troops [Note 1], General Mitsuru Ushijima would allow the Americans to land ashore unopposed. Once they had, a large Kamikaze force would destroy the allied fleet, thus cutting the allies off from their supply line and leaving the Americans with no opportunity for withdrawal.  In this setting, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) would systematically annihilate the men stranded onshore.  The construction of Japanese defensive positions had begun in the summer of 1944, which included the use of existing caves, constructing tunnels and underground command posts, establishing interlocking fields of fire, ranged artillery, and spider holes for snipers.  Ushijima’s defensive line was along the island’s southern tip, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the East China Sea. 

Hiromichi Yahara

The architect of the Japanese strategy for Okinawa was Colonel Hiromichi Yahara, who served as Chief of Staff to General Ushijima.  Yahara prohibited any of his defensive troops from adopting the popular philosophy of “self-sacrifice.”  Such notions were self-defeating at a time when Japan needed more, not less, manpower.  Instead, he intended that the IJA outlast the allied forces.  He intended to accomplish this by establishing a defensive structure incorporating snipers, artillery, mortars, and well-constructed pillboxes.  Should the Allied forces continue to press the Japanese defense, then the IJA would fight these Americans in close quarters combat, where they could not use artillery or mortars against the Japanese.

With great cunning and ingenuity, General Ushijima and Colonel Yahara organized their ground defense in the Shuri area of southern Okinawa.  Japanese security included a series of concentric positions adapted to the contour of the terrain.  Caves, emplacements, blockhouses, and pillboxes were built into the hills, connected by elaborate underground tunnels and skillfully camouflaged and concealed positions.  Many Okinawan burial tombs were fortified by the Japanese, as well.  They even reinforced the reverse slopes of hills.  Artillery was placed in the caves and thoroughly integrated into General Ushijima’s defense plan.

The Japanese defensive line consisted of three perimeters.  There was no greater example of Japanese ferocity in battle than their defense of Okinawa.  The battle for hacksaw ridge began on 24 April; it did not end until 6 May, and then only after imposing massive casualties on the attacking allied forces —and at which time the Japanese fell back to a new position and waited once more for the Americans to attack it. 

After going ashore on 1 April 1945, Army headquarters tasked the 6th Marine Division with clearing the island’s northern end.  This operation cost the division 236 killed, 1,601 wounded, and seven missing in action.  A month later, the division replaced the Army’s US 27th Infantry Division.  By 6 May, the 6thMarDiv bivouacked near Chibana, Okinawa, less than ten miles from the battle area’s forward edge.  In replacing the army division, the Marines would participate in the Battle for Naha, Okinawa’s capital city.

On 10 May, the 6th Marine Division launched its first attack against the Japanese main line of resistance (MLR) when the 22nd Marines crossed the River Asa in the early morning hours.  A demolished bridge necessitated the construction of a footbridge.  The enemy, being fully aware of the Marines’ activities, sent sappers to destroy the footbridge.

At 0330, the First and Third Battalions crossed the Asa; the first battalion waded across upstream on the regiment’s left, while the third battalion used the partially destroyed footbridge.  At first, Japanese resistance was light, but the opposition became furious with greater awareness of the Marine advance.  Despite heavy artillery and mortar fires, the Marines advanced to the first area of ridges.  By nightfall, the 22nd Marines had established a bridgehead 1,400 yards wide and about 400 yards deep—but it was a day of heavy casualties.  

On 11 May, the regimental commander committed his reserve component, 2/22, to cover the left flank of 1/22, fighting to reduce an enemy stronghold on a formidable coral hill southeast of Asa village.  When flanking action failed to secure the hill, the troops withdrew to allow naval gunfire to access the target area [Note 2].  Meanwhile, combat engineers labored under enemy fire to construct a bailey bridge [Note 3] across the River Asa.  When completed, Marine tanks rushed across to support the rifle companies.  Then, with the added power of tanks, the 1/22 renewed its attack and was successful.  On the right, 3/22 fought for three hours before capturing the precipitous cliff area in its zone of action.

On 12 May, the 22nd Marines, with all three battalions online, continued to advance against Japanese positions and did so despite increasing enemy resistance.  The regiment was receiving fire from the front, and its left flank, an enemy entrenchment on Wana Ridge; the Shuri Heights permitted the observation of troop movements, allowing the Japanese to bring fire to bear at a moment’s notice.  With the Division’s left flank in peril, the Division Commander [Note 4] ordered 3/29 into the line.  He would have to commit another regiment to maintain the Division’s momentum.

2/22, and 3/29 continued the assault on 13 May.  All that they were able to achieve, however, is about 300 yards.  Enemy resistance was vicious.  In the late afternoon, 1/29 and 2/29 moved up behind 3/29 and prepared to attack the morning of 14 May. 

Sugar Loaf, 1945

At about this time, the Commanding General discovered the enemy’s western anchor to their main line of resistance.  He also learned that there were three terrain features, heavily fortified and manned, with mutually supporting fires, that formed this anchor.  Heavily guarded corridors led into each terrain feature, and no ground offered covered avenues of approach.  Before the Division could reach Naha, it would be necessary to pass over these features; features so small that they did not even show up on standard military maps.  Cartographers simply listed hill locations as Target Area 7672G.  They were later named Horseshoe Ridge, Sugar Loaf Hill, and Half-Moon Hill.  Of these, Sugar Loaf Hill was the highest in elevation.

The Japanese called it Suribachi Oka [Note 5]. Under normal conditions, a single Marine rifle company would have the task of seizing this hill, but there was nothing “normal” about the Battle for Okinawa.  The Marines of the 6thMarDiv would struggle with this hill for ten excruciating days.  Ownership changed eleven times.  The fighting took place under the worst of all possible conditions: unabated driving rain and rivers of mud.

The Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill is the story of a Japanese soldiery determined to keep it, and American Marines, who were more determined to take it.

By this time, the 22nd Marines’ combat efficiency was critical.  The regiment had lost over 800 Marines killed or wounded since crossing the River Asa.  The capital city of Naha lay open to the 22nd Marines, but the regiment could not advance without taking Sugar Loaf Hill and its two sisters.  The problem was that the Sugar Loaf Hill defensive area formed a triangle and was mutually supporting.  Troops attacking any one of these three hills received fire from the other two.  There was no room for extended maneuver.  On the right of the 6thMarDiv was the sea; on the left, the 1stMarDiv, which offered no protection or cover.

Late in the afternoon of 14 May 2/22 attempted a tank-infantry assault, and despite heavy enemy fire that pushed the Marine tanks back, a few Marines from Gulf Company succeeded in reaching the top of Sugar Loaf.  The attack caught the Japanese by surprise. 

Major Courtney

Ordered to hold his position in static defense for the night of 14-15 May 1945, Major Henry A. Courtney, Jr., while serving as the Executive Officer, 2/22, commanded the Marines during a Japanese counterattack.  Courtney weighed the effect of a hostile night-time counterattack against the tactical value of an immediate Marine assault and resolved to initiate that assault.

With permission to continue his advance and seize the hill’s forward slope, Courtney explained the situation to his few remaining Marines and declared his intention of moving forward.  Promptly moving toward the enemy, Courtney boldly blasted nearby cave positions and neutralized the enemy as he advanced.  Inspired by his courage, every Marine took up their arms and followed Courtney without hesitation.  Together, these intrepid Marines braved a terrific concentration of Japanese gunfire and skirted the hill on the right, reaching the reverse slope.  Temporarily halting his advance, Major Courtney sent guides to the rear for more ammunition and reinforcement.  Twenty-six Marines and a Landing Vehicle Track (LVT) soon joined Courtney and his remaining men, the LVT bringing forward several cases of hand grenades.  Courtney then stormed the crest of the hill for the purpose of crushing any possible Japanese counterattack before it could gain momentum.  Courtney pushed ahead with unrelenting aggressiveness, hurling grenades into cave openings with devastating effect.

Upon reaching the crest of the hill, Major Courtney observed a large number of Japanese forming up for a counterassault less than 100 yards away.  He instantly attacked these Japanese and waged a furious battle, killing many of the enemy and forcing the remainder to take cover in surrounding caves.  Determined to hold, he ordered his men to dig in and, with cool disregard of enemy mortar fire, rallied his weary troops.  With the Marines now “set in,” Courtney tirelessly aided his wounded Marines and assigned his men to more advantageous positions.  Although instantly killed while moving among his men, Major Courtney, by his astute military acumen, indomitable  spirit, and leadership, contributed to the campaign’s overall success against the Sugar Loaf Defensive line.

Major Courtney received a posthumous award of the Medal of Honor for this action.  Camp Courtney, Okinawa, the present location of the 3rd Marine Division and III MEF Headquarters was named in his honor.  

The Marine success was short-lived, however.  During the night, the Japanese organized a Battalion-sized counterattack that overwhelmed the remnants of Gulf Company and drove 2/22 back to the north and into the area controlled by the 29th Marines.  Major Courtney’s assault initiated the most bitter fighting yet seen by the 22nd Marines.  1/29 and 3/29 experienced the same painful refusal to give way to the American Marines.

In the corridor leading to the Half-Moon, 3/29 reduced a pocket of Japanese resistance, but the fight was so intense that it prevented further advance.  On the afternoon of 15 May 3/22 moved up to relieve 2/22, which had lost over 400 men since 12 May.  1/22 assaulted along the ridge overlooking Asato but could advance no further due to heavy fire from Horseshoe and Sugar Loaf.  Japanese mortars and artillery rained down on the Marines throughout the night of 15-16 May.  It was also raining cats and dogs.  Among these Marines, there was no rest for the weary.

Early the next morning, the 6thMarDiv, with its 22nd and 29th regiments in the assault, again attacked to seize Sugar Loaf and Half-Moon hills.  Enemy fire was withering, and it was apparent that the Japanese were rushing reinforcements to bolster the Sugar Loaf Hill system.  Working its way into position on the regimental left, 3/22 prepared to assault Sugar Loaf Hill.  Behind the battalion, tanks and artillery lobbed round after round into Sugar Loaf Hill.  On the signal to go, 3/22 rapidly advanced up the pitted slope in the face of the enemy’s entire arsenal of weapons.  Several times, the battalion reached the top of the hill and engaged the Japanese in hand to hand fighting but were driven back.  With devastating casualties, 3/22 withdraw.

The Division commander hoped that the 29th Marines might seize Half-Moon Hill.  Supported by tanks, these Marines moved forward to the edge of the ridge by late afternoon, but before they could organize defensive positions, the Japanese poured in so much fire from Shuri, Sugar Loaf, and their reverse slope positions of the Half-Moon Hill that the troops had to withdraw under cover of smoke.  Casualties were extremely heavy.  16 May was the bitterest day for the Marines of the 6thMarDiv; two regiments had fought bitterly contested battles without achieving their objectives.  The 22nd Marines had lost so many men that it was nearing combat ineffectiveness.  General Shepherd shifted the attacking force’s burden to the 29th Marines; he ordered the 22nd Marines to hold their positions.

Before the 29th Marines’ attack, Japanese positions in the Sugar Loaf defenses received a massive pounding from 16-inch naval artillery, 8-inch howitzers, and 1,000 aerial bombs.  Then, with tanks in close support, 1/29 and 3/29 edged their way to the northern edge of Half-Moon Hill.  3/29 seized a slim foothold on the hill’s northwestern border, but Japanese fire made their position untenable, and the battalion withdrew.  Meanwhile, Echo Company 2/29 maneuvered for a flanking attack on the east side of Sugar Loaf.  Despite heavy mortar fire and Japanese grenades, the company drove to the top of the hill three times.  Each time, the Japanese counterattack drove them off the hill.  Finally, around 1830, the company made a fourth assault.  This time the Marines defeated the Japanese counterattack, but there were so few men left alive that the company didn’t have enough manpower to defend it.  Echo Company pulled back to better ground for the night.

At dusk, Marines observed the Japanese rushing in troops to reinforce the hill.  Almost immediately, twelve battalions of American artillery took the Japanese under fire and inflicted so many losses that they discontinued the effort.  While it was true that Sugar Loaf and Half-Moon hills remained in Japanese hands, the 6thMarDiv had made substantial but unrealized gains at the time.  The Japanese had suffered so many losses that Ushijima was unable to sustain his stalwart defense.  As the barrage was going on, the 29th Marines moved into position for an assault on the next morning.

At 0830 on 18 May 1/29 and 3/29 again, assaulted Japanese positions on Half-Moon Hill.  Once the Marines established a foothold, the battle turned into a slugfest.  With the Japanese thus occupied, 2/29 tried to surround Sugar Loaf Hill.  Enemy mines, 47-mm fire, and artillery disabled six Marine tanks and drove the battalion back.  2/29 then launched a combined arms attack with infantry and tanks in a coordinated maneuver.  One tank managed to edge its way around the hill’s west side and commenced firing into the enemy’s reverse slope positions.  As the Japanese moved to counter this threat, another tank worked its way around to the east side of the hill and emptied its machine gun into the backs of the Sugar Loaf defenders.  It was pure pandemonium as troops swarmed over the hill and engaged in brutal fighting.  After an hour, the Marines held the hill.  Marines from Fox Company, 2/29 assaulted Horseshoe Ridge and destroyed enemy mortar positions by fire and close combat.

During the night, Japanese troops counterattacked the Company F position, driving the Marines back to Sugar Loaf.  Marine attempts to regain the hill were unsuccessful.  On the left flank, 1/29 and 3/29 held their positions at the base of the Half-Moon Hill and did so despite intense enemy fire.

To exploit the Division’s gains, General Shepherd brought in the 4th Marines to replace the 29th on 19 May.  On the right of the Division’s front, the 22nd Marines remained in their positions but were in no condition to continue the attack.  After relieving the 29th Marines, the 4th Marines prepared to attack to seize the upper reaches of the Asato River.  During the night, the Japanese made full use of their artillery to pound the Marine positions, but American casualties were light.

The 4th Marines launched their assault on the morning of 20 May and managed to seize a part of Horseshoe Ridge.  As the fighting raged, the Japanese positions on Shuri Hill massed their weapons and hit the 4th Marines’ flank with heavy fire.  At 2130, following a massive mortar barrage, the Japanese counterattacked Sugar Loaf.  The Japanese focused on 3/4 as its primary objective —their assault lasting until after midnight.  The use of naval illumination allowed artillery spotters to target the Japanese; six battalions of American artillery defeated the counterattack, but before driving the Japanese back, the 4th Marines committed part of its regimental reserve.  Nearly 300 Japanese died, with only one Marine killed and 19 wounded.

Marines made slight gains the next day within the interior of Horseshoe Ridge, but they were unable to exploit their foothold on Half-Moon Hill.  Until the Shuri Line fell, it would be impossible to seize the Half-Moon in its entirety.  On 22 May, the 4th Marines advanced slowly to the Asato.  General Shepherd was ready to exploit his gains by employing a holding attack [Note 6] on the left of the Division’s front.  After a reconnaissance, the 4th Marines moved two battalions across the river in the afternoon of 23 May.  What the Marines found was determined enemy resistance.  The situation facing the 4th Marines was challenging but not precarious.  All of its critical supplies had to be hand-carried across the river.  Massive amounts of rain made the terrain water-logged; the mud was above ankle-deep, and stretcher-bearers moved wounded Marines to the rear with much difficulty.  Marine vehicles had an impossible time navigating through the morass of mud and slime.

