The Cactus Air Force

Guadalcanal — 1942

Some Background

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941 (an event that crippled the United States Pacific Fleet), Japan intended to seize a number of Pacific atolls for their own use.  Doing so would increase their access to natural resources and locations suitable as advanced military and naval bases.  Advanced Pacific Rim bases would extend the defensive perimeter of the Japanese home islands.  In addition to their successful attack against the US Fleet, the Japanese also seized control of Hong Kong, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Wake Island, New Britain, and Guam.

The Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942) and the Battle for Midway Island (June 1942) thwarted additional Japanese efforts to seize advance bases.  Both battles were significant because (1) the Allied forces [Note 1] demonstrated to the world that the Empire of Japan was not invincible, and (2) the battles enabled the Allies to seize the initiative and launch a counter-offensive against the Japanese.  The United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand chose the Solomon Islands as their place, and August 1942 as their time.

Allied intelligence learned that the Japanese Imperial Navy (JIN) occupied Tulagi in May 1942 and had established a seaplane base in the Solomons.  They also discovered that the Japanese had embarked on the construction of an air base suitable for long-range bombers at Lunga Point on the island of Guadalcanal.  If the Allies failed to interdict Japan’s efforts, Japanese air forces would be in a position to disrupt allied lines of communication between Australia/New Zealand, and the United States.  Only one month earlier, in July, Australian reserve (territorial) battalions fought a stubborn action against Japanese advances in New Guinea.  Although victorious, Australian reserves were seriously depleted.  The arrival of the Second Imperial Force (Australia) in August (returning from the Mediterranean) allowed Australian forces to deny Japan’s seizure of Port Moresby, and Milne Bay.  The Australian victory, with supporting American forces, was Japan’s first land defeat in World War II.

The author of the plan to attack the Solomon Islands was Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet.  The US Marines invaded Tulagi and Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942 [Note 2], capturing the partially completed airfield at Lunga Point, although the airfield required additional work before the allied forces could use it.

Assembling Air Forces

Major Lofton R. Henderson, USMC

The Americans renamed the field after Major Lofton R. Henderson, USMC [Note 3], who lost his life during the Battle of Midway while in command of VMSB-241.  The first allied aircraft to land on Henderson Field was a patrol bomber (designation PBY) on 12 August.  Eight days later, 31 Marine Corps Wildcat (F4F) fighters and Dauntless (SBD) dive bombers landed from the fast carrier USS Long Island.  Following them on 22 August was a squadron of U. S. Army Air-Cobra (P-39).  Additionally, B-17s began operations from Henderson Field (although the large bombers had an abysmal record against Japanese targets) [Note 4]. 

This ensemble of multi-service personnel and their dwindling collection of outdated, dilapidated, and inferior combat aircraft became known as the Cactus Air Force — “Cactus” being the Allied code name for Guadalcanal.  Henderson Field barely qualified as an airfield.  The Japanese designed it in an irregular shape, half of it sitting within a coconut grove, and its runway length was inadequate the wide range of for Allied aircraft.  Even after combat engineers began their work to improve the field, it remained in such poor condition that it caused as many losses to aircraft as those lost in air combat.  Rain, which was ever present on Guadalcanal, transformed the field into muddy swamp.  Some of the allied aircraft were too heavy for the matting used for expeditionary airfields; takeoffs and landing also damaged the field.  Despite these on-going problems, Henderson Field was essential to the U.S. effort of confronting the Japanese, distributing critical combat resupply, and evacuating wounded personnel.  Henderson Field was also vital as an alternate airfield for Navy pilots whose carriers were too badly damaged to recover them.

In mid-August 1942, Guadalcanal was very likely one of the most dangerous places on earth.  Allied naval forces were under constant threat of attack by Japanese air and naval forces.  To safeguard carriers and their air groups from possible submarine or enemy carrier aircraft, once the amphibious force disembarked at Guadalcanal, the U. S. Navy withdrew its carriers, transports, and resupply ships from the Solomon Islands.  This placed Allied ground forces at risk from Japanese naval artillery and air attack.  The Allies needed aircraft—badly.  Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF)-123 (flying F4Fs) began its operations at Henderson Field in mid-August.  One squadron was insufficient to demand, however.  The Allies needed more aircraft —sooner rather than later.  Higher headquarters scheduled the arrival VMF-223 and VMTB-232 on Guadalcanal around 16 August.  The pilots and aircraft arrived on 20 August, but because the demand for shipping exceeded available transport, ground crews became stranded in Hawaii; ground crews would not arrive on Guadalcanal until early September.  The formula was simple —no ground crews, no operational aircraft.

The delay of ground crew at a critical period prompted Admiral John S. McCain, Sr. [Note 5] to order Major Charles H. “Fog” Hayes, serving as the Executive Officer, Marine Observation Squadron (VMO)-251 to proceed to Guadalcanal with 120 Seabees of the advance base force (operationally known as CUB-1) [Note 6] to assist the 1st Marine Division combat engineers in completing Henderson Field and then serve as ground crewmen for the Marine fighters and bombers presently en route.  Ensign George W. Polk, USN [Note 7] commanded the Seabee detachment.

Henderson Field, OFFiCIAL USMC PHOTO

The men from CUB-1 embarked aboard ship and departed Espiritu Santo on the evening of 13 August, taking with them 400 55-gallon drums of aviation fuel, 32 55-gallon drums of lubricant, 282 bombs (100 to 500 pounds), belted ammunition, tools, and critically needed aviation spare parts.  They arrived on Guadalcanal on 15 August and began assisting Marine engineers with their task of enlarging the airstrip.  Despite daily assaults by Japanese aircraft, Marine engineers and Seabees completed the field on 19 August.  CUB-1 technicians installed, tested, and operated an air-raid warning system in the Japanese-built field control tower.

VMF-223 with 19-aircraft and VMSB-232 with 12 planes arrived on 20 August; all aircraft arrived safely at Henderson Field and the pilots immediately began combat operations against Japanese aircraft over Guadalcanal.  As immediately, the Sailors of CUB-1 began servicing these aircraft with the tools and equipment at their disposal.  Aircraft refueling was by hand crank pumps when they were available but otherwise tipped over on the wings and funneled into the gasoline tanks.  Loading bombs was particularly difficult because hoists were rare; bombs had to be raised by hand … 100-500-pound bombs.  Belting ammunition was also accomplished by hand.  The gunners on the dive bombers loaded their ammunition by the same laborious method.

CUB-1 personnel performed these tasks for twelve days before the arrival of Marine ground crews.  As with all military personnel on Guadalcanal, CUB-1 crews suffered from malaria, dengue fever, fungus infections, sleepless nights, shortages of food, clothing, and supplies.  Living conditions on Guadalcanal were some of the most difficult ever faced by Marines.  Pilots and ground crews lived in mud-floored tents in a flooded coconut plantation called Mosquito Grove.  Everyone on Guadalcanal was subjected to mortal danger.  Japanese aircraft and artillery bombarded the airfield nearly every day.  On the night of 13-14 October 1942, two Japanese battleships fired more than 700 heavy shells into Henderson Field.  Ensign Polk’s men remained on the island until 15 February 1943.

For the first five days after the arrival of the Marine aviators, there was no “commander” of the air component; instead, the senior aviator reported directly to Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, Commanding General, 1st Marine Division.  Technically, the Cactus Air Force was under the authority of Rear Admiral McCain, but as the local senior-most commander, Vandegrift and his operational staff exercised direct authority over all air assets, whether Army, Navy, or Marine.

Colonel William W. Wallace served temporarily as the first air group commander.  On 3 September, Brigadier General Roy S. Geiger [Note 8] arrived to assume command as Commander, Aircraft, Guadalcanal (also, COMAIRCACTUS) and of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.  By the time of Geiger’s arrival, air squadrons had already suffered significant losses.  The pilots were sick, undernourished, and demoralized.  Geiger changed that.  By his personality, energy, and positive attitude, General Geiger raised the collective spirits of squadron survivors.  The cost to Geiger, in the short-term, was that within a few months, the 57-year-old Geiger became seriously fatigued.  Eventually, General Vandegrift relieved Geiger of his duties and replaced him with Geiger’s Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Louis E. Woods [Note 9], who was one of the Marine Corps’ outstanding aviators.

Ground Combat Interface

As previously mentioned, the Japanese started construction of the airfield at Lunga Point in May 1942.  The landings of 11,000 Allied forces on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and the Florida Islands on 7-8 August 1942 was a complete surprise to the Japanese—and they weren’t too happy about it.  As a response to the Allied landings, the Imperial General Headquarters ordered the Imperial Japanese Army’s (IJA) 17th Army (a corps-sized command under Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake), to retake Guadalcanal.  His advance force began to arrive on Guadalcanal on 19 August.  Allied planes operating from Henderson Field challenged Japan’s slow-moving transport ships, which had the effect of impeding Hyakutake’s efforts.  On 21 August, General Hyakutake ordered a force of just under a thousand men to seize the airfield.  Known as the Battle of Tenaru, Marines soundly defeated the IJA’s first attempt.

The IJA made a second attempt on 12-14 September, this time with a brigade-size force of 6,000 men.  Known as the Battle of Edson’s Ridge, the Marines repelled that attack, as well.  Convinced that the Japanese were not through with their attempts to reclaim Lunga Point, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, commanding all Allied land forces in the Solomon Islands [Note 10], ordered the strengthening of defenses at Henderson Field.  He additionally ordered his Marines to increase combat patrolling in the area between Lunga Point and the Matanikau River.  IJA forces repulsed three different company-sized patrols operating near the Matanikau River between 23-27 September.  Between 6-9 October, a battalion of Marines crossed the Matanikau and inflicted heavy losses on the IJA 4th Infantry Regiment, forcing a Japanese withdrawal [Note 11].  

By 17 October, IJA forces on Guadalcanal numbered 17,000 troops, which included the 2nd Infantry Division (under Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama), one regiment of the 38th Infantry Division, and artillery and tank units.  The IJN ordered heavy and light cruisers to support Hyakutake and conduct bombardments of Allied positions, including Henderson Field, warranted because the Cactus Air Force posed significant threats to Japanese transports ferrying replacements and supplies from Rabaul [Note 12].  On 13 October, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto dispatched a naval force under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita to bombard Henderson Field.  Kurita’s force included two battleships, one light cruiser, and nine destroyers.  Beginning at 01:33, the Japanese Navy fired just under 1,000 rounds into the Lunga Point perimeter.  The Japanese attack destroyed most of the aviation fuel, 48 of the Cactus Air Force’s 90 aircraft, and killed 41 men —of which were six CAF ground crewmen.  As devastating as this attack was, Seabees restored the airfield to operating conditions within a few hours.

