Operations in the Dominican Republic, Part II

1917-4 EGAOn 1 June 1916, Marines aboard USS Sacramento, USS Panther, and USS Lamson went ashore to seize the strategic ports at Puerto Plata and Monte Cristi.  Monte Cristi was taken without any resistance, but the Marines at Puerto Plata had to fight their way into the town, which was defended by 500 irregular forces supporting General Arias.  Captain Herbert J. Hershinger, leading the Marines at Puerto Plata was killed; the first Marine killed in the Dominican Republic.  Dominican loses were estimated as light because the Marines exercised great restraint while entering the city.  Colonel Kane added four rifle companies as reinforcements for the Marines at Monte Cristi and Puerto Plata.

Admiral Caperton messaged the Navy Department for additional Marines for the Dominican Republic campaign.  On 4 June, Major General Commandant George Barnett ordered the 4th Marine Regiment to proceed from San Diego, California to New Orleans. A week later the 4th Marines, Colonel Joseph H. Pendleton [1] (Uncle Joe), commanding, embarked aboard USS Hancock for passage to Santo Domingo.  The regiment arrived in DomRep on 21 June and by his seniority, Colonel Pendleton assumed command of all land forces.  The colonel and his staff began preparations for an assault against Arias’ stronghold at Santiago.

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Brigadier General Pendleton USMC National Archives

Pendleton planned for two columns of Marines to converge simultaneously on Santiago.  The 4th Marines with artillery would march by road from Monte Cristi; a second column consisting of the 4th and 9th companies, reinforced by Marines from ship’s detachments aboard USS Rhode Island and USS New Jersey would follow a rail line inland from Puerto Plata [2].  These two groups would form up at Navarette and aggress Santiago.  The first column, the largest number of Marines —with the longest route of march, would temporarily halt its march at a half-way point to rest and resupply.  The second column would seize the railroad connecting Santiago with the seacoast, thus establishing a main supply line for the combined force in its assault and later occupation of the Santiago.

Before commencing operations, Colonel Pendleton issued specific orders to his men that defined their mission and the principals that would govern their conduct in the Dominican Republic [3].

“… our work in this country is not one of invasion; we are here to restore and preserve peace and order, and to protect life and property, and to support the Constituted government.  Members of this command will therefore realize that we are not in an enemy’s country, though many of the inhabitants may be inimical to us, and they will be careful to so conduct themselves as to inspire confidence among the people in the honesty of our intentions and the sincerity of our purpose.  Officers will act toward the people with courtesy, dignity, and firmness, and will see that their men do nothing to arouse or foster the antagonism toward us that can be naturally expected towards as armed force that many interested malcontents will endeavor to persuade the citizens to look upon as invaders. Minimum force should be used at all times, but armed opposition or attack will be sharply and firmly met and suppressed with force of arms.”

—Joseph H. Pendleton, Colonel, Commanding

Colonel Pendleton’s Marines, consisting of 34 officers and 803 enlisted men began their 75-mile march on 26 June 1916.  He organized his force with the expectation of ambush and combat.  An advance guard of Marines mounted on locally procured horses led the column along the Santiago Road.  They preceded the main body at a distance of 800-1,000 yards.  The supply train consisted of 24 mule-pulled carts, 7 motorized trucks with trailers, 2 motorized water carts, a water wagon, a tractor pulling four carts, with eleven Ford touring cars [4] followed the main body of troops. Supplies were guarded by the 6th Company.  A signal detachment maintained a tenuous telephone line between Colonel Pendleton’s headquarters and the coastal base.

On day one, the Marines marched sixteen miles without meeting enemy resistance. That night, however, one of the trucks that had been dispatched for water came under fire.  Corporal Leo P. Carter, from the 13th Company, received serious wounds.

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Marines march to Santiago

A major engagement occurred on the next day near Las Trencheras.  Dominican rebels had prepared trenches on two hills, one behind the other, which blocked the road to Santiago.  It was a strong position, but disadvantaged by flat ground, covered with thick brush high enough to conceal advancing Marines —yet, not thick enough to dissuade the Marine advance.  On 27 June, Captain Chandler Campbell of the 13th Company, placed his field artillery at a position commanding the enemy’s trenches.  The field guns were reinforced by machine gun squads. At 0800, Campbell opened fire on the trenches; under this fire, Marine riflemen advanced.  At about 1,000 yards, the Marines encountered heavy (but inaccurate) fire.  With few casualties, the Marines fixed bayonets and assaulted the Dominicans. The insurgents, not willing to engage the Marines in close combat, fled to their secondary positions.  Campbell adjusted his fires and the Marines continued their assault.  The battle lasted barely 45 minutes before the enemy executed a rapid withdrawal. They left behind five dead comrades. Marines experienced 1 killed and four wounded.

Withdrawal from advancing Marines was a pattern established for most engagements with Dominican insurgents.  The Marines had superior arms, employed small unit maneuver, and deadly accurate fire.  No Dominican rebel would hold their position against such a force.  Still, the Marines had several disadvantages: there were insufficient Marines to cover such a large territory, lacked mounted or motorized transportation, communications were poor, and the Marines had no way of forcing the enemy to stand and fight.  Time after time, the enemy broke ranks and ran away, only to return later to harass the Marines with sniper fire.

After Las Trencheras, Colonel Pendleton’s column pushed on toward Santiago. Aside from sniper fire and an occasional night attack, the enemy offered no substantial resistance.  Poor roads and inadequate bridging did more to slow Pendleton’s progress than did any rebel defense.  Despite its challenges, the supply train kept pace with the main body. Fuel was sparse, but so too was forage for animals.

The insurgents made their second major stand on 3 July at Guayacanas.  A decisive engagement in the advance to Santiago, the Marines once more faced an entrenched enemy and thick undergrowth in the advance to contract.  This time, field guns could not locate the concealed enemy, but machine gunners displayed laudable gallantry.  They hauled their heavy guns through the brush to within 200 yards of the opposing line and laid down deadly accurate fire.  First Sergeant Roswell Winans, trying to clear his jammed Colt machine gun, stood up under fire to clear a stoppage and keep his weapon in action.  He was the first Marine of the 4th Regiment to win the Medal of Honor.

Infantry and machine gunners pressed the frontal attack while the 6th Company under Captain Julian C. Smith [5], fought off a rebel force that had slipped around the Marines in an attempt to attack the supply train.  As before, the enemy broke ranks and fled, leaving behind 27 dead and 5 men who surrendered to the Marines.  The Marines lost one man killed and ten wounded.  Colonel Pendleton’s force reached Navarette during the next day.

The second column, commanded by Captain Fortson, marched along the rail line repairing bridges, track, and roadbed.  Many of these men rode in improvised military trains consisting of four boxcars and a dilapidated locomotive.  In front, the Marines pushed along a flatcar, upon which they had mounted a 3-inch gun.  The gun proved devastatingly effective in disbursing insurgents at Llanos Perez.  Captain Fortson was replaced in command by Major Hiram Bearss [6] who was remembered by Marines as someone with a peculiar fondness for force marches.

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Hiram Iddings Bearss Photo from Public Domain

Major Bearss resumed the advance on 29 June, but shortly encountered a force of about 200 rebels entrenched across the railroad line at Alta Mira.  Bearss sent the 4thCompany over a mountain trail to turn the defender’s right flank, while the rest of his force, supported by the train, advanced along the railroad.  This combination of frontal and flank assault forced the insurgents back to a secondary blocking position in front of a railroad tunnel.  As lead elements began their assault, Bearss and 60 men charged through the 300-yard-long tunnel to prevent the rebels from damaging or destroying this crucial link in the rail line.  When Bearss and his Marines emerged from the tunnel, they observed the enemy running in full retreat toward Santiago.  The engagement lasted about 30 or 40 minutes.  Two Marines received wounds, including Second Lieutenant Douglas B. Roben.  The enemy losses included 50 dead.

After making extensive repairs to the rail line and constructing a bridge, the rail column, which encountered no further resistance, joined Colonel Pendleton’s main force at Navarette on 4 July 1916.  With his force united, Pendleton was poised to enter Santiago. On 5 July, civic leaders of that city sent a peace commission to Pendleton to inform him that Arias had concluded an accord with Admiral Caperton to cease all resistance.  As General Arias was in the process of discharging his followers, the peace commissioned asked the Marines to delay their entry into the city, which they assured Colonel Pendleton, would be unopposed. Colonel Pendleton agreed to the delay but using caution (should Arias change his mind), rushed his Marines forward to occupy the remaining defenses between his camp and the city.

The rebels did capitulate, and on 6 July, the Marines marched into Santiago to establish the 4th Regiment’s headquarters and communications with other Marine units in Santo Domingo City.  With organized resistance broken, Marine detachments took up the mission of finding and arresting rebel leaders.  It was easier assigned than accomplished, however, as there was no distinction between bandit and bandit leader.  Beyond arresting malcontents, the Marines began helping local communities in the reconstruction of the nation’s economy.  Major Bearss and Captain Wise were instrumental in organizing a freight and passenger transportation entity.  It wasn’t a glamorous arrangement, but reestablishing rail transportation was far better than having no operational railroad at all.

Before the end of July, the Marines were well into controlling the Dominican military situation, but the political situation remained dicey.  On 25 July 1916, the Dominican Congress elected Dr. Francisco Henriquez y Carvajal as provisional president.  Henriquez promised not to seek reelection when his six-month appointment expired. His government, however, was supported and influenced by pro-Arias factions in the legislature.  President Henriquez refused to agree to two conditions set by the United States for granting his regime diplomatic recognition, which the US believed were indispensable to political stability in DomRep. First, that the Dominicans must allow American authorities to collect and disburse all of the country’s revenues, and second, that the Dominican military be replaced by a national constabulary under American supervision.  It was a deadlock that lasted into the fall of 1916.  Then, despite his earlier assurances, Henriquez decided to run for reelection.

Henriquez’ intransigence along with an increase in violent clashes between Marines and Dominican insurgents foreshadowed a reemergence of political deterioration within or near the capital city.  The most serious of these occurred at Villa Duarte on 24 October.  A detachment of Marines attempted to apprehend a noted bandit by the name of Ramon Batista, who seized a rifle and resisted arrest.  Other Dominicans rallied to his aid and a shoot-out ensued during which Captain Low and Sergeant Frank Atwood were killed, along with Batista and three Dominicans.  Continued public disorder and political obstinacy led the United States to conclude that it was time to take the next step.  On 29 November, Captain Harry S. Knapp [7], USN (having succeeded Admiral Caperton commanding US forces) issued a proclamation placing the Dominican Republic under the military jurisdiction of the United States.  Knapp asserted that the Dominican government stood in violation of the Treaty of 1907.

The US military government mission included returning DomRep to a condition of internal order that would enable it to observe the terms of the Treaty, and the obligation of restoring DomRep to the family of nations.  The United States thus assumed control of all Dominican finances, law enforcement, judiciary, and its internal administration.  According to Knapp’s proclamation, Dominican laws were to continue in effect so far as they did not conflict with the objectives of the occupation.  Ordinary administration of both civil and criminal justice would remain the responsibility of Dominican courts and officials, except in cases involving American military personnel and/or any resistance to the military government. In those cases, matters would be resolved by US tribunals.  Captain Knapp enjoined all Dominicans to cooperate with the American government, promising that occupation forces would respect the personal and property rights of all citizens and lawful residents.

As might be anticipated, most Dominicans received this news somewhat unenthusiastically, but Knapp anticipated less violence as its result. In Colonel Pendleton’s opinion, most people wanted an intervention, but were afraid to say so.  Whatever they actually believed, most Dominicans seemed content to comply at least passively with Knapp’s decrees.

Of course, resistance did flare up, most of it isolated and minor, with the most serious incident taking place at San Francisco de Macoris where the governor, Juan Perez and a band of his pro-Arias followers, occupied the Fortaleza [8] in the provincial capital and refused to surrender their weapons to American forces.  Governor Perez, in violation of an order to disarm, now became the focus of the Marines.  On the night of 29 November 1916, First Lieutenant Ernest C. Williams [9] led a detail of twelve Marines from the 31st and 47th Rifle Companies, 4th Regiment, in a surprise assault against the Fortaleza.  The two companies awaited the opportunity to support Williams as he and his hand-picked men rushed the gate, opened it, and rushed inside before guards could erect a barricade.  Insurgents opened fire, wounding eight of Williams’ party, but within ten minutes, Perez and his followers had either surrendered or fled.

Other scattered clashes resulted in Marine casualties, including Captain John A. Hughes, who suffered severe leg injuries during a routine patrol near San Francisco de Macoris on 4 December.  By the end of the year, senior military officials believed that the Dominicans were quieting down and settling in to American occupation.  As an indication of this belief, Marine companies of the Provisional Regiment retired from service in DomRep, leaving behind the 4th Regiment in occupation of northern Santo Domingo with its headquarters at Santiago.  1st Regiment headquarters and staff remained at Santo Domingo City while subordinate organizations were returned to the United States. Redesignated 3rd Provisional Regiment, this headquarters controlled the Marine units remaining in the southern part of the country.  Together, 3rd and 4th Regiments constituted the 2nd Provisional (Marine) Brigade under recently promoted Brigadier General Pendleton.

From late 1916 onward, the 2nd Brigade performed as an army of occupation to enforce the decrees of the military government and maintain public order. Initially, the DomRep was divided into two military districts: Northern District (4th Regiment) at Santiago, and Southern District (3rd Regiment) at Santo Domingo City.  In 1919, the military government created a third Eastern District to address the provinces of El Seibo and Macoris, which had become centers of banditry and political unrest.  The Eastern District fell under the auspices of the 15th Regiment, initially commanded by Colonel James C. Breckinridge [10].  The 15thRegiment had a strength of 50 officers and 1,041 enlisted men.  With the addition of the 15th Marines, the 2nd Brigade reached a peak strength of 3,000 officers and men.

