Building the Hive

Nothing happens in war without logistics.”

—Field Marshal Sir William Slim, British Army

USN 001

Some Background

Navy ships cannot remain at sea forever.  Shortly after the establishment of the U. S. Navy, senior officers began planning for ports and facilities that would enable the Navy to build and maintain its vessels, warehouse stores and ammunition, and where the navy could develop training programs for the rank and file.  Included was the requirement to hire civil engineers capable of overseeing its base construction efforts.  The Navy’s first hire was a man named Benjamin Henry Latrobe, an architect.

Latrobe was the son of a Moravian[1] minister of French descent in Yorkshire, England, educated in England and Germany.  A widower, he migrated to the United States with his two young children in 1786.  Latrobe found the profession of civil engineering and architecture in America barely adequate but left it in the hands of careful, thoughtful, professional men.  Latrobe’s building standards dominated in the United States until the American Civil War.

In 1804, the U. S. Navy appointed Benjamin Latrobe Engineer of the Navy Department[2].   Latrobe immediately began drafting plans for the construction of the Washington Navy Yard[3].  In 1809, Latrobe drafted plans for additional navy yards in New York and at Norfolk, Virginia.  Despite his contributions to the emerging Navy Department, Mr. Latrobe was never an employee of the Navy Department; he was a civilian architect contracted by the Navy Department.  The Navy Department did not implement his plan for New York and Norfolk until long after his death.

In 1826, Congress approved funding for the construction of two dry docks (in Boston and Norfolk); the Navy appointed a noted Bostonian engineer to design and construct them.  His name was Loammi Baldwin, a descendant of Deacon Henry Baldwin, an original settler of North Woburn, Massachusetts.  Between 1826-34, Baldwin served as Superintendent of Dry Docks and Inspector of Navy Yards.  Like Latrobe, Baldwin was a contract employee with no official position within the Navy Department.

William P. S. Sanger (1810-1890) was also from Massachusetts.  In 1826, Sanger was apprenticed to Baldwin to learn the trade of civil engineering[4]; between 1827-1834, Sanger represented Baldwin during his absences at the construction of the dry dock in Norfolk, Virginia.  Although Sanger was only a temporary employee initially, he would later play a central role in the development of civil engineering in the Navy and the creation of the Navy Civil Engineering Corps.  In 1836, Sanger was appointed to serve as Civil Engineer for the Navy and assigned to the staff of the Board of Navy Commissioners, a board of three Navy captains who served as the Secretary of the Navy’s principal advisory staff.

Sanger W P S 001
William P. S. Sanger

When the Navy Department reorganized in 1836, the Board of Navy Commissioners was replaced by five bureaus intended to oversee various aspects of naval operations.  The bureau system remained in place for the next 124 years.  The first of these was the Bureau of Navy Yards and Docks, which may serve to illustrate the importance placed on yards and docks by the Navy hierarchy.  Along with this emphasis, the Navy required someone to oversee yards and docks programs, which was never an easy task.  Although the Navy Civil Engineer Corps wasn’t established until 1867, Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur appointed William Sanger Civil Engineer of Yards and Docks in September 1842.

On 2 March 1867, the Navy established its Civil Engineer Corps and charged it with responsibility for constructing and repairing all buildings, docks, and wharves servicing U. S. Navy ships.  Civil engineers would supervise a naval architecture, direct the activities of master builders, and oversee public works initiatives.  Civil engineers were not required to wear a navy uniform until 1881 officers.  From then until today, Navy civil engineers have worn their unique service insignia[5].

In the early 1900s, civilian construction companies worked on a contract basis for the United States Navy.  On the eve of World War II, the number of civilian contractors working for the navy at overseas locations numbered around 70,000 men.  What made this particularly significant was an international agreement making it illegal for civilian employees to resist any armed attack.  To do so would classify them as guerilla fighters and this, in turn, would subject them to summary execution.  This is what happened when the Japanese invaded Wake Island[6].

The concept of a Naval Construction Battalion (NCB) was envisaged in 1934 as a war plan contingency, a concept that received the approval of the Chief of Naval Operations (then, an administrative post rather than an operational one).  In 1935, Captain Walter Allen, a war plans officer, was assigned to represent BuDocks on the war planning board.  Allen presented the NCB concept to the War Planning Board, which included it in the Rainbow Plan[7].

A major flaw in the proposal for NCBs was its dual chain of command; military control would be exercised by line officers of the fleet, while construction operations would fall under the purview of officers of the Civil Engineer Corps.  The plan for NCBs also ignored the importance of military organization, training, discipline, and creating esprit de corps within the force.  Last, at least initially, NCB plans focused almost entirely on the construction of training stations within the Continental United States (CONUS) with little attention to the deployment of NCBs to overseas locations.

Rear Admiral (RAdm) Ben Moreell was a leading proponent for Navy Construction Battalions (CBs, also Seabees).  In December 1937, Moreell became Chief, Bureau of Yards and Docks.  RAdm Moreell (1892-1978) graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering in 1913.  He joined the Navy at the beginning of World War I.  Owing to his educational specialty, the Navy offered him a direct appointment to Lieutenant Junior Grade in the Civil Engineer Corps.  Moreell was assigned to the Azores, where he met and was befriended by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Early in his career, the Navy recognized Moreell for his exceptional ability.  While serving as a lieutenant commander, Moreell was sent to Europe to study military engineering design and construction.  In 1933, he returned to the United States to supervise the Taylor Model Basin in Carderock, Maryland.

Moreell B 001In December 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed the advancement of Lieutenant Commander Moreell to Rear Admiral, by-passing commander, and captain, and appointed him to head the Bureau of Yards and Docks while concurrently serving as Chief of Civil Engineers of the Navy.  With great foresight, Moreell urged the construction of two giant drydocks at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and initiated Navy construction projects on Midway and Wake Island.  The Pearl Harbor project was completed in time to repair navy ships damaged during the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941 and the Midway project was completed in time to play an important role in the Battle of Midway.

By summer 1941, civilian construction crews were working on Guam, Midway, Pearl Harbor, Iceland, Newfoundland, and Bermuda.  Adm. Moreell took the decision that the navy needed to improve its project supervision.  To accomplish this, he requested the establishment of Headquarters Construction Companies, each containing two officers and 99 enlisted men.  The mission of the construction companies involved the conduct of drafting, surveys, and project inspections.  RAdm. Chester W. Nimitz, then serving as Chief, Bureau of Navigation, authorized the 1st Headquarters Construction Company on 31 October 1941; recruitment began in the following month.  The first recruit training class, quite remarkably, began at Newport, Rhode Island on 7 December 1941.

On 28 December 1941, RAdm Moreell requested authority to commission three Naval Construction Battalions.  Approval was granted on 5 January 1942 and a call for qualified recruits went out almost immediately.  The 1st Naval Construction Detachment was organized from the 1st Headquarters Construction Company, which was then assigned to Operation Bobcat in Bora Bora[8].  The Detachment was tasked to construct a military supply base, oil depot, airstrip, seaplane base, and defensive fortifications.  In total, 7 ships and 7,000 men were assigned to the base at Bora Bora.

The 2nd and 3rd Construction companies formed the nucleus of the 1st CB Battalion at Charleston, SC; these were soon deployed as the 2nd and 3rd Construction Detachments.  The 4th and 5th companies formed the 2nd CB Battalion and deployed as the 4th and 5th Construction Detachments.

Seabees 001The dual chain of command issue was finally resolved when Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox gave full authority over the Seabees to the Civil Engineer Corps.  Construction Battalions were officially recognized as Seabees on 5 March 1942.

To safeguard the location of projects in furtherance of advanced base construction, the Navy coded each project.  They were either Lion, Cub, Oak, or Acorn.  Lion 1-6, for example, primarily involved fleet bases projects.  Cub projects numbered 1-12 involved secondary fleet base projects.  Oak and Acorn projects were airfield construction programs.

In the Atlantic, the Seabees’ most complex task was preparation for the Allied landing at Normandy.  Subsequent operations took place along the Rhine and some of these involved “front line” work. 

The Navy-Marine Corps Team

USMC SealMarine Corps historian and author Gordon L. Rottman observed, “…one of the biggest contributions the Navy made to the Marine Corps during World War II was the creation of the Seabees.”  The Marine Corps, in turn, had a tremendous influence on Seabee organization, training, and combat history.

When Seabees first formed, they did not have a functional training facility of their own.  Upon leaving Navy boot camp, Seabee trainees were sent to National Youth Administration camps spread over four states.  To solve this problem, the Marine Corps created tables of organization that included NCBs.  It was through this process that Seabee companies were organized, equipment was standardized, and combatants received intensified military training through various regimental combat and advance base structures.

Early on, the Marine Corps’ requested one Seabee battalion in general support of an Amphibious Corps.  This was initially denied, but before the end of the year, Seabee Battalions 18, 19, and 25 were supporting advanced Marine forces as combat engineers, each of these being attached to composite engineer regiments (the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Marines).

In 1944, the demand for increased infantry caused the Marine Corps to deactivate its engineer regiments, but each Marine division retained a Seabee battalion in general support.  For operations on Iwo Jima, the 133rd and 31st Seabees were attached to the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions.  During the 5th Marine Division’s post-war occupation of China, the 116th Seabees accompanied them.  The 83rd, 122nd, and 33rd Seabees supported the III Amphibious Corps.

Navy Seabees were no “one-trick pony.”  In addition to combat engineering, they also participated as Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs), and Underwater Demolition Teams (UTDs), the forerunner of the Navy Seals organization.

The difficult we do now; the impossible takes a little longer.

During World War II, Seabees constructed 400 advanced bases across the Pacific to Asia, and from the Caribbean and Atlantic to African and European shores.  They frequently landed with assault forces, bringing with them skills in demolition operations, including places such as North Africa, Sicily, Anzio, Southern France, at Normandy, and operations crossing the Rhine River into Germany.  They were builders and fighters.  In the Pacific region, they constructed 111 major airstrips, 441 piers, 2,558 ammunition magazines, 700 square blocks of warehouses, hospitals —and all of it completed in the heat of battle.

Service Partnerships

On 27 October 1943, Allied forces landed on the Treasury Islands group, which were part of the Solomon Islands.  US and New Zealand forces assaulted entrenched Japanese troops as part of an effort to secure Mono and Stirling Islands so that a radar station could be established on the former, with the latter a staging area in preparation for the assault on Bougainville.  By taking the Treasury Islands, Allied forces would isolate Bougainville and Rabaul and eliminate the Japanese garrison.  On 28 November, Fireman First Class Aurelio Tassone, U. S. Navy Reserve, assigned to the 87th Naval Construction Battalion, created a legendary figure of the Seabees astride his bulldozer rolling over enemy positions.  According to the Naval History and Heritage Command …

Tassone-Turnbull 001Petty Officer Tassone was driving his bulldozer ashore during the landing of the Seabees when Lieutenant Charles E. Turnbull, Civil Engineer Corps, USN, told him that a Japanese pillbox was holding up the advance of the landing force from its beachhead.   While Lieutenant Turnbull provided covering fire with his carbine, Tassone drove forward using his front blade as a shield against sustained Japanese automatic weapons fire.  Tassone crushed the pillbox with the dozer blade killing all twelve of its Japanese defenders.  For his courage under fire, Tassone was awarded the Navy Silver Star medal.

During World War II, Seabees earned five Navy Cross medals, and the nation’s third-highest award for exceptional combat service, 33 Silver Star medals.  They also paid a heavy price: 18 officers and 272 enlisted men killed in action.  An additional 500 Seabees died as a result of non-combat injuries while performing hazardous construction operations.

During the Korean War, 10,000 World War II Era Seabees were recalled to active service.  They served during the landing at Inchon and participated in combat activity elsewhere, performing magnificently as combat engineers.  While Seabees were fighting in Korea, others were constructing an air station at Cubi Point, Philippine Islands —a massive undertaking that necessitated the removal of a two-mile stretch of mountain foothills, which, after having removed 20 million cubic yards of soil, became a project equivalent to the construction of the Panama Canal.

Seabees deployed to Vietnam twice during the 1950s.  In June 1954 they supported Operation Passage to Freedom; two years later Seabees were deployed to map and survey the roads in South Vietnam.  In 1964, Seabees constructed outlying operational bases and fire support bases near Dam Pau and Tri Ton.  Beginning in 1965, NCB personnel supported Marines at Khe Sanh and Chu Lai.

Shields Marvin CM3 USN
CM3 Marvin Shields, USN

On the night of 9 June 1965, the unfinished Army Special Forces camp at Dong Xoai was mortared and attacked by the 272nd Viet Cong Regiment, an assault by an estimated 2,000 communist troops.  The Special Forces camp fell to the enemy the next morning.  Having been wounded by mortar fire during the assault, Construction Mechanic Third Class Marvin G. Shields fought alongside his Special Forces counterparts helping forward positions in the resupply of much-needed ammunition.  Wounded for a second time by shrapnel and shot in the jaw on 10 June, he helped carry wounded soldiers to safer positions, including the fallen commanding officer.  After four more hours of intense fighting and greatly weakened by the loss of blood, Shields volunteered to help Second Lieutenant Charles Q. Williams, destroy an enemy machine gun outside the perimeter, which was threatening to kill everyone in an adjacent district headquarters building.  During this fight, Williams was wounded for the third time, and Shields for the fourth time, shot in both his legs.  Although evacuated, Shields died on the aeromedical evacuation helicopter.  Petty Officer Shields became the first and the only Seabee to receive the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life beyond the call of duty.  Shields and Petty Officer William C. Hoover lost their lives and seven additional Seabees received wounds that required medical evacuation during this battle.

More than 5,000 Seabees served in the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iraq War.  Since 1990, Seabees have provided vital construction skills in support of civil action programs across the globe, including the Middle East, the Philippine Islands, and in response to natural disasters inside the United States.  At the present time, there are six active-duty Navy Mobile Construction Battalions (NMCBs), split between Atlantic and Pacific fleet commands.

There is no question whether the United States will again face a significant national emergency.  When that happens, we can only hope (and pray) that we will still have available to us a lethal and exceedingly competent Naval Mobile Construction Battalion: America’s Fighting Seabees.

Sources:

  1. Historian, Naval Facilities Engineering Command. History of the Seabees.  Washington, 1996.
  2. Huie, W. B. Can Do!  The Story of the Seabees.  Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1997
  3. Huie, W. B. From Omaha to Okinawa, The Story of the Seabees.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012
  4. Kubic, C. R., and James P. Rife. Bridges to Baghdad: The U. S. Navy Seabees in the Iraq War.  Thomas Publications, 2009
  5. L. Germany First: The Basic Concept of Allied Strategy in World War II.  US Army Center of Military History, 1960
  6. Olsen, A. N. The King Bee.  Trafford Publishing, 2007

 Endnotes:

[1] Moravia was a crown land of the Bohemian Crown from 1348 to 1918, an imperial state within the Holy Roman Empire from 1004 to 1806, and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1804-1867.

[2] At this time, the Navy Department consisted of the Secretary of the Navy, three clerks, and the Chief Engineer.

[3] Navy officials ordered the Washington Navy Yard fired to keep it out of the hands of the British invaders in 1814.  The essential design of the navy yard remains a Latrobe design and the main gate on Eighth Street is the original base entry point.

[4] In 1826, the only formal training in engineering was the US Military Academy.  All other training was informally achieved through apprenticeships.

[5] It was never clear that the Act of 2 March 1867 intended civil engineers to serve as commissioned officers; the wording is too brief and vague for an adequate conclusion, but as the act stated, “… shall be appointed by the president …” the Secretary of the Navy assumed that his civil engineers should be commissioned as officers of the U. S. Navy.  The Secretary did not implement this interpretation until 1 January 1869, but dates of rank were backdated to 13 March 1863.

[6] When the Japanese invaded Wake Island on 23 December 1941, 70 civilian construction workers were killed when they took up arms against the Japanese.  After the fall of the island, 1,104 civilian construction workers were taken into captivity and forced to perform labor in the construction of Japanese defensive positions.  Of these, 180 died in captivity believed starved and beaten to death by brutish Japanese guards.

[7] American war planners realized that the United States faced the possibility of war on multiple fronts, against a coalition of enemies, the Joint Planning Board of the Army and Navy developed a new series of war plans.  They were called the Rainbow Plans … color-coded plans drawn up previously.