As Japanese infantry under Lieutenant General Maruyama began their march toward Lunga Point, aircraft of the 11th Air Fleet at Rabaul attacked Henderson Field with 11 G4M2 bombers and 28 A6M2 Zero fighters.  The Cactus Air Force responded with 24 F4F Wildcats and 4 P-39s.  A large and complex air battle ensured.  Allied aviators could not determine how many losses they imposed on the Japanese, but on F4F received extensive battle damage with no loss of its pilot.   

Just after nightfall on 23 October, two battalions of Japanese infantry (supported by tanks) attacked Marine positions behind a barrage of artillery.  Marines quickly destroyed all nine tanks and responded with devastating artillery fire.  Forty Marine howitzers fired 6,000 rounds into the attacking Japanese.  The Japanese broke off their attack shortly after 01:00 hours.  Partly in response to this attack, 2/7 (under LtCol Hanneken) redeployed to the Matanikau and assumed advanced defensive positions.  LtCol Louis B. “Chesty” Puller’s 1/7 (with around 700 men) was the only battalion left to defend Henderson Field, a 2,500-yard perimeter on the southern face of Lunga Point.  Puller’s outposts reported enemy movement at around 21:00 hours.

Heavy rain began falling an hour or so before, the torrential downpour inhibiting the advance of a Japanese infantry regiment.  In the dark of night under a pouring rain, a Japanese battalion more or less stumbled into Puller’s defensive line at around 22:00.  The Marines repulsed the Japanese advance, but the Japanese commander believed that his battalion had taken Lunga Point.  At around 00:15, the IJA’s 11th Company of the 3rd Battalion assaulted the perimeter held by Marines from Alpha Company.  Within thirty minutes, the Marines destroyed the 11th Company.

Further west, at around 01:15, the 9th Company charged into positions held by Charlie 1/7.  Within around five minutes, a machine-gun section led by Sergeant John A. Basilone, killed nearly every member of the 9th Company.  Ten minutes after that, Marine artillery had a murderous effect on the IJA regiment’s assembly area.  Puller requested reinforcement at 03:30.   The 3rd Battalion, 164th US Infantry rushed forward and quickly reinforced Puller’s perimeter.  Just before dawn, the Japanese 3rd Battalion, 29th Infantry penetrated Allied artillery and assaulted the Marine position.  1/7 Marines killed most of these men, but about one-hundred Japanese broke through the American defense and created a bulging salient in the center of Puller’s line.

With daybreak on 24 October, the Japanese 2nd Battalion joined the assault, but the Marines soon defeated them, and they withdrew almost as quickly as they had appeared.  Puller ordered his Marines to attack and eradicate the 100-or-so enemy soldiers within the salient, and to search and destroy any Japanese remaining alive forward of the battalion’s perimeter.  Marines performing these tasks ended up killing around 400 additional enemy troops.  But the battle was far from over.  IJN platforms began to pummel the Marines just after midnight.  A destroyer assault force chased away to US minesweepers, destroyed the US tugboat Seminole and an American Patrol Torpedo Boat.  Just after 10:00, Marine shore batteries hit and damaged one Japanese destroyer.  Cactus Air Force dive bombers attacked a second Japanese navy assault force which caused the sinking of a Japanese cruiser.  While this was going on, 82 Japanese bombers and fighters from the 11th Air Fleet attacked Henderson Field in six separate waves throughout the day.  The Cactus Air Force also attacked Japanese Aircraft, inflicting the loss of 11 fighters, 2 bombers, and one reconnaissance aircraft.  The Allies lost two aircraft, but recovered the crews.

After completing mop-up operations, ground Marines began improving their defense works and redeploying troops to strengthen the line.  In the West, Colonel Hanneken tied in with the 5th Marines; Puller’s Marines and the soldiers of 3/164 disentangled and repositioned themselves to form unit cohesive defenses.  The 1st Marine Division reserve force, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2) moved in behind 1/7 and 3/164.  The IJA still had more to say to the Allied forces at Lunga Point.

General Maruyama regrouped his beleaguered forces, adding the 16th Infantry Regiment from his force reserve.  At around 20:00 on 25 October and extending into the early morning hours of the 26th, the Japanese made numerous frontal assaults against the Marine/Army line (Puller/Colonel Hall).  The Marines employed well-aimed small arms, automatic weapons, artillery, and canister fire from 37-mm guns directly into the attacking force with devastating effect.  Marines completely wiped out the headquarters element of the 16th Infantry Regiment, including the regimental commander and four of the regiment’s battalion commanders.  Another attack came at 03:00 on 26 October.  Colonel Akinosuke Oka’s 124th Infantry Regiment hit the Matanikau defenses manned by LtCol Hanneken’s 2/7.  Fox Company received the brunt of Oka’s attack.  Machine-gun section leader Mitchell Paige destroyed many of his attackers, but the Japanese managed to kill all of the Marines except for Paige and an assistant gunner in their assault.  By 05:00, Oka’s 3rd Battalion managed to push the remains of Fox Company out of their defensive positions.  Major Odell M. Conoley, Hanneken’s executive officer, quickly organized a counter-attack, leading the survivors of Fox Company and elements of Golf and Charlie companies to retake the ridge line.  Within an hour, the Japanese pushed the Japanese back, which ended Colonel Oka’s assault.  2/7’s casualties included 14 killed and 32 wounded.  Oka’s losses exceeded 300 dead.

Aftermath

Six Marine aviators in the Cactus Air Force received the Medal of Honor: Major John L. Smith, USMC, CO VMF-223; Major Robert E. Galer, USMC, CO VMF-224; Captain Joseph J. Foss, USMC, XO VMF-121 (Former Governor of South Dakota); Lieutenant Colonel Harold W. Bauer, USMC, CO VMF-212; First Lieutenant Jefferson J. DeBlanc, USMC, VMF-112; and First Lieutenant James E. Swett, USMC, VMF-221.

Medals of honor awarded other personnel included Major Kenneth D. Bailey, USMC (KIA), Sergeant John Basilone, USMC, Corporal Anthony Casamento, USMC, Platoon Sergeant Mitchell Paige, USMC [Note 13], Major Charles W. Davis, USA, Colonel Merritt A. Edson, USMC, Sergeant William G. Fournier, USA, Specialist Lewis Hall, USA (KIA), Signalman First Class Douglas A. Munro, USCG, (KIA), Rear Admiral Normal Scott, USN (KIA), and Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, USMC.  

In all, 20 Marine Corps aviation squadrons served on Guadalcanal.  Joining them, at various times, were ten U. S. Navy air squadrons (5 operating from USS Enterprise), two USAAF squadrons, and one Royal New Zealand air squadron.   

Sources:

  1. 1.Braun, S. M.  The Struggle for Guadalcanal (American Battles and Campaigns).  New York: Putnam, 1969.
  2. 2.Christ, J. F.  Battalion of the Damned: The First Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge, 1942.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007
  3. 3.De Chant, J. A.  Devilbirds.  New York: Harper Bros., 1947.
  4. 4.Mersky, P. B.  U.S. Marine Corps Aviation—1912 to the Present.  Nautical Publishing, 1983.
  5. 5.Paige, M.  My Story, A Marine Named Mitch: The Autobiography of Mitchell Paige, Colonel, United States Marine Corps (Retired).  Palo Alto: Bradford Adams & Company, 1975.
  6. 6.Sherrod, R.  History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.
  7. 7.Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History (Fourth Edition).  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1]The Allied forces in the Pacific during World War II were the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Soviet Union, and China.  As a practical matter, given the requirements of global war at other locations in the world, and limitations of certain Allied countries to participate in the conflict, the US played the largest role in the Pacific War.

[2] The Guadalcanal campaign lasted through 9 February 1943.

[3] Initially identified by the Japanese as simply Code RXI, the incomplete airfield became the focus of one of the great battles of the Pacific war in World War II.  Major Henderson (1903-1942) was a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy (Class of 1926) and served in China, various Caribbean stations, and aboard the carriers Langley, Ranger, and Saratoga.

 [4] B-17 aircraft were unsuitable for use against Japanese ships at sea.  High altitude bombing of moving targets could hardly yield the results of Torpedo/Dive Bomber aircraft.  Moreover, B-17 crews were young, inexperienced airmen who, while doing their level best, could not engage enemy ships with precision.

 [5] At the time, Admiral McCain served as Commander, Aircraft South Pacific (1941-42).  He was the grandfather of John S. McCain III, former Navy aviator POW and US Senator from Arizona.

[6] See also: Building the Hive.

[7] George W. Polk enlisted with the Naval Construction Battalion at the beginning of World War II.  He also served as a “volunteer” dive bomber and reconnaissance pilot, receiving combat wounds and suffering from malaria, which required nearly a year of hospitalization.  After the war, Polk joined CBS news as a journalist.  Communist insurgents murdered him while he was covering the Greek Civil War in 1948.

[8] Roy Stanley Geiger (1885-1947) was a native of Florida who completed university and law school before enlisting in the US Marine Corps.  While serving as a corporal in 1909, Geiger completed a series of professional examinations to obtain a commission to second lieutenant on 5 February 1909.  After ten years of ground service, Geiger reported for aviation training in 1917 and subsequently became Naval Aviator #49 on 9 June.  Geiger was variously described as curt, cold, ruthless, and determined.  Geiger became the first Marine Corps general to command a United States Army during the Battle of Okinawa. 

[9] Lieutenant General Woods later commanded the tactical air forces under the 10th U.S. Army during the Battle of Okinawa.

[10] The 7th Marine Regiment arrived on Guadalcanal on 18 September, adding an additional 4,157 men to Vandegrift’s ground combat element.

[11] Meanwhile, Major General Millard F. Harmon, Commander, U. S. Army Forces, South Pacific, convinced Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, Commander, Allied Forces, South Pacific, to reinforce the Marines immediately; one division of Marines, he argued, was insufficient to defend an island the size of Guadalcanal.  Subsequently, the U. S. 164th Infantry Regiment (North Dakota Army National Guard) arrived on Guadalcanal on 13 October 1942.

[12] Allied naval forces intercepted one of these Japanese bombardment missions on the night of 11 October, resulting in a Japanese defeat at the Battle of Cape Esperance. 

[13] Colonel Paige died on 15 November 2003, aged 85 years.  He was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient of the Guadalcanal campaign.

Fidelity, Honor, Valor

Captain George W. Sachtleben, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines

Introduction

In January 1969, responsibility for combat operations in the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ) (Also, I Corps), which included the five northern-most provinces of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) rested with the Commanding General, III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF), who was then Lieutenant General Robert E. Cushman, Jr.   Cushman commanded 81,000 Marine and Army combat troops situated throughout the Quang Tri, Thua Thien, Quang Nam, Quang Tin, and Quang Ngai.

(a) Major General Charles J. Quilter commanded 15,500 Marines of the First Marine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW), which included 500 fixed and rotary wing aircraft at Chu Lai, Da Nang, Phu Bai, and Quang Tri.