The Marines assigned to the Dominican Republic had a wide range of duties and responsibilities and to ensure that they were able to carry them out with the most flexibility, the regimental commanders had wide latitude in deploying these Marines.  There were always a strong contingent stationed at important seaports because these Marines safeguarded the country’s economic and political centers, protected main lines of supply, and protected the customs houses, which remained the primary source of government revenue.  Marines were also stationed in the interior regions to protect Dominicans from bandits. The DomRep is a large country, which meant that the Marines had to be dispersed over wide areas.  It also meant that senior NCOs often had to make important, split second, far-reaching decisions that might otherwise be made by commissioned officers.  Marine NCOs were up to the task.  Frequently, a squad of eight Marines, led by a sergeant, patrolled 35 or 40 miles from their company headquarters.

Continued next week

Sources:

  1. Wiarda, H. J. and Michael J. Kryzanek. The Dominican Republic: A Caribbean Crucible.  Boulder: Westview Press, 1982
  2. Diamond, J. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books, 2005
  3. Fuller, S. M., and Graham A. Cosmas. Marines in the Dominican Republic, 1916-1924.  History and Museums Division, U. S. Marine Corps, 1974

Endnotes:

[1] Joseph H. Pendleton (1860-1942) joined the Marine Corps in 1884 and participated in combat operations during the Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, and a series of so-called Banana Republic wars.  He received the Navy Cross for heroic service in combat.  He retired in 1924 as a Major General.  Camp Pendleton, California is named in his honor.

[2] This northern coast operation was devised owing to the fact that there was no passable road for a large force and supply train from Santo Domingo across the central mountain range to Santiago.

[3] Similar in content to the instructions issued by James Mattis before the assault on Iraq in 2003.

[4] Presumably used to convey the regimental staff.

[5] Julian C. Smith (1885-1975) joined the Marine Corps in 1909 and served through 1946.  Lieutenant General Smith was a recipient of the Navy Cross and Navy Distinguished Service Medal.  He saw combat service in Vera Cruz, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, and in World War II, commanding Marine forces during the Battles of Tarawa and Peleliu.

[6] Hiram Bearss was a charismatic, aggressive leader who never felt the need to waltz when a tango would be more appropriate.  In contrast, Joseph Pendleton was a thoughtful and pragmatic leader who always tried to look at a given situation through the lens of his enemy.

[7] Harry Shepherd Knapp (1858-1923) was an 1878 graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy who ultimately reached the position of Vice Admiral.  He commanded USS Charleston, USS Florida, and Cruiser Force, Atlantic Fleet. He served as Military Governor of the Dominican Republic and Military Representative of the United States in Haiti. He served during the Spanish-American War and World War I.  He was the recipient of the Navy Cross.

[8] Dominican provincial capitals contained a stone-built square enclosure called a Fortaleza, which contained a barracks, offices, an armory, and occasionally, a small prison. It functioned as the political as well as military center of provincial government.

[9] Awarded the Medal of Honor.

[10] James Carson Breckinridge (1877-1942) was a member of the prominent Breckinridge family of the United States, which included six members of the House of Representatives, two US Senators, a cabinet member, two ambassadors, a vice president of the United States, college presidents, prominent ministers, military personnel, and theologians in Kentucky and Tennessee.  Colonel Breckinridge received the Navy Cross during World War I for service performed as a Naval Attaché in Russia, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Breckinridge retired from active service in 1941 with the rank of lieutenant general.

Operations in the Dominican Republic, Part I

1917-4 EGAIt is often proclaimed that Christopher Columbus discovered America. He did no such thing.  What he did do is depart Spain with no clear idea about where he was going.  Then he quite miraculously bumped into an island, a large one, located in the present-day Greater Antilles.  At that time, Columbus didn’t know where he was.  He named the island Insula Hispana (Latin) or in Spanish, La Isla Española.  When he returned to Spain, he could not, with any degree of certainty, tell his employers where he’d been.  Clearly, however, Columbus did set into motion the beginning of an almost unbelievable Spanish Empire, both in terms of land and wealth.

The indigenous people of Hispaniola called themselves Arawak/Taino people.  The Arawak originated in Venezuela, traveling to their island paradise around 1200 A.D. Each settlement was a small independent kingdom.  At the peak of this society, there were five separate kingdoms.  There may have been as many as 750,000 people living on Hispaniola.

Typical of Hispanic society, Columbus and all those who came after him enslaved the natives.  It is a sad story, of course and one repeated many times at every location the Spanish conquistadores placed their boots in the Americas.  Also typical of the Spaniards, interest in Hispaniola waned as Spain conquered new regions on the mainland.  In 1665, the French began their colonization of the Island; they called it Santo Domingo.  In 1697, Spain ceded the western third of the island to France.  Santo Domingo quickly came to overshadow the eastern two-thirds in both wealth and population.  Under the French, with a system of enslavement used to grow and harvest sugar cane, Santo Domingo became the richest colony in the West Indies. Slavery kept the cost of production low and maximized profits.  It was also an important port for goods flowing to and from France and Europe.

Still, Santo Domingo was no paradise; tropical diseases created a high death-rate among European colonists.  Added to this were a series of slave uprisings in the late eighteenth century.  During the French Revolution in 1791, a major slave revolt broke out on Saint-Domingue. France abolished slavery in their colonies in 1794 and many of the ex-slave army joined forces with France in its European wars.  In 1795, Spain ceded the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola to the French.  It became the Dominican Republic and French settlers began to colonize some areas in the Spanish side of the territory.

In 1802, Napoleon reimposed slavery in most of its Caribbean islands, a decision reinforced by French army garrisons.  Yellow fever [1] ended up killing off many of these soldiers. After the French removed its remaining 7,000 troops in 1803, revolutionary leaders declared western Hispaniola the new and independent nation of Haiti.  France continued to rule Santo Domingo but in 1805, Haitian forces under General Henri Christophe attempted conquest of all Hispaniola.  A show of force by the French caused Christophe to withdraw back to Haiti.  In 1808, following Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, the criollos [2] of Santo Domingo revolted against the French and, with the aid of Great Britain, Santo Domingo was returned to Spanish rule.

Concerned about the influence of a society that had successfully fought and won against their enslavers, the United States and European powers refused to recognize Haiti (the second Republic in the Western Hemisphere).  To settle this issue, France demanded a rather substantial payment for compensation to slaveholders who lost their property, the effect of which threw Haiti into debt for many decades.  Haiti became (and remains) one of the poorest countries in the Americas, while the Dominican Republic gradually developed into one of the largest economies of the Central American-Caribbean region.

It was not long before the Dominicans began to regret their return to Spanish authority.  The Spaniards were cruel masters.  In 1821, Santo Domingo joined with other Caribbean and South American territories in declaring independence from Spain.  Initially, the Dominicans expressed a desire to attach their country to the new Republic of Columbia, far to the south.  Instead of that ever happening, independence brought new foreign domination: in 1822, the Haitian government sent troops to conquer its neighbor, which could offer no resistance.  From then until 1844, Haiti ruled Santo Domingo.  During this period, the Haitians made a concerted effort to stifle all Dominican cultural and economic activity.  Santo Domingo was reduced to a nation of economic stagnation and cultural and psychological despair.

In 1844, Dominican nationalists succeeded in throwing off the Haitian yoke of domination.  It was the beginning of the emergence of the modern Dominican Republic.  It was a rough road, however.  Throughout the nineteenth century, the Dominican people experienced a succession of corrupt and arbitrary rulers who maintained themselves in power by playing upon the people’s fears of Haitian domination. The rule of caudillos [3] in Santo Domingo was also not a new story in Hispanic America: caudillos diverted the nation’s meager resources to serve their own personal designs.

Of these, General Ulises Heureaux [4] was among the most destructive. Keeping himself in power by methods that foreshadowed those of modern totalitarian regimes, Heureaux brought modest economic growth and strengthened the armed forces from a centralized government, which is also a consistent element of Hispanic governments.  He also fostered corruption and violence in Dominican politics and vastly increased the national debt by borrowing money from European and American banks —banks that expected their governments to support their claims for repayment and collect debts.

A succession of governments who found themselves in trouble at home made a habit of borrowing money from foreign governments; when the payment on the debts became due (or overdue), corrupt politicians often attempted to play their foreign creditors off against one another as a means of preventing foreign military intervention, which their behaviors in fact invited.

During the 1890s, a group of idealistic young generals and politicians organized to oppose Heureaux’s political machine.  They were led by General Horacio Vasquez.  As a figurehead for their movement, they chose the nation’s wealthiest planter, Juan Isidro Jimenez —a man who some described as completely lacking in character or vision.  After Heureaux’s murder, Vasquez and Jimenez proclaimed a new revolutionary government.  It began a period of political disorder that eventually provoked the United States [5] to intervene in Dominican affairs.

Heureaux’s enemies divided themselves into competing factions —groups loosely associated with Vasquez and Jimenez.  Juan Jimenez soon developed his own taste for power.  The feud led to a series of weak presidents, coup d’état, and counter-coups.  All the while, each successive regime continued to borrow money from foreign banks to purchase arms pay the men who would help them suppress revolution.  The Dominican Republic steadily sank even further into debt and political chaos; foreign creditors began to demand repayment, threatening military intervention if necessary.

Dominican financial delinquency and political upheaval attracted the attention of the United States.  After 1900, concern for the defense of sea approaches to the Panama Canal intensified American interest.  Dominican entanglements with European powers seemed particularly worrisome because, under the guise of upholding the claims of its citizens, a country such as Germany might be compelled to establish a colony and a naval base within striking distance of the Canal.  Combined Anglo-French-German expeditions against Venezuela [6] during the early 1900s caused President Theodore Roosevelt to threaten to send the US fleet to interdict foreign ships. European behavior dismissive of the Monroe Doctrine eventually brought the issue to a head: the United States decided to take strong action [7] to protect the Caribbean.

The Roosevelt Corollary received its first practical application in the Dominican Republic.  At the initiation of the Dominican president, the US and Dominican Republic (DomRep) negotiated a treaty under which American representatives would collect the customs revenues at Dominican ports and divide the proceeds between current government expenses and payments on foreign debt.  In February 1905, the agreement was submitted to both legislative bodies for ratification and, at the same time, the two governments established a modus vivendi, the practical effect of which placed the treaty into immediate operation.

The treaty met significant opposition in the US Senate, resolved in 1907 with DomRep legislature accepting the treaty later that year.  Meanwhile, between 1905-1907 under the modus vivendi, the claims against Dominican creditors were reduced from $30-million to approximately $17-million.  Beyond implementing a customs receivership, the 1907 also treaty provided for the floating of a bond issue of $20-million (at five percent interest) to be devoted exclusively to paying off long-dormant accounts and financing specified public works projects that were designed to reduce domestic discontent.  By 1912, Dominican debt had been reduced to about $14-million.

In 1906, Ramon Caceres was elected president of the DomRep.  He was perhaps the most honest and capable of Dominican leaders during this period.  He fully supported the receivership as the best possible solution to the country’s debt, and he was enthusiastic about using revenues to improve public services and stimulate economic development.  Caceres was assassinated on 19 November 1911 [8] and the internal stability of the DomRep deteriorated —along with its relationship with the United States.  New regimes resorted to their old habit of enriching themselves and borrowing foreign money to suppress revolutions.

In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson sent envoys to the DomRep who were far less capable than those under earlier administration (Roosevelt-Taft).  They began throwing their weight around, making demands to form stable governments.  When this didn’t happen, the United States seized control over all Dominican revenues and began supervising public works projects.  In 1914, with rival politicians fomenting civil war, President Wilson decided that he’d had enough of the squabbling and sent in the U. S. Marines.

The Fifth Marine Regiment (5thMarines) made their presence known aboard ships of the US Navy off-shore.  It was enough to bring about a political truce and an orderly presidential election. Juan Isidro Jimenez assumed the presidency with US guarantees of support against future revolutions.  Of course, the US continued to insist that Jimenez abide by the 1907 Treaty [9].

On 15 April 1916, Jimenez arrested two close associates of the Dominican Minister of War, General Desiderio Arias.  General Arias had been one of the trouble-makers in 1914 and now established himself in the fortress of Santo Domingo, the nation’s capital. Supported by his loyal followers, Arias raised the standard of open revolt.  Opponents of Jimenez flocked to join the revolutionary army.  When Jimenez and Arias failed to make a settlement, the American Minister to Dominica called for Marines to protect the US legation.  Then, on 2 May, the Dominican legislature (under pressure from Arias) voted to impeach President Jimenez.  Jimenez then fled to the countryside to gather an army of his own.  Fighting commenced on 5 May 1916.  US Marines came ashore on that same day.

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Marines come ashore at Santo Domingo, 1916 Photo from National Archives

The landing force consisted of two rifle companies (about 150 Marines) from USS Prairie: The 6th Company, under Captain Frederic M. Wise, and the 9th Company, equipped with field artillery, under Captain Eugene Fortson.  Captain Wise, as senior officer present, exercised overall command of the contingent, which was designated a provisional battalion.  Captain Wise was a strict disciplinarian, a no-nonsense officer with a volatile temper.  His orders were to occupy the US legation and consulate, as well as the strategically placed Fort San Geronimo.  Wise was also ordered to assist President Jimenez against Arias’s rebel forces.

In fact, Captain Wise and his Marines found themselves in the middle of a miniaturized civil war.  Some 250 troops loyal to Arias were reinforced by hundreds of civilian irregulars to whom Arias had distributed rifles and ammunition from government arsenals. Arias controlled Santo Domingo City. No sooner had the Marines entered the city, Arias blockaded the principal avenues to deny the Marines access to resupply.  Captain Wise was not a happy man.

Forces loyal to President Jimenez numbered around 800.  They had initiated assaults upon the city from the north and west.  By the time Wise arrived ashore, Jimenez’ attack had already failed; his men running low on ammunition.  Captain Wise acted with a combination of courage and discretion.  Knowing that his 150 Marines could not defeat a thousand Dominicans, Wise put up a brave front.  While his men occupied their objectives, Wise went directly to Arias and demanded safe passage for foreign nationals out of the city, and the right to resupply his Marines.  Arias agreed to both points.  All foreign nationals were evacuated to the USS Prairie; hired civilians hauled supplies from dockside to the Marine positions.