The 4th Marines continued their attack on 25 May, seizing most of the north-south ridge west of Machishi.  A company-sized attack by the Japanese kept 3/4 busy for most of the night, but the 4th regiment continued its advance into the eastern outskirts of Naha City.  The Division Reconnaissance Company (ReconCo) crossed the Asato near its mouth and penetrated Naha west of the north-south canal.  Enemy Resistance was light, with only a few snipers challenging the Marine advance.  The next morning, with rain falling in buckets, the 4th Marines confined its efforts to aggressive patrolling, and the ReconCo moved further into Naha.

On 26 May, the Marines observed signs of an enemy withdrawal.  Shepherd ordered all units to commence patrolling so that he could determine the extent of the enemy’s departure from the Shuri Line.  2/22 passed through the ReconCo and pushed further into Naha.  By this time, the city was almost a total wreck; only a few buildings remained standing, and these only barely.  The 4th regiment’s patrols moved 300 yards forward and found only weak opposition.

On 27 May, General Shepherd reoriented his assault by ordering the 22nd Marines to complete Naha’s capture and prepare to advance through the hills that overlooked the Kokuba River.  The 29th Marines relieved the 4th Marines and prepared to continue the attack southeast toward the Shichina hills.  The regiment completed its mission on 28 May.  Initially, the 29th Marines were to carry out a holding attack while supporting the 22nd Marines by fire.  On 29 May, the 22nd Marines crossed the north-south canal and commenced to fight through the low hills leading to Shichina, which ran parallel to the Kokuba River.  Initially, the assault progressed rapidly but slowed considerably with increasing enemy resistance, a rearguard force stationed in the hills.  Japanese resistance continued through 1 June.  From its position on the Kokuba River, Shepherd could observe the Naha-Yonabaru Cross-Island highway; across the river, he could see the materials abandoned by the withdrawing Japanese.

The Battle of Okinawa was the bloodiest campaign of the Pacific Theater during World War II.  In total, US and Allied forces gave up 14,009 dead, with 55,162 wounded in action [Note 7].  An allied estimate of Japanese killed in action was between 77,166 to 110,000.  The 6th Marine Division gave up 1,700 killed and nearly 8,000 injured from early May to 21 June 1945, making the Battle of Sugar Loaf Hill the island’s bloodiest battle.  Marine gallantry and intrepidity during this horrific battle earned the division the Presidential Unit Citation [Note 8], which reads as follows:

Presidential Unit Citation

 For extraordinary heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces during the assault and capture of Okinawa, April 1 to June 21, 1945. Seizing Yontan Airfield in its initial operation, the SIXTH Marine Division, Reinforced, smashed through organized resistance to capture Ishikawa Isthmus, the town of Nago, and heavily fortified Motobu Peninsula in 13 days. Later committed to the southern front, units of the Division withstood overwhelming artillery and mortar barrages, repulsed furious counterattacks, and staunchly pushed over the rocky terrain to reduce almost impregnable defenses and capture Sugar Loaf Hill. Turning southeast, they took the capital city of Naha and executed surprise shore-to-shore landings on Oroku Peninsula, securing the area with its prized Naha Airfield and Harbor after nine days of fierce fighting. Reentering the lines in the south, SIXTH Division Marines sought out enemy forces entrenched in a series of rocky ridges extending to the southern tip of the island, advancing relentlessly and rendering decisive support until the last remnants of enemy opposition were exterminated and the island secured. By their valor and tenacity, the officers and men of the SIXTH Marine Division, Reinforced contributed materially to the conquest of Okinawa, and their gallantry in overcoming a fanatic enemy in the face of extraordinary danger and difficulty adds new luster to Marine Corps history and the traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Sources:

  1. Astor, G.  Operation Iceberg: The Invasion and Conquest of Okinawa in World War II.  Dell Books, 1996.
  2. Frank, R. B.  Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire.  Random House, 1999.
  3. Hastings, M.  Retribution—the Battle for Japan, 1944-45.  Knopf Books, 2007.
  4. Nichols, C. S., and Henry I. Shaw.  Okinawa: Victory in the Pacific.  Battery Press, 1989.
  5. Stockman, J. R.  The Sixth Marine Division.  Historical Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1959

Endnotes:

[1] Ushijima was in dire need for ground troops.  The HQ IJA ordered the 9th Infantry Division to Formosa (Taiwan), which forced Ushijima to mobilize the entire civilian population on the Island to augment his 32nd Army.

[2] Naval gunfire was provided by the USS Indianapolis.

[3] A portable, prefabricated truss bridge developed by the British for use during World War II.  Components of the bridge are small and light enough to be carried in trucks and lifted in place without the use of a crane.

[4] Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., a future Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[5] This Japanese word describes a bowl or kitchen implement whose purpose was to grind to a pulp whatever was placed inside it.  A mountain or elevated terrain referred to as Suribachi would resemble a bowl turned upside down.  

[6] A holding attack is one designed to hold the enemy in his position, to deceive him as to where the main attack is being made and prevent him from reinforcing his positions.  A holding attack may also force the enemy to prematurely commit his reserve force at an unwise location.

[7] The numbers of US and allied servicemen killed and wounded are estimates and vary among those who cite the statistic.  These numbers also include US and allied navy casualties that resulted from massive Kamikaze attacks off the coast of Okinawa.

[8] The Presidential Unit Citation recognizes US and foreign/allied units for extraordinary heroism in actions against an armed enemy after 7 December 1941.  To qualify, the unit cited must display such gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission, under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions, so as to set it apart from and above all other units participating in the same campaign.  The collective degree of valor against an armed enemy by the unit nominated is the same criteria that would justify an individual award of the Navy Cross medal. 

Civil War Marines

Prologue

There are few completely spontaneous events in human history.  There are usually several causes of events, and potentially a wide range of consequences.  There can even be consequences to inaction —such as in realizing that something bad is about to happen, and then doing nothing to avoid it.  It saddens me to say that for well over two-hundred years, the American people have proven time and again that they are incapable of learning history’s lessons, or worse, lack the ability to predict the likely consequences of their behavior.

The outbreak of the American Civil War was not a spontaneous event.   The discord and virulent hatred that evolved into civil war began at a much earlier time — even, perhaps, in the formative years of the nation, during and after the Constitutional Convention (5 May – 17 September 1787) when Americans began organizing themselves into political parties.  This conflict continues to exist today.

Regional Radicalization

Owen Brown and Ruth Mills, of Torrington, Connecticut, sired eight children.  They named one of these children John, who was born on 9 May 1800.  John was named after his grandfather, Captain John Brown [Note 1].  Owen Brown was a tanner who later moved to Hudson, Ohio, which over time became an important center of anti-slavery activity and debate [Note 2].  Thinking of it as his Christian duty, Owen offered safe housing and passage to fugitive slaves.  It is likely that Owen brought his children up to abhor human slavery.  Owen Brown was also one of the founders of the so-called Hudson School, a preparatory school consumed with the issue of slavery.

From early age, John Brown believed that his calling in life was to serve God as a minister of Christian gospel.  Following prep-school in Massachusetts, Brown enrolled the Morris Academy (Litchfield, Connecticut) in preparation for becoming a Congregational Minister [Note 3].  Illness and lack of money, however, forced him to give up this ambition and he returned to Ohio where, like his father, he became a tanner.  When Owen moved his family to Pennsylvania in 1825, John (with wife and children) accompanied him.  The family settled in New Richmond where they operated a tannery and secretly provided aid to runaway slaves.  It was part of a network called the Underground Railroad.  Historians estimate that the number of runaway slaves that passed through Brown’s Pennsylvania farm was around 2,500.

Life was hard in the 1830s.  In the Brown family, John lost his wife and an infant son to disease.  In fact, of John’s six remaining children, only three survived to adulthood, but life goes on and John remarried a young woman from New York.  They produced thirteen children, and of these, only three survived to adulthood.  Due to economic depression in the late 1820s and early 1830s, John (as nearly everyone else in the country) suffered financially from a lack of business and increasing debt.

Economic depression caused thousands of people to uproot and relocate to new areas for a “fresh start.”  Some people “skipped out” owing other folks money; some of these ended up migrating to Texas.  John Brown moved his family to Franklin Mills (present-day Kent), Ohio.  To achieve his “new start,” John borrowed money to begin a business partnership with Zanas Kent.  Another economic crisis developed in 1839 and John Brown lost his farm.  When the farm was sold to another family, John Brown refused to vacate the property and he ended up in prison.  By then, John Brown had become a radical abolitionist.

In 1846, Brown moved again to Springfield, Massachusetts where he discovered people of means who emotionally and financially supported the abolition movement.  At about the same time John Brown left Massachusetts in 1850, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act [Note 4].  Brown responded by organizing armed resistance to “slavers.”  He called his group the League of Gileadites [Note 5]; they were men and women who sought to protect runaways and prevent the law from returning them to bondage.  Brown was successful in doing this over several years.

In 1855, John Brown moved to Kansas, where his adult children and their families lived, and where they were experiencing threats of violence from local pro-slavery radicals.  John apparently believed that it was his duty to protect his family from the effects of popular sovereignty, which after 1854, took on an increasingly violent tone [Note 6].  In 1856, pro-slavery activists began a campaign to seize Kansas on their own terms, which led to the term “Bloody Kansas.”  By this time, John Brown was receiving substantial financial support from wealthy abolitionists in Massachusetts and New York, among whom, John Brown had become a hero.

Radical Politics to Terrorism

John Brown’s notoriety among northeastern abolitionists prompted him to shift his tactics from that of defending and protecting runaways to planning and implementing raids against “slavers.”  To achieve his more militaristic strategies, Brown used the money donated to him by abolitionists to purchase firearms and ammunition.  In 1858, Brown initiated the Battle of the Spurs [Note 7].  After Brown met with Frederick Douglass and George de Baptiste in Detroit, Brown’s activities became even more aggressive.  De Baptiste came up with the idea of getting everyone’s attention by blowing up southern churches.

Brown’s new strategy included actively recruiting abolitionist raiders to assault southern slave owners.  Joining Brown were such notables as Harriet Tubman.  Frederick Douglass understood and sympathized with Brown’s overall goal of establishing a new state for freed slaves, but while Brown insisted on the use of force of arms, Douglass disapproved of any resort to violent action.

Brown’s radical aggressiveness led to his plan for the raid on Harper’s Ferry (then in Virginia).  Brown reasoned that if he could free slaves in Virginia, arm them, and train them, then he could instigate armed rebellion against their oppressors.  He imagined that a slave uprising would engulf the southern states.  Why Harper’s Ferry?  It was the location of a federal arsenal [Note 8].

John Brown rented a farm house with adjacent smaller cabins near the community of Dargan in Washington County, Maryland, four miles north of Harper’s Ferry.  Along with 18 men (13 white, 5 black), he took up residence there under the name Issac Smith.  Abolitionist groups shipped him 198 breech-loading .52 caliber Sharps Carbines and 950 pikes.  Brown told curious neighbors that these shipments were mining tools, which aroused no suspicion among them.  Brown would launch his raid from this property, known as the Kennedy Farm.

The armory at Harper’s Ferry was a large complex of buildings that manufactured small arms for the United States Army (1801-1861), with an arsenal (storehouse for weapons) thought to contain 100,000 muskets and rifles.  Brown imagined he needed these weapons to arm southern slaves.  

Initially, Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry was successful.  His men cut telegraph wires, captured he armory (defended by a single watchman), and rounded up hostages from nearby farms.  One of these hostages was Colonel Lewis Washington, a great grandnephew of President Washington.  Although Brown controlled the railroad line that passed through Harper’s Ferry, he allowed an early morning train to pass through the town.  When the train arrived at the next station, telegrams were dispatched alerting authorities about Brown’s seizure of Harper’s Ferry.  Brown was not a stupid man; he wanted a confrontation with the federal government — but this is what Frederick Douglass warned him about.  Attacking the federal government would bring down the wrath of the government upon him.

At the moment Brown commenced his raid, Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, U. S. Army, was on leave at his plantation home in Arlington, Virginia.  After Secretary of War John Floyd learned of the raid, he summoned Lee to Washington and placed him in charge of recapturing Harper’s Ferry and bringing John Brown to justice.  Colonel Lee would command all militia forces available in the area of northwest Virginia and all “available” regular forces.

The only regular force readily available at the time was a detachment of Marines from the Washington Navy Yard, and the only line officer available to command them was First Lieutenant Israel Greene, U. S. Marine Corps [Note 9].  At 23:00 on 17 October 1859, Lee ordered all militia forces gathered at Harper’s Ferry to withdraw.  The next morning, he sent First Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart to John Brown under a white flag with his order to surrender.  Brown promptly refused.  A few moments later, Lee ordered Lieutenant Greene to attack the engine house held by Brown.

Within three minutes of Lieutenant Greene’s order to advance, Marines captured John Brown and seven of his men; ten of Brown’s men lay dead, including his sons Watson and Oliver.  Five other men managed to escape (including Brown’s son Owen).  Of Brown’s captives, four men died (including Colonel Lewis) and nine received serious wounds.

The Nation Goes to War

The Raid at Harpers Ferry was the first pre-Civil War conflict involving federal troops, but one that involved US Marines in a significant role.  In 1861, the entire Marine Corps numbered 63 officers and 1,712 enlisted men [Note 10].  It was the smallest of all services (and still is).  As the smallest armed force, the Marines had an understandably limited involvement in civil war battles.  None of America’s armed forces were prepared for war in 1861.  When war broke out, the Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy scrambled to organize a fighting force.  Secretary of War Simon Cameron asked Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells for a battalion of Marines for service in the field.

Secretary Wells subsequently ordered Colonel Commandant John Harris to form a battalion of “disposable” Marines for field duty.  Harris, in turn, ordered Major John G. Reynolds to assume command of a battalion consisting of four companies, each containing eighty men.  Reynolds was instructed to report to Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, U. S. Army [Note 11].  At the same time, Secretary Cameron ordered McDowell to provision the Marine battalion, which had no field service equipment.

Not every Marine was happy about the prospect of service in the field.  Second Lieutenant Robert E. Hitchcock [Note 12], who served as post Adjutant in the Washington Navy Yard, wrote a letter to his parents on 14 July 1861 informing them, “Tomorrow morning will see me and five other lieutenants and 300 Marines on our way to the Fairfax Courthouse to take part in a great battle.  This is unexpected to us because the Marines are not fit to go to the field …”

Major Reynolds was a good choice to command the battalion.  A veteran of the Mexican American War with 35 years of military service, Reynolds knew what to expect from the upcoming battle.  His troops, however, were untrained, inexperienced, and had no idea what awaited them.  All four of Reynold’s companies were commanded by noncommissioned officers.  More than a few of these 328 Marines had been in the Marine Corps for less than a week.  On average, the average length of service for the Marines of this battalion was two months.  Of the total number, only seven privates had ever smelled the stench of gunpowder.