[8] An island in the leeward group of the western part of the Society Islands in French Polynesia.

Airborne Marines

USMC-USN Parachutist BadgeSimilar to the development of U. S. Marine Corps raider battalions, the genesis of airborne qualified Marines came from our European allies during World War II.  In May 1940, the Commandant of the Marine Corps tasked his Plans and Policy branch to conduct a feasibility study for the utilization of Marine parachute troops.  General Holcomb asked his staff to plan for one battalion of infantry at full strength, one platoon of 75-mm pack howitzers (two guns per platoon), issued three units of fire for all weapons, three days of rations and water, adding light anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons as appropriate, and no vehicles beyond hand-drawn carts.

While the plans and policy branch considered the Commandant’s proposal, various naval attaches began collecting reports on the use of parachute forces by Germany, Russia, and France.

The plans and policy branch considered the Commandant’s proposal and came up with three possible scenarios where parachute units might be employed as a Marine combat force:

  • As a reconnaissance and raiding force with limited ability to return to its parent organization or base. In this application, planners assumed that the unit’s objective was sufficiently vital to the interests of the force commander that he was willing to sacrifice the entire organization to complete it, or
  • As a spearhead or advance unit whose mission would be to seize and hold a strategic objective until the arrival of larger, reinforcing organizations, or
  • As an independent force operating for extended periods as a guerrilla force within enemy held territory.

HOLCOMB T 001By October 1940, the Commandant decided that an element from one infantry battalion of each regiment would be trained as “air troops.”  Each air troop battalion would host a company of parachutists, estimating a total airborne force of 750 parachute qualified Marines.  The Commandant’s decision had nothing to do with transforming amphibious troops into air assault forces, but rather to increase the combat capability of the Marine infantry division —the same rationale he used in approving raider battalions.

Two Marine officers and 38 enlisted men reported to the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey for parachute training in late October 1940.  By early November, they had completed tower training and were sent to Quantico, Virginia for added physical conditioning prior to making their first jump.  A second group of Marines (3 officers and 44 enlisted men) began their initial training at the end of December.  Both groups graduated from parachute training on 26 February 1941, each man qualified as parachute jumpers and riggers.  Additional training occurred throughout the Spring and by mid-summer, a total of 225 jumpers had graduated from the Lakehurst course.

But NAS Lakehurst was inadequate for the training of so many Marines in such a compressed period of time, so Captain Marion L. Dawson, USMC was sent to San Diego in February 1941 to prepare additional facilities there.  In March, the entire graduating class of the second training group was transferred to San Diego to form the 1st Platoon, Company A, 2nd Parachute Battalion.  They were later joined by the third graduating class, who formed the 2nd Platoon, Company A.

Meanwhile, Company A of the 1st Parachute Battalion was formed at Quantico, Virginia on 10 July 1941 and to avoid confusion while in the process of growing a new battalion, Company A of the 2nd Parachute Battalion (San Diego) was renamed as Company B, 1st Parachute Battalion.  The parachute battalion headquarters element was activated on 15 August 1941, with Captain Marcellus J. Howard, USMC as its first commanding officer.  Howard relocated his emerging battalion to New River, North Carolina for further training on 28 September.  The 1st Parachute Battalion was fully formed on 1 March 1942, while the 2nd Parachute Battalion was activated on 23 July 1941 under the command of Captain Charles E. Shepard, Jr. and declared at full strength on 3 September 1942.

There were no shortages of volunteers for parachute training, but the requirements for entering the program were quite strict.  A successful applicant had to be unmarried, athletically inclined, above average in intelligence, between the ages of 18-32 years, and have no physical or mental impairments.  Extra pay was authorized for Marines who completed parachute training, which amounted to an additional $100 for officers and $50.00 for enlisted men, and this may have been a factor in the number of Marines who applied for parachute training.

War was declared against Japan after their attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and this resulted in a sudden demand for combat Marines.  The formation of specialized battalions put a tremendous strain on the Marine Corps because it was still in the process of putting together the manpower needed to expand regular conventional forces.  A decision to establish two parachute training schools at New River, North Carolina and San Diego, California would ensure that the Marines could assemble and provide replacements to three parachute battalions.  There were no barracks for these trainees, so they quartered in tents during their ten weeks of training. Each class consisted of 36 Marines and each school started a new class each week.  Eventually, parachute training school was reduced to six weeks of training, totaling 361 hours of instruction.

Parachute training was divided into three two-week phases, the first being ground training.  Phase I included parachute tactics, map reading, demolition training, techniques of fire, scouting, patrolling, water survival, and weapons familiarization.  Phase II included parachute packing, rigging, flotation training, and the handling of cargo containers.  Phase III involved actual jumping, beginning with controlled and free tower jumping, suspension lines, and six actual jumps.  At the completion of Phase III, Marines were presented with the parachute qualification wings.  Not everyone who began training successfully completed it —the washout rate was 40%.

Putting together the facilities for parachute training was only one of the problems facing the Marine Corps.  There was also the problem of staffing these schools with qualified instructors, which eventually forced the Marine Corps to select its instructors from the operating forces —men who had successfully completed jump school.  There was also a problem with acquiring sufficient numbers of parachutes for use in training Marines how to use them.

The Allied defeat of Japanese naval forces at Midway and the Coral Sea stopped Japan’s advance in the Pacific.  Japanese losses were substantial, losing over 400 carrier and land-based aircraft and five aircraft carriers.  Such losses forced Tokyo to assume a defensive posture.  Japan’s new military reality was to establish a strong defensive perimeter of the Japanese home islands; its focus was to transform Truk in the Caroline Islands into an impregnable stronghold.  To accomplish this, the Japanese would have to strengthen Rabaul on New Britain in the Solomon Islands.  Part of this defensive structure was eastern New guinea, Guadalcanal, and Tulagi in the southern Solomons chain.

Guadalcanal 002Fortified airbases in the foregoing named locations allowed the Japanese to meet Allied air and seaborne attacks by shuttling their own assets from one base to the next.  By mid-June 1942, the Japanese airfield construction program had begun in earnest, including at Guadalcanal, Florida, and Savo Islands.  The primary purpose was to cut communications between the United States and Australia and forestall any Allied offensive operations.  While setting in a robust defensive structure, the Japanese retained its threat to vital supply bases in New Caledonia, New Hebrides, and Fiji.

The 1st Parachute Battalion departed from the United States on 7 June 1942, arriving at Wellington, New Zealand on 11 July 1942.  Within a week, the battalion sailed to Koro, Fiji Islands where it began training and rehearsing for the assault on Guadalcanal—Code named Watchtower.

The Allied expeditionary force supporting Watchtower consisted of 75 ships and transports, including vessels of both the United States and Australia, which assembled off the Fiji Islands on 26 July 1942.  There was only time for one rehearsal landing exercise before departing for Guadalcanal on 31 July.  Overall command of the 16,000 (mostly) U. S. Marines fell under Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift.  Of the total assault force, 3,000 were scheduled to land on Tulagi and nearby islands of Florida, Gavutu, and Tanambogo.  Brigadier General William H. Rupertus, then serving as the Assistant Division Commander, 1st Marine Division, would lead the Tulagi-Gavutu-Tanambogo force.

Bad weather permitted the Allied force to arrive off station unseen by the Japanese on the morning of 7 August, but the Japanese did pick up increased radio traffic from the Allied expeditionary force and planned to send out reconnaissance aircraft at daybreak.  The landing force split into two groups for the assault on Guadalcanal and the Florida islands.  At daybreak, aircraft from the USS Wasp began bombing Japanese targets, destroying 15 seaplanes at anchorage near the islands.  Pre-assault naval bombardments were directed at Tulagi, Gavutu, Florida, and Tanambogo.

Tulagi Map 001The island of Tulagi is two miles long and a half mile wide; it lies just south of Florida Island and 22 miles directly north across Sealark Channel from Guadalcanal.  A ridge rising over 300 feet above sea level marks the northwest-southeast axis of the island.  Around two-thirds of the way down from its northwest tip, the ridge is broken by a ravine and then rises again in a triangle of hills, designated Hill 208 in the southeast and Hill 281 in the northeast.

Tulagi had been the seat of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, with the governor’s residence and other offices on its northeast side.  About 3,000 yards east of Tulagi are the small islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo, which are joined by a 500-yard long causeway.

At 0800 on 7 August, the 1st Raider Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson and 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines under Lieutenant Colonel Harold E. Rosecrans made an unopposed landing on the western shore of Tulagi.  Coral formations kept the landing craft from reaching the shore, which required that the Marines had to wade ashore from about 100 meters from the beach.

Japanese forces at Tulagi and Gavutu were assigned to the 3rd Kure Special Naval Landing Force and an aviation detachment.  The assault at Gavutu was not simultaneous with the landing at Tulagi, however.  Insufficient numbers of landing craft delayed the 1st Parachute Battalion’s assault for four hours while the 1st Raider Battalion and 2/5 were completely ashore.

The 1st Parachute Battalion under Major Robert H. Williams finally made their assault in three waves beginning at noon on 7 August 1942.  After landing, Company B made some progress inland before the Japanese garrison was able to implement their defense plan.  Earlier naval gunfire had destroyed the seaplane ramp at Gavutu, forcing Marines in the second and third waves to land at a more exposed location.  Japanese machine gun fire inflicted heavy casualties on the Marines of Company A and Company C; one Marine in ten was either killed or wounded, including the battalion commander, who was quickly replaced by the executive officer, Major Charles A. Miller.

Tanambogo 001Marines from Company A and Company C quickly employed their Browning 1919 Machine guns and mortars under the direction of Captain George Stallings to suppress enemy fire, allowing more Marines to push inland.  As reflected on the map at left, Gavutu and Tanambogo are little more than mounds of coral averaging around 50 meters above sea level, except for two hills, one on each islet, numbered 148 and 121, reflecting their height in meters.  Japanese on both islets were well entrenched in bunkers and caves constructed on and within both of these hills and organized with mutually supporting fields of fire.  Marine planners had significantly underestimated the strength of the Japanese garrisons.

After a battle lasting well over two hours, the Marines were able to work their way to the top of Hill 148 and began destroying Japanese positions with demolition charges, hand grenades, and in some cases hand-to-hand fighting along the slopes of the hill.  From the apex of Hill 148, Marines were able to suppress Japanese fire coming from Tanambogo.  Major Miller radioed a request to General Rupertus for reinforcements before mounting an assault on Tanambogo.

Most of the defenders on Tanambogo were aviation personnel, some of which were armed with no more than hand sickles and gardening tools.  General Rupertus detached one company from the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines (1/2) on Florida Island to assist in securing Tanambogo.  Rupertus was advised by his staff that a single company would not be sufficient but Rupertus apparently knew better and ordered the company to assault the Islet.  The Marines from 1/2 were hit by overwhelming machine gun fire as they approached the landing area, which resulted in many casualties among the Navy landing craft crews.  Three landing craft were heavily damaged.  Realizing that his position was untenable, the company commander ordered the remaining boats to depart with wounded Marines aboard; he and twelve of his men who had already landed sprinted across the causeway seeking cover on Gavutu.  Japanese casualties on Tanambogo on 7 August was only ten killed in action.

Throughout the night, Japanese defenders staged isolated attacks against the Marines on Gavutu, their movements concealed by heavy thunderstorms.  General Vandegrift alerted 3/2 to standby for a reinforcing assault.  The battalion began its landing at Gavutu at 10:00 on the morning of 8 August; once ashore, 3/2 assisted 1st Parachute Battalion in the destruction of all remaining Japanese defenders, which was completed in two hours.

At this time, 3/2 prepared to attack Tanambogo across the causeway and 1st Parachute Battalion was assigned to provide covering fire.  Dive bombers and naval artillery were also requested, but when aircraft dropped their ordnance on Marines on two occasions, killing several of them, further air support was called off.  Accurate artillery was provided by USS San Juan, however, which lasted for 30 minutes.

The 3/2 assault began at 16:15, by landing craft and across the causeway, and with the assistance from two light tanks[1], the attack began making headway against the stout Japanese defense.  One of these tanks became hung up on a tree stump and, isolated from its infantry support, was surrounded by a group of about 50 Japanese.  They set fire to the tank, killing two of its crewmen and severely beat the other two crewmen before most of these men were killed by Marine Corps rifle fire.  There were 42 bodies around the defeated tank, including the remains of senior officers and pilots.

Throughout the day, Marines methodically destroyed the Japanese-held caves with demolition charges.  By 21:00, most of the Japanese defenders were dead, but a few holdouts continued to attack the Marines at night with several hand-to-hand engagements.  By noon on 9 August, all Japanese resistance on Tanambogo ended.  476 Japanese were killed, 70 Americans joined them.  Most of the 20 prisoners were construction workers.

Paramarines 001On 9 August 1st Parachute Battalion was moved to Tulagi to reinforce the 1st Raider Battalion and took up positions as a security force near the government buildings.  A month later, the 1st Parachute Battalion and 1st Raider Battalion, both under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson, executed a raid in the vicinity of Taivu near the village of Tasimboko, Guadalcanal.  The Raiders landed at Taivu Point and advanced toward Tasimboko, while the Parachute Marines landed 2,000 yards east of the village and took up positions to protect the flank and rear of the Raider advance.  Following an intense fire fight with Japanese defenders of Tasimboko, the combined force entered the village and destroyed food, medical equipment, and military stores.  Before dark on 8 September 1942, the two battalions withdrew to its embarkation point.

Several days later, again in conjunction with the 1st Raider Battalion, 1st Parachute Battalion was ordered to occupy the ridge southeast of Henderson Field[2] on Guadalcanal.  Enemy activity increased on 11 September and reached a peak during the night of 13-14 September when the Marine perimeter repulsed strong and repeated attacks by Japanese forces.  This battle would become known as the Battle of Bloody Ridge, also the Battle of Edson’s Ridge.  This action severely mauled General Kawaguchi’s force, against whom the previous raid had been staged.

On 18 September the 1st Parachute Battalion was withdrawn from Guadalcanal and transported to New Caledonia for rest, refit, and retraining.  Between September 1942 and the spring of 1943, the 1st Parachute Battalion was re-indoctrinated in jump techniques, parachute packing, patrolling, scouting, and platoon, company, and battalion sized operations.

Paramarines 002The 2nd Parachute Battalion arrived at Wellington, New Zealand on 31 October 1942 and remained in camp until January 1943 when it was transported to Noumea to undergo further training with the 1st Parachute Battalion.

The 3rd Parachute Battalion under Major Robert T. Vance was organized on 16 September 1942 and assigned to the 3rd Marine Division in general support of Amphibious Corps Operations, Pacific Fleet.  Dispatched to Noumea to join the other two parachute battalions, 3rd Parachute Battalion arrived on 27 March 1943.  Five days later, the 1st Parachute Regiment was activated, consisting of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Parachute Battalions, Regimental Weapons Company, and the Headquarters & Service Company.  Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Williams, having recovered from his wounds on Gavutu, assumed command of the Regiment.

A 4th Parachute Battalion was formed on 2 April 1943 under Lieutenant Colonel Marcellus J. Howard, but the battalion remained in training status until it was disbanded on 19 January 1944.

In early September 1943, Allied headquarters directed several reconnaissance patrols to Choiseul to gather intelligence on Japanese dispositions, force concentrations, and their normal patrol activity.  The reconnaissance patrols involved clandestine elements of the New Zealand armed forces, US Marines, and US Navy personnel.  These units operated for several days in the southwestern part of the island and in the northwest.  Contact was made with coast watchers seeking suitable sites for airfields and beaches capable of landing operations.  From these missions, it was determined that the terrain was unsuited for dropping troops by air and if troops were landed at all, it would require an amphibious operation.  Owing to numerous coral reefs off shore there were very few beaches on the island suitable for an amphibious assault —but one of these was at Voza, the site of an abandoned village.

After being transported to Guadalcanal for pre-combat assignments, the 1st Parachute Regiment was moved to Vella Lavella.  While encamped, the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Parachute Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Victor H. Krulak[3], was summoned to the I Marine Amphibious Corps headquarters on Guadalcanal.  He was advised of an impending operation on the island of Bougainville[4], scheduled to begin on 1 November 1943.  Krulak’s mission was to lead a raiding force onto the island of Choiseul and create as great a disturbance as possible in order to confuse the enemy and mask the true location of the main assault.  Upon return to Vella Lavella to plan his operation, he was aided by Australian coast watchers who provided vital information on enemy forces and dispositions.