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Lieutenant Colonel Frederic M. Wise, USMC Photo from public domain

Captain Wise then established contact with General Perez, commanding the president’s forces.  Perez asked for 100 rifles and ammunition (Wise refused), and for artillery support for an attack scheduled for the next day, which Wise agreed to furnish. During the night of 5-6 May, Wise deployed his artillery and infantry to support a government advance.

Without consulting with any of his subordinates, President Jimenez resigned the presidency on 6 May, citing as his reason for doing so a refusal to turn American guns on his own people.  Perez was forced to abandon his assault and the Dominican Republic was suddenly without a national leader.  The Congress created a provisional council of ministers to carry out executive functions.

Unsure of what might happen next, Captain Wise requested additional forces from the USS Prairie; 130 sailors were sent ashore to reinforce him.  In conjunction with the US minister and naval commander, Wise arranged a truce between the warring factions.  Arias dismantled many of his fortifications and disbanded the civilian irregulars; most government troops withdrew to Fort San Geronimo just outside of Santo Domingo City.  Wise and his Marines held their original positions and awaited further instructions and reinforcement.

Commanding the Cruiser Squadron, Atlantic Fleet aboard USS Dolphin, Rear Admiral William Caperton [10] arrived offshore on 12 May 1916 and assumed overall command of the operation.  Marines from the 4th and 5th Companies (from Haiti) and a detachment from the 24th Company (from Guantanamo) came ashore on 13 May.  With 400 Marines ashore, Admiral Caperton met with Arias on 14 May and demanded that he disband his army and surrender his arms by 0600 on 15 May —or face a full-scale American assault.  General Arias refused Caperton’s demand but did agree to vacate the capital.  Marines entering the rebel-held area of the city on 15 May encountered no significant resistance.  The salts who had participated in the conflict at Vera Cruz were relieved; not one of them wanted another taste of urban warfare.

Marine strength continued to increase.  USS Panther arrived on 23 May with Colonel Theodore P. Kane commanding the 2nd Regiment of Marines and three additional rifle companies.  Kane assumed command of the land forces, setting up his headquarters in the American Consulate.  He stationed his Marines at key locations throughout Santo Domingo: on the east bank of the Ozama River, the northwestern approaches to the city, and at the Guardia Republicana barracks.  Additional Marines bivouacked at Fort Ozama.  Marines remaining afloat served as a reserve force off the north coast.  USS Sacramento, with two Marine companies, awaited orders off Puerto PlataUSS Panther and USS Lamson with two companies patrolled offshore near Monte Cristi.  By 28 May, Colonel Kane commanded eleven companies, drawn mostly from the 1st and 2nd Regiments in Haiti.  On deck in Santo Domingo were about 750 Marines.  Colonel Kane determined that he required a still larger force if he was to seize the entire country.

Meanwhile, the unresolved revolution had caused the collapse of the Dominican Republic’s civil government in many interior towns.  Some of these were left unprotected when civilian police detachments departed to fight for Jimenez.  Senior US commanders believed that the next step would have to be an occupation of the entire country.  Of concern, General Arias was at large with at least several hundred men.  No matter where Arias was located, his personality became a rallying point for bandits, local caudillos, and malcontents.  There were only about 300 remaining Dominican army troops, men who seemed somewhat unenthused about the possibility of engaging Arias further.

Continued next week

Sources:

  1. Wiarda, H. J. and Michael J. Kryzanek. The Dominican Republic: A Caribbean Crucible.  Boulder: Westview Press, 1982
  2. Diamond, J. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books, 2005
  3. Fuller, S. M., and Graham A. Cosmas. Marines in the Dominican Republic, 1916-1924.  History and Museums Division, U. S. Marine Corps, 1974

Endnotes:

[1] Yellow fever is a viral disease causing fever, chills, nausea, muscle pain, and severe headache. Liver damage can occur, causing a yellowing of the skin, hence its name.

[2] Criollo (French: Creole) persons are Latin Americans who are full or near full Spanish descent, which distinguishes them from multi-national Latinos and Latin-Americans of the post-colonial period European group.  They were at the top of a long list of social classes in Hispanic societies.

[3] Spanish word for military dictator.

[4] Heureaux ruled from 1882 to 1899 when he was assassinated.  Called Lilís, he was the son of Haitian mulatto parents.  He served as the 22nd, 26th, and 27th president of the Dominican Republic; when he wasn’t president, he control those who were.

[5] Perceiving it’s potential economic and strategic value, President Ulysses S. Grant made an attempt to annex the island republic in the 1870s.  He was unable to gain the support of the Congress, however.

[6] European navies in fact bombarded Venezuelan coastal towns.

[7] In December 1904, President Roosevelt issued the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The corollary reaffirmed US opposition to European military intervention in any Western Hemisphere country, for any reason, but also assumed responsibility for enforcing international good-behavior of the Latin American nations.  If Latin-American countries would not police themselves, the United States would do it for them.  This was the genesis of the so-called Banana Wars.

[8] Political assassination became a frequent strategy within Latin American countries; being fast, cheap, and permanent, no place on earth has had a greater number of such incidents.

[9] In 1915, US Marines occupied the Dominican Republic’s neighbor, Haiti, in an effort to establish stable government.  Wilson’s stated policy was to “teach the Latin Americans to elect good men.”

[10] Rear Admiral William Banks Caperton, USN (1855-1941) graduated from the USNA in 1875.  He commanded naval force interventions in Haiti (1916), Dominican Republic (1916), and served as Commander, Pacific Fleet (1916-1919).  He participated in the Spanish-American War, and World War I.  He was a recipient of the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.

Allied Invasion of Russia, 1918-20

History never happens in a vacuum.  There are causes, and there are consequences. The seeds of World War I were actually sewn one-hundred years earlier at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), where the ambassadors of European states intended to provide a plan for peace in Europe by settling issues that came from the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.  After 1815, these same powers tried to maintain a balance of power—to maintain the peace —but what actually transpired was a complex network of political and military alliances.  Also, after 1815, the Ottoman Empire began its decline, the British withdrew into “splendid isolation,” Prussia emerged to form the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and France was taught a valuable lesson in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. These confrontations led European powers to formulate secret agreements with one another.  The complex network became even more so.

On 28 June 1914, a Bosnian-Serb-Yugoslav nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.  The network of secret alliances enlarged the crisis from a bilateral issue in the Balkans to one involving most of Europe and, eventually, the United States of America. Within a month of Ferdinand’s death, the “great powers” of Europe were divided into competing coalitions.  The Triple Entente involved France, Russia, and Great Britain and the Triple Alliance was formed around Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.

Ferdinand’s assassination caused Germany and Austria-Hungary to impose demands on Serbia; Russia, itself a Slavic nation, felt obliged to back Serbia.  After Austria-Hungary shelled the Serbian capital at Belgrade, Russia began mobilizing its armies.  Germany and Austria-Hungary followed suit.  France, supporting Russia, mobilized its armed forces in early August.

When the war came, it manifested itself on two fronts.  Germany attacked France in the West, and Russia in the east.  In addition to the countries mentioned above, conflict engaged all of the Balkan states, the Ottoman Empire, Italy, Romania, and Czechoslovakia.  It eventually spilled over into Asia and the Pacific, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent.

Initially, the United States pursued a policy of non-intervention.  President Woodrow Wilson wanted to avoid conflict while trying to broker peace from the sidelines.  Wilson was narrowly reelected in 1916 after campaigning to keep America out of the “Great War.”

In January 1917, Germany pursued two aggressive courses of action: (1) It resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, and (2) Germany approached Mexico with a proposal for a military alliance against the United States.  In exchange for Mexico’s participation, Germany offered to finance Mexico’s war effort and, at such time as Germany defeated the United States, promised to return to Mexico its previously held territories in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.  This communiqué was intercepted by British Intelligence, decoded, and transmitted to the United States government.  The Zimmerman Telegram, along with a number of Mexican intrusions into the United States that were an off-shoot of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) generated popular support for America’s declaration of war against Germany in April 1917.

At the time, the United States was not a formal ally of any European power —it was more on the order of an associate-membership in the Triple Entente.  In 1917, the United States Army was small, but after passage of the Selective Service Act, nearly 3-million men were compelled to serve in the U. S. Army.  By June 1917, the US was sending thousands of soldiers to France every month.  To bolster its field of potential soldiers, the US offered grants of citizenship to Puerto Ricans for voluntary service in the US Army.

At the outbreak of World War I, national societies representing ethnic Czechs and Slovaks residing in Russia petitioned the Russian government to support the independence of their homelands.  To prove their loyalty to the Entente cause, these groups advocated the establishment of a unit of Czech and Slovak volunteers to fight alongside the Russian Army. In time, these volunteers became known as the 1st Division of Czechoslovak Corps.  A second division of four regiments was added in October 1917. Known collectively as the Czechoslovak Legion, it consisted of over 40,000 Czech and Slovak volunteers.

In November 1917, Russian Bolsheviks seized power throughout Russia and soon began peace negotiations with the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk.  In the face of the Revolution, Russians wanted to withdraw from the war.  The Chairman of the Czechoslovak National Council began planning for the Czech Legion’s withdrawal from Russia and transfer to France, where it could continue fighting against the Central Powers.  Since most of Russia’s main ports were blockaded, the Legion would travel from Ukraine to the Pacific port of Vladivostok.  There, they would embark on ships that would carry them to Western Europe.

In February 1918, Bolshevik authorities granted permission for the Legion to begin a march of 6,000 miles from Ukraine to Vladivostok.  Before departure, however, the German Army launched a massive assault on the Eastern Front as a means of forcing the new Russian government to accept Germany’s terms for peace.  The Legion successfully fought off every German attempt to prevent their evacuation.

After entering Soviet Russia, the Czech National Council continued to negotiate with the Bolsheviks to iron out the details of the Legion’s evacuation.  An agreement on 25 March forced the Legion to surrender most of their weapons in exchange for unmolested passage to Vladivostok.  Neither side trusted the other: Bolsheviks suspected the Czechs were attempting to join the counter-revolutionaries.  Legion commanders were wary of Czech communists who were attempting to subvert the Legion, and also suspected that the Bolsheviks had made a deal with the Central Powers to keep the Legion penned up in Russia.

By May 1918, the Czech Legion was strung out along the Trans-Siberian Railway —their evacuation taking longer than they expected due to dilapidated railway conditions.  In mid-May, Russia’s Commissar for War, Leon Trotsky, ordered the complete disarmament and arrest of the Czech Legion.  The Legion refused to disarm.

Czechs and Bolsheviks engaged at several locations along the railroad.  By June, both sides were involved in full-scale war.  The Legion had taken control of Vladivostok and declared the city an allied protectorate.  By mid-July, the legionaries had seized control of the railway from Samara to Irkutsk.  By the beginning of September, they had cleared Bolshevik forces from the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railway.  Legionnaires conquered all the large cities of Siberia.

News of the Czechoslovak Legion’s campaign in Siberia during the summer of 1918 was welcomed by Allied statesmen in Great Britain and France, who saw the operation as a means to reconstitute an eastern front against Germany.  U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who had resisted earlier Allied proposals to intervene in Russia, and against the advice of the War Department, finally gave in to foreign pressure to support the legionaries’ evacuation from Siberia. In actuality, there were two groups of American soldiers sent to Russia: The American North Russia Expeditionary Force (Polar Bear Expedition) consisted of 5,000 troops who were sent to Archangel; an additional 8,000 soldiers, organized as the American Expeditionary Force, Siberia, were shipped to Vladivostok from the Philippines and from Camp Fremont, California.

GRAVES W S 001In the summer of 1918, William S. Graves was a highly motivated career Army officer.  He had been promoted to Major General, and he was designated to assume command of the Army’s 8th Infantry Division. The division would soon depart the United States for France; what career officer does not want to command in time of war?

Unfortunately, Graves received a reassignment on 2 August 1918.  Secretary of War Newton Baker informed him of the following: President Wilson had decided that the United States, still at war in Europe, must intervene in another part of the world to protect its investments.  The US had $1-billion worth of American made guns and equipment strewn along a segment of the Trans-Siberian Railway between Vladivostok and Nikolsk.  Someone would have to protect this equipment from falling into the hands of Germany or the Bolsheviks.  That someone would be General Graves.

Wilson appointed Graves to command the American Expeditionary Force (Siberia).  Graves’ orders, directly from the President, handed to him in the form of an aide-mémoire, included: (1) Facilitate the safe exit of 40,000 members of the Czech Legion [1] from Russia; (2) Guard the $1-billion worth of military equipment stored at Murmansk and Vladivostok; and (3) Help the Russians organize their new government.  Siberia is the coldest and most forbidding part of Russia, and instead of facing off against the German Army, Graves would confront Cossacks, Bolsheviks, and Japanese (who, still gloating over their defeat of the Russians in 1903-04, had their eyes on territorial gains in Siberia).  The Graves Expedition was the first and only time American troops invaded Russian territory.

The international force was formed under Lieutenant General Frederick C. Poole, British Army.  The force main force consisted of British [2], French, and American naval and military organizations. Other participating countries and troops included Italy, Serbia, Poland, and White Russian forces.

In July 1918, the Army’s 339th Infantry Regiment, Colonel George E. Stewart, Commanding, was hastily organized to spearhead the American North Russia Expeditionary Force (also, Polar Bear Expedition).  AEF (Siberia) included the US 27th and 31st Infantry Regiments, elements of the 12th, 13th and 62nd Infantry Regiments. To operate the Trans-Siberian Railway, US Army personnel with railroad experience were assigned to this duty.

Initially in 1918, the Bolsheviks controlled only small pockets in Siberia.  International forces arrived unopposed and were deployed to the interior regions along the path of the Trans-Siberian Railway between Vladivostok and Archangel.  In accordance with a plan formalized by General Poole, Tsarist Captain Georgi Chaplin led a coup d’état against the local Soviet government at Archangel on 2 August 1918.  Allied warships seized portages from the White Sea.  In short order, a Northern Region Government was established by Chaplin and the Russian revolutionary, Nikolai Tchaikovsky.  In spite of outward appearances, General Poole was running the show.  The International force began its advance almost immediately, seizing Onega Bay. On 28 August, the British 6th Royal Marine Light Infantry Battalion was ordered to seize the village of Koikori from Bolsheviks as part of a wider offensive into East Karelia.

