The Laotian Problem

Laos 001No one foresaw any geo-political problems from the small backward and completely landlocked Kingdom of Laos in 1945.  It was a land inhabited for the most part by hill tribes who were generally peaceful and quite happy with their lifestyle.  But there developed a rivalry between somewhat obscure princes that evolved into a serious international crisis and ultimately, an East vs. West military confrontation.  A minor feud, generally meaningless to the rest of the world, was altered by North Vietnam’s policy of extending its control over the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and its use of Laos as a steppingstone to achieve undetected infiltration into South Vietnam.  Behind the scenes was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) who had begun supplying military aid to the Pathet Lao —the army of the leftist Prince Souphanauvong.  To counter these Communist-inspired activities, the United States had extended its military assistance effort to the anti-Communist Prince Boun Oum.  As this minor struggle continued (from around mid-1950), Prince Souvanna Phouma, who had previously proclaimed neutrality, sided with the Pathet Lao.  It was thus that the tiny Kingdom of Laos became a pawn on the chessboard of international politics.

US military assistance in Laos did very little to slow the escalation of Pathet Lao activities.  In early 1960, the Pathet Lao joined forces with the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) to seize control of the eastern portion of the country’s long, southward panhandle.  In 1961, aided again by NVA, the Pathet Lao opened an offensive on the Plain of Jars in central Laos.  Boun Oum’s forces proved unable to contain this Communist push into the Laotian central region.  By March 1961, the situation had become critical enough for President John F. Kennedy to alert the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), Admiral Harry D. Felt[1], for a possible military deployment to Laos.

Admiral Felt selected Major General Donald M. Weller[2], then serving as Commanding General, 3rd Marine Division, to additionally serve as Commander, Task Force 116.  Weller’s command primarily consisted of US Marine ground and air forces, augmented by selected (mission essential) units of the US Army and US Air Force.  As Weller organized his task force, President Kennedy successfully arranged a cease-fire in Laos.  The crisis cooled further when fourteen governments agreed to reconvene the Geneva Conference to consider neutralization of the Laotian kingdom.  Kennedy called off the alert and General Weller’s task force was deactivated.

Negotiations in Geneva proved to be long and tedious and the ceasefire was at best tenuous; sporadic fire fights continued to erupt in various areas, usually localized, but over time growing in their frequency.  In the opening weeks of 1962, widespread heavy fighting broke out again, precipitating a more intense crisis.  US observers agreed that by May 1962 the situation reached a critical point.  Pathet Lao and NVA forces routed a major element of anti-Communist Laotian forces at Nam Tha, a town located along the Mekong River in northwestern Laos.  As a result, General Phoumi Nosavanled his army in a general withdrawal into northern Thailand.  In doing so, Phoumi risked widening the conflict into Thailand.

Afterward in control of the east bank of the Mekong, the Pathet Lao were poised for a drive into Thailand, which at the time was a member in good standing of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).  Additionally, General Phoumi’s defeat threatened the US negotiating position at the on-going Geneva accords.  Accordingly, Kennedy ordered the re-activation of Task Force 116.  This time Admiral Felt selected Marine Major General John Condon[3] to serve as its commander.  A Marine battalion landing team (BLT) joined the US 7th Fleet amphibious ready group as its special landing force.  Combat elements of TF 116 promptly sailed into the Gulf of Siam.  The US demonstration had two purposes: (1) send an important signal to Pathet Lao and NVA forces that the United States would not countenance an invasion into Thailand, and (2) assure the government of Thailand that the United States was committed to its defense.

After President Kennedy authorized a deployment of US military forces to Thailand, US Army Lieutenant General John L. Richardson assumed command of TF 116 with orders to execute military operations in Laos.  Richardson’s orders were clear: exercise his command in a way that left no doubt as to American intentions to defend Thailand.  He would accomplish this by positioning his force in a manner that would allow them to respond to any armed Communist threat to Thailand.  At the same time, General Harkins (COMUSMACV) was ordered to also assume command of USMACTHAI and to exercise supervisory authority over TF 116.

A-4 Skyhawk 001One element of TF-116 already in Thailand was 1st Brigade, US 27th Infantry Division.  US war plans called for an additional Marine Expeditionary Brigade.  The Brigade would consist of a regimental landing team (RLT) (three BLTs), an attack squadron, a helicopter squadron, and various other supporting units of varying size.  Marine air assets would operate out of the air base at Udorn, Thailand, which also served as the country’s provisional capital some 350 miles northeast of Bangkok.  Udorn hosted a 7,000-foot runway suitable for high performance aircraft and aviation support units.  The first attack squadron to arrive in Thailand was VMA 332, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Harvey M. Patton, who’s 20 A-4 Skyhawks arrived at around noon on 18 May 1962.

Lieutenant Colonel Harold W. Adams, commanding BLT 3/9[4] and Lieutenant Colonel Fred A. Steele, commanding HMM-261, both units forming a key element of the Special Landing Force, disembarked from ships of the Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) at Bangkok.  Aviation support detachments began arriving at Udorn from Okinawa.  To coordinate all aviation units and responsibilities, a provisional Marine Air Group was formed under Colonel Ross S. Mickey.  On 19 May, Brigadier General Ormond B. Simpson[5], commanding the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (3rdMEB) (formerly, Assistant Division Commander, 3rdMarDiv) arrived at Udorn.  As the brigade commander, Simpson would command all USMC air and ground elements deployed to Thailand.  Simpson additionally carried the designation Naval Component Commander, which gave him responsibility for all Navy and Marine forces operating under JTF-116.

Elsewhere, US forces increased with additional USAF tactical fighter bombers, refueler aircraft, and two air transport squadrons.  The US 27th Infantry was reinforced by Hawaii-based units and a logistics support command was activated near Bangkok.  Major General Weller joined the staff of JTF-116 as LtGen Richardson’s chief of staff.

With the numbers of American forces sharply increasing, General Simpson implemented a civic action program with the people of Thailand.  Civil action programs were performed by Marines when they were not involved in field or weapons training programs.  Officers introduced local citizens to the English language while Marine engineers and Navy Seabees helped to repair buildings.  Navy medical and dental personnel attended to physical ailments and injuries.

In Laos, Communist forces cautiously observed an ever-enlarging US military footprint in Thailand.  The Pathet Lao and NVA halted their advance toward the Thai border.

JTF-116 headquarters was set up at Korat.  General Weller established a rear-element in Bangkok and concentrated on coordinating the activities of the JTF with the Joint US Military Assistance/Advisory Group (JUSMAAG), Commander, US Military Assistance Command, Thailand (COMUSMACThai), and the US representatives of SEATO.  At this time, Colonel Croizat, formerly the first Marine Corps advisor to the Vietnamese Marine Corps, served as senior US military representative to the SEATO planning staff in Bangkok.  Weller and Croizat were familiar with the JTF structure, its capabilities, and its functions.

Portions of the Marine Corps contingency operation plan for Laos were later incorporated into operational planning for service in the Republic of Vietnam.  One key provision of the plan was its emphasis on command relationships, an important aspect of Marine Corps and Air Force tactical support operations.  In Laos, the CG 3rdMEB exercised operational control over all Marine tactical aircraft, an integral part of the air-ground team, which the Marines had nurtured since the mid-World War II period.

In Laos, training and acclimatization for combat operations began almost immediately at Udorn and Nong Ta Kai.  While aviators became accustomed to working in the joint-tactical environment, ground pounders familiarized themselves with the terrain, working alongside Thai army units.  Coordinated air-ground maneuvers publicized the presence of the Marines.  Throughout this period of area familiarization, the Marines confined themselves to areas approved by the government of Thailand so as to minimize their contact or interference with local populations.

Once Pathet Lao and NVA commanders realized that the United States was seriously committed to Thailand, their offensive operations in northwest Laos came to a screeching halt.  By late June 1962, US officials reported progress in negotiations in Geneva and Vientiane.  President Kennedy, in a show of good faith, ordered major combat elements of JTF-116 to withdraw from Thailand.  A month later, quarreling factions in Laos agreed to participate in a coalition government headed by Prince Souvanna Phouma and form a neutralist state.  Within this protocol, agreed to and signed by the United States, Soviet Union, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Burma, Great Britain, France, Canada, India, China, Thailand, Poland, the Kingdom of Laos, and Cambodia, all foreign troops were prohibited from entering or operating within the borders of Laos[6].  By 31 July 1962, all Marine Corps combat forces were withdrawn from Thailand/Laos, the 3rdMEB was deactivated, and the first deployment of the Marine Air-Ground task force to Southeast Asia came to an end.