Krulak’s operation consisted of three rifle companies reinforced by a communications platoon, a regimental weapons detachment, and a detachment from an experimental rocket platoon.  In total, the force would consist of 30 officers and 626 men.  2nd Parachute Battalion was loaded into four fast transports and departed Vella Lavella in the evening of 27 October 1943, landing unopposed near Voza[5].  Krulak led his men about a mile inland and set up a base camp.  On 28 and 29 October, patrols were sent out to reconnoiter Japanese positions at Sangigai to the southeast and along the Warrior River in the north.

The attack on Sangigai began at around 11:00 on 30 October when Company E opened fire on the Japanese garrison there.  The Japanese quickly retreated toward the mountains directly into the path of Company F which had executed an envelopment of the village, flanking the enemy position.  Company E immediately moved into the village, secured it, and destroyed all buildings and facilities, a barge, and around 180 tons of supplies.  By 0800 the next morning, the raiders had returned to their base camp having lost 6 Marines killed in action, 12 wounded (including Krulak) while killing 75 Japanese soldiers.

A second raiding party under Major Warner T. Bigger was sent north to Nukiki and then overland to the Warrior River.  This group mortared Japanese installations on nearby Guppy Island, which started several large fires.  After encountering stiff enemy resistance, the party was withdrawn by landing craft.  Krulak continued to send out patrols on 1 and 2 November.  By 3 November, the Japanese recognized that the American force was small and began to close in on the beachhead and after laying minefields and booby traps, Krulak’s battalion was withdrawn during the night of 3-4 November[6].

On 22 November 1943, the 1st Parachute Battalion under Major Richard Fagan embarked 23 officers and 596 Marines on four infantry landing craft (also, LCIs), and headed for Bougainville.  The battalion arrived off Empress Augusta Bay on 23 November and after going ashore, the battalion went into reserve under I Amphibious Corps, being administratively attached to the 2nd Raider Regiment.  Four days later, 1st Parachute Battalion was task organized (reinforced by Company M of the 3rd Raider Battalion and an artillery forward observer team from the 12th Marines) for a raid on Japanese supply facilities near Koiari, south of Cape Torokina.

The movement of 1st Parachute Battalion from Cape Torokina to Koiari took about an hour by LCI.  Fagan intended to come ashore some distance from the Japanese supply depot and approach the enemy from the rear, but it was soon discovered that the landing had taken place in the center of the supply depot tactical zone.  The Marines quickly formed a defensive perimeter, as they were surrounded on three sides by Japanese forces and had their backs to the sea.  A fierce battle raged for several hours.  With casualties mounting and ammunition running low, Fagan requested to be withdrawn.  Shortly before 18:00, three destroyers arrived offshore and began delivering artillery support to the flanks of the beleaguered battalion.  Naval gunfire was augmented by 155-mm howitzers from Cape Torokina.  Thus, protected on three sides by artillery fire, Fagan was able to load his Marines on rescue boats.  1st Parachute Battalion suffered 15 killed in action (KIA), 99 wounded, and 7 Marines unaccounted for.

On 3 December, the 1st Parachute Battalion was joined by its parent regiment (less the 2nd Battalion), which two days later was sent to occupy a forward position of the 3rd Marine Division front.  During this time, the Marines were under constant attack and harassment by Japanese forces.  On 10 December, the parachute Marines were withdrawn and replaced by the 9th Marines and 21st Marines and moved into Division reserve.  On 22 December 1st Parachute Battalion, the regimental weapons company, and a platoon from H&S Company were attached to the 2nd Raider Regiment as a relief for the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (1/3) near Eagle Creek.  This unit was later relieved by the 132nd Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division on 11 January 1944.

By mid-January 1944, all parachute battalions were embarked aboard troop transport ships for return to the United States.  The Marine Corps was in the process of creating six (6) infantry divisions and five (5) aircraft wings, circumstances that could not justify retaining specialized battalions such as Raider or Parachute battalions/regiments.  Beyond this, none of the battle areas in the central and south Pacific region lent themselves to parachute drops, with the exception of one combat drop at Tagaytay Ridge in the Philippines, which was successfully conducted by the U. S. Army’s 11th Airborne Division in 1945.  With this one exception, all US parachute units normally fought as regular infantry organizations.

There were four essential factors to explain why, after spending the time and money to train Marines as parachutists, they were never used in that capacity.  As previously stated, island terrain simply did not lend itself to a successful airdrop insertion of combat troops, nor were there a sufficient land-based staging area for parachutists or aircraft.  Next, the Marine Corps did not have sufficient aircraft to airlift more than a single battalion; it would have taken six squadrons of transport aircraft to accomplish the movement of two parachute regiments.  Finally, the distances between suitable rear area staging areas and forward area combat zones exceeded the range of fully loaded transport aircraft.

The parachute battalions were always a “luxury” that the Marine Corps could ill-afford (the costs of training, specialized equipment, etc.) but they had certainly made noteworthy contributions to the Pacific war and their professionalism brought credit to the reputation of the Marine Corps.  This would all become apparent a year later when many of these disbanded units were rolled into the newly created 5th Marine Division, which went ashore during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Note: Parachute qualified Marines continue to serve in limited numbers, either as members of reconnaissance units or as members of the Raider Battalion community, brought back into active service in 2014.

Sources:

  1. Hoffman, J. T. Silk Chutes and Hard Fighting: USMC Parachutes Units in World War II.  Washington: USMC Historical Division, (1999).
  2. Johnstone, J. H.  USMC Parachute Units.  Washington: USMC Historical Division, (1961).

Endnotes:

[1] The light tank, M-3 (unofficially, M3 Stuart) was named for J. E. B. Stuart of Civil War fame.

[2] The initial construction of this airfield was begun by the Japanese Imperial Army; after it was seized by Allied forces, the airfield was renamed in honor of Major Lofton Henderson, USMC, Commanding Officer of VMSB-241, who was killed during the Battle of Midway —the first Marine Corps aviator killed in the battle.

[3] Lieutenant General Krulak served at the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific from 1 March 1964 to 1968.  Krulak’s son Charles served as the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995-1999.

[4] Bougainville Island is the principal island of Papua New Guinea and the largest of the Solomon Islands archipelago.  It is named after the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville discovered some time in 1768.

[5] Voza is located along the coast of Choiseul Island northwest of the village of Sangigai.  The island itself runs 75 miles in length and up to 25 miles in width at its widest point.

[6] One of the patrol boats providing security for Krulak’s force was commanded by a young lieutenant by the name of John F. Kennedy.

Dangerous Dan

Fairbairn Sykes 001Born in Herefordshire, England in 1885, William E. Fairbairn illegally joined the British Royal Marines in 1901.  He was only fifteen years old.  He so much wanted to join the Marines that he somehow convinced his recruiter to falsify his paperwork.  Upon completion of his initial training, Fairbairn was immediately sent to Korea where he got his first taste of close combat.  Along with getting battle-tested in war, Fairbairn realized that his very life could depend upon his ability to defend himself with bayonet or fighting knife.  He began studying martial arts disciplines that originated in Korea.  It was the beginning of his effort to become a master of combat.

In 1907, the British Legation Guard seconded Fairbairn to the International Police Force in Shanghai; it was the toughest assignment a police officer could get.  As a junior officer, he was assigned to one of the cities red-light districts.  It was also the most dangerous part of the most dangerous city in the entire world.

Shanghai’s inner-city warlords controlled the gangs of outlaws; they, in turn, ran large areas within the city.  These were seriously dangerous men who would brook no competition from either gangsters or police officers.  The gangs ran everything illegal, from deviant behavior and opium to the kidnapping and ransom of the children of wealthy parents, to cold-blooded murder.

Not long after arriving in Shanghai, Officer Fairbairn was patrolling in the brothel district when he encountered a gang of criminals who threatened his life.  They threatened the wrong man.  Fairbairn attacked these gangsters, but he was quickly overwhelmed by their numbers and he received a life-threatening beating.  When he woke up in the hospital days later, Fairbairn noticed a plaque near his bed advertising the services of one Professor Okada, a master of jujitsu and bone setting.  Through many hours of off duty study, William Fairbairn earned a black belt in both jujitsu and judo.

Fairbairn 002Fairbairn (pictured left) served 30 years with the Shanghai police.  In this time, he was involved in over 600 encounters with armed and unarmed assailants.  His innate courage, determination, and acquired skillset in hand-to-hand combat always took him through to safety.  On one particular evening, Fairbairn entered into another dangerous situation with a Japanese officer and fellow expert in the martial arts.

At this time, extreme hostility existed between China and Japan.  As Fairbairn approached and greeted the Japanese officer, he noticed that there were around 150 Chinese men and women sitting bound on a nearby Japanese naval vessel.  When Fairbairn inquired what was in the offing, the Japanese officer informed him that the Chinese persons were going to be executed.  Fairbairn insisted that the Japanese officer release the Chinese at once and he would take them into custody.  The Japanese officer refused.

Calmly, with a measured voice, Fairbairn warned the Japanese officer, paraphrasing: Do what you have to do, but one day we’ll meet again, and I’ll make sure you pay for this wrongdoing.  The Japanese officer released all prisoners to Fairbairn.

Over many years, Fairbairn acquired practical knowledge in the field of law enforcement, self-defense, and close combat.  He decided to incorporate his experiences into a new practical street defense system.  He called it Defendu.  He borrowed from various martial arts and included his own “down and dirty” non-telegraphic strikes that were easy to apply and highly practical and effective in real-world situations.  Defendu also included various kicks, mainly designed to damage an attacker’s legs and knees.

In addition to his hand-to-hand combat skills, Fairbairn also developed new police weapons and equipment (bullet-proof vests, batons), firearms training courses, and specialized training for police anti-riot forces.

In 1939, the British Secret Service recruited Fairbairn and commissioned him as an army officer.  Shortly after, with his demonstrated skills, colleagues and superiors alike began referring to Fairbairn as “Dangerous Dan.”  He, along with fellow close-combat instructor Eric Sykes, received commissions as second lieutenants on 15 July 1940.  Fairbairn and Sykes trained British, American, and Canadian commando units, including American ranger forces, in such areas as close-combat, combat shooting with the pistol, and knife fighting techniques.  Lieutenant Fairbairn was quite plain in his instruction: dispense immediately with any idea of gentlemanly rules of fighting.  His admonition was, “Get tough, get down in the gutter, win at all costs.  There is no fair play.  There is only one rule—kill or be killed.”

There are those today who never heard of William Fairbairn or Eric Sykes, but they may have heard of their most erstwhile invention: The Fairbairn fighting knife, also called commando knife … a stiletto-type dagger used by the British Special Forces in World War II.  Given all his combat-related innovations, some have suggested that William Fairbairn might have been the inspiration for Ian Flemings’ Q Branch in the James Bond novels and films.

Biddle AJD 001Significantly, Fairbairn also influenced training in the U. S. Marine Corps.  Anthony J. D. Biddle, Sr., (1874-1948) (shown right) was a millionaire, the son of Edward Biddle II, the grandson of Anthony Drexel, and the great-grandson of Nicholas Biddle —bankers and industrialists all.  His wealth enabled him to pursue the theater, writing, and Christianity on a full-time basis.  A. J. D. Biddle was the basis of the book and play titled My Philadelphia Father, and the film The Happiest Millionaire.  As a United States Marine, Biddle trained men in the art of hand-to-hand combat in both World War I and World War II.  He was a fellow of the American Geographical Society and founded a movement called Athletic Christianity.  In 1955, Sports Illustrated magazine called him boxing’s greatest amateur and a major factor in the re-establishment of boxing as a legal act and an estimable sport.

Colonel Biddle, as an expert in close-quarters fighting, wrote a book entitled Do or Die: A supplementary manual on individual combat.  It instructed Marines and members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on combat methods with open hand fighting, knife fighting, and bayonet fighting.  Within the book Do or Die, Biddle wrote in the Imprimatur, “Now come the very latest developments in the art of Defendu, originated by the celebrated Major W. E. Fairbairn, Assistant Commissioner of the Shanghai Municipal Police, and of jujitsu as shown by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel G. Taxis, U. S. Marine Corps, formerly stationed in Shanghai, who was an instructor in these arts.  Following a series of conferences with Colonel Taxis, several of his particularly noteworthy assaults are described in Part III of this manual.  Major Fairbairn is the author of the book, Get Tough.

Despite his lethal capabilities, Dangerous Dan was a well-mannered gentleman who never drank alcohol, never used profanity, and never boasted of his ability or accomplishments.  William Ewart Fairbairn passed away on 20 June 1960, aged 75, in Sussex, England.

Sources:

  1. Biddle, A.J. D. Do or Die.  Washington: The Leatherneck Association, Inc., 1937
  2. Fairbairn, W. E. Get Tough.  New York: Appleton-Century Company, 1942
  3. Fairbairn, W. E.   Shanghai: North China Daily News and Herald, 1926
  4. Fairbairn, W. E., and Eric A. Sykes. Shooting to Live.  London: Oliver & Boyd, 1942.
  5. Lewis, D. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops.  Kindle edition online.

Death Rattlers

VMFA 323 Patch 001Somewhere between the first and fifth of August 1943, three young lieutenants, naval aviators all, swooped down upon a somewhat large rattlesnake resting in the area adjacent to the Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina, captured it, and took it with them to their newly commissioned squadron ready room.  The well-fed snake measured about seven feet in length.  Few people understand why lieutenants do anything.  Observing the antics of a lieutenant, most people roll their eyes and think to themselves, “But for the grace of God …”

In this case, however, the lieutenants were on a mission.  It was to find a nickname for their recently commissioned aircraft squadron.  With all squadron pilots assembled, it was unanimously agreed that Marine Fighting Squadron 323 (VMF-323) would be henceforth known as the Death Rattlers.  Its patch and nickname continue to exist today, as of this writing, for 77-years.  In 1943, VMF-323 was assigned to Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-32, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW).  The squadron’s first commanding officer was Major George C. Axtell, Jr[1].

VMF-323 began combat training almost immediately after its activation.  This squadron, as well as others being formulated, were desperately needed in the Pacific.  In September 1943, VMF-323 was transferred to one of the Air Station’s outlying fields, a Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Facility at Oak Grove.  Its first aircraft was the Vought F4U-1 Corsair[2].  In 1943, VMF-323 was one of eight Marine Corps Corsair squadrons.

F4U Corsair USMC 002In January 1944, VMF-323 was transferred to El Centro, California and reassigned to Marine Base Defense Aircraft Group (MBDAG)-43.  In California, squadron pilots worked to master instrument flying, gunnery, bomber escort, overland navigation, dogfighting, section flight tactics, field carrier landings, and strafing.  Field carrier landing training was a prelude to actual carrier landing qualification training.  When this training period was concluded, VMF-323 moved to Camp Pendleton, California. For Major Axtell, training new officers was a never-ending task since no sooner had he molded his pilots into skilled aviators, they would be transferred to another squadron and Axtell would have to begin the task of bringing along a newer pilot.  Axtell, a qualified instrument pilot before taking command of the squadron, insisted that all of his pilots develop that skill set.  Axtell believed that instrument flying would build self-confidence in his pilots and prepare them for future battles—which proved prescient.

VMF-323’s first casualty occurred on 17 March 1944 when Second Lieutenant Robert M. Bartlett, Jr., crashed his aircraft two miles south of the airbase while on a routine night familiarization flight.  In April, VMF-323 took part in two large-scale joint service air interception exercises.  On 25 May Second Lieutenant John A. Freshour and his passenger, Lieutenant Commander James J. Bunner, USN were killed when their Douglas SBD (Dauntless) crashed into a power line near Camp Pendleton’s airfield.  That month, Axtell focused his pilots on the art and science of dive-bombing and forcing his pilots to avail themselves of an intelligence reading room and a classified material library.  Major Axtell, young as he was, was a task-maker because in addition to learning, practicing, and becoming proficient in aviation skills, he also demanded that his pilots attend aircraft recognition classes and lectures on a host of technical topics —including the geography of Palau’s Islands, Philippines, the Sulu Archipelago, and other island areas these pilots could be assigned to.  A third pilot was lost when Second Lieutenant Glen B. Smith crashed at sea on a routine training flight.