The first US troops arrived in Vladivostok between 15-21 August 1918.  They were quickly assigned to guard duty along several segments of the railway between Vladivostok and Nikolsk-Ussuriski in northern Russia. General Graves arrived in early September.

For the most part, the Americans stood apart from their Allies in the sense that, while acknowledging their mission to protect American-supplied property, Graves resisted General Poole’s demand for fighting troops to confront Bolshevik elements. He quite often clashed with his British, French, and Japanese counterparts over this issue.

General Graves saw his primary responsibility as making sure the Trans-Siberian railroad stayed operational.  To this end, he brought in a number of railroad experts to manage the railway.  Despite strong pressure applied to Graves to render assistance to Admiral Kolchak, he would not involve himself in the affairs of the Russian revolution and did not contribute any of his men to combat (beyond self-defense).  In fact, General Graves developed a strong dislike of Admiral Kolchak and his “White Russian” government.  Moreover, Graves thought that British, French, and Japanese commanders were pursuing self-serving political ambitions beyond the stated allied goal of protecting supplies that had been paid for by allied taxpayers.  He did embrace the mission to rescue Czechs but stopped short of trying to suppress Bolshevik forces.  Graves suspected that Japan’s involvement had more to do with annexing parts of Eastern Siberia.  He was right.

Operation Polar BearDuty in Russia was difficult, for all kinds of reasons.  US soldiers experienced problems with fuel, ammunition, and food.  Horses were unable to function in the sub-zero Russian climate.  Water-cooled machine guns froze and became worthless. Over a period of 19 months, 474 soldiers died from various causes.

As the Bolsheviks gained in military strength, they began to take a more aggressive stance toward elements of the International expedition.  Graves continued to withhold his men except in cases of self-defense. General Poole’s force (excluding the Americans) began to experience significant losses.  One Royal Marine company refused to fight and were court-martialed.  They were initially given stiff sentences, but the British government lightened or commuted most of them.

In June 1920, the American, British, and remaining allied coalition withdrew from Vladivostok.

The Japanese, however, decided to remain in Siberia thinking that their presence would in some way inhibit the spread of communism so close to the Japanese home islands.  Besides, the Japanese controlled Korea and Manchuria. Eventually, however, the Japanese found themselves in an untenable situation and were forced to sign an agreement with the Bolsheviks in order to be allowed to withdraw peacefully.

The Japanese Army continued to provide military support to the Japanese-backed Provisional Priamur Government (a White Army enclave) based in Vladivostok against the Moscow-backed Far Eastern Republic.  This continued Japanese presence concerned the United States, who had grown ever-suspicious of Japanese motives in Siberia.  Subjected to intense diplomatic pressure by the United Kingdom and United States and facing increased domestic opposition due to the economic and human costs of remaining in Siberia, Japanese Prime Minister Kato Tomosaburo withdrew Japanese forces in October 1922.

Japan’s motives in Siberia were complex and incoherent.  Overtly, Japan sent troops to Siberia for the same reasons as the other countries: to safeguard stockpiled military supplies and rescue the Czech Legion.  However, Japan’s intense hostility to communism and a desire to protect Japan’s northern security, either by creating a buffer state or through outright territorial acquisition, were also factors.  Their patronage of the White Russian Army left Japan in a diminished  position vis-à-vis the government of the Soviet Union, particularly since the Red Army emerged victorious over the White Russian Army.  Moreover, the Intervention had significant internal repercussions which led the Japanese Army and its civilian government to bitter animus and renewed factional strife inside the Army.

Japanese casualties in the Siberian Expedition included 5,000 KIA and expenses in excess of ¥900-million.

Sources:

  1. Humphreys, L. A. The Way of the Heavenly Sword: The Japanese Army in the 1920s.  Stanford University Press, 1996.
  2. Kinvig, C. Churchill’s Crusade: The British Invasion of Russia, 1918-1920.  Continuum Publishing, 2006
  3. Jackson, R. At War with the Bolsheviks.  London, 1972
  4. Wright, D. Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin: British and Commonwealth Military Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918-1920. Solihull Press, 2017
  5. Long, J. W. “American Intervention in Russia: The North Russian Expedition, 1918-1919. Diplomatic History, 1962

Acknowledgements:

  1. Major Paul Webb Chapman, USMC (Retired)
  2. Mark Yost, The Wall Street Journal: “The Polar Bear Expedition: Frozen doughboys.”

Endnotes:

[1] The Czechoslovak Legion was a volunteer armed force fighting on the side of the Entente powers during World War I.  Their goal was to win the support of the Allied Powers for the independence of bohemia and Moravia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In Russia, the Legion took part in several battles against Central Powers and Bolshevik forces.

[2] A contingent of United States Marines accompanied the British forces, fighting alongside the 1/10th Royal Scots Regiment at Nijne-Toimski along the Dvina River. The Marines may have been part of the Marine Detachment, USS Olympia, but I am unable to confirm this.  Captain Archie F. Howard, while commanding the Marine Detachment, USS Brooklyn, was assigned to serve in Vladivostok to protect the US Consulate.  His Marines participated with the Czech Legion in patrolling the city, but they did not engage any Bolshevik forces.  This duty was terminated early in 1919.  Major General Howard retired from active service in 1946.

U. S. Marines in Urban Warfare

EGA BlackUrban areas (cities and large towns), are important centers of gravity —points of interest that involve a complex range of human activities.  Throughout history military commanders have acknowledged that urban areas are either places that require protection, or they are centers that demand firm control.  These are mankind’s centers of population, transportation and communications hubs, seats of government, the sources of national wealth, and concentrations of industry.  Over the past three-hundred years, humans living in agrarian areas have migrated to towns and cities in ever-increasing numbers.  In just a few years nearly 85% of the world’s population will reside in urbanized areas —which places these areas squarely in the sights of military establishments seeking either to defend or seize them.  Urban areas are also areas where radical ideas ferment, dissenters cultivate allies, where human diversity leads to ethnic friction, and where disgruntled people receive the most media attention.

In its expeditionary role, the U.S. Marine Corps is trained to fight battles within urbanized terrain.  This was not always the case, but in recent history, Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) of various sizes have been deployed to address conflicts in urban areas: Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Beirut, Granada. The acronym for these operations is MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain).  Important for Marines is the fact that 60% of politically significant urban areas (outside allied or former Warsaw Pact territories) are located within 25-miles of littoral areas; 75% within 150 miles; and 87% within 300 miles. In armed conflict, whoever controls the cities exercises de facto control over a country’s natural resources.

MILLER JBHistory demonstrates that there has been an abundance of guerrilla and terrorist operations in built-up areas: Belfast, Caracas, Iraq, Managua, Santo Domingo, Viet Nam come to mind.  Beyond the fact that the control of urban areas offers certain psychological advantages that can affect the outcome of a large conflict, Marine planners are keenly aware that American embassies and consulates are located where host countries concentrate their centers of political and economic activity.  One mission the Marines share with other naval expeditionary forces is the emergency evacuation of US civilians caught up in urban insurgencies. (Photo: Cpl Blake Miller, USMC, Fallujah.  Credit: Luis Sinco, LA Times (Fair Use asserted)).

Urban areas have dramatically expanded over the past 100 years —often going beyond well-defined boundaries into suburban/countryside areas.  Connecting the inner-cities to peripheral areas has been a parallel expansion of transportation: highways, canals, and rail systems.  Industries and markets have grown up along these connectors and there has been an expansion of secondary roadways connecting outlying farms to urban areas —the effect of which further complicates the operational planning for and execution of military operations.  It widens the military footprint needed to deal with emergencies.

Urban warfare takes place in a unique battlespace —one  that provides aggressor and defender with numerous avenues of approach and defensive fields of fire.  In essence, there are four distinct battle areas: buildings, streets, subterranean networks, and air.  These are often fought simultaneously, which makes the urban warfare effort even more complicated.

The Marine’s first urban warfare experience occurred early in the Korean War.  Since then, with lessons learned through actual combat, the Marine Corps has evolved from knowing next to nothing about urban warfare to becoming America’s preeminent expert.  As a demonstration of this transition, I will offer my readers three examples: The Second Battle of Seoul, Korea (1950), The Battle for Hue City, Viet Nam (1968), and the First and Second Battles of Fallujah, Iraq (2003-4). Stay with me; I think you’ll find these interesting and informative.

Seoul, South Korea

The North Korean Army (NKPA) seized Seoul, South Korea during its invasion in late June 1950. After US Marines made their amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September 1950, General Douglas MacArthur assigned them the mission of liberating Seoul from the NKPA force, which by then was an understrength division.  In any normal situation, the NKPA would have the advantage of defending Seoul —but in this case, the NKPA were facing American Marines, the most tenacious combat force in the entire world —true then, equally true today.

KOREAN WAREven so, the advance on Seoul was slow and bloody.  The Marines faced the 78th Independent Infantry Regiment and 25th Infantry Brigade, in all, about 7,000 troops.  Moreover, the NKPA decided to put every effort into obstructing the Marine advance until they could be reinforced by units operating south of Seoul.  MacArthur, as Supreme Allied Commander, assigned responsibility for liberating Seoul (Operation Chromite) to his X Corps commander, Major General Edward Almond—who knew as much about urban warfare as he did about rocket ships to the moon.  In any case, MacArthur wanted a quick liberation of Seoul and Almond, a first-class sycophant, applied continue pressure to Major General Oliver P. Smith, commanding the 1st Marine Division, to “hurry up.”  To his credit, Smith would have none of it. (Photo: Marines attack Seoul, South Korea, 25 Sep 1950; DoD Photo (Fair Use asserted)).

Marines entered the city at 0700 on 25 September, finding it heavily fortified.  Buildings were heavily defended with crew-served weapons and snipers.  On the main highway through the city, the NKPA had erected a series of 8-foot-high barricades, located 200-300 yards apart.  Every one of the city’s intersections contained such an obstacle. Anti-tank and anti-personnel mines laced the approaches to these barricades, supported by anti-tank guns and machine guns.  The Marines had to eliminate these one at a time, which took about one hour for each barricade.  Casualties mounted as the Marines engaged in house-to-house fighting.

General Almond declared the city “secure” on the first day.  Clearing operations continued for five additional days, even though effective enemy resistance collapsed by 28 September.  In the aftermath of the Second Battle of Seoul, Korea, there was no time for the Marines to analyze the campaign —such analyses would have to wait for a later time —but here I will pause to reflect on what it must take to succeed in urban warfare: the esprit de corps of fire teams who must, in the final analysis, win or lose the contest.  Private First Class (PFC) Eugene A. Obregon from Los Angeles, California, was awarded the Medal of Honor for sacrificing himself to enemy machine gun fire to save the life of a wounded Marine on 26 September 1950.

Hue City, Viet Nam

In 1967, the North Vietnamese realized that their war strategy in South Viet Nam wasn’t working out quite the way they had intended.  It was time to try something else.  The government of North Viet Nam wanted a massive offensive, one that would reverse the course of the war.  When defense minister and senior army commander General Vo Nguyen Giap [1] voiced opposition to such an offensive, believing as he did that a major reversal of the war would not be its likely result, the North Vietnamese stripped Giap of his position, gave him a pocket watch, and sent him into retirement.  The politburo then appointed General Nguyen Chi Thanh to direct the offensive.  At the time, Thanh was commander of all Viet Cong forces in South Viet Nam.  When General Thanh unexpectedly died, senior members of the politburo scrambled to reinstate General Giap.

Earlier —in the Spring of 1966— Giap wondered how far the United States would go in defending the regime of South Viet Nam.  To answer this question, he ordered a series of attacks south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) with two objectives in mind.  In the first, he wanted to draw US forces away from densely populated urban and lowland areas to a place where he believed the NVA would have an advantage over them.  Second, Giap wanted to know whether the United States could be provoked into invading North Viet Nam.

Both questions seem ludicrous since luring the US/ARVN military out of villages and cities was the last thing he should have wanted, and unless China was willing to rush to the aid of its communist “little brothers,” tempting the US with invading North Viet Nam was fool-hardy.  In any case, General Giap began a massive buildup of military forces and placing them in the northern regions of South Viet Nam.  Their route of infiltration into South Viet Nam was through Laos [2].  General Giap completed his work at the end of 1967; there were now six infantry divisions massed within the Quang Tri Province.

Leading all US and allied forces in Viet Nam was US Army General William C. Westmoreland, titled Commander, United States Military Assistance Command, Viet Nam (COMUSMACV or MACV [3]).  Westmoreland responded to Giap’s buildup by increasing US/allied forces in Quang Tri —realizing that if one wanted to dance, they had to go into the dance hall. The one thing that Westmoreland could not do was invade either North Viet Nam or Laos [4].  Realizing this, Giap gained confidence in his notion of larger battles inside South Viet Nam. But even this wasn’t working out as he imagined.  Westmoreland was not the same kind of man as French General Heni Navarre.  For one thing, Westmoreland was far more tenacious.  Besides, meeting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) outside populated areas would allow Westmoreland to make greater use of air and artillery fire support assets.

In phases, Giap increased North Viet Nam’s military footprint in the northern provinces of South Viet Nam.  One example of this is the NVA’s siege of the Khe Sanh combat base.  President Lyndon Johnson was concerned that the NVA were attempting another coup de guerre, such as Dien Bien Phu, where General Navarre was thoroughly defeated.  Johnson ordered Khe Sanh held at all cost.  With everyone’s eyes now focused on the events at Khe Sanh, Giap was able to launch a surprise offensive at the beginning of the Tet (lunar new year) celebration.  He did this on 31 January 1968.  It was a massive assault: 84,000 NVA and Viet Cong (VC) soldiers who violated the cease-fire accord and executed simultaneous attacks on 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of the six autonomous cities (including Saigon and Hue), 64 of 242 district capitals, and 50 hamlets.

Giap chose to violate the Tet cease-fire because he knew that many South Vietnamese soldiers would be granted holiday leave.  It was a smart move and one that opened the door for Giap’s early successes.  VC forces even managed to breach the US Embassy enclosure in Saigon.  Within days, however, the offensive faltered as US/ARVN forces were able to defeat the communist onslaught.  Heavy fighting did continue in Kontum, Can Tho, Ben Tre, and Saigon… but the largest of these occurred at the City of Hue [5].  It was the Marine’s longest and bloodiest urban battle up to that time.