(b) Major General Ormond R. Simpson commanded the 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv) just outside Da Nang, a force of 24,000 ground-combat Marines primarily assigned to Quang Nam Province.

(c) Major General Raymond G. Davis commanded the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv), 21,000 ground-combat Marines from Dong Ha, whose primary responsibility was Quang Tri Province.

(d) An additional 10,000 Marines provided combat logistics support to the MAW and two infantry divisions under Brigadier General James A. Feely, Jr., at Da Nang.

(e) An additional 1,900 Marines served in the Combined Action Program under Colonel Edward F. Danowitz — tasked with providing local area security to local villages and hamlets.

(f) In addition to these Marines, III MAF controlled combat operations involving a force of 50,000 U. S. Army troops involving elements of the 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized), Colonel James M. Gibson, Commanding, the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) under Major General Melvin Zais, both Army units serving under the US XXIV Corps, Lieutenant General Richard G. Stilwell, U. S. Army, based at Phu Bai.  

(g) An additional 23,800 soldiers of Major General Charles M. Getty’s 23rd Infantry (Americal) Division operated in Quang Tin and Quang Ngai Provinces.

(h) General Cushman also exercised operational control over the United States Army Advisory Group (USAAG), who advised and assisted RVN military units operating in the I CTZ.

Enemy forces operating in RVN’s I CTZ included 123 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalions and 18 Viet Cong (irregular) (VC) battalions involving 90,000 troops.  There were additionally around 23,500 guerrillas and 16,000 political and quasi-military cadres and another 30,000 North Vietnamese regulars operating in Laos but within striking distance of the I CTZ.  These forces were controlled by five separate headquarters elements.

In January 1969, the communist forces were still reeling from their massive defeat during the Tet 68 campaign [Note 1]; it forced NVA and VC commands to reconsider their strategy for I CTZ.  Rather than attempting to defeat the American and RVN forces through massive assault, they adopted the policy of prolonging the conflict through small unit hit and run tactics, sapper attacks, harassment, terrorism, and sabotage.  Their focus became severing lines of communications, attacking rear area support bases, storage facilities, and defeating RVN’s pacification efforts.  Driving these strategies and tactics was the differences in terrain from II CTZ to the northwestern areas of I CTZ.  NVA regular units concentrated their forces in the uninhabited jungle-covered mountainous areas, close to border sanctuaries.

The Fight

In the Marine Corps mindset, defense is a temporary tactic used to dig in for the night, or rest, regroup, and resupply their combat forces before continuing the attack.  Locating the enemy, viciously attacking him, and destroying him is how wars are won.  But this wasn’t the national policy of the United States.  The mission in Vietnam was to defend South Vietnam — which gave up initiative to the enemy.  Marine and Army commanders hated this with a passion, but those were their orders.  But Major General Raymond G. Davis, commanding the 3rdMarDiv wasn’t about to sit around waiting for the enemy to attack him.  Soon after assuming command of his division, he ordered his regimental commanders to go find the enemy, and kill him.  General Cushman completely agreed with Davis’ thinking — as did Lieutenant General Herman Nickerson, Jr., when he replaced Cushman as CG III MAF on 26 March 1969.

General Davis’ idea of mobile operations depended on the helicopter, of course, but Ray Davis was no one trick pony.  He also sought to exploit intelligence gathered by small sized reconnaissance patrols, which were continuously employed throughout the 3rdMarDiv TAOR, which supplemented electronic and other human intelligence sources.  The recon patrols were called StingRay operations, who mission was to find, fix, and destroy the enemy with all available supporting arms.  StingRay operations were augmented by even smaller “snoop and poop” patrols, known as Key Hole forays.  Their mission was to “observe,” not engage.

On 9 April, Colonel Edward F. Danowitz [Note 2] relieved Colonel Robert H. Barrow as Commanding Officer, 9th Marines.  Danowitz was determined to continue the aggressive operations planned and executed by Colonel Barrow under General Davis’ policy of finding the enemy and killing him.

Despite the success of the 9th  Marines in Operation Dewey Canyon and the 3rd Marines in the Vietnam Salient, intelligence reports indicated that several regimental size enemy units were again infiltrating into the northern area of their Base Area 611, south of the salient, specifically elements of the 6th and 9th NVA regiments, the 675th Artillery Regiment, and various support elements.  Air reconnaissance indicated as well that the NVA were repairing Route 922 and that significant numbers of enemy were returning to the A Shau Valley and eastward into Base Area 101, which was located astride the Quang Tri/Thua Thien political boundary.

To counter these enemy infiltrations, elements of the 3rdMarDiv and 101st Airborne were ordered to execute Operation Apache Snow in the northern A Shau Valley and southern Da Krong River Valley, cut the enemy supply and infiltration routes at the Laotian border, locate and destroy enemy forces, base camps, and supply caches.  Operating under Lieutenant General Stilwell, XXIV commander, 1st Battalion and 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9 and 2/9) were assigned the task of occupying the southern Da Krong and blocking enemy escape routes into Laos along Route 922.

Movement to Contact

The 2/9 Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel George C. Fox.  Apache Snow began on 10 May when Lieutenant Colonel Thomas J. Culkin’s 1/9 leap-frogged over 2/9 and assaulted Fire Support Base Erskine, which overlooked the upper Da Krong and Route 922.  For the Marines, the timing was perfect because the enemy units had yet to reconstitute infantry regiments following their defeat in Dewey Canyon.  Culkin’s aggressive patrolling resulted in several skirmishes with enemy forces in transit, but each time the enemy refused the Marine’s invitation to dance. Fox’s 2/9, located 5 miles north, patrolled FSB Razor and LZ Dallas in an area north-northeast of Erskine.  They too encountered numerous small sized enemy units, who were also quick to fade into the jungle.

While the Da Krong remained relatively quiet, the same could not be said for the A Shau Valley, where four US Army battalions and an ARVN battalion encountered a well-defended hut and bunker complex on Hill 937 and commenced operations to clear it of elements of the 9th and 29th NVA regiments.  The battle lasted a week, concluding on 20 May 1969 with 500 enemy dead on the; Army casualties were 44 killed, 297 wounded.  Soldiers from the 187th renamed this hill complex “Hamburger Hill.”  Subsequently, surviving elements of the NVA regiments withdrew into Laos and avoided further contact with US and ARVN forces operating in the A Shau Valley.

The 3rdMarDiv continued to maneuver its battalions in western Quang Tri, which reduced the enemy’s threat.  During June, the 9th Marines initiated two simultaneous operations, named Cameron Falls and Utah Mesa, which targeted the 304th NVA Division attempting to establish a presence south of Route 9.  Evidence from reconnaissance missions indicated that elements of the NVA division had infiltrated into the lower Da Krong Valley, and were moving east and north  along Route 616 and the river.  A series of rocket attacks on combat base Vandegrift signaled the start of planned NVA pressure on allied positions by the 57th NVA Regiment.  Colonel Danowitz’s Marines were assigned the mission of searching for and destroying enemy forces within an area bordered in the North by Song Quang Tri, in the South by the Da Krong River, on the East by FSB Shepherd, and on the West by FSB Henderson.  This area was considered critical to the security of Vandegrift and the Ba Long Valley, which led to the population centers of Quang Tri and Dong Ha.

Cameron Falls began on 29 May.  2/9 moved unopposed toward FSB Whisman, which the battalion occupied; 3/9 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Oral R. Swigart, Jr., occupied FSB Shepherd.  At Whisman, 2/9 Marines began to shore up their defensives with obstacles, fighting holes, claymore mines, and trip flares.  At 0215 on 1 June, a small enemy force began probing 2/9’s defenses and ran up against a listening post manned by Golf Company.  Two Marines were killed, but he FSB was alerted.  Aggressive reaction by Golf 2/9 resulted in 19 enemy killed with two taken prisoner.

From information provided by the prisoners, Colonel Fox learned that the 57th NVA Regiment’s command post (CP) was located to the southwest of Whisman.  The 2/9 commander issued a warning order to Fox and Golf companies to prepare for a sweep of the suspected location of the enemy CP; additional intelligence indicated that a large enemy force was moving northeast toward Hill 824.  Danowitz redirected the attack toward Hill 824 with two companies from 2/9 in a sweep northeast along the Da Krong River, and two companies of 3/9 advancing east from FSB Shepherd.  Swigart reported the terrain and vegetation exceedingly difficult — the twelve foot high elephant grass restricted air movement, making the advance exceedingly hot.  As elements of 2/9 and 3/9 converged on Hill 824, both battalion commanders reported that the enemy force was deployed around the hill in considerable strength.

Contact

On 5 June, Hotel Company 2/9 encountered a well-fortified NVA battalion on the southern bank of the Da Krong.  The initial engagement was a fight that lasted 12 hours.  The best description of this fight comes from the Silver Star award citation issued to Captain George W. Sachtleben, of Chicago, Illinois:

The President of the United States takes pleasure in awarding the Silver Star to Captain George W. Sachtleben, United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action  while serving as Commanding Officer, Company H, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division in connection with operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam.

On the afternoon of 5 June 1969, during operation Cameron Falls, two platoons of Company H advanced on a trail along the Da Krong River eight miles southwest of the Vandegrift Combat Base when they initiated contact with a company-sized North Vietnamese Army force occupying well camouflaged positions on a cliff overlooking the trail.  Due to their location, the Marines were extremely vulnerable to the heavy volume of enemy rocket-propelled grenade, small arms, and automatic weapons fire, but continued to fight from a narrow ledge with their backs against the river.

Despite suffering serious wounds sustained during the initial moments of the fire-fight, Captain Sachtleben skillfully deployed his forces to counter the hostile attacks, directed the accurate delivery of supporting arms fire, and organized the movement of casualties to a relatively safe area.

Throughout the fight, he completely disregarded his own safety as he boldly moved about the hazardous area shouting instructions and encouragement to his men.  After establishing an initial perimeter, he directed a limited assault which secured a toe-hold on a portion of one cliff looming over his position.

Throughout the night and the following morning, he directed both offensive and defensive actions which thwarted or repulsed repeated North Vietnamese Army attacks.  Although aware that the enemy was reinforcing and faced by the fact that his company was running dangerously low on ammunition, that his key officers and noncommissioned officers were wounded, and that his men were nearing exhaustion, Captain Sachtleben fearlessly deployed his men, directed their fire, and fought with such tenacity that the North Vietnamese force broke contact late in the afternoon of the second day and retreated away from the Marines.

Captain Sachtleben’s’ dynamic leadership and valiant actions inspired all who observed him and were instrumental in his company accounting for 54 enemy killed as his company decisively defeated the North Vietnamese Army force.  By his courage, bold initiative, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of great personal danger, Captain Sachtleben upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service. 

A subsequent sweep of the area revealed a dozen more enemy remains, enemy bunkers, caves, and senior officer’s living quarters.