On 7 September 1944, 30 pilots, 3 ground officers, 90 enlisted men, 24 aircraft, and repair parts boarded the USS Breton (CVE-23) as the squadron’s advanced element.  Its rear echelon of 20 officers, 167 enlisted men remained behind for further training.  VMF-323 would be assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.  Ten days later, the squadron catapulted the squadron to its destination at Emirau.  During takeoff, Second Lieutenant Gerald E. Baker crashed into the sea and was killed.  Upon arrival at Emirau, Axtell reported to the Commanding General, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing for duty.  For the next 30 days, VMF-323 conducted local flight training within a fifty-mile radius of the field.  Training included gunnery, dive-bombing, and squadron tactics.  On 24 October, Commander Task Group 59.6 ordered VMF-323 (Forward) to Espiritu Santo, a rear area supply base in the New Hebrides Islands.  On the same day, the Commanding General, FMFPac (Air) placed VMF-323 under his administrative control.

By 31 October, VMF-323 (Fwd) was fully located at Espiritu Santo and busily involved in setting up the squadron for air operations.  Between 9-28 November, the squadron participated in another round of familiarization flights, gun proficiency, bombing, and squadron tactics.  On 29 November, the squadron’s rear echelon arrived and rejoined the squadron.  MAG-33 attached the squadron on the same day.  Ordnance experts from MAG-33 began installing airborne rocket launchers almost immediately, necessitating additional training by squadron pilots and ground crews.  It was complicated; pilots needed to learn about glide angle, range, proper lead, rock effectiveness, safety, and the characteristics of various rockets.  Added to the already busy training routine was close air support of ground troops.  Unbeknownst to the squadron’s officers, they were being prepared for battle on the island of Okinawa.  As the pilots were practicing air combat maneuvers, the enlisted men were spending more time on the rifle range: Every Marine is a Rifleman.  Expected to develop proficiency with their sidearm, pilots went to the range, as well.  Finally, the squadron’s ground defense crews practiced with anti-aircraft machine guns.  There would be no gravel crunchers to provide security for VMF-323.

On 23 February, MAG-33 issued classified orders to the Commanding Officer, VMF-323: they would fly their 32 Corsairs to Okinawa in echelons.  Combat operations began on 10 April from Kadena airfield.  Weather conditions made Flying conditions poor.  When the dawn combat air patrol (CAP) launched at 0515 hours on their first day, First Lieutenant James L. Brown failed to join the flight.  Initially listed as missing in action, he was later declared killed in action.  On the next day, the airfield came under attack, but there was no damage or casualties.  The Death Rattlers’ first combat kill came that very morning, 11 April.  First Lieutenant Vernon E. Ball was readying for takeoff when a Japanese bomb hit the runway in front of his aircraft.  Ball calmly steered his aircraft around the bomb crater and took off.  Once airborne, Ball observed fellow squadron mate Al Wells shoot down the Japanese bomber responsible for cratering the runway.

On the afternoon of 12 April, a fourteen aircraft CAP noted the approach of Japanese aircraft from the north.  The Death Rattlers split into three divisions.  Six aircraft were diverted northwest from Ie Shima, flight leader Major Arthur L. Turner with Second Lieutenant Obie Stover as his wingman.  The second section was led by First Lieutenant Dellwyn L. Davis, with Second Lieutenant Robert J. Woods as his wingman.  The third section was led by First Lieutenant Charlie Spangler, with Second Lieutenant Dewey Durnford as his wingman.

The Marines were flying at 15,000 feet, 71-miles northwest of Ie Shima when they spotted a multi-engine Japanese bomber about eight miles distant and at an altitude of around 11,000 feet.  According to the Squadron’s official account:

Spangler and Durnford peeled off, followed by Davis and Woods.  Spangler closed from five o’clock and opened fire at 800 feet.  First, he knocked out the tail gunner and the top of the rudder, and then flamed the port engine.  Durnford was closing from seven o’clock, whereupon the Betty[3] turned on him, apparently trying to give the side blister gunner a shot.  Durnford opened fire at 200 feet, directing his fire at the cockpit.  Davis flamed the starboard engine from 100 feet and the Betty spiraled down in flames, exploding when it hit the water.

Meanwhile, a second six-plane element was directed to the Motobu Peninsula.  Captain Felix S. Cecot was flight leader with Second Lieutenant Leon A. Reynolds as his wing.  Captain Joe McPhail led the second section with Second Lieutenant Warren W. Bestwick.  Second Lieutenant Glenn Thacker flew with Second Lieutenant Everett L. Yager.  The enemy approached at about 18,000 feet.  The Marines climbed to 23,000 to gain an overhead advantage.  McPhail reported— 

I spotted some F4Us chasing Zekes[4]; I called out their position and rolled over.  Bestwick was on my wing.  On the way down, four Zekes appeared right under us at about 19,000 feet, flying almost abreast in two-plane sections.  I started firing at the rear plane on the right, at about 400 yards, above and behind.  My first burst was off, and the Zeke saw the tracers.  He made a couple of small turns, and then I started getting hits.  Pieces started coming off around the cockpit, and then he blew up.  The other three scattered.  I then pushed over and came home alone, being unable to find my wingman.

Berwick’s report stated …

Captain McPhail shot at the rear plane on the right.  His Zeke crossed under the rest of their formation and exploded in flames.  I picked the second plane of the first section and fired a long burst and saw it explode.  By that time, the first plane of the second section had broken off to the right and down, so I continued my run and fired a 20-degree deflection shot from behind.  This plane also exploded.  While looking for Captain McPhail, I saw my first Zeke spiraling down smoking, but I didn’t see my second Zeke after firing on him.

Lieutenant Thacker had followed Bestwick on the original pass going after the fourth Zeke in the formation.  He made an attack run on the Zeke and his guns knocked pieces from the fuselage, causing it to smoke.  The Zeke, however, rolled, pulled up tightly, and escaped.  Thacker claimed a probable kill as a result of his action.

At the same time, Captain Cecot dove from 23,000 feet to 5,000 to fire at a Jack[5].  The Jack rolled, Cecot fired at his belly and saw it smoking.  He was unable to observe further damage.  He too claimed a probable kill.

The remaining section, composed of lieutenants John Ruhsam and Robert Wade, were returning to Kadena because Wade’s landing gear could not be retracted.  Just south of Motobu, a Zeke dove out of the sun and made a pass at Wade’s plane.  Wade lowered his flaps and made a tight run.  The Zeke shot past, rolled, and dove to the deck.  Wade followed him down and was almost in firing position when Ruhsam opened fire with a 30-degree deflection shot and the Zeke burst into flames and crashed.

During this flight, all squadron pilots involved encountered Japanese aircraft for the first time.

VMF-323 flew a variety of close air support and bombing missions over the next few days, the seventh and last mission of 22 April was a record-breaker.  The last mission was an eight aircraft formation led by Major George C. Axtell, the squadron commander.  The flight departed Kadena at 1500 hours and did not return until around 1915.  During this flight, VMF-323 downed a record 24 (and three-quarters) enemy aircraft.  The squadron’s records reflect that the action was fast and furious.

Major Jefferson D. Dorah, Jr., squadron executive officer, burned five planes and exploded a sixth, all within twenty minutes.  Major George B. Axtell shot down five planes within fifteen minutes.  Twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Jeremiah J. O’Keefe also shot down five planes, one of which tried to ram him after it caught fire.

FA-18 Hornet 001Flying combat aircraft is a dangerous vocation.  This was true in 1945, it is more so now as our young men fly high-performance aircraft with exceptionally complicated technology.  Every moment of a training or combat flight is a teaching moment.  Bad things can happen to machines, and it is the human pilot that must respond to each “sudden” and sometimes catastrophic failure.  In April 1945, VMF-323 pilots learned about fire discipline.  Some used up their ammunition too quickly, wastefully, which at the moment the last round was fired, rendered that bird as combat ineffective.  Other pilots dropped their external fuel tanks too soon, which threatened their ability to return safely to base.  They learned from their mistakes, of course … or they died because of them.

VMFA-323 is the home squadron of my good (and long-time) friend Pablo, who occasionally comments here.  Pablo has been an aviator for more than 50 years.  That is … fifty years of accident-free flying.  He is a certified instructor pilot, a certified glider pilot, and certified to teach glider flying.  He is also a much-sought-after aviation safety instructor/lecturer.  He will attest to the risks associated with aviation and most likely agree that these innate risks, when combined with high anxiety combat maneuvering, makes military flying the most challenging vocation anyone could ever ask for.  It should not surprise anyone that there are aircraft mishaps, and that good young men and women die in them.  Given the operational tempo of our military air wings, what is surprising is that there are not more mishaps.

As Brigadier General Chuck Yeager (USAF) once said, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.”

Sources:

  1. Chapin, J. C. Fire Brigade: U. S. Marines in the Pusan Perimeter.  Washington: USMC Historical Center, 2000.
  2. Pitzl, G. R. A History of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323.  Washington: USMC Historical Center, 1987.
  3. Sherrod, R.  History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.

Endnotes:

[1] Lieutenant General George B. Axtell (1920-2011) was a World War II flying ace, recipient of the Navy Cross, and the youngest commanding officer of a Marine fighter squadron.  General Axtell served through three wars and retired from active service in 1974.  In addition to command of VMF-323, he also commanded VMF-452, VMF-312, Marine Carrier Air Group-16, Marine Air Control Group 1, Marine Aircraft Group 12, Force Logistics Command, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, and the Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic.  In addition to the Navy Cross, he was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, three awards of the Legion of Merit with combat valor device, two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and seven awards of the Air Medal.

[2] The Corsair was developed by the Chance Vought Aircraft Company, designed and operated as a carrier-based aircraft and entered service in the Navy-Marine Corps in 1942. It quickly became one of the most capable fighter-bombers in the US arsenal and, according to Japanese pilots, the most formidable American fighter in World War II.  The Corsair saw service in both World War II and the Korean War.  It was retired from active service in 1953.

[3] Betty was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi G4M twin-engine land-based bomber.

[4] Zeke was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

[5] Jack was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (lightning bolt), a Japanese Navy aircraft

The Laotian Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pathet Lao 001
Pathet Lao (still alive)

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

(Next week: Marine Advisors in Vietnam)

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viet Nam: The Beginning

Our Marine Corps drill instructor marched us into a classroom at Parris Island, South Carolina and ordered us to sit down and remain quiet.  We were used to following orders, so we did what we were told.  We weren’t the only recruit platoon in the room.  When the room was full of buzz-headed Marine hopefuls, a first lieutenant took center stage and introduced himself.  This was a long time ago.  I’m guessing the time frame would have been around May 1963.  I cannot now recall this officer’s name, but I can still see him standing in front of us.  He was short in stature, had short cut blondish colored hair, and spoke with a resonate voice.  Over the period of about one hour, he presented a slide show of events in a far-off place —an emerging conflict, he said.  We needed to know about this place because we might be called upon to serve there.  He told us the name of this place was Viet Nam.  No one in my platoon had ever heard of Vietnam.

IndochinaBut the lieutenant was right: we ended up there.  How did that happen?

Prior to 1954, the expanse of the Southeast Asia Mainland was in the hands of the French —and, at least technically, had been from about the mid-1800s.  They controlled this place for so long, in fact, that it became known as French Indochina, which included the northern two-thirds of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

After Germany’s invasion of France at the beginning of World War II, the French government went into exile.  To replace it, French President Albert Lebrun appointed Marshal Philippe Petain[1] to form a new government as its prime minister.  While Paris remained the nominal capital of France, Petain moved his government to the city of Vichy, hence the name Vichy France.  The Vichy government signed a peace accord with the Axis powers, making France a collaborative ally of Germany, Italy, and Japan.  Under this arrangement, the Vichy government continued to supervise the civil administration of France and its colonial empire, including French Indochina.

In late September 1940, the Empire of Japan joined Germany and Italy through the Tripartite Pact, which provided for mutual support and assistance should any of the signatories find themselves at war with any other nation.  Initially, when Japanese forces invaded Indochina on 22 September, the French colonial government resisted.  It was a war that lasted all of four days.  Then, after recognizing the Vichy French colonial administration as an ally, Japan was “permitted” to occupy portions of present-day north Vietnam[2].  Under this arrangement, the French colonial government continued to exercise authority over civil functions in Tonkin and Annam, but the Japanese soon implemented the golden rule in Indochina, which was that whoever had the guns made the rules.  Japan continued to occupy Indochina as a guest of the French through March 1945 when Japan’s mask of congeniality was removed.  Without so much as a “by your leave,” Japanese soldiers arrested all French colonial officials and seized control of all their functions.

At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, allied leaders made the decision to divide Indochina in half —at the 16th parallel— in order to allow Chiang Kai-shek to receive the Japanese surrender in the North, while British Lord Louis Mountbatten would receive the Japanese surrender in the South.  The allies agreed that France was the “rightful owner” of French Indochina but given the weakened state of France at the time, a British-Indian force would take on the role of helping France re-establish its control over their former colony.

Within three months the Empire of Japan unconditionally surrendered to the Allied powers and pursuant to the previously agreed-to allied protocols, the Chinese Nationalist military moved into Tonkin and northern Annam to accept the surrender of Japanese forces.  Elements of the British army arrived from India to accept the surrender of Japanese operating south of the 16th parallel, which included the southern portion of Annam and all of Cochinchina.  Surprising to the British, a detachment of 150 men from the French Expeditionary Corps[3] arrived in Saigon to “assist” the British in their task —the oddity being that France was not slated to participate in the surrender of Japanese forces[4].

The end of World War II did nothing to settle the struggle for control of French Indochina.  Rather, it was the beginning of a new conflict.  The French intended to restore their former colonial presence in Indochina.  To achieve this, the French rushed legionnaires to Tonkin and Annam before the end of 1945.  In early 1946, France secured an agreement with Chinese Nationalists to relinquish their control of towns and cities north of the 16th parallel.  At this stage, it might have appeared that the French plan of action was coming to fruition but there remained one problem: Vietnamese nationalism.

Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh

The leader of this nationalist movement was a rather nondescript fellow who called himself Ho Chi Minh[5].  Minh was a devout communist who had managed to transform a weak political movement into a powerful guerrilla organization known as the Vit Nam độc lp đồng minh (shortened to Viet Minh).  The man responsible for organizing and training the Viet Minh was a young history teacher from Annam named Vo Nguyen Giap[6].

American officials in 1945 knew of Ho Chi Minh and his organization.  In the latter days of World War II, the American OSS had provided the Viet Minh with military supplies in exchange for their assistance in rescuing downed Allied airmen and helping them avoid Japanese capture.  The Viet Minh, however, performed only limited services to allied forces while reaping the reward of guns and ammunition —which they added to their growing arsenal of French, Japanese, and British armaments.  In 1944-45, it was not in the long-term interests of Ho Chi Minh to risk limited manpower fighting the Japanese.  There was a bigger fish to fry.

Even before the arrival of Chinese Nationalists in late 1945, Viet Minh forces managed to seize control of Hanoi (the capital of Tonkin) and, after doing so, proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV).  Part of what made this possible was the Viet Minh’s elimination by lethal means of all potential political opponents.  Having made their pronouncement, the Viet Minh shifted its focus away from surrendering Japanese and toward contesting the reemergence of French colonialism.

Overwhelmed by Viet Minh activity, French officials agreed to open negotiations with the communists and by early 1946, France agreed to recognize the DRV as a free state within the French Union.  In return, Ho Chi Minh announced his willingness to welcome the French Army to relieve Chinese Nationalist forces.  French forces[7] thus began a reoccupation of Tonkin and northern Annam.  By late summer 1946, the French military controlled every major strategic position from the Chinese border to the Ca Mau Peninsula, the southern tip of Cochinchina.

French and Viet Minh officials ceased being friends in December 1946 after negotiations failed to reach a final agreement about political control of Tonkin and Annam.  Open warfare soon followed with Ho withdrawing the bulk of his military forces into the mountainous regions of China and Laos but leaving guerrilla forces scattered throughout the Red River delta region.  The French sent for reinforcements from Africa and Europe to bolster their forces, while the Viet Minh drew their strength from a growing nationalist sentiment.  By the late 1940s, Ho’s communist movement was in full swing and the First Indochina War spread into Annam and Cochinchina.  In 1949, Ho Chi Minh’s staunchest supporter, Mao Zedong, won the Chinese Civil War, seizing control of mainland China.

