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.

Hold High the Torch, Part II

The Continuing story of the 4th Marines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

Hold High the Torch, Part I

The story of the Fourth Marine Regiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

Operation Beleaguer

China Marines — the Final Chapter

EGA BlackDuring World War II, China was a battlefield with three opposing armies: Nationalists, Communists, and Imperial Japanese.  When World War II ended in 1945, more than 650,000 Japanese and Korean military personnel and civilians were still in China and in need of repatriation.  There is an interesting prequel to this event.

In 1912, Imperial China was overthrown and replaced by a Republic under President Sun Yat-sen.  The Republic had a short lifespan, however.  General Yuan Shi-Kai (commanding the New Army) forced Sun from office and proceeded to abolish national and provincial assemblies.  In late 1915, Yuan declared himself Emperor. This too was a short-lived government. Overwhelming opposition to imperial rule forced Yuan from office in March 1918.  He died a few months later.

Yuan’s abdication created a power vacuum in China —one almost immediately filled with local or regional warlords.  Whatever China’s skeptics thought of government in 1918, negative popular opinion grew steadily worse over time.  A nation-wide protest movement among anti-Imperialists in 1919 developed out of the government’s weak response to the Treaty of Versailles, which ceded Chinese territory to Japan —the consequence of which made China a victim of Japan’s expansionist policies— aided and abetted by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  These protests sparked a sudden upsurge in Chinese nationalism, the creation of populism, and a move toward radical socialism.  It was the birth of China’s “new culture movement.”

Repudiating western political philosophy, the Chinese became even more radicalized, inspired as they were by the Russian Revolution and the tireless efforts of Russian agents living in China at the time.  The result of this was the growth of irreconcilable differences between the political left and right —a condition that dominated Chinese political history for most of the rest of the twentieth century.

In the 1920s, former-President Sun Yat-sen established a revolutionary base in south China.  His mission was to unite China’s fragmented society.  Influenced and assisted by the Soviet Union, Sun formed an alliance with the Communist Party of China.  Sun, who passed away in 1925, was eventually replaced by one of his protégés, Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang seized control of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and having brought most of south and central China under his rule, then launched a military campaign called the Northern Expedition.  It was Chiang’s intent to secure the allegiance of northern warlords.  In 1927, Chiang turned his attention to the Communist Party, pursuing them relentlessly in a campaign history recalls as the “White Terror.”  In addition to killing off as many communists as possible, he also rounded up political dissidents  —killing as many of them as he could find.

Communist leader Mao Zedong led his followers into northwest China, where the established guerrilla bases in Yan’an.  A bitter struggle between Chiang and Mao even continued through the 14-year long Japanese occupation of China (1931-1945).

During this period, Chiang and Mao nominally formed a united front to oppose the Japanese, the so-called Second Sino-Japanese War, which became part of World War II.  In reality, Mao made every effort to avoid contact with the Japanese during World War II —even despite the fact that he was regularly receiving US-made military equipment.

At the conclusion of World War II, Chiang and Mao wanted nothing to do with repatriating Japanese soldiers to their homeland.  US President Harry S. Truman therefore ordered the Navy and Marine Corps into China.  Their assigned mission was to (1) accept the surrender of Japanese forces, (2) arrange and affect their shipment back to Japan (or Korea), and (3) assist Chinese Nationalists in reasserting their control over areas previously occupied by Imperial Japan.  After four years of a bloody Pacific War, US Marines were handed another combat assignment.

K E ROCKEY 001
LtGen K. E. Rockey USMC

In China, 1945-49

The US 7th Fleet and III Amphibious Corps (III AC) were assigned to duty in China.  By presidential order, Marines were prohibited from taking sides during the Chinese civil war.  They were, however, authorized to defend themselves against any hostile assault. Major General Keller E. Rockey [1] commanded III AC.  He answered to the China Theater commander, Lieutenant General Albert C. Wedemeyer [2], U. S. Army.

In Hopeh Province

The 1st Marine Division occupied positions in the vicinity of Tang-Ku, Tientsin, Peking, and Chinwangtao; the 6th Marine Division was assigned to Tsingtao.  The 1st Marine Aircraft Wing established air base operations at Tsingtao, Tientsin, and Peking.  General Rockey was assigned to command the Shanghai Corps region as an additional duty. III AC began its relocation to China on 15 September 1945.  The 3rd Marine Division at Guam and the 4th Marine Division in Hawaii were designated as area reserve forces.  The operation was designated BELEAGUER.