In 1968, Hue City was the third-largest city in South Viet Nam.  Its population was around 140,000 souls; about one-third of these lived inside the Citadel, north of the Perfume River which flows through the center of the city. Hue also sat astride Highway-1, a major north-south main supply route (MSR), located about 50 miles south of the DMZ. Hue was the former imperial capital of Viet Nam.  Up to this point, Hue had only occasionally experienced the ravages of war —mortar fire, saboteurs, acts of terrorism— but a large enemy force had never appeared at the city’s gates.  Given the city’s cultural and intellectual importance to the Vietnamese people —as well as its status as the capital of Thua Thien Province— it was only a matter of time.

The people who lived in Hue enjoyed a tradition of civic independence that dated back several hundred years.  Religious monks viewed the war with disdain; few of these religious leaders felt any attachment to the government in Saigon.  What they wanted was national conciliation —a coalition where everyone could get along.

Hue City was divided into two sectors: the Old Imperial City, and the New City.  These two sectors were divided by the Perfume (Hoang) River, which emptied into the South China Sea five miles southwest of the city. On the north bank of the river stood the Citadel, a fortress extending nearly 4-square-miles, shaped like a diamond.  Surrounding the Imperial City were 8-meter high walls that were several meters.  There were eight separate gates, four of which were located along the southeastern side. A winding, shallow canal ran through the Citadel, with two culverts that connected the inner-city canal with those on the outside.

The “New City” was constructed south of the Perfume River; a residential and business center that included government offices, a university, the provincial headquarters, a prison, hospital, and a treasury.  The US Consulate and forward headquarters of the MACV were also located there.

Despite Hue’s importance, there were few ARVN defenders within its limits.  On 30 January 1968, there were fewer than a thousand ARVN troops inside the City.  Part of this was because a large number of troops were on leave to celebrate the Tet holiday with their families.

Hue CitySecurity for Hue was assigned to the First Infantry Division (1st ARVN Division), then commanded by Brigadier General Ngo Quant Truong.  The 1st ARVN was headquartered within the fortified Mang Ca compound in the northeast corner of the Citadel. Over half of Truong’s men were on leave for the holiday when the offensive commenced; General Truong’s subordinate commands were spread out along Highway-1 from north of Hue to the DMZ. The nearest unit of any size was the 3rdARVN Regiment, consisting of three battalions, five miles northwest of Hue.  The only combat unit inside the city was a platoon of 36-men belonging to an elite unit called the Black Panthers, a field reconnaissance and rapid reaction company. Internal security for Hue was the responsibility of the National Police (sometimes derisively referred to as “white mice”).

The nearest US combat base was Phu Bai, six miles south on Highway-1.  Phu Bai was a major U. S. Marine Corps command post and support facility, including the forward headquarters of the 1st Marine Division, designated Task Force X-Ray.  The Commanding General of Task Force X-Ray [6] was Brigadier General Foster C. LaHue, who also served as the Assistant Commander, 1st Marine Division.  Also situated at Phu Bai was the headquarters elements of the 1st Marine Regiment (Stanley S. Hughes, Commanding) and the 5th Marine Regiment (Robert D. Bohn, Commanding).  There were also three battalions of Marines: 1st Battalion, 1st Marines (1/1) (Lt. Col. Marcus J. Gravel, Commanding), 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5) (LtCol Robert P. Whalen, Commanding), and 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines (2/5) (LtCol Ernest C. Cheatham, Jr., Commanding).

The attacking NVA force included 8,400 well-trained and equipped soldiers [7].  The majority of these were NVA regulars, reinforced by six VC main force battalions (between 300 and 600 men each).  The field commander of these forces was General Tran Van Quang.  The NVA plan of attack called for a division-sized assault on the Imperial City with other units serving as a blocking force.  True to form, the communists knew all they needed to know about their civilian and military objectives within the city.  VC cadres had also prepared a list of “tyrants” who were to be located and terminated —nearly all of these were South Vietnamese civilian and military officials.  Added to the list were US civilians, clergy, educators, and other foreigners.  The communists also knew all they needed to know about weather conditions.

The NVA plan, termed the General Offensive/General Uprising, was designed to incorporate both conventional and guerilla operations intending to destroy any vestige of the South Viet Nam government or western authority, and if not that, then to discredit their enemies and cause a popular uprising among the people. If all worked out according to plan, western allies would be forced to withdraw its forces from Vietnam.

There were a few senior NVA planners who thought that a popular uprising was highly unlikely; a few more expected that ARVN and US forces would drive the NVA out of the city within a few days —but, of course, such defeatist notions were best left unsaid. Meanwhile, the young, idealistic, and gullible soldiers believed the NVA propaganda and went in to combat convinced of a great victory.  When these same young men departed their training camps, they had no intention of returning.  Many wouldn’t.

The NVA assault commenced at 0340 when a rocket and mortar barrage in the mountains in the west served as a signal for the attack to begin.  The assault was over by daybreak and the communists began gathering up “enemies of the people” and killing them.  NVA and VC soldiers roamed the city at will and began to consolidate their gains. Responding to the attack, General LaHue rushed Marines forward with only scant information about the shape of the battle.  Company G 2/5 was pinned down short of the MACV compound.  They eventually forced their way into the compound, but in that process, the company sustained 10 killed in action (KIA).  After linking up with the handful of US Army advisors, the Marines were ordered across the river and fight their way through to the headquarters compound of 1st ARVN Division.  Overwhelming enemy fire forced the Marines back across the bridge. Company G took additional casualties; weather conditions prohibited the immediate evacuation of the wounded.

Soldiers of the 1st ARVN Division were fully occupied; the Marines engaged south of the river.  ARVN I Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam met with the III MAF commander, Lieutenant General Robert Cushman to devise a strategy for re-taking the city.  They agreed that ARVN forces would concentrate on expelling communists from the Citadel, and Marines would focus their assets in the New City.  By this time, General LaHue fully realized that his Marines were facing a large assault force.  He dispatched Colonel Stanley S. Hughes, CO, 1st Marines, to assume operational control of US forces.

Battle of Hue 1968A brutal building-by-building, room-to-room campaign was launched to eject communist forces. Untrained in urban warfare, the Marines had to work out their tactics and techniques “on the job.”  Their progress was slow, measured, methodical, and costly.  The progress of the Marines was measured in inches … every inch was paid for in blood.

On 5 February, Company H 2/5 took the Thua Thien Province headquarters compound, which had until then served as the NVA’s 4th Regiment command post.  This loss caused the NVA effort south of the river to begin faltering, but hard fighting continued over the next several days.  By 14 February, most of the city south of the river was once more in US hands but rooting out pockets of resistance would take another 12 days.  The NVA/VC continued sending rockets and mortars into Marine positions; snipers continued picking off American Marines. Operations south of the river had cost the Marines 34 dead and 320 WIA.  It had been even more costly for the communists; over 1,000 NVA and VC soldiers lay dead on the streets of the New City.

The battle continued to rage in the Imperial City.  Despite the insertion of ARVN reinforcements, their advance was stalled among the houses, narrow streets, and alley ways on the northwest and southwest wall.  The communists burrowed deeply into the walls and tightly packed buildings; they maintained control of the Imperial Palace.  They seemed to gain in strength with each passing day.  Somehow, NVA forces were regularly receiving reinforcements.

Battle of Hue 1968-002An embarrassed General Truong was finally forced to appeal to the Marines for assistance. On 10 February, General LaHue moved a Marine battalion into the Citadel.  Two days later, elements of 1/5 made their way across the river on landing craft and entered the Citadel through a breach in the northeast wall. Two South Vietnamese Marine Corps battalions moved into the southwest corner, which increased the pressure on communist forces.  In spite of this, the communists held their positions.  American Marines began an advance along the south wall, taking heavy casualties.  The fighting grew even more savage as Marines brought in airstrikes, naval gunfire, and field artillery; the NVA grew more determined to resist the bloody American assault.  On 17 February 1/5 achieved its objective but doing so cost the battalion 47 KIA and 240 WIA. The battle for the Citadel continued.

On 24 February, ARVN soldiers pulled down the communist banner that had been flapping in the breeze for 25 days.  They replaced it with the RVN national ensign.  The battle was declared at an end on 2 March; the longest sustained battle in the Viet Nam war up to that time.  ARVN casualties included 384 KIA, 1,800 WIA, and 30 MIA.  US Marines suffered 147 dead, 857 wounded.  The US Army reported 74 dead and 507 wounded. NVA/VC losses were: 5,000 communists were killed inside Hue City; an additional 3,000 were killed in the surrounding area by elements of the 101st Airborne and 1st US Cavalry.

Forty percent of Hue City was utterly destroyed.  More than one-hundred-thousand Vietnamese civilians were homeless.  Civilian casualties exceeded 5,800 killed or missing.

From these two experiences, the US Marine Corps developed a doctrine for urban warfare: Marine Corps Warfighting Publication (MCWP) 3-53-3.  Today, Marines are trained in the tactics and techniques for urban warfare. This publication was published in 1998; the Marines would rely on these guidelines and procedures when they were dispatched to Fallujah in 2003 (See also: Fish & Chips and Phantom Fury).

Warfare is both lethal and complex.  Today, field commanders not only have to employ their infantry to win, they also have to consider the non-combat impact of such operations, the health and welfare of citizens, maintaining law and order, address media concerns, employ psychological operational teams, control refugees, guard against urban terrorism, and establish “rules of engagement.”  The enemy in the Middle East may not look like much of a threat, but they do pose a clear and present danger to US combat forces.  It is also true that insurgents exasperate US forces because they so easily blend in with innocent populations.  This is the nature of war in the early 21st century.  This is the danger imposed by domestic terrorists. Islamists are not fools; this enemy effectively uses our own rules of engagement to their advantage.  American politicians have never quite figured this out.

Endnotes:

[1] General Giap defeated the Imperial French after eight years of brutal warfare following the end of World War II.

[2] The reason behind America’s bombing of Laos and Cambodia, referred to by the liberal media as America’s Secret War.

[3] Major component commands included: US Army, Vietnam; I Field Force, Vietnam; II Field Force, Vietnam; XXIV Corps; III Marine Amphibious Force; Naval Forces, Vietnam; US Seventh Air Force; Fifth Special Forces Group; Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support; Studies and Observations Group; Field Advisory Element.

[4] The United States did deploy covert and special forces into Laos at a later time.

[5] Pronounced as “Way.”

[6] Task Force X-Ray went operational on 13 January 1968.

[7] In January 1968, everyone knew something was off-kilter. Tet was approaching.  The people were uneasy.  The cancellation of the Tet Truce and enemy attacks at Da Nang and elsewhere in southern I Corps dampened the normally festive spirit in Viet Nam.  The first indication of trouble came shortly after midnight on January 30-31 —a five-pronged assault on all five of the provincial capitals in II Corps, and the city of Da Nang in I Corps.  VC attacks began with mortar and rocket fire, followed by large-scale ground assaults by NVA regulars.  These were not well-coordinated attacks, however, and by dawn on 31 January, most of the communists in outlying areas had been driven back from their objectives.

 

Marines in Panama, 1903-04 (Part II)

But what most people do not know

BGen G F Elliott 1904
BrigGen George F. Elliott USMC

On 18 December 1903, Secretary of the Navy William Moody directed the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Brigadier General George F. Elliott [1], to personally report to the President of the United States.  His orders from President Roosevelt were to proceed in person, taking passage aboard USS Dixie, from League Island to Colón, Panama.  Take command of the entire force of United States Marines and seamen that is or may be landed for service in the State of Panama.

The president’s order was significant because no Commandant had been ordered into the field since Colonel Commandant Archibald Henderson was sent to Florida to deal with the Indians in 1836.  No Commandant has been ordered to the field since.

General Elliott was ordered to Panama because of Roosevelt’s reliance on the US Navy and Marine Corps in numerous diplomatic crises during his administration [2].  Faced with the possibility of conflict in Panama in late 1903, Roosevelt instinctively reached out for sea power.  This time, however, he needed the land element of the Navy-Marine Corps team. When, on 3 November, Panamanian revolutionaries declared their country’s independence, Colombia threatened the use of force to recover its lost province.  General Elliott’s presidential mission was one of the most strategically audacious gambits of the early 20th century because when he sailed south to assume command of the rapidly growing force of U.S. Marines on the isthmus, he carried with him plans for the invasion of Colombia and the occupation of one of its major cities.

Based on Colombia’s behavior in early to mid-1903, President Roosevelt anticipated that Colombia would likely attempt to retake its lost province. In mid-November, Washington began forwarding intelligence reports to US military and naval commanders concerning Colombian troop movements —reports that estimated that up to 15,000 soldiers were on the move toward Panama.

Rear Admiral Henry Glass (Commander, Pacific Squadron) at Panama City and Rear Admiral Joseph Coghlan (Commander, Caribbean Squadron) at Colón believed that Panamanian weather would be their allies.  Both officers remained confident of the fighting spirit and strength of the U. S. Marines in Panama.  Both admirals reported to Washington that there was no chance that a Colombian force would advance upon them until after the dry season. Admiral Glass must have developed a case of indigestion a few days later after learning that a Colombian expedition of 1,100 men had already tested an overland route into Panama.

President Roosevelt had himself received that same report from a separate source in Colombia.  The President was told that the Colombians intended to establish a forward base at the mouth of the Atrato River, near the Panamanian border.  Moreover, American diplomats were reporting deep-seeded anger toward Americans in the capital city, Bogota.

The new government of Panama was still in the process of organization.  It did not have a force able to defend against a significant assault by Colombian forces —and it was clear to all concerned that Colombia intended to reclaim its province.  It was up to the Americans to defend Panama, which meant that it was up to the Marines.

As reports of a likely invasion started flowing in to his headquarters, Admiral Glass wired Washington for instructions on the extent of his authority to defend the new republic.  On 10 December, Secretary Moody drafted a reply that would order Glass to establish camps of fully equipped Marine battalions at inland points to forcibly prevent hostile entry by land into the State of Panama.  The draft also directed that he maintain good communication between these camps and Navy vessels, cut trails, buy or hire pack animals as necessary to support overland expeditions.  Moody’s order was never sent, however.  When Moody presented his draft to the President, Roosevelt ordered him to hold off until the matter could be considered in greater depth.