The Laos Problem illustrated the value of the U. S. Marine Corps (a) as a force capable of supporting American foreign policy objectives on short notice, (b) its ability to partner with Navy, Army, Air Force units, and the militaries of foreign allies, (c) its ability to operate at will within remote areas, and (d) its ability to establish culture-sensitive civil action programs.  The lessons learned by the Marines in Thailand/Laos would be taken off the shelf in another war in the not-too-distant future.

Pathet Lao 001
Pathet Lao (still alive)

Diplomatically, Kennedy’s solution to the Laotian problem was a failure on many levels —not least of which were the convictions of both South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem and U. S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Frederick Nolting, that a neutral Laos would only serve the interests of North Vietnam.  Both Diem and Nolting knew that Prince Phouma was weak and untrustworthy.  Diem’s solution was hardly realistic, however: he wanted to partition Laos into a pro-communist/pro-capitalist country.  President Kennedy wanted a diplomatic solution to the Laotian problem —sooner rather than later— and that’s what he got.  Despite the agreement on Laos, which North Vietnam almost immediately violated, Laos did become the primary infiltration route of North Vietnamese men and materials into the Republic of (South) Vietnam.  Equally significant, perhaps, was the fact that Ho Chi Minh had taken an adequate measure of John F. Kennedy and the man who would succeed him: Lyndon B. Johnson.

(Next week: Marine Advisors in Vietnam)

Sources:

  1. Castle, T. At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U. S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955-1975.  Columbia University Press, 1993.
  2. Conboy, K. J. War in Laos, 1954-1975.  Squadron/Signal Publications, 1994.
  3. Freedman, R. Vietnam: A History of the War. Holiday House, 2016.
  4. Hastings, M. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75.  Canada: HarperCollins, 2018.
  5. Hitchcock, W. The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World of the 1950s.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018
  6. Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History.  New York: Viking/The Penguin Group, 1983
  7. Sturkey, M.F. Bonnie-Sue: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam.  South Carolina: Heritage Press International, 1996
  8. Whitlow, R. H. S. Marines in Vietnam: The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era, 1954-1964.  History & Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1977

Endnotes:

[1] Admiral Felt (1902-92) was a naval aviator who led US carrier strikes during World War II.  He served as CINCPAC from 1958-64.  Felt, was an unremarkable graduate of the US Naval Academy.  He spent five years at sea before applying for flight training.  Felt went on to become one of the more accomplished Navy aviators in its entire history.

[2] Weller, an artillerist, became the Marine Corps’ foremost expert on naval gunfire support and authored several books on the topic.  During World War II, Weller served under (then) Brigadier General Holland M. Smith, commanding the 1st Marine Brigade, as his artillery and naval gunfire support coordinator.  Weller retired from active duty in 1963 while serving as Deputy Commander, Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific.

[3] Commanding General, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.

[4] A battalion landing team is an infantry battalion reinforced by additional units sufficient to enable the team to accomplish its assigned mission.  In this case, 3/9 was reinforced by an artillery battery, a tank platoon, an amphibious tractor platoon, a pioneer platoon, a motor transport platoon, an anti-tank platoon, and air and naval gunfire liaison teams.

[5] General Simpson (1915-1998) later commanded the 1stMarDiv during the Vietnam War.

[6] See also, final paragraph.  Had the North Vietnamese adhered to their agreement, they would not have established the logistics corridor through the eastern length of Laos that became known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.  Without it, the War in Vietnam might well have had a different outcome.

The Admiral Who Knew …

USN 001Military and naval officers serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States.  The President nominates officers for advancement (confirmation is required by the United States Senate), and depending on their seniority, it is the President who approves their assignments [1].  Whenever an officer cannot, in good faith, serve the President, two things must occur: an officer with integrity must either resign his or her commission, or the President must relieve them from their duty assignment and send them away (either into retirement or reassign them to another duty). Generally, there are two reasons for presidential dismissal: insubordination, or professional disgrace (such as suffering considerable losses in war) [2].

James O. Richardson was born in Paris, Texas.  He entered the United States Naval Academy in 1898 and graduated fifth in his class in 1902.  His first assignment placed him in the Asiatic Squadron where he participated in the Philippine Campaign with later assignment to the Atlantic Squadron. Between 1907-09, while serving as a lieutenant, he was assigned command of the torpedo boats Tingey and Stockton, and later commanded the Third Division of the Atlantic Torpedo flotilla.  Between 1909-11, he attended the Navy’s post-graduate Engineer School, then served as an engineer on the battleship USS Delaware.  He was promoted to lieutenant commander and received an assignment to the Navy Department where he was charged with supervising the Navy’s store of fuel.

Richardson 001Promoted to commander, Richardson served as a navigator and executive officer of the battleship USS Nevada between 1917-19. Between 1919-22, Richardson was assigned to the Naval Academy as an instructor.  In 1922, the Navy assigned Richardson command of the gunboat USS Asheville.  Under his leadership, Asheville was dispatched to Asiatic waters where he also commanded a division of ships assigned to the South China Patrol.  After his promotion to Captain, Richardson was reassigned to Washington from 1924-27, where he served as Assistant Chief, Bureau of Ordnance —afterward commanding a destroyer division of the Atlantic Squadron and then returning to Washington for service with the Bureau of Navigation.

In 1931, Captain Richardson took charge of the new heavy cruiser USS Augusta and commander her for two years.  After attending the Naval War College (1933-34), he was promoted to Rear Admiral (Lower Half) and rejoined the Navy Department as its budget officer.  His first command as a flag officer was the scouting force, cruiser division, Atlantic Squadron.  He then served as an aide and chief of staff to Admiral J. M. Reeves, Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet, and afterward as Commander, Destroyer Scouting Force.  In 1937, he became Assistant Chief of Naval Operations under Admiral William D. Leahy.  In this position, he coordinated the search for Amelia Earhart and dealt with the Japanese attack on the USS Panay.  In 1938, Richardson assumed the duties as Chief, Bureau of Navigation and aided in the development of Plan Orange [3].  In June 1939, Admiral Richardson took command of the Battle Force, US Fleet, with temporary promotion to the rank of admiral.

In January 1940, Richardson was assigned as Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet [4].  According to journalist John Flynn [5], Admiral Richardson was one of the Navy’s foremost flag officers —a man who had made the study of Japanese warfare his life’s work and an outstanding authority on naval warfare in the Pacific and Japanese naval strategy.

One will note that in the 1930s, the European powers were moving rapidly toward another world war and Japan was rapidly increasing its power and prestige in Asia.  The Sino-Japanese conflict in Asia continued unabated.  In the United States, resulting from a lack of attention and funding, the army and navy were in a shamble.  For the navy specifically, new ships, while ordered, were still under construction.  In 1937-38, the United States was not ready for either of the world’s emerging conflicts; should something happen before new ships came online, the USN would have limited effectiveness in a two-ocean war.  The organization of the United States fleet in 1939 reflects the Navy’s overall unreadiness for war.  To correct this deficiency, the Navy began to re-commission ships from the mothball fleet, some of which were turned over to the British as part of the Lend-Lease Program.

In this environment, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet to move the Pacific Fleet from San Diego, California to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  His purpose in making this decision was to “restrain” Japanese naval activities in the Pacific Ocean Area.  Roosevelt made this decision without asking Admiral Richardson (who not only had responsibility for the US Fleet, but also a broad base of knowledge about Japanese naval warfare) for his opinion.  Admiral Richardson was not a happy sailor.

Admiral Richardson protested Roosevelt’s decision.  He not only took his concern directly to the president; he went to other power brokers in Washington, as well.  Richardson did believe that advance bases in Guam and Hawaii were necessary, but inadequate congressional funding over many years made these advance bases insufficient to a war time mission.  Richardson firmly believed that future naval conflicts would involve enemy aircraft carriers; to detect these threats, the US Navy would require an expanded surface and aviation scouting force.