The Marine’s arrival in China was met by joyful crowds of Chinese civilians.  Brigadier General Louis R. Jones, then serving as the Assistant Division Commander, 1stMarDiv immediately met with port officials in Tang-Ku to make arrangements for the surrender of the Japanese garrison.  Scenes of elated Chinese, anxious for liberation from Japanese control, was repeated wherever the Marines came ashore.

On 1 October 1945, Lieutenant Colonel John J. Gormley at Chinwangtao was faced with desultory fighting between Chinese Communist (Chicom) and Japanese Imperial troops, who had yet to be disarmed.  Gormley, commanding the 1stBattalion, 7thMarines (1/7) ordered the Japanese troops with withdraw from the town to a bivouac he designated and then detailed his Marines to establish a buffer-zone on the outskirts of the city.  Initially, the Chicom seemed satisfied, but cooperation between the Marines and Chicom didn’t last very long.  Before the end of October, Chicom elements began sabotaging railroads leading into Chinwangtao and ambushing American held trains.  Eventually, Chinwangtao became a major center for communist resistance to American peace-keeping operations.

Japanese Imperial soldiers had also had their fill of war.  They were ready to return home, so most Japanese military personnel surrendered to the US Marines within days of their arrival in China.  On 6 October, General Rockey accepted the surrender of 50,000 Japanese at Tientsin. An additional 50,000 Japanese surrendered to General Lien Ching Sun, Chiang’s personal representative, four days later.  The Marines assigned all surrendering Japanese to bivouac or barracks near the seacoast.  Because the number of American personnel was insufficient to the task assigned to them, some Japanese Imperial troops were re-armed and utilized as area guards until they could be replaced by Chiang’s Nationalist forces.

Trouble began on 5 October when a Marine reconnaissance patrol traveling along the Tientsin-Peking road found 36 unguarded roadblocks.  An engineer section and a rifle platoon were called up to dismantle the obstructions and restore the highway to usefulness.  The next day, at a point about 22-miles northwest of Tientsin, these 35-40 Marines were attacked by an estimated 50-60 Chicom soldiers.  A brief firefight forced the Marines to withdraw with their wounded.  Another detachment of Engineers was sent back the next day to complete the removal of roadblocks —this time accompanied by an infantry company reinforced by tanks and on-station air support.  The road was reopened and, from that point on, Marines were detailed to provide a regular motorized patrol of the vital roadway.

In Peking, the 5th Marines who established themselves in the old Legation Quarter, co-located Brigadier General Jones’ advance command post.  A rifle company was placed at each end of the Peking airport.  The 1st Marines and 11th Marines under overall command of Colonel Arthur T. Mason set in at the Tientsin airfield.  The Taku-Tang-Ku area was garrisoned by 1/5.  Battalions 1/7 and 3/7 (with necessary attachments) were assigned to protect the Tang-Ku-Chinwangtao railroad.

C A LARKIN 001
Maj Gen C. E. Larkin USMC

1stMAW units under Major General Claude E. Larkin established control over the Tientsin airfield.  Flight echelons were assigned to airfields at Tsingtao, Peiping, and Tientsin.  However, due to adverse weather conditions in Japan, Marine air operations were initially limited between 9-11 October 1945. The first extensive use of airfields under American control was made by Chinese Nationalist forces.  Between 6-29 October, fifty-thousand Chinese Nationalist forces were airlifted to Peking from central and southern China by the 14th Army-Air Force.

The Chicom 8th Route Army observed these movements with interest. Communist raids and ambushes against the Marines soon became a regular occurrence.  President Truman had set the Marines down in the middle of a fratricidal war with ambiguous instructions to abstain from participating in the civil war, while at the same time “cooperating” with Nationalist Chinese forces.  It was a very thin tightrope, but in time, President Truman made things even worse.

