244th Anniversary of the U. S. Marine Corps

November 10th is the 244th anniversary of the founding of the United States Marine Corps. If you’ve never served as a Marine, then you will never know what being a Marine is all about. If you’re interested, though, here’s a short glimpse of our history.

 

If you are a Marine (there are only two types: those still living (and have maintained their faith with us), and those who aren’t), then you are my brother or sister. To you, I wish the happiest (and safest) of all Marine Corps birthday celebrations.

Semper Fidelis, Marines

Mustang sends …

Diminished Honor

Occasionally, one wonders, “What in the hell is the matter with people?”  I have to say that the American navy has a rich history of honor, sacrifice, and fortitude, but there are a few blemishes, as well —which is true within all our military branches.  Our military is representative of our society —its strengths and weaknesses.  There is no justification for dwelling on them, but they do present important lessons and we either learn from them or repeat them to our sorrow.

Two disgraces stand out.  The first involves Rear Admiral (then Captain) Leslie Edward Gehres, USN (1898-1975) whose primary contribution to the Navy was his toxic leadership while in command of the USS Franklin (CV-13) (1944-1945).  Gehres assumed command of USS Franklin at Ulithi, relieving Captain J. M. Shoemaker.  Under Shoemaker, USS Franklin had come under attack by Japanese kamikaze aircraft.  At the change of command ceremony, Gehres told the ship’s crew, “It was your fault because you didn’t shoot the kamikaze down.  You didn’t do your duty; you’re incompetent, lazy, and careless.  You don’t know your jobs and I’m going to do my best to shape up this crew.”  The vision of this takes us to the film Caine Mutiny, starring Humphrey Bogart—a psychopath placed in command of the fictional destroyer, USS Caine.  One can only imagine how Captain Shoemaker felt having to listen to Gehres’ tripe on his last moment of command.

Gehres was raised in Rochester, New York and Newark, New Jersey.  He enlisted in the New York Naval Militia in 1914.  His unit was activated for World War I service and Gehres was assigned to USS Salem, USS Massachusetts, and USS Indiana.  Subsequently, Gehres attended the Reserve Officer’s Course at the USN Academy.  He was commissioned an ensign on 24 May 1918.  Gehres received a regular commission in the Navy in September of that year while serving aboard USS North Dakota in the Atlantic.  He was assigned to flight training at Pensacola, Florida and received his designation as a Naval Aviator in August 1927.

In November 1941, Gehres commanded Fleet Patrol Wing 4.  He spent most of World War II in the Aleutian Islands.  His subordinates referred to him as “Custer” because of his illogical tactics and erratic behavior.  Despite a rather poor reputation among his subordinates, Gehres was advanced to the rank of Commodore —the first Naval Aviator to achieve this rank.

USS Franklin
USS Franklin

In November 1944, he took a reduction in rank designation in order to assume command of USS Franklin.  His remarks at the change of command ceremony must not have done very much for crew morale.  In 1945, Franklin was assigned to the coast of the Japanese homeland in support of the assault on Okinawa.  Ship’s aircrews initiated airstrikes against Kagoshima, Izumi, and southern Kyushu.  At dawn on 15 March, the ship had maneuvered to within 50 miles of the Japanese mainland and launched a fighter sweep against Honshu Island and Kobe Harbor.  It was a stressful time for the crew, who within a period of six hours, had been called to battle stations on six separate occasions.  Gehres finally allowed the crew to eat and sleep but maintained crewmen at gunnery stations.

A Japanese aircraft appeared suddenly from cloud cover and made a low-level run on the ship to drop two semi-armor piercing bombs.  Franklin received a “last minute” warning of the approaching aircraft from USS Hancock, but Gehres never ordered “general quarters.”  One-third of the crew were either killed or wounded.  It was the most severe damage of any surviving USN aircraft carrier in World War II.  As a result of officer and crew activities, ten officers and one enlisted man was awarded the Navy Cross —one of those being Gehres.

(Chaplain) Father Joseph T. O’Callaghan refused the Navy Cross for his participation in the aftermath of the Franklin bombing.  Some speculated that the priest turned down the award because his heroic actions in the aftermath of the bombing reflected unfavorably on Gehres leadership as Commanding Officer.  President Truman intervened, however, and Father O’Callaghan was awarded the Medal of Honor on 23 January 1946.  True to form, Captain Gehres charged crewman who had jumped into the water, to avoid death by fire, with desertion.  Gehres charges against crewmen were quietly dropped by senior naval commanders in the chain of command.  Captain Gehres, while advanced to Rear Admiral (Lower Half), was never again assigned to a position of command.  By 2011, Gehres was universally excoriated for significant deficiencies in leadership.  Admiral Gehres became a study of poor leadership —but one wonders why the Navy promoted him to flag rank.  His behavior in command of USS Franklin became the very definition of “toxic leadership.”  Indeed, it was.

Charles B McVay III
Captain Charles B. McVay III

A second failure in navy leadership involved the case of Captain Charles B. McVay III (1898-1968).  Captain McVay was a highly decorated navy officer in command of USS Indianapolis (CL/CA 35) when the ship was torpedoed and sunk in the Philippine Sea on 30 July 1945.  Of the 1,197 crew, only 317 survived the sinking.  Of all ship’s captains in the history of the US Navy, McVay was the only officer ever court-martialed for the loss of his ship in a combat action.

At the time, USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser (formerly the flagship of Admiral Raymond Spruance, 1943-1944), was on a top-secret mission and under the direct authority of the President of the United States.  Its mission was to deliver two atomic bombs to Tinian Island.  Because the mission was top secret, speed was of the essence and to prevent attention to her course, no escorts were authorized.  This was a catastrophe of epic proportions.  Captain McVay, wounded, ordered his crew to abandon ship.  Of the 897 (approximate) crewmen who went overboard, 317 survived massive shark attacks over a period of five days.

Why was Captain (later promoted to Rear Admiral) court-martialed?  The Navy accused him of hazarding his ship by not following a zig-zag course through the Philippine Sea.  He was found “not guilty” of a second charge of “failing to order abandon ship in a timely manner.”  The fact was, however, that the Navy failed the USS Indianapolis on several fronts.  First, the Navy refused to provide the cruiser with escort ships, to which it was entitled during war.  Second, the Navy delayed its rescue of the crew (owing to the secret mission assigned to the ship) and no report of an overdue ship was made, again owing to the nature of its secret mission.

A navy court of inquiry recommended that Captain McVay be court-martialed.  Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander, U. S. Pacific Fleet disagreed, but he was overruled by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King [1].  The Japanese commander of the submarine that sank Indianapolis was called to testify at McVay’s court-martial.  He stated that given the proximity of Indianapolis to his submarine, zigzagging wouldn’t have made any difference —Indianapolis was dead the minute the torpedoes were fired.  Ultimately, Admiral King ordered any punishments to be set aside.

Captain McVay suffered for the remainder of his life over the death of his crew, but not a single man lost was the result of McVay’s competence.  After the loss of his wife to cancer in 1967, Charlie McVay took his own life in 1968.  This too was a failure of Navy leadership.  McVay was a good man chastised for no good reason other than as a scapegoat for poor Navy leadership.

Sources:

  1. The Day the Carrier Died: How the Navy (Nearly) Lost an Aircraft Carrier in Battle. James Holmes, National Interest Newsletter, 28 April 2019
  2. Stanton, D. In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors. Reed City Productions, 2001
  3. Hulver, R. A. and Peter C. Luebke, Ed. A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis.  Naval History and Heritage Command, 2018.

Endnotes:

[1] According to author Richard F. Newcomb (Abandon Ship), Admiral King’s insistence that Captain McVay appear before a court-martial was because Captain McVay’s father, admiral McVay (II) once censored King, as a junior officer for regulatory infractions.  According to Newcomb, Admiral King never forgot a “grudge.”

 

A Short History of the Royal Marines

US:UK EnsignWhat is a Marine?  The short answer would be a specialized member of the armed forces who participates in efforts to project naval power ashore. What makes a Marine stand out from a regular soldier and sets him apart from any other fighting organization isn’t just a matter of how they’re trained, the equipment they use, or their tactical skills.  It is the fighting spirit that lives within each Marine —and this is what drives a Marine to accept nothing less than victory in all lethal situations.  It is the determination to win, the eagerness to fight, and the high standard of excellence they demand of themselves and each other that makes a Marine unique.  Their battle record speaks for itself.

Marines are, by definition, an expeditionary force in readiness who are deployed at a moment’s notice to quickly and aggressively win their nation’s battles.  Marines have a long history of developing expeditionary doctrine and amphibious innovation that sets the standard for all other branches of military service.  In projecting naval power into a hostile environment, Marines rely on their superior training, their self-confidence, their discipline, and each other to win the day.  Toward this end, Marines are trained to improvise, adapt, and overcome every obstacle in whatever situation they encounter.  They are not only willing to engage any enemy force; they are also determined to defeat them until national victory has been achieved.  Marines have but one mission: fight, and win.

Of all Marine organizations that exist in the world today, only two stand out: United States Marines, and their British counterparts—the Royal Marines.

RM 001 BadgeThe story of the Royal Marines began on 28 October 1664 when Great Britain formed the Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot.  It soon became known as the Admiral’s Regiment. The Holland Regiment (later called The Buffs) was also raised to serve at sea on 11 July 1665.  Both regiments were paid for by the Admiralty.  John Churchill, later 1st Duke of Marlborough, was a famous member of The Buffs.  Additionally, a company of foot guards served as Marines to augment the Admiral’s Regiment during the sea battle at Sole Bay in 1672.  The Holland Regiment was disbanded in 1689 after James II was deposed during the so-called Glorious Revolution.

Two maritime regiments of the British Army were raised in 1690 —the Earl of Pembroke’s and Torrington’s Regiments, later designated Lord Berkeley’s Regiment.  These Marines participated in an opposed landing during the Williamite War in Ireland at Cork on 21 September 1690, John Churchill commanding.  The Marine Establishment was reformed in 1698.  Two existing regiments became a single regiment under Thomas Brudenell, and the foot regiments under William Seymour, Edward Dutton Colt, and Harry Mordaunt were converted to Marine regiments —all of which were disbanded in 1699.

In 1702, six regiments of Marines and six Sea Service Regiments of foot were formed to participate in the War of Spanish Succession.  While on land, the Marines served under Brigadier General William Seymour; while at sea, they fell under the authority of the senior naval commander and the captain of the ship to which assigned.  The Admiral’s Regiment first distinguished itself in 1704 when the Marines captured the mole [1] during the assault on Gibraltar.  British and Dutch Marines later defended the fortress from counterattack.  After the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, three Marine regiments were transferred to the army, where they were designated as the 30th, 31st, and 32nd Regiments of Foot.

RM 001A Uniform
Painting of an early maritime officer.

The Admiral’s Regiment was redesignated as His Majesty’s Marine Forces on 5 April 1755; fifty companies were organized into three divisions, placed under the command of the Admiralty, and stationed at Portsmouth, Chatham, and Plymouth.  Note: shown left, a painting of an early Maritime officer.

British Marines were not the first naval infantry to emerge in Europe.  They were preceded by the Spanish Infanteria de Marina (1537), Venice’s Fanti da Mar (1550), the Portuguese Marine Corps (1610), and the French Troupes de Marine (1622).  The British, in turn, established a regiment of (3,000) American Colonial Marines during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, around 1739.

In the early days, all field-grade officers of the Marines were serving officers in the Royal Navy.  Because the Admiralty believed that the top field officer ranks were largely honorary posts (which was also true in the Army), the farthest a field officer could advance was to lieutenant colonel.  It was not until 1771 that the first Marine officer was promoted to colonel, but this situation persisted well into the 1800s.  In any case, British Marines performed numerous amphibious landings throughout most of the 18th Century.  Among the more famous was the landing at Belle Isle [2] in 1761.  British Marines also served during the American War of Independence.  A company of Marines under Major John Pitcairn broke rebel resistance at Bunker Hill and took possession of the American’s redoubt.  When Royal Navy ships were becalmed, Marines often took to ship’s boats to repel attackers during blockade operations.  On the day that Captain James Cook was killed in Hawaii (14 February 1779), he had with him four British Marines: Corporal James Thomas, Private Theophilus Hinks, Private Thomas Fatchett, and Private John Allen.