Richardson 002Admiral Richardson was worried because he realized how vulnerable the US Fleet would be in such an exposed, vulnerable, and exposed location as Pearl Harbor.  Moreover, he knew that logistical support of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor would be a nightmare, made worse by slim resources and an inadequate logistical organizational structure.  Admiral Richardson believed that Roosevelt’s decision was impractical and strategically inept —that Roosevelt had no business offering US naval support to Great Britain when in fact the US Navy was barely able to stand on its own two feet.  It was also true that the Navy had little in the way of adequate housing, materials, or defensive systems at Pearl Harbor.  What Admiral Richardson wanted was to prepare the fleet for war at San Diego.  Then, once it was ready for war, the Navy could return to Pearl Harbor.

Most of the Navy’s admirals agreed with Richardson —the Pacific Fleet should never berth inside Pearl Harbor where it would become a sitting duck for enemy (Japanese) attack.  Admiral Richardson believed that Pearl harbor was the logical first choice of the Japanese high command for an attack on the United States because Pearl Harbor was America’s nearest “advanced base.”  Since the 1930s, the US Navy had conducted several training exercises against the Army’s defenses at Pearl Harbor; in each episode, the Navy proved that Pearl Harbor did not lend itself to an adequate defense.  Richardson communicated this information to President Roosevelt.

He also informed the President that, in his studied opinion, the United States Navy was not ready for war with Japan.  When Richardson’s views were leaked to the Washington press, President Roosevelt fired him.  On 1 February 1941, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel replaced Richardson as Commander, US Pacific Fleet, and Admiral Ernest J. King replaced Richardson as Commander of the US Atlantic Fleet.  Fired by the President of the United States, Richardson reverted to Rear Admiral and served as a member of the Navy General Board until his retirement in October 1942.

Admiral Richardson predicted war with Japan and where the Japanese would strike.  What the admiral knew ended up getting him fired from high command.  It is my opinion that Admiral Richardson’s story tells us much about Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Sources:

  1. Richardson, J. O. On the Treadmill to Pearl Harbor: The Memoirs of Admiral J. O. Richardson, as told to Admiral George C. Dyer, Vice Admiral, USN (Retired).  Naval History Division, Department of the Navy, Washington, DC, 1973
  2. Steely, S.  Pearl Harbor Countdown: The Biography of Admiral James O. Richardson.  Gretna: Pelican Press, 2008

Endnotes:

[1] Permanent flag rank ends at major general/rear admiral (upper half).  Advancements beyond major general/rear admiral (paygrade 08) are temporary assignments (lieutenant general/general, vice admiral/admiral).  A major general who assigned as a corps commander will be temporarily advanced to lieutenant general for as long as he or she serves in that billet.  Should this officer retire from active service after three years, he or she will revert to permanent grade of major general (although he or she may be entitled to a higher rate of pay on the retired list under the “high 36” pay scale for flag rank officers).

[2] The first officer charged with treason was Brigadier General Benedict Arnold of the Continental Army.  During the War of 1812, Brigadier General William Hull, US Army, was court-martialed for cowardice in the face of the enemy.  Hull was sentenced to death, but President Madison remitted the sentence owing to his former “good” service.  President Lincoln fired several generals for their failure to win battles, Franklin Roosevelt fired several, Harry Truman famously fired Douglas MacArthur, Jimmy Carter fired Major General John K. Singlaub, George Bush fired three generals, and Barack Obama fired several.

[3] Plan Orange was a series of contingency operational plans involving joint Army-Navy operations against the Empire of Japan.  Plan Orange failed to foresee the significance of technological changes to naval warfare, including submarine, the importance of air support, and the importance of the employment of aircraft carriers.  Part of the navy’s plan was an island-hopping campaign, which was actually used during World War II.  Note: the Japanese, who were obsessed with the “decisive battle,” ignored the need for a defense against submarines.

[4] The organization of the U. S. Navy has changed considerably since the 1900s.  In 1923, the North Atlantic Squadron was reorganized into the US Scouting Forces, which (along with the US Pacific Fleet) was organized under the United States Fleet.  In January 1939, the Atlantic Squadron, US Fleet was formed.  On 1 November 1940, the Atlantic Squadron was renamed Patrol Force, which was organized into “type” commands: battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and training/logistical commands.  Then, early in 1941, Patrol Force was renamed US Atlantic Fleet.  The Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet exercised command authority over both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets.  At that time, the Chief of Naval Operations was responsible for navy organization, personnel, and support of the fleet—and administrative rather than having any operational responsibility.

[5] The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor, 1945.

The Eighth Marines – Guadalcanal

Preface

The U. S. Marine Corps is part of the naval service organized under the Secretary of the Navy.  Since the American Revolution, the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps have maintained a close relationship.  In the days of sail, U. S. Marine Detachments served aboard Navy ships as sharpshooters, gunners, shipboard security, and as a landing force.  Shipboard Marines served the ship’s captain and received their orders through their detachment commander, whose rank depended on the size of the ship.  The Navy and Marine Corps have a long history of conducting expeditionary operations at sea and on foreign shore in furtherance of United States foreign policy, noting that the Navy-Marine Corps do not make foreign policy; they implement it.

Over these many years, the Navy and Marine Corps developed a distinct naval culture that based on their shared operational experiences, while at the same time retaining their own distinct character.  It has not always been a bed of roses, as significant differences emerged between the Navy and Marines in the period leading up to the Spanish-American War.  Through the Civil War, Marine Officers were often commissioned through patronage rather than through examination and demonstrated leadership potential.  The Marine Corps addressed this problem, and solved it.

When the Navy transitioned from sail to steam, some senior naval officers argued that Marines were no longer needed aboard ship; they would be better employed if formed into expeditionary battalions for use within the fleet.  This particular controversy continued into the early twentieth century.  The fact was that at this time, the Marines did not have a unique mission that only they could perform—only traditional roles that could be as easily performed by sailors or soldiers.

The first employment of Marines as a landing force occurred during the Spanish American War when the Secretary of the Navy directed the formation of a landing battalion for service in the Caribbean.  The battalion was formed with six rifle companies; its commander was Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, and his mission was to secure an advanced base near Santiago, Cuba for use by the Navy as a coaling station.  Soon after going ashore, Huntington and his Marines were confronted by a sizable Spanish force in a nearby village.  Supported by naval gunfire, Huntington defeated the Spanish garrison at Cuzco—and the Marine Corps’ unique mission was at last revealed: amphibious warfare.

There is nothing simple about amphibious operations; it is a highly complex operation and if Mr. Murphy ever had a home, it was tucked away in amphibious warfare.  It was after the Spanish-American War that the Navy and Marine Corps began to develop amphibious warfare doctrine.  This work began in earnest in the Caribbean in 1902 and 1903, and in the Philippine Islands in 1907.  In that same year, Marine Corps planners began to consider a possible war with Japan, which involved the defense of the Philippines.  This planning and training helped the Marine Corps identify inadequate military weapons and equipment.  Important lessons were being learned, but few in Congress, which controls military expenditures, took any notice of these deficiencies or the need for modernization.   

In 1910, the Secretary of the Navy directed the Commandant of the Marine Corps to establish an Advance Base School to train Marine Corps officers in the defense of advanced naval bases.  This work was tested in the Atlantic Fleet exercises in 1913-14.  Subsequently, the Marine Corps formed an Advance Force Brigade whose mission was to assault from the sea, establish a defense on shore, and repel any attack by opposing forces.

World War I interrupted this work, but it was restarted in the 1920s.  In addition to reorganizing the Marine Corps to satisfy its Advance Force framework, other officers began projecting the likely need for amphibious warfare troops.  One of these was Earl Hancock (Pete) Ellis, who actually predicted what the Japanese would do in future decades, and almost precisely when they would begin to do it.

This was the work accomplished prior to World War II, which was uniquely suited to the U. S. Marine Corps.  The officers who re-activated the 8th Marines were all trained in amphibious operations.

Reactivation

After general demobilization of the Armed Forces following World War I, the United States military was little more than a cadre force.  No one back then believed that the United States needed a standing army.  The outbreak of general war in Europe in the fall of 1939 prompted the United States to rethink this proposition.  President Roosevelt and the US Congress began funding a rebuilding and strengthening of the Army-Navy-Marine Corps.  Beginning in 1940, the Marine Corps began to increase the number of its units on active duty.  The first major organization established was the 8th Marines [Note 1]. 