In 1950, Communist Korean forces invaded the Republic of South Korea —events that added a new dimension to the struggle for French Indochina.  In the view of American officials, China, North Korea, and Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh threatened the peace and security of the entire Southeast Asia Mainland.  In response, President Harry S. Truman promised US military aid to French Indochina[8].  Ostensibly, Truman made this decision out of concern that Ho Chi Minh would begin cooperating with Mao Zedong in the takeover of the entire Southeast Asia Mainland.  The US congress added $4-billion dollars to Truman’s military assistance budget, all but roughly $300 million was earmarked for French efforts in Vietnam.

Eisenhower 001
President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight Eisenhower wrested the presidency away from Truman in the 1952 elections.  The relationship between Truman and Eisenhower was never cordial, so the transition from one president to another was strained.  Eisenhower believed that Truman had made a mess of US foreign policy.  Eisenhower’s plan was to balance the federal budget, end the war in Korea, and continue Truman’s policy of reliance on nuclear deterrence to keep the peace elsewhere.  When the French approached Eisenhower in early 1953, asking for continued financial assistance in the First Indochina War, they argued that Ho Chi Minh was receiving massive amounts of aid from the Chinese Communists.  Without committing the United States, Eisenhower sent Lieutenant General John O’Daniel to Vietnam to study and assess the French effort.  Eisenhower’s chief of staff, retired General Matthew Ridgeway, dissuaded the president from any notion of military intervention in Vietnam —arguing that the cost of an Indochinese war would be too high.

Eisenhower followed Ridgeway’s advice.  He instead counteroffered the French teams of US military advisors, financial, and material support.  The French wanted more, of course, and to this Eisenhower offered a further conditional agreement: the US might become involved in Indochina, but only with congressional approval and allied (UN) participation.  Eisenhower knew at the time that this would never happen.  After the resounding defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu, Eisenhower refused to intervene.  Instead, Eisenhower spearheaded the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), an alliance with the UK, France, New Zealand, and Australia, in defense of Vietnam against communist aggression.

When China and France agreed to reconvene peace talks at Geneva, Eisenhower agreed to US participation, but only as an observer.  France and China (representing the interests of Vietnamese nationalists) agreed to a partition of Vietnam, which Eisenhower rejected as foolhardy.  Nevertheless, he offered US military assistance to the government of South Vietnam (the Republic of Vietnam (also, RVN)), and supported the Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem[9].  What Eisenhower was hoping for was the introduction of political stability in South Vietnam while at the same time creating a bulwark of nations opposed to communist expansion throughout the rest of the Indochinese peninsula.  One key to this undertaking was a Truman creation: the US Military Assistance Advisory Group (USMAAG).  Eisenhower tasked this organization with organizing, advising, training, and supplying the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

Lieutenant General John M. O’Daniel assumed command of the USMAAG in the spring of 1954.  His bona fides for this appointment were his work in building the South Korean Army during the Korean War.  In Vietnam, he and his 350-man staff would be starting from scratch: beyond French forces and auxiliaries, South Vietnam had no appreciable defense establishment.  Its initial complication was a US agreement with the French to phase out their participation in RVN, which cost the United States both time and money.  A combined Franco-American training command was activated in February 1955.  The kicker to this agreement was a provision that the USMAAG would have to shape the ARVN into a cohesive defense force prior to the complete withdrawal of French forces.

Croizat VJ 001
LtCol V. J. Croizat USMC

The first Marine Corps officer tasked with advisory/assistance on the MAAG staff was Lieutenant Colonel Victor J. Croizat[10], who was fluent in French and had earned a laudable reputation while attending the French war college in 1949.  His first assignment was as head of the commission on refugees, but he later headed the USMAAG detachment at Haiphong.  Upon his return to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Croizat was tasked to create a small Vietnamese Marine Corps (VMC), which became necessary after the birth of the Vietnamese Navy.  To accomplish this new military organization, it was also necessary to transfer existing ARVN units of various types to the new VMC.  These were mostly small organizations with practical experience operating along Vietnam’s coastal plain and river estuaries.  The VMC would experience “growing pains” over the next several years.

South Vietnamese political stability appeared to be on the horizon in 1958, but this was challenged by an ever-increasing insurgency directed behind the scenes by North Vietnamese officials and a large number of Viet Minh operatives who had remained in South Vietnam after the Geneva Cease Fire.  President Diem focused on neutralizing this threat through pacification operations in communist areas; he achieved only mixed results, however —made worse when he abruptly discontinued these operations before they had a chance to achieve the desired effect.  Then, to make matters worse, President Diem sought to eliminate Viet Minh sympathizers from positions of leadership at the local level, and in that process, extend his own control over rural populations.  His scheme was to replace locally elected officials with government-appointed village chiefs.

Diem’s decision made one wonder if he was really a Vietnamese since this decision was counter to every cultural tradition over the previous two-thousand years.  And, it made Diem very unpopular among his people.  His popularity suffered further after he implemented an anti-communist denunciation campaign, intending to discredit former associates of the Viet Minh but the campaign ended up being little more than a witch hunt.  It was thus that President Diem alienated many Vietnamese who might otherwise have supported his central regime.  Perhaps even worse, Diem’s programs sent Viet Minh operatives underground.  From beneath the shadows, the communists gradually increased their support from rural populations who saw the Diem government as a threat to time-honored traditions, not to mention to their personal safety.  By the late 1950s, the Viet Minh were labeled as Vit Cng (Vietnamese Communists); this organization resurrected a program used earlier in Tonkin; the assassination of government officials, village chiefs, rural police officers, district officials, schoolteachers, and pro-western citizens.

South Vietnam’s armed forces were a puzzle.  President Diem didn’t trust his senior officers, with good reason.  Many of his senior officers were self-serving and corrupt.  Most were only marginally competent to command large numbers of men.  Many were unwilling to put their own lives in jeopardy for their country.  Some were on the payroll of the Việt Cộng.  Still, Diem needed his army to counter any conventional attack across the demilitarized zone (DMZ), a fear that prevented him from employing his troops against a growing Việt Cộng (VC) rural insurgency. Despite the fact that 700 officials were murdered by the VC between July 1957 and July 1958, Diem continued to believe that the VC problem was one for local police and village defense forces.

John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States in 1960.  His foreign policy was dominated by American confrontations with the Soviet Union and numerous proxy challenges in the early stages of the Cold War.  As a senator, Kennedy advocated greater US involvement in Vietnam, but he was cautioned by Eisenhower to walk carefully through that minefield.  In 1961, Kennedy changed US policy from supporting a free Laos to supporting a “neutral” Laos.  Vietnam, he argued, was America’s tripwire for communism’s spread through Southeast Asia, not Laos.  In May 1961, Kennedy sent Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to assure President Diem that the US stood ready to aid him in funding and organizing a fighting force capable of resisting communist aggression.  Under Kennedy, the United States became South Vietnam’s rich uncle.  Throughout his short presidency, Kenney continued policies that provided political, economic, and military support to the Diem regime.

In late 1961, the VC became a dominant presence in South Vietnam, even to the extent of seizing the provincial capital of Phuoc Vinh, 30 miles northeast of Saigon.  Kennedy responded by increasing the numbers of US military advisors to around 11,000 men[11], but he remained reluctant to commit regular combat troops[12].  Still, the progressive erosion of government strength and steady growth of the VC prompted Kennedy to dispatch, as a special envoy, retired General Maxwell D. Taylor to Vietnam to assess the political situation in Vietnam[13].  One of Taylor’s recommendation was to add military helicopters to the arsenal of US military advisors.  The arrival of American helicopters signaled the beginning of a more dynamic phase of US involvement in South Vietnam.

The decision to employ Marine Corps aviation units to Vietnam’s combat zones originated in the immediate aftermath of General Maxwell’s report to President Kennedy.  In January 1962, the JCS directed the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, to prepare for increased operations in South Vietnam, specifically, helicopter units “should it become necessary” to augment US Army aviation units already operating in-country[14].  CINCPAC not only agreed with the JCS on aviation asset deployments, but he also recommended an additional Army aviation company, an aviation support unit, and a field medical group.  Army aviation units assigned to Fort Ord were notified of their impending deployment.  General Timmes[15], at the time Chief of the MAAG, made a counter-proposal: why not augment Army aviation with Marine Corps helicopter units?  General Timmes wanted nine (9) Marine helicopters and their crews.

USMC H-34 DWhat General Timmes eventually received was a Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM-362) (24-H34D aircraft), Reinforced by three single-engine OE-1 observation aircraft, one R4D transport craft, an additional 50 maintenance personnel, a sub-unit of Marine Air Base Squadron (MABS-16), (including navy medical/dental/chaplain support), a Tactical Airfield Fuel Dispensing System (TAFDS), and a Marine Airfield Traffic Control Unit (MATCI).  Designated as (code word) SHUFLY, the Marines were assigned to the airstrip at Soc Trang, South Vietnam.

Lieutenant Colonel Archie Clapp, Commanding Officer, HMM-362, ordered the commencement of combat operations on Easter Sunday, 22 April 1962 —one week after the unit’s arrival in Vietnam.  Its first mission was to support/assist the US Army’s 57th Helicopter Company in OPERATION LOCKJAW.  American aviation assets would support the ARVN 7th Infantry Division (headquartered at My Tho), 53 miles northeast of Soc Trang.  Unlike Army aircraft, the Marine helicopters were unarmed; the only weapons aboard Marine aircraft were individual sidearms and two M3A1 submachine guns[16].  On the same day, the Marines were fragged to extract a US Army advisor from Vinh Long.  HMM-362 airlifted a VMC company to a threatened government outpost at Ca Mau the next day; it’s 57-man ARVN garrison was extracted on the same day.

HMM 362 PatchHMM-362 suffered its first combat damage on 24 April.  Sixteen birds supported the 21st ARVN Division in OPERATION NIGHTINGALE, conducted near Can Tho.  After delivering 591 ARVN troops into eight landing zones, a vicious small-arms fight broke out and one of the helicopters was forced down with a ruptured oil line.  Clapp ordered in a maintenance team to repair the aircraft; a platoon of ARVN troops provided security while the repairs were underway[17].  The bird was airborne again within two hours.  In this operation, ARVN inflicted 70 KIA on VC forces.

Given their experiences in the first few weeks of the deployment, the Marines began experimenting with new tactics.  These were incorporated into their “lessons learned,” important experiences later shared with other Marine Corps helicopter pilots.  HMM-362’s most significant operation came on 9 May.  Twenty-three helicopters and two OE-1s launched from Ca Mau for an assault on Cai Ngai, a VC controlled village 21 miles south.  The squadron began landing at six sites.  Only five minutes earlier, Vietnamese air force (VNAF) fighter bombers had bombed suspected VC positions.  Firing broke out even before the ARVN troops could disembark.  Eight Marine helicopters were hit; one of these made a hard landing a few miles away but was repaired and returned to Soc Trang.  So, what did the Marines learn?  Airstrikes conducted just prior to a helicopter landing had the effect of disclosing the location of landing zones to the enemy.  In this instance, the VC had been able to reach the landing zone between the VNAF bombing and the Marine landings.  In future operations, HMM-362 dispensed with any help from the Vietnamese Air Force.

(Next week: The Marines Head North).

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

[1] Henri Philippe Pétain served with distinction in World War I but became a collaborator with Nazi Germany 1940-44.  Following World War II, Pétain was convicted of treason and sentenced to death.  In view of his previous service to France, however, and his age, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison. Pétain died in 1951 of natural causes.  At the time of his death, Pétain was 95 years old.

[2] Japan’s purpose of invading Indochina was to prevent the importation of war materials into Yunnan, China through Haiphong and Hanoi.

[3] The French Far East Expeditionary Corps (CEFEO) was a colonial expeditionary force of the French Union Army formed in Indochina in 1945 in the latter days of World War II.  The Corps was largely manned by voluntary light infantry from colonial or territorial forces —mostly from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Madagascar.  The French Foreign Legion, in contrast, was made up of mainly European volunteers.  In 1953, these were augmented by French UN volunteers returning from service in the Korean War.

[4] A French ploy to reassert itself in Indochina.  According to long-serving US Ambassador W. Averell Harriman, the seeds of US policy toward Indochina in 1945 was a secret agreement between Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin that “it would be best if the French did not return there.”  Moreover, Stalin was unhappy that the Truman stood by while France used money from the Marshall Plan to support its military operations in Vietnam.

[5] Ho Chi Minh was known by several other names, as well.

[6] An important note about the Vietnamese naming convention.  Personal names are usually three syllables long (but sometimes two or four syllables).  The first syllable is the family name.  Because certain family names are common, such as Nguyen, they cannot be used to distinguish individuals.  Accordingly, an individual named Ngo Dinh Diem is always referred to as Diem.  Two syllable names, however, such as Le Duan, are never shortened.  This person is always referred to as Le Duan.  A name containing four syllables, such as Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, is always referred to as Minh Khai.  The second syllable in four-syllable conventions and the middle syllable in three-syllable conventions often reveals the individual’s sex.  The name Nguyen Van Giap is male, while Nguyen Thi Nam is female.  The surname of children always follows the father and women do not take their husband’s names upon marriage.

[7] The numbers of French Foreign Legionnaires swelled due to the incorporation of World War II veterans unable to find employment in post-war France.

[8] It was never the intent of former president Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow the French to reclaim their colonial empire.  Truman was a different sort of fellow who, as previously noted, decided to bankroll the French as a stopgap to the expansion of communism on the Southeast Asia Mainland.  This might have proved a useful strategy had it involved anyone in the world other than the French.

[9] Diem was a major opponent of Ho Chi Minh.  Formerly an aide to Emperor Bao Dai, American diplomats seriously misread Diem.  He was a Catholic, but that was as far as he would ever get to having a “western” mind.  Diem and Ho Chi Minh shared the same passion: to unify Vietnam —albeit under their own ruthless style of leadership.

[10] Born on 27 February 1919, the son of Italian-French parents, Croizat moved with his family to the United States in 1940.  He was commissioned in the U. S. Marine Corps after graduating from Syracuse University and was assigned to the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion at New River, North Carolina in December 1941.  During the Pacific War, he participated in USMC operations at Guadalcanal.  Later, as a battalion commander, he led Marines in the assault of Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima.  His French language ability resulted in his assignment as an observer, advisor, and later, as a diplomat.  Croizat authored the book, “Across the Reef: The Amphibious Tracked Vehicle at War,” Croizat passed away on 8 May 2010 at the age of 91.

[11] In 1962, US Marine Corps activities in Vietnam dramatically increased.  From only three Marine advisors in January 1962, and a standard complement of Embassy Marines, the end of the year found Marines functioning at the MAAG, MACV, Army communications facilities in the central highlands, and at every location where Vietnamese Marine Corps units were assigned.

[12] It wasn’t until after Kennedy’s assassination, under President Lyndon Johnson that the United States committed combat troops to Vietnam.

[13] Vietnamese officials were perplexed by so many special envoys “assessing” the situation, particularly since these men knew nothing about Vietnam, its culture, or its history.  Yet, owing to the massive amount of money flowing into Vietnam from the United States, they managed to suffer through the indignity.

[14] There were three US Army aviation companies operating in South Vietnam at that time.

[15] Major General Charles J. Timmes served first as deputy chief, USMAAG and then later as Chief, USMAAG (1961-64).  After his retirement, Timmes joined the CIA and was returned to the RVN to serve alongside Frank Snepp as a liaison officer with various elements of ARVN forces.  Snepp is the former chief analyst of North Vietnamese strategy for the CIA in Saigon during the war.  For five out of eight years, Snepp worked as an interrogator, agent debriefer, an analyst at the US Embassy in Saigon.  His book “Decent Interval” reveals the general ineptitude of the CIA and foreign service in Vietnam.  He is currently a news producer at a local TV station in Southern California.

[16] The Marine Corps replaced the M3A1 “grease gun” with AR-15 rifles during the summer, but the Marines of HMM-362 quickly discarded these in favor of M-14 (7.62mm) rifles.

[17] Given the nature of Vietnamese army units at the time, the Marines worked furiously to repair the aircraft and “get the hell out of Dodge.”

From King to Joker

How administration policies moved America from greatness to mediocrity

The Kiss VJ DayThe United States was a very troubled land following World War II … only most people didn’t realize it.   The American people had grown tired of the tragedies of war and all of its inconveniences on the home front.  Over a million Americans became casualties during the war: 292,000 killed in action, 113,842 non-combat related deaths, 670,846 wounded in action, and 30,314 missing in action.  Folks back home wanted their survivors back, their husbands, sons, daughters, and sweethearts, so that they could return to a normal life.  What they did not know, and could not know, was that there would never again be “a normal life” following World War II.