In November 1945, Chiang Kai-shek began preparing for a campaign to take control of Manchuria.  General Wedemeyer, who also served at Chiang’s military advisor, warned him to secure his hold on the vital provinces in northeastern China before entering Manchuria because military operations there would require an overwhelming force. Disregarding this advice, Chiang pulled his Nationalist troops out of Hopeh and Shantung, leaving them unprotected from Chicom guerrillas, who quickly seized control.  Chiang’s operation into Manchuria was the beginning of his end on the mainland.

In Shantung Province

A much larger Communist force controlled most of the countryside and coastal regions in Shantung.  Tsingtao remained a Nationalist stronghold, but they were little more than an island in a Communist sea.  Japanese guards controlled the rail line leading from Tsingtao.  Until Nationalist troops were able to relieve them, there was no hope of rapid repatriation.  Shortly after General Rockey accepted the surrender of Japanese forces in Tientsin, he departed for Chefoo, more or less as an advance party for the 6thMarDiv. General Rockey wanted to investigate conditions at that port city.  Upon arrival, Rockey discovered that Chicom elements had already taken control of the city. Moreover, the Communists were determined not to cooperate with the American Marines.

Prior to General Rockey’s arrival, Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, commanding the US 7th Fleet, messaged the Communist commander requesting that he withdraw his men.  The Communist-installed Mayor demanded terms that were unacceptable to Admiral Kinkaid. Vice Admiral Daniel E. Barbey, Commander, VII Amphibious Force, recommended that the landing of 6thMarDiv be postponed.  General Rockey agreed.  The 6thMarDiv came ashore at Tsingtao on 11 October.

6MARDIV 001On that very day, 6thMarDiv’s reconnaissance company preceded the main body and moved through the city’s streets lined with flag-waving citizens to secure the Tsang-Kou airfield, located ten miles outside the city.  On the following day, Marine observation aircraft landed at the airfield.  On 13 October, a Communist emissary arrived in Tsingtao with a letter for the Commanding General, 6th Marine Division —Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd [3].  In this letter, a Chicom official offered to cooperate with the Marines to destroy the remaining Japanese Imperial Army and the rest of the “traitor” (Nationalist) army.  The official expected that in return for his cooperation, the Marines would not oppose his forces.  General Shepherd’s response included a reaffirmation that his Marines were not present to destroy either the Japanese or any Chinese force.  Shepherd also clearly stated that a Communist occupation of Tsingtao was undesirable because the city was peaceful.  Moreover, he would not cooperate with Chicom forces and assured this official that should it become necessary to employ his Marines against anyone, they were capable of coping with any situation.

The 6thMarDiv was fully disembarked by 16 October.  A formal surrender of the 10,000-man Japanese garrison at Tsingtao was affected on 25 October 1945.  Again, despite their surrender, Japanese troops were retained to help defend Tsingtao against Chicom aggression.  Clashes between Chicom and Japanese Imperial troops was a frequent occurrence.  Marine Aircraft Group 32 (MAG-32) commenced regular reconnaissance missions on 26 October. MAG-32 landed at Tsingtao on 21 October, soon joined by MAG 25.  MAG 12 and MAG 24 took possession of the Peking airfield.  Major General Louis A. Woods replaced General Larkin as air wing commander on 31 October.

Combat ensues

On 14 November 1945, Chicom elements attacked a train carrying General Dewitt Peck and a component of the 7th Marines near the village of Ku-Yeh. An intense battle lasted for more than three hours.  Chinese fire from the village was so powerful that the Marines were forced to called in air support.  Unfortunately, since Marine aircraft could not clearly distinguish the enemy’s positions, and because of the risk to civilians, permission to fire was not granted.  In time, the Chicom forces withdrew and as there were no Marine casualties and the train proceeded.

General Peck’s train was ambushed again the next day.  This time, Chicom forces had ripped up 400-yards of the track. Workers sent to repair the line were killed or wounded by land mines.  Since repairs would take longer than two days, General Peck returned to Tangshan and boarded a flight to Chinwangtao.  In the minds of the Marines, what was needed in this area was a strong offensive by Chinese Nationalists.  Commanding the Northeast China Command, General Tu Li-Ming agreed to drive back Chicom forces in order to keep the Marines from becoming involved in the conflict.  In return, General Peck agreed to assign Marines to guard duty at rail bridges between Tang-Ku and Chinwangtao —a distance of 135 miles.  The problem was that the 7th Marines were already under-manned. General Shepherd transferred the 29th Marine Regiment to Tsingtao to serve under the operational control of the 7th Marines.