8th Marines was re-activated on 1 April 1940 at San Diego, California.  The regiment then consisted of a headquarters company and two infantry battalions.  Each battalion consisted of a headquarters company and four lettered companies.  It strength was slightly over 1,000 officers and men.  The 8th Marines was initially assigned to the 2nd Marine Brigade and training began immediately.  A third battalion was added on 1 November 1940.

2nd MarDiv Patch
Second Marine Division

In February 1941, two Marine Divisions were activated: the 1st Marine Division in the Caribbean from the then existing 1st Marine Brigade, and the 2nd Marine Division at San Diego from the then existing 2nd Marine Brigade.  The 8th Marines has been part of the 2nd Marine Division ever since.  The 8th Marines (and other regiments) engaged in intensified training at San Clemente Island, off the coast of California, until 7 December 1941 when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor.  The 2nd Marine Division (less the 6th Marines garrisoned in Iceland) was initially instructed to defend the area from the border of Mexico to Oceanside, California against a possible Japanese attack.

Once the initial fear of a Japanese attack abated, the 8th Marines returned to San Diego and prepared for deployment.  The 8th Marines, augmented by 1/10 (an artillery battalion) was detached from the 2nd Marine Division to form the nucleus of a new 2nd Marine Brigade.  On 6 January 1942, the Brigade proceeded to American Samoa to preserve vital communications between the United States, Australia, and New Zealand [Note 2].  The Marines went ashore on 19 January.  1/8 was assigned the job of beach defenses.  When this task was completed, Marines began jungle warfare training.  By the summer, the 8th Marines shifted from a defensive role to preparation for offensive operations against the Empire of Japan.

The 1st Marine Division commenced operations on Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942.  Included in the Guadalcanal campaign were Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Florida, Gavutu, and tanambogo in the southern Solomon Islands.  This was America’s first amphibious assault in World War II and the initial allied ground offensive in the Pacific Ocean Area.  For these Marines, Japanese infantry were only part of the problem.  They also faced oppressive heat, heavy rainfall, malaria, dengue, and fungus.  It would have been nice if the Marines had all of their food stores, but the Navy had landed the Marines and then departed with most of what the Marines needed to sustain themselves in the Solomons.  Lack of adequate nutrition made the Marines more susceptible to disease and the effects of heat and humidity.

Guadalcanal 001
Clearing Operations

By mid-October 1942, it was time to replace the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal.  The US Americal Division began arriving at this time, and they would be reinforced by the 8th Marines, who after 9 months in Samoa, were already acclimatized for jungle warfare.  The 8th Marines landed at Lunga Point on 4 November 1942.  1/8 began clearing operations east of the Tenaru River almost immediately.  2/8 and 3/8 moved to Point Cruz on 10 November where they linked up with the 2nd Marines and elements of the US 164th Infantry Regiment.  This combined force aggressed the village of Kokumbona, encountering sporadic opposition from the ever-willful Japanese soldier.  This advance was halted on 11 November and the Americans recalled across the Matanikau River in preparation for Japanese counter-attack.  General Vandegrift wanted to reinforce Lunga Point.

Vandegrift’s intelligence was golden.  The Japanese Navy were moving thousands of fresh troops to Guadalcanal to confront the Americans.  On the night of 12-13 November, a Japanese covering force for a troop convoy en route to Guadalcanal collided with US Navy escorts for a convoy transporting the US 182nd Infantry Regiment.  The Navy lost two light cruisers and four destroyers; the Japanese lost one battleship and two destroyers.  Navy and Marine aircraft discovered 11 enemy troop transports steaming toward Guadalcanal on 14 November.  American air so pounded these transports that out of 10,000 Japanese troops, only 4,000 came ashore.  That same night, the Japanese lost another battleship and two heavy cruisers.  These engagements all but decided the outcome of the Guadalcanal campaign.

Despite serious losses, the Japanese continued fighting on Guadalcanal into early 1943.  On 18 November 1942, the 8th Marines provided flank security to Army units aggressing the Matanikau River.  A few days later, the 8th Marines passed through the Army and assumed the offense.  On 23 November, the regiment encountered strong opposition.  Casualties were light, but General Vandegrift halted the assault to avoid needless casualties.  Instead, the 8th Marines began a series of combat patrols, which included night ambushes and lightening forays into enemy-held areas.  In the first week, the 8th Marines suffered 111 casualties.

On 12 December, the 8th Marines linked up with the 2nd Marines and began a series of hit and run attacks, designed to keep the Japanese off balance.

General Vandegrift passed overall command of Guadalcanal forces to Major General Alexander M. Patch, commanding the Americal Division.  The 1st Marine Division began retrograde operations to Australia.  No offensive operations took place until 10 January 1943.  At that time, General Patch assigned three divisions to drive out the Japanese who remained on Guadalcanal: US Americal Division, US 25th Infantry Division, and the 2nd Marine Division.  The 2nd Marine Division (now including the 6th Marines) and the Americal Division had orders to seize Cape Esperance by driving along the northern coast.  The 25th Division would approach Cape Esperance by an inland route.  The 25th Division led off the assault followed by the 2nd Marine Division on 13 January.  The 2nd Marines was followed by the 8th Marines.

Guadalcanal 002While the Marines made good progress through the jungle setting, 3/8 encountered withering fire from an entrenched enemy position and all progress came to a halt.  Captain Henry P. Crowe [Note 3], a former enlisted man, commanded the regimental weapons company.  He rushed forward to find out what the problem was and found 3/8 Marines taking cover and somewhat disorganized.  While the Marines thought that Crowe has lost his temper, he was actually rallying them to continue their assault.  At one point, he yelled at the Marines, telling them, “God-damn it, you’ll never get the Purple Heart hiding in a foxhole.  Follow me!”  Crowe led them in a charge that overwhelmed the Japanese position.  Afterward, “Follow Me” became the 2nd Marine Division’s motto.

Patch’s offensive succeeded in pushing the Japanese westward.  The 8th Marines, with naval gunfire support, hammered the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) and it was the Marine’s first real test of naval gunfire support of forces in the attack.  On 15 January, the Marines encountered stiff resistance and rushed flame throwers to the point of contact.  It was the first time the weapon was used in the Pacific war.

The 8th Marines were pulled off the line between 16-18 January, serving as Division Reserve.  On 23 January, the US 27th Infantry captured Kokumbona.  By this time, the Japanese realized the futility of trying to hold out against an ever-strengthening American military.  General Patch was so certain that the Japanese were defeated that the 8th Marines began their withdrawal from the Solomons on 31 January.  Weapons Company and 1/8 embarked aboard the USS Crescent City (AP-40) and sailed for New Zealand.

The Japanese began withdrawing their forces from Guadalcanal on 1 February; some 11,000 IJA troops were evacuated during the night of 7-8 February and the island was declared “secure” on 9 February.  On that date, the rest of the regiment boarded USS Hunter Liggett (AP-27) and USS American Legion (AP-35) and sailed for Wellington, arriving on 16 February 1943. 

As with every American serving on Guadalcanal, the Marines were undernourished.  Arriving in New Zealand, the 8th Marines were feed up to five meals a day and they consumed massive quantities of steak, eggs, and mutton.  Hunting parties went into the wilderness and helped themselves to the local deer, which at the time was significantly overpopulated.  Venison was added to the mess hall menu.  They also consumed large quantities of milk, which put a strain on local dairies.  The genuine friendliness of the New Zealanders probably explains why hundreds of Marines ended up marrying local ladies.  

Next week: Tarawa

Sources:

  1. Santelli, J. S.  A Brief History of the 8th Marines.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1976
  2. Rottman, G. L.  U. S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle, 1939-45.  Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002

Endnotes:

  1. The Marine Corps replaced the word “regiment” with “Marines” in the 1930s.  The designation 8th Marines means the 8th regiment of Marines.  Subordinate units within the regiment are designated by the number of the battalion slash the number of the regiment to which they belong.  1/8 is the designation for 1st Battalion, 8th Marines.  The designation of companies within battalions follows a similar arrangement.  Company A, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines would be abbreviated A/1/8 or sometimes Alpha 1/8. 
  2. The 8th Marines was the first Marine Corps regiment to deploy overseas to the Pacific theater in World War II.
  3. Crowe was awarded both the Silver Star and Bronze Star medals for his courage under fire on Guadalcanal.  He had previously served in Haiti, Nicaragua, and China.