The next day the Secretary of the Navy, presumably acting on Roosevelt’s further consideration, transmitted an order that marked a dramatic shift in the rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Panama: “Establish strong posts, men and Marines with artillery in the direction of the Yavisa or other better positions for observation only and rapid transmission of information but do not forcibly interfere with Colombian forces advancing by land.”

Moody changed the rules of engagement further a week later. He directed Glass to assume an almost completely defensive role.  In doing so, he retreated from previous instructions from Washington, which ordered Glass to defend all territory within 50 miles of the Panama Railroad, which carried a vast amount of commercial goods across the narrow isthmus and thus represented the most commercially and strategically important Panamanian national asset. According to this clarification, telegrammed in cipher, Moody’s instructions to Glass on 11 December were to maintain posts in the vicinity of Yavisa for observation only.  Do not have post beyond support from ships or launches.  Withdraw your posts if liable to be attacked.  It is the intention of the Government to continue active defense against hostile operations to the vicinity of the railroad line on the Isthmus and for its protection. Disregard all previous instructions that may appear to conflict with these.

Roosevelt’s earlier threats may have been bluster, but it is also possible that Colombia’s military expedition caused Roosevelt to reconsider America’s long-term interests in the region.  There’s also a third possibility: Roosevelt decided to shift his strategy for dealing with Colombia.  His new strategy?  A Marine assault in Colombia.

General Elliott assumed his duties as the tenth Commandant of the Marine Corps on 3 October 1903 —one month before the revolution in Panama.  Elliott was the only Marine Corps Commandant educated at the US Military Academy at West Point.  Elliott made the unusual decision to accept a commission in the Marines late in 1870.  Subsequently, his exemplary performance of duty in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and in the Philippines during the insurgency against the American occupation resulted in his rapid promotion.  Then, in mid-December 1903, the president called upon his knowledge of tropical warfare in dispatching him to Panama.  After meeting with Secretary Moody on 18th December, General Elliott proceeded to assemble his force.  Elliott made it clear to his officers that the men needed to be prepared for service in “heavy marching order” as well as for rapid movement and sustained combat.

On 11 December, the auxiliary cruiser USS Prairie departed Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with a battalion of Marines under the command of Major Louis C. Lucas.  Arriving at Colón on the 13th, Lucas took his battalion into camp at Bas Obispo.  At League Island, the auxiliary cruiser USS Dixie, recently returned from delivering Major John A. Lejeune’s nearly 400 Marines to Panama, embarked Elliott’s two additional Marine battalions, the first under the command of Major James E. Mahoney, the second led by Major Eli K. Cole.  With a combined force of 635 Marines and his staff of seven officers and 11 enlisted men, Elliott departed Philadelphia on 28 December and arrived at Colón on 3 January 1904.  The Provisional Marine Brigade was formed.

General Elliott’s priorities included establishing his Marines in the field and realigning the command structure to match the size of his force. Elliott ordered Major Cole’s battalion to proceed to Empire, a town along the railroad approximately 30 miles from Colón; there they would take quarters alongside Lejeune’s battalion.  It had come ashore on 4 November to coerce a Colombian battalion into leaving the newly declared republic.  Lejeune’s men then spent the intervening month providing light security and communications relay before receiving orders to move into base camp at Empire.  Major Lejeune’s professionalism and attention to detail (as well as the welfare of his Marines) led him to order an extensive reworking of the existing facilities of the former French Canal Company’s buildings at Empire.  New freshwater and sewage systems were installed, jungle growth cleared, and the houses for the Marines cleaned and disinfected with healthy doses of carbolic acid.  Only then did Lejeune allow his Marines to move into the quarters they would occupy for most of the next year.  Lejeune’s and Cole’s battalions were designated 1st and 2nd Battalions, respectively, 1st Marine Regiment, Colonel W. P. Biddle, Commanding.

LWT Waller 001
Colonel L. W. T. Waller USMC

Major James Mahoney’s battalion proceeded to Bas Obispo, where it quartered alongside Major Lucas’ Marines.  These two units comprised the 2nd Marine Regiment, Colonel L. W. T. Waller [3], Commanding.  Both regiments, together counting approximately 1,100 men, formed the Marines’ 1st Provisional Brigade, Panama, Brigadier General George F. Elliott, Commanding.

General Elliott’s priorities also included reporting to the senior Navy officers in country to present his orders.  He first called on Admiral Coghlan at Colón.  Shortly thereafter he rode a train across the isthmus to meet with Admiral Glass.  To each he presented a letter from the Secretary of the Navy, part of which read: “The Department forwards herewith, in the charge of Brigadier General Elliott, USMC a plan for the occupation of Cartagena, Colombia.  As will be seen, the plan contemplates occupation against a naval enemy, but the information it contains, and the strategy involved may be readily applied to the present situation.”

The plan General Elliott presented was almost certainly a regional modification to several operational plans formulated during the late 1890s.  The plan was a bold military and diplomatic strategy that reflected well on the sophistication of American military planning that had been noticeably lacking throughout most of the nineteenth century.  After nearly five years of frustrating American involvement against jungle-based Filipino insurrectionists, and two months of armed reconnaissance in Panama, Roosevelt recognized the utter futility of defending Panama’s numerous bays, ill-defined borders, and porous mountain passes.  He therefore chose to forgo a defensive strategy in favor of offensive action on a battlefield of his own choosing.

Rather than defend Panama in the event of a Colombian attempt to regain its lost province, the president instead planned to embark his Marine Brigade on waiting ships for an amphibious assault on the Colombian port city of Cartagena —the country’s chief source of tariff revenues.  The naval force would then capture the port and its defense installations before subduing the city itself.  The plan, if successfully executed, would have placed Roosevelt in position to dictate the terms of a subsequent peace settlement with the Colombian government.

In the meantime, General Elliott instituted a training program to maintain his Marines at a high level of combat readiness. Simultaneously, he dispatched his forces on quick “out-‘n-back” expeditions that fulfilled the dual purposes of maintaining security while building the Marine’s understanding of the surrounding countryside.

On 21 January, General Elliott reported that he had constructed rifle ranges in the two camps and directed the regiments to practice their marksmanship with rifles and automatic weapons.  The Marines also practiced assault tactics, entrenching procedures, and the construction of obstacles to slow and confuse a counter-attacking enemy force.  In short, General Elliott knew that these were the skills his Marines would need to capture and defend Cartagena.  Marine commanders dispatched reconnaissance parties throughout the small country to map roads and trails. This effort resulted in the first comprehensive survey of the isthmus of Panama.  The Leathernecks’ morale and discipline, meanwhile, remained high—with a few minor exceptions, of course.

Word soon came to the Marines —a rumor— that a group of Colombian insurgents planned to poison their water supply.  General Elliott acted immediately: he ordered that any individual attempting to tamper with the water supply would be shot on sight.  Admiral Glass quickly reminded the General that “a state of war does not exist on the Isthmus of Panama,” and perhaps Elliott should simply take additional precautions to guard his water barrels. General Elliott no doubt appreciated the Admiral’s advice, but he let his order stand.

Meanwhile, Secretary Moody wrote to update Elliott on the situation at hand.  After expressing his pleasure with the professionalism displayed by the Commandant and his staff throughout their deployment to Panama, the Navy secretary informed him that “If Colombia actually begins hostilities against us, a Brigade of the Army will proceed to the Isthmus.” This force, Moody cryptically explained, would allow Elliott to disengage his force in Panama and turn his attention to another duty that would “be important.”

If Colombia decided to accept the new status quo in Panama, the secretary suggested Elliott’s force might take part “in some operations connected with the winter maneuvers.” Moody also enjoined Elliott to communicate frequently with Washington and made clear who the intended recipient of the communiqués would be:  Let the Department know through the proper channels of your daily operations. Remember the Department is always annoyed by long silence, and please also remember that the Army, which has only a couple of officers down there, is furnishing the President every day with pages of cipher cable, much of which, though dealing with small matters, is of considerable interest.  Let your scouting be thorough and extending a long distance and give us daily accounts of it.

On 12 January 1904, following a cabinet meeting, Secretary of War Elihu Root issued a statement denying any plan on the part of the United States to dispatch troops to Panama to fight Colombian forces. This appears to have been classic disinformation.  While Army troops would be dispatched to Panama in the event of a Colombian invasion of the new republic, the real strategic response would come from the Marines on the ground in Panama.  But they were not intended to battle Colombians in Panama; they would fight Colombians —in Colombia.

By the end of January 1904, General Elliott’s brigade of Marines, backed by ships of the Pacific and Caribbean squadrons, were ready to assault Cartagena to ensure the continued independence of Panama.  The invasion, of course, never took place.  Colombia protested, probed, and negotiated, but never made a serious attempt to reoccupy its former province and, hence, never triggered Roosevelt’s audacious plan.

A treaty between Panama and the United States, the Isthmian Canal Convention, was ratified by the U.S. Senate on 23 February 1904 and signed by President Roosevelt two days later.  According to its terms, the United States guaranteed the independence of the Republic of Panama.

General Rafael Reyes-Prieto, commander-in-chief of the Colombian Army and presumptive political heir to the country’s presidency, had traveled to Panama shortly after the revolution in an attempt to lure the nascent republic back into the Colombian fold, but on realizing he would be unsuccessful, he continued on to the United States.  There, he was treated with every courtesy, but when the question of Panama’s independence was raised, it was understood, in the words of a contemporary observer, “that what has been done could not be undone.”  Reyes came to understand that American public opinion was behind Roosevelt’s policy of upholding the revolution in Panama.

Rafael Reyes 001
Rafael Reyes Prieto

Finally, Reyes held out hope that the $10 million promised to Colombia under the rejected Hay-Herrán Treaty might still find its way into the country’s treasury.  And by the end of January 1904, rumors that Colombia would “sooner or later receive a certain financial consolation for her loss of territory provided she abstains from violent proceedings” were circulating throughout Washington. That’s what happened. By the middle of March, Colombian troops operating along the Panamanian frontier were withdrawn and the government declared that it did not intend to invade its former territory.  In 1921, the U.S. Senate ratified the Thomson-Urrutia Treaty that provided Colombia $25 million for the loss of Panama.

A large portion of the 2d Marine Regiment was withdrawn from Panama on 14 February 1904 and redeployed to Guantanamo Bay to take part, as Secretary Moody had previously suggested, in annual winter maneuvers.  General Elliott and his staff departed two days later, leaving Colonel Waller in command of the 800 remaining Marines.  That arrangement lasted until 7 March, when Waller took a battalion back to League Island, leaving Major Lejeune behind with his original battalion of 400 men to provide security and reconnaissance on the isthmus.  Lejeune’s command remained for another nine months.  But U.S. Marines would remain a presence in Panama until 1912, when Captain John F. Hughes finally departed with his force of 389 men —except that I was there with BLT 2/8 in 1964 and again as part of an advance party in 1990.

Sources:

  1. Wicks, D. H. “Dress Rehearsal: United States Intervention on the Isthmus of Panama, 1886.  Pacific Historical Review, 1990
  2. Collin, R. H. Theodore Roosevelt’s Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Latin American Context (1990)
  3. Graham, T. The Interests of Civilization: Reaction in the United States Against the Seizure of the Panama Canal Zone, 1903-1904.  Lund Studies in International Relations, 1985.
  4. Nikol, J. and Francis X. Holbrook, “Naval Operations in the Panama Revolution, 1903.” American Neptune, 1977.
  5. Turk, R. “The United States Navy and the Taking of Panama, 1901-1903.”  Military Affairs, 1974.

Endnotes:

[1] George Frank Elliott (30 Nov 1846-4 Nov 1931) was promoted to Colonel in March 1903, and advanced to Brigadier General on 3 October 1903 when he assumed the post of Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[2] See also: Handsome Jack.

[3] See also: He Served on Samar; Major Waller’s CourtSergeant Major Quick.

Marines in Panama, 1903-04 (Part I)

Roosevelt TR 001
President Theodore Roosevelt

Arguably, the most important action President Theodore Roosevelt ever took in foreign affairs related to the construction of the Panama Canal.  It was controversial abroad —it was controversial at home.  Those who opposed the canal claimed that Roosevelt’s actions were unconstitutional.  If true, then so too were Thomas Jefferson’s actions when he acquired the Louisiana Territory.  At different times, the congressional do-nothings accused Roosevelt of usurping their authority. They must not have known Roosevelt very well; he was a man of action.

Some background

A canal across the isthmus of Panama was first discussed in 1534, when Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain ordered a survey for a route through the Americas that would shorten the voyage for ships traveling between Spain and Peru.  In 1668, the British physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne speculated that such an undertaking would be a good idea; after all, it only involved “but a few miles” across the isthmus.  A little more than 100-years later, Thomas Jefferson (then US minister to France), suggested to the Spanish that they proceed with their project; after all, it would be far less treacherous than sailing ships around the tip of South America. Besides, he added, the tropical ocean currents would naturally widen the canal thereafter and it would be easy to maintain it.

By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, numerous canals were constructed in other countries.  Engineers were learning how to do this.  The success of the Erie Canal in the 1820s was inspiring, and the collapse of the Spanish Empire in the New World led to a surge of American interests in building an inner-oceanic canal.

Of course, in the first eighty-years following independence from Spain, Panama was a department (province) of Colombia.  Panama voluntarily joined Colombia in 1821.  It was not a happy marriage, however, and the Panamanians made several attempts to secede, notably in 1831 and again during the Thousand Days War of 1899-1902.  Among the indigenous people, the struggle was one for land rights [1] under the leadership of Victoriano Lorenzo [2].

Panama outline mapEarlier, in 1826, American officials attempted to open negotiations with Gran Colombia (present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama) to gain a concession for the construction of a canal.  Fearing domination by an American presence, Gran Colombian president Simón Bolívar and officials of New Granada politely declined American offers.