Reynold’s executive officer was Major Jacob Zeilin and his few officers were young lieutenants assigned as staff officers, none of whom were available for line assignments.  As the battalion made its way through Washington DC, excited citizens clapped and cheered.  Once in Virginia, however, Reynold’s Marines became just another group in a long line of march behind the West Point Battery of Artillery.  Eventually, the Marines linked up with the Army of Northeast Virginia — the largest field army ever gathered in North America.

General McDowell intended to move westward in three columns.  Two of these would make a diversionary attack on the Confederate line at Bull Run; his third column would maneuver around the Confederate right flank to the South.  He believed this strategy would serve to deny reinforcements from Richmond and threaten the Confederate rear.  His assumption was that when faced with an attack from the rear, the rebels would abandon Manassas and fall back to the Rappahannock River, thus reducing the likelihood of a Confederate march on the US capital.  That was the plan [Note 13].

McDowell attached Major Reynold’s battalion to the 16th US Infantry, which was part of the brigade of Colonel Andrew Porter.  Of the Marines, Porter observed, “The Marines were recruits, but through the constant exertions of their officers had been brought to present a fine military appearance, but without being able to render much active service.”  As the Marines were not, at the time, US infantry (their duties and training being more focused on naval service), Reynold’s battalion was attached to Porter’s artillery where they could be utilized as its permanent support (ammo carriers).  With this decision, Porter seemed to have reduced the possibility that the Marines would see much fighting.

McDowell led his unseasoned army across Bull run against Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard.  His plan depended on speed and surprise, but his southward march took twice as long as expected, there were problems with issuing supplies, his columns became disorganized, and several regiments lost their way after darkness set in.  According to a diary kept by Major Reynolds, the artillery unit to which he was assigned contained six horse-drawn cannons.  These elements kept racing ahead of the Marines at every opportunity.  “The battery’s accelerated march was such as to keep my command more or less in double-quick time; consequently, the men became fatigued or exhausted in strength.”  Northern Virginia’s July temperature added to the Marine’s fatigue.

Union Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside’s brigade fell upon the Confederate left, which was held by Colonel Nathan Evans’ under-strength brigade.  Captain Charles Griffin’s battery, followed closely by Marines, crossed the creek and opened fire from a range of about 1,000 yards.  Their rifles had an effective range of 500 yards.  Evans was initially at a disadvantage, but the inexperienced union troops soon buckled under intense Confederate fire and began to fall back.  Porter’s brigade held firm, but the arrival by train of Confederate reinforcements under Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnson changed the dynamic of the battle.  A brigade of Virginians under a recently promoted Brigadier General by the name of Thomas J. Jackson rallied at Henry House Hill.

Griffin’s artillery was augmented by the artillery battery of Captain J. B. Ricketts.  With this artillery support, the US infantry was ordered to take Henry House Hill.  Major Reynold’s battalion lined up with the 16th US Infantry.  The fighting was intense, but indecisive until the unexpected arrival of an unknown regiment.  Griffin wanted to fire on the dark-clad soldiers, but McDowell’s artillery chief, Major William F. Barry, ordered Griffin to withhold his fire.  Barry thought the mysterious regiment was Union reinforcements.  They weren’t.  Colonel Arthur Cummings’ 33rd Virginia Regiment unleashed murderous fire on Griffin’s gunners and the Marines.  Brigadier General Bernard Bee, CSA was so impressed by Jackson and his men that he shouted, “There is Jackson, standing like a stone wall.  Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer.  Let us rally behind the Virginians!”  This is how Brigadier General Jackson became known as “Stonewall Jackson.”

The overwhelming fire delivered upon the Union force caused them to break and run.  It was the sensible thing to do, but their rapid withdrawal permitted the Virginians to overrun Griffin’s artillery.  “That was the last of us,” Griffin reported.  “We were all cut down.”  [Note 14].

Major Reynolds feverishly attempted to rally his Marines, but another confederate charge drove Reynolds from Henry House Hill.  In his after-action report, Brigadier General Porter commended the Marines: “Major Reynolds’ Marines, whose zealous efforts were well sustained by his subordinates, two of whom, Brevet Major Zeilin and Lieutenant Hale, were wounded, and one officer, Lieutenant Hitchcock, lost his life.”  In addition to Lieutenant Hitchcock, nine enlisted Marines were killed in action, sixteen received serious wounds, and twenty Marines were taken prisoner.  Nevertheless, the Commandant of the Marine Corps was not pleased.  “The first instance recorded in its history where any portion of the Corps turned their backs to the enemy,” he said.

The Commandant was unnecessarily harsh on these men.  They were untrained recruits and therefore unqualified for duty in the field.  They were the least trained troops in McDowell’s army, and yet … they gave a good account of themselves at the First Battle of Manassas.  Their 13% casualty rate was equal to every other regular army battalion, including the most experienced unit in the Union army at Bull Run.  The only people pleased with the result of the Battle of Bull Run were the Confederates — and their spy in Washington, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, of course.

With the Union army receiving priority for funding, Congress only slightly enlarged the Marine Corps … and only then because in doubling the size of the Navy, the Navy demanded an increase in the number of ships detachments.  After staffing ship’s detachments, the Marines could only man a single polyglot battalion at any given time.  Because the Marines of shipboard detachments performed most of the amphibious assaults in capturing enemy bases, there was scant need for a standing Marine battalion.  Still, capturing enemy bases was no easy task as it required more manpower that was available within a small Marine Detachment aboard ship.  More to the point, throwing Marines together under officers and NCOs they did not know hardly made them into a lethal landing force.  Fort Sumter at Charleston, S. C. in 1863 is a case in point.

Through the summer of 1863, the city of Charleston had withstood every Union offensive.  After Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren replaced Admiral Samuel DuPont as commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, he proposed a joint Navy-Army assault to seize outlying Morris Island and then move on Fort Sumter itself.  He asked Secretary Welles for an extra battalion of Marines to be combined with another battalion assembled from several ship’s detachments.  Colonel Commandant Harris assembled a disparate group of Marines — from recruiters to walking wounded — designated them a Marine battalion, and placed them under the command of Major Zeilin, who was still recovering from his wounds.

Admiral Dahlgren and Brigadier General Quincy A. Gillmore, U. S. Army (an engineer) agreed to begin their campaign with the seizure of Fort Wagner on Morris Island.  Gillmore made good use of a new artillery piece called the Billinghurst Requa Battery Gun; it consisted of 25 rifled barrels mounted on a field carriage and was capable of rapid fire.

On 10 July 1863, Gillmore’s troops landed safely on the far side of the island, but the next day encountered stiff resistance and were repulsed.  The following week, Colonel Robert G. Shaw led a doomed assault on Fort Wagner, spearheaded by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a black regiment.  Shaw and 54 of his men were killed, and another 48 men were never accounted for.  Other regiments from New York, Connecticut, and New Hampshire were equally decimated by unwavering defenders.  After these overwhelming failures, Gillmore called off his planned-for all-out attack and instead ordered his engineer to dig a number of  snaking approach trenches.  As the engineers dug, Gillmore directed calcium floodlights at the defenders (another innovation), which blinded the defenders enough to disrupt accurate rifle fire.  The soil on Morris Island had a sandy top layer with a muddy base, so the engineers began uncovering the decomposing remains of soldiers killed in earlier attempts to seize Fort Wagner.  Disease, bad water, and decomposing bodies demoralized the Union engineers.

Admiral Dahlgren planned for Zeilin’s Marines to make a landing and support Army troops already ashore, but Zeilin objected.  He argued that his force was “ … incompetent to the duty assigned, that sufficient sacrifice of life had already been made during this war in unsuccessful storming parties.”  Major Zeilin also complained that too many of his Marines were raw recruits and that the climate was unsuitable to properly train them.  Admiral Dahlgren was not at all pleased by Zeilin’s objections, but he cancelled the landing.

When Major Zeilin fell ill, Captain Edward M. Reynolds (son of then Lieutenant Colonel George Reynolds) assumed command of the battalion.  After the surprising Confederate withdrawal of Fort Wagner, Admiral Dahlgren moved swiftly to attack Fort Sumter.  On the evening of 8 September, five-hundred Marines and sailors in 25 small boats, under the direction of Commander Thomas H. Stevens, prepared to assault the fort.  That very night, Dahlgren learned that Gillmore was planning a separate boat attack.  Attempts to coordinate the attack faltered over the question of whether the Army or Navy would exercise overall command.

Meanwhile, the Confederates, having captured a Union code book, deciphered Dahlgren’s signals and knew when and where to expect the attack.  Confederate fort and batteries surrounding Fort Sumter trained their guns on Sumter’s seaward approaches.  CSS Chicora (an ironclad) waited in the shadows behind the fort.  Captain Charles G. McCawley (future Commandant) was the senior Marine officer in the night assault.  He later recalled a lengthy delay before the landing boats were launched, great confusion within the landing force once they boarded the landing craft, and a strong tide that separated the landing craft once ordered ashore.

When the landing force came within range, Confederate sentries fired a signal rocket to alert harbor batteries to commence firing.  Of the 25 boats assigned to Marines and sailors of the assault force, only eleven made it to shore.  The amphibious assault collapsed within twenty minutes.  Only 105 Marines survived the assault, and they surrendered to Confederate forces because they had no other choice.  Twenty to thirty captured Marines died at the Andersonville Prison in Georgia.

In the fall of 1864, General William T. Sherman had taken Atlanta and headed east toward the sea.  Sherman requested that Major General John Foster seize the Charleston-Savannah Railroad line at Pocotaligo by 1 December.  Doing so would protect Sherman’s flank as he approached Savannah.  Foster failed to win the fight at Honey Hill (Boyd’s Neck) and the rail line remained in Confederate hands.  Sherman then turned to the Navy, who assembled 157 Marines under First Lieutenant George G. Stoddard.  According to Stoddard, “Soon after dark on the 5th, I received orders from the Admiral to form my battalion and proceed on board the Flag Steamer Philadelphia for an expedition up the Tulifinny River.  Embarked about midnight under orders to land the next morning, cover the land of artillery, and advance on the enemy.”

At dawn the next day, a combined force of Marines, sailors, and soldiers landed at Gregorie Point, South Carolina, advanced on the right of the naval battery, and came under fire at about 11:00.  Stoddard deployed his battalion as skirmishers on the right and advanced into the wood beyond Tulifinny crossroads, pushing the enemy back.  With the Gregorie Plantation house in Union possession, the force moved quickly toward the Charleston-Savannah line and surprised the 5th Georgia Infantry.  A corps of 343 cadets from the Citadel bivouacked four miles away heard the gunfire and quick marched to Gregorie Point.

Early on the morning of 7 December, the cadets and three companies of Georgia infantry mounted a surprise attack at the center of the Union position.  Marines were at the center of the line, supporting army and navy field artillery batteries.  As the cadets inched toward the Marine position, they came under withering fire.  Undaunted, the cadets fixed their bayonets and mounted a charge against the Marine perimeter but were repulsed and forced to withdraw.  Stoddard ordered a counterattack through the dense swamp.  The fog was so thick that the Marines could not see a man three feet ahead.  Citadel cadets filled the air with Mini bullets and after suffering many casualties, the Union troops withdrew to their line.

Union forces made a final assault against the Confederate line on 9 December.  The Marine battalion formed on the right of a 600-man skirmish line.  To the Marine’s right was the Tulifinny River; just ahead was the bivouac area of the cadets.  Stoddard’s men came within fifty yards of the rail line before the 127th New York volunteers, to the Marine’s left, began a retreat.  The Marines continued forward, but Stoddard soon found himself in great danger of being cut off.  Without a concerted effort, the Union attack failed with Marine losses numbering 23 killed, wounded, or missing.

Fort Fisher is located at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, North Carolina.  It protected the Confederacy’s last operational Atlantic port with 39 large guns and an assortment of smaller caliber weapons.  Its earthen walls were 9 feet high and around 25 feet thick.  On the morning of 14 December 1864, 75 Union warships and transports under the command of Admiral David Porter steamed south from Hampton Roads, Virginia toward Fort Fisher [Note 15].  The transports contained 6,500 soldiers under Major General Benjamin Butler.  Delayed in transit by a storm, Porter began his bombardment of Fort Fisher (an estimated 20,000 shells) on 24 December.  A landing party of 2,500 soldiers went ashore on 25 December, but withering Confederate defensive fires denied their advance.  Butler called off the attack and Porter withdrew his fleet beyond the range of the fort’s guns.

A second attempt was scheduled for 6 January, but meanwhile Butler was fired and replaced by Brigadier General Alfred Terry.  Another storm delayed the Union assault until the 13th when Porter’s ships bombarded the fort for two additional days.  Terry landed 8,000 soldiers.  Detachments of Marines and sailors assembled for an amphibious assault, numbering around 1,600 sailors and 400 Marines armed with cutlasses and revolvers.  This force was divided into four companies under Captain Lucien L. Dawson with Navy Commander Randolph Breeze appointed as landing force commander.

There is nothing simple about an amphibious assault.  In this instance, the assault boats ran aground in the rough surf leaving the Marines and sailors with no other option than to abandon the landing boats for the crashing waves and endure grapeshot and shrapnel killing them in droves.  A few hundred yards from the fort, the landing party occupied previously dug rifle trenches and waited for the order to mount a frontal assault —the deadliest of all engagements.  The signal to attack came at around 15:00, prompting sailors and Marines to approach the fort’s palisades in single file.  Observing from aboard ship, a young Navy lieutenant named George Dewey wrote of the bloody fiasco, “ … It was sheer madness.”

It was supposed to be a coordinated attack, but Brigadier General Terry held back his troops on the Confederate left.  Instead, sailors and Marines fought hand-to-hand engagements with Confederate defenders for the next six hours.  Dawson had no time to reorganize his companies after such engagements as he was constantly on the move responding to Commander Breeze’s orders to “move up.”  When the attack began to fail, Dawson rallied two companies of Marines to provide covering fires for the withdrawing sailors and Marines.  Several Marines spontaneously joined the Army’s assault on the main parapet early in the evening, thus helping to overrun Fort Fisher.  Confederate losses were 400 killed in action and 2,000 taken as prisoners of war.  Terry’s force lost 900 men, the Sailors and Marines lost an additional 200 men killed with 46 more wounded or missing.  Of the total of Marines, six were later awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions in the Battle of Fort Fisher.

Conclusion

Despite these “land battles,” which yielded mixed results, the main contribution of Marines during the Civil War was their service aboard ship on blockade duty and inland river flotillas.  At Mobile Bay in August 1864, Marines blocked an attempt by Confederates to ram USS Hartford, Admiral Farragut’s flagship.  Corporal Miles M. Oviatt, aboard USS Brooklyn, and seven other Marines, received the Medal of Honor for their role in that engagement.  Admiral Samuel DuPont once stated, “A ship without Marines is not a ship of war at all.”