Part of this, of course, was the war itself.  People who come through war —any war— are never quite the same as before they experienced it.  Part of it, too, was that American society was moving away from a few of its traditional defects; change is never easy.  There were civil rights issues, voting rights issues, human dignity issues … problems that were created and nurtured by the Democratic Party over the previous 80 years.  Americans did address these issues, fought back against the innate racism of the Democratic Party and in time, for the most part, many of these problems were solved —to a point.

With the war drawing to a close in May 1945, Democrat President Harry S. Truman ordered a general demobilization of the armed forces after the defeat of Nazi Germany, even while the war continued in the Pacific.  In May, before Japan’s surrender, the United States had more than twelve million men and women serving in uniform; nearly eight million of these were serving outside the United States.  Truman’s plan for general demobilization was code-named Operation Magic Carpet, supervised by the War Shipping Administration.  It was a massive undertaking that demanded hundreds of liberty ships, victory ships, and nearly 400 ships of the US Navy to bring the troops back home.

Post-war demobilization of the armed forces was always anticipated, of course.  But, as we shall see, the Truman administration took the concept of a peace-time America a few extraordinary steps beyond demobilization and why this is important is because none of Truman’s decisions were beneficial to the long-term interests of the United States, or its long-suffering population.  In fact, the incompetence of the Truman administration was so pervasive that it is nearly impossible to believe it.  Make no mistake, however, Truman and his associates guaranteed to the American people great suffering and angst.

At the conclusion of World War II, after the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan, occupation forces were needed throughout Asia to disarm and help repatriate remnants of the Japanese military.  The steps that would be necessary for the immediate post-war period were negotiated and agreed to by the aligned nations long before the end of the war.  Each allied nation accepted responsibility for disarmament and political stabilization in Europe and on the Asian mainland.  Korea, however, presented a unique set of problems —and unknown to most Americans at the time, it was a harbinger of the Cold War.

Before World War II, Korea was a unified nation, albeit one controlled by the Empire of Japan.  In negotiating the fate of post-war Korea, the allied powers (principally the United States and the Soviet Union) failed to consult anyone of Korean descent.  The Soviet Union did not want the United States in control of an area abutting its Pacific border and the United States was not inclined to relinquish the Korean Peninsula to the Soviet Union.

Korea Map 001While the Soviet Union (then one of the allied powers) (an ally of the United States in name only) agreed to liberate the northern area of the Korean Peninsula and accept the surrender of Japanese forces there, the United States assumed responsibility for the southern region.  Korea was thus divided into two separate occupation zones at the 38th parallel.  Ostensibly, the ultimate objective was for the Soviet Union and the United States to help stabilize the Korean Peninsula, and then let the Korean people sort their politics out for themselves.  The problem was that every effort to create a middle ground whereby unification might occur peacefully was thwarted by both the US and USSR.

Thus, two new sovereign states were created out of post-war geopolitical tensions.  In the north, the Soviet Union created a communist state under the leadership of Kim-Il-sung and in the south, the United States created a capitalist state eventually led by Syngman Rhee).  Both Kim-Il-sung and Syngman Rhee claimed political legitimacy over the entire peninsula, neither man ever accepted the 38th parallel as a permanent border, and neither of these men (or their sponsors) would yield to the other.

In South Korea, Truman directed the establishment of the United States Army Military Government in Korea (acronym: USAMGIK), the official ruling body of South Korea from 8 September 1945 until 15 August 1948.  At the head of USAMGIK was Lieutenant General John R. Hodge[1], U. S. Army, while concurrently commanding the United States’ XXIV Corps.  As an organization, USAMGIK was completely out of its depth in addressing the challenges of administering South Korea.  The problems were several and serious:

  • USAMGIK had no one on staff who could speak the Korean language, no one with an understanding of, or appreciation for Korean culture, its history, or its politics. Consequently, many of the policies it enacted had a destabilizing effect throughout South Korea.  To make things worse, waves of refugees from North Korea swamped USAMGIK and caused turmoil throughout Korean society.
  • The consequences of Japanese occupation remained throughout the occupation zone; popular discontent stemmed from the military government’s support of continued Japanese colonial government. Once the colonial apparatus was dismantled, the military government continued to retain Japanese officials as their advisors.
  • On the advice of these Japanese advisors, the military government ignored, censored, or forcibly disbanded the functional (and popular) People’s Republic of Korea. This action discharged the popular leader, Yeo Un-hyeong, who subsequently established the Working People’s Party, and it further complicated matters by refusing to recognize the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea (in exile), led by Kim Ku, who was insulted when he was required to re-enter his own country as a private citizen.

In the beginning, the USAMGIK was tolerant of leftist politics, including the Korean Communist Party —apparently attempting to seek a balance between hard-left and hard-right political groups.  Such liberality created an adverse relationship with the powerful South Korean leader Syngman Rhee.  In any case, the effort to reconcile political differences in South Korea didn’t last and the ban on popular political expressions sent dissenting groups underground.  Following South Korea’s constitutional assembly and presidential elections in May and July 1948, the Republic of South Korea was officially announced on 15 August 1948.  US military occupation forces were withdrawn in 1949.

In 1948, a large-scale North Korean-backed insurgency erupted in South Korea[2].  The unrecognized border between the two countries was part of the problem, but Kim-Il-sung was an experienced guerilla fighter; one who helped lead Korea’s resistance to Japanese colonialism.  Kim Il-sung, more than most, knew how to agitate the masses.  The communist insurgency resulted in thousands of deaths on both sides.  Post-1945, the armed forces of the Republic of Korea (ROK) were almost exclusively armed and trained to address the Communist insurgency.  They were not trained or equipped to deal with conventional war.  Advising the ROK military was a force of about 100 US Army advisors.

Acheson 001
Dean Acheson

The communist insurgency did have the attention of senior military leaders in the United States, but they were preoccupied with the Truman administration’s gutting of the US Armed Forces.  In January 1949, recently elected President Truman appointed Dean Acheson as the 51st Secretary of State.  Acheson had been ensconced at the State Department since 1941 as an under-Secretary.  In 1947, Truman awarded Acheson the Medal of Merit for his work in implementing the Marshal Plan, which was part of Truman’s overall Communist containment policy.  In the summer of 1949, after Mao Zedong’s victory against the Chinese Nationalists (and before the presidential elections), the American people (mostly Republican politicians) demanded to know how it was possible, after spending billions of dollars in aid to the Nationalist Chinese, that the United States lost China to the Communist dictator, Mao-Zedong.

To answer this question, Secretary Acheson directed area experts to produce a study of recent Sino-American relations.  Known conventionally as the China White Paper, Acheson used it to dismiss claims that Truman’s incompetence provided aid and comfort to the Maoists during the Chinese Civil War.  The paper argued that any attempt by the United States to interfere in the civil war would have been doomed to failure.  This, of course, was probably true[3].  It did not, however, serve American interests for the Truman administration to bury its collective head in the sand and pretend that all was well in the world.  It was not.

On 12 January 1950, Acheson addressed the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. During his discussions about the all-important US Defense Perimeter, Acheson failed to include the Korean Peninsula or Formosa within the United States’ protective umbrella.  Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and North Korean leader Kim-Il-Sung interpreted what Acheson had not said as a green light for military aggression on the Korean Peninsula.

Johnson 001
Louis A. Johnson

In March 1949, President Truman nominated Louis A. Johnson to serve as the second Secretary of Defense.  Johnson shared Truman’s commitment to drastically reduce US expenditures on national defense in favor of socialist programs.  Truman viewed defense spending as an interference with his domestic agenda and without regard to the nation’s ability to respond to foreign emergencies.  Truman made the erroneous assumption that America’s monopoly on nuclear weapons would be a sufficient deterrence against Communist aggression.  Secretary Johnson’s unwillingness to budget for conventional forces-in-readiness caused considerable dissension among the nation’s military leaders.

To ensure congressional approval of Johnson’s proposed DoD budget request, both President Truman and Johnson demanded public acceptance, if not outright support, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other leaders of military departments when making public statements or testifying before Congress.  The intimidation worked, apparently, because General Omar Bradley changed his tune once he was nominated to become Chairman of the JCS.  In 1948 he moaned, “The Army of 1948 could not fight its way out of a paper bag.”  In the next year, both he and General Collins testified before Congress that Truman cuts made the services more effective.

In a meeting with the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Richard L. Conolly, Johnson said, “Admiral, the Navy is on its way out.  There is no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps.  General Bradley tells me amphibious operations are a thing of the past.  We’ll never have any more amphibious operations.  That does away with the Marine Corps.  And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.”

Truman had no love for the US Marine Corps; he did not think the nation needed a Corps of Marines when it had an army capable of doing the same things.  He never accepted the fact that the Marine Corps, as a combat force, provided unique strategic and tactical strengths to the Naval establishment and he, in fact, undertook efforts to disband the Marine Corps prior to the National Security Act of 1947, which protected the Marine Corps from disbandment.  What the law did not allow Truman to do, he attempted to accomplish through insufficient funding —but this was something the Marine Corps shared with all other services.  As a result of Truman’s Department of Defense (DoD) budget cuts, the United States had no combat-effective units in 1950.

On 31 December 1945, the Eighth US Army assumed occupation duties in Japan, replacing the Sixth US Army.  Between then and June 1950, the Eighth Army was reduced in both manpower and material.  Most of the enlisted men were basically trained soldiers with no combat experience.  Among the enlisted men, life in Japan was good.  Owing to the fact that there was no money for adequate resupply, training ammunition, fuel, or replacement parts for vehicles, radios, or aircraft, there was plenty of time for imbibing, chasing kimonos, gambling, and black marketeering.  Equally inexperienced junior officers, mostly from wealthy families padding their resumes for post-military service, stayed out of the way and allowed the senior NCOs to run the show.  Mid-grade officers were experienced enough to know that the senior officers didn’t want to hear about problems involving troop efficiency, unit morale, or disciplinary problems.  The more astute majors and colonels learned how to lose games of golf to their seniors, and the generals enchanted their wives by throwing wonderfully attended soirees for visiting dignitaries.

In the early morning of 25 June 1950, the North Korean People’s Army invaded the Republic of South Korea.  It was a lightning strike.  The only US military presence in the ROK was the US Military Advisory Group (KMAG) under Brigadier General William L. Roberts, U. S. Army, commanding 100 military advisors.  Wisely, officers not killed or taken as prisoners of war made a rapid withdrawal southward toward Pusan.

Acting on Dean Acheson’s advice, President Truman ordered General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) to reinforce the South Korean military, transfer materiel to the South Korean military, and provide air cover for the evacuation of US nationals.  Truman also ordered the 7th US Fleet to protect the Republic of China (ROC) (Taiwan).

On 3 July, Lieutenant General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, conferred with General Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo, Japan.  At the end of this meeting, MacArthur dispatched this message to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Request immediate assignment marine regimental combat team and supporting air group for duty this command.  Macarthur.”

Before the JCS made their decision on General MacArthur’s request, MacArthur had to send five additional dispatches.  The Korean War was a week old and still, the Marine Corps awaited orders.  But while waiting for Truman to decide whether or not there was a role for the Marine Corps, the Marines had begun the process of creating a regimental combat team.  On 3 July 1950, however, the 1st Marine Division, closest to the action on the Korean Peninsula, was a paper division.  There was only one infantry regiment (as opposed to three): the 5th Marines.  Commanding the regiment was Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murry (Colonel Select).  Rather than three infantry battalions, Murry had only two.  Each battalion had two rifle companies (rather than three).  Each company had two rifle platoons, instead of three.  Given the status of Murry’s regiment, it would require a herculean task to put together a regimental combat team.

Smith C B 001
Charles B. Smith

In Korea, the Battle of Osan was the first significant engagement of US forces in the Korean War.  Tasked to reinforce the South Korean Army, Major General William F. Dean, commanding the 24th US Infantry Division in Japan, assigned the 21st Infantry Regiment as his lead element.  Its first battalion (1/21) was the regiment’s only “combat-ready” battalion, commanded by the experienced Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Smith, who had earlier participated in the Battle of Guadalcanal.  Designated Task Force Smith, 1/21 moved quickly to block advancing NKPA forces.  Smith’s orders were to hold off the NKPA until the rest of the division could be moved to Korea by sea —Major General Dean thought it would take three days.

Smith had a little over 500 men under his command, barely 3 rifle companies and a battery of field artillery.  Most of these men were teenagers with no combat experience and only eight weeks of basic training.  Each of Smith’s rifleman was limited to 120 rounds of ammunition and two days of field rations.  Task Force Smith arrived in Korea on 1 July 1950.  The unit moved by rail and truck northward toward Suwon, about 25 miles south of Seoul.

At the Battle of Osan on 5 July 1950, Task Force Smith was only able to delay the advancing KPA for seven hours.  American casualties were 60 killed, 21 wounded, 82 captured, and six artillery pieces destroyed.  Smith did the best he could with what he had at his disposal —which was little more than young boys carrying rifles.  His soldiers ran out of ammunition.  None of his field radios were in working order.  The size of his task force was insufficient for the mission assigned to him.  When faced with retreat or capture, Smith ordered the withdrawal of his companies in leap-frog fashion.  The men of the 2nd platoon, Company B never received Smith’s order to withdraw.  When the platoon commander finally discovered that he was completely alone, it was already too late to withdraw his men in an orderly manner.  The wounded were left behind[4], along with much of the platoon’s equipment (including automatic weapons).  According to the later testimony of a North Korean army officer, the Americans were too frightened to fight.

Smith’s withdrawal soon devolved into confused flight.  In total, Task Force Smith imposed around 20 enemies KIA with 130 wounded.  Task Force Smith revealed the effects of Truman’s national defense policies.  The troops were completely unprepared for combat and their inoperable or barely functioning equipment was insufficient to their mission.  Following the defeat of Task Force Smith, the 24th Infantry Division’s 34th regiment was likewise defeated at Pyontaek.  Over the subsequent 30 days, the NKPA pushed the Eighth Army all the way south to Pusan and the United States Army gave up its most precious resource —the American rifleman— to enemy fires … all because President Truman thought that socialist programs were more important than the combat readiness of its military services.

Equally disastrous for the United States was the long-term implications of the Truman administration’s thinking.  There is no such thing as “limited war,” at least, not among those who must confront a determined enemy.  Police action is something that civilian police agencies do … winning wars is what the US military establishment is supposed to do … but when national policy dictates “holding actions,” or the acceptance of stalemate, then America’s excellent military can do no more than win battles, give up casualties, and accept the stench of strategic losses created by Washington politicians.

But there is an even worse outcome, which is where I think we are today.  It is that in serving under self-absorbed, morally bankrupt, and thoroughly corrupt politicians, career military officers relinquish their warrior ethos.  They learn how to accept casualties as simply being the cost of their career advancement, they learn how to lose graciously, and they learn that by getting along with Washington and corporate insiders, lucrative positions await them after military retirement.

The stench of this is enough to make a good American retch.

These lessons began in Korea.  The mindset took hold during the Vietnam War.  Their effects are easily observed in the more recent efforts of Generals Petraeus and McCrystal, who focused on counterinsurgency strategies (winning hearts and minds) rather than locating a ruthless enemy and destroying him.  Recent history demonstrates that there is little that counterinsurgency did to benefit the long-term interests of the United States in the Middle East.

Our current policy objectives accomplish only this: making America the laughingstock of a dangerous and determined enemy.  Neither have the efforts of American diplomats benefited our national interests, but then, this has been true for well over 150 years.

The American people are not consulted about the direction of their country but they must live with the results of inept government policy.  The American people have but one responsibility, and that is to vote intelligently and responsibly according to their conscience.  Nor is the imposition of this responsibility overpowering.  We only vote once every two years in general elections.

Yet, how the people vote does matter.  Ilhan Omar, Hank Johnson, Erick Swalwell, Ted Lieu all matter.  Who the people choose as their President matters: Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.  Presidents matter because they appoint cabinet officials (Dean Acheson, Robert McNamara Cyrus Vance, Edmund Muskie, Warren Christopher, Madeline Albright, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry), federal judges (John Roberts, Ruth Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan), and other bureaucrats whose primary allegiance is to themselves rather than to the poor dumb suckers across America who pay their salaries.