The British also opened discussions about constructing an Atlantic-Pacific canal in 1843  but in the absence of any Colombian interest, no plan was ever formulated.  Moreover, negotiations to construct a isthmus-wide railroad were similarly ignored.   However, in 1846, New Granada officials and the United States negotiated the so-called Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty. The treaty granted the United States transit rights through Panama, and, while acknowledging the right of the United States to protect these transit rights, also pledged America’s neutrality in matters pertaining to the internal affairs of New Granada.

With the discovery of gold in California in 1848, renewed interest in a sea-to-sea canal was undertaken by William H. Aspinwall, an American shipping magnate. His efforts resulted in a steamship route from New York City to Panama, and from Panama to San Francisco, with an overland portage through Panama.  It was one of the fastest routes between San Francisco and the East Coast of the US —about 40 or so days in total.  Nearly all of the gold taken from California was shipped through this routing.  The ever-competitive Cornelius Vanderbilt similarly established steamship routes to Nicaragua [3] and an overland route to the Pacific.

Between 1850-55, the United States constructed a railroad in Panama; it became a vital link in trade (and later, the route for the Panama Canal).  Late in 1855, the engineer William Kennish published a report entitled The Practicality and Importance of a Ship Canal to Connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Twenty-two years later, two French engineers surveyed the route and submitted a French proposal for a canal through Panama.

In March 1885, Colombia reduced its military presence in Panama in order to address rebellions in other areas.  With a reduced military footprint, Panamanian rebels began an insurgency.  The US Navy was dispatched to protect US personnel and property.  Establishing a base of operations at the city of Colón, the American Navy was soon challenged by the Chilean Navy, who at the time had the strongest naval force in the Americas.  The Chilean cruiser Esmeralda was dispatched to seize and control Panama City.  Esmeralda was instructed to “stop by any means possible the eventual annexation of Panama by the United States.”  Note: I’m not quite sure how Chile intended to accomplish this with their ships on the Pacific Coast, and most of the US Navy on the Caribbean side of Panama.

Meanwhile, undaunted, the French proceeded with their Panama Canal operations between 1881-94.  Ferdinand de Lesseps [4] was able to raise considerable funds for this undertaking, mostly from revenues generated by the Suez Canal, but in practical terms, the undertaking in Panama was far more complex than the Suez project due to the terrain and tropical climate.  As time progressed, the French discovered that they were completely unprepared for such an undertaking in Panama.  There were no similarities between the Suez Canal and one like it in Panama.  Tropical Panama was a nest of poisonous snakes, spiders, and insects.  The rainy season transformed the Chagres River into a raging torrent exceeding ten feet above normal in depth.  Moreover, Panama was a land of malaria and other diseases.  By 1884, the death rate among French workers averaged 200-men per month.  Labor recruiters in France downplayed these conditions by not mentioning them.

Bunau-Varilla 001
Phillipe Bunau-Varilla

Eventually, French money ran out.  By 1889, the French had expended $287-million; twenty-two thousand men died from diseases and accidents, and more than 800,000 investors lost their money, which must have been devastating.  Work was suspended on 15 May 1889; the scandal became known as the Panama Affair, and those deemed responsible were hauled into French courts —including Gustave Eiffel [5].  Despite this setback, another company was formed in 1894, but its efforts were mostly confined to managing the Panama Railroad, maintaining costly French equipment, and the sale of idle assets.  By then, the French were hoping to recoup $109-million. Eventually, its manager, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla [6] became convinced that canal efforts should pursue a lock-and-lake project rather than a sea-level canal modeled after the Suez project.

In 1898 Manuel Antonio Sanclemente was elected President of Colombia; José Manuel Marroquin-Ricaurte became his Vice President.  On 31 July 1900, Marroquin executed a coup d’état by imprisoning Sanclemente at a location a few miles outside of Bogota. Due to the mysterious disappearance of the President, Marroquin declared himself the sole power in Colombia.  In plain language, he became a dictator.  The absence of Sanclamente from the capital became permanent upon his death in prison in the year 1902.

The (centralist) Colombian constitution of 1886 denied to Panama the right of self-government; all power was vested within the Colombian regime.  When Panamanians declared their independence on 3 November 1903, there was no Colombian Congress.  As we will see, Marroquin’s coup d’état did not work out to the overall best interests of the Colombian people.

From the American perspective in 1900, if there was any lessons to be learned from the Spanish-American War, it was that the United States needed a canal somewhere in the Western Hemisphere.  The question to be answered was “where.”  There were two possibilities: a canal across the isthmus of Panama, or a canal across Nicaragua.

Meanwhile, in order to liquidate French interests in Panama, project manager Phillipe Bunau-Varilla wanted $100-million; eventually, he would end up settling for $40-million.

José Manuel Marroquín
José Manuel Marroquin-Ricaurte

In 1902, the United States Senate voted in favor of the Spooner Act, a commitment to pursue the Panamanian option —provided that the US could obtain the necessary rights from Colombia.  President Marroquin authorized his Ambassador to negotiate a treaty with the United States. Thus, on 22 January 1903, US Secretary of State John Hay and Colombian Charge-de-affairs Dr. Tomás Herrán signed a treaty for the construction of a canal in Panama.  Colombia would gain $10-million and an annual payment, and the United States would achieve a renewable lease in perpetuity for the land proposed for the canal. The US Senate ratified the treaty in March.

President Marroquin wielded absolute power in Colombia.  It was entirely up to him whether to accept the Hay-Herrán accord or reject it.  He decided to reject it —and in order to provide an excuse for doing so, he devised the plan of summoning a special session of Congress —a puppet congress that would do as they were told.

By July 1903, when the course of internal Colombian opposition to the Hay-Herrán Treaty became obvious, a revolutionary junta emerged in Panama. The junta was led by José Augustin Arango, an attorney for the Panama Railroad Company.  He was aided by Manuel Amador Guerrero and Carlos C. Arosemena, all of whom represented prominent Panamanian families.  Arango was the brain of the revolution; Amador was the junta’s visibly active leader.

With financial assistance arranged by Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a French national representing the interests of de Lesseps’s company, native Panamanian leaders conspired to take advantage of the United States’ interest in a new regime on the isthmus.

In August 1903, Theodore Roosevelt became convinced that Colombia was likely to repudiate the agreed-to treaty.  At the President’s direction, Secretary Hay, personally and through his Minister [7] at Bogota, repeatedly warned Colombia that grave consequences might follow a rejection of the treaty.  There were two possibilities: one was that Panama would remain loyal to Colombia.  In this case, Roosevelt was prepared to occupy the isthmus of Panama and dig his canal anyway.  Subsequently, Roosevelt and Hay met with Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, who informed the president of the likelihood of a revolt by Panamanian rebels, whose desire it was to sever their ties to Colombia.  Bunau-Varilla expressed his hope that should such a thing occur, that the United States would support Panama.

This information was confirmed on 16 October by two US Army officers (Captain Humphrey and Lieutenant Murphy), who had recently returned to Washington from Panama.  They informed President Roosevelt that, in their opinion, Panama would most-assuredly revolt against the Colombian government.  The Panamanian people were united in their criticism of the government in Bogota; the people were disgusted by Marroquin’s silence on the pending treaty —but that Panamanians would likely await the results of Colombia’s puppet congress before making their move —sometime around the end of the month.  President Roosevelt then directed the Navy to station warships at several locations in Panama and be ready to respond to any crisis that may arise.

The possibility of ratification did not wholly pass away until the close of the session of the Colombian Congress on the last day of October. To no one’s surprise, Colombia’s legislature unanimously voted to reject the treaty.  Having thus voted, the Congress was immediately dismissed.

Marines in Panama 1903
US Marines guard rail depot, Colon, Panama 1903

Panama declared its independence on 3 November 1903. President Roosevelt enthusiastically recognized the new government on 4 November.  US warships blocked sea lanes against any possible Colombian troop movements on 5 November.  Meanwhile, in Panama, practically everyone on the isthmus, including Colombian troops stationed there, joined the revolution.  Initially, there was no bloodshed.  But on 6th November four hundred new Colombian troops were landed at Colón.  USS Nashville arrived at Colón at about the same time.  When the Colombian commander foolishly threatened the lives of Americans in Colón, Nashville’s commanding officer landed his Marines and sailors to protect them.  Through a mixture of firmness and tact, Commander Hubbard not only prevented any assault on American citizens, but he also persuaded the Colombian military commander to reembark his troops for Cartagena.  On the Pacific coast, a Colombian ship shelled Panama City; one man was killed —the only life lost in the entire revolution.

On 16 December, the Marines from Nashville were relieved by a 400-man Marine Battalion from USS Dixie under the command of Major John A. Lejeune [8], USMC.

No one connected with the American Government had any part in preparing, inciting, or encouraging the revolution, and except for the reports of our military and naval officers, which I forwarded to Congress, no one connected with the Government had any previous knowledge concerning the proposed revolution, except such as was accessible to any person who read the newspapers and kept abreast of current questions and current affairs.  By the unanimous action of its people, and without the firing of a shot, the state of Panama declared themselves an independent republic. The time for hesitation on our part had passed.

 —President Theodore Roosevelt

The rights granted to the United States in the so-called Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty were extensive. They included a grant “in perpetuity of the use, occupation, and control” of a sixteen-kilometer-wide strip of territory and extensions of three nautical miles into the sea from each terminal “for the construction, maintenance, operation, sanitation, and protection” of an isthmian canal.

The United States was also entitled to acquire additional areas of land or water necessary for canal operations and held the option of exercising eminent domain in Panama City. Within this territory, Washington gained “all the rights, power, and authority . . . which the United States would possess and exercise if it were the sovereign . . . to the entire exclusion” of Panama.

The Republic of Panama became a de facto protectorate of the United States through two provisions: the United States guaranteed the independence of Panama and received in return the right to intervene in Panama’s domestic affairs.  In exchange for these “rights,” the United States was to pay the sum of $10 million and an annual payment (beginning 9 years after ratification), of $250,000 in gold coin. The United States also purchased the rights and properties of the French canal company for $40 million.  In 1977, President Jimmy Carter agreed to relinquish US control of the Panama Canal Zone effective at midnight on 31 December 1999.  Carter’s action was the end of a process that began at the direction of President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.

Unsurprisingly, Colombia was the harshest critic of United States foreign policy at the time —but President Roosevelt wasn’t quite finished with Colombia just yet …

Continued next week …

Sources:

  1. Wicks, D. H. “Dress Rehearsal: United States Intervention on the Isthmus of Panama, 1886.  Pacific Historical Review, 1990
  2. Collin, R. H. Theodore Roosevelt’s Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Latin American Context (1990)
  3. Graham, T. The Interests of Civilization: Reaction in the United States Against the Seizure of the Panama Canal Zone, 1903-1904.  Lund Studies in International Relations, 1985.
  4. Nikol, J. and Francis X. Holbrook, “Naval Operations in the Panama Revolution, 1903.” American Neptune, 1977.
  5. Turk, R. “The United States Navy and the Taking of Panama, 1901-1903.”  Military Affairs, 1974.
  6. Hendrix, H. J. Commander, USN.“TR’s Plan to Invade Colombia.”  S. Naval Institute, Proceedings Magazine.

Endnotes:

[1] Hispanic society was nothing if not harsh.  If you weren’t born into wealth (which is to say, entitled to land), then you would never achieve a higher station in life.  It remains that way to this very day.

[2] The political struggle in Panama was one between federalists and centralists following independence from Spain.  Under the centralist regime, Panama was established as the Department of the Isthmus; during federalist regimes, it was the Sovereign State of Panama.

[3] The genesis, perhaps, of America’s problem with Nicaragua.  At this time, the Nicaraguans (wisely) did not trust the motives of the American government.

[4] Vicomte de Lesseps (1805-1894) was a French diplomat, entrepreneur, developer of the Suez Canal, and the Chief Operating Officer for the Panama Canal project.

[5] Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (1832–1923) was a French civil engineer and a graduate École Centrale Paris.  He made his name building various bridges for the French railway network, most famously the Garabit viaduct.  He is best known for the world-famous Eiffel Tower, built for the Universal Exposition in 1889 in Paris and his contribution to the construction of the Statue of Liberty in New York.

[6] Bunau-Varilla (1859-1940) was a French engineer, soldier, diplomat, and entrepreneur.  Through American lawyer William Nelson Cromwell, he became quite influential with Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary of State, John Hay.

[7] American diplomats accredited to foreign governments from the time of Benjamin Franklin through the late-nineteenth century held the rank of Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, or in abbreviated terms, “Minister.”  Within the diplomatic corps, the term Ambassador (short for Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary) is a diplomatic agent of the first class.  The term Ambassador has become the generic title for the chief of a diplomatic mission.  Before the twentieth century, only major powers sent and received ambassadors.  The term “extraordinary” was originally applied to an envoy sent on a special mission, as opposed to “ordinary,” which meant an envoy in residence.  Today the term Extraordinary is widely used in diplomatic circles.  The term “plenipotentiary” originally meant having the authority to conduct normal diplomatic business, as opposed to the function of negotiating treaties, which required special authority.

[8] John A. Lejeune later served as Commanding General, US 2nd Army Division in World War I and the Thirteenth Commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps.

Marine Detachments (1775-1998)

Resolved, That two Battalions of marines be raised, consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant Colonels, two Majors, and other officers as usual in other regiments; and that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken, that no persons be appointed to office, or insisted into said battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage by sea when required: that they be insisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present war between Great Britain and the colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress: that they be distinguished by the names of the first and second battalions of American Marines, and that they be considered as part of the number which the continental Army before Boston is ordered to consist of.

Continental Congress, 10 November 1775

OLD EGA 001This was the instrument that created the Marine Corps.  The entire purpose of the Marines back then was to serve aboard ships of the Continental Navy —its original purpose and duty, but the concept of such employment goes back much further in history.  Roman ships had detachments of naval infantry whose purpose it was to take the battle to the decks of enemy ships, but seagoing marines have been a fact of naval warfare long before then —which is to say marines in some form or fashion, even if not referred to as such.

We cannot speak of American Marines 2,500 years ago, of course, but we do know that the first American Marines were British colonialists who first served as such under Colonel Alexander Spotswood and Colonel William Gooch (both of whom served as lieutenant governors of the colony of Virginia) during the War of Jenkin’s Ear in 1741.  Four battalions were raised for this purpose, but the enterprise did not end well for those men.  Most were defeated by rampant tropic diseases, which made them ineffective as a fighting force.