Considering the enormity of the American Civil War, the role of the United States Marine Corps was small — but then, the Marine Corps was small.  Yet in the context of the missions assigned to the Marines, they excelled in every task assigned to them.  They didn’t win every engagement — for all kinds of reasons, but they gave their all.  Equally important, however, was the fact that the Marines, as an institution, learned important lessons that would prepare them for future conflicts.

Marines learned, for example, that there is no substitute for quality training, rehearsed landing operations, mastering the art and science of embarkation, the importance of unity of command, and meticulously coordinated landings with naval gunfire support.  Within 33 years, the First Marine Battalion was the first infantry force to land during the Spanish-American War; 19 years after that, they acquitted themselves with aplomb and lethality as part of the American Expeditionary Force.  In the decade following the Great War, they developed amphibious warfare doctrine, published the Landing Party Manual (which incorporated lessons learned from the failure at Fort Fisher), developed the Small Wars Manual, established the foundation of the Marine Air Wing, developed specialized equipment for advanced base defense, amphibious operations, and organized themselves for the crucible for an even greater war and dozens of unexpected crises.  Our political leaders may lack foresight, but this is not a failure of Marine Corps’ leadership.

Sources:

  1. Alexander, H. D.  The Battle History of the U. S.Marines: A Fellowship of Valor.  Harper-Collins, 1999.
  2. Heinl, R. D.  Soldiers of the Sea: The U. S. Marine Corps.  Annapolis: U. S. Naval Institute Press, 1962.
  3. Jones, J. P. And Edward F. Keuchel.  Civil War Marine: A Diary of the Red River Expeditions, 1864.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975.
  4. Krivdo, M. E.  What are Marines For?  The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War Era.  College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2011.
  5. Nalty, B. C.  United States Marines at Harper’s Ferry and in the Civil War.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1983.

Endnotes:

[1] Captain Brown’s ancestors were Puritans in New England.

[2] One of the people apprenticed to Owen Brown to learn the tanning trade was a man named Jesse Grant, the father of Ulysses S. Grant.

[3] Congregationalists were reformed protestant assemblies that distanced themselves from centrally proscribed traditions in order to govern themselves through democratically minded parishioners.

[4] The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required “free states” to aid “slave states” in the return of runaway slaves and imposed severe penalties on those who aided and abetted in the escape of slaves.

[5] This name is biblical in origin.  Mount Gilead is remembered as the place where only the bravest of Israelis gathered to confront an invading enemy.

[6] The Kansas-Nebraska Act mandated popular sovereignty, where territorial settlers decided for themselves whether to allow slavery within a new state’s borders.  Following secession of eight southern states in 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state.  This was one of John Brown’s goals.

[7] The so-called Battle of the Spurs took place while John Brown and twenty-one of his followers (including women and children) escorted twelve escaped slaves from Missouri to Iowa, a free state.  Near Straight Creek, Brown encountered a posse of around 45 lawmen and bounty hunters hoping to earn the $3,000 bounty placed on John Brown.  Undaunted, Brown led his party ahead.  Brown was an imposing figure and — to be perfectly honest, he appeared deranged.  Terrorized, the posse turned their horses and fled.  The term “Battle of the Spurs” euphemistically refers to the posse “giving their horses the spur” in distancing themselves from John Brown.

[8] It wasn’t as if Brown’s intended raid at Harpers Ferry was a closely held secret.  Brown had recruited British mercenary Hugh Forbes to train his men in warfare, and Forbes held nothing back about what he was doing.  When Brown refused to pay Forbes more money for his services, Forbes traveled to Washington to meet with senators William H. Seward and Henry Wilson, informing them that Brown was a vicious man who needed restraint.  Wilson, in turn, wrote to his abolitionist friends advising them to get Brown’s weapons back.  A Quaker named David Gue sent an anonymous letter to War Secretary Floyd on 20 August 1859 warning him of a pending insurrection.

[9] Although born in New York and raised in Wisconsin, Israel Green resigned his commission in the US Marine Corps and joined the Confederacy.  What may have prompted this decision was the Greene had married a woman from Virginia.  In 1873, Greene migrated from Clarke County, Virginia to Mitchell, Dakota Territory where he worked as a civil engineer and surveyor.  He passed away in 1909, aged 85 years.

[10] Only 16 officers resigned their Marine Corps commission to join the Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War.

[11] McDowell graduated from the USMA with initial service in the 1st Artillery.  He later served as a tactics instructor before becoming aide-de-camp to General John E. Wool during the Mexican-American War.  Between 1848-1861, McDowell served as a staff officer with no foundation in command of troops when he was appointed to serve as a brigadier general in May 1861, a product of the efforts of a close family friend, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.  To McDowell’s credit, he protested his assignment to command the Army of Northeast Virginia, arguing that he was unqualified to serve as a field commander.  His field of expertise was logistics.  Moreover, he realized that his troops were poorly trained and not ready for combat service.  Succumbing to political pressure, however, McDowell initiated a premature offensive against the Confederate forces in Northern Virginia and was soundly defeated on every occasion.  It did not help matters that high ranking Union civilian and military officials funneled McDowell’s battle plan to Rose O’Neale Greenhow, who sent them to Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard.  See also, Little Known Legends.  In any case, McDowell’s plan was ambitious, imaginative, and overly complex.  None of McDowell’s subordinate commanders could execute them, nor their men execute them.

[12] Hitchcock also participated at Harpers Ferry; he was killed during the Battle of Bull Run.

[13] No battle plan survives the first shot fired.

[14] Civil War officers, if they were not friends, knew one another.  Whether serving the Union or Confederacy, they all had the same instruction at the USMA, they fought together in the Mexican-American War, served together at various posts and stations after 1848.  Field generals could, therefore, anticipate what his opponent would (or would not) do.

[15] David Dixon Porter (1813-1891) was a member of one of the most distinguished families affiliated with the United States Navy.  He was the second Navy officer to achieve the rank of admiral, after his adopted brother David Farragut, and is credited with improving the Navy as a Superintendent of the U. S. Naval Academy.  He was a cousin to Major General Fitz John Porter of the Union Army.

The Ever-Elusive Peace on Earth

The unlearned lessons of history condemn present and future generations.

Douglas A. MacArthur

On the eve of America’s full involvement in the Vietnam War, a great soldier was laid to rest.  The 84-year old Douglas Arthur MacArthur served in uniform for 52 years.  Within that time, he participated in the United States occupation of Mexico, at Veracruz, served with distinction in World War I, led with distinction in World War II, and commanded United Nations troops in the Korean War’s opening days (1950-51).  Between the two great wars, MacArthur served as the Superintendent of the United States Military Academy, as Chief of Staff of the U. S. Army, and upon retirement, was appointed to serve as Field Marshal of the Philippine Army.

On 26 July 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt federalized the Philippine Army and recalled Douglas MacArthur to active duty in the U. S. Army as a major general and appointed him Commander, U. S. Army Forces Far East (USAFFE).  On 27 July 1941, Roosevelt advanced MacArthur to the rank of lieutenant general.  In that capacity, MacArthur commanded 22,000 troops, of which 12,000 were Philippine Army scouts.

The United States plan for the defense of the Philippine Islands called for the massing of troops on the Bataan Peninsula to “hold out” against the Imperial Japanese Army until an American relief force could arrive.  Of course, this decision suggests that the U. S. Government knew far more about Japanese intentions than they admitted publicly — the Japanese never attacked the United States until early December 1941.  It causes one to question Japan’s sneak attack.  The US government had to know in advance.

Washington’s “stop gap” plan for the Philippines resulted from America’s demobilization following World War I.  General MacArthur was ordered to hold out against the Imperial Japanese until reinforced — knowing that there would be no reinforcements.  The Washington plan for American and Philippine troops in the Philippine Islands was an overwhelming defeat — a sacrifice to garner the American people’s support for the United States’ entry into World War II.

But by then, on 7 December 1941, World War II had been in progress since 1 September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, and Great Britain and France declared war.  Before General MacArthur was recalled to active duty from retirement, Germany invaded the Soviet Union.  It was a long and bloody war.  Tens of millions of people died — those serving in uniform and the hapless civilians who simply got in the way of the belligerents.  When the war was over, ending on 2 September 1945 with Japan’s unconditional surrender, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur stated succinctly:

“Men since the beginning of time have sought peace. Various methods through the ages have been attempted to devise an international process to prevent or settle disputes between nations. From the very start, workable methods were found in so far as individual citizens were concerned, but the mechanics of an instrumentality of larger international scope have never been successful. Military alliances, balances of power, Leagues of Nations, all, in turn, failed, leaving the only path to be by way of the crucible of war. The utter destructiveness of war now blocks out this alternative. We have had our last chance. If we will not devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door. The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character that will synchronize with our almost matchless advances in science, art, literature, and all material and cultural developments of the past 2000 years. It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh.”

But the world’s politicians — and those “free men” who elected them — did not heed these words.  How could they?  These politicians, most of whom have never once placed themselves in harm’s way, had no frame of reference to the utter chaos of bloody confrontations.  And so, following the second great war, the protectors of human liberty throughout the world, the victors of World War II, demobilized their armies and navies and went back to sleep.

It is true that, as with those who preceded them in earlier decades, the leaders of the “free world” gaped at the ghastly developments in Europe by the Soviet Union — and opted to do nothing.  No one wanted another war.  And once more, the ugly stain of appeasement was the United Nation’s only plan of action.  Should they ignore these developments long enough, perhaps they would go away.  When war came again in 1950, everyone was looking in the wrong direction.

Who knows what was going through Harry S. Truman’s mind during these critical moments in history, when global communists decided that the time was right to strike — while everyone, so weary of war, slept peacefully at home.  In 1948, Mr. Truman was tightly focused on winning the Presidency on his own terms — to demonstrate that he was much more than President Roosevelt’s vice president; he was a man of the people.  After his success in 1948, Truman refocused his attention on his presidential legacy.  There would be no more war; he would not stand for it — and at Truman’s insistence, the American military was once again dismantled.

But war did come, and it was the incompetence of the Truman Administration that made it possible.  Once again, Douglas MacArthur was taken down from the shelf, dusted off, and put into the field with an army that could not even defend itself, let alone an entire Peninsula the size of Korea.  Many young Americans died unnecessarily because of Truman’s incompetence.  Worse, Truman’s petty arrogance led him to dismiss the good advice he received from the man he commissioned to clean up the mess he created.  By 1951, MacArthur’s patience had become thin, and in his frustration, he began to speak critically about Truman’s incredible ineptness.  Under such circumstances, there was no other choice for the President — as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States — than to relieve MacArthur of his duties.

Soon after, during an invitation to address a joint session of Congress, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur spoke directly to America’s politicians.  And he told them …

“… Once war is forced upon us, there is no other alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a swift end.  War’s very object is victory, not prolonged indecision.  In war, there is no substitute for victory.”

“There are some who, for varying reasons, would appease Red China.  They are blind to history’s clear lesson, for history teaches with unmistakable emphasis that appeasement but begets new and bloodier war.  It points to no single instance where this end has justified that means, where appeasement has led to more than a sham peace.  Like blackmail, it lays the basis for new and successively greater demands until, as in blackmail, violence becomes the only other alternative.”

“‘Why,’ my soldiers asked of me, ‘surrender military advantages to an enemy in the field?’  I could not answer.  Some may say to avoid spread of the conflict into an all-out war with China; others, to avoid Soviet intervention.  Neither explanation seems valid, for China is already engaging with the maximum power it can commit, and the Soviet will not necessarily mesh its actions with our moves.  Like a cobra, any new enemy will more likely strike whenever it feels that the relativity in military or other potential is in its favor on a world-wide basis.”

“The tragedy of Korea is further heightened by the fact that its military action is confined to its territorial limits.  It condemns that nation, which it is our purpose to save, to suffer the devastating impact of full naval and air bombardment while the enemy’s sanctuaries are fully protected from such attack and devastation.  Of the nations of the world, Korea alone, up to now, is the sole one which has risked its all against communism. The magnificence of the courage and fortitude of the Korean people defies description.” […]

“I have just left your fighting sons in Korea. They have met all tests there, and I can report to you without reservation that they are splendid in every way.  It was my constant effort to preserve them and end this savage conflict honorably and with the least loss of time and a minimum sacrifice of life.  Its growing bloodshed has caused me the deepest anguish and anxiety.  Those gallant men will remain often in my thoughts and in my prayers always.”

These politicians, too, along with Truman, failed to listen — failed to learn.  Instead, they opted to involve the United States in yet another war of attrition, the defense of a nation that wanted neither their own freedom nor America’s version of it.  They chose for the American people a defensive war that could not, from its very first day, be won.  Once more, young Americans gave up their lives — for nothing.  This, too, was part of Harry Truman’s worldview.  He had the opportunity to engage in a productive discussion with Vietnamese nationalists in 1945 and opted instead to reimpose upon them French colonialism, paid for, at first, by the American taxpayer — adding later, American blood — at the direction of yet another Democrat who not only refused to allow the American military to win that Indochina war (noting that wars are not won through defensive strategies), but also a man who enriched himself from that war.

Now, forty-six years later, these lessons remain unlearned.  The sheer ineptitude of a succession of presidents (of both political parties) has led us to this point in world history.  We are, as a nation, no longer the land of the free and the home of the brave — we are, we have become, the land of appeasers.

The state of war that existed between the United States and North Korea in 1950 was never settled — so a state of war continues to exist with North Korea.  In this context, we are only removed from extreme violence by mere seconds.    

Next door, China proceeds to expand its influence in the South China Sea, creating island naval bases and declaring them sovereign territories of China.  Chinese agents have infiltrated the United States — our corporations, universities, and our Congress.  Chinese diplomats have brokered deals with many, if not most, Central and South American countries, throughout the African nations, and made lucrative arrangements among our so-called Middle Eastern “friends.”  Once again, as danger lurks, American politicians — and the American people — are looking in the other direction.

What are America’s national interests in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia?  What is it about any of these “nations” that is worth a pint of American blood?  But if there were bona fide national interests, why have American politicians elected not to achieve them?  Are our politicians so dense that they cannot understand that victory delayed or denied becomes even more ghastly and expensive over time?

We should also ask, “What are America’s domestic interests?”  Shall we desire peace at home as much as we desire peace around the world?  Are we doing anything worthwhile to achieve domestic peace and maintain it?  In my judgment, the answer is no.  Peace eludes us at home and abroad because we have not learned the lessons of history.  We have not learned how to employ wisdom in choosing the men and women who chart our nation’s course.  We have not learned the basics of human behavior.  For instance, an enemy always seeks to advantage themselves by discovering our weaknesses.  Why must we insist on helping our enemies to achieve their goals?

Yes, we must seek peace — but we must do so through strength.  Whoever does not understand this has no business in Congress or any executive administration.  Whoever does not understand this has no business voting in national elections.

I have hope for the future — but I do not delude myself about its prospects.  A peaceful world is not an entitlement — it must be paid for, and as the price of freedom, the cost of peace is high.  We have been willing to pay that price in the past, but recently, we have not been willing to protect and preserve that which has cost us dearly.  We Americans, and I am speaking now about all of us, must be vigilant, we must be resolved, and our wisdom must be virtuous — if we ever find it.