Truman laid the foundation for our national malaise, and most presidents between then and now have contributed to our present-day quagmire.  America is in trouble and has been for far too long.  It occurs to me that if the American people are tired of burying their loved ones at Arlington National Cemetery, then they need to do a better job choosing their national leaders.

The United States was once, not long ago, a king on the world’s stage; today, America is a joker —a useful idiot to people who share the world stage but whose diplomats and policy makers are much smarter than anyone on our side of the ocean.

Success has many fathers—Failure is an orphan.

Sources:

  1. Cumings, B. The Origins of the Korean War, Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.
  2. Eckert, C.J. and Ki-Baik Lee (et.al.) Korea: Old and New, a History.  The Korea Institute, Harvard University Press, 1990.
  3. Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History.  Viking Press, 1983
  4. Millett, A. R. The War for Korea, 1945-1950: A House Burning.  Topeka: University of Kansas Press, 2005
  5. Robinson, M. Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey: A short history.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007

Endnotes:

[1] John Reed Hodge (1823-1963) attended Southern Illinois Teachers College and the University of Illinois and received his appointment in the U. S. Army through the ROTC program.  He served in World War I and World War II, retiring as a lieutenant general following his assignment as Chief of Army Field Services in 1953.

[2] The exact-same strategies used by Ho Chi Minh in 1946.  The similarities are no coincidence since the USSR backed Ho Chi Minh at the same time they backed Kim Il-sung.  Part of this strategy was to overwhelm South Korea and South Vietnam by streaming thousands of “refugees” into the struggling countries and embedding within these populations hundreds of Communist troublemakers.  The amazing part of this is that no one in the Truman administration was able (or could be bothered) to put any of the pieces together.  In both events (Korea/Vietnam), Americans lost their lives in a losing proposition.  The architect (through malfeasance) of both disasters was the Truman administration.

[3] The United States’ long-time ally in China was Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s useful idiots and a beneficiary of Roosevelt’s lend-lease arrangement.  Roosevelt also provided Mao Zedong with arms and munitions so that he too could confront Japanese Imperial forces in China.  Chiang was only marginally successful in waging war against invading Japanese, Mao didn’t even try.  He kept Roosevelt’s gifts for use later on against Chiang.  In any case, with American made arms and munitions, Chiang repressed the Chinese people, driving many of them squarely into the Communist camp. The first question to ask might have been whether or not Chiang or Mao deserved any support from the United States, and the second might have addressed the kind of ally Chiang would have made had he won the civil war.  In any case, no one in America was smart enough to deal effectively with unfolding events in Asia.

[4] These wounded soldiers were later found shot to death in their litters.

Operation Detachment – The Battle for Iwo Jima

Note: So much has been written about the Battle of Iwo Jima, by individuals far more qualified than myself, some of whom participated in it, all of whom conducted extensive research on this iconic battle, that I have avoided the effort for years.  But the Battle of Iwo Jima has called out to me to write something in tribute to the men who served there.  What follows is my unworthy summary an event that traumatized its survivors for the balance of their lives.    

Iwo Jima 001American successes in the Pacific campaign forced the Japanese war machine to reevaluate their situation.  By the end of the Marshal Islands campaign, senior Japanese naval and army officers realized the truth of what Admiral Yamamoto had predicted three years earlier.  Japan had awoken a sleeping giant.

It was always Japan’s intention to create an inner perimeter defense of its home islands.  It was a defensive position that extended northward from the Carolines to the Marianas and the Palau Islands and led to the Philippines.  In March 1944, General Hideyoshi Obata, commanding the 31st Japanese Army (21,000 infantry supported by field and naval artillery, anti-aircraft batteries, and 23 tanks) [1], was ordered to garrison the inner defensive area.

The commander of the garrison on Chichi Jima [2] was placed in overall command of Army and Navy units in the Volcano Islands [3].  Once US and allied aircraft began regularly attacking the Japanese home islands, Iwo Jima became an early warning station that radioed reports of incoming bombers, allowing the Japanese to anticipate the attack and organize an anti-aircraft defense.

Defending the Volcano Islands in 1944 was problematic.  The Japanese Navy had already been neutered by American and allied naval forces and was in no position to challenge an assault on the islands.  Additionally, Japanese aircraft losses by 1944 had been so significant that Japanese industries could not replace them.  Third, Japanese aircraft based on the home islands did not have the range needed to help defend the Volcano Islands, and last, there was a substantial shortage of properly trained or experienced pilots (and other aircrew) to fly what war planes the Japanese did have remaining in their arsenal.  Accordingly, the only purpose of Japan’s defense of Iwo Jima was to delay the Americans for a sufficient time to bolster its ground-defense of the home islands.

Allied commanders determined that Iwo Jima was strategically important.  With three existing landing strips, Iwo Jima would provide an alternate landing site for crippled allied bombers returning from missions over the Japanese home islands.  Typically, American intelligence sources were certain that Iwo Jima would fall to allied forces within a week of an amphibious assault.  Military planners began preparations for the assault, assigning it the code name OPERATION DETACHMENT.  At the beginning of operational planning, given what the allied forces had learned from earlier Pacific battles, particularly at Saipan, it is likely that allied planners expected a Japanese defense in depth [4] —but it is unlikely that they anticipated how exhaustively extensive the Japanese defenses would be.

In June 1944, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi [5] assumed command of the defenses at Iwo Jima.  He knew from the beginning that his force could not withstand a full allied assault, so he dedicated his command to inflicting as many casualties on the landing force as possible, hoping that massive casualties would convince US, Australian, and British forces to reconsider any thought of invading the Japanese home islands.

Kuribayashi designed a defensive plan that employed static and heavy weapons within mutually supporting defensive positions.  With insufficient time to link tunnels from Mount Suribachi to the main force position, he created a semi-independent defense force at Suribachi, but retained his primary defense zone in the northern area of the island.  His system of tunnels allowed him to rapidly reinforce or replace neutralized defensive positions.  His network of bunkers and pillboxes was extensive and so thoroughly supplied with food and water that the Japanese could hold out for three months.  Ammunition stores, however, were inadequate; Kuribayashi’s troops only had 60% of the ammo they would need to confront one combat division.  The tunnel network extended to around eleven miles, interspersed with command bunkers extending 75 feet underground.  There were hundreds of hidden artillery and mortar positions; land mines were laid through likely avenues of approach, and these were interspersed with sniper and concealed machine gun positions.

Based on allied intelligence estimates, Major General Harry Schmidt, USMC, commanding the Fifth Amphibious Corps, who served as commander of the Marine landing forces, requested a ten day heavy bombardment of Iwo Jima.  The commander, Amphibious Assault Group (Task Force 52), Rear Admiral William Blandy, USN, did not believe that such a bombardment would allow him sufficient time to replenish task force ammunition stores before the landing [6].  On this basis, he denied Schmidt’s request.  General Schmidt then requested nine days of pre-landing bombardment.  Blandy refused this request, as well.  It is difficult today to find fault with Blandy’s decision; he was the officer responsible for the safety and viability of his amphibious ready group —but at the time, senior Marine officers were not pleased with the navy’s decision [7].

Each of Blandy’s assault ships were assigned a sector of supporting fire.  Each warship fired for approximately six hours before shutting down the guns for cooling [8].  Poor weather conditions, which began three days before the scheduled landing, led to “uncertain results” of daily bombardments, but on the second day the USS Pensacola was hit six times and the USS Leutze was hit by Japanese shore battery fire [9]; these two incidents revealed that allied bombardments were ineffective.  On D-day minus one, weather conditions again hampered allied bombardment, limiting the navy to 13 hours of pre-assault gun fire.  Overall, navy’s pre-landing bombardment did not accomplish its mission.

The landing force consisted of the Fifth Amphibious Corps, which included 5th Marine Division (5thMarDiv) regiments (13th  (artillery) 26th, 27th, 28th Marines), 4th Marine Division (4thMarDiv) regiments (14th (artillery), 23rd, 24th, 25th Marines), the US 147th Infantry Regiment, and serving in reserve, the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMardDiv) regiments (12th (artillery), 3rd, 9th, 21st Marines).

D-day was 19 February 1945.  The dawn was bright and clear.  The first wave of the landing force went ashore at 08:59.  They found nothing even remotely similar to the intelligence estimates provided by the allied war planners.  The beaches weren’t “excellent.”  There would be no “easy push” inland.  The Marines faced a 15-foot high slope of soft black volcanic ash.  There was no “sure footing,” and the Marines were unable to construct fighting (fox) holes.  The Japanese waited in silence as Marines swarmed ashore.  Senior navy officers observed the absence of enemy activity as a sure sign that the island was lightly defended.  By their shear numbers, Marines began moving toward Iwo Jima beach and inched their way inland.  The Japanese waited patiently until the Marines were bunched up on the beach, until their unloaded heavy equipment clogged up the small landing zones.  Finally, at 10:00 hours, Kuribayashi unleashed his artillery, mortars, machine guns.  The beach soon became mired in blood.  Robert Sherrod, a war correspondent with Time Magazine, described it as “a nightmare in hell.”

Marine amphibious landing vehicles attempted to clear the black ash, but managed only to churn up the fine powdery material and made no progress.  As the Marines struggled, Navy Seabees braved enemy fire to bulldoze roadways off the beach.  In time, the Marines began a forward push, but as one observer noted, there was at least one dead Marine for every shell hole along the landing beach.

At 11:30 hours, a Marine platoon reached the southern tip of Airfield One.  This was one of the original objectives for the first day, but the expectation was nothing if not unrealistic.  The Marine platoon soon encountered a fanatical Japanese charge of around 100 men.  The Marines held their position, but it was at best tenuous.  Colonel Liversedge led his 28th Marines across the island at it narrowest width.  Liversedge didn’t know it at the time, but the movement of his regiment isolated the Japanese who were dug in on Mount Suribachi.

Japanese heavy artillery positioned on Mount Suribachi opened up heavily reinforced steel doors to unleash fire, and then closed them again to defeat allied counter-battery fire.  Marines attacked Japanese positions and neutralized them, but many of these positions were quickly re-manned by Japanese troops being shifted through unseen tunnels.  The Marines soon learned that they could not ignore “cleared” enemy positions.  As a response to heavy enemy resistance on the beach, the US 147th Infantry Regiment was ordered to scale a ridge about three-quarters of a mile from the foot of Mount Suribachi and fire on Japanese positions so that the Marines could advance inland.  The regiment soon found itself inside a hornet’s nest; they would remain engaged there for another 31 days.

The far right side of the landing zone was dominated by Japanese positions at “the Quarry.”  Colonel John Lanigan led his 25th Marines in a two-pronged attack into the Quarry to silence Japanese guns.  At the beginning of the push, the third battalion (3/25) had 900 men.  By the end of the day, the battalion was down to 150 effective Marines.  Second Lieutenant Ben Roselle was serving as a naval gunfire liaison officer, whose mission it was to direct naval artillery.  He was brutally wounded four times within mere minutes, losing his left foot at the ankle, receiving severe wounds in his right leg, a wound to his left shoulder, additional wounds to his thighs, and a shrapnel wound to his left forearm.  Miraculously, the lieutenant survived.

By sunset of the first day, 30,000 Marines had gone ashore.  The Japanese would not make it easy for these Marines—an additional 40,000 Marines would be required to win this fight.  Based on their previous experiences in the island campaigns, the Marines expected banzai attacks during the night, but historians tell us that only one of those occurred on Iwo Jima.  Initially, General Kuribayashi forbade such attacks because he felt they were a waste of effort and human life.  This is not to suggest there were no night-time Japanese counter-attacks.  Fighting on the beach was fiercely unrelenting; the Japanese opposed every Marine thrust into their defensive areas.  Many Marine units were ambushed by Japanese who suddenly appeared from “no where,” from spider holes that were connected to the extensive tunnel network, and counter-attacks after dark occurred against the various Marine perimeters.  English-speaking Japanese were used to harass or deceive Marines.  Voices would come out of the darkness, calling for a corpsman, pretending to be a wounded Marine as a means of luring Marines into Japanese kill zones.

Rifle fire proved ineffective against the Japanese positions, which forced the Marines into using flame weapons and grenades to flush the Japanese out of their fighting positions.  Flame tanks were routinely used by the Marines against the Japanese.  At night, the battlefield was illuminated by naval gunfire star clusters and locally employed mortar illumination rounds.  The number of night attacks increased over time, which the Marines repelled with crew-served weapons and on-call artillery.  Hand to hand fighting was a frequent occurrence at night, bloody melees that denied rest to the weary Marines.  Hundreds of Japanese soldiers were slaughtered, but not without taking American Marines with them.   

With the passage of time, of course, Japanese defensive positions weakened.  Kuribayashi realized early on that he would be defeated and most Japanese troops, experiencing shortages of food, water, and ammunition, realized this as well —but there would be no surrender.

First Iwo Jima FlagOn 23 February, four days after the Marine’s initial assault, 40 men from Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines conducted a combat patrol to the summit of Mount Suribachi.  Their mission was to destroy enemy opposition and secure the summit.  To signal their mission’s success, First Lieutenant Harold G. Schrier [10], the patrol leader, was instructed to raise an American flag from atop Mount Suribachi.  The men who participated in this “first” raising of the American flag over Mount Suribachi were Lieutenant Schrier, Sergeant Henry Hansen, Platoon Sergeant Ernest Thomas, Corporal Charles Lindberg, PFC Raymond Jacobs (radioman), PFC Jim Michels, PFC Harold Schultz, Private Phil Ward, and US Navy Corpsman, Pharmacist Mate Second class John H. Bradley.  The flag raising was captured on film by Staff Sergeant Louis R. Lowery [11].  Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal had just come ashore when this first flag was raised and he said he wanted the flag as a souvenir.  The 2/28 commander, Lieutenant Colonel Chandler Johnson, however, flatly refused, stating that the flag belonged to his battalion (which the Marines had stolen from the USS Missoula (APA-211)).

Admittedly, the flag was hard to see from the beach, so Colonel Johnson dispatched a second patrol to the top of Mount Suribachi with a larger flag donated by the Commanding Officer of USS Duval County, (LST 758).  The second group of Marines, who were also assigned the mission of laying communications wire to connect the observation posts, were Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, PFC Franklin R. Sousley, PFC Harold Schultz, PFC Ira Hayes, and PFC Rene Gagnon [12].  When the Strank patrol reached the top, Lieutenant Schrier supervised the second raising, which was photographed by Joe Rosenthal and Sergeant Bill Genaust —the only photograph to win a Pulitzer Prize for photography in the same year it was published.  The Iwo Jima flag raising is one of the most recognizable images of World War II.  Rosenthal’s photograph was later used by Felix de Weldon in the sculpting of the Marine Corps War Memorial located adjacent to the Arlington National Cemetery.

While the 28th Marines remained engaged with Japanese forces on the slopes of Mount Suribachi, battalions from the 23rd, 24th, and 25th Marines of the 4thMarDiv, and the 26th and 27th Marines from the 5thMarDiv maneuvered toward the seizure of Airfield One.  The 5thMarDiv made spectacular gains of up to a thousand yards during this push, but the 23rd Marines, posted to the left of the 4thMarDiv, was unable to keep pace.  Stiff enemy resistance came from Japanese defenses along the East coast, all of whom were well-situated within impassable terrain.  The 23rd regiment’s deepest gain into this heavily contested zone was only around 200 yards.

To help overcome stiff enemy resistance, the 3rdMarDiv was ordered to send its 21st Marine Regiment ashore to reinforce the 4thMarDiv on 21 February.  The hope of replacing the beleaguered 23rd Marines with the 21st Marines was dashed because the terrain was so thick and impassable that the Marine advance was reduced to mere inches, rather than yards.  The 21st Marines was ordered to move forward after the hours of darkness —a difficult maneuver under any circumstances.  The two front-line regiments of each division were relieved on the morning of 22 February.  Heavy rain, enemy fire, and difficult terrain hampered relief operations.  General Rocky, commanding the 5thMarDiv, ordered the 26th Marines to relive the 27th.  All the while, the Japanese were paying close attention to the activities of the American Marines.  Hostile fire and ill-defined regimental boundaries made the move difficult but it was ultimately successful.  Replacing the 23rd Marines with the 21st Marines was equally difficult.  Six hours after the commencement of relief operations, the 23rd Marines were still engaged in heavy combat.