In May 1787, four companies of Marines under Major Robert Ross accompanied the First Fleet [3] to protect a new colony at Botany Bay (New South Wales).  Due to a gross oversight, the First Fleet departed Portsmouth without its main supply of ammunition, cartridge paper, and flintlock tools.  The oversight was noted early in the voyage and a dispatch sent back to England that the missing supplies be urgently forwarded to the fleet.  Captain William Bligh was assigned this mission while in command of HMS Bounty.  Ten thousand rounds of ammunition were obtained from Rio de Janeiro, but these stores were still inadequate and in time, the Marines would find themselves in difficult circumstances.  A full measure of stores was never sent to the First Fleet.

In total, the Marine contingent of four companies included 212 Marines; of these, 160 privates.  Marine strength was based on the advice of Mr. Joseph Banks, who counselled the British government that local Aborigines were few and retiring by disposition.  Upon their arrival at New South Wales, Captain Arthur Phillip, Royal Navy, found that the natives were populous and aggressive.  Within a year, Aboriginals had killed 6 of the First Fleet and wounded scores of others. Marines were ordered to expand the initial settlement area at Sydney Cove and organize farming operations at Parramatta.  When Aboriginals contracted smallpox, some journalists claimed that the British Marines deliberately spread the disease.  Most modern scholars regard this as uncorroborated bunk, however.

At the instigation of Admiral John Jervis, 1st Earl of St. Vincent in 1802, His Majesty’s Marine Forces were titled Royal Marines by King George III.

Up until 1804, the Royal Artillery Regiment had provided artillery support to the British Marines.  A lawsuit by a Royal Artillery Officer led a civil court to declare that Army officers were not subject to Navy regulations or the orders of Naval officers.  Accordingly, Royal Marine Artillery was added to the Royal Marines in that very same year.  They were referred to as “Blue Marines” because these forces retained the blue coats of the Royal Artillery Regiment.  In contrast, the Royal Marines dressed in scarlet coats (as did the British Army).  They were called “Red Marines” or, more derisively, Lobster backs by the unenlightened naval ranks.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Royal Marines took part in every notable naval battle on board Royal Navy ships, executed amphibious raids, provided security aboard ship, maintained discipline among the crew, engaged enemy crews with long rifles, and led boarding parties.

The number of Marines assigned to Royal Navy ships depended on the size of the ship, but Marine strength was usually maintained at a ratio of one Marine per ship’s gun, plus officers commanding.  A “first rate ship of the line” would have a compliment of 104 Marines; a 28-gun frigate would have 29 Marines.  Between 1807 and 1814, a total of 31,400 men served in the Royal Marines but given the size of the Royal Navy during this period, and the missions assigned to the Royal Navy, British Army detachments frequently served aboard Navy ships to augment the Royal Marines.  Seaborne operations frequently included blockading French ports and conducting amphibious raids against French signal communications stations and other operations designed to harass the enemy.

In the Caribbean, freed French slave volunteers formed the 1st Corps of Colonial Marines to help bolster the ranks of Royal Marines.  This practice was repeated during the War of 1812, when escaped American slaves were formed into the 2nd Corps of Colonial Marines.  These men were commanded by Royal Marine officers and fought alongside their regular Marine counterparts at the Battle of Bladensburg (August 1814).  During this battle, a detachment of Royal Marine Artillery under Lieutenant John Lawrence deployed Congreve rockets [4] with telling effect against American militia.  A battalion of Royal Marines augmented the 21st Regiment of Foot during the burning of Washington.  They did not torch the U. S. Marine Corps Barracks at 8th & I Streets, however.

During the War of 1812, Royal Marines frequently operated in the Chesapeake Bay, including operations up the Penobscot River.  This was a composite battalion, formed from several ship’s detachments, serving under Captain John Robyns [5].  A smaller organization of Royal Marines, numbering around 100 troops, served under captains John T. Wilson and John Alexander Phillips that augmented the British Army force of 700 men under Major Thomas Adair, who successfully led an attack against the west bank of the Mississippi River.  This was Britain’s only success at New Orleans.  These same Marines later helped to capture Fort Bowyer in Mobile Bay —the last action of the War of 1812.

In 1855, the Royal Marines were renamed the Royal Marines Light Infantry (RMLI).  A slight modification to this designation was affected in 1862: Royal Marine Light Infantry.  After 1850, the Royal Navy saw limited service at sea until 1914.  During this time, Naval planners became more interested in the concept of Naval Brigades, which is to say Royal Marines, augmented by artillery, who would make amphibious landings ahead of naval infantry and conduct skirmishes —a traditional function of light infantry.  For most of their history, the Royal Marines have functioned as fusiliers (riflemen).  In this capacity, they served with distinction during the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-1860) in China.  Every engagement in China was successful save one: when British Admiral Sir James Hope ordered the Marines to make a landing across a wide expanse of mud flats.  I will forego any comment about Admiral Hope’s leadership ability.

RM 002 Boxer Rebellion
Royal Marines during the Boxer Rebellion

Royal Marines, along with their American counterparts, played a prominent role during the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900.  See also: Send in the Marines!

Pursuing a career in the Royal Marines was considered “social suicide” through much of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Royal Marines had a lower standing than their counterparts in the Royal Navy [6].  In 1907, the British government reduced professional differences between the Royal Navy and Royal Marines.  In time, the Royal Marines were elevated to a position of respect within the British forces, although sharing a pint of ale with British Army veterans, one might come away with an entirely different point of view.  What British soldiers have never understood, however, is that ARMY stands for “Aren’t Ready to be Marines Yet.”

During the first part of the 20th century, the role of the Royal Marines remained traditional, that is, providing shipboard infantry for security, boarding parties, and amphibious raids.  The Marines’ other traditional role while aboard Royal Navy ships was manning gun turrets on battleships or cruisers.

During World War I, Royal Marines landed with the Royal Navy Division in Belgium in 1914 to defend Antwerp.  They later participated in the amphibious landings at Gallipoli in 1915 and conducted the Zeebrugge Raid in 1918.  After this “war to end all wars,” Royal Marines took part in the allied intervention in post-Revolutionary Russia.  In 1919, the 6th Battalion mutinied and was disbanded in disgrace.

RM 002In 1922, during post-war demobilization, the Royal Marines were reduced from a strength of 55,000 to around 15,000.  To further reduce the costs of maintaining this force in readiness, Royal Marine Artillery (RMA) and Light Infantry units were consolidated in June 1923.  Even so, tremendous political pressure was applied to disbanding the Royal Marines altogether.  As a compromise, opposing politicians agreed to a Royal Marine organization of 9,500 troops.  To accomplish this, the RMA was deactivated; henceforth, the title Royal Marine would apply to the entire Corps.  Artillery organizations would be part of the force structure, but on a much smaller scale.  After consolidation, the Royal Marine full-dress uniform became dark blue and red; Royal Marine officers and SNCOs continue to wear scarlet uniforms as part of their mess dress kit.  The rank structure was also modified.  The private of infantry and gunner of artillery were replaced by the rank of Marine.

In World War II, Royal Marine shipboard detachments continued to make amphibious raids with limited objectives, such as accepting the surrender of French Axis forces.  Initially, Royal Marine infantry units were organized as Mobile Naval Base Defense Organizations (which were similar to U. S. Marine Corps’ Advanced Base Defense Battalion).  The MNBDO’s took part in the defense of Crete, Malaya, and Singapore.

RM 004 WW IIIn 1942, Royal Marine infantry battalions were reorganized as commando units.  The Division command structure became a Special Service Brigade command.  In total, four Special Service (Commando) Brigades were raised during World War II.  Nine RMC battalions were created, numbered from 40 Commando to 48 Commando.  Brigades were task organized, which means that Royal Marine commando organizational structure depended on their assigned mission.  In the early years, British Army units served alongside the Marines within Commando Brigades.  Support troops served as landing craft crew and saw extensive action on D-Day in June 1944.  In January 1945, an additional two RM brigades were formed, both organized as conventional infantry.  Of these, only one saw any action during World War II.

Several Royal Marine officers served as pilots during the World War II, one of these leading the air attack that sank the German warship Konigsberg.  Eighteen RMOs commanded fleet air squadrons, and after the formation of the British Pacific Fleet, Royal Marine aviation assets were well-represented in final operations against Japan.  Squadron commanders were usually captains and majors.  Lieutenant Colonel R. C. Hay commanded an air group on board HMS Indefatigable.  Meanwhile, Royal Marine detachments continued to serve aboard Royal Navy cruisers and battleships.

During World War II, the Victoria Cross [7] was awarded to only one Marine: Acting Corporal Thomas P. Hunter, aged 21 years, of 43 Commando, during combat operations at Lake Comacchio, Italy.  On 2 April 1945, Hunter commanded a Bren gun (light machine gun) section.

RM 004 T P Hunter
Corporal Thomas Peck Hunter, RM

According to the citation for this award, 43 Commando was advancing to its final objective and was within 400 yards of an east-west canal.  Corporal Hunter observed that the enemy was entrenched around a group of houses south of the canal and realized that his troops, who were following in trace of his advance, would soon be exposed to enemy fire in an area devoid of cover or concealment.  Seizing his light machine gun, Hunter charged alone across two hundred yards of open ground.  The Germans engaged Hunter with no fewer than nine automatic weapons.  Attracting enemy fire away from his men, and demonstrating a complete disregard for his own safety, Corporal Hunter assaulted the German position while firing from the hip, changing magazines as he ran, killing several of the enemy and clearing houses of all enemy troops.  Six German soldiers surrendered to him, while the remaining enemy fled across a footbridge to the north bank of the canal.  Taking a position atop of pile of rubble, Corporal Hunter engaged the enemy’s new positions with deadly accurate fire while encouraging his men to take up secure positions within the cluster of houses.  It was then that Corporal Hunter received the bulk of enemy’s fire and he was killed.  Corporal Hunter is remembered at ten separate locations throughout the United Kingdom.

In 1946, British Army Commandos were disbanded, leaving the Royal Marines to continue the commando role (with supporting army elements).

Drysdale 002
LtCol Douglas B. Drysdale, RM

At the outset of the Korean War, 41 Commando was reformed for service with the United States Navy.  After the landing of the X Corps at Wonsan, 41 Commando joined the 1st U. S. Marine Division.  41 Commando formed the nucleus of Task Force Drysdale under Lieutenant Colonel Douglas B. Drysdale, Royal Marines, with one US Marine Corps rifle company and one US Army rifle company, and attachments of rolling stock and fought their way from Koto-ri to Hagaru-ri after the Chinese erected blockades along the north road.  It then took part in the epic Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.  41 Commando subsequently implemented several raids against Communist Chinese forces.  The Royal Marines were withdrawn from the Korean conflict in 1951.  For its service in the Korean War, 41 Commando was awarded the United States Presidential Unit Citation and Colonel Drysdale received the Silver Star Medal for valor.

Between 1948 and 1960, elements of the Royal Marines participated at various times and places in the Malayan Emergency [8].  In 1955, 45 Commando was dispatched to Cyprus to undertake anti-terrorist operations against Greek Cypriot insurgents.  In 1956, 3 Commando Brigade with 40, 42, and 45 Royal Commando took part in the Suez Crisis. This event marked the first time the Royal Marines employed helicopters in vertical assault operations.  British and French forces ultimately defeated the Egyptians, but US diplomatic activities helped to defuse the crisis.  40 and 41 Commando were sent to Borneo at various times to help defuse tensions between Indonesian-Malayan belligerents.  In January 1964, elements of the Tanzanian Army mutinied.  The United Kingdom responded by dispatching 41 Commando from Devon and landing Royal Marine elements from HMS Bulwark.  The Tanzanian revolt was put down rather quickly, but it took another six months to disarm rebel elements of the Tanzanian military.

Royal Marine units regularly deployed to Northern Ireland to help contain that conflict.  Referred to as “the Troubles,” the Northern Ireland conflict lasted from 1969 through 1998.  In total, 24 Royal Marines died as a result of protestant snipers and bombers.

