General Order No. 1

EGA 2014-002Marine sentries are governed by 11 General Orders and such special orders and directives as may be required for a particular guard post or location. A Marine’s first general order is, “Take charge of this post and all government property in view.” That is precisely what the Marines did in 1921 (and again in 1926) when gangsters began robbing the United States Postal Service of its mail and packages. Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby, himself a veteran of Marine Corps service, instructed the Marines as follows:

“You must, when on guard duty, keep your weapons in hand, if attacked, shoot, and shoot to kill. There is no compromise in this battle with bandits. If two Marines guarding a mail car, for example, are suddenly covered by a robber, neither must hold up his hands, but both must begin shooting at once. One may be killed, but the other will get the robbers and save the mail. When our Marine Corps men go as guards over the mail, that mail must be delivered or there must be a dead Marine at the post of duty.”

Mr. Denby was not a joking man.

Mail robbery had become a very lucrative business between 1919 and 1921. According to an article by Postal Historian George Corney, about $6 million was lost to mail robbery during these years. In terms of today’s dollars, that would be about $80 million. Train/postal robbery was a worthwhile endeavor back then because registered mail is how most businesses and persons transferred money from one location to another. The worst robbery of all took place in New York City —the loss of $2.4 million in five sacks of registered mail. Today, that would be about $31 million.

The Postmaster General of the United States asked the President for help (on two separate occasions). In 1921, President Harding sent a terse letter to the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Denby:

My Dear Mr. Secretary:

You will detail as guards for the United States Mails a sufficient number of officers and men of the United States Marine Corps to protect the mails from depredations by robbers and bandits.

You will confer with the Postmaster General as to the details, and will issue the necessary instructions in regard to the performance of this duty.

Very truly yours,

Warren G. Harding

It was not very long before the Commandant of the Marine Corps temporarily reassigned 53 officers and 2,200 Marines to duty protecting the United States Mail. These Marines came from the bases at Quantico, Virginia and San Diego, California. Marine commanding officers passed down terse instructions to their Marines, including a training manual formatted as a series of questions and answers. Here are two examples:

Question: Suppose he (the robber) is using a gun or making threats with a gun in trying to escape?

Answer: Shoot him.

Question: Is it possible to make a successful mail robbery?

Answer: Only over the body of a dead Marine.

Of course, so few Marines could not guard every bit of mail and so the Post Office Department decided that Marines would only guard registered mail consisting of a considerable value, particularly mail involving cash and negotiable bonds. The post office consolidated these shipments as much as possible in order to reduce the number of Marines required for such duties.

USMC Mail Guards 001Marines assigned to these duties may have imagined that it was a plum assignment, but it actually involved long, tedious, lonely hours. Not one time during the initial period of guard duty did anyone attempt to rob the U. S. Postal Service. Marines were withdrawn on 15 March 1922.

The break in robberies continued until in April 1923 when a mail messenger in St. Louis was relieved of $2.4 million of registered mail, and a general reescalation of robberies in 1926. In October, a group of gunmen murdered a postal truck driver and made off with $150,000. Once again, the Postmaster requested Marines to guard the mail while the postal service developed its own force of guards and armored trucks. Once again, the Commandant of the Marine Corps detailed 2,500 Marines to postal security duties, this time under the command of two-time Medal of Honor recipient Major General Smedley D. Butler (West Coast Operations), and Major General Logan Feland (East Coast Operations). All 2,500 Marines served on Mail Guard Duty.

By 1926, gangsters had upgraded their firearm capability. Now they were using automatic rifles and machineguns. Marines responded in kind, adding Thompson sub-machineguns to their arsenal of .45 pistols and shotguns. This time, a Marine did fire his weapon. On the night of 26 October 1926, while detailed to a Seattle bound train, Private Fred Jackson discovered an intruder standing on the mail car platform. In spite of the fact that the train was traveling at about 25 miles per hour, Private Jackson ordered the man off the train. The man told Jackson he wasn’t going to do it. Jackson fired a shot above the man’s head, which caused the interloper to rethink his position. As the man jumped from the train, Jackson fired a second shot for good measure. Today this would result in a White House investigation.

Marines were withdrawn from Postal Security Duty in February 1927; they were needed elsewhere. The Banana Wars were once more heating up.

Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

When Death Smiles at American Marines ... American Marines Smile back.

Among those interested in military history, and in particular American military history, there are essentially two prevailing opinions about American Marines. The first is that Marines are really quite good at amphibious warfare.  However, those with greater understanding realize that the Marines are more than amphibians; they are chameleons.  Marines aren’t just good at completing their traditional mission of projecting Naval power ashore; they are damn good at fulfilling every mission assigned to them.  What makes this even possible is the attitudes common among Marines: Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.

American Marines did not invent amphibious warfare; some form of it has been with us for at least 3,000 years. Julius Caesar, the quintessential field commander, not only made amphibious landings, he also developed ship-borne artillery to support his landing forces. From all this experience through three millennia, we know there are two kinds of amphibious operations: those that were highly successful, and those that were a complete disaster. Of the latter, no greater example exists than the spectacularly unsuccessful amphibious assault on Gallipoli, where of the 499,000 troops landed by allied forces, half were killed, injured, or rendered incapacitated due to sickness and disease.