Those Other Marines

Fortitude

America’s naval war with Great Britain lasted eight years, and while the Continental Congress did establish and direct this war, most of the fighting involved fleets that originated with the colonies/states.  All the American colonies owned and operated fleets of ships and deployed them independent from those of the Continental Navy.  On 9 September 1776, the Continental Congress formally declared the name of the new nation the United States of America.  This replaced the term “United Colonies,” which had until then been in general use.  After 9 September, the colonies were referred to as States.

The largest state fleets belonged to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina.  Only two states had no armed ships: New Jersey and Delaware.  New Hampshire had one armed ship, and Georgia operated four galleys.  In total, the number of armed state vessels exceeds those of the Continental Navy by a large number.  They weren’t huge ships, of course —only a few were suitable for deep-water engagements —because the purpose of the state navies was to defend coasts, ports, and harbors— the main source of state economies.  Offensive warfare was a secondary concern that focused, again, defending states from British commerce-destroying operations.

State Marine

Perhaps typical of these state navies was the Maryland Navy and Corps of Marines.  Throughout the Revolutionary War, British barges plundered and harassed farmers living on the Maryland and Virginia Eastern Shore creeks.  By 1782, Maryland had had enough and in the interest of defending local interests, commissioned Zedekiah Whaley to serve as Maryland’s Commodore.  His mission was to clear the Chesapeake Bay of the British threat.

On 14 January 1776, the Maryland legislature authorized a company of Marines, whose pay was less than that paid to Continental Marines —roughly $5.50/month.  Maryland paid for their initial uniform, but replacement items (shirts, shoes, stockings) were deducted from their pay.  Maryland lawmakers further determined that the uniform of land forces and Marines should differ from those of their sailors.  Marines wore blue uniforms.

Maryland Navy Captain George Smith assumed command of Defence in late 1776.  Her first voyage to the West Indies resulted in the capture of five small prizes laden with logwood, mahogany, indigo, rum, and sugar.  The Royal Navy would no doubt consider such activities as piracy, but ships at sea were fair targets for colonial navies; economically, they were struggling to survive.  Onboard Defence were 4 Marine officers, 3 sergeants, 3 corporals, 1 drummer, and 34 privates.

Maryland’s vessels were mostly galleys or barges armed with one or two medium-sized guns, crews of from 65-80 men.  Defence was Maryland’s largest ship (constructed in Baltimore).  Maryland’s emphasis on galleys led to the need for men to crew them and for the organization of small detachments of Marines for galley service.  The duties of Marines serving aboard galleys differed from those assigned to sloops or frigates.

The galley Baltimore had three appointed Marine officers before there were any privates because Maryland men would sooner serve in the land army than aboard ship.  Beyond the paucity of available men to serve in Maryland’s navy, the cost of building and maintaining ships was prohibitive.  In 1777, the Maryland legislature authorized the sale of Defence —it’s discharged Marines encouraged to join Maryland’s field artillery units.  By 1779, Maryland retained only three ships: the galleys Conqueror, and Chester, and the schooner Dolphin.  But because the British Royal Navy forced Maryland to defend communities along the Chesapeake Bay shore, in 1780, the Maryland legislature authorized the construction of four large barges, a galley, and either a sloop or a schooner.  The act included …

“That a company of one-hundred men be immediately raised to serve as Marines on board said galley and sloop or schooner, and occasionally on board the said barges or rowboats; and that the governor and council be authorized and requested to appoint and commission one captain, and two lieutenants to command the said company of Marines, and to direct such officers to procure by enlistment as soon as possible the said number of healthy, able-bodied men, including two sergeants and two corporals, to serve in such company for the term of three years, unless sooner discharged.”

Maryland offered its Marines, as payment, £2.05 monthly, and a bounty of $40.00.  It should come as no surprise that the company was not raised until 1782.  Maryland did not fare much better with its recruitment of healthy seamen; they were unable to raise 250 sailors until 1783.  None of this, however, diminishes the fighting spirit of Maryland patriots.

The Marine captain’s commission went to a gentleman named Levin Handy.  Handy previously served as a lieutenant in the 4th Maryland Battalion in 1776 and then as a captain of the 5th Maryland Battalion.  Handy was appointed to serve on the barge Protector on 3 August 1782.

Commodore Whaley, in command of a flotilla of four sail and oar-driven barges, spotted the enemy in Tangier Sound.  Determining that the British forces were too strong for his lightly manned barges, he sailed into Onancock Creek on 28 November and asked Lieutenant Colonel John Cropper to assist him with volunteers to man his barges.  Cropper gathered up three officers and 25 local men and boarded Whaley’s flagship (Protector).  Setting out to confront the British, Whaley ordered an attack in the area between Smith and South Marsh islands.  Closing to within 300 yards, Whaley’s force encountered heavy cannon and musket fire.  Three barges turned away, leaving Protector alone to fight the British.

Protector pressed on.  Gunpowder aboard the barge exploded, killing four men, others abandoned ship to avoid the flames.  A musket ball killed Commodore Whaley.  In hand to hand combat, Colonel Cropper[1] was badly wounded.  Overwhelmed by British Marines, Protector struck her colors and surrendered.  Survivors were taken prisoner but released to return to their homes on 3 December.  According to an account of the Battle of the Barges, Colonel Cropper wrote …

“Commodore Whaley was shot down a little before the enemy boarded [Protector], acting the part of a cool, intrepid, gallant officer.  Captain Joseph Handy fell nigh the same time, nobly fighting with one arm after the loss of the other.  Captain Levin Handy was badly wounded.  There went into action in the Protector sixty-five men; twenty-five of them were killed and drowned, twenty-nine were wounded, some of which are since dead, and eleven only escaped being wounded, most of whom leaped into the water to save themselves from the explosion.”


State Marines generally were stationed aboard vessels operating in coastal waterways, but one company of Marines raised in 1782 was an exception.  Major General George Rogers Clark[2] was tasked with maintaining control over the Ohio Valley.  With few men at his disposal, Clark devised several clever schemes which gave him the best possible control over a large area with limited human resources.  One scheme was establishing strong posts at key locations; the other was using armed galleys or gondolas to control the waterways.

Clark had the full support of Virginia governor Benjamin Harrison; what he did not have was the support of Virginia’s treasury.  The governor wanted several river vessels but only offered up £50 to pay for them; General Clarke would have to pay the rest of it out of pocket[3].  In early 1782, Clark reported two vessels ready for service and a third on the blocks.  Of the two gondolas, they were unsuccessful because they were vulnerable to ambush along the shoreline.  The third vessel was unusual in several ways: she would have a 73-foot keel designed for navigation on the Ohio River.  Her gunwales were four feet high and thick enough to stop arrow or bullet, and she had 46 oars and large enough to accommodate 110 men.  She carried a 6-pounder, six 4-pounders, and one 2-pounder.  This boat’s construction costs were £2 per day paid in Spanish currency.

It was no easy task to raise a company of Marines in 1782, so General Clarke authorized the recruitment of a company of Virginia State Marines.  Clark selected Jacob Pyeatt as captain, whose experience was that of a commissary officer with the Illinois regiment since 1778.  Pyeatt’s Marines would serve for six months.  When mustered, the company numbered twenty enlisted men and Lieutenant William Biggs.  Most of these men were discharged veterans who re-entered military service on the promise of £10 per month and suitable clothing.  In total, the company consisted of one captain, one lieutenant, two carpenters, three sergeants, and fifteen privates.

Rogalia (a shortened form of “row galley”).  The galley’s summer patrol of the Ohio River caused a stir among the Shawnee Indians, who assumed that Clark was preparing for an attack.  Two British officers from Fort Detroit gathered an Indian army of nearly 1,000 braves intending to raid Wheeling (present-day West Virginia) and were en route there when they received word of Clark’s Marines.  It was enough to cause the Indians to break off their march to defend their homeland.  Rogalia helped defend the frontier even though she had a short life.  Rogalia sank near Bear Grass on 1 September 1782 and Clark’s Marines were transferred to the Illinois regiment.  The state Marines never made a major contribution to the Revolutionary War, they did make a small contribution in their unique way.

But there were still other Marines …

American Privateer

In the 19th Century, a privateer was a private person or ship that engaged in maritime warfare under a commission of war.  Since robbery under arms was a common aspect of seaborne trade, all merchant ships were armed.  A sovereign or delegated authority issued commissions (also, letters of marque) during wartime.  These letters of marque empowered the holder to carry on all forms of hostility permissible at sea by the usages of war.  This included attacking foreign vessels and taking them captive (prizes), seizing the crews as prisoners for exchange.  Captive skips were subject to sale at auction with the proceeds divided by percentage between the privateer’s sponsors, shipowners, captains, and crews.  The crews included private Marines.

During the Revolutionary War, there were thousands of privateers —some of these commissioned by the Continental Congress, which added to the total of ships opposing the Royal Navy.  The fact that there were so many privateers in the service of the Continental Navy so early in the war suggests a level of preparedness for war seldom discussed by historians.  At times, these privateers were the sole source of disrupting British lines of communication and supply lines.  Their work brought millions of pounds of essential stores and war materials to the Americans while capturing or destroying British ships of war.  On 23 March 1776, the Continental Congress authorized privateering.  In less than a fortnight, Congress had approved the form of commissions for privateers and dispatched copies to the colonies, there to be issued to bonded privateer officers.

We do not know how many “privateer” Marines served in such a capacity, but it is likely in the thousands.  Over the years, historians have referred to these men as “gentlemen sailors” and “soldiers,” but their correct title, based on their duties aboard ship, was Marine.  We do know that recruiting for privateers was easy because the inducements were superior to those of the Continental or State navies.  Since their mission was to destroy commerce, there were few restrictions on behavior, larger profits, and much higher pay.  Privateers did help the Continental Congress achieve its mission, but they also hindered the regular naval service.  First, men preferred privateer service to that of the Continental or State navy, which meant fewer able seamen available to serve on US vessels.  By 1779, it was bad enough to require a Congressional embargo on privateer recruitments.

Who were these “privateer” Marines?  They came from all walks of life.  They were lawyers, physicians, army officers, politicians, merchants, and ministers of the gospel.  All these kinds of men served as Marines on privateers.  When Revenge was captured by the privateer Belle Poole, one of the Revenge’s Marines was discovered to be a woman.  What drew men away from their professions (and traditional roles) was good pay and the bounty they received from their seafaring activities, and perhaps their sense of adventure.  What we know is that the life of a privateer was fraught with battles, daring raids, and stormy seas.  The historic record is slim, as most ship’s logs have long ago disappeared and journals and diaries from the period are few and far between, but we know enough to conclude that their exciting life did have a bearing on the outcome of the Revolutionary War.

Let us not assume that privateers prioritized any service beyond their own; British loyalists were privateers, as well.  In 1782, Delaware Bay was infested with privateer barges and galleys, manned by loyalists, which preyed upon Philadelphia’s commerce.  When Congress refused to act, John Willcocks, a Philadelphia merchant, took it upon himself to defend his commercial interests by fitting out a ship named Hyder Ally and operate her under a letter of marque.  Selected to captain the ship was an obscure Continental Navy lieutenant, recently released from British captivity, by the name of Joshua Barney[4].

The 23-year-old Barney, operating with two other privateers, provided escort to a fleet of merchantmen.  Near Cape May, the privateers encountered the 32-gun HMS Quebec (a frigate) under Captain Christopher Mason, the 24-gun HMS General Monk, (a sloop of war) under Captain Josias Rogers, and a loyalist privateer named Fair American (a brig) captained by Silas Talbot.  Hyder Ally was armed with sixteen 6-pound guns; her escorts Charming Sally and General Greene were armed with ten and twelve guns, respectively.

On the evening of 7 April 1782, Barney’s convoy went to anchor due to a failing wind.  Espied by Mason, the British squadron prepared to attack the merchantmen on the next morning, focusing on Hyder Ally because she was the largest ship and therefore the most formidable.  The Americans were unaware of a British presence until the next morning.  Barney ordered the merchantmen to escape further into the bay under the protection of General Green and Charming Sally, while he engaged the British.  General Green ignored Barney and prepared for battle; Charming Sally went aground and was abandoned by her crew, and the merchantmen sallied along the shoreline for protection.

While HMS Quebec stood off in the bay, ostensibly to keep the Americans from escaping, HMS General Monk and Fair American advanced.  Barney turned about as if to flee, a tactic he used to draw Captain Rogers closer.  Talbot opened the battle at noon with two broadsides into Barney, which while accurate, had little effect.  Barney kept his gun ports closed, faking a withdrawal, Talbot broke off to engage General Greene which then turned about to fake his withdrawal, but went aground.  In his zeal for action, Captain Talbot began to pursue Greene, but he too went aground, sustaining significant damage to his hull.

Hyder Alley vs. General Monk

Captain Rogers slowed his pursuit of Barney long enough to lower a boat to seize Sally.  When within range of Barney, Rogers called out for Barney to heave-to.  Barney answered with a broadside of grape canister, which had a terrible effect on the deck crew and British Marines.  The only guns available to Rogers were his bow swivel guns, which had little effect on Hyder Ally.  Barney unleashed a second broadside.  Rogers maintained his pursuit and when in position, he answered Barney with a broadside of his own, but when he fired, General Monk’s guns ripped away from the deck and flipped over.  The two ships were side by side and Barney ordered his gunners to reload but to hold fire until his command.  Barney turned “hard a-port” to deceive Rogers further, who followed suit.  Then Barney turned to starboard, colliding with Monk and becoming entangled with her rigging.  Barney’s crew quickly lashed the ships together, and when fast, Barney ordered his broadside.  It was a devastating assault.  Barney’s Marines then began delivering withering fire onto Monk’s deck.  Within thirty minutes, Rogers was wounded, all his officers were killed, and a midshipman struck Monk’s colors.

HMS Quebec withdrew without engagement.

Much of Barney’s success against General Monk was the result of his privateer Marines, most of whom signed on from Buck County rifleman under Captain Skull, but there is no doubt that Joshua Barney was a skilled seaman and a tenacious fighter.  Within a few years, privateer and state navies and Marines passed from the scene, but we should remember them today as “those other Marines.”

Sources:

  1. Brewington, M. V.  The Battle of Delaware Bay, 1782.  Annapolis: U. S. Naval Institute Press, 1939.
  2. Burgess, D. R. Jr., The Politics of Piracy: Crime and Civil Disobedience in Colonial America. New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2014.
  3. Coggeshall, G.  History of the American Privateers and Letters of Marque.  New York: Evans Publishers, 1856.
  4. Thomson, J. E.  Mercenaries, pirates, and sovereigns.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Endnotes:

[1] By every account, John Cropper (1755-1821) was a courageous, battle tested warrior.  He accepted his first commission in 1776 as a captain in command of a shore company of the 9th Virginia Regiment and served under General Washington at Morriston that year.  In 1777, he was promoted to major and appointed to command the 7th Virginia at Brandywine where he received a bayonet wound to the thigh.  In 1778, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and placed in command of the 11th Virginia, participating in the Battle of Monmouth.  He was quartered with troops at Valley Forge where he established a close friendship with General Washington.  He returned to his home in 1779 to protect his family against British shore raiders.  Having moved his wife and children to a safer location, Cropper raised and commanded a shore battery of several 4-pound guns on Parramore and Cedar islands; his battery was instrumental in the sinking HMS Thistle Tender and a companion ship responsible for raiding his community.