Between 1974 and 1984, the Royal Marines undertook three United Nations peacekeeping tours of duty in Cyprus.  The first was operation took place after the Turkish invasion in November 1974.  41 Commando took over responsibility for the Limassol District from the 2nd Battalion Guard’s Brigade.  41 Commando was the first Royal Marine unit to wear the light blue beret of the United Nations Command.

RM 003 Falklands
The Battle for Stanley

When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982, the United Kingdom dispatched a task force to recapture them, which given the necessity for an amphibious assault, included the Royal Marine Commando.  British troops landed at San Carlos Water on East Falkland and moved across the entire island to the capital city of Stanley.  In Royal Marine parlance, the troops “yomped” across the Falklands, which means a long-distance force march in full kit.  Stanley fell to the Brits on 14 June 1982.  Major General Jeremy Moore, Royal Marines, commanded the land forces in the Falklands Conflict.

During the 1991 Gulf War, 24 Marines from Kilo Company, 41 Commando served as six-man raiding teams aboard Royal Navy destroyers and frigates.  They were mainly used as ship boarding parties.  Elements of 3 Commando Brigade were deployed to provide aid and protection to Iraqi Kurds in Northern Iraq as part of Operation Safe Haven.

RM 007
Royal Marine Commando, Helmand Province

After the turn of the century, Royal Marines began converting from their light-infantry role towards an expanded force-protection role.  The British refer to this reorganization as Commando-21: the establishment of two battalion-sized commando units (which included 40 Commando and 45 Commando.  Each organization consists of six company sized units, and these organized into “troops,” (platoons).  The change has given the Royal Marines more firepower, greater mobility, better access to intelligence, and more operational flexibility.  The size of each commando is roughly 692 of all ranks.  41 Commando has taken on a specialized maritime mission since 2017 under the auspices of 3 Commando Brigade.

Now approaching the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, Royal Marines and their American counterparts have never been closer.  They share a tradition, a similar mission, and the title Marine goes a very long way in defining who they are.  To cement this tie, British flight officers have begun training alongside Marine Corps aviators; US Marine officers serve in exchange billets in the United Kingdom, and lately, junior Royal Marine officers (three so far) have begun serving 18-month tours within US Marine Corps ground units.  US Marine Corps lieutenants have not yet started serving in similar capacities in the United Kingdom, but it is likely that this will happen in the future.

Sources:

  1. Ballantyne, I. Strike from the Sea.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2004
  2. Chappell, M. Wellington’s Peninsula Regiments.  Oxford: The Oxford Press, 2004
  3. Moore, J. The First Fleet Marines.  Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1989
  4. Mountbatten, L. Combined Operations: The Official Story of the Commando.  New York: Macmillan Company, 1943
  5. Poyntz, W. H. Per Mare, Per Terram: Reminiscences of Thirty-two Years’ Military, Naval, and Constabulary Service.  London: Print & Publishing Company, 1892
  6. Thompson, J. The Royal Marines, from Sea Soldiers to a Special Force.  London: Pan Books, 2001

Endnotes:

[1] A mole is a massive stone structure constructed to serve as a pier, a breakwater, or causeway between bodies of water.

[2] The operation at Belle Isle was an amphibious expedition intended to capture the French island off the Brittany coast during the Seven Years’ War.  The initial attack was repulsed, but a second landing forced a beach head.  After a siege of six weeks, the French surrendered (as they almost always do) and this gave the British total control of the island.  Belle Isle was returned to French authority after the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

[3] The First Fleet consisted of eleven ships that departed from Portsmouth, England on 13 May to establish a penal colony that became the first European settlement in Australia.  The fleet involved two Royal Navy vessels, three store ships, and six convict transports carrying between 1,000 to 1,500 convicts, Marines, seamen, civil officers, and free people.  From England, the fleet sailed to Rio de Janeiro, east to Cape Town and then to Botany Bay … arriving between 18 to 20 January 1788.

[4] The Congreve rocket was designed and developed by Sir William Congreve in 1804; it was an adaptation of the Mysorean rockets used against the British in India.  By 1813, there were three classes of Congreve rockets: heavy, medium, and light.  Heavy rockets consisted of between 100 and 300 pounds but were generally regarded as too cumbersome to use in the field.  Medium rockets were between 24 and 42 pounds, and from two to four feet in length.  Light rockets were between 6 and 18 pounds and from 16 to 25 inches in length.  Medium and light rockets could be case shot, shell, or explosive.

[5] Major General John Robyns, Royal Marines, (1780-1857) served with distinction during the Napoleonic Wars, including Martinique, and the War of 1812.  In America, Robyn faced off against the U. S. Marines at Bladensburg, Washington, Baltimore, and New Orleans.

[6] This was true in the United States, as well.  My grandmother was devastated when I joined the U. S. Marine Corps in 1962.  Every member of my family up until then had served in the Army.  It wasn’t until 1965 when my uncle (my grandmother’s son, a career army NCO) was able to convince her that the Marines was the right choice for me.  I was, at the time, a very proud and somewhat cocky corporal of Marines.  By the time I received my commission in 1975, Grandmother had fully embraced my service and bragged to her few remaining friends that her grandson was a United States Marine.

[7] The Victoria Cross is the United Kingdom’s highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

[8] Following World War II, British authorities attempted to form the Malayan Union.  Their goal was to create a state wherein all citizens (Malay, Chinese, and Indian) would have equal stature, but many ethnic Malayans, along with regional rulers, rejected this scheme.  Armed insurgency first occurred on 16 June 1948 when three of four targeted plantation managers were assassinated.  The ensuring guerrilla war involved pro-communist, anti-British forces who engaged in terror tactics like those employed by the Viet Cong during the Viet Nam War.  Nearly 12,000 people lost their lives in this 12-year conflict.

Hold High the Torch, Part III

The 4th Marines: From Harry Truman’s War to the Street Without Joy

EGA BlackAmong the effects of Harry S. Truman’s presidential incompetence came the Korean War —and along with that, the re-activation of the 4th Marine Regiment.  The war began in late June 1950.  A stalemate in the war two years later resulted in the re-activation of the 3rd Marine Division and within that organization on 2 September 1952, the 4th Marines —Colonel Robert O. Bowen, commanding.  The regiment’s initial units included Headquarters & Service Company (H&SCo), Anti-Tank Company, 4.2-inch Mortar Company, and the 1st Battalion (1/4).  Within a short time, the regiment added 2/4 and 3/4.  A fourth battalion came on line in January 1953 but was deactivated within a period of seven months.

After reactivation, the 4th Marines began a series of pre-combat deployment training; spooling up to speed would take another six months.  The 3rd Marine Division was alerted to its far-east deployment shortly before the Korean Armistice.  Despite cessation of fighting, the 3rdMarDiv relocated from Camp Pendleton, California to Japan.  The regiment’s new home was Nara, on the island of Honshu.  Arriving too late to participate in the Korean War, the 4th Marines became a garrison force whose responsibilities included the defense of southern Honshu and its readiness [1] for rapid deployment to potential hot-spots in the Far East.  In January 1954, 3/4 was assigned to task of escorting former Chinese Communist soldiers who wanted to go to Taiwan (rather than be repatriated to mainland China) from Inchon, South Korea [2].

Eighteen-months later, the 4th Marines (and supporting units) was relocated to Hawaii where the regiment became the principal ground combat element (GCE) of the 1st Provisional Marine MAGTF at Kaneohe Bay. Once established in Hawaii, the regiment began an intensive program of coordinated training with the air combat element (ACE), which at the time was Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-13.  The MAGTF was redesignated as the 1st Marine Brigade on 1 May 1956.  The advent of combat helicopters led the regiment into vertical envelopment training. The 4th Marines was the first GCE to live and train with a co-located ACE.  As a Pacific area force in readiness, the 1st Marine Brigade (1stMarBde) engaged in rigorous training.  Maneuver areas included the California coast, Taiwan, and the Philippine Islands.  In March 1961, BLT 1/4 was diverted from its original destination (California) to the Far East when a communist insurgency threatened Laos.  The battalion was never sent into Laos, however.

Ngo Dinh Diem 001
Ngo Dinh Diem, 1960 Photo from Public Domain

The President of South Vietnam between 1954 and 1963 was Ngo Dinh Diem, and man whom the United States government decided to support because he was well-educated, smooth in his presentation, a true patriot to his country’s cause, and also because he shared the same religion with the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.  A devout Roman Catholic, Diem was staunchly anti-Communist, a nationalist, and socially conservative.  He also shared the same long-term goals with his enemy in the north: Ho Chi Minh. Both Ngo and Ho wanted to unify Vietnam under their own flag.

Between 1954-1957, South Vietnam experienced a large-scale resistance to Ngo’s policies from the areas outlying the national capital, Saigon.  Dissidents included the thugs in minor cities who fancied themselves as war lords, and Buddhist monks who seemed to keep South Vietnamese peasants in a constant state of instability. Ngo responded rather harshly, as he suspected that the culprits behind these destabilizing demonstrations were North Vietnamese insurgents.  His assumption was mostly correct; when the country was politically divided in 1954, about 90,000 hard-core communists remained in the South and Ho’s government encouraged these to engage in low-level insurgencies.

Upon Kennedy’s election to the presidency in 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned him against becoming entangled in the Indochinese conflict.  In 1961, the United States had around 50,000 troops based in South Korea.  Kennedy faced a four-pronged crisis in the early days of his administration: Bay of Pigs fiasco, construction of the Berlin Wall, the Pathet Lao movement in Laos, and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962).  The onslaught of communist schemes to disrupt the world balance of power led Kennedy to conclude that the United States and its free-world allies could not sustain another “failure” confronting global communism. This particular insecurity helped to drive Kennedy’s space program.  Kennedy was thus determined to “draw a line in the sand” to prevent another communist victory in Vietnam [3].

Kennedy’s policy toward Vietnam initially mirrored that of President Eisenhower, who saw no benefit to the United States by committing large-scale military forces to solve the Vietnam problem.  Given the poor state of South Vietnam’s military, however, Kennedy did continue Eisenhower’s program to provide US Army Special Forces to help train the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) across a wide range of areas: ground combat, air combat, and logistical resupply.  Kennedy advisors tried to convince the president to send US troops to Vietnam “disguised as flood relief workers [4].”  Others tried to convince Kennedy that sending troops to Vietnam in large numbers would be a tragic mistake.  By late 1963, Kennedy had increased the number of military advisors serving in Vietnam from 900 (Eisenhower) to 16,000.  On 2 November 1963, as the US government officials pretended not to know what was going on, President Ngo and his brother was assassinated and the man ultimately responsible for this was John F. Kennedy.  Twenty days later, Kennedy himself was assassinated and power shifted to Lyndon Baines Johnson.  Johnson wanted an escalation of the war and lied to the American people to achieve it. North Vietnamese patrol boats did not launch assaults against the USS Maddox (DD 731) on 2 August 1964; the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that precipitated War in Vietnam never happened.

Discounting a rather large number of special operations troops serving as advisors to the South Vietnamese government, the 3rd Marine Division on Okinawa was the first ground combat force committed to the Vietnam War.  The 4th Marines received their warning order almost immediately after the decision was made to commit the Marines.  Forward elements of the 3rdMarDiv began landing at Da Nang on 8 March 1965; the 4th Marines started arriving from Hawaii (via Okinawa) in mid-April 1965, the first battalion to arrive being BLT 3/4, which deployed to the ancient Imperial City of Hue.  Regimental HQ, 1/4 and 2/4 disembarked at Chu Lai on 7 May 1965.  All 3rdMarDiv units came under the operational control of the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).

In Vietnam, the nature of the war changed the organization of Marine units.  Since the conflict in Vietnam was often fought at or below the battalion level, one or more battalions of a regiment were frequently fighting under the operational control of another regiment.  As an example, a regiment exercising operational control of two or more battalions belonging to another regiment could enlarge its operations to that of a brigade.  In the summer of 1965, the 4th Marine Regiment exercised operational control over its own first and second battalions, but also 3/3 and 3/12 and their supporting elements.  The 3rd Marines, meanwhile, had operational control over 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines.