Final Tribute

The United States Marine Corps paid tribute to Captain Sachtleben at Arlington National Cemetery, shown below:

Sources:

  1. Sergeant Stanley R. Richard, United States Marine Corps.
  2. Smith, C. R.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: High Mobility and Standdown, 1969.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1988.

Endnotes:

[1] The number of enemy battalions went from around 94 in mid-1968 to around 23 in early 1969.

[2] Born in Chicago and raised in New Jersey, Edward Danowitz entered the Marine Corps in 1942 and served in World War II, Korea, the Dominican Republic, and in Vietnam.  He retired in 1972.  After his military service, he joined the faculty at Rollins College where he taught the Russian and Spanish languages.  He passed away in 2013 at the age of 92 years.

U. S. Special Forces

Special Forces Insignia

 You can place everything civilians know about the military into a thimble.  It isn’t entirely their fault, of course.  So, it comes as no surprise that civilians are likely to ask such questions as, What is the difference between a Green Beret and an Army Ranger?  Or they might ask, Who’s the best, the Green Berets, Rangers, or Marines?

The answers to such deeply insightful questions will always depend upon who’s been asked.  How would one expect a soldier or sailor to answer?  A Marine, for example, might offer the questioner a contemptible stare and then just walk off without answering.  Marines do have a sense of humor, but it has its limits.  One of the best-ever answers originates with a former Green Beret sergeant major by the name of David Kirschbaum:

You tell the Marines to take a hill and they’ll frown, mutter, and bitch about it, but they’ll eventually salute, organize a platoon, and they’ll head straight for that hill.  They’ll fight and kill whoever gets in their way of taking that hill, and even if there is only one PFC left in the bunch, he’ll seize that hill and organize himself for keeping it.

If you tell the Rangers to take a hill, they’ll salute and then go plan for a few days, write a lot of operation orders, develop patrol plans, argue about the scheme of maneuver, and finally decide who ought to be in charge.  And then in the execution of taking that hill, they’ll find the absolutely worst terrain available for their route of march, which will preferably include swamps overrun with poisonous snakes and steep cliffs protected by predatory birds, and they’ll wait for the worst weather imaginable, but they’ll finally go through the swamps and climb the cliffs, and they won’t feel right unless they’ve lost half their force due to exhaustion or snake bite.  But if there’s even one Ranger remaining, he’ll take the hill.

If you tell the Special Forces to take that hill, the first thing they’ll do is ask you why.  So, you have to explain why.  And then they’ll offer a disrespectful stare which is called silent contempt, and then they’ll just go away.  In a few days, they might take that hill.  Or they might take another hill that they liked better because the evidence was so blatantly obvious that their hill was the better choice that you can never argue with them about it.  Or they might pull some sort of a deal and persuade the Marines to do it.  Or, after a few days you might find them at the club completely ignoring the order to take the hill.  And if challenged about their failure to take the hill, they’ll soon convince you that the order was a stupid idea and in not taking the hill, they very likely saved you from a court-martial —for which you are in their debt.”

Most people know the Special Forces soldier by his headgear: the Green Beret.  They probably do not know that the US Army Special Forces traces its roots in unconventional warfare to the Alamo Scouts of the Sixth US Army in the Pacific during World War II, the Philippine Guerrillas [Note 1], the First Special Service Force [Note 2], and several operational groups within the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).  Note: the OSS was not a US Army command, but a large number of officers and enlisted men were assigned to the OSS and later used their experience in forming the US Army Special Forces.  During the Korean War, men like Colonel Wendell Fertig and Lieutenant Colonel Russell W. Volckmann (former Philippine Scouts) used their wartime experiences to formulate the doctrine of unconventional warfare that became the foundation of the Special Forces.

In February 1950, the US government recognized a quasi-independent Vietnam within the French Union.  The US was considering granting aid to the French forces opposing the communist insurgency of Ho Chi Minh.  The US agreed to provide military and economic aid, and with this decision, American involvement in Indochina had begun.

In 1951, Major General Robert A. McClure selected Colonel Aaron Bank (formerly of the OSS) to serve as Operations Branch Chief of the Special Operations Division, Psychological Warfare Staff at Fort Brag, North Carolina.  Within a year, the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was formed under Colonel Bank at the Psychological Warfare School (later designated the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center).  In 1953, the 10th SFG was split, with the 10th deploying to Germany, and the remaining men forming the 77th Special Force Group, which in May 1960 was re-designated as the 7th Special Forces Group.

On 7 May 1954, the French were overwhelmingly defeated by the Viet Minh (Communist supported Viet Nam Independence League) at Dien Bien Phu.  Under the Geneva Armistice Agreement, Vietnam was divided into North Vietnam and South Vietnam.  Between 1950-54, US officials had an opportunity to observe the struggle of France with the Vietnamese insurgency and become familiar with the political and military situation … but one has to wonder, what did these officials do with all that familiarization?

In July 1954, the US Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam (USMAAGV) numbered 342 officers and men.  Three months later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower promised direct aid to the provisional government of South Vietnam, which at the time was led by Premier Ngo Dinh Diem.  Between 1954-56, Viet Minh cadres were busy forming action committees to spread communist propaganda and organize South Vietnamese citizens to oppose their own government [Note 3].  In 1955, both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union announced that they would provide direct aid to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (also, DRV or North Vietnam).  In August 1955, Premier Diem rejected for the third time Hanoi’s demand for a general election throughout both North Vietnam and South Vietnam to settle the matter of unification.  In October 1955, Diem proclaimed the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), which became the official government of South Vietnam.

On 24 June 1957, the 1st Special Forces Group was activated on Okinawa; within a year, a team from this unit trained fifty-eight soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) at a commando training center located at Nha Trang.  These trainees would later become the nucleus for the first Vietnamese Special Forces units.

In 1959-60, communist insurgents (known as Vietnamese Communists (also, VC) grew in number and began terrorizing innocent civilians.  Clashes between government forces and VC units increased from around 180 in January 1960 to nearly 550 in September.  Thirty Special Forces instructors were sent from Fort Bragg to Vietnam in May to set up an ARVN training program.

On 21 September 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced a program to provide additional military and economic aid to the RVN.  On that same day, the 5th Special Forces Group was activated at Fort Bragg.  It was at this point in 1961 that President Kennedy took an interest in special forces operations and he became the patron of the Special Forces program within the Army.

Up until 1961, the RVN and US mission in Saigon focused their attention on developing regular ground forces, which for the most part had excluded ethnic and religious minority groups.  Late in that year, the US initiated several programs that would broaden the counterinsurgency effort by developing paramilitary forces within these minority groups.  The development of these groups became a primary mission of Special Forces teams in Vietnam.  It was a difficult mission; one that required an understanding of Vietnamese culture, the culture of minority groups (i.e., Montagnards), and a great deal of patience.

In 1961, the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas undertook an examination of the responsibility of the US Army in the cold war and the so-called “wars of liberation” as practiced by communists around the world.  One focus that evolved from this examination was doctrine needed to counter subversive insurgencies, particularly in RVN.  When asked to identify units and numbers of forces needed and best prepared to deal with counterinsurgency operations, the Army selected as its vanguard unit the Special Forces, which at the time numbered around 2,000 troops.

Throughout the Vietnam War, the US Army Special Forces excelled in every aspect of unconventional warfare.  As with the other American armed forces in Vietnam, however, the deck was stacked against them from the start [Note 4].  At the conclusion of the war, after Democrats in Congress reneged on America’s deal with Vietnam in the post Vietnamization phase, many veteran special forces soldiers left active service in disgust.  We won all the battles, but the politicians back home handed a victory to the North Vietnamese from the jaws of their resounding defeat.  The utter shame of American history was not the men who stepped up to serve during the Vietnam War, it was the Congress of the United States who not only turned its back on our South Vietnamese ally, but on the men and women who served in Vietnam as well.

The Green Berets do not refer to themselves as such.  They either refer to themselves as “Special Forces” or SF.  Sometimes they are known as “Sneaky Pete,” and “Snake Eaters.”  They do know how to eat snakes, but I have it pretty good authority that it’s not a preferred or regular diet (although it’s probably better tasting than the current government faire of Meals Ready to Eat (MRE’s) (also, Meals rejected by Ethiopians).  

The John Wayne film, The Green Berets, wasn’t really about the Special Forces soldier; it was more of a composite picture of soldiers one might find in the Special Forces.  According to the retired special forces soldiers I know, the SFG of the 1960s is a far cry from the modern organization.

In the early days, the SF soldier was an individual we might call a natural woodsman.  They were men to volunteered for duty with Special Forces because they preferred being in the boonies to being in garrison and having to take part in weekly parades, repetitious routines, and the chicken shit associated with regular army life.  There was some formal training, of course, and it is true that these fellows had a knack for learning foreign languages, but most of the men received on-the-job training (OJT) in special forces operations teams.  One former Green Beret described it as working hard when it was time to work and playing hard when it was time to play.  Perhaps too much drinking and chasing skirts while on liberty, but these men were, indeed, the quiet professionals who never lost their focus on their mission.

The primary element of a Special Forces company is an operational detachment, commonly referred to as an A Team.  It consists of 12 soldiers: 2 officers, and ten sergeants.  All members of the A Team are Special Forces qualified and cross trained in different skills.  The team is almost unlimited in its ability to operate in hostile or “denied” areas, able to infiltrate and exfiltrate by air, land, or sea.  It can operate for indefinite periods of time in remote locations without any outside help or support—self-sustaining, independent teams who regularly train, advise, and assist US and allied forces and agencies and capable of performing a myriad of special operations.  Every member of the A Team is lethal.

Besides the A Team commander (a captain), the second in command is a Chief Warrant Officer.  The captain is responsible for ensuring and maintaining the operational readiness of the team; he may also command or advise an indigenous combat force up to battalion size units.  His executive officer (second in command) serves as the tactical and technical expert.  He is multi-lingual, supervises plans and operations, and is capable of recruiting, organizing, training, and supervising indigenous combat forces up to the battalion level.

The A Team Sergeant is a Master Sergeant, the senior enlisted man, responsible for overseeing all Team operations, supervising subordinate enlisted men, and the person who runs the show on a daily basis.  Because of his interaction with the team enlisted men, he is sometimes referred to as the Den Daddy.  He is capable of stepping up to second in command should the need arise, or assuming command should the team commander and XO become incapacitated.

The Operations Sergeant is a Sergeant First Class (E-7) who coordinates the team’s intelligence, including field interrogations.  He is capable of training, advising, or leading indigenous combat forces up to a company size unit.

The team has two (2) weapons sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  These are the weapons experts who are capable of employing every small arm and crew served weapon in the world.  They are responsible for training other team members in the use of a wide range of weapons.  As tactical mission leaders, they are capable of employing conventional and unconventional tactics and techniques.  They are responsible for the tactical security of the A Team.