[2] The older brother of William Rogers Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition fame.

[3]  George Rogers Clark died destitute, in large measure because the government of Virginia and Continental Congress refused to pay him what they owed him. 

[4] See also: The Intrepid Commodore and At Bladensburg, 1814.

The Peking Rebellion

Necessary Background

Between the 12th and 15th centuries, interconnecting river and sea trade routes transformed Europe’s economy.  This development led to Europe becoming the world’s most prosperous trade networks.  The only limiting factor to river or sea trade was the inadequacy of ships for that purpose.  As Spain began a campaign to push Moslems out of the Iberian Peninsula, it realized economic growth in Andalusia and eventually allowed Spain to seize Lisbon in 1147.  In Venice, Genoa, and Pisa, the Italians dominated trade in the eastern Mediterranean.  In the North Atlantic, Norsemen began their conquest of England, which evolved into the development of peaceful trade along the North Sea.  Trade organizations developed, which involved merchant guilds in northern Germany.

Model of caravel design ship

Historians credit the beginning of the Age of Discovery to the Portuguese, under the patronage of Infante Dom Henrique (also known as Prince Henry the Navigator).  Henry directed the development of lighter ships, a design known as the caravel.  With improved sails, the caravel could sail farther and faster than any other ship of the day.  The caravel was highly maneuverable and could sail nearer the wind.  With this ship, the Portuguese began exploring the Atlantic coast of Africa [Note 1].

In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias reached the Indian Ocean by sailing around the Horn of Africa.  Perhaps the most significant discovery of all was Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the American continent in 1492.  This discovery set into motion competition between Portugal and Spain, under whose patronage Columbus made his discovery.  To avoid conflicts between these two nations, the Pope issued bulls, which divided the world into two exploration regions. The Pope granted each kingdom exclusive rights to claim newly discovered lands [Note 2].

Gradually, other European states developed maritime interests that placed them into direct competition with Portugal and Spain.  In pursuing these interests, exploring nations attacked the ships and seized their competitors’ cargos; it was a behavior that led European countries toward the development of navies, which they used to protect their ships, shipments, and foreign operating bases.  Newly discovered lands would be of no benefit to European adventurers unless or until these new lands were conquered, controlled, and colonized.  Through the use of superior military technologies, Europeans enslaved indigenous peoples. They used them to harvest the new lands’ bounties, which included precious metals, previously unknown grains, spices, and fruits.

By the 16th century, Italians and Arabs shared a monopoly on overland trade with India and China.  The Portuguese broke this monopoly by developing sea routes to both countries.  Rivals for business, notably the Dutch East Indies Company, soon eclipsed the Portuguese by establishing bases of operation in Malacca, Ceylon, several Indian port cities, Indonesia, and Japan [Note 3].

In this competitive setting, European powers pursued their overseas interests through treaty, colonization, conquest, or a combination of all three.  Trade with China was desirable because of the high demand for Chinese goods and because they offered immense profits.  Through the 1700s, China had become the center of the world economy [Note 4].  Every European power wanted a trade relationship with China that favored their country at every other competitor’s expense.  The inability of the Qing (also Ch’ing) Dynasty to deal with internal challenges in the late 1700s sent a strong signal to the European powers (and Japan) that China was ripe for the taking.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) was China’s last imperial dynasty.  Evidence of dynastic decline became evident when Chinese officials proved incapable of ending sectarian violence among Sufi Moslem groups.  The Qing’s interference in Moslem affairs led to an insurrection that lasted from 1781 to 1813.  It was only with the assistance of a third Moslem group that the rebellion was finally put down.

Soon after the uprising, the European powers (and Japan) began chipping away at Chinese sovereignty —and continued to do so for nearly seventy years.  For the Chinese, European and Japanese encroachments were far more than a lengthy series of military assaults; they were the catalyst of a national identity crisis and damaged the Chinese psyche.  After several hundreds of years of deluding themselves into believing China was the center of the universe, the Chinese suddenly learned that much-younger nations possessed far superior technologies and had no hesitation in using them to achieve selfish interests.  Foreign powers took advantage of every opportunity to whittle away at Chinese sovereignty, including the illegal importation of opium from Afghanistan, India, and Turkey.

In earlier times, chemists believed opium contained harmless healing properties, but in the early to late 1700s, its true nature became apparent as tens of thousands of people became addicted to opium.  As more Chinese became opium-dependent, increased demand drove prices higher, which increased the profits of foreign trading companies, smugglers, dealers, and government officials who accepted bribes to look the other way.  Finally, realizing opium’s effects, Emperor Jia-Qing issued a succession of edicts (1729, 1799, 1814, and 1831) declaring opium illegal and imposing severe penalties for its importation use.  The only tangible result of these laws was that (a) they made opium even more profitable, and (b) high demand for opium guaranteed its continued importation.  Everyone involved in the opium trade was making money —except the user.

Opium aside, China enjoyed a favorable trade balance with European interests.  China sold porcelains, silks, and tea in exchange for silver bullion.  In the late 18th century, the British East India Company (BEIC) expanded the cultivation of opium within its Indian Bengal territories, selling it to private traders who transported it to China.  In 1787, BEIC sent 4,000 chests of opium to China annually.  By 1833, 30,000 chests went to China.  American shipping companies were also engaged in opium, including the grandfather of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the ancestors of former Secretary of State John F. Kerry.  The opium trade was euphemistically called the “Old China Trade.”  Other foreign powers became involved in opium, as well. BEIC may have lost its monopoly, but profits remained high.

Partly concerned about his people’s moral decay, and somewhat concerned about the outflow of silver, the Emperor directed his high commissioner, Lin Tse-Hsu, to end the trade.  Lin ordered the seizure of all opium, including that held in foreign trading company warehouses.  Charles Elliott, Chief Superintendent of British Trade (in China), was very quickly inundated with British merchants’ complaints.  To assuage their concerns, Elliott authorized the issuance of credits to merchants for 20,000 chests of opium, which he promptly turned over to Commissioner Lin.  Lin destroyed the opium; Elliott immediately cabled London, suggesting the British Army’s use to protect the United Kingdom’s investments in the opium trade.

A small skirmish occurred between British and Chinese vessels in the Kowloon Estuary in early September 1839.  In May 1840, the British government sent troops to impose reparations for British traders’ financial losses in China and to guarantee future security for trade.  On 21 June 1840, a British naval force arrived off Macao and began a bombardment of the city of Din-Hai.  Chinese naval forces sent to interdict the Royal Navy were utterly destroyed.  The Treaty of Nanking (1842), which ended this First Opium War, was the first of many “unequal treaties” imposed on China.  China agreed to cede to the British the island of Hong Kong (and surrounding smaller islands) and granted treaty ports at Shanghai, Canton, Ning-Po, Foo-Chow, and Amoy.

In 1853, northern China became embroiled in a massive civil war known today as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64).  Its leader was Hong Xiu Quan —a man who believed that he was the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.  The stated intentions of the Taiping were to (a) convert the Chinese people to Hong’s version of Christianity, (b) overthrow the Qing Dynasty, and (c) reform the state.  Hong established his capital at Nan-King.

Admiral Sir Michael Seymour RN

Despite this massively disruptive upheaval, the Emperor appointed Ye Ming-Chen as his new high commissioner and ordered him to stamp out the opium trade.  Ye’s seizure of the British ship Arrow prompted the British Governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Browning, to again request the Royal Navy’s assistance.  The British fleet, under Admiral Sir Michael Seymour [Note 5] responded by bombarding fortifications outside the city of Canton.

When Chinese mobs set British properties on fire on 15 December, Browning requested military intervention.  The murder of a missionary prompted the French to align with Great Britain against the Chinese government.  The Russian Empire soon joined the fray, demanding greater concessions from China, including the legalization of the opium trade and exempting foreign traders from import duties.  In late June 1858, foreign powers forced China to pay reparations for the Second Opium War, open additional port cities to European commerce, and authorize missionaries’ unlimited access to Chinese cities.  Like circling sharks, Europeans and the Japanese began to carve out their niches in China —sometimes through secret agreements, at other times through military conflict.

By the late 1800s, Shandong Province in North China, long known for social unrest, strange religious sects, and martial societies, had had enough foreign meddling in Chinese affairs.  One of these societies was the Yihe-Quan, loosely translated as The Righteous and Harmonious Fists.  They were called “Boxers” because of their martial arts expertise and their use of traditional Chinese weapons.  The Boxers were staunchly anti-Imperialistic, anti-foreign, and anti-Christian.

The people of North China had long resented the arrogant meddling of Christian missionaries. This outrage grew worse after the Treaty of Tientsin in 1860, which granted foreign missionaries’ freedom of movement throughout China and the government’s authority to purchase land and build churches.  Chinese villagers objected to the foreign settlements that developed around these Christian church communities.  Natural calamities did not help matters [Note 6].

In November 1897, a band of armed Chinese men stormed a German missionary’s residence and killed two priests.  The murders prompted Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II to send a naval squadron to seize Jia-Zhou Bay on the Shandong Peninsula’s southern coast [Note 7].  Wilhelm’s intent to seize Chinese territory initiated a scramble for further concessions by the British, French, Russians, and Japanese.  Germany gained exclusive control of developmental loans, mining, and railway systems in Shandong.  Russia gained complete control of all territory north of the Great Wall, which they soon occupied with Russian military forces.  The French gained control of Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guangdong provinces.  The Japanese gained control over Fujian province, and the British gained control over the entire Yangtze River Valley, from Tibet to the Henan and Zhejiang provinces.  The Italians, for whatever reasons, were excluded.

What happened

In Chinese religious myth, the Jade Emperor represents the first god, one of three pure ones and the highest power of all Chinese deities.  A temple to the Jade Emperor had been built in the village of Li-Yuan-Tun.  In 1869, the temple was converted to a Catholic Church.  Soon afterward, the French minister in Peking demanded (and received) authorization for the Li-Yuan-Tun priests to bypass local officials in family law and authority to resolve regional disputes.  In 1898, the Guangxi Emperor proclaimed the so-called Hundred Days of Reform (22 June-21 September).  The reform period enraged Chinese conservatives, as it served to prove that the Qing Dynasty was corrupt, weak, or both.  Boxers attacked the Christian community, murdering priests and others.

Empress Dowager Cixi

In an attempt to avoid another uprising, the Empress Dowager Cixi [Note 8] placed the reformist Guangxi Emperor under house arrest and assumed absolute power in China.  What made the Boxers particularly worrisome to Cixi was that they were mostly unemployed teenagers with nothing better to do.  After several months of ever-increasing violence against foreigners (generally) and missionaries (mostly) in Shandong and on the North China Plain, the Boxers covered on Peking (present-day Beijing). They demanded either the expulsion or extermination of all foreigners.

The Boxer crisis was one of national prominence and one primarily caused by foreign aggression in China.  From the Chinese perspective, foreigners were slowly but steadily dismembering China, destroying Chinese culture, and demeaning Chinese religious beliefs.

Initially, Cixi viewed the Boxers as bandits, but realizing that most Chinese conservatives supported the Boxers, she changed her position and issued edicts in their defense.  In the spring of 1900, the Boxer movement spread rapidly north from Shandong into the Peking countryside.  The Boxers burned Christian churches, killed Chinese Christians, intimidated Chinese officials, or murdered anyone who stood in their way.  American Minister Edwin H. Conger cabled Washington, stating, “…the whole country is swarming with hungry, discontented, hopeless idlers.”

Christian missionaries flocked to the Legation seeking the protection of their various ministers on 28-29 May.  On 30 May, British Minister Claude Maxwell MacDonald requested multinational troops to secure the Legation.  Ambassador Conger cabled Washington to protect the Asiatic Fleet; Kaiser Wilhelm II was so alarmed by the Chinese-Moslem troops that he requested intervention by the Caliph Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire.

The situation in Peking continued to deteriorate, prompting Admiral Seymour of the Royal Navy to dispatch a second force

On 31 May, Captain John Twiggs (Handsome Jack) Myers, U. S. Marine Corps, arrived in Peking in command of two ship’s detachments of American Marines.  The guard force consisted of Myers and twenty-five Marines from USS Oregon, Captain Newt Hall, 23 Marines, five sailors, and U. S. Navy Assistant Surgeon T. M. Lippert from the USS Newark.  British and Russian troops, numbering around 325, arrived the same day.

On 5 June, Boxers cut the railway line to Tianjin, isolating Peking and making further military reinforcements difficult.

Adm Edward H. Seymour RN

On 10 June, the “Great eight” organized a second multi-national force under British Vice Admiral Sir Edward Seymour [Note 5] —the largest contingent of which were British, augmented with 112 American sailors and Marines.  Captain Bowman McCalla of the U. S. Navy was appointed to serve as Admiral Seymour’s second in command.

Admiral Seymour obtained the Chinese foreign office (headed by Prince Qing) to proceed. Still, when the Empress Dowager learned about Qing’s approval, she replaced him with Prince Duan, a radical anti-western member of the royal family.  Prince Duan was the de facto head of the Boxer movement, and it was Prince Duan who ordered the Chinese Imperial Army to attack the western powers.

Admiral Seymour’s expedition had not progressed very far when he discovered that Chinese Boxers destroyed the railway tracks in front of him.  He considered returning to Tianjin [Note 9] but found that the Chinese also ripped up those tracks.  The distance between Tianjin and Peking was only about 75 miles, prompting Seymour to proceed on foot.

On 11 June, the Japanese minister to China was attacked and murdered by Chinese soldiers guarding the Yong-Ding Gate on the southern wall.  The murder was likely intentional because the Chinese commander, General Dong Fu-Xiang, had earlier issued violent threats toward foreign legations.  On the same day, German sentries observed the first Boxer in the Legation Quarter.  German Minister Clemens von Ketteler ordered his soldiers to capture the Boxer, a teenager, whom Ketteler ordered executed.

Beyond inhumane, killing the lad was a foolish decision because the boy’s execution served only to enrage the Boxers further.  In retaliation, thousands of Boxers attacked the walled city.  So furious were the Boxers that they began a systematic campaign of pillaging, arson, and murder of all Christian properties and persons, including Chinese Christians.  Joining them were gleeful Chinese Moslems.  In fear for their lives, dozens of American and British missionaries took refuge inside the Methodist Mission.  A Boxer onslaught there was repulsed by U. S. Marines.

On 18 June, Vice Admiral Seymour received word of the Boxer attacks.

On 18 June, the Empress Dowager warned foreign ministers that a state of war would exist between China and the western powers unless they withdrew from Peking within 24-hours.  Cixi promised safe passage out of Peking, but only as far as Tientsin.  Presumably, after that, the diplomats would be “on their own.”