Combat for the 4th Marines in Vietnam arrived on 19 April when 3/4 (assigned Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR) of Hue City and Phu Bai) defenses were probed by communist forces.  Two days later, 1/4 and 2/4 (assigned responsibility for Chu Lai) also experienced light probing attacks.  Vigorous patrolling operations were implemented almost immediately. Such activities were variously called security patrols and “search and clear” operations.  They were later expanded to include security operations for other than military installations, and these in turn expanded to a full measure search for the enemy so that he could be destroyed (search and destroy operations).

Combat in Vietnam was limited by its weather, terrain, and the nature of an elusive enemy.  Marines (indeed, all ground forces) were beset with guerrilla warfare tactics, including anti-personnel mines, booby traps, and ambushes combined with the placement of punji-sticks (sharpened sticks dipped in human excrement) —all designed to hamper the progress of Marine operations.   Before the arrival of helicopters, Marines sought out the enemy on foot, and their aggressive operations kept the enemy off balance within the 4th Marines TAOR.

Op STARLITE 001The first major engagement was the regimental sized Operation Starlite —a combined amphibious and vertical assault against enemy fortified positions on the Van Tuong Peninsula, 15 miles south of the Chu Lai air base.  2nd Battalion, 4th Marines was air-lifted into the jump-off point on 18 August 1965 and began a drive to the sea to block off any escape route.  Within nine days, the 1st Viet Cong Regiment was decisively defeated.  The operation prevented the VC from attacking the Chu Lai air base.

In addition to engaging the enemy in small-unit actions, the 4th Marines participated in several major operations in Vietnam, some of these conducted in phases over extended periods of time.  They were Starlite, Hastings (1966), Prairie (1966-67), Deckhouse VI/Desoto (16 Feb-3 Mar 1967), Prairie IV (April-May 1967), Hickory (April-May 1967), Kingfisher (July-October 1967), and Kentucky (November 1967-February 1969).  Elements of the 4th Marines also participated in Operation Jay, Lancaster II, Scotland II, Napoleon/Saline, the Battle of Dai Do (also, Dong Ha).  Most of these combat operations involved several organizations (as previously discussed), including 2/1, 3/3, 1/4, 2/4, 3/4, 2/9, 2/12, and various units of the ARVN and RVNMD [5].

The Dong Ha Combat Base (also known as Camp Spillman) was a joint Marine Corps-US Army multi-purpose base along Route 9 in northwest of Quang Tri in central Vietnam.  The base was first used by 3/4 in late April 1966.  In late May 2/4 was deployed to Dong Ha to support Operation Reno, which was designed to render support to the ARVN forces assigned to this region.  The only US casualties during RENO involved a USAF team of six radar technicians who were ambushed and killed on 5 June 1966.  The Commanding Officer of 2/4 (LtCol P. X. Kelly [6]) offered to provide security for the radar team before it departed from Dong Ha, but this offer was refused.

Beginning in mid-July, Dong Ha also served as a Marine Corps helicopter base of operations for flight detachments of HMM-163 (December 1966-January 1967), HMM-164 (July 1966-March 1967), HMM-263(August 1966-April 1967), HMM-265 (April-June 1967), HMM-361 (June-November 1967), HMM-363 (April-June 1967, August-November 1967), and VMO-2 (July 1966-November 1967).  Dong Ha also served as an advance logistics base.  Army and Marine Corps artillery units used Dong Ha as a fire support base, and in October 1966, Dong Ha became the forward headquarters of the 3rdMarDiv; several operations (listed above) were initiated from the Dong Ha Combat Base. During 1968, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) made repeated attacks against Dong Ha, on one occasion destroying its ammunition depot.  In each attack, NVA forces experienced heavy casualties.

There were many accomplishments of the 4th Marines in Vietnam, a few of which were exceptional examples of Marines thinking outside the box.  Notwithstanding the regiment’s role in finding and killing the enemy, there was another war: the effort to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. The 4th Marines undertook civic action programs almost from the start of their arrival in Vietnam.  In May 1965, the regiment distributed nearly 1,000 pounds of clothing to the villagers at Chu Lai—clothing that had been collected by the dependents of these Marines in Hawaii and sent directly to the regiment. Marines also pitched in with “self-help” projects in Chu Lai and Hue City designed to improve the living conditions of the villagers: digging wells, road-grading, clearing home sites.  The Golden Fleece program aided villagers in the harvesting of rice, protecting them from harassment by the Viet Cong, and protecting the crop from confiscation by local VC thugs.

Operation County Fair was a program that originated within the 4th Marines (with the blessings of the Commanding General, FMF Pacific, LtGen Victor H. Krulak).  Its purpose was to pacify select villages known to harbor elements of the Viet Cong.  3rd Battalion, 4th Marines initiated a Combined Action Company, and from this concept evolved the Combined Action Platoons.  In the summer of 1965, the 1st ARVN Division assigned a number of Vietnamese Popular Forces (PFs) units in the Phu Bai area to operate under the auspices of 3/4.  Integrating Marine rifle squads with PFs initially fell under the leadership and direction of First Lieutenant Paul R. Ek (then known as Joint Action Company). The concept was one way of reestablishing government control over rural villages while freeing the people from the terror and intimidation of local VC elements.  See also: Vietnam Counterinsurgency and Combined Action Platoon (in six parts).

9thMAB 001One an example of the Navy-Marine Corps ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome all obstacles were operations conducted by Amphibious Ready Group (Task Force 76.5) and Special Landing Force (Task Force 79.5) (ARG/SLF). It was a powerful and versatile formation capable of striking along the length of the South Vietnam Littoral and inland.  Initially, the ARG consisted of three to four ships, including an amphibious assault ship (LPH), and dock landing ship (LSD), an attack transport ship (APA) or amphibious transport dock (LPD), and a tank landing ship (LST).  The SLF was composed of a medium helicopter squadron (HMM), a Battalion Landing Team (reinforced with artillery, armor, engineer, and other support units as required).  The SLF came ashore either as part of an amphibious assault (sea-land) or by vertical assault (air), or both.  While at sea, Marines of the SLF came under the administrative control of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade; when gearing up for a landing, they came under the operational control of the senior Marine commander in the area of their operations.

Operation Deckhouse VI/Beacon Hill was the first major operation of 1967 for the 4th Marines.  1st Battalion, 4th Marines (1/4) had been temporarily assigned to Okinawa for rest and refit.  BLT 1/4 was directed to make an amphibious landing near Sa Huyn in the southern portion of I Corps.  The battalion stormed ashore in search of Viet Cong forces on 16 February.  Nine days later, the Marines reembarked aboard ARG shipping and within a few days made another amphibious assault 200-miles farther north, landing near Gio Linh.  After a combined operation lasting 22 days, Marines had located and killed 334 Viet Cong.  The battalion’s casualties were 29 killed, 230 wounded.

3:4 - 001 1967
BLT 3/4 clearing NVA bunkers. DoD Photo.

The northern I Corps region continued to be the scene of heavy fighting throughout the year.  All three 4th Marines’ battalions were deployed against NVA and VC main line units.  Delta Company 1/4  was hit hard at Con Tien on 8 May; following a mortar assault of some 250-rounds, two enemy battalions assaulted the Marine Company.  In spite of these overwhelming numbers, the Delta Company Marines repulsed the NVA/VC attack, and although suffering 49 killed and over 100 wounded, the Marines killed 210 communists and captured ten.  Four days later, the battalion commander was himself wounded three times in successive enemy assaults.  In each instance, the Marines soundly defeated the NVA/VC units.  CG III MAF concluded that the NVA and VC main line units were using the DMZ as a staging area for attacks against US forces.

General Cushman ordered Operation Hickory:  Six infantry battalions with artillery support assaulted the NVA 324B Division within the DMZ.  Marine units included 3/4, 2/3, 1/9, 2/9, 3/9, 2/26, and 1/12.  On the morning of 18 May 2/26 and 2/9 began an advance from Con Thien to press the NVA while 3/4 landed by helicopter on the Ben Hai river as a blocking force.  Five Marine battalions assaulted a complex of heavily fortified bunkers within the so-called demilitarized zone.  At the conclusion of Hickory, 362 additional enemy had been killed with 30 taken as POWs; Marine losses were 142 KIA and 896 WIA.  A separate operation in the area involving the 1st ARVN Division killed another 340 NVA/VC with 22 of their own killed and 122-wounded.  Combined, Operations Lam Son 54, Hickory, Belt Tight, and Beau Charger ended with the removal of the entire civilian populations.  From that point on, the DMZ and northern I Corps became a free fire zone.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon announced that the US effort in the Vietnam War would be reduced.  It was time to turn this effort over to the Republic of Vietnam armed forces.  The 9th Marines departed Vietnam in August; the 3rd Marine Division began its stand down in September.  The 4th Marines was ordered to Okinawa, 1/4 departing the combat zone on 22 October. All 3rdMarDiv units were out of Vietnam by November 1969.

The 4th Marine Regiment has a long and proud history of service to the United States of America and her people. Whatever mission assigned, the Marines of the 4th Regiment have distinguished themselves time and again through courage, devotion to one another, and unparalleled sacrifice in the completion of their mission.  Today, the 4th Marine Regiment remains part of the 3rd Marine Division and while its battalions continue to rotate in and out of global hotspots, the regimental headquarters is anchored at Camp Schwab, Okinawa.

Sources:

  1. Organization of the United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Reference Publication (MCRP) 5-12D. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 2015.
  2. Santelli, J. S. A Brief History of the Fourth Marines.  Washington: U. S. Marine Corps Historical Division, 1970

[1] Readiness infers continual combat training.  During this period of time, the 4th Marines participated in training exercises in Japan, on Okinawa, and on the island of Iwo Jima.

[2] Even peacetime and training duty is hazardous in the military.  During 3/4’s deployment to Inchon, a landing craft capsized in Inchon Harbor resulting in the death of 27 Marines and two Navy Corpsmen.

[3] Kennedy told James Reston of the NYT, “Now we have a problem making our power credible; Vietnam looks like the place.”

[4] Another hair-brained scheme devised by General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow.

[5] Republic of Vietnam Marine Division  (SưĐoàn Thy Quân Lc Chiến) (1953-1975).

[6] Paul X. Kelly served as the 28th Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1 July 1983 to 30 June 1987.

Hold High the Torch, Part II

The Continuing story of the 4th Marines

EGA BlackThe size and scope of Operation Iceberg —the Battle for Okinawa, given the island’s size and terrain, was massive.  Iceberg included the Tenth US Army’s XXIV Corps (four infantry divisions) and the III Marine Amphibious Corps (1st, 2nd, and 6th Marine Divisions), the Fifth US Fleet (Task Force 58, 57, and the Joint Expeditionary Force), involving a combined force of 541,000 personnel (250,000 of which were combat troops).  Tenth Army was uniquely organized in the sense that it had its own tactical air force (joint Army-Marine Corps aviation).

The Tenth Army faced 96,000 Japanese and Okinawan belligerents.  Between 14,000 to 20,000 Americans died on Okinawa; between 38,000 to 55,000 Americans received serious wounds.  Japanese losses were between 77,000 to 110,000 killed with 7,000 captured alive.  Approximately half of the entire civilian population living on Okinawa were killed out of an estimated island-wide population of 300,000.

Iceberg was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific War.  The 82-day battle had but one purpose: seize the Kadena air base for Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands.  The Japanese put up one hell of a fight in their defense of Okinawa but in doing so, they sealed their own fate: the ferocity of the Japanese Imperial Army convinced Washington politicians that dropping its new secret weapon (an atomic bomb) was far better than trying to take the Japanese home islands by force of arms —and costing the Americans an (estimated) additional one-million casualties.

The landing force demanded a massive armada of ships.  The Navy would have their hands full with Kamikaze aircraft from mainland Japan. The 6th Marine Division’s mission was to capture Yontan airfield in the center part of the Island.  The first assault wave came ashore at 0837, and the 4th Marines (less its 2nd Battalion, held in reserve) was among the first units to hit the beach.  What shocked the Marines was that they encountered no resistance from Japanese defenders.  Accordingly, the American advance was rapid; significant territorial gains were achieved on that first day.  In the absence of Japanese resistance, 2/4 came ashore at noon and rejoined the regiment. Yontan was taken ahead of schedule and then, according to the game plan, the 6thMarDiv turned north.  Marine progress continued unimpeded until 7 April when the Marines encountered Japanese defenders on the Motobu Peninsula.