From 23 February, Mount Suribachi was effectively cut off (above ground) from the rest of the island.  By this time, the Marines realized that the Japanese defenders were operating from an extensive subterranean network.  Despite its isolation above ground, Suribachi was still connected to the main defense on the northern end of the island.  The terrain in the northern sector was rocky and favored a strong defense.  Kuribayashi’s defensive positions were difficult to hit with naval artillery.  In the northern area, Kuribayashi commanded the equivalent of eight infantry battalions, a tank regiment, two artillery battalions, and three heavy mortar battalions.  Japanese infantry was augmented by an additional 5,000 naval infantry and gunners.

On the morning of 24 February, the Navy delivered a 76-minute bombardment, joined by Marine artillery and carrier air strikes.  At 0915, 5thMarDiv tanks crossed into the enemy’s forward defenses along the western portion of the airfield.  Simultaneously, 4thMarDiv tanks pushed forward to the eastern edge of the field.  Mines and fire from Japanese antiaircraft guns halted the 4thMarDiv advance.  5thMarDiv units reached the airfield and began blasting entrenched Japanese in the hills to the North.  It was a bitter fight, but at the end of the day, 5thMarDiv units had advanced 500 yards. 

Iwo Jima Meat GrinderFor one full week, the 4thMarDiv was ground to a bloody pulp in what became known to the Marines as the “meat grinder” —a system of fortified ridges including Hill 382 and Hill 362A.  The meat grinder was a defensive system lying roughly halfway up the island, east of Airfield Two.  Here, the Marines were literally torn apart by Japanese positions on Hill 382, the highest ground, a bald hill known as the Turkey Knob, and a rocky bowl the Marines dubbed “the amphitheater.”  Situated within this complex was the main Japanese communications system that included a vast network of caves and tunnels.  It was from this point on the island that the Japanese had kept the Marines under close observation since D-day.

The approach to the meat grinder provided no cover or concealment.  Whatever vegetation had existed was stripped away by naval gunfire and laid bare a maze of rocks and brush and crossing defiles that led to the sea.  All approaches were covered by buried enemy tanks that exposed no more than their turrets and gun barrels.  Behind the tanks were systems of interlocking machine guns and light artillery.  Japanese anti-aircraft guns were depressed to fire point blank into the advancing Marines.  These three high points were mutually supporting; they could defend themselves, or one another.  It was not possible to seize the meat grinder one objective at a time —only by attacking all three points simultaneously.

General Erskine’s 3rdMarDiv (less the 3rd Marines) entered the fight on 25 February.  By this time, of course, the 21st Marines were already committed.  Erskine was ordered to advance along the relatively flat (although pockmarked sandstone) portion of the northern plateau.  Once these Marines had gained control of the tableland, they were in a position to attack down the many ridge lines leading to the sea.  The 9th Marines passed through the 21st Marines on 25 February.  The 3rdMarDiv attack began at 0930.  Its gains were slight, losses heavy.  The 9th Marines had come up against Kuribayashi’s main defense line.  General Schmidt gave the 3rdMarDiv fifty-percent of the corps’ artillery.  Flame tanks were moved up to incinerate the entrenched enemy.  After three days of horrific combat, the Japanese line finally cracked.  By the evening of 27 February, the 9th Marines controlled the twin hills north of Airfield Two.

During the afternoon of 28 February, the 21st Marines overran the ruins of Motoyama Village and seized the hills that dominated Airfield Three.  The 4thMarDiv was still struggling to seize Hill 382.  To the left, the 5thMarDiv was making every effort to seize Hill 362A.  The terrain features were the strongest links in the chain of Kuribayashi’s defenses.  Responsibility for seizing Hill 362A fell to the 28th Marines.  Several platoons from the 27th Marines had managed to reach the crest of the heavily fortified hill, but had to pull back in order to maintain contact with the rest of the regiment.  Augmented and reinforced by 3/26, the 28th Marines planned on renewing their assault on the morning of 1 March.

Deadly artillery and mortar fire greeted the Marines as they moved forward, but before the sun set, the crest of 362A was in American hands.  It was a costly advance: 224 Marines had been killed or wounded.  The next day, the entire hill was overrun and the neighboring Nishi Ridge was also captured.

By this time, Marines had been slogging it out in the meat grinder for four excruciating days.  On 3 March, the main effort was directed at Hill 382, but even with naval artillery and air strikes, progress was slow.  The Japanese had to be burned, or blasted out of their well concealed positions by rocket launchers, grenades, or flame throwers.  The Marine’s attempt to encircle the Turkey Knob was thwarted and it was only with the assistance of artillery and smoke screens that the Marines were able to disengage before darkness.  The Marine attack was renewed on the following day with 2/24 gaining control of Hill 382, but it was not until 10 March that the Japanese defending the Turkey Knob and the Amphitheater were eliminated.

While Marines reduced Japanese resistance in the meat grinder, the rest of the V Corps moved against the complex within Hill 362.  In the 5thMarDiv zone, Hill 362B was assigned to the 26th Marines.  The complex was declared secure on 3 March.  On 7 March, the 3rdMarDiv was poised to assault Hill 362C.  No matter how well dug in the Japanese were, the Marines found ways to prevail over them.  As but one example, the Japanese had learned that the Americans always attacked following an artillery barrage.  During these artillery assaults, the Japanese would take their guns inside and their troops would disappear inside their tunnel complex.  At the end of the barrage, the Japanese would reappear and maul the Marines with artillery and rifle/machine gun fire.  General Graves B. Erskine, commanding the 3rdMarDiv, ordered Colonel Kenyon’s 9th Marines to attack under the cover of darkness with no pre-assault fires.  Movement across Iwo Jima’s terrain at night was slow and tiring, but the enemy was caught by surprise and the attack was successful; the 9th Marines killed many Japanese while they were asleep, a key moment in the seizure of Hill 362 complex.

The following night, the Japanese organized a counter-attack led by Captain Samaji Inouye and a thousand troops.  Ninety Marines were killed, 257 more were wounded, but the next morning, the Marines discovered 784 dead Japanese.

Undeterred by the loss of Hill 362C, the Japanese continued to resist, but there was a change in Japanese behavior: their efforts were no longer coordinated, which means that their interlocking defenses had broken down.  Combat patrols from the 3rdMarDiv reached the seacoast on 9 March.  By the evening of 10 March, only one organized pocket of resistance remained active within the division sector.  Independent resistance continued, however.  Japanese diehards refused to surrender.

Meanwhile, the Japanese defending against the 4thMarDiv had grown desperate.  Communications had failed and unable to coordinate with supporting units caused some panic among the fanatical defenders.  Rather than depending on their defensive networks, the Japanese began a series of fanatical counter-attacks.  Enemy mortar and artillery fire increased during the evening of 8 March, and then, hugging the scorched earth, the Japanese attempted to worm their way through the lines of the 23rd and 24th Marines.  It was a failed attempt and by noon the following day, more than 650 Japanese had been killed by Marine defensive fires.  The failure of the Japanese to counter-attack Marine positions led to the dissolution of the enemy’s overall defense.  By 10 March, the 4thMarDiv had destroyed the Turkey Knob and Amphitheater salient and pushed combat patrols all the way to the seacoast.

We cannot say that organized resistance ceased, but henceforth, Japanese defenses took the form of independent pockets of resistance.  The 3rdMarDiv was forced to reduce a heavily fortified enemy pockets near Hill 362C, and the 4thMarDiv opposed a stubborn enemy halfway between the East Boat Basin and the Tachiiwa Point, and the 5thMarDiv would aggress Japanese troops around Kitano Point.

On 10-11 March, the 3rdMarDiv conducted a sweep of its sector along the coastline.  Most of the division concentrated on overwhelming enemy resistance southwest of Hill 362C.  The use of flame weapons and 75 mm howitzers was required to destroy these defenses.  The last vestige of Japanese resistance was crushed on 16 March.

The 5thMarDiv faced Kuribayashi’s stronghold, a gorge extending seven-hundred yards in length from the northwestern end of the island.  Marines destroyed the Japanese command post on 21 March and within a few days, managed to seal off (through the use of explosives) remaining caves and tunnels on the northern tip of the island.   On 25 March, a 300-man Japanese company attacked allied positions in the vicinity of Airfield Two.  US Army pilots, Seabees, and Marines battled the attackers for well over 90 minutes.  The American casualties included 53 killed, 120 wounded [13].

Iwo Jima was declared “secured” on two occasions, each one of these a bit premature: at 18:00 hours on 16 March, and at 09:00 hours on 26 March.  But after the main battle, the US 147th Infantry Regiment continued to battle thousands of Japanese holdouts who had resorted to guerrilla tactics.  Using well-stocked tunnels and caves, Japanese defenders continued to resist American advances for over three months.  During this time, the 147th slogged back and forth across the island using flame weapons, grenades, and satchel charges to dig out or seal up the enemy.  In the aftermath of the battle, an additional 1,602 Japanese were killed in small unit actions.  The last Japanese holdouts were Yamakage Kufuku and Matsudo Linsoki, who finally surrendered on 6 January 1949 [14].

During the Battle of Iwo Jima, US forces suffered 26,000 casualties.  Of these, 6,800 were killed in action.  Nearly 20,000 Japanese defenders gave up their lives on Iwo Jima; only 216 Japanese were taken as prisoners of war.  The Battle of Iwo Jima remained contentious for a number of years.  In the first place, senior Marine Corps officers were not consulted in the planning for this operation.  Secondly, the justification for Iwo Jima’s strategic importance as a landing and refueling site for long-range fighter escorts of B-29 bombers was both impractical and unnecessary.  Only ten such missions were ever flown from Iwo Jima.  Last, in the view of retired Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William V. Pratt, the “expenditure of manpower to acquire a small, god-forsaken island, useless to the Army as a staging base, and useless to the Navy as a fleet base … one wonders if the same sort of airbase could not have been reached by acquiring other strategic localities at a lower cost.”

There were important lessons learned from Iwo Jima, not the least of which was that the US Navy needed to increase pre-landing bombardments —a lesson that was incorporated into the Battle for Okinawa in April 1945.  Military planners also realized that a subsequent invasion of the Japanese home islands would be extraordinarily costly to allied forces.  This realization may have provided the justification for the United States’ use of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Captain Robert Burrell, an instructor at the United States Naval Academy observed, “This justification [for the Battle of Iwo Jima] became prominent only after the Marines seized the island and incurred high casualties. The tragic cost of Operation Detachment pressured veterans, journalists, and commanders to fixate on the most visible rationalization for the battle. The sight of the enormous, costly, and technologically sophisticated B-29 landing on the island’s small airfield most clearly linked Iwo Jima to the strategic bombing campaign.  As the myths about the flag raising on Mount Suribachi reached legendary proportions, so did the emergency landing theory in order to justify the need to raise that flag.”

Crossed Flags EGATwenty-seven medals of honor were awarded to Marine and Navy participants of the Battle of Iwo Jima —14 of those were posthumous awards.  The number of medals of honor awarded to Marines in this one battle constituted 28% of the total of such awards to Marines during World War II.  Chief Warrant Officer-4 Hershel W. Williams is the last living recipient of the Medal of Honor from the Battle of Iwo Jima.  As of this writing, he is 96 years old and  living in Fairmont, West Virginia.

The Battle of Iwo Jima formed the basis for a national reverence United States Marines that not only embodies the American spirit, but in the opinion of then Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, will guarantee the existence of the Marine Corps for another five-hundred years.  We shall see if the American people have a memory that will last that long.

Semper Fidelis …

Sources:

  1. Bradley, J.  Flyboys: A True Story of Courage.  Little, Brown, Publishers, 2003
  2. Bradley, J. With Ron Powers.  Flags of Our Fathers.  New York: Bantam Publishing, 2001
  3. Buell, H.  Uncommon Valor, Common Virtue: Iwo Jima and the Photograph that Captured America.  New York: Penguin, 2006
  4. Hammel, E.  Iwo Jima: Portrait of a Battle: United States Marines at War in the Pacific.  St. Paul: Zenith Press, 2006.
  5. Leckie, R.  The Battle for Iwo Jima.  New York: iBooks, 2006/1967.
  6. Wells, J. K.  Give me Fifty Marines Not Afraid to Die: Iwo Jima.  Abilene: Quality Publications, 1995.

Endnotes:

  1. A Japanese army was approximately equal in size and equipment to an American corps.
  2. “Father Island,” also known as Peel Island, is the largest island in the Ogasawara archipelago, laying 150 miles north of Iwo Jima.  A small Japanese naval base was established on Chichi Jima in 1914.  It was the primary site of long-range Japanese radio stations and a central supply depot.  From around December 1941, approximately 4,000 Japanese troops and 1,200 naval forces garrisoned the island.  Chichi Jima was a frequent target of allied air attacks.  Lieutenant George H. W. Bush, USN was shot down during one of these air attacks.  It was from Chichi Jima that the Japanese began to reinforce the volcano island of Iwo Jima.
  3. A group of three volcanic islands south of the Ogasawara archipelago, which the Japanese named Kita Iwo Jima, Iwo Jima, and Minami Iwo Jima.  A Japanese self-defense force base exists today on Iwo Jima consisting of about 380 troops.  It is the only human settlement remaining in the Volcano Islands.
  4. After the battle, Americans discovered that hundreds of tons of allied bombs and thousands of rounds of heavy naval artillery had almost no effect on the Japanese defenders on Iwo Jima.  The battle would last from 17 February until 26 March 1945.
  5. Kuribayashi was a Japanese intellectual who was trained as a cavalry officer.  In 1928, he served for two years as a military attache in Washington D.C., which enabled him to travel extensively in the United States and conducting research on American military and industrial capabilities.  For a short time, he studied at Harvard University.  A pragmatist, Kuribayashi often reminded his family that the United States was the last country Japan should ever fight.  Nevertheless, he had a job to do —and he did it.  American casualties on Iwo Jima were massive.
  6. Admiral Blandy was concerned that he would run out of ammunition, thereby reducing his ability to provide naval gunfire support to the Marines after the amphibious assault.  It was a legitimate concern
  7. After the battle, Lieutenant General Holland M. (“Howling Mad”) Smith, Commander, Expeditionary Force (Task Force 56) criticized Blandy for his lack of preparatory naval gunfire, charging him with costing the lives of Marines during the battle.  Given what we know today about Kuribayashi’s defenses, Smith’s claim was spurious.
  8. Gun barrels have a shelf life.  There is a limit to the number of rounds that can be fired before having to change these rifled barrels and it is a major undertaking.  If the barrels are not changed according to “service life” guidelines, bad things begin to happen, such as a reduction in accuracy and distance.  The more these barrels wear, the quicker the rate of wear, and the more erratic the ballistics.  Ideally, each ship capable of naval artillery had an adequate store of replacement barrels, but the extent of the availability of these replacement parts to Blandy’s force is unknown to me.
  9. Seventeen US sailors of the Pensacola were killed; seven more lost their lives on the Leutze.
  10. Harold G. Schrier (1916-1971) enlisted in the Marines in 1936.  He served with the China Marines in Beijing, Tientsin, and Shanghai before serving as a Marine Corps drill instructor at the MCRD San Diego, California.  In 1942, Schrier served with the Second Raider Battalion as a Platoon Sergeant, serving at Midway Island and on Guadalcanal.  He was field commissioned to Second Lieutenant in 1943 and served on Vangunu Island and Bougainville.  He was assigned as the Executive Officer of E/2/28 during the Battle of Iwo Jima and later assigned to command Delta Company 2/28.  During the Korean War, Schrier served with the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade at the Pusan Perimeter where he was wounded while commanding Company I, 3/5.  During Schrier’s combat service, he was awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit (with valor device), Bronze Star (with valor device), and Purple Heart.  He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1957.  He passed away at the age of 54 in Bradenton, Florida.
  11. This photograph was not released to the press until 1947.
  12. Hansen, Strank, Block, and Sousley were killed in action a few days later.
  13. Some have speculated that, owing to the nature of the Japanese assault, Kuribayashi himself may have led this assault, but there is no evidence of this and General Kuribayashi’s body was never recovered.
  14. Pacific Stars and Stripes, page 5, reported on 10 January 1949.

 

The Admiral Who Knew …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

Diminished Honor

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

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

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

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

USS Franklin
USS Franklin

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

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

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

Charles B McVay III
Captain Charles B. McVay III

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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