After the Congress’ authorization for a Corps of Marines, Tun Tavern [1] in Philadelphia became the main recruitment office for Marines.  Here, able bodied seamen were lured into Marine Corps service for six and two-thirds dollars per month, a daily ration of bread, one pound of pork or beef, potatoes or turnips, or a half-pound of peas, and a half-pint of rum.  Recruits were also promised butter once a week, pudding twice each week, and an allotment of cheese three times a week. Their uniforms included green overcoats and white trousers —so long as clothing was available.

Samuel_Nicholas
Captain Samuel Nicholas

In 1775, the owner of the Inn was a man named Samuel Nicholas [2].  Nicholas was commissioned a captain of Marines and charged with the initial recruitment effort.  He was responsible for leading the first 300 Marines in a raid at New Providence Island in the Bahamas to seize war materials greatly needed by General George Washington.  Ultimately, the Marines seized two forts in the face of almost no British resistance and helped themselves to available guns, powder, cannon balls, mortars, and various caliber of shells.  Marines did receive three rounds of British cannon fire, but no one was injured.

On their return voyage, the Continental Navy suddenly faced the twenty or so guns HMS Glasgow at Block Island.  When the smoke cleared, seven Marines lay dead and four others required treatment for serious wounds.  British casualties included four killed or wounded.

Seagoing Marines (also referred to as seadogs) were involved in many of the battles in the American Revolution.  Marine sharpshooters stationed on platforms above the masts delivered devastating fire to the decks of enemy ships. Occasionally, the Marines would conduct raids ashore along America’s long coastline.

When peace finally came in 1783, the Congress decided that it could no longer afford a naval establishment and the Continental Navy and Marine Corps were disbanded.  Up until then, the Continental Marines had consisted of 124 officers and 3,000 enlisted men.  There was no naval force in the United States between 1783 and 1794; in that year, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates, all of which would have stationed aboard them detachments of US Marines.  They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and so it was with the reemergence of the Navy and Marine Corps.  Moorish raiders operating in the Mediterranean and Atlantic seaboard had begun seizing US flagged vessels and holding them, their cargoes, and crews, for ransom.  In 1793 alone, the US lost eleven merchantmen to Barbary pirates.  Added to this, European wars continued to involve American ships and the newly-created United States of America was forced to break free of its isolationist policies.

Three frigates were launched in 1797; they were christened USS United States, USS Constellation, and USS Constitution.  A congressional act on 1 July of that year reactivated the Marine Corps.  The Act called for five lieutenants, eight sergeants, eight corporals, three drummers, three fifers, and 140 privates to man these ships in Marine Detachments.  From this point forward, the strength of the Marine Corps seagoing Marines continued to grow.

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson, who was no friend of the American Navy, decided that the country could ill-afford to maintain the naval establishment.  Ships were decommissioned or dismantled, and the Marine Corps was cut to 26 officers and 453 enlisted men.

Yet, even as the President was looking to reduce America’s debt, the Navy-Marine Corps team had managed to create turmoil among French privateers operating in the West Indies during the so-called Quasi-War [3] (1798-1800).  The war was “quasi” because it was undeclared.  The French were surprised by the fighting skills of America’s fledgling Navy, among whose senior officers included Stephen Decatur, Silas Talbot, and William Bainbridge.

Overwhelmed at sea, French ships withdrew to littoral areas of the West Indies and adopted the tactics of ambushing American commercial ships.  Undaunted, the US Navy pursued the French into shallow waters.  USS Delaware was the first American warship to claim a French prize.  USS Constellation captured the French ship Insurgente, a 40-gun ship of the line, on 7 February 1799.  Constellation also captured the 52-gun Vengeance after a five-hour battle in 1800.  Both of these vessels sustained heavy damage, however.

Lieutenant Bartholomew Clinch commanded the Constellation’s Marine Detachment during both sea battles; his Marines were recognized for delivering devastatingly accurate fire upon the French ship.  Lieutenant James Middleton led a landing party of Marines from USS Merrimack and USS Patapsco to defend the port of Curacao from a French raid.  Marines were also employed to seize an English ship being held under heavy cannon fire at Puerto Plata in Santo Domingo.

Suffering these depredations at the hands of the American Navy and Marines, the French soon signaled their interest in ending the war —but not before Marines from USS Enterprise captured nine French privateers, defeated a Spanish brig, and re-captured eleven American vessels.  In December 1800, Enterprise also defeated L’Aigle and Flambeau with much credit given to Marine sharpshooters.

Firing Pennsylvania
Firing the Philadelphia

President Jefferson’s frugality campaign came to an end when he realized that Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian, and Tripolitan raiders were costing the Americans several million dollars a year, or roughly one-fifth of the nation’s income, paid either as ransom for captured Americans, or in bribes paid to allow US merchantmen to sail in Mediterranean waters.  In 1805, Tripoli’s pasha foolishly declared war on the United States by capturing USS Philadelphia and imprisoning its crew, which included 44 Marines.  To prevent the Tripolitans from using Philadelphia against the American Navy, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a raid into the harbor aboard the captured French ketch, USS Intrepid, boarded Philadelphia, overpowered the pirates, and burned the ship to its waterline. An eight-man squad of Marines participating in this raid was led by Sergeant Solomon Wren.

One of the more audacious actions during the Barbary Wars was the overland expedition led by William Eaton and Marine First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, who had recruited mercenaries and marched six-hundred miles through the Libyan desert to attack the fort at Derna.  After heavy fighting, during which Eaton was wounded, O’Bannon’s remaining force assaulted the fort and defeated it.  This was the first time the United States flag was raised over foreign territory and the origin of the words to the Marine Corps Hymn, “…to the shores of Tripoli.”

Seven years later, during the War of 1812, Marine Lieutenant John Marshal Gamble became the only Marine Corps officer to command a U. S. Navy ship, the captured British whaling ship Greenwich.  Lieutenant Colonel Gamble retired from active service in 1834.

During the War of 1812, a young officer by the name of Captain Archibald Henderson served aboard USS Constitution, distinguishing himself in engagements with HMS Java, Cyane and Levant.  He was brevetted to Major in 1814.  Colonel Henderson was later appointed to serve as the fifth Commandant of the Marine Corps, a post he would retain for 38-years.  He was brevetted to Brigadier General in January 1837.

Numerous men of Marine Corps fame served as seagoing Marines, including Henry Clay Cochrane, John Twiggs-Myers, Smedley D. Butler, and John Quick.  An overview of combat service involving ship’s Marine Detachments includes:

  • Barbary Wars
  • Florida Indian Wars
  • Operations in Haiti
  • Firefighting at St. Thomas, Virgin Islands
  • Falkland Islands engagement
  • Slave suppression operations in South America
  • Diplomatic security in Japan
  • Operations ashore in China to protect American lives and property
  • Fiji Island raids to avenge the murders of American seamen
  • Union and Confederate forces in the American Civil War
  • Combat operations in Korea, 1870s
  • Peace-keeping missions in Haiti and Egypt
  • Spanish-American War (Philippines and Cuba)
  • Panamanian revolution and construction of the Canal

With the outbreak of the so-called Great War, Marine Corps senior officers began planning for a significant increase in troop strength.  The demand for amphibious/land forces began to outpace the requirement for shipboard detachments.  These continued, of course, but in smaller numbers.

During World War II, Marine Detachments performed strategic raids as part of the Atlantic and Pacific fleets.  In 1942, the Marines serving aboard USS Philadelphia (CL-41) landed at Safi, French Morocco to secure the airfield until relieved by Army units.  On 6 June 1944, shipboard Marines participated in the Normandy invasion by detonating floating mines blocking the path of US Navy ships operating in the English Channel.  They also manned secondary batteries aboard Navy cruisers and battleships.  On 29 August 1944, during the invasion of southern France, Marines from USS Philadelphia (CL-41) and USS Augusta (CA-31) went ashore to take charge of 700 Germans who had been manning fortified garrisons around the French harbor in Marseilles.  In the Pacific, the seadogs manned naval guns as Japanese kamikaze bombers attempted to destroy Navy vessels operating off the coast of Okinawa.  On 2 September 1945, Marines aboard the USS Missouri participated in ceremonies accepting Japan’s unconditional surrender to allied forces in Tokyo Bay.

The end of World War II propelled the world into the atomic age and cold war with the Soviet Union and China.  With war at an end, the United States reexamined its military footprint.  Under President Truman, the size of the military was sharply reduced.  Both the Navy and Marine Corps were reduced by one-third of their operating forces. The National Security Act of 1947 (Title 10, United States Code 5013) reaffirmed the seagoing mission of the Marine Corps: “… the Marine Corps shall provide detachments and organizations for service on armed vessels of the U. S. Navy and shall provide security detachments for the protection of naval property at naval stations and bases.”

Due to significant cutbacks in the operating forces under the Truman administration, the Navy and Marine Corps were barely able to respond to North Korean aggression in 1950.  Ships that had been mothballed were reactivated.  The same carriers, battleships, and cruisers that had served in World War II were brought back for the Korean War.  There would be no sea battles, however.  Off shore navy platforms provided air support and battleships and cruisers provided naval gunfire support to the land forces.

The cold war produced significant advances in technology.  The US Navy continued to protect sea lanes throughout the world and participated in operations in Lebanon, Santo Domingo, Formosa, Cuba, and a then relatively unknown placed called Viet Nam.  Marine Detachments continued to serve aboard cruisers, battleships, and carriers, but their roles were changing.  Some of these ships had been transformed into nuclear powered vessels; additional security was needed to safeguard “special weapons.”

On 29 July 1967, while serving at Yankee Station, an aircraft aboard the USS Forrestal (CVA-49) exploded setting off a series of fires and secondary explosions.  This was another important function of seagoing Marines: firefighting. Among the casualties from this incident were 134 sailors killed, 64 seriously wounded.  On 14 January 1969, another fire erupted aboard USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) while operating off the coast of Hawaii, resulting in 28 deaths, 128 injuries, the destruction of 15-aircraft, and a monetary loss of more than $128-million.  Few events are more deadly at sea than a shipboard fire.

In the post-World War II period, the duties of seagoing Marines were set forth in U. S. Navy Regulations (1047): “A Marine Detachment detailed to duty aboard a ship of the Navy shall form a separate division thereof.  Its functions shall be (1) Provide for operations ashore, as part of the ship’s landing force; or as part of the landing force of Marines from ships of the fleet or subdivisions thereof; or as an independent force for limited operations.  (2) To provide gun crews.  (3) To provide internal security of a ship.  (4) To provide for the proper rendering of military honors.  In addition to these duties, Marines also provided the ship’s captain with a Marine orderly, brig sentries, and guards for special weapons.

Eventually, the Navy replaced their deck guns with guided missiles and computer-controlled weapons systems.  There was no longer a need for Marines to man antiquated naval guns.  USS Oklahoma (CL-91) was the Navy’s last gun cruiser.  She was retired in the late 1970s, replaced in 1979 by the amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19).  Her sister ship was USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20), placed in service in 1981. Initially, both of these ships had Marine Detachments, but because of their mission of directing amphibious operations, and because these ships incorporated Marines especially trained for planning and conducting amphibious operations, the detachments were deemed excess to requirements and were removed.

In small but steady increments, ship’s detachments were reduced in the Navy fleet. In 1979, the Commandant of the Marine Corps changed the mission of seagoing Marines.  From that time, Marine duties involved little more than providing security for special weapons storage spaces, the transfer of such weapons aboard ship, provide security for the ship, provide gun-crews as required, and such other duties as may be assigned by competent authority.  Marines no longer performed landing operations or brig security.  In 1986, the Commandant specifically precluded Marines from performing any duty that would detract from their primary role of safeguarding special weapons.

Between the early 1980s and 1990s, the battleships USS New Jersey and USS Iowa were reintroduced into naval fleets.  When one of the gun turrets of the Iowa exploded, killing 47 crewmen, Marines helped in firefighting and damage control operations.  Still, the accordion effect of manpower management caused the Navy and Marines to again reevaluate the Marine Detachments.  By the early 1990s, the United States entered another dangerous period: international terrorism.  In meeting this demand, Headquarters Marine Corps created the Marine Corps Security Forces (MCSF) with the stated mission of providing trained personnel and cadres to security departments at designated naval installations. The MCSF also provided mobile training teams to support anti-terrorism training at navy bases.

Detachments of Marines served exceptionally well aboard US Navy vessels since Corps’ very beginning; this ended in 1998. The last Marine Detachment bid farewell to the USS George Washington (CVN-73) on 1 May 1998.  A 223-year tradition of service at sea came to an end. Time marches on.

MARDET CINCLANT
Marine Detachment CINCLANT

Personal note: it was my privilege to serve at Marine Detachment, CINCLANT/ CINCLANTFLT/SACLANT in Norfolk, Virginia from June 1964 to October 1966.  Today, the detachment is known as Marine Security Guard (MSG) Detachment, U. S. Fleet Forces Command.  At that time, it was the only non-seagoing detachment in the Marine Corps.  The two detachment commanders during this period were Major Figard and Major Kraynak. The executive officers were 1stLt Gaumont and 1stLt Ahern.  The First Sergeant was Donald A. Whiteside (retired in grade of Captain).  I was promoted to corporal and sergeant while stationed in Norfolk.

Endnotes:

[1] Tun Tavern was established in 1686 by Joshua Carpenter, the brother of Samuel who was a wealthy Quaker merchant.  The brewery and pub was located on King Street (later, Water Street) and Tun Alley, a caraway that led to Carpenter’s wharf.  The word “Tun” comes from old English meaning barrel or keg of beer.  The tavern became an early meeting place for a number of notable groups, including Freemasons in early America.

[2] While not officially appointed as such, Nicholas is traditionally regarded as the first Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[3] This conflict erupted during the administration of John Adams.  After the French monarchy was abolished in September 1792, the United States determined that its debt to France was cancelled. The French Republic thought otherwise and began to seize American ships and sell them as repayment of America’s debt.  The war was fought almost entirely at sea.