The Eighth Marines – Beginnings

8th Marines LogoIt took the United States a few years to enter into the conflagration we today call World War I, but when the Congress authorized military action, an immediate expansion of the Marine Corps was ordered.  A number of regiments were brought into existence for employment in Europe and in areas outside the war zone.  By late 1918, the Marine Corps had 14 active regiments.  Only four of these would serve in Europe; the rest were ordered for service in the Caribbean, or remained stationed in the United States.

The Eighth Marine Regiment (8th Marines) was activated at Quantico, Virginia on 9 October 1917.  The regiment initially consisted of four units: Headquarters Company, and the 105th, 106th, and 107th Rifle Companies [Note 1].  The regiment was augmented by the 103rd, 104th, 108th, 109th and 110th Rifle Companies on 13 October.  Two additional companies were organized on 22 October: 111th and 112th Companies.  Major Ellis B. Miller was designated as the regimental commander.  He was a 37-year old Marine from Iowa.

At this time, Marine Corps regiments lacked a battalion structure, but in 1917, the Marine Corps adopted the deliberate policy of shaping its regiments to conform to the US Army’s regimental structure.  The reason for this was that Major General Hugh L. Scott, serving as Army Chief of Staff, insisted that Marines deployed to France be organized identically with US Army units [Note 2].  This made perfect sense in terms of deploying combat forces on the Western Front.  Marine regiments would henceforth be organized with a headquarters company and three infantry battalions.  Each battalion would consist of a command element and four rifle companies.  The size of regiments would average 3,000 men.

The first orders received by the 8th Marines indicated that it could be sent to Texas for a possible thrust into Mexico.

Relations between Mexico and the United States had been strained since the Mexican-American War (1846-48).  Since then, Texas and other border states had been subjected to bandit raids  from Mexico and insurrections from within Hispanic communities in South Texas.  The Mexican Revolution (1910-20) only increased these tension.

In 1914, Mexican authorities arrested nine sailors while their ship was anchored in Tampico.  The Mexicans released the sailors, but the US Naval commander demanded an apology and a 21-gun salute.  The Mexicans did apologize, but refused to offer the 21-gun honors.  As President Wilson consulted with Congress over the matter of a possible invasion of Mexico, US intelligence assets learned that a steamer with German registry was attempting to deliver weapons and munitions for Victoriano Huerta, who had seized control of the Mexican government [Note 3].  In response, Wilson authorized the Navy to seize the port city of Veracruz.

In 1916, the Mexican Bandit Pancho Villa crossed the US border with a sizable force and attacked the New Mexico town of Columbus.  Villa assaulted the resident detachment of the 13th Cavalry Regiment, burned the town, seized 100 horses, and made off with other military supplies.  Eighteen Americans died during the assault; Villa lost about 80 of his banditos.   

In January 1917, British Intelligence intercepted a cable from the German Foreign Office addressed to Mexico’s president proposing a military alliance; should the United States enter the war against Germany, a Mexican invasion of the southern portion of the US border would be rewarded by the recovery of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.  President Carranza referred the matter to a military commission, which concluded that the proposed invasion of former Mexican territory would be neither possible or desirable.

With this as a backdrop, the 8th Marines were ordered to Fort Crockett near Galveston as a contingency force should it be necessary to seize and hold the oil fields at Tampico.  The regiment departed for Galveston aboard the USS Hancock on 9 November.  A week later, the Marines were creating a campsite at Fort Crockett.

In August 1918, the 9th Regiment and Headquarters, 3rd Provisional Brigade arrived at Fort Crockett.  The 8th Marines became part of that Brigade.  The Marines remained at Fort Crockett until the end of the war with Germany, but it was not necessary to deploy these Marines into Mexico.  Meanwhile, Mexican officials were well aware of the presence of these Marines and their purpose.  The placement of these Marines may have materially avoided further conflict with Mexico.

The regiment returned to Philadelphia on 25 April and was deactivated the next day.  By the end of 1919, a decision was taken to reactivate the 8th Marines for service in Haiti—an intervention that would not go away [Note 4].  A reorganization of Marine Corps units in Haiti, precipitated by an overall reduction in the post-war strength of the U. S. Marine Corps, began in December 1919.  The 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment (3/2) was redesignated 1/8 with its field and staff [Note 5], 36th, 57th, 63rd, 65th, 100th, 148th, and 196th rifle companies.  8th Marine headquarters was not activated until the following month.

On 5 January 1920, the 8th Marines command element was activated at Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti.  Field and Staff, 1/8 was deactivated and its personnel transferred to Headquarters Company, 8th Marines.  8th Marines headquarters assumed control of subordinate numbered companies. This was the organization of the 8th Marines for the next five years.  The regiment operated with less than 600 men; it’s commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel Louis M. Little.  Colonel Little was an asset in Haiti because he was fluent in the French language.

The Marines were well-aware of a rumor that Cacos bandits were planning to assault  the capital city.  The attack came at 0400 hours on 15 January 1920.  Three-hundred bandits assaulted in three separate columns.  Second Lieutenant Gerald C. Thomas commanded an urban patrol of twelve Marines.  This patrol and a 50-man group of bandits surprised each other on one of the city’s side streets.  Thomas ordered his Marines to hold their fire as the bandits marched toward them.  When the bandits had advanced further, they opened fire on the Marines, but Thomas ordered his men to hold until the Cacos were directly in front of their position.  The concentrated fire from the Marines literally destroyed the bandit formation, killing 20 insurgents.  Thomas’ Marines suffered three wounded.  The bandits retreated from the city [Note 6].

In pursuit of the bandit leader Benoit Batraville, Colonel Little adopted aggressive “search and destroy” operations.  Marine patrols were constantly in the field looking for a confrontation with the insurgents.  This attention forced the rebels to be constantly on the move.  Batraville, however, managed to elude capture, which made the Marines even more determined to find and arrest him.

On 4 April 1920, the Marines experienced two significant encounters with the Cacos.  At 0700, Sergeant Laurence Muth observed a group of bandits on the summit of Mount Michel.  Muth instantly ordered his men to take firing positions and open fire.  Unexpectedly, another group of bandits, who were planning to ambush the Marines, opened fire on Muth’s right flank.  Sergeant Muth was killed in the first volley; in the ensuing firefight, ten bandits were dispatched but the Marines, being overwhelmed in numbers, withdrew.  Sgt. Muth’s body was left behind.  An enraged Colonel Little immediately dispatched 21 patrols, with himself leading one of them to the place where Muth was killed.  Catching a group of Cacos off guard, the Marines initiated a firefight that resulted in 25 enemy killed.  After the fight, Little discovered Sgt. Muth’s remains.  He had been decapitated and his heart had been cut out.

Commanding the 100th Company, 8th Marines in the area of Marche Canard, Captain Jesse L. Perkins led his Marines into the countryside to search for Batraville.  Personally leading a squad of eleven Marines on 19 May, Perkins became aware of a large Cacos camp within a six hour march.  He proceeded to the location with the assistance of native guides.  At 0600, Perkins and his Marines encountered an outpost a short distance from the enemy’s main camp.  Perkins sent Second Lieutenant Edgar G. Kirkpatrick with seven Marines to envelop the camp site.  Captain Perkins, Sergeant William F. Passmore, Sergeant Albert A. Tauber, and Private Emery L. Entrekin [Note 7] assaulted the camp.  Although greatly outnumbered, Perkins gambled on the element of surprise.  Panic ensued once the Cacos observed the Marines rushing toward their position.  Disregarding enemy fire, Perkins and his Marines rushed forward while firing their weapons, momentarily stunning the rebels.  Benoit Batraville then appeared to take charge of the rebels.  Recognizing Batraville, Sergeant Passmore turned and fired at Batraville with his Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), killing him instantly.

At the sound of the rifle fire, Lieutenant Kirkpatrick immediately led his seven Marines into a flanking assault.  The firefight lasted another 15 minutes resulting in 10 enemy killed and several more seriously wounded.  Sergeant Muth’s pistol was found on Batraville’s body.