Artist’s depiction of Seymour Expedition

The Seymour expedition had advanced to within 25 miles of Peking when his relief force was set upon by overwhelming numbers of Boxers and Imperial Chinese soldiers [Note 10].  The attacks were so unrelenting (and bizarre) that Seymour was forced to seize and then occupy the Chinese forts at Taku [Note 11].  By that time, two hundred of Seymour’s men had either been killed or wounded, and the men were low on ammunition, food, water, and medical supplies.  It was a victory for the Chinese, but at a terrible cost in Boxer and Imperial Army lives.  Seymour dispatched a Chinese servant with word of his predicament to the Peking legation.

On 19 June, the foreign ministers within the Legation informed the Empress Dowager that they had no intention of withdrawing from Peking.  Cixi issued her declaration of war on 20 June; a Boxer/Imperial army siege of the city began on the same day.

Also, on 19 June, Major Littleton W. T. Waller arrived at Taku in command of 107 Marines detached from the First Regiment at Cavite, Philippines.  Along with another detachment of 32 Marines, those men formed a light battalion, who immediately moved inland to join a Russian column of 400 men.  The small force set off for Tianjin at around 0200 on 21 June.  Facing them were between 1,500 to 2,000 Chinese combatants.

Cmdr Christopher Cradock RN

The Chinese outnumbered the joint force from the start.  When the international force encountered intense enemy fire, they retreated.  Waller and his Marines served as a rearguard contingent, forced to leave behind his dead and drag his wounded men.  Waller successfully fought off a numerically superior Chinese force and reached the relative safety of Tianjin City.   After providing for his wounded Marines, Major Waller immediately attached his remaining men to the 1,800-man British column formed under Commander Christopher Cradock, Royal Navy.  At 0400 on 24 June, Cradock’s international expedition (consisting of Italians, Germans, Japanese, Russians, British, and American military contingents) set off again to relieve the Legation.  They instead ended up rescuing Admiral Seymour.

In Peking, the Boxers were initially content to harass the foreign Legation with harassing rifle and artillery fires, but there was no organized assault.  Foreign ministers agreed to form pro-active, mutually supporting military defenses with the few men at their disposal.  On 15 June, Captain Myers placed his Marines on the Tartar Wall, a critical position that would otherwise allow Boxers to direct devastating fire into the legation area.

On 25 June, Seymour was at the point of being overrun by Chinese Boxers and Imperial soldiers when Cradock’s regiment reached what remained of Seymour’s expedition.  Admiral Seymour and the relief force marched back to Tianjin unopposed on 26 June.  In total, Seymour suffered 62 killed and 228 wounded.

In Peking, Boxers decided to employ the anaconda tactic of squeezing legation guards to death.  To accomplish this, they constructed barricades some distance from the front of the Marine position—each day moving them further forward to the legation perimeter.  During the night of 28 June, Private Richard Quinn reconnoitered one of these barricades by low-crawling to the barricade.  His observation of Boxer activities provided useful intelligence as to the Boxer’s intentions.

On 2 July, Captain Myers determined that he had had enough of the Chinese “squeezing” strategy.  The Chinese barricade was, in Myers’ opinion, unacceptably close to the legation perimeter.  He decided to organize his men for an assault against the Chinese fence.

Marines of the Boxer Rebellion, 1900

Myers launched his assault at 0200 on 3 July.  The timing and weather conditions couldn’t have been more perfect.  The attack commenced in the middle of a torrential downpour.  The legation guard’s attack drove the Boxers back several hundred yards.  Two Marines were killed during the attack, and Captain Myers received a severe wound in the leg from a Chinese pike.  After the action, Captain Myers was evacuated to the Russian Legation. He received medical treatment; his injury was significant enough to cause Myers to pass his command to Captain Newt Hall.  After the assault, sniper and artillery fire died down, and diplomats agreed to an informal truce on 16 July.  The desultory fire continued, however, until the foreign legations were relieved on 14 August.

On 6 July, the U. S. Ninth Infantry Regiment joined the allied force near Tianjin.

On 10 July, Colonel Robert L. Meade, commanding the First Marine Regiment, led 318 Marines ashore from USS Brooklyn.  Meade led his Marines to Tianjin and joined up with Waller’s battalion.  Meade assumed command of all American military forces.

On 13 July, the allied forces launched an assault against Tianjin under Major General Alfred Gaselee, British Army (known as the Gaselee Expedition), appointed as Supreme Commander of the international force [Note 12].   Fighting took place for most of the day with little allied advance.  Meade’s 450 Marines suffered 21 casualties.  A Japanese-led night attack broke through the Chinese defenses, giving international force access to the walled city.

On 28 July, diplomats in the Legation Quarter received their first message from the outside world in more than a month.  A Chinese boy—a student of missionary William S. Ament, covertly entered the Legation Quarter with news that a rescue army of the Eight-Nation Alliance had arrived in Tianjin and would shortly begin its advance.  For some, the news was hardly reassuring because the Seymour expedition had failed to break through the Chinese Boxer and Imperial Army.    

Adna R. Chaffee

On 30 July, Brigadier General Adna R. Chaffee, U. S. Army, arrived in Tianjin to assume command of all U. S. Forces in China.  Also arriving with Chaffee was one battalion of Marines under Major William P. Biddle [Note 13], two battalions of the Fourteenth U. S. Infantry, the Sixth U. S. Cavalry, and one battery of the Fifth U. S. Artillery.  On 4 August, the international expedition of approximately 18,000 men departed from Tianjin for Peking.  Chaffee’s force included around 2,500 men, including 425 Marines.

On 5 August, Japanese forces of the international expedition engaged and defeated Chinese forces at Pei-Tsang.  A second battle occurred the next day at Yang-Stun.  For many allied troops, the unseen enemy was the broiling heat, which caused numerous heat casualties during the 75-mile march to Peking.

On 13 August, the Chinese broke the temporary truce with the foreign Legation with a sustained artillery barrage.  The barrage lasted until around 0200 on 14 August.

Five national contingents advanced on Peking’s walls on 14 August: British, American, Japanese, Russian, and French.  Each of these had a gate in the wall as their primary objective.  The Japanese and Russians encountered the heaviest Chinese resistance.  The British entered the city through an unguarded entrance and proceeded into the city with virtually no Chinese opposition.

Rather than forcing their way through a fortified gate, the Americans decided instead to scale the walls.  Marines destroyed Chinese snipers and set up an observation post from the vantage point of being on the high wall.  In the Marine’s assault, First Lieutenant Smedley D. Butler and two enlisted men received gunshot wounds.

U. S. Marines advanced to the Old Imperial City on 15 August, encountering sporadic resistance, but scattered gunfire did continue to plague the American Legation for several more months.  By the end of the siege, Marine casualties included 7 killed, 11 wounded, including Captain Myers and Assistant Surgeon Lippert.

Among the Marines who participated in the Boxer Rebellion, thirty-three received the Medal of Honor … including Private Harry Fisher [Note 14], killed on 16 July 1900; he was the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor posthumously.   

Diplomats signed a Boxer protocol in September 1901.

____________

Sources:

  1. Cohen, P. A. History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
  2. Edgerton, R. B.  Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the Japanese Military.  Norton & Co., 1997.
  3. Harrington, P.  Peking, 1900: The Boxer Rebellion.  Osprey Publishing, 2001.
  4. Martin, W. A. P.  The Siege of Peking: China Against the World.  New York: F. H. Revell Company, 1900.
  5. Myers, John T.   “Military Operations and Defense of the Siege of Peking.  Proceedings of the U. S. Naval Institute, September 1902.
  6. O’Connor, R. The Spirit Soldier: A Historical Narrative of the Boxer Rebellion.  New York: Putnam, 1973.
  7. Plante, T. K.  U. S. Marines in the Boxer Rebellion.  Prologue Magazine, Winter 1999.

Notes:

[1] Aided by a Chinese invention known as the magnetic compass, first used in Europe around 1200 AD.

[2] Later modified by the Treaty of Tordesillas, which established an arbitrary line east of which were relegated to Portugal, west of which belonged to Spain.

[3] In 1599, Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate closed its borders or limited contacts with foreigners until the mid-1800s.

[4] Between the 15th and 18th centuries, silver had become the medium of exchange between China and Spain.  Approximately 35% of all silver bullion produced in the Americas found its way to China.

[5] Sir Michael Seymour was the uncle of Sir Edward Seymour, also a Royal Navy admiral.

[6] Traditional Chinese viewed natural (cyclic) events, such as earthquakes, droughts, and severe flooding, as omens that the ruling Emperor had lost the mandate of heaven.  Such periods were frequently accompanied by civil unrest and dynastic changes.

[7] The German government was likely less bothered about the murder of two priests and more interested in using the incident to obtain more concessions from the Chinese government.

[8] Empress Dowager is the English title given to the mother or widow of an East Asian emperor.  Cixi was born with the name Yehe Nara Xing-Zhen of the Manchu clan.  She was selected as a concubine to the Emperor Xian-Feng and gave birth to a son in 1856.  When the Xian-Feng Emperor died in 1861, her son became the Tong-Zhi Emperor, and she became the Empress Dowager.  Calling herself Cixi, she ousted a group of regents appointed by the late Emperor and assumed the regency.  She gained control over the dynasty after installing her nephew as the Guangxi Emperor when her son died in 1875.  She may have poisoned her nephew after keeping him under house arrest for a while.

[9] The cities Tianjin and Tientsin are the same; they are merely English language spelling variations from the Chinese lettering.  However, there were two distinct areas of the city.  In 1900, there were two adjacent subdivisions, one to the Northwest was the ancient high-walled city measuring about one-mile on each side.  To the Southeast, about two miles away along the Hai River, was the treaty port and foreign settlements, measuring about a half-mile wide.  Around a million Chinese lived within the walled city; the port settlement housed around 700 European merchants, missionaries, and approximately 10,000 Chinese servants, employees, or businessmen.  Two of these residents were the American Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou Henry-Hoover.  Hoover later became President of the United States.

[10] Seymour’s glaring error was that (a) he assumed that his western force could easily push aside the Chinese Boxers, and (b) he elected not to include field artillery within the expedition’s composition.

[11] Chinese Boxers and Imperial troops employed well-aimed artillery against Seymour, and a number of different tactics to keep the western powers off their guard.  For example, the Chinese redirected waterways to flood the main routes of march, ambuscades, pincer assaults, and sniper attacks.  Seymour’s discovery of a substantial cache of Imperial Chinese arms and ammunition (including Krupp field guns), a million or so pounds of rice, and ample medical supplies saved the expedition from total destruction.

[12] The actual senior military officer present was General (Baron) Motomi Yamaguchi.  Yamaguchi was not selected as supreme commander owing to the fact that he wasn’t a white man.  The Japanese contingent did distinguish itself during this series of actions.

[13] Biddle served as 11th Commandant of the Marine Corps (Major General Commandant) (3 February 1911-24 February 1914).

[14] Harry Fisher was a soldier and a U. S. Marine and the first to receive a posthumous award of our nation’s highest military decoration.  After his award, it was discovered that Private Fisher had enlisted in the Marine Corps under a false name.  He had previously served in the U. S. First Infantry Regiment.  When the Army refused his request for sick leave (having contracted malaria during the Spanish-American War), he deserted for the purpose of receiving proper medical treatment.  When he afterward attempted to restore himself to duty, the War Department refused, and he was “discharged without honor.”  His real name was Franklin J. Phillips (20 Oct 1874 – 16 July 1900).  With a dishonorable discharge on his record, he changed his name to Harry Fisher and joined the U. S. Marine Corps.

Air Balloons and Such

Every Marine, regardless of military occupational specialty, is a rifleman.  There are specialists in the Marine Corps, of course —people trained to perform a specialized task, which, when combined with all other specialties, form the Marine Corps Team.  The Marine team has but one purpose: winning battles.  In contrast to the United States Army, which consists of several corps (three infantry divisions and supporting elements form a single corps, three such corps form a field army), the Marines are a single corps (three divisions, three air wings, and supporting elements).

Because the Marine Corps is a much smaller organization, which is the way we like it, Marines do not have the luxury of employing cooks or communicators that only cook and communicate.  Every Marine is a rifleman, including combat pilots, administrators, supply pogues, truck drivers, field engineers, and computer technologists.  Whether a general or a private, the Corps trains every Marine to pick up a rifle and kill an enemy.  The notion that every Marine is a rifleman makes the Marine Corps unique among all U.S. Armed Services.  The Corps’ distinctive training creates a common bond between Marines: officer and enlisted, men and women, whether ground, air, or logistics combat elements.  Marine aviators, for example, are hell on wings; they are also a lethal force on the ground should it become necessary.  Every Marine earns the title, Marine.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when Marine First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham reported to the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland, for duty under instruction.  He was the nucleus of what would become the Marine Corps’ air combat element.  A few short years later, Congress declared war against Imperial Germany, and the United States entered the First World War.  This event became the catalyst for the Navy and Marine Corps air arm, and a greatly accelerated growth in both Navy and Marine Corps manpower and combat technologies.

In those days, responsibility for procuring aircraft fell under the Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics (Also, BuAer).  Marine graduates of the U.S. Navy Flight School, Pensacola, Florida, became Naval Aviators.  Since those early days, the Navy and Marine Corps have developed aviation equipment, strategies, and tactics common to their unique “naval” mission of protecting the fleet through air superiority and projecting naval power ashore.  Marine pilots, however, provide close air support to ground forces —and this they do better than any other aerial arm of the Department of Defense.

At the beginning of the First World War, the entire Marine Corps consisted of a mere 511 officers and 13,214 enlisted men.  At the end of the “war to end all wars,” 2,400 officers and 70,000 men served as Marines.  Initially, HQMC assigned Captain Cunningham to command the Marine Aviation Company at Philadelphia.  Since there was only one aviation company, this simple designation was enough.  These early aviators’ mission was traditional, which is to say, attack and destroy enemy aircraft and provide intelligence on enemy forces’ location and movement.  Suddenly, the Marine Corps incurred a separate mission requiring different equipment types and a different aeronautical skill set.

With the expansion of Marine aviation, Captain Cunningham’s Aviation Company became the 1st Marine Aeronautic Company (1stMAC) with a workforce ceiling of ten officers and 93 men. 1stMAC’s mission was flying anti-submarine patrols in seaplanes.  HQMC approved a new aviation unit, designated as 1st Aviation Squadron (AS-1), to support the Marine Brigade in France. AS-1’s mission was to provide reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions.  The strength of the 1st Aviation Squadron was 24 officers and 237 enlisted men.

Following the war in Europe, Navy and Marine Corps planners distributed aviation personnel and equipment to Naval stations to support operating forces throughout the east coast of the United States and those in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  In the post-war environment, with less money available to sustain air combat forces, the Marine Corps began its desperate struggle to convince Congress that it should maintain, as a minimum, prewar levels of aviation personnel, bases, and equipment.  Leading the charge in this endeavor was Major Cunningham, who strenuously argued for Marine Corps aviation’s permanent adoption.