The team has two (2) engineer sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class, and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  These men are experts in demolitions.  They are lethal with a capital L.  They are the builders and destroyers of structures and serve as key players in civic action missions.

There are two (2) medical sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class, and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  The SF medic employs the latest in field medical technology and limited surgical procedures, capable of managing any battlefield trauma injury, supervising preventative medicine, and as such is an integral part of civic action programs.  Upon completion of the SF training, they are certified “paramedical” personnel, which includes advance trauma life support, limited surgery and dentistry, and even veterinarian procedures.

There are two (2) communications sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class, and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  These are the Comm Guys, or sometimes referred to as “Sparks.”  They are the lifeline of the team, able to establish and maintain sophisticated communications via FM, multi-channel, and satellite devices.  Theirs is unquestionably the heaviest rucksack on the team.

In addition to their primary responsibilities, team members are often assigned other duties.  The best scrounger very often acts as the supply sergeant.  A scrounger is someone who can steal from other units without getting caught.  One member with peculiar culinary skills might serve as the team cook.  

In the 1960s, before the Special Forces were recognized as a branch of the army, they were regarded as “unassigned.”  Another word for this was “bastard.”  In joining the special forces, a solder became part of a bastard unit.  The veteran soldiers preferred being bastards because it meant that they were generally ignored by the geniuses in Washington whose tactical skill set was operating a pencil sharpener.  Today, the conventional army has taken over the special forces … which means that pencil pushers now dictate to the field soldier how he must go about his business.  If you ask a veteran SF soldier, he’ll probably tell you that today’s SF is little different from the regular conventional army … but they do get to wear service insignia.

One of my favorites:

Staff Sergeant Schwartz had volunteered for the Special Forces.  His request was approved contingent on successfully passing a psychological examination.  On the date of his interview, Schwartz entered the medical officer’s office, removed his hat, and took a seat.  The doctor, who had been reviewing Schwartz’s medical record, looked up and observed a frog sitting on Schwartz’s head.  Having interviewed several Special Forces candidates that day, the doctor was unfazed.  He asked Schwartz, “So, what’s your problem?”  The frog answered, saying, “I don’t know, doc.  It started off as a wart on my ass.”

Endnotes:

[1] After the invasion of the Philippines by the Japanese in 1941, there were sixty American military and civilian commanders of forces throughout the Philippines who evaded capture or escaped Japanese imprisonment on the archipelago’s several islands.  With the help and assistance of the Filipino people, the Philippine Scouts formed resistance groups, which were eventually recognized by the American military and eventually supported and supplied by the USN submarine service.

[2] The First Special Service Force, also known as the Devil’s Brigade, was an elite American-Canadian commando unit in World War II under the command of the Fifth US Army, organized in 1942 under Colonel Robert T. Frederick, who commanded the brigade until 1944.

[3] At this time, the average Vietnamese citizen was not overly patriotic.  Occurrences outside of their immediate family, or outside their village of domicile, was of no great concern to them.

[4] For a discussion about the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, see (1) Viet Nam: The Beginning; (2) Viet Nam: The Marines Head North; (3) The Laotian Problem; (4) Counterinsurgency and Pacification, and (5) The War Begins in Earnest.  The reader may also be interested in From King to Joker: How administration policies moved America from greatness to mediocrity.

Sugar Loaf

The bended knee is not a Marine Corps tradition

Island of Okinawa

In 1944, the Japanese Empire was in agony.  Its Pacific defensive perimeter had been shattered and was suddenly a very narrow band.  The Co-Prosperity Sphere was little more than a memory.  The motherland was under threat of invasion.  Japanese industries were unable to replace the hundreds of airplanes destroyed by the Americans and their allies.  Worse, there were no experienced pilots to train them and no facility suitable for educating a new generation of combat aviators.  There were also limited quantities of fuel to propel aircraft.  The Imperial Japanese fleet was sitting at anchor at death’s door.  The Japanese high command was well aware of this, of course, but had no intention of surrendering to Allied forces.  National pride would not allow it.  There would be no withdrawals and no surrender.  Japan’s new strategy was to cause so many casualties that American public opinion would demand that Roosevelt end the war on terms favorable to the Japanese.

The island of Okinawa lies 330 miles southwest of the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu.  If an invasion of the Japanese home islands became necessary, Okinawa would be the place from which the allied attack would come.  The Japanese high command knew this.  In the White House, there was some doubt about whether a new wonder weapon under evaluation in the United States would work.  If it didn’t work, then an invasion of Japan would be inevitable.  General Douglas MacArthur told Roosevelt that he estimated a million more Americans would die in a land battle in Japan.  

On 7 September 1944, anticipating the need for an invasion of the Japanese home islands, Marine Corps headquarters ordered the formation of the Sixth Marine Division (6thMarDiv) in the southern Solomon Islands.  It was a typical Marine infantry division; three rifle regiments with three battalions each, and direct support battalions of engineers, artillery, field medical personnel, pioneer, motor transport, tanks, and headquarters and service battalions.  The division organization included the newly reconstituted Fourth Marine Regiment, the 22nd Marines, and 29th Marines.

The division was “new” to the Marine Corps, but it was in no way a “green” division.  The men who formed the division previously fought as part of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade on Guam and with the 2nd Marine Division on Saipan.  Half of the force in three regiments were combat veterans.  The division received its initial training as a combat organization on Guadalcanal.  Its first stop on the way to Japan was the island called Okinawa.

The Allied force landed on Okinawa on 1 April 1945.  The 6th Marine Division was but one element of the US Tenth Army, consisting of the XXIV Corps (four Army infantry divisions) and the III Amphibious Corps (three US Marine infantry divisions).  The 6th Marine Division was one of those.  To everyone’s astonishment, there was no opposition to the allied landing.

The Japanese had set their trap, and the Allies walked straight into it.  Japan’s strategy called for a defense in depth of Okinawa —a fierce defense similar to that of Iwo Jima, but with significant differences.  Commanding a Japanese force of between 96,000 and 130,000 troops [Note 1], General Mitsuru Ushijima would allow the Americans to land ashore unopposed. Once they had, a large Kamikaze force would destroy the allied fleet, thus cutting the allies off from their supply line and leaving the Americans with no opportunity for withdrawal.  In this setting, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) would systematically annihilate the men stranded onshore.  The construction of Japanese defensive positions had begun in the summer of 1944, which included the use of existing caves, constructing tunnels and underground command posts, establishing interlocking fields of fire, ranged artillery, and spider holes for snipers.  Ushijima’s defensive line was along the island’s southern tip, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the East China Sea. 

Hiromichi Yahara

The architect of the Japanese strategy for Okinawa was Colonel Hiromichi Yahara, who served as Chief of Staff to General Ushijima.  Yahara prohibited any of his defensive troops from adopting the popular philosophy of “self-sacrifice.”  Such notions were self-defeating at a time when Japan needed more, not less, manpower.  Instead, he intended that the IJA outlast the allied forces.  He intended to accomplish this by establishing a defensive structure incorporating snipers, artillery, mortars, and well-constructed pillboxes.  Should the Allied forces continue to press the Japanese defense, then the IJA would fight these Americans in close quarters combat, where they could not use artillery or mortars against the Japanese.

With great cunning and ingenuity, General Ushijima and Colonel Yahara organized their ground defense in the Shuri area of southern Okinawa.  Japanese security included a series of concentric positions adapted to the contour of the terrain.  Caves, emplacements, blockhouses, and pillboxes were built into the hills, connected by elaborate underground tunnels and skillfully camouflaged and concealed positions.  Many Okinawan burial tombs were fortified by the Japanese, as well.  They even reinforced the reverse slopes of hills.  Artillery was placed in the caves and thoroughly integrated into General Ushijima’s defense plan.

The Japanese defensive line consisted of three perimeters.  There was no greater example of Japanese ferocity in battle than their defense of Okinawa.  The battle for hacksaw ridge began on 24 April; it did not end until 6 May, and then only after imposing massive casualties on the attacking allied forces —and at which time the Japanese fell back to a new position and waited once more for the Americans to attack it. 

After going ashore on 1 April 1945, Army headquarters tasked the 6th Marine Division with clearing the island’s northern end.  This operation cost the division 236 killed, 1,601 wounded, and seven missing in action.  A month later, the division replaced the Army’s US 27th Infantry Division.  By 6 May, the 6thMarDiv bivouacked near Chibana, Okinawa, less than ten miles from the battle area’s forward edge.  In replacing the army division, the Marines would participate in the Battle for Naha, Okinawa’s capital city.

On 10 May, the 6th Marine Division launched its first attack against the Japanese main line of resistance (MLR) when the 22nd Marines crossed the River Asa in the early morning hours.  A demolished bridge necessitated the construction of a footbridge.  The enemy, being fully aware of the Marines’ activities, sent sappers to destroy the footbridge.

At 0330, the First and Third Battalions crossed the Asa; the first battalion waded across upstream on the regiment’s left, while the third battalion used the partially destroyed footbridge.  At first, Japanese resistance was light, but the opposition became furious with greater awareness of the Marine advance.  Despite heavy artillery and mortar fires, the Marines advanced to the first area of ridges.  By nightfall, the 22nd Marines had established a bridgehead 1,400 yards wide and about 400 yards deep—but it was a day of heavy casualties.  

On 11 May, the regimental commander committed his reserve component, 2/22, to cover the left flank of 1/22, fighting to reduce an enemy stronghold on a formidable coral hill southeast of Asa village.  When flanking action failed to secure the hill, the troops withdrew to allow naval gunfire to access the target area [Note 2].  Meanwhile, combat engineers labored under enemy fire to construct a bailey bridge [Note 3] across the River Asa.  When completed, Marine tanks rushed across to support the rifle companies.  Then, with the added power of tanks, the 1/22 renewed its attack and was successful.  On the right, 3/22 fought for three hours before capturing the precipitous cliff area in its zone of action.

On 12 May, the 22nd Marines, with all three battalions online, continued to advance against Japanese positions and did so despite increasing enemy resistance.  The regiment was receiving fire from the front, and its left flank, an enemy entrenchment on Wana Ridge; the Shuri Heights permitted the observation of troop movements, allowing the Japanese to bring fire to bear at a moment’s notice.  With the Division’s left flank in peril, the Division Commander [Note 4] ordered 3/29 into the line.  He would have to commit another regiment to maintain the Division’s momentum.

2/22, and 3/29 continued the assault on 13 May.  All that they were able to achieve, however, is about 300 yards.  Enemy resistance was vicious.  In the late afternoon, 1/29 and 2/29 moved up behind 3/29 and prepared to attack the morning of 14 May. 

Sugar Loaf, 1945

At about this time, the Commanding General discovered the enemy’s western anchor to their main line of resistance.  He also learned that there were three terrain features, heavily fortified and manned, with mutually supporting fires, that formed this anchor.  Heavily guarded corridors led into each terrain feature, and no ground offered covered avenues of approach.  Before the Division could reach Naha, it would be necessary to pass over these features; features so small that they did not even show up on standard military maps.  Cartographers simply listed hill locations as Target Area 7672G.  They were later named Horseshoe Ridge, Sugar Loaf Hill, and Half-Moon Hill.  Of these, Sugar Loaf Hill was the highest in elevation.