The defense of this peninsula included several Japanese obstacles along the Marine’s likely avenues of approach. Terrain favored the Japanese. Mount Yaetake formed the core of the Japanese defense.  The mission of pacifying Mount Yaetake was assigned to the 4th Marines, reinforced by 3/29.  The 22nd Marines and the balance of the 29th Marines moved to seal off the peninsula.  There is no sense in having to fight the same enemy twice.

The 4th Marines attack commenced on 0830 on 14 April.  2/4 and 3/29 made the preliminary assault on a 700-foot ridge.  The Marine advance was bitterly contested until 16 April; it was a classic search and destroy mission but the Japanese weren’t going quietly. On 16 April BLT 3/4 was brought into the line.  Marines from Company A and Company C boldly charged through the enemy’s heavy barrage of mortar and machine gun fires to seize the crest by mid-afternoon.  Once the Marines secured and consolidated their positions, the mission continued to eliminate pockets of resistance. Combined, the two-company assault resulted in the loss of 50 Marines killed and wounded.

The 6thMarDiv pushed on and the peninsula was pacified on 20 April.  Organized resistance in northern Okinawa ended on 21 April 1945.  Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., commanding the division, declared his sector secure and available for further operations.  In the southern sector of the Island, all American progress came to a halt at the Shuri Line [1].

General Buckner ordered III Amphibious Corps (Lieutenant General Roy Geiger, commanding) to redeploy his Marines to the left of XXIV Corps; the US 27th Division replaced the 6thMarDiv in its mopping up operations.  Shepherd’s Marines were in place by 6th May.  Buckner ordered another advance and the 6thMarDiv was tasked with capturing the city of Naha.  4th Marines began their engagement on 19 May after relieving the 29th Marines, who by this time were fought-out.  It was a brutal form of war —up close and personal: Marines had to dislodge the Japanese in hand to hand combat.  By the time the 4th Marines reached Naha, they were ready to come off the line and were replaced by the 29th Marines.

Okinawa 1945
4th Marines assault on Naha, Okinawa. DoD picture from the public domain.

On 4 June, the 4th Marines assaulted the Oroku Peninsula, the location of the Naha airfield. It was an amphibious assault involving BLTs 1/4  and 2/4 under a blanket of naval gunfire and field artillery support.  BLT 3/4  came ashore a few hours later as the reserve force.  That afternoon, the 29th Marines came ashore and lined up next to the 4th regiment.  It was a slug-fest with a well-entrenched enemy; the battle lasted for nearly two weeks. Torrential rains and thick mud hampered the progress of Marines —mud and slime not even tracked vehicles could penetrate.  On 12 June, the outcome of the battle became self-evident.  The Japanese continued fighting, of course, but their back was to the water and there was no possibility of escape.  By this time, the Marines weren’t keen on taking prisoners. The 22nd Marines closed the back door by moving into a blocking position at the base of the peninsula.  The Japanese had but two choices: surrender or die. Most opted for the second option. General Shepherd informed III Amphibious Corps on 13 June that the peninsula belonged to the American Marines.

Following this battle, 6thMarDiv proceeded south to link up with the 1stMarDiv in the final engagement of the battle.  4th Marines returned to the front on 19 June and commenced their advance on the next morning.  The Marines encountered some resistance, but not much —the Japanese were fought out, too.  All organized resistance ended on 21 June 1945.  The 4th regiment’s casualties in the Battle of Okinawa exceeded 3,000 killed and wounded.  With Okinawa in American hands, the 4th Marines headed back to Guam for rest, retraining, and refit.  Everyone was thinking of the planned assault on the Japanese home islands; no one was happy about such a prospect.

US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place in early August.  I’m not sure most Marines knew what an atomic bomb was back then, but even among those who might have had an inkling I doubt whether many were remorseful.  Planners began to consider final preparations for occupation. With Japanese acceptance of the terms of surrender on 14 August, Task Force Alpha began to organize for seizure of key Japanese positions, including the naval base at Yokosuka in Tokyo Bay. The main element of Task Force Alpha was the 4th Marine Regiment.  The decision to assign the 4th Marines to this duty was a symbolic gesture to avenge the capture of the “old” 4th Marines on Corregidor.

The US 4th Marine regiment was the first American combat unit to land on the Japanese mainland.

As the Marines transitioned from transport ships to landing craft at 0430 on 30 August, they no doubt expected treachery from their war time foe.  No matter —the Marines were prepared for any eventuality.  First ashore was BLT 2/4, which landed at Cape Futtsu.  The Marines were the first foreign invasion force ever to set foot on Japanese soil.  Upon landing, the Marines quickly neutralized shore batteries by rendering them inoperable. After accepting the surrender of the Japanese garrison, BLT 2/4 reembarked to serve as a reserve force for the main landing at Yokosuka.  BLTs 1/4 and 3/4 landed at around 0900; 3/4 seized the naval base, and 1/4 took over the airfield.  Demilitarization of all Japanese installations was initiated as a priority; it would be better not to have loaded weapons in the hand of a recently conquered army.  For all of that, all landings were unopposed.  Japanese officials cooperated with the Marines to the best of their ability.

Task Force Alpha was disbanded on 21 September 1945 and all 6thMarDiv units were withdrawn from Japan —except one.  The Fourth Marines were placed under the operational control of the Eighth Army and the regiment was assigned to maintain the defense of the Yokosuka naval base.  This included providing interior guard and the disarming Japanese (who appeared in droves to surrender their weapons).  This duty continued until November.  President Truman had ordered rapid demobilization of the US Armed Forces. Operational control of the 4th Marines passed from Eighth Army to Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific on 20 November. At the end of the month, BLT 1/4 was ordered to proceed to Camp Pendleton, California, where it was deactivated on 29 December 1945.  The regiment’s remaining elements (except for the regimental headquarters and BLT 3/4) departed Japan on 1 January 1946.  These units were deactivated at Camp Pendleton on 20 January.  BLT 2/4 was deactivated on 31 January 1946.  BLT 3/4, still in Japan, was deactivated at Yokosuka and these Marines formed the core of a newly created 2nd Separate Guard Battalion.  They would remain in Japan to guard the naval base.

4th Marines return to China, 1945. DoD Photo from Public domain.

Headquarters 4th Marines departed Japan on 6 January for Tsingtao, China.  After four years, The China Marines had returned from whence they came.  In China, 4th Marines headquarters was re-attached to the 6th Marine Division, but the regiment really only existed on paper until 8 March 1946.  On that date, all three battalions and weapons company were reactivated in China, a matter of shifting personnel from the 22nd and 29th Marines, which were deactivated.

Occupation duty in China presented an uneasy situation for everyone concerned.  Truman wanted a smaller military, and he wanted it now, even as Marines confronted an aggressive Communist Chinese Army in North China.  The 6th Marine Division was deactivated  on 31 March.  All remaining Marine Corps units in China were re-organized as the 3rd Marine Brigade. The core element of the 3rd Brigade was the 4th Marine Regiment.  Initially, 4th Marines was the only Marine Corps regiment to retain its World War II combat organization of three battalions.  Then, on 10 June 1946, the 3rd Marine Brigade was also deactivated; operational control of the 4th Marines was transferred to the 1stMarDiv.

Truman’s reductions kept the Marine Corps in a constant state of flux.  In the second half of 1946, the 4th Marines (less its 3rd Battalion) was ordered back to the United States.  BLT 3/4 was placed under the operational control of the Commander, Naval Port Facilities, Tsingtao.  Meanwhile, the regiment’s arrival at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina on 1 October was the first time the 4th Marines had set foot inside the United States in twenty years.  As most of its veterans were discharged or reassigned, the regiment was once more reduced to a paper tiger.  In May 1947, the 1st Battalion was reactivated.  BLT 3/4, which was still in China was deactivated.  In November 1947, 4th Marines lost its traditional structure and became a four-company size organization: Headquarters Company, Company A, Company B, and Company C.  This significantly reduced structure remained in place for the next two years.  Even so, these rifle companies participated in a number of post-War exercises in the Caribbean.

In September 1948, what was left of the 4th Marines was again sent overseas aboard vessels of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea.  Cold War antagonism between the Soviet Union and United States threatened to erupt into a full-scale war.  By this time, President Truman may have realized that downsizing the US Department of Defense [2] while at the same time challenging the power of the Soviet Union wasn’t a very good idea.  Suddenly realizing the ominous consequences of a Soviet-dominated Europe, Truman began sending military and economic aid to nations menaced by Communist aggression.  Truman also decided to maintain a US presence in the Mediterranean to help ease the pressure on such countries as Greece and Turkey.  In furtherance of this policy, the Marine Corps maintained a battalion landing team (BLT) as part of the Mediterranean fleet.  The 4th Marines was re-activated from this BLT beginning in September 1948 and lasting until January 1949.  America’s “show of force” included a landing at Haifa, Palestine in October.  This detachment was ordered to proceed to Jerusalem to perform temporary guard duty at the American Consulate.

A few months after returning to the United States, the 4th Marines deployed to Puerto Rico for training exercises.  The regiment was once again deactivated on 17 October 1949.  Less than one year later, the military weakness of the United States along with other Truman administration blunders encouraged the North Koreans to invade the Republic of South Korea.

Next week: From Harry Truman’s War to the Streets Without Joy

Sources:

  1. Organization of the United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Reference Publication (MCRP) 5-12D. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 2015.
  2. Santelli, J. S. A Brief History of the Fourth Marines.  Washington: U. S. Marine Corps Historical Division, 1970

Endnotes:

[1] The Shuri-Naha-Yanabaru Line was a defensible series of positions held by the Japanese Imperial Army. It was so formidable, in fact, that during the contest, Marine Corps Commandant suggested that Tenth Army commander General Simon B. Buckner consider using the 2ndMarDiv in an amphibious assault on the southern coast of Okinawa, thereby outflanking the Japanese defenses.  Buckner rejected the proposal, which left only one strategy: frontal assault.

[2] The Department of Defense was created through the National Security Act of 1947, a major restructuring of the US military and intelligence agencies.  This act merged the War Department (renamed as Department of the Army) and Navy Department into the National Military Establishment, headed by the Secretary of Defense.  It also created the Department of the Air Force and United States Air Force and established the United States Marine Corps as a separate service under the Department of the Navy.

Hold High the Torch, Part I

The story of the Fourth Marine Regiment

EGA BlackA provisional military unit or organization is formed on an ad hoc basis for specific operations and, at the time of its creation, is never intended to become a permanent command. The Marine Corps has had several provisional organizations in the past, and in the sense of its present-day operations, continues to do this as part of the Marine-Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs). A MAGTF is an expeditionary organization formed with a specific mission or range of similar contingency operations [1].  The more complicated the mission, the larger the MAGTF.  At the conclusion of the assigned mission, ground, air, and combat support elements are returned to their parent (major) commands of the U. S. Marine Corps (e.g., divisions, wings, logistics commands).

In the Marine Corps, an infantry division provides necessary forces for amphibious assaults or in the execution of other operations as may be directed by competent authority.  A Marine Division must be able to provide ground amphibious forcible-entry capability to an amphibious task force and conduct subsequent land operations in any operational environment.  As the ground combat element of a Marine Expeditionary Force, the Marine Division may be tasked to provide task-organized forces for smaller operations.

There are three infantry regiments within a Marine Corps infantry division.  The primary mission of an infantry regiment is to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, or to repel his assault by fire and close combat. The infantry regiment consists of a headquarters company and two (or more) infantry battalions—normally, three such battalions.  Infantry battalions are the basic tactical unit with which the regiment accomplishes its mission.  The Marine Infantry Regiment is the major element of close combat power of the Marine Division.  Infantry regiments (with appropriate attachments) are capable of sustained, independent operations.  When the regiment is combined with other combat support and combat service support elements, it will form a Regimental Landing Team (RLT).  The Fourth Marine Regiment is one of these.

4th MarinesThe 4th Marines was initially activated in April 1911 to perform expedition duty.  Later re-designated a Provisional Battalion, the organization was deactivated in July of that same year.