Congress officially limited the Marine Corps’ strength to one-fifth that of the U. S. Navy, in total, approximately 27,000 Marines.  Due in no small measure to Cunningham’s efforts, Congress approved an additional 1,100 Marines for aviation units.  Congress also approved permanent Marine Corps Air Stations at Quantico, Virginia, Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego, California.  On 30 October 1920, Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune approved an aviation table of organization[1] for four squadrons, each consisting of two flights. Simultaneously, the 1st and 4th Aviation Squadrons supported combat operations in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the 2nd and 3rd Aviation Squadrons trained at Quantico, Virginia.  By 1924, the Marine Corps had two air groups, each consisting of two squadrons.  The second air group took up station in San Diego, California.

As previously mentioned, the Marine Corps petitioned Congress for funds to maintain its air arm.  Part of this effort involved demonstrating to Congress and the American public the utility and worthiness of Marine Corps aviation.  To this end, the Marine aviators found it necessary to combine tactics and air strategy with headline-hunting public exhibitions.  One of these involved a march of 4,000 Marines from Quantico, Virginia, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  In this demonstration, the ground combat element maintained constant contact with aircraft along the route of march and provided air resupply of the men on the ground.

Additionally, Marine pilots continually tested new equipment and flying techniques, including record-breaking long-distance flights and air show competitions.  In the 1920s, air races became an American institution.  Marines sometimes flew navy aircraft in these competitions. Sometimes, they flew their own squadron’s aircraft. They occasionally flew experimental planes, testing not only their endurance but also the reliability of aircraft prototypes.  During this period, Notable pilots included First Lieutenant Ford O. Rogers, Major Charles A. Lutz, and Captain Arthur H. Page, Jr.

Arthur Hallet Page, Jr. was the first Naval Academy graduate to enter the Marine Corps Aviation program.  He may have been typical of aviators in his day, or at least he seems to have been the sort of fellow popularized in Hollywood films of that period —the flamboyant devil-may-care fellow.  From available sources at the USNA, we believe Captain Page had a colorful personality, a remarkable character, and was the embodiment of mature judgment.  He was good looking; a natty dresser had a good singing voice, possessed a near-professional dancing ability, and was frequently in the company of beautiful women.

Page was also a daring, foolhardy risk-taker —but a man others might describe as lucky as hell.  He graduated from the USNA, Class of 1918 (one of fourteen graduates) a year early due to the emerging European War.  Second Lieutenant Arthur H. Page, Jr., became a Naval Aviator (No. 536) on 14 March 1918.  His aviator number tells us how many Navy and Marine Corps pilots preceded him.

Capt A. H. Page, Jr., USMC

Today, we have few details about Page’s military career.  For the most part, early assignments appear typical of young officers.  He received his wings at the NAS Pensacola (1918). He then served several tours of duty attached to the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia —which may not have had anything to do with base security or operations (1919-20, 1923-24), service with the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade in Haiti —likely duties involving flight operations (1920-21), assignment as a flight instructor at NAS Pensacola (1924-25), as a student at Marine Corps Schools, Quantico (1925-26), service with the 3rd Marine Brigade in China (1926-28), an assignment at Marine Corps Base, San Diego, California (1928), and duty with the East Coast Expeditionary Force (1929).  His final assignment was at Headquarters Marine Corps (1929-30), during which time he engaged in flying exhibitions (previously discussed).

We also know that the Marine Corps established its first balloon detachment on 28 June 1918 under Captain Page’s command, very likely at Quantico.  The detachment’s mission artillery spotting in support of the 10th Marine Regiment (artillery), which in 1918 trained at Quantico for service with the American Expeditionary Forces.  After the Armistice on 11 November 1918, there being no need for the 10th Marines in France, HQMC deactivated the regiment in April 1919.

An aside:  Change within the Navy and War Departments, particularly involving aviation, was never easy.  Senior officers within both departments were simply the product of their training and experience and somewhat intractable in their national defense views.  Even following the First World War, Army and Navy leaders remained unconvinced that aviation should assume a more significant national defense role.  They may have maintained this view had it not been for the relentless efforts of William Lendrum Mitchell (1879-1936), an Army aviator.  Mitchell believed that “floating bases” was necessary to defend U.S. territories against naval threats, but the CNO, Admiral William S. Benson, dissolved navy aeronautics in 1919 (a decision later reversed by Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt).  It was a bit of service rivalry that senior navy aviators argued that land-based pilots no more understood naval aviation demands than ground commanders understood airpower capabilities.  They resisted any alliance with Mitchell.  Despite these attitudes, Mitchell urged the development of naval air service, arguing that air-delivered bombs would become a serious threat to enemy ships.  Not even Roosevelt agreed with Mitchell’s proposals in 1919.

BrigGen “Billy” Mitchell USA

Convinced that he was right on this issue, Mitchell became publicly critical of the Army and Navy’s senior leadership, judging them as “insufficiently far-sighted” regarding airpower.  Despite their misgivings, the secretaries of War and the Navy agreed to a series of joint Army/Navy exercises that incorporated captured or decommissioned ships as targets.  Mitchell believed that the nation’s spending on battleship fleets was a waste of money; he intended to demonstrate how easily aircraft could defeat the Navy’s dreadnaughts.  Mitchell received public support for the joint exercise when the New York Tribune revealed that the Navy had cheated on its test results.

Despite his popularity with the press, Mitchell’s criticism of Army/Navy leadership made him a pariah in both departments.  Nevertheless, the joint exercise proceeded with bombing attacks on a former German battleship by Army, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots armed with 230, 550, and 600-pound bombs.  Air-delivered bombs’ success and the German ship’s sinking caused the Navy to suspend shipbuilding and focus more on the possibilities of naval air power, but there were also political ramifications.  For starters, the Navy’s perceived weaknesses embarrassed President Harding —the blame of which fell at Mitchell’s feet.

As for Mitchell, his prickly personality left him with few friends in the Army hierarchy, a condition that only grew worse after Mitchell appeared before a Congressional committee and criticized his superiors and senior Navy officers.  In 1925, a tragic accident involving the airship Shenandoah prompted Mitchell to accuse senior Army/Navy leaders of gross incompetence and treasonable administration.  As Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, President Coolidge ordered Mitchell court-martialed.  The court-martial proceeding was more on the order of a media circus. Mitchell’s defense attorney was a sitting congressman.  Of the thirteen officers detailed as judges, which included Major Douglas A. MacArthur, none had an aviation background.  In its deliberations, the court ruled that the truth or falsity of Mitchell’s accusations were immaterial to the charge against him: Violation of the 96th Article of War, “Bringing disgrace and reproach upon the military services,” which included six specifications.  When the court found General Mitchell guilty of the charge and all specifications, he resigned his commission.

Despite Mitchell’s pissing-contest with Army/Navy leaders, the Marine Corps continued its experimentation with aviation platforms and aerial balloons.  Between 1924-29, the Marine Corps established a balloon observation squadron (designated ZK-1M).  Captain Page, meanwhile, continued evaluating experimental aircraft while challenging his aeronautical skills.  He flew the Curtiss F6C-3 plane to victory in the Curtiss Marine Trophy Race on 31 May 1930, defeating a field of mostly Navy pilots.  The F6C-3 was a member of the Hawk family of biplane fighters that, because of its performance evaluations by Navy/Marine Corps aviators, went through a series of design modifications to make it suitable for naval service.  Captain Page lost his life while participating in the Thompson Air Race in 1930.  There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots; there are no old bold pilots.

By the spring of 1940, planners at HQMC were acutely aware of the problems associated with defending advanced bases against enemy air attack.  To address these issues, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) convened a board of senior officers to study air defense aspects.  It became the duty of the Anti-Aircraft Defense Board to formulate policies suitable to both the Navy and War Departments.  One agreement concerned the division of responsibility for barrage balloons and kite defenses protecting U.S. military installations.  Under this agreement, the Army assumed air defense responsibility for permanent naval bases. Simultaneously, the Navy would develop shipboard defenses and “at such advanced bases as are not defended by the Army.”

On 27 December 1940, the Secretary of the Navy assigned responsibility for anti-air defenses (not defended by the Army) to the Fleet Marine Forces.  From that point forward, Marine advanced base battalions assumed responsibility for the anti-aircraft defense mission at Guantanamo, Midway, Johnson Island, Palmyra, Samoa, Wake, Guam, and “any future location seized by American forces.” The CNO subsequently asked various bureaus and offices to comment or offer suggestions on the extent to which the Marine Corps should enter the barrage balloon field.  There were two views:

  1. The Director, Navy War Plans Division opined that balloons were unreliable anti-air defense mechanisms and noted that the small size of several advanced base locations (islands) meant that balloon defenses would be ineffective except against dive bombers. Moreover, the placement of such balloons would have to be so as not to interfere with friendly air operations, which would require moveable barge platforms.  At no time did the War Plans Division mention any reliance on carrier-based attack aircraft.
  2. The Director, Fleet Training Division expressed confidence in the efficiency of balloon defenses. He relied on the United Kingdom’s experience in London’s defense; it appeared to him that 50-100 balloons would provide adequate anti-air defenses.  Based on this one assumption, the Director envisioned that the Marine Corps would require two to four squadrons of 24 balloons each and around 200 men per squadron.  There was also the problem of availability because requisitions for Army balloon equipment strained industrial production capacities.

Barrage Ballon (Samoa)

The CMC took immediate steps to procure balloons, not only for the initial issue but also for replacement balloons.  HQMC also recalled to active service retired Major Bernard L. Smith[2] and placed him in charge of the Corps’ barrage balloon development.  During World War I, while serving as an assistant naval attaché in France, Major Smith’s study of lighter-than-air craft made him an “expert” in the field of balloon defense mechanisms.

In late April 1941, Major Smith (assisted by Captain Aquillo J. Dyess and Captain Robert S. Fairweather) established a training school at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia.  Smith led his officers and ten enlisted men to the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey, for a two-week course of instruction in the art of flying British-made Mark-5 and Mark-6 balloons.  Returning to Quantico, Smith and his Marines prepared course curriculum and liaised with balloon manufacturers.  When, more than a year later, Smith and his staff had yet to receive their first student, HQMC directed Smith to move his cadre to New River, North Carolina, where it became part of the Marine Corps Training Center, Camp Lejeune.

Still without students, Smith’s “school” essentially became a balloon research/development center; the Navy’s Anti-Aircraft Defense Board provided Smith with several varieties of British prototypes.  Smith was also involved in the study of rockets and fuses suspended from aloft balloons.  By late 1941, the arrival of balloon equipment allowed Smith to commence teaching balloon defense’s art and science.  Concurrently, HQMC directed the establishment of the 1st and 2nd Barrage Balloon squadrons to further order that defense battalions incorporate these squadrons into training and operations.  Typically, HQMC wanted to review the defense battalion’s evaluations of the practicality of barrage squadrons.  By early December, Smith advised HQMC that the 1st Barrage Balloon Squadron (designation ZMQ-1) was ready for deployment. In late December, Smith’s report was timely because the Army requested the Marines provide a squadron to defend the Panama Canal Zone.  Administratively, ZMQ-1 fell under the Fifteenth Naval District; operationally, the squadron supported the Army’s artillery command. ZMQ-1’s “temporary” assignment lasted through mid-September 1942.

Barrage Balloon maintenance facility

Meanwhile, ZMQ-2, under Captain Henry D. Strunk, joined the 2nd Marine Brigade in Samoa.  War with Japan led the Marine Corps to activate six additional Barrage Balloon Squadrons, although planners estimated a need for as many as twenty squadrons by 1944.  To meet this demand, HQMC increased Smith’s training unit’s size to five officers and 43 enlisted men.  In April 1942, HQMC assigned ZMQ-3 to the Pacific command; by September, the squadron was operating on the island of Tulagi —but with significant restrictions.  Concerned that deployed balloons would attract enemy aircraft to vital airfields and logistics storage areas, senior Navy and Marine Corps officers curtailed the use of balloons at Tulagi and Guadalcanal.  Instead, squadron personnel performed ground defense (infantry) duties.  ZMQ-3 departed Tulagi for Noumea, where it joined with ZMQ-1, ZMQ-5, and ZMQ-6.  HQMC ordered the deactivation of ZMQ-4, serving in Samoa, on 20 February 1943.  The unavailability of helium at forward bases hindered squadrons’ performance, as in Noumea’s case, forcing unit officers to alter their tactics: they only launched their balloons when an enemy attack was imminent.

Shortages of helium wasn’t the only problem plaguing ZMQ squadrons.  The task of logistical resupply in the Pacific was incredibly difficult.  Since senior commanders in the Pacific questioned barrage balloons’ utility, balloon squadrons had a lower priority for resupply than did the most-forward units.  Army logisticians paid scant attention to the needs of the attached Marines.  Back in Washington, the demands placed on BuAer to prioritize the resupply of aircraft squadrons similarly left the balloon squadrons only marginally effective.  For example, each balloon squadron required 4,000 high-pressure hydrogen cylinders.  The Marine’s demand for 14,500 cylinders per month fell considerably short, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.  To help coordinate balloon activities and address logistical shortfalls, HQMC ordered Major Charles W. May to assume command of the Marine Barrage Balloon Group on 10 January 1943.

One wartime epiphany was the Marine Corps’ realization that anti-aircraft guns had a greater effect on the enemy than the barrage balloons did.  In the spring of 1943, the Marine Corps’ Commandant asked the U.S. Army to assume full responsibility for aerial balloon activities.  The Commandant’s decision made perfect sense because, at that time, all Marine balloon squadrons served under the operational control of the U.S. Army.  In June, the Army agreed to absorb the balloon mission, making 60 officers and 1,200 enlisted Marines available to serve in other (more critical) combat units.  Beginning in March 1943, Marines of ZMQ-5 began training with 90mm anti-aircraft guns; ZMQ-6 followed suit.  By August, manning anti-aircraft guns became the primary focus of training and operations.  ZMQ-2 disbanded on 21 August, with all its Marines joining the 2nd Defense Battalion.

All barrage balloon squadrons ceased to exist by December 1943, and all Marines assigned to them transferred to the Marine Corps’ defense battalions.  Luckily, these Marines were not only skilled balloonists; they were also deadly as hell in their new assignment as anti-aircraft gun crewmen and as a rifleman, the essential role of every Marine.

Sources:

  1. Updegraph, C. L. S. Marine Corps Special Units of World War II.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1972.
  2. Barrage Balloons, Aerospace Power Journal, Summer 1989.
  3. 225th AAA Searchlight Battalion Veterans Association, online.
  4. Hillson, F. J. When the Balloon Goes Up: Barrage Balloons for Low-Level Defense.  Maxwell AFB: U.S. Air Force Command and Staff College, 1988.

Endnotes:

[1] The purpose of military tables of organization (and equipment) (also, T/O and T/O&E) is to standardize the personnel staffing of military units according to their mission and includes the numbers and types of weapons and accoutrements required by such organizations to complete their mission.

[2] Major Smith was the 6th Marine officer designated as a naval aviator.