Although the Cacos leader had been killed, the Marines continued to conduct patrols in order to keep the rebels from reorganizing around a new leader.  Many of these patrols were conducted on horses and mules, since these animals were an excellent form of transportation over rough terrain [Note 8].

Problems with Cacos insurgents abated over time, but the hills were infested with bandits who traditionally preyed on defenseless women who were taking their wares to market.  To solve this problem, Colonel Little had his Marines disguise themselves as women.  When attacked by robbers, the Marines drew their weapons and resolved the problem.  After a few of these encounters, Haitian thieves left the women alone.

As the insurgency died down, the Marines undertook other duties, such as mapping the countryside, road construction, building sanitation facilities, and training the local constabulary.  When the 8th Marines was no longer needed in Haiti, it was once again deactivated and all assigned Marines were transferred to the 2nd Marine Regiment.  We will not hear of the 8th Marines again until the outbreak of World War II.

Sources:

  1. Santelli, J. S.  A Brief History of the 8th Marines.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1976
  2. Rottman, G. L.  U. S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle, 1939-45.  Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002

Endnotes:

  1. At this time, rifle companies were numerically designated.
  2. Regiments not ordered for service in Europe maintained the traditional Marine Corps structure.  After World War I, Marine Corps regiments gradually adopted the Army’s regimental system.
  3. A portion of the munitions shipment had originated with the Remington Arms Company.
  4. Naval forces had been sent to Haiti in 1915 to protect American and other foreign interests.  A series of revolts and disturbances led to an insurrection of Cacos bandits.  The intervention dragged on for years as Marines struggled to bring stability to a Republic in shambles.  Given what we know about Haiti today, the effort was a waste of American lives, time, and money.
  5. At this time, field and staff was the accepted title for what would later become Headquarters & Service Company.
  6. Thomas later served as Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps and retired in 1956.  He passed away in 1984.
  7. Perkins, Passmore, Taubert, and Entrekin were awarded the Navy Cross medal.
  8. While Marines did use horses and mules, at no time were Marines employed as cavalry units.  Of further interest, the US Army never developed a cavalry organization until after the Civil War.  Before that, the Army employed dragoons, which were mounted infantry.

Manilla John

EGA BlackLess than six months after Japan’s “sneak attack” on the United States, our armed forces were on the comeback trail.  Americans were angry—very angry, and our front-line troops gave no quarter to the fanatical Japanese who confronted them.  And, truth be known, it was just as well the Japanese were more willing to sacrifice themselves to their Emperor because US Marines weren’t inclined to take prisoners.  Guadalcanal was a disease-ridden cesspool; it was here that U. S. Marines met the Imperial Japanese Army for the first time in land combat.  The contest was one of fierce determination, bullet to bullet, bayonet to bayonet, and in some cases, hand to hand.

Imperial Japanese forces occupied the Solomon Islands in April 1942.  It was their plan to capture Port Moresby in New Guinea and Tulagi in the southern Solomons.  This would extend their southern defensive perimeter and establish bases to support future advances.  Their seizure of Nauru, Ocean Island, New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa would sever supply lines between Australia and the United States; the result of this would reduce or eliminate Australia as a threat to Japanese possessions in the South Pacific.

The Japanese pushed forward two construction units, consisting of around 2,450 men.  They were originally planned to work on Midway Island when it was captured, but that didn’t happen, so the Japanese moved these construction crews to Guadalcanal on 6 July, where they began building an airfield.  When coast watchers reported this activity to the Americans, US military planners devised a scheme for the capture of Guadalcanal and use of the airfield against the Japanese.

Guadalcanal is not a small island; it extends 2,047 square miles.  The U. S. Marine Corps footprint on this island was desperately small.  Once the Marines had gained a foothold on Guadalcanal however, they were determined to keep it.  The IJA was equally determined to push the American Marines into the sea.  The battle lasted six months.  The struggle to retain possession of the air strip, which the Marines renamed Henderson Field [1], was the focus of a bloody contest.  The climax to the Battle of Lunga Ridge came on a Sunday night, 25 October 1942.

Lunga Ridge lay about 1,000 yards south of Henderson Field.  Typical of Guadalcanal at this time of year, it was raining buckets that Sunday night; Marine positions were transformed into miserable mud pits.  The Marines were exhausted; they had been battling the Japanese for two days, driving back wave after wave of fanatical assaults.  The Marines knew well enough that the Japanese weren’t through with them just yet.

Basilone John 002At about midnight, through dense darkness and rain, hundreds of screaming Japanese troops assaulted the Marine perimeter.  They threw themselves into the flesh tearing barbed wire —these first waves creating human bridges across the wire to allow their comrades access to Marine lines.  The Marines, although tired, knew that this was a desperate contest.  They were wet, undernourished, ill, and pissed off.  Among the Marines waiting to receive them was Sergeant John Basilone, who commanded two machine gun sections in Company D, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

Basilone, born on 4 November 1916 of Italian immigrants, was an experienced machine gun section leader.  He joined the US Army in July 1934, serving a three-year enlistment with the US 16th Infantry Regiment in the Philippine Islands.  He was a strapping young man who was a champion pugilist.  He reenlisted in the Army in 1937 and was reassigned to the US 31st Infantry Regiment.  He liked serving in the Philippines, where he was known as Manilla John, but the Army would not re-post him to the Philippines, and so he took his discharge from the Army and went back to his hometown, where he worked for a time as a truck driver.

But Manilla John maintained his fervor for the Philippines and figured that the best way to find a posting there was to join the Marine Corps.  He enlisted in 1940, and after recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina, he was sent to Marine Corps Base, Quantico for advance infantry training. After an assignment at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Marine Corps assigned him to the 7th Marine Regiment, which was part of the 1st Marine Division—an infantry division earmarked for service on Guadalcanal.  In 1942, Basilone had nearly eight-years of active service in the infantry.  He knew his job.

The Japanese assault on the night of 25 October was ruthless.  Marine defenders received intense grenade and rifle fire; automatic weapons shredded human flesh, splattering friend and foe alike with blood and body parts.  Buckets of blood mixed with the rain and mud.  Basilone’s men, like many others on the line that night, suffered from malaria and dysentery.  Despite these circumstances, Basilone kept his guns firing and his men focused. When the barrels became too hot, he changed them, cleared jammed weapons, directed automatic fire into the mass of attacking Japanese, and kept his men supplied with ammunition.  He steadied his Marines on the line, and gave them encouragement by word and example.

Japanese bodies piled so high in front of the machine guns that he had to constantly reset the weapons so that they could fire over the dead soldiers into additional waves of fanatics.  Eventually, not even water-cooled weapons could stop the Japanese and one section of guns was overrun.  Two of the defenders were killed, three others seriously wounded.  Basilone took up one of his weapons and ran to the breach.  He surprised and killed eight Japanese soldiers.  He then noted that two guns had become jammed by mud and water; the Japanese were setting up for yet another charge.  Basilone stripped the mud away from the belts of ammunition, fed them into the guns, cleared the jammed chambers, and sprayed the Japanese as they began their renewed attack.  The battle ran hot for two hours.

At around 0200, the Japanese assaults stopped, and the firing died down, but the Marines knew better than to relax, and as expected, the Japanese Sendai regiments renewed their attack at 0300.  It was a Banzai attack with the full weight of the assault on Basilone’s sector.  During the lull in firing, Basilone has repositioned his guns to establish a killing zone.  Attacking Japanese fell by the hundreds.  Advancing Japanese soon dropped into the mud and began crawling forward.  Basilone depressed his weapons and destroyed these determined soldiers.

At dawn, Sergeant Basilone and his men were drained.  Only three of these Marines were left alive.  During the fight, Basilone has lost his boon dockers [2], the mud having sucked them off his feet.  Their faces were filthy black from cordite and gun oil, their eyes red and swollen from lack of sleep.  The battlefield was strewn with dead and wounded Marines and Japanese —but Henderson Field still belonged to the Marines.  Many of the dead Japanese were credited to Sergeant Basilone, who killed them with anything he could get his hands on, including his .45 caliber pistol and a machete.  On 26 October 1942, John Basilone was just 26-years old.  In this battle, the legend of the fighting Manilla John was born.