Diplomatic relations between Mexico and the United States were strained beginning in 1910, when a series of revolutions, counter-revolutions, civil conflict, and outright banditry resulted in several incursions by Mexicans into US territory, notably in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  This was a period during which Texas sent companies of Texas Rangers into the Rio Grande Valley to protect ranches and homesteads from Mexican depredations.

In April 1914, a number of American sailors were on liberty in Tampico, Mexico from USS Dolphinwhen they were arrested by Mexican authorities.  We do not know why they were arrested, but having observed sailors on liberty in foreign ports, I have my own theory.  The Mexicans soon released the sailors and issued an apology for the arrest.  An outraged Rear Admiral Henry T. Mayo demanded that Mexican authorities render honors to the United States flag as Dolphindeparted port —this they refused to do.

Eleven days later, the United States learned that a German vessel was about to off-load a quantity of arms and munitions at Vera Cruz, Mexico.  This was a violation of an embargo against the shipment of arms to Mexico, imposed by the United States because (1) the United States failed to recognize the legitimacy of the regime of General Victoriano Huerta, and (2) the bloodshed and turmoil associated with the Mexican civil wars/revolution.  Mexico’s violation of the embargo gave President Wilson the excuse he needed to intervene.  On 21 April 1914, Wilson ordered the Navy to land the Marines and seize the customs house at Vera Cruz.

One consequence of Wilson’s directive was the re-activation of the 4th Marines at Puget Sound, Washington.

Col Pendleton 004The newly re-formed 4th Marines was initially composed of its headquarters company and the 24th, 26th, and 27th rifle companies.  Colonel Joseph H. Pendleton, with considerable experience commanding expeditionary units, was ordered to assume command of the regiment.  Within only two days, the regiment embarked aboard USS South Dakota and sailed for San Francisco, California.  At Mare Island, four additional companies joined the regiment: the 31st and 32nd companies boarded South Dakota, and the 34th and 35th companies embarked aboard USS Jupiter.  Both ships set sail almost immediately after loading the Marines.

On that same day, 21 April, USS Prairie landed 502 Marines in Vera Cruz from the 2nd Advanced Base Regiment.  Marine Detachments and 295 sailors (bluejackets) from USS Florida and USS Utah also went ashore as a provisional battalion.  The Mexican commander at Vera Cruz was General Gustavo Maass who, owing to a great deal of common sense, withdrew his forces from the city.  The American landing force was unopposed but taking control of the city was not as easy. Fierce fighting began when cadets of the Vera Cruz Naval Academy, supported by fifty-or-so Mexican soldiers and untrained citizens resisted the US invasion force.  Naval artillery destroyed the Naval Academy and its cadets. Afterward, the Marines took complete control of the city with little difficulty.

South Dakota and Jupiter arrived at Mazatlán on 28 April 1914, with South Dakota ordered to proceed further south into Acapulco harbor.  Within a week, USS West Virginia arrived at Mazatlán with reinforcements, the 28th and 36th rifle companies.  The 4th Marines was now comprised of ten rifle companies (three battalions) and all of its forces were in Mexican waters primed for action while stationary off the West Coast of Mexico.

The naval force remained in Mexican waters through June 1914.  The 4th Marines would only be put ashore if the situation demanded it.  By the end of June, Wilson had decided to support his own dictator of choice and with the election of Venustiano Carranza, tensions between Mexico and the United States eased.  Wilson permitted the supply of arms and munitions to Carranza; the 4th Marines were withdrawn from Mexican waters.

Upon return to the United States, most of the regiment established its base of operations at San Diego, California; 1st Battalion (Major John T. Myers, Commanding) was (initially) ordered to return to Mare Island.  The 1st Battalion later relocated to San Francisco, where a “model camp” was established on the grounds of the Panama-Pacific Exposition [2].  Meanwhile, regimental headquarters and four rifle companies occupied a new camp on North Island. Owing to the success of the 1st Battalion’s model camp in San Francisco, Colonel Pendleton was tasked to do the same at the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego.  The 2nd Battalion, operating under the command of Major William N. McKelvy [3] was designated to assume this assignment.

Then, in 1915, marauding Indians threatened the lives and property of Americans living in the Mexican state of Sonora. As Mexico had not taken any worthwhile measures to prevent these attacks, or to defend the Americans, relations between the US and Mexico were once more strained.  USS Colorado was dispatched with BLT 2/4(-) [4], arriving off Guaymas on 20 June.  Again, the Marines were withheld from going ashore.

In November 1915, Mexican revolutionaries and Yaqui Indian depredations prompted the dispatch of Marines to Mexico, this time involving the regimental headquarters and BLT 1/4 reinforced by the 25thand 28thcompanies.  USS San Diego anchored off shore adjacent to Topolobampo, which exerted pressure on Mexican authorities to act in ending threats to American lives and property.  Again, the Marines did not execute a landing in Mexico.

In the spring of 1916, civil war broke out in the Dominican Republic.  Once more, by presidential order, Marines were ordered to intervene.  See Also: Dominican Operations (in three parts).  The regiment remained in the Dominican Republic until August 1924.

After returning to San Diego, California, the 4th Marines began receiving Marines from a recently deactivated 7th Marine Regiment.  With so many years of peace keeping and constabulary duties in the Dominican Republic and the arrival of new personnel, the regiment began a series of training operations to reorient the Marines to their intended purpose: landing force operations, which have always been a complex undertaking.  Training included maneuvers in the Hawaiian Islands.  Normal peace time operations were interrupted in 1925 when 2/4 was dispatched to aid local authorities in Santa Barbara, California. An earthquake had severely damaged the city.  Duty for these Marines involved general assistance to the civil government and for augmenting law enforcement agencies in restoring order, guarding property, and preventing looting.

In October 1925, the 4th Marines was reorganized to include a third rifle battalion, but for whatever reason this battalion was deactivated within nine months.  In 1926, following a series of mail robberies, the President ordered the Secretary of the Navy to assign Marines to mail protection duties.  The United States was divided into two zones of operations.  Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler was placed in overall charge of the western operations and the 4th Marines became America’s mail guards.  Units of the 4th Marines were deployed throughout the western states.  Their mission not only included guarding trains and postal trucks, but also post-office guards and railway stations.  See also: General Order Number One.  Not even the American mob wanted to tangle with Marines; by 1927, the number of mail robberies had dropped to nearly zero and, as the postal department had created its own system of armed guards, the 4th Marines were sent back to San Diego, California.

Our world is not now and has never been free of conflict.  In early 1927, threats to the security of the International Settlement in Shanghai, China sent the 4th Marines to deal with the problem.  The 4th Marine Regiment subsequently spent so much of its time in China that they became known throughout the Corps as “The China Marines.” Of the number of Marine officers assigned to China with the 4th Marines, six went on to serve as Commandant of the Marine Corps: Alexander A. Vandegrift, Clifton B. Cates, Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., Randolph M. Pate, David M. Shoup, and Wallace M. Green.  See also: The China Marines (series).

Tensions within the International Settlement in Shanghai never quite subsided, particularly since the Japanese adopted an aggressive stance in China.  See also: Pete Ellis-Oracle.  With a large contingent of Japanese forces located on the outside of Shanghai, their command authority embarked on a systematic program to undermine the position of the Western powers in the International Settlement.  It then became the mission of the Marines to thwart any Japanese attempt to change the status quo of the American sector.  The reality of the situation, however, was that should the Japanese have made an overt attempt to seize the American sector, the Marines would receive no assistance from other foreign military contingents. The atmosphere in China after the outbreak of the European war in 1939 was tense; the future of China uncertain. Italy, at the time an official ally of Japan, placed no value in preserving the International Settlement.  The situation worsened in 1940 when Italy became actively involved as an ally of Germany against Great Britain and France. It was a downward spiral: The Vichy government of France ordered French forces not to interfere with Japanese military intentions in Shanghai, whatever they might be.  At this time, the only obstacle to Japanese aggression in the International Settlement was the 4th Marine Regiment.

In early 1941, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, Commander-in-Chief, Asiatic Fleet concluded that war with Japan was inevitable. Accordingly, on his own initiative, he began withdrawing his most exposed units.  He recommended to President Roosevelt the withdrawal the 4th Marines, as well.  Roosevelt still had not made his decision by September 1941; the situation had by then become dire.  US intelligence sources uncovered evidence that Japan was planning to implement a series of incidents that would give them an excuse for seizing the American sector of the International Settlement.  Roosevelt finally acted and ordered all naval personnel out of China —including, finally, the 4th Marines.  Complete evacuation of the American sector was ordered on 10 November 1941.

On 27 November, Headquarters 4th Marines and the 1st Battalion embarked aboard SS President Madison.  The rest of the regiment boarded SS President Harrison the next day: destination, Philippine Islands. The situation was serious enough to cause the navy to assign four US submarines to escort these contracted troop ships to the Philippines.  Not so amazingly, the Japanese knew the full details of the Navy’s withdrawal operations, including the names of the ships and their destinations —even before either ship arrived in Chinese waters.  One reminder to all hands during World War II was, “Loose lips, sinks ships.”

The unhappy story of the 4th Marines in the Philippine Islands is provided as part of a series titled On to Corregidor. As a result of this debacle, the regimental commander, Colonel Samuel L. Howard ordered the United States Flag and the Regimental Colors burned to avoid their capture by Japanese forces in the Philippines.  At that moment, the 4th Marine Regiment ceased to exist.  The date was 6 May 1942.

American Marines are a proud lot.  There was no way on earth that Marine Corps leadership would allow the 4th Marines to pass into history.  On 1 February 1944, the 4th Marine Regiment was reactivated, reconstituted from units of the 1st Raider Regiment.  What the Marines needed more of at this stage of the Pacific war was infantry battalions, and fewer “special purpose” battalions.  In any case, the reactivation of 4th Marines was unique in the sense that the lineage and honors of both the “old” 4th Marines and 1st Raider regiment were passed on to the “new” 4th Marine Regiment.  The regiment’s  first operation was the seizure of Emirau Island in the St. Mathias Group.  America needed  airfields, and since you can’t construct these with Japanese soldiers running all over the place, the Marines were send to terminate all Japanese forces with extreme prejudice.  The Japanese, having anticipated that the Americans wanted this island withdrew some time before the landing.  The 4th Marines first amphibious landing was unopposed. There was no need for these Marines to worry, though.  Marine Corps leadership found something for them to do —they went to Guam.  The Battle for Guam is presented in sections.

Next on the agenda for the 4thMarines was the Battle for Okinawa—a brutal slog-fest lasting from 1 April 1945 to 22 June 1945.  In this awful battle, the 4thMarines would serve alongside the 15thMarines, 22ndMarines, and 29thMarines and part of the 6thMarine Division.  That story will continue next week.

Sources:

  1. Organization of the United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Reference Publication (MCRP) 5-12D. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 2015.
  2. Santelli, J. S. A Brief History of the Fourth Marines.  Washington: U. S. Marine Corps Historical Division, 1970

Endnotes:

[1] Navy task forces operate on a similar basis.

[2] Commemorating 400thanniversary of Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the opening of the Panama Canal.

[3] Colonel McKelvy (1869-1933) received his commission as a Marine officer after graduating from the US Naval Academy in 1893.  McKelvy served during the Spanish-American War and was awarded the Brevet Medal for extraordinary courage under fire during his service in Cuba, 1898.

[4] (-) indicates that some portion of the battalion’s organic assets have been detached.

The Hill Fights

881-N
Hill 881N as seen from 881S

Increases in elevation on military maps are measured in meters above sea level.  A section of terrain that rises above its surroundings is generally regarded as a hill.  On military maps, hills are designated as a number that equates to the number of meters its summit rises above sea level.  For example, a hill designated 861 has a summit that rises 861 meters above sea level.  Note: Until the mid-twentieth century, the official definition of a hill was a rise in land with summits less than 1,000 feet above sea level, but this definition was abandoned.  Today, there is no official distinction between hills and mountains.