The Japanese called it Suribachi Oka [Note 5]. Under normal conditions, a single Marine rifle company would have the task of seizing this hill, but there was nothing “normal” about the Battle for Okinawa.  The Marines of the 6thMarDiv would struggle with this hill for ten excruciating days.  Ownership changed eleven times.  The fighting took place under the worst of all possible conditions: unabated driving rain and rivers of mud.

The Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill is the story of a Japanese soldiery determined to keep it, and American Marines, who were more determined to take it.

By this time, the 22nd Marines’ combat efficiency was critical.  The regiment had lost over 800 Marines killed or wounded since crossing the River Asa.  The capital city of Naha lay open to the 22nd Marines, but the regiment could not advance without taking Sugar Loaf Hill and its two sisters.  The problem was that the Sugar Loaf Hill defensive area formed a triangle and was mutually supporting.  Troops attacking any one of these three hills received fire from the other two.  There was no room for extended maneuver.  On the right of the 6thMarDiv was the sea; on the left, the 1stMarDiv, which offered no protection or cover.

Late in the afternoon of 14 May 2/22 attempted a tank-infantry assault, and despite heavy enemy fire that pushed the Marine tanks back, a few Marines from Gulf Company succeeded in reaching the top of Sugar Loaf.  The attack caught the Japanese by surprise. 

Major Courtney

Ordered to hold his position in static defense for the night of 14-15 May 1945, Major Henry A. Courtney, Jr., while serving as the Executive Officer, 2/22, commanded the Marines during a Japanese counterattack.  Courtney weighed the effect of a hostile night-time counterattack against the tactical value of an immediate Marine assault and resolved to initiate that assault.

With permission to continue his advance and seize the hill’s forward slope, Courtney explained the situation to his few remaining Marines and declared his intention of moving forward.  Promptly moving toward the enemy, Courtney boldly blasted nearby cave positions and neutralized the enemy as he advanced.  Inspired by his courage, every Marine took up their arms and followed Courtney without hesitation.  Together, these intrepid Marines braved a terrific concentration of Japanese gunfire and skirted the hill on the right, reaching the reverse slope.  Temporarily halting his advance, Major Courtney sent guides to the rear for more ammunition and reinforcement.  Twenty-six Marines and a Landing Vehicle Track (LVT) soon joined Courtney and his remaining men, the LVT bringing forward several cases of hand grenades.  Courtney then stormed the crest of the hill for the purpose of crushing any possible Japanese counterattack before it could gain momentum.  Courtney pushed ahead with unrelenting aggressiveness, hurling grenades into cave openings with devastating effect.

Upon reaching the crest of the hill, Major Courtney observed a large number of Japanese forming up for a counterassault less than 100 yards away.  He instantly attacked these Japanese and waged a furious battle, killing many of the enemy and forcing the remainder to take cover in surrounding caves.  Determined to hold, he ordered his men to dig in and, with cool disregard of enemy mortar fire, rallied his weary troops.  With the Marines now “set in,” Courtney tirelessly aided his wounded Marines and assigned his men to more advantageous positions.  Although instantly killed while moving among his men, Major Courtney, by his astute military acumen, indomitable  spirit, and leadership, contributed to the campaign’s overall success against the Sugar Loaf Defensive line.

Major Courtney received a posthumous award of the Medal of Honor for this action.  Camp Courtney, Okinawa, the present location of the 3rd Marine Division and III MEF Headquarters was named in his honor.  

The Marine success was short-lived, however.  During the night, the Japanese organized a Battalion-sized counterattack that overwhelmed the remnants of Gulf Company and drove 2/22 back to the north and into the area controlled by the 29th Marines.  Major Courtney’s assault initiated the most bitter fighting yet seen by the 22nd Marines.  1/29 and 3/29 experienced the same painful refusal to give way to the American Marines.

In the corridor leading to the Half-Moon, 3/29 reduced a pocket of Japanese resistance, but the fight was so intense that it prevented further advance.  On the afternoon of 15 May 3/22 moved up to relieve 2/22, which had lost over 400 men since 12 May.  1/22 assaulted along the ridge overlooking Asato but could advance no further due to heavy fire from Horseshoe and Sugar Loaf.  Japanese mortars and artillery rained down on the Marines throughout the night of 15-16 May.  It was also raining cats and dogs.  Among these Marines, there was no rest for the weary.

Early the next morning, the 6thMarDiv, with its 22nd and 29th regiments in the assault, again attacked to seize Sugar Loaf and Half-Moon hills.  Enemy fire was withering, and it was apparent that the Japanese were rushing reinforcements to bolster the Sugar Loaf Hill system.  Working its way into position on the regimental left, 3/22 prepared to assault Sugar Loaf Hill.  Behind the battalion, tanks and artillery lobbed round after round into Sugar Loaf Hill.  On the signal to go, 3/22 rapidly advanced up the pitted slope in the face of the enemy’s entire arsenal of weapons.  Several times, the battalion reached the top of the hill and engaged the Japanese in hand to hand fighting but were driven back.  With devastating casualties, 3/22 withdraw.

The Division commander hoped that the 29th Marines might seize Half-Moon Hill.  Supported by tanks, these Marines moved forward to the edge of the ridge by late afternoon, but before they could organize defensive positions, the Japanese poured in so much fire from Shuri, Sugar Loaf, and their reverse slope positions of the Half-Moon Hill that the troops had to withdraw under cover of smoke.  Casualties were extremely heavy.  16 May was the bitterest day for the Marines of the 6thMarDiv; two regiments had fought bitterly contested battles without achieving their objectives.  The 22nd Marines had lost so many men that it was nearing combat ineffectiveness.  General Shepherd shifted the attacking force’s burden to the 29th Marines; he ordered the 22nd Marines to hold their positions.

Before the 29th Marines’ attack, Japanese positions in the Sugar Loaf defenses received a massive pounding from 16-inch naval artillery, 8-inch howitzers, and 1,000 aerial bombs.  Then, with tanks in close support, 1/29 and 3/29 edged their way to the northern edge of Half-Moon Hill.  3/29 seized a slim foothold on the hill’s northwestern border, but Japanese fire made their position untenable, and the battalion withdrew.  Meanwhile, Echo Company 2/29 maneuvered for a flanking attack on the east side of Sugar Loaf.  Despite heavy mortar fire and Japanese grenades, the company drove to the top of the hill three times.  Each time, the Japanese counterattack drove them off the hill.  Finally, around 1830, the company made a fourth assault.  This time the Marines defeated the Japanese counterattack, but there were so few men left alive that the company didn’t have enough manpower to defend it.  Echo Company pulled back to better ground for the night.

At dusk, Marines observed the Japanese rushing in troops to reinforce the hill.  Almost immediately, twelve battalions of American artillery took the Japanese under fire and inflicted so many losses that they discontinued the effort.  While it was true that Sugar Loaf and Half-Moon hills remained in Japanese hands, the 6thMarDiv had made substantial but unrealized gains at the time.  The Japanese had suffered so many losses that Ushijima was unable to sustain his stalwart defense.  As the barrage was going on, the 29th Marines moved into position for an assault on the next morning.

At 0830 on 18 May 1/29 and 3/29 again, assaulted Japanese positions on Half-Moon Hill.  Once the Marines established a foothold, the battle turned into a slugfest.  With the Japanese thus occupied, 2/29 tried to surround Sugar Loaf Hill.  Enemy mines, 47-mm fire, and artillery disabled six Marine tanks and drove the battalion back.  2/29 then launched a combined arms attack with infantry and tanks in a coordinated maneuver.  One tank managed to edge its way around the hill’s west side and commenced firing into the enemy’s reverse slope positions.  As the Japanese moved to counter this threat, another tank worked its way around to the east side of the hill and emptied its machine gun into the backs of the Sugar Loaf defenders.  It was pure pandemonium as troops swarmed over the hill and engaged in brutal fighting.  After an hour, the Marines held the hill.  Marines from Fox Company, 2/29 assaulted Horseshoe Ridge and destroyed enemy mortar positions by fire and close combat.

During the night, Japanese troops counterattacked the Company F position, driving the Marines back to Sugar Loaf.  Marine attempts to regain the hill were unsuccessful.  On the left flank, 1/29 and 3/29 held their positions at the base of the Half-Moon Hill and did so despite intense enemy fire.

To exploit the Division’s gains, General Shepherd brought in the 4th Marines to replace the 29th on 19 May.  On the right of the Division’s front, the 22nd Marines remained in their positions but were in no condition to continue the attack.  After relieving the 29th Marines, the 4th Marines prepared to attack to seize the upper reaches of the Asato River.  During the night, the Japanese made full use of their artillery to pound the Marine positions, but American casualties were light.

The 4th Marines launched their assault on the morning of 20 May and managed to seize a part of Horseshoe Ridge.  As the fighting raged, the Japanese positions on Shuri Hill massed their weapons and hit the 4th Marines’ flank with heavy fire.  At 2130, following a massive mortar barrage, the Japanese counterattacked Sugar Loaf.  The Japanese focused on 3/4 as its primary objective —their assault lasting until after midnight.  The use of naval illumination allowed artillery spotters to target the Japanese; six battalions of American artillery defeated the counterattack, but before driving the Japanese back, the 4th Marines committed part of its regimental reserve.  Nearly 300 Japanese died, with only one Marine killed and 19 wounded.

Marines made slight gains the next day within the interior of Horseshoe Ridge, but they were unable to exploit their foothold on Half-Moon Hill.  Until the Shuri Line fell, it would be impossible to seize the Half-Moon in its entirety.  On 22 May, the 4th Marines advanced slowly to the Asato.  General Shepherd was ready to exploit his gains by employing a holding attack [Note 6] on the left of the Division’s front.  After a reconnaissance, the 4th Marines moved two battalions across the river in the afternoon of 23 May.  What the Marines found was determined enemy resistance.  The situation facing the 4th Marines was challenging but not precarious.  All of its critical supplies had to be hand-carried across the river.  Massive amounts of rain made the terrain water-logged; the mud was above ankle-deep, and stretcher-bearers moved wounded Marines to the rear with much difficulty.  Marine vehicles had an impossible time navigating through the morass of mud and slime.

The 4th Marines continued their attack on 25 May, seizing most of the north-south ridge west of Machishi.  A company-sized attack by the Japanese kept 3/4 busy for most of the night, but the 4th regiment continued its advance into the eastern outskirts of Naha City.  The Division Reconnaissance Company (ReconCo) crossed the Asato near its mouth and penetrated Naha west of the north-south canal.  Enemy Resistance was light, with only a few snipers challenging the Marine advance.  The next morning, with rain falling in buckets, the 4th Marines confined its efforts to aggressive patrolling, and the ReconCo moved further into Naha.