Basilone Lena 001
Sgt Lena Mae Basilone

Basilone was returned to the United States in 1943, where he received the Medal of Honor and placed on a war bond tour.  The press made him into a celebrity, but that wasn’t who Basilone was.  He was a Marine who felt that his duty, his rightful place, was with forward deployed combat Marines.  He was offered an officer’s commission but turned it down.  He was offered an assignment as a combat training instructor, but he turned that down too.  What he wanted was to go back to the Pacific.  The Marine Corps approved his request in December 1943 and Manilla John was assigned to Company C, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, 5th Marine Division.  At the time, the 5th Marine Division was undergoing pre-deployment training at Camp Pendleton, California.  In 1944, Basilone married Sergeant Lena Mae Riggi, Women Marine Reserve, who was also assigned to Camp Pendleton.  After their honeymoon, Basilone reenlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps [3].

On 19 February 1945, on the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima, Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone was serving as a machine gun section leader on Red Beach II.  The Marines came under concentrated enemy fire from Japanese fortifications staged at various locations on the island.  With his unit pinned down, Basilone made his way around the side of the Japanese emplacements until he was in a position directly above their position.  He then attacked the Japanese with grenades and demolitions, single-handedly destroying the entire point of resistance and its defending garrison.

Basilone then fought his way toward Airfield-1 and aided a tank that was trapped in an enemy mine field and encountering intense Japanese mortar and artillery fire.  Despite the enemy fire that surrounded him, Basilone guided the tank through the hazardous terrain to safety.  Soon after, however, Basilone was killed by Japanese fire while moving along the edge of the airfield.  Some have attributed his death to mortars, while others claim that he was killed by well-aimed rifle fire.  For his courageous actions at Iwo Jima, Basilone was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and Purple Heart.  He was also entitled to wear the Presidential Unit Citation (two awards), which equates to a Navy Cross for every individual assigned to a valorous unit.

Manilla John Basilone is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  Lena Basilone never remarried.  She passed away in 1999.

Endnotes:

[1] Named in honor of Major Lofton Henderson, killed in action during the Battle for Midway while commanding VMSB-241.  Henderson was the first Marine Corps aviator killed in this battle.

[2] Field boots used by soldiers and Marines in World War II.

[3] One wonders how much of Basilone’s story made its way into the popular John Wayne film, Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).

Remembering the Ladies

Adams A 001
Abigail Adams

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency.  And by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.  Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.  If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Abigail Adamsin a letter to her husband John, 31 March 1776.

Johnson OM 001
Opha May Johnson (1878-1955)

Opha May Jacob was born on 4 May 1878 in Kokomo, Indiana.  She graduated from the shorthand and typewriting department of Wood’s Commercial College in Washington, D. C. at the age of 17.  In 1898, she married a gentleman named Victor H. Johnson. Victor was the musical director at the Lafayette Square Opera House and Opha worked as a civil servant for the Interstate Commerce Commission.

And then, World War I came along.  Women have always been involved during times of war.  For centuries, women followed armies—many of whom were the wives of soldiers who provided indispensable services to their men, such as cooking, laundry, and nursing wounds.  World War I involved women, too … albeit in a different way than at any previous time. Thousands of women in the United States formed or joined organizations that worked to bring relief to the war-torn countries in Europe even before America’s official entry into the war in April 1917.  American women weren’t alone in this effort; thousands of women in the United Kingdom followed a similar path —the difference being that Great Britain had been engaged in World War I from its beginning.

After the United States entered World War I, women continued to join the war time organizations and expand the war effort.  They were highly organized groups, much like the military, and this helped women to gain respect from their fellow citizens and have their patriotic endeavors recognized and respected.  The key difference between the efforts of women during World War I and previous wars was the class of women involved.  Typically, women who followed the armies in earlier times were working-class women, but during World War I, women from all classes of society served in many different capacities.  So-called upper-class women were primary founders of war time organizations because they could afford to devote so much of their time (and money) to these efforts. Middle and lower-class ladies were more likely to serve as nurses, telephone operators, and office clerks. And for the first time in American history, women from every part of the social spectrum stepped up to serve in the military.

The first women to enlist in the United States Marine Corps on 13 August 1918 was Opha May Johnson.  She became the first woman Marine because when the recruiting doors were opened to enlist women for the first time, Opha Johnson was standing first in line —the first among 300 women accepted for enlistment in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Given her background as a civil servant, Private Johnson’s first duty was clerical at Headquarters Marine Corps. Within one month, Johnson was promoted to sergeant and therefore became the Marine Corps’ first female sergeant and the highest-ranking woman in the Marine Corps.

Streeter RC 001At the end of World War I, women were discharged from the services as part of general demobilization.  Opha May Johnson remained at Headquarters Marine Corps as a civil service clerk until her retirement from in 1943.  She was still working at Headquarters Marine Corps in 1943 when the Marine Corps reinstituted the Women’s Reserve for World War II service.  At the time of her enlistment in 1918, Opha May Johnson was 40 years old.  In 1943, the Marine Corps appointed its first Director of the Women Reserve, a lady named Ruth Cheney Streeter (shown right).  At the time of Streeter’s appointment as a reserve major, she was 48-years old.  In those days, the age of the applicant would not have affected enlistment or appointment eligibility because, with few exceptions, women did not perform their duties at sea or foreign shore.

As Abigail Adams admonished her now-famous husband, we should always remember the ladies and give them due credit for their patriotism and service to the United States of America. Women have been an integral part of the United States Marine Corps since 1948 when the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act gave them permanent status in the regular and reserve forces. During World War II, twenty-thousand women served as Marines in more than 225 occupational specialties.  Eighty-five percent of the enlisted jobs at Headquarters Marine Corps in World War II were filled by women; two-thirds of the permanent personnel assigned to Marine Corps posts and stations in the United States were women Marines.

Womens Reserve USMCThe first woman Marine to serve in a combat zone was Master Sergeant Barbara Dulinsky, who served on the MACV Staff in Saigon, Vietnam in 1967 [1].  Since then, women Marines have taken on new roles, from combat aviators [2] to rifleman.  In Afghanistan and Iraq, women Marine officers commanded combat service support units in combat zones and served on the staffs of forward deployed headquarters. By every account, these women acquitted themselves very well.  Still, the issue of women serving in the combat arms, while authorized and directed by the Department of Defense, remains a contentious issue.  Prominent women Marines have spoken out about this, with more than a few claiming that while women do perform well in the combat environment, such duties have a deleterious effect on their physical health —more so than men— and that it is therefore unnecessary to employ women in the combat arms in order to maintain a high state of readiness in combat units and organizations.

Endnotes:

[1] American women have served on the front line of combat since the Revolutionary War, primarily as nurses, medics, and ambulance drivers, and provisioners.  The US Army Nurse Corps was established in 1901, and the Navy Nurse Corps was created in 1908.  Prohibitions of women serving aboard navy ships (excluding hospital ships) resulted in most Navy nurses serving in field hospitals ashore and not within a battle area; Army nurses similarly served in field medical hospitals on foreign shore.

[2] See also: Wings of honor.

7th Motor Transport Battalion

7thMTBn 002It isn’t just about driving and maintaining rolling stock. It’s about providing sustainable combat service support to front line troops; without the motor transportation community, there would be no way to push forward to the battle area much-needed combat supplies: bullets, beans, and band-aids.  Without a steady flow of logistics, there can be no success on the battlefield.  Motor transport is a tough job; there’s a lot to know about moving men and equipment forward under all weather conditions and terrain features.  It’s also dangerous work, because motor transport units are primary targets of enemy air and ground forces.  If an enemy can interrupt the supply chain, really bad things start to happen.  It is for this reason that Marines assigned to motor transport units are, in fact, combat Marines.

The Marine Corps activated the 7th Motor Transport Battalion (now known as the 1st Transportation Battalion) to support the 1st Marine Division during the Korean War.  Its Korean War service began in October 1950 and lasted through December 1953.

Twelve years later, in May 1965, forward elements of the 7th Motor Transport Battalion began their service in the Vietnam War.  Company A (Reinforced) arrived in Indochina as an attachment to the 7th Regimental Landing Team (RLT-7).  By July of that year, the 7th Motor Transport Battalion consisted (on paper) of H&S Company (-), Company B, Company C, and Company D.  The battalion commander was Major Louis A. Bonin[1].