On 7 July 1946, China’s communist party issued a statement condemning US policy toward China.  Within a short time, Chicom troops launched two minor attacks against the Marines. The first occurred on 13 July when a Chicom unit ambushed Marines who were guarding a bridge fifteen miles outside Peitai-ho.  The Marines were overwhelmed and taken prisoner.  After some negotiation with American officials, these Marines were released unharmed.  Then, on 29 July, a small convoy was ambushed near the village of An-ping by a sizeable well-armed force of uniformed Chicom soldiers.  The ensuing battled lasted approximately four hours.  Marine aircraft were called in to provide support to the beleaguered Marines and a relief force was also dispatched.  The Marine commander intended to encircle the Chicom force, but the reinforcing unit failed to arrive before the Chicom force has withdrawn.  Four Marines were killed, including the platoon/convoy commander, Lieutenant Douglas Cowin, Corporal Gilbert Tate, and PFCs Larry Punch and John Lopez. An additional twelve Marines were wounded in the action.  This was a serious incident and a signal for the Marines that peace in China would be next to impossible to obtain.

Six miles northwest of Tang-Ku, Hsin-ho was the location of a 1stMarDiv ammo depot.  On the night of 3 October 1946, Chicom raiders infiltrated the depot intending to steal munitions.  A sentry from 1/5 discovered the intrusion and opened fire on the infiltrators.  A Marine reaction force responded immediately but was ambushed.  A firefight of some 40 minutes resulted and, once again, the Chicom raiders withdrew before additional reinforcements could arrive.  An investigation conducted immediately after the incident discovered the body of one Chicom raider and revealed that several cases of ammunition had been taken [4].  One Marine was wounded during this engagement.

Another engagement at Hsin-ho occurred on the night of 4-5 April 1947.  A company size Chicom force initiated a well-planned, well-coordinated attack on three isolated ammo-storage areas within the Depot.  A small guard force attempted to defend the depot but was overwhelmed. Within the guard detachment, five Marines were killed, eight more were wounded, and the Chicom force successfully intruded the depot and hauled away a considerable store of ammunition.  Marine reinforcements were delayed by the clever placement of landmines, preventing a rapid deployment of combat/reaction forces. An additional eight Marines of the reaction force received serious wounds.  Nationalist Chinese assumed control of this ammunition storage site at the end of April.  The second engagement at Hsin-ho was the last hostile engagement between Chicom and Marine forces in China.

President Truman’s attempt to reconcile Communist and Nationalist parties, to achieve peace and promote economic recovery, was an utter failure. It was not Truman’s last failure. He would fail again in 1950 —and 38,000 more Americans would die in the Korean War.  Not even the formidable George C. Marshall could save China from herself.  Nevertheless, the “Committee of Three [5]” began a series of meetings on 7 January 1946.  A cease-fire was proclaimed, and yet, for the Marines in China, there was never a time when a guard detachment considered itself “safe” from Chicom ambush or assault.

Only half of the estimated 630,000 Japanese and Koreans in China had been repatriated between March-April 1946.  Chiang Kai-shek demanded the stores of weapons and ammunition that had been taken from the Japanese prisoners, but General Wedemeyer refused Chiang’s request until Nationalist forces had officially assumed control of the repatriation program.  As this work continued, Marines were assigned to guard duty watching over the Japanese and Koreans embarking aboard ships to take them home.  There was one other mission the Marines performed: that of protecting American lives and property in China, which is precisely what the Marines had always done in China.

Even though President Truman had tasked the Marines with a nearly impossible mission, he almost immediately began a general demobilization of the Armed Forces.  Marines serving in China were eligible to return home for discharge under Operation Magic Carpet.  This sudden reduction in force left the China occupation force in a quandary: how to achieve their objectives with far fewer troops.