Hills aren’t uniform things, of course.  Some are natural formations, others are man-made (usually called mounds).  Forces of nature shape hills through erosion and land movement, producing such things as ridges and saddles.  And there are different kinds of hills.  A drumlin is a long hill formed by the movement of glaciers. A butte is a hill that stands alone in a flat landscape.  A tor is a rock formation on top of a hill.  A puy is a cone-shaped, volcanic hill, while a pingo is a mound of ice covered with earth.

Higher elevations allow humans to establish defenses, particularly when the hills are heavily forested or covered by thick shrub.  During the Viet Nam War, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) sought to make use of an extensive network of hills and caves to challenge US and South Vietnamese forces.  The hills in the northern regions of South Viet Nam did not stop the U. S. Marines from finding and killing them.

881-001This is an account of the First Battle of Khe Sanh, also known as the Hill Fights.  The NVA 325C Division [1] occupied significant portions of Hills 861, 881-S(outh), and 881-N(orth), which overlooked the Khe Sanh combat base in I Corps. On 20 April 1967, operational control of Khe Sanh passed to the 3rd Marine Regiment (3rd Marines).  The 3rd Marines had just initiated OPERATION PRAIRIE IV, and although the Khe Sanh area was not included as part of the operational area, it was a territorial appendage assigned to the 3rd Marines because that regiment was in the best position to oversee and reinforce the base if necessary.

On 22nd April the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines (2/3) commenced Operation BEACON STAR (a search and destroy operation) in the southern portion of Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces against elements of the VC 6th Regiment, which at the time included the 810th and 812th battalions.

On 23 April 1967 Marines of the first and third platoons of Company B, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment (B/1/9) were conducting security patrols (unrelated to Beacon Star) in the area north and east of Hill 861.  Late in the afternoon, the Bravo Company commander, Captain Michael W. Sayers [2], ordered these platoons to link up and establish a night position north of 861 in preparation for a sweep the following morning. Of interest to the Marines was a cave complex located to the northwest.

On 24 April 1967, 2ndLt Thomas G. King’s 2nd Platoon, B/1/9 led his 30 Marines and an 81mm mortar section to Hill 700, south of Hill 861.  Their mission was to provide additional fire support for a company sweep to the northwest.  Once the mortar section was in position, 1stLt Phil Sauer led four men (including a forward observer [3]) to the top of Hill 861 to establish an observation post.  As soon as the FO team entered a bamboo thicket NVA forces ambushed them.  The first Marine was instantly killed.  1stLt Sauer ordered a withdrawal, remaining behind firing at the enemy with his side arm as his men attempted to reach safety. Only the forward observer managed to escape.  This was the opening engagement of the First Battle of Khe Sanh [4].

2ndLt King, having lost radio contact [5] with the FO team, but being aware of the firefight, dispatched a rifle squad to investigate the incident.  As the squad moved forward, it came upon the FO, the team’s only survivor.  The squad returned to the area of contact to recover the other members of the team. Enemy fire kept them from retrieving the dead Marines.  The rifle squad returned to King’s mortar position.

King radioed for artillery support and then led another squad to the ambush site.  Marine artillery and air support missions pounded the hill with napalm, white phosphorous, 500-pound bombs, and gunship fire —measures that appeared to have no discernible effect on the enemy.  By the time King arrived back at the ambush site, the enemy had withdrawn, and he was able to recover two bodies.  Two other Marines were initially unaccounted for [6].

www.richard-seaman.com
USMC UH-34

King withdrew his men to a location suitable for helicopter landing and ignited a smoke grenade marking his position and called for a medevac.  A UH-34 came in for the extraction, but no sooner had its wheels touched the deck, the whole crest of Hill 861 opened up with automatic weapons.  The chopper was hit 35 times in a matter of seconds. King’s men took cover as two UH-1E gunship escorts delivered withering fire toward the enemy positions.  As the NVA fire fell off, King’s Marines loaded the bodies aboard the helicopter, and it took off.  King and his men returned to the mortar position.

King was soon joined by Captain Sayers, who radioed the first and third platoons to sweep further east across Hill 861 and strike the NVA from the rear.  The two platoons were positioned roughly 2,000 meters (1.2 miles) northwest of their new objective.  As these two platoons turned toward their new objective, five enemy mortars dropped among them, killing one Marine and wounded several others.  The Marine advance continued [7] until halted by intense enemy fire.

After an intense engagement, with Marines running low on ammunition, they withdrew back over the crest of the hill and called for medevac assistance for their wounded comrades.  Two landing attempts were thwarted by enemy fire; the grunts took several more casualties.  Sayers ordered them to withdraw to a more secure position and dig in the night.  From the outset, Sayers realized that the NVA presence on Hill 861 was formidable.  Bravo Company Marines (through good patrolling) had forced the NVA into a premature revelation of their plan to seize Khe Sanh [8].  NVA forces operating in the hills around Khe Sanh were about to receive more attention from the Marines than they had hoped for; in addition to an influx of more ground units, Hill 861 was soon receiving massive quantities of napalm and 500-pound bombs.  The NVA had broken cardinal rule number one: do not shoot at a US Marine.  Bravo Company’s losses for this day were 14 dead, 17 wounded.

The job of engaging the NVA in the hills around Khe Sanh fell to Colonel John P. Lanigan’s 3rd Marine Regiment.  Twenty-two years earlier, Lanigan had been engaged in a similar mission, one that earned him the Silver Star Medal during the Battle for Okinawa.  Prior to the incident involving King’s second platoon, Lanigan planned to replace Company B with K/3/3 on 29 April.  The events of 24th April changed that plan.

On the morning of 25 April, dense fog at Khe Sanh delayed the arrival of the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines (3/3), commanded by LtCol Gary Wilder.  By the time 3/3 arrived at Khe Sanh,  Captain Sayers’ Bravo Company had begun its advance on Hill 861.  Heavy fog, difficult terrain, and concentrations of enemy fire hampered the company’s progress.  Radio communications with HQ 3rd Marines was hampered by the fact that Sayers did not have 3/3’s radio frequencies.  Sayers was also convinced that the enemy was monitoring radio communications, so he sent coded messages back to his rear echelon, who passed that information to the regimental headquarters.

Shortly after arriving at Khe Sanh, Colonel Wilder began moving his battalion north to assist B/1/9. Captain Bayliss L. Spivey, Jr., commanding Kilo Company 3/3 reached the base of Hill 861 around 1500 hours and deployed his platoons on two axes: first platoon moved up along a ridgeline, followed by the company command group.  Third platoon advanced along another ridgeline on the right flank.  Kilo’s under-strength second platoon provided security for the battalion command group and a 60mm mortar section.  Spivey had his Marines positioned for an attack at 1530. Artillery check fire was in effect as the Marines closed with the enemy.

On order from Spivey, First platoon (1PLT) continued its advance through the heavy foliage on the ridgeline.  Three hundred meters from the crest, 1PLT made contact with an NVA company-size unit and encountered heavy grazing fire from well-fortified positions and mortars from reverse slope locations.  US counter-mortar and artillery was ineffective in silencing NVA mortars. 1PLT continued its attack for another 200 meters, but by 1730, the platoon had been reduced to only ten combat-effective Marines.  With darkness approaching, Spivey needed additional Marines on the line.  Irregular terrain hindered 3PLT from providing immediate assistance.  Spivey requested the release of 2PLT from 3/3 and was soon engaged in heavy combat, which continued until nightfall.  Captain Spivey ordered his Marines to dig in for the night.

881-004Bravo Company also had a hard day.  Enemy fire prevented helicopter evacuations of Sayers’ wounded; attached Navy corpsmen were nearly exhausted.  Bravo company’s advance was limited to less than a half-mile to a position 800 meters northwest of Hill 861.

Heavy enemy resistance necessitated a call for more Marines. Captain J. E. Giles’ K/3/9 was flown to Khe Sanh from Camp Carroll.  Arriving after sundown, Giles’ company remained at Khe Sanh for the night.

The NVA launched a massive mortar assault against the 3/3 command group at 0500 on 26 April.  At the same time, NVA mortared the Khe Sanh combat base.  The shelling caused no damage at Khe Sanh, but the attack revealed a heavy NVA presence on Hill 881-S.  From information provided by Captain Sayers, Marine artillery blanketed the eastern slope of 881-S, which silenced the NVA’s recoilless rifles [9].  The mortars were more difficult to target.

K/3/9 departed Khe Sanh at 0800, arriving at the 3/3 command post (CP) at noon.  Spivey’s K/3/3 had been heavily engaged throughout the morning. NVA forces, operating from strongly fortified positions, repelled every attempt to seize the crest of the hill. By noon, Spivey’s 3PLT had taken so many casualties that it was unable to withdraw.  Wilder ordered Giles to send two platoons to help Spivey disengage and evacuate the dead and wounded.  The two companies linked up, but despite the effective use of helicopter gunships, efforts to disengage lasted until 1900.

Sayers’ Bravo company was also stopped by fierce enemy resistance.  Well-concealed enemy allowed the Marines to advance to within five meters before opening up on them.  It was a killing zone.  Sayers and his first sergeant were wounded.  NVA mortars produced additional casualties.  Nevertheless, Bravo Company gained fire superiority at noon, and the enemy withdrew.  Sayers moved his Marines to the top of a small knoll and called for medevac assistance. As the helicopters began the descent, the Marines waived them off because the aircraft were helping the NVA to pinpoint their position.  At 1445, Sayers informed Wilder that he had so many casualties he could not move his Marines further.

Colonel Wilder ordered Sayers to leave his dead and bring out his wounded.  Sayers reiterated that he could not move, even with only his wounded. Resupply was impossible.  Bravo Company had five operational radios remaining; batteries were running low.  Captain Glen Golden, commanding Battery F, 12th Marines at Khe Sanh, managed to place a ring of steel around Sayer’s position.

Wilder sent Giles and his one remaining platoon to assist Sayers.  It took Giles four hours to reach Company B.  Under the cover of darkness, heavy fog and rain, Giles and Sayers began their withdrawal.  Every man (except point and rear guard) carried stretchers of wounded and dead Marines and their equipment.  The weary Marines finally reached Wilder’s CP at 0500 on 27 April.  The few Bravo Company Marines who remained effective refused to ride trucks back to Khe Sanh.  They marched in.

Commanding the 3rd Marine Division, Major General Bruno Hochmuth [10] realized that 3/3 was an insufficient force to carry Hill 861. He shifted the Special Landing Force [11] (SLF) Battalion (2/3) under LtCol Earl R. Delong back to the 3rd Marines.  2/3 had been conducting Operation BEACON STAR at a location 16  miles north of Hue City.  The battalion was loaded on to helicopters beginning around noon on 26 April and flown to Phu Bai.  From there, the battalion was loaded aboard C-130s and dispatched to Khe Sanh.  By 1600, the 2/3 command group and letter companies E, G, and H had arrived and began their movement toward Hill 861. 2/3 set into night positions 500 meters east of Wilder’s battalion.

27 April was a day for preparations.  3/3 completed medevac operations by 1130 and moved to Khe Sanh for replacements.  Colonel Lanigan transferred M/3/9 and M/3/3 to Wilder’s battalion as relief for K/3/3 and B/1/9 —both of which were no longer capable of combat operations.  F/2/3 arrived from Phu Bai and was assigned as regimental reserve.  Battery B 12th Marines arrived at Khe Sanh at 1900 and was ready for firing missions by 2045.  Together, Batteries B and F had linked in such a manner as to allow them to perform artillery support as an artillery group.  Each battery served in direct support of an infantry battalion; two 155mm howitzers and two 4.2-inch mortars were allocated as general support of regimental operations.

Throughout 27-28th April, artillery and air delivered munitions focused on the NVA positions. The Army’s 175mm guns, situated farther east, began pouring high explosives onto Hill 861.  It was a 24-hour long onslaught of artillery and air-delivery munitions.  Snake-eye [12] munitions were used to clear away the dense vegetation so that other aircraft, armed with 750, 1,000, and 2,000-pound bombs could destroy the NVA’s well-fortified bunkers.  A preponderance of these air missions were performed by the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW).