Almost immediately after arriving in Vietnam, ninety percent of the personnel assigned to the 7th Motor Transport Battalion in California received orders moving them over to the 1st Motor Transport Battalion, which was at that time assigned to Chu Lai. The reason for this shift of personnel was combat necessity —but along with this decision, 7th Motors became ineffective as a combat service support organization pending the arrival of newly graduated Marines from recruit training and basic motor transportation schools (in the United States) and pending the arrival of additional equipment. Combat operations were intense during this period —so much so, in fact, that much needed battalion-level (second echelon) maintenance simply wasn’t performed because Company A was detached from the battalion.  This resulted in a significant reduction in motor transport operational capability.  By the time these vehicles received their much-needed attention, vehicle readiness was around 50%.  As an example of why proper vehicle maintenance was (and is) important:

In May 1966, Colonel Bonin and his Marines executed 3,744 combat support missions involving 22 tactical convoys over 129,961 miles.  During this month, there were eight separate enemy attacks that involved the detonation of enemy mines, incoming mortars and small arms fire, and on the 24th of that month, a Viet Cong sympathizer tossed a poisonous snake into the bed of one of the trucks.  The Marines riding in the bed of that truck were not happy campers.  Moreover, the battalion lifted 24,061 tons of supplies on 1,623 pallets and a total of 33,923 combat personnel supporting forward units.  The battalion served in Vietnam for five years; to appreciate their service, multiply the foregoing statistics by a factor of sixty.

7thMTBn Convoy RVN
Marine combat convoy operators from 7thMTBn, located in Quang Tri, prepare for a run over the dangerous Hai Van Mountain Pass into Da Nang Vietnam. Trucks shown are M52 tractors with semitrailers and M54 5-ton cargo vehicles.

In effect, the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion were constantly on the road, constantly exposed to enemy action, and constantly involved in such programs as Medical Civil Action (MEDCAP).  When the Marines weren’t moving personnel or equipment, or seeing to the needs of local Vietnamese, they were cleaning their weapons and getting a few hours rest. After weeks of sustained operations, hardly anyone knew what day it was.  See also: Personal Memoir by Corporal Chuck McCarroll, USMC.

In the infantry, Marines train to fight.  In the combat service support arena, Marines perform real-world support on an ongoing basis. Their daily missions in times of peace are the same as those performed in actual combat, less people shooting at them, of course.  And, given the deployment and training schedules prevalent in the Marine Corps since the end of the Vietnam War, the pace is fast and furious.  Marines who drive medium to heavy-lift vehicles must know how to complete their combat service support missions.  Supplies, materials, and men must always get through —and they do, in times of peace and in times of war.  In order to accomplish these things, the vehicles must be maintained —and they are.  It’s a tough job —made tougher when higher headquarters assigns unusual tasks.

1988 was a busy year. Long reduced to three companies (H&S Company, Truck Company, and Transport Company), the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion were “turning and burning.”  Beyond their mission to support the two Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs), additional requirements reduced manpower levels to a point where Combat Service Support Elements (CSSEs) could barely complete their missions.  Worse, personnel shortages increased the likelihood of serious mishaps.  Operating heavy equipment is dangerous work.  What additional taskings?  Under mandated fleet assistance programs, motor transport companies experienced personnel reductions by as much as 20% in order to satisfy the demands of host commands … that is, sending combat Marines to base organizations to staff “special services” billets.  It was a waste of well-trained and much-needed operators/mechanics, particularly when the host commander assigned these Marines to rock-painting details.

This was the situation at 7th Motor Transport Battalion in 1988.  As already stated, personnel shortages make dangerous work even more so. Marines would return to the battalion after one six-month MEU deployment and begin spooling up for a second.

Between May and August 1988, 250-forest fires broke out within the Yellowstone National Forest —seven of these caused 95% of the destruction. At the end of June, the National Park Service and other federal agencies had mobilized all available personnel. It wasn’t enough … the fires continued to expand.  Dry storms brought howling winds and lightening, but no rain.  On 20 August —dubbed Black Saturday— a single wildfire consumed more than 150,000.  Ash from the fire drifted as far as Billings, Montana —60 miles northeast of Yellowstone. More land went to flames on this one day than in all the years since the creation of Yellowstone National Park.  Among the worst were the Snake River Complex and Shoshone fires.

Yellowstone wasn’t the Western United States’ only fire.  In that year, officials reported more than 72,000 fires.  Firefighters and equipment were stretched to the limit. To help fight the fire, US military personnel were tasked to provide support to the front-line firefighters.  Before it was over, more than 25,000 personnel participated in efforts to quell these fires.  Crews worked for two or three weeks, send home to rest, and returned for another tour on the line.  The task involved digging trenches, watering down buildings, clearing undergrowth near structures, and installing water pumps.  The front line extended more than 655 miles.  Hundreds of men worked on engine crews and bulldozing equipment; much of their efforts involved protecting existing structures.  Men received injuries requiring medical treatment for broken bones, skin burns, and lung damage due to noxious fumes.  One firefighter and one pilot died in an incident outside the wildfire area.

USMC 5-ton truck7th Motor Transport Battalion received its warning order: within 48 hours, provide a detachment of Marines to support to the national firefighting force.  The Battalion Commander, LtCol William C. Curtis[2], tasked Transport Company with the mission, Captain Greg Dunlap, commanding.  Within 24-hours, Dunlap had mobilized 50 trucks and 175 Marines.  Operational control of Transport Company passed to the 7th Engineer Battalion, placed in overall command of the Combat Service Support Element mission.

Captain Dunlap and his Marines Departed Norton Air Force Base aboard C-5 aircraft.  The combat service support element landed at the Wester Yellowstone airstrip, which at the time was serving as the Federal and State Firefighting headquarters and where, ultimately, the 7th Engineer Battalion established its command post.  Upon arrival, Dunlap assigned one transport platoon with five-ton trucks in direct support of a Marine infantry battalion further inside the park.

The Marine Corps mission was to relieve civilian firefighters by following up on the fire-line and extinguishing any smoldering areas.  Transport Company provided the lift for infantry Marines to operationally sensitive areas inside Yellowstone.  The overall commander of the U. S. Forest Service assigned daily missions to the Marines via the 7th Engineer Battalion command element, who in turn passed them on for execution to Captain Dunlap.

While serving in Yellowstone, 7th Motor Transport Battalion personnel dined on field rations (officially referred to as Meals, Ready to Eat[3]) and meals provided by US Forest Service caterers.  West Yellowstone Base Camp personnel could walk to the small town of West Yellowstone. Local restaurant owners offered free chow to firefighters and military personnel; few of Dunlap’s Marines partook of the freebies because of the financial impact on local citizens.  Dunlap’s Marines didn’t see any reason to make it more complicated for them than it already was.  Local hotel owners offered billeting to the Marines, but they preferred to live in tents.  The Forest Service provided showering facilities.

Captain Dunlap’s company returned to Camp Pendleton, California two weeks later.  The citizens of West Yellowstone loved “their” Marines and invited them to march in their town parade on the Fourth of July, an invitation that Captain Dunlap accepted.  Town elders also invited the Marines to attend the local high school prom … an invitation that the Marines did not accept.

Marines of the 7th Motor Transport Battalion excelled in this mission.  It’s what these Marines have always done since the beginning of the Korean War.  It’s a tough, thankless job.  In 1988, the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion were ready, their equipment was ready, their attitudes were positive, and they excelled in the completion of their mission.  Seventh-motors Marines shined in the face of unusual adversity, and in doing so, they brought great credit upon themselves, the Marine Corps, and the United States Naval Service.  They continue to do this today as the 1st Transportation Battalion.

It was my privilege to serve alongside the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion from June 1987 to June 1989.

Endnotes:

[1] Promoted to lieutenant colonel on 12 May 1966.  I served under Colonel Bonin while a member of the 3rdMarDiv staff in 1972.

[2] Lieutenant Colonel Curtis retired from active duty in 1991, completing more than 34 years of continuous honorable service.  He has written several essays for this blog beginning with Combined Action Platoon, Part I.

[3] Also referred to as meals rejected by Ethiopians.