Truman’s decision and timing placed the Marines in a dangerous situation.  General Wedemeyer was notified on 13 December 1945 that the 6th Marine Division would be deactivated.  Major General Shepherd was ordered back to the United States.  He was relieved by Major General Archie F. Howard [6], who was soon ordered into retirement.  Including grunts and air-wingers, there were not enough Marines left in China to man a regiment: 1/29 was disbanded; the third battalion of each infantry regiment was deactivated along with the last lettered battery of each artillery battalion within the 1stMarDiv.

The Fourth Marine Regiment, the historic backbone of the China Marines would be the only regiment in the Corps left intact with three infantry battalions—it was only a temporary reprieve.  1stMAW deactivated the Headquarters and Service squadrons of MAG-12, which also lost VMFN-541, and VMTB-134.  Control of the south end airfield at Peking was turned-over the US Army Air Force.

On 1 April 1946, the 3rdMarDiv was redesignated as 3rdMarine Brigade.  Of the remaining 25,000 Marines in China, most were young, inexperienced replacements. With their back to the wall, Marine leaders immediately began training them for possible combat.

Control of the Chinese theater was reassigned to the Commander, US 7th Fleet.  While still facing the possibility of hostile acts by Chicom forces, the Marines were ordered to begin their withdrawal from China in the summer of 1946.  The process of organizational shrinkage continued: 3rd Brigade Marines merged with the 4th Marine Regiment.  III Amphibious Corps was deactivated.  Officers and troops were either reassigned in-country or returned to the United States.  1stMarDiv regiments in China became battalions.  Ultimately, the 4th Marine Regiment was ordered back to the United States —its last organization departing on 3 September 1946.  Battalion 3/4 was ordered detached from the 4th Marines and served as a separate battalion under the operational control of the fleet commander.

Within two years, the Nationalist Chinese forces were on the verge of collapse.  Chicom forces were taking control of China in leaps and bounds.  Accordingly, Marine units were continually shifted to avoid being isolated by Chicom military units.  When the Chinese communists captured Nanking, on 24 April 1949, the Chinese Revolution was essentially over.  The last American Marines to leave China departed on 16 Mary 1949.

In total, Marine ground forces lost 13 KIA and 43 WIA in clashes with Chicom forces.  During this same period, Marine Corps Aviation lost 14 aircraft and 22 aircrewmen.

Endnotes:

[1] LtGen Rockey (1888-1970) commanded the 5thMarDiv during the Battle for Iwo Jima.  He is a recipient of the Navy Cross and three Distinguished Crosses.  Prior to his retirement, he served as CG FMFLant and Assistant CMC.  General Rockey retired in 1950.

[2] A staunch anti-Communist.

[3] Twentieth Commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps (1 Jan 1952-31 Dec 1955).  Shepherd served in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. He was a recipient of the Navy Cross, the last World War I veteran to service as Commandant, the first CMC to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and served as Commandant during the Korean War.

[4] During World War II, President Roosevelt’s lend-lease program was extended to both Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists in equal measure.  The apparent hope was that both forces would use this equipment against the Japanese in China.  The Communists, however, stored these arms and equipment in caves located in northwest China, intending to use them against the Nationalist forces at the conclusion of the war.  Chicom raiders wanted to steal US caliber ammunition because it was suited their American-provided weapons.  In essence, American Marines were being killed and wounded by US manufactured equipment, provided to a potentially enemy by a President of the United States.

[5] The Committee of three consisted of General Marshall, representing President Truman, General Chang Chung, representing Chiang Kai-shek, and Zhou Enlai, representing the Chairman of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong.  The purpose of the committee was to establish a framework within which good-faith negotiations could proceed to achieve peace in China.  It didn’t work out that way.

[6] Captain Archie F. Howard served in the Polar Bear Expedition to China 1918-1919.

Marines in Panama, 1903-04 (Part II)

But what most people do not know

BGen G F Elliott 1904
BrigGen George F. Elliott USMC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rafael Reyes 001
Rafael Reyes Prieto

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

[2] See also: Handsome Jack.

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

Marines in Panama, 1903-04 (Part I)

Roosevelt TR 001
President Theodore Roosevelt

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

Some background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bunau-Varilla 001
Phillipe Bunau-Varilla

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

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

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

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

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

José Manuel Marroquín
José Manuel Marroquin-Ricaurte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 —President Theodore Roosevelt

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

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

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

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

Continued next week …

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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