It was during the period between world wars that the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps developed specialized amphibious warfare doctrine and equipment. In the 1920s, two events propelled the Marine Corps to the forefront of amphibious inquiry. The first of these was the introduction of the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, Virginia. The creation of Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune, MCS provided an environment that encouraged enlightened thinking in matters of warfare. Within this school, scholarly officers began asking “what if” questions about the future of war involving the United States. The second event was the rise to prominence of Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hancock “Pete” Ellis, United States Marine Corps.

By this time, it was well known that Japan had seized a number of Pacific islands from the Germans during World War I. Marine scholars began to suspect that Japan was beginning to fortify these islands. Lieutenant Colonel Ellis[1] published a study in 1921 entitled Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia. He not only predicted and outlined every move the US would eventually follow in World War II and warn fellow Marines that the US would eventually face heavily fortified Japanese-held islands. He also predicted the application of advanced warfare technology, such as the aircraft carrier, torpedo planes, and long-range bombers.

From these inquiries, Navy and Marine Corps planners began to devise new troop organizations, new amphibious landing craft, the means of coordinating naval artillery and sea-borne air assault strategies, and logistics methodologies. Navy planners scheduled exercises within the Caribbean area to test hypotheses and it was from these lessons that a formal amphibious doctrine was eventually developed —including the seizure of objectives and the defense of advanced naval bases.

FMF InsigniaBy 1927, the Marine Corps was officially tasked as an advanced base force. On 7 December 1933, Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson issued General Order 241, which transformed the Advanced Base Forces into the Fleet Marine Forces (FMF). From this point on, the U. S. Marine Corps became America’s quick reaction force. By 1934, Marine Corps tacticians had developed effective amphibious techniques, and in that year the Marine Corps published the Tentative Landing Operations Manual. It was tentative because the Navy and Marine Corps continued to test emerging ideas about amphibious operations. They accomplished this through annual fleet landing exercises. Much of this early information continues to exist in updated field manuals and doctrinal publications.

It will suffice to say that these preparations proved invaluable in World War II, when the Marines not only spearheaded many of the attacks against Japanese-held islands in the Pacific, but also trained the U.S. Army divisions that also participated in the island-hopping campaign. What the US Army knew about amphibious operations in the planning and execution of Operation Torch (North Africa, 1942) they obtained from the doctrine developed by the Marine Corps in the two previous decades.

Three months before war broke out on the Korean peninsula in 1950, US Army Chief of Staff General Omar N. Bradley famously said, “The world will never again see a large scale amphibious landing.[2]”  Three months after that, the Marine Corps made an amphibious landing at Inchon, Korea —the master strategy of US Army General Douglas MacArthur.

“An ability to furnish skilled forces to meet emergency situations on short notice has long been a hallmark of the U. S. Marine Corps. When the call came for such a force to be dispatched to Korea on 2 July 1950, the Corps was handicapped by the strictures of a peacetime economy. Nevertheless, a composite brigade consisting of a regiment and an air group was made available within a week’s time.

“With a reputation built largely on amphibious warfare, Marines of the 1st Brigade were called upon the prove their versatility in sustained ground action. On three separate occasions within the embattled Perimeter—south toward Sachon and twice along the Naktong River—these Marine units hurled the weight of their assault force at a determined enemy. All three attacks were successful, and at no point did Marines give ground except as ordered. The quality of their performance in the difficult days of the Pusan Perimeter fighting made them a valuable member of the United Nations team and earned new laurels for their Corps.”

—Lenuel C. Shepherd, Jr., General, U. S. Marine Corps, Commandant of the Marine Corps

What General Shepherd did not say, of course, was that by the time President Truman and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson finished destroying our defense structure, none of our military services were prepared for another conflict.  The magnitude of the task accomplished by the Marine Corps in the first ten weeks of the Korean War may be fairly judged from the fact that on 30 June 1950, the 1st Marine Division consisted of only 641 officers, and 7,148 enlisted men.  The 1st Marine Aircraft Wing had less than 500 officers and only 3,259 enlisted men.

On 2 August, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade was pressed forward into the Pusan Perimeter with a scant 6,600 infantry and aviation officers and enlisted men.  The Brigade became known as the Fire Brigade; it was also a light brigade because rather than having three full infantry battalions in the regiment, there were only two.  Rather than having three infantry companies in each battalion, there were only two.  Rather than having three infantry platoons within each company, there were only two.

What this meant was that the Marines were going into combat without an organic reinforcing reserve capability.  They were going into combat without the ability to replace casualties.  One may wonder how this was even possible.  The answer, of course, is that American Marines always get the job done —no matter what it takes.  Marines always improvise, adapt, and overcome.

Notes:

[1] Colonel Ellis (1880–1923) served as an intelligence officer whose work became the basis for the American campaign of a series of amphibious assaults that defeated the Japanese in World War II. His prophetic study helped establish his reputation as one of the forefront of naval theorists and strategist of his era, to include foreseeing a preemptory attack by Japan, and island-hopping campaigns in the Central Pacific. Colonel Ellis became the Marine Corps’ first spy whose mysterious death became enclosed in controversy.

[2] USMC Operations in Korea, 1950-1953 Volume I