On 26 May, the Marines observed signs of an enemy withdrawal.  Shepherd ordered all units to commence patrolling so that he could determine the extent of the enemy’s departure from the Shuri Line.  2/22 passed through the ReconCo and pushed further into Naha.  By this time, the city was almost a total wreck; only a few buildings remained standing, and these only barely.  The 4th regiment’s patrols moved 300 yards forward and found only weak opposition.

On 27 May, General Shepherd reoriented his assault by ordering the 22nd Marines to complete Naha’s capture and prepare to advance through the hills that overlooked the Kokuba River.  The 29th Marines relieved the 4th Marines and prepared to continue the attack southeast toward the Shichina hills.  The regiment completed its mission on 28 May.  Initially, the 29th Marines were to carry out a holding attack while supporting the 22nd Marines by fire.  On 29 May, the 22nd Marines crossed the north-south canal and commenced to fight through the low hills leading to Shichina, which ran parallel to the Kokuba River.  Initially, the assault progressed rapidly but slowed considerably with increasing enemy resistance, a rearguard force stationed in the hills.  Japanese resistance continued through 1 June.  From its position on the Kokuba River, Shepherd could observe the Naha-Yonabaru Cross-Island highway; across the river, he could see the materials abandoned by the withdrawing Japanese.

The Battle of Okinawa was the bloodiest campaign of the Pacific Theater during World War II.  In total, US and Allied forces gave up 14,009 dead, with 55,162 wounded in action [Note 7].  An allied estimate of Japanese killed in action was between 77,166 to 110,000.  The 6th Marine Division gave up 1,700 killed and nearly 8,000 injured from early May to 21 June 1945, making the Battle of Sugar Loaf Hill the island’s bloodiest battle.  Marine gallantry and intrepidity during this horrific battle earned the division the Presidential Unit Citation [Note 8], which reads as follows:

Presidential Unit Citation

 For extraordinary heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces during the assault and capture of Okinawa, April 1 to June 21, 1945. Seizing Yontan Airfield in its initial operation, the SIXTH Marine Division, Reinforced, smashed through organized resistance to capture Ishikawa Isthmus, the town of Nago, and heavily fortified Motobu Peninsula in 13 days. Later committed to the southern front, units of the Division withstood overwhelming artillery and mortar barrages, repulsed furious counterattacks, and staunchly pushed over the rocky terrain to reduce almost impregnable defenses and capture Sugar Loaf Hill. Turning southeast, they took the capital city of Naha and executed surprise shore-to-shore landings on Oroku Peninsula, securing the area with its prized Naha Airfield and Harbor after nine days of fierce fighting. Reentering the lines in the south, SIXTH Division Marines sought out enemy forces entrenched in a series of rocky ridges extending to the southern tip of the island, advancing relentlessly and rendering decisive support until the last remnants of enemy opposition were exterminated and the island secured. By their valor and tenacity, the officers and men of the SIXTH Marine Division, Reinforced contributed materially to the conquest of Okinawa, and their gallantry in overcoming a fanatic enemy in the face of extraordinary danger and difficulty adds new luster to Marine Corps history and the traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Sources:

  1. Astor, G.  Operation Iceberg: The Invasion and Conquest of Okinawa in World War II.  Dell Books, 1996.
  2. Frank, R. B.  Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire.  Random House, 1999.
  3. Hastings, M.  Retribution—the Battle for Japan, 1944-45.  Knopf Books, 2007.
  4. Nichols, C. S., and Henry I. Shaw.  Okinawa: Victory in the Pacific.  Battery Press, 1989.
  5. Stockman, J. R.  The Sixth Marine Division.  Historical Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1959

Endnotes:

[1] Ushijima was in dire need for ground troops.  The HQ IJA ordered the 9th Infantry Division to Formosa (Taiwan), which forced Ushijima to mobilize the entire civilian population on the Island to augment his 32nd Army.

[2] Naval gunfire was provided by the USS Indianapolis.

[3] A portable, prefabricated truss bridge developed by the British for use during World War II.  Components of the bridge are small and light enough to be carried in trucks and lifted in place without the use of a crane.

[4] Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., a future Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[5] This Japanese word describes a bowl or kitchen implement whose purpose was to grind to a pulp whatever was placed inside it.  A mountain or elevated terrain referred to as Suribachi would resemble a bowl turned upside down.  

[6] A holding attack is one designed to hold the enemy in his position, to deceive him as to where the main attack is being made and prevent him from reinforcing his positions.  A holding attack may also force the enemy to prematurely commit his reserve force at an unwise location.

[7] The numbers of US and allied servicemen killed and wounded are estimates and vary among those who cite the statistic.  These numbers also include US and allied navy casualties that resulted from massive Kamikaze attacks off the coast of Okinawa.

[8] The Presidential Unit Citation recognizes US and foreign/allied units for extraordinary heroism in actions against an armed enemy after 7 December 1941.  To qualify, the unit cited must display such gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission, under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions, so as to set it apart from and above all other units participating in the same campaign.  The collective degree of valor against an armed enemy by the unit nominated is the same criteria that would justify an individual award of the Navy Cross medal. 

The Peking Rebellion

Necessary Background

Between the 12th and 15th centuries, interconnecting river and sea trade routes transformed Europe’s economy.  This development led to Europe becoming the world’s most prosperous trade networks.  The only limiting factor to river or sea trade was the inadequacy of ships for that purpose.  As Spain began a campaign to push Moslems out of the Iberian Peninsula, it realized economic growth in Andalusia and eventually allowed Spain to seize Lisbon in 1147.  In Venice, Genoa, and Pisa, the Italians dominated trade in the eastern Mediterranean.  In the North Atlantic, Norsemen began their conquest of England, which evolved into the development of peaceful trade along the North Sea.  Trade organizations developed, which involved merchant guilds in northern Germany.

Model of caravel design ship

Historians credit the beginning of the Age of Discovery to the Portuguese, under the patronage of Infante Dom Henrique (also known as Prince Henry the Navigator).  Henry directed the development of lighter ships, a design known as the caravel.  With improved sails, the caravel could sail farther and faster than any other ship of the day.  The caravel was highly maneuverable and could sail nearer the wind.  With this ship, the Portuguese began exploring the Atlantic coast of Africa [Note 1].

In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias reached the Indian Ocean by sailing around the Horn of Africa.  Perhaps the most significant discovery of all was Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the American continent in 1492.  This discovery set into motion competition between Portugal and Spain, under whose patronage Columbus made his discovery.  To avoid conflicts between these two nations, the Pope issued bulls, which divided the world into two exploration regions. The Pope granted each kingdom exclusive rights to claim newly discovered lands [Note 2].

Gradually, other European states developed maritime interests that placed them into direct competition with Portugal and Spain.  In pursuing these interests, exploring nations attacked the ships and seized their competitors’ cargos; it was a behavior that led European countries toward the development of navies, which they used to protect their ships, shipments, and foreign operating bases.  Newly discovered lands would be of no benefit to European adventurers unless or until these new lands were conquered, controlled, and colonized.  Through the use of superior military technologies, Europeans enslaved indigenous peoples. They used them to harvest the new lands’ bounties, which included precious metals, previously unknown grains, spices, and fruits.

By the 16th century, Italians and Arabs shared a monopoly on overland trade with India and China.  The Portuguese broke this monopoly by developing sea routes to both countries.  Rivals for business, notably the Dutch East Indies Company, soon eclipsed the Portuguese by establishing bases of operation in Malacca, Ceylon, several Indian port cities, Indonesia, and Japan [Note 3].

In this competitive setting, European powers pursued their overseas interests through treaty, colonization, conquest, or a combination of all three.  Trade with China was desirable because of the high demand for Chinese goods and because they offered immense profits.  Through the 1700s, China had become the center of the world economy [Note 4].  Every European power wanted a trade relationship with China that favored their country at every other competitor’s expense.  The inability of the Qing (also Ch’ing) Dynasty to deal with internal challenges in the late 1700s sent a strong signal to the European powers (and Japan) that China was ripe for the taking.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) was China’s last imperial dynasty.  Evidence of dynastic decline became evident when Chinese officials proved incapable of ending sectarian violence among Sufi Moslem groups.  The Qing’s interference in Moslem affairs led to an insurrection that lasted from 1781 to 1813.  It was only with the assistance of a third Moslem group that the rebellion was finally put down.

Soon after the uprising, the European powers (and Japan) began chipping away at Chinese sovereignty —and continued to do so for nearly seventy years.  For the Chinese, European and Japanese encroachments were far more than a lengthy series of military assaults; they were the catalyst of a national identity crisis and damaged the Chinese psyche.  After several hundreds of years of deluding themselves into believing China was the center of the universe, the Chinese suddenly learned that much-younger nations possessed far superior technologies and had no hesitation in using them to achieve selfish interests.  Foreign powers took advantage of every opportunity to whittle away at Chinese sovereignty, including the illegal importation of opium from Afghanistan, India, and Turkey.

In earlier times, chemists believed opium contained harmless healing properties, but in the early to late 1700s, its true nature became apparent as tens of thousands of people became addicted to opium.  As more Chinese became opium-dependent, increased demand drove prices higher, which increased the profits of foreign trading companies, smugglers, dealers, and government officials who accepted bribes to look the other way.  Finally, realizing opium’s effects, Emperor Jia-Qing issued a succession of edicts (1729, 1799, 1814, and 1831) declaring opium illegal and imposing severe penalties for its importation use.  The only tangible result of these laws was that (a) they made opium even more profitable, and (b) high demand for opium guaranteed its continued importation.  Everyone involved in the opium trade was making money —except the user.

Opium aside, China enjoyed a favorable trade balance with European interests.  China sold porcelains, silks, and tea in exchange for silver bullion.  In the late 18th century, the British East India Company (BEIC) expanded the cultivation of opium within its Indian Bengal territories, selling it to private traders who transported it to China.  In 1787, BEIC sent 4,000 chests of opium to China annually.  By 1833, 30,000 chests went to China.  American shipping companies were also engaged in opium, including the grandfather of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the ancestors of former Secretary of State John F. Kerry.  The opium trade was euphemistically called the “Old China Trade.”  Other foreign powers became involved in opium, as well. BEIC may have lost its monopoly, but profits remained high.

Partly concerned about his people’s moral decay, and somewhat concerned about the outflow of silver, the Emperor directed his high commissioner, Lin Tse-Hsu, to end the trade.  Lin ordered the seizure of all opium, including that held in foreign trading company warehouses.  Charles Elliott, Chief Superintendent of British Trade (in China), was very quickly inundated with British merchants’ complaints.  To assuage their concerns, Elliott authorized the issuance of credits to merchants for 20,000 chests of opium, which he promptly turned over to Commissioner Lin.  Lin destroyed the opium; Elliott immediately cabled London, suggesting the British Army’s use to protect the United Kingdom’s investments in the opium trade.