Late in the afternoon of 28 April, the infantry was ready to resume their attack.  Colonel Lanigan decided on a two-battalion assault to achieve three objectives: Hill 861 was Objective 1; Hill 881-S was Objective 2; Hill 881-N was the final objective.  Delong’s 2/3 would seize Objective 1 on 28 April.  Wilder’s 3/3 would follow 2/3.  After Delong achieved his objective, Wilder’s Marines would turn west, secure the ground between 861 and 881-S, then assault Objective 2 from the northeast.  As Wilder went into the attack, Delong would consolidate Objective 1 and then move out toward 881-N, screening Wilder’s right flank, reinforcing him if necessary. After securing Objectives 1 and 2, Delong would continue on to achieve Objective 3, Hill 881-N.

861-002Following preparatory fires, 2/3 assaulted 861 with two companies abreast.  Beyond sporadic mortar fire, there was no NVA resistance; the NVA had withdrawn.  Both companies dug in on the crest, the command group and reserve took up positions on the southern slope.  The stench of human remains permeated the entire hill. Marines discovered more than 400 mutually supporting fighting holes and 25 interlocking reinforced bunkers.

Once Delong declared 861 secure, 3/3 took up their position on the west flank of 2/3.  Wilder began his advance early the next morning. M/3/9 was the lead element.  At 1120, Mike Company’s point encountered an NVA platoon is a draw.  The company commander called for artillery and air support.  At about the same time, M/3/3 advanced to take the lead. Objective 2 was achieved at around 1915 with scant enemy contact.  3/3 dug in for the night.  Shortly after laying in their defenses, M/3/3 observed an NVA mortar team attempting to set up on Hill 881S and called in artillery.  The NVA were able to fire four rounds before being dusted by the 12th Marines.  An hour later, Marine listening posts (LPs) detected enemy movement outside their perimeter.  The company FO adjusted variable time (VT) fuzed artillery fire [13] on the enemy’s position.  Marines could hear the NVA screaming as artillery destroyed them. The Marines were not bothered for the rest of the night.

At first light on 30 April, Wilder prepared to assault 881-S and Delong moved off 861.  Delong’s mission was to clear the area on Wilder’s right flank and secure positions for the assault on Objective 3.  Company H 3/3 encountered two NVA platoons in a bunker complex.  After a particularly vicious firefight, Hotel Company backed off to evacuate casualties: 9 dead, 43 wounded.  Artillery fire was directed onto the NVA positions.  Later that day, Hotel 3/3 assaulted the bunker complex and secured it. Of this assault, the Marines concluded that the NVA regular was every bit as fanatical as the World War II Japanese Imperial Army.

The next morning, following preparatory fires, Colonel Wilder began his assault on 881-S.  He wasn’t sure where the NVA positions were, but 33 air sorties and 1,300 artillery rounds should have done some damage.  The terrain on Wilder’s approach was broken, restricted access to the ridge line, and severely constrained the maneuver of his line companies.  M/3/3 took the lead, followed by K/3/9.  By 1030, the lead platoon reached the western end of the top of the hill, having encountered only occasional small arms fire.  A second platoon moved up and together launched an assault on enemy positions.

NVA defended with automatic weapons from well-concealed bunkers and accurate sniper fire.  Thirty mortar rounds fell on these Marines.  They were stuck —unable to advance or withdraw.  NVA infantry from bypassed (unseen) bunkers blocked their way out.  K Company and the 3rd platoon of Mike Company advanced into the savage battle.  UH-1E gunships and attack aircraft streaked in dropping bombs within 50 meters of the Marine line.  Wilder ordered his Marines to disengage and pull back off the hill.  It took the Marines several hours to disentangle themselves.  They brought out their wounded but could not evacuate the dead.  Forty-three Marines were killed, 109 were wounded. Mike Company was rendered ineffective.

Fox Company 2/3 was brought in from reserve.  With the reserve committed and no other to replace it, General Hochmuth committed another rifle company to the hill fight: Company E 2/9 was flown in to Khe Sanh.  Marine artillery and aircraft reengaged Hill 881-S.

Wilder was ready to resume his attack on the morning of 2 May.  M/3/9 and K/3/9 led off in that order.  By 1420, the Marines had secured the hill, having encountered only sporadic sniper fire.  Wilder established his CP on 881-S and dug in for the night with two assault companies. F/2/9, the most recent arrival, took up a position on the intermediate objective.

The NVA had prepared around 250 bunkers on Hill 881-S.  After four days of heavy air strikes and artillery fire, 50 of these remained. The bunkers were wired for communications and arranged with interlocking fields of fire.  The extent of these bunkers surprised the Marines, but their discovery alerted Colonel Delong of what he might expect on 881-N.

Since 28 April, Delong’s Marines had been sweeping the area northwest of the hill, carefully checking its ravines and ridgelines.  By the morning of 2 May, Delong was ready to begin his objective.  Echo Company 2/3 assaulted the hill from the south; Golf 2/3 moved in from the east.  Hotel 2/3 was in reserve between the maneuver companies.  Golf made contact almost immediately and after a brief firefight, moved back and called in artillery.  After the artillery was lifted, Golf moved forward again, encountering automatic weapons fire and mortars.  Additional supporting arms silenced the enemy.  Hotel Company moved into position to support Golf and also came under mortar fire, which ceased when Golf called in for additional artillery.

Echo Company had almost battled its way to the crest of the hill when a fierce rain squall lashed at the hills.  Delong, realizing that control of his men under these circumstances would be impossible, pulled the battalion back to a more defensible position and ordered his Marines to dig in for the night.  Early in the morning of 3 May, the NVA launched a strong counter-attack.  Echo Company set in on a small hill 500 meters south of Hill 881-N received small arms fire and incoming mortars.  This was followed by a two-company NVA assault.  The engagement soon devolved into hand-to-hand combat with the NVA penetrating the line on the northeast quarter. The NVA either killed or wounded all the Marines in this area.  They then moved into a tree line in the middle of the company position and reoccupied bunkers that the engineers had yet to destroy.

106mm Recoiless RifleAbout ten minutes after the initial attack, First Lieutenant Frank Izenour (whose platoon held the western section of the perimeter), received orders to take a squad of Marines and seal off the penetration. With the second squad in tow, Izenour moved forward but was immediately taken under fire by two machine gun positions; several of his men were hit.  Izenour called for reinforcements.

Captain Alfred Lyon did not want to weaken the 1st platoon further, so he organized eleven engineers and sent them into the fight.  Both squads took positions on the left edge of the penetration and fired into the enemy’s flank.  With the help of artillery and on-call gunships, the Marines stalled the NVA attack, but Izenour still did not have sufficient strength to drive out two companies of NVA regulars.  A flare ship arrived and transformed the dark of night into day.  From 881-S, the Marines of 3/3 could see about 200 NVA soldiers moving toward Echo Company from the west.  106mm recoilless rifles were quickly positioned; 100 rounds were fired into the enemy’s flank, which broke up the assault.  Additional artillery pounded the NVA as they withdrew.

881-003By first light, the Marines had shattered the NVA attack, but some enemy soldiers remained inside the company perimeter.  At 0700, Fox 2/3 moved into the line and one platoon was quickly transferred by helicopter to Echo Company’s position.  These Marines immediately attacked the southern edge of the penetration.  Delong ordered Hotel Company to close in on the enemy’s rear.  Echo and Hotel companies finally managed to seal the breach. After a short rest, Hotel Company began the difficult task of eliminating NVA in the bunkers and tree line. Bitter close-quarters fighting continued until 1500 when the company commander declared all bunkers cleared of the enemy.  The NVA had fought to the last man.  Company E lost 27 Marines KIA with 84 wounded.  NVA dead covered the battle area.  Only three prisoners were taken, these all admitting that another attack was scheduled for the night of 4 May.

Despite Delong’s preparations for that night, the expected attack never came.  Instead, an NVA company attacked the Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei.  The attack had no effect on The Hill Fight, but it was a tactical victory for the NVA, who quickly penetrated the camp’s defenses and killed everyone they could find, including the Special Forces Detachment Commander and his Executive Officer. The NVA then began destroying vital equipment.  Despite artillery fire from the Marines at Khe Sanh, the NVA withdrew with only light casualties.  South Vietnamese irregulars at Lang Vei were destroyed: 20 killed, 39 missing.

Given the attack at Lang Vei, General Hochmuth ordered Company C, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines flown in from Phu Bai to bolster security at Khe Sanh.  On 5 May, Delong’s Marines advanced toward the final objective. While organizing his Marines for the assault, artillery and air strikes dropped tons of munitions on Hill 881-N. E/2/3 and F/2/3 took the lead, meeting steadily increasing resistance.  The Marines halted their advance on several occasions while additional artillery could soften up the enemy’s opposition.  Echo Company established a base of fire while Fox Company resumed the advance and Golf Company made an envelopment maneuver.  By now, the only resistance encountered was sporadic sniper fire.  2/3 achieved the objective at 1445.

For the next three days, Marines conducted sweeps of the area, searching the hills for any additional NVA presence.  Engineers destroyed all remaining bunkers.  Marine air attacked suspected enemy positions to the north and west. Air observers reported enemy troops moving toward the northwest, indicating that the 325C Division was withdrawing toward Laos and North Vietnam.

During The Hill Fight, 1stMAW flew more than 1,100 sorties, expended 1,900 tons of ordnance.  USAF B-52s made 23 air strikes against enemy concentrations.  Combined Marine and Army artillery fired 25,000 rounds.  NVA casualties between 24 April and 11 May stood at 940 confirmed killed. Of the Marines, 155 were killed in action, 423 suffered combat wounds.

Sources:

  1. Telfer, G. L. and others. U. S. Marines in Viet Nam: Fighting the North Vietnamese.  History & Museums Division, HQ U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C.  1984
  2. “Arrow of Death.” Time Magazine, 12 May 1967

Endnotes:

[1] The 325th Infantry Division was first formed in 1951 from independent units in Thua Thien Province, one of six “iron and steel” divisions of the Viet Minh.  The 325th Division remains part of the Army of Viet Nam.

[2] Sayers was responsible for the security of the Khe Sanh combat base.  Conducting security patrols in the surrounding area was part of that responsibility.

[3] Forward observers are trained to direct artillery and close air support to enemy positions within the battle space.

[4] Communist gunners held their fire until Marines were at near point-blank distance from concealed machine gun positions and made liberal use of their 82mm mortars, the blasting radius of which was about 40 meters.

[5] Line of sight propagation is a characteristic of electromagnetic radiation or acoustic wave propagation.  The means that radio waves travel in a direct path from source to receiver. Mountainous terrain interrupts these signals.

[6] The bodies of the two missing Marines were later found.  The NVA had decapitated them.

[7] Advancing toward the enemy is a standard defense against mortar attack.

[8] The NVA plan for Khe Sanh was a rehash of the one they had used against the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  First, a major effort to build up troops and supplies; second, isolation of Khe Sanh by targeting helicopters and cutting the main supply route; third, launch diversionary assaults at Con Thien, Dong Ha, Gio Linh, Phu Bai, and Lang Vei.

[9] Recoilless rifles provide a lightweight artillery capability to forward units.  It fires a 105mm shell that has a destructive effect on troops operating in mountainous areas where heavy artillery is much too cumbersome.

[10] MajGen Hochmuth was killed on 14 November 1967 when his helicopter exploded mid-air.  Hochmuth was the most senior US military officer killed in the Viet Nam War.  He was succeeded in command by BrigGen Louis Metzger, the Assistant Division Commander, previously Commanding General, 9thMAB.

[11] The special landing forces belonged to the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade as part of a naval task force, designated Task Force 79.  When the SLF went ashore, operational control of the battalion landing teams (BLTs) were transferred to the senior operational commander ashore.

[12] Snake-eye refers to the high drag fin system of the Mk-82 bomb, but the fin configuration was also used on all Mk-8 series munitions.  The Mk-82 is an unguided, low drag, general purpose bomb.  In low-level operations, it is possible for the delivery aircraft to receive damage from the blast and fragmentation effects of the bomb because the aircraft and bomb arrive at the target very close to the same time.  This was the reason for the high-drag tail fin configuration.

[13] VT fuze detonates an artillery round several meters above the ground, which increases fragmentation and kill radius.  Air bursts are especially effective against troops in the open or in unprotected positions, such as fox holes or open trenches.