A small skirmish occurred between British and Chinese vessels in the Kowloon Estuary in early September 1839.  In May 1840, the British government sent troops to impose reparations for British traders’ financial losses in China and to guarantee future security for trade.  On 21 June 1840, a British naval force arrived off Macao and began a bombardment of the city of Din-Hai.  Chinese naval forces sent to interdict the Royal Navy were utterly destroyed.  The Treaty of Nanking (1842), which ended this First Opium War, was the first of many “unequal treaties” imposed on China.  China agreed to cede to the British the island of Hong Kong (and surrounding smaller islands) and granted treaty ports at Shanghai, Canton, Ning-Po, Foo-Chow, and Amoy.

In 1853, northern China became embroiled in a massive civil war known today as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64).  Its leader was Hong Xiu Quan —a man who believed that he was the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.  The stated intentions of the Taiping were to (a) convert the Chinese people to Hong’s version of Christianity, (b) overthrow the Qing Dynasty, and (c) reform the state.  Hong established his capital at Nan-King.

Admiral Sir Michael Seymour RN

Despite this massively disruptive upheaval, the Emperor appointed Ye Ming-Chen as his new high commissioner and ordered him to stamp out the opium trade.  Ye’s seizure of the British ship Arrow prompted the British Governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Browning, to again request the Royal Navy’s assistance.  The British fleet, under Admiral Sir Michael Seymour [Note 5] responded by bombarding fortifications outside the city of Canton.

When Chinese mobs set British properties on fire on 15 December, Browning requested military intervention.  The murder of a missionary prompted the French to align with Great Britain against the Chinese government.  The Russian Empire soon joined the fray, demanding greater concessions from China, including the legalization of the opium trade and exempting foreign traders from import duties.  In late June 1858, foreign powers forced China to pay reparations for the Second Opium War, open additional port cities to European commerce, and authorize missionaries’ unlimited access to Chinese cities.  Like circling sharks, Europeans and the Japanese began to carve out their niches in China —sometimes through secret agreements, at other times through military conflict.

By the late 1800s, Shandong Province in North China, long known for social unrest, strange religious sects, and martial societies, had had enough foreign meddling in Chinese affairs.  One of these societies was the Yihe-Quan, loosely translated as The Righteous and Harmonious Fists.  They were called “Boxers” because of their martial arts expertise and their use of traditional Chinese weapons.  The Boxers were staunchly anti-Imperialistic, anti-foreign, and anti-Christian.

The people of North China had long resented the arrogant meddling of Christian missionaries. This outrage grew worse after the Treaty of Tientsin in 1860, which granted foreign missionaries’ freedom of movement throughout China and the government’s authority to purchase land and build churches.  Chinese villagers objected to the foreign settlements that developed around these Christian church communities.  Natural calamities did not help matters [Note 6].

In November 1897, a band of armed Chinese men stormed a German missionary’s residence and killed two priests.  The murders prompted Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II to send a naval squadron to seize Jia-Zhou Bay on the Shandong Peninsula’s southern coast [Note 7].  Wilhelm’s intent to seize Chinese territory initiated a scramble for further concessions by the British, French, Russians, and Japanese.  Germany gained exclusive control of developmental loans, mining, and railway systems in Shandong.  Russia gained complete control of all territory north of the Great Wall, which they soon occupied with Russian military forces.  The French gained control of Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guangdong provinces.  The Japanese gained control over Fujian province, and the British gained control over the entire Yangtze River Valley, from Tibet to the Henan and Zhejiang provinces.  The Italians, for whatever reasons, were excluded.

What happened

In Chinese religious myth, the Jade Emperor represents the first god, one of three pure ones and the highest power of all Chinese deities.  A temple to the Jade Emperor had been built in the village of Li-Yuan-Tun.  In 1869, the temple was converted to a Catholic Church.  Soon afterward, the French minister in Peking demanded (and received) authorization for the Li-Yuan-Tun priests to bypass local officials in family law and authority to resolve regional disputes.  In 1898, the Guangxi Emperor proclaimed the so-called Hundred Days of Reform (22 June-21 September).  The reform period enraged Chinese conservatives, as it served to prove that the Qing Dynasty was corrupt, weak, or both.  Boxers attacked the Christian community, murdering priests and others.

Empress Dowager Cixi

In an attempt to avoid another uprising, the Empress Dowager Cixi [Note 8] placed the reformist Guangxi Emperor under house arrest and assumed absolute power in China.  What made the Boxers particularly worrisome to Cixi was that they were mostly unemployed teenagers with nothing better to do.  After several months of ever-increasing violence against foreigners (generally) and missionaries (mostly) in Shandong and on the North China Plain, the Boxers covered on Peking (present-day Beijing). They demanded either the expulsion or extermination of all foreigners.

The Boxer crisis was one of national prominence and one primarily caused by foreign aggression in China.  From the Chinese perspective, foreigners were slowly but steadily dismembering China, destroying Chinese culture, and demeaning Chinese religious beliefs.

Initially, Cixi viewed the Boxers as bandits, but realizing that most Chinese conservatives supported the Boxers, she changed her position and issued edicts in their defense.  In the spring of 1900, the Boxer movement spread rapidly north from Shandong into the Peking countryside.  The Boxers burned Christian churches, killed Chinese Christians, intimidated Chinese officials, or murdered anyone who stood in their way.  American Minister Edwin H. Conger cabled Washington, stating, “…the whole country is swarming with hungry, discontented, hopeless idlers.”

Christian missionaries flocked to the Legation seeking the protection of their various ministers on 28-29 May.  On 30 May, British Minister Claude Maxwell MacDonald requested multinational troops to secure the Legation.  Ambassador Conger cabled Washington to protect the Asiatic Fleet; Kaiser Wilhelm II was so alarmed by the Chinese-Moslem troops that he requested intervention by the Caliph Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire.

The situation in Peking continued to deteriorate, prompting Admiral Seymour of the Royal Navy to dispatch a second force

On 31 May, Captain John Twiggs (Handsome Jack) Myers, U. S. Marine Corps, arrived in Peking in command of two ship’s detachments of American Marines.  The guard force consisted of Myers and twenty-five Marines from USS Oregon, Captain Newt Hall, 23 Marines, five sailors, and U. S. Navy Assistant Surgeon T. M. Lippert from the USS Newark.  British and Russian troops, numbering around 325, arrived the same day.

On 5 June, Boxers cut the railway line to Tianjin, isolating Peking and making further military reinforcements difficult.

Adm Edward H. Seymour RN

On 10 June, the “Great eight” organized a second multi-national force under British Vice Admiral Sir Edward Seymour [Note 5] —the largest contingent of which were British, augmented with 112 American sailors and Marines.  Captain Bowman McCalla of the U. S. Navy was appointed to serve as Admiral Seymour’s second in command.

Admiral Seymour obtained the Chinese foreign office (headed by Prince Qing) to proceed. Still, when the Empress Dowager learned about Qing’s approval, she replaced him with Prince Duan, a radical anti-western member of the royal family.  Prince Duan was the de facto head of the Boxer movement, and it was Prince Duan who ordered the Chinese Imperial Army to attack the western powers.

Admiral Seymour’s expedition had not progressed very far when he discovered that Chinese Boxers destroyed the railway tracks in front of him.  He considered returning to Tianjin [Note 9] but found that the Chinese also ripped up those tracks.  The distance between Tianjin and Peking was only about 75 miles, prompting Seymour to proceed on foot.

On 11 June, the Japanese minister to China was attacked and murdered by Chinese soldiers guarding the Yong-Ding Gate on the southern wall.  The murder was likely intentional because the Chinese commander, General Dong Fu-Xiang, had earlier issued violent threats toward foreign legations.  On the same day, German sentries observed the first Boxer in the Legation Quarter.  German Minister Clemens von Ketteler ordered his soldiers to capture the Boxer, a teenager, whom Ketteler ordered executed.

Beyond inhumane, killing the lad was a foolish decision because the boy’s execution served only to enrage the Boxers further.  In retaliation, thousands of Boxers attacked the walled city.  So furious were the Boxers that they began a systematic campaign of pillaging, arson, and murder of all Christian properties and persons, including Chinese Christians.  Joining them were gleeful Chinese Moslems.  In fear for their lives, dozens of American and British missionaries took refuge inside the Methodist Mission.  A Boxer onslaught there was repulsed by U. S. Marines.

On 18 June, Vice Admiral Seymour received word of the Boxer attacks.

On 18 June, the Empress Dowager warned foreign ministers that a state of war would exist between China and the western powers unless they withdrew from Peking within 24-hours.  Cixi promised safe passage out of Peking, but only as far as Tientsin.  Presumably, after that, the diplomats would be “on their own.”

Artist’s depiction of Seymour Expedition

The Seymour expedition had advanced to within 25 miles of Peking when his relief force was set upon by overwhelming numbers of Boxers and Imperial Chinese soldiers [Note 10].  The attacks were so unrelenting (and bizarre) that Seymour was forced to seize and then occupy the Chinese forts at Taku [Note 11].  By that time, two hundred of Seymour’s men had either been killed or wounded, and the men were low on ammunition, food, water, and medical supplies.  It was a victory for the Chinese, but at a terrible cost in Boxer and Imperial Army lives.  Seymour dispatched a Chinese servant with word of his predicament to the Peking legation.

On 19 June, the foreign ministers within the Legation informed the Empress Dowager that they had no intention of withdrawing from Peking.  Cixi issued her declaration of war on 20 June; a Boxer/Imperial army siege of the city began on the same day.

Also, on 19 June, Major Littleton W. T. Waller arrived at Taku in command of 107 Marines detached from the First Regiment at Cavite, Philippines.  Along with another detachment of 32 Marines, those men formed a light battalion, who immediately moved inland to join a Russian column of 400 men.  The small force set off for Tianjin at around 0200 on 21 June.  Facing them were between 1,500 to 2,000 Chinese combatants.

Cmdr Christopher Cradock RN

The Chinese outnumbered the joint force from the start.  When the international force encountered intense enemy fire, they retreated.  Waller and his Marines served as a rearguard contingent, forced to leave behind his dead and drag his wounded men.  Waller successfully fought off a numerically superior Chinese force and reached the relative safety of Tianjin City.   After providing for his wounded Marines, Major Waller immediately attached his remaining men to the 1,800-man British column formed under Commander Christopher Cradock, Royal Navy.  At 0400 on 24 June, Cradock’s international expedition (consisting of Italians, Germans, Japanese, Russians, British, and American military contingents) set off again to relieve the Legation.  They instead ended up rescuing Admiral Seymour.

In Peking, the Boxers were initially content to harass the foreign Legation with harassing rifle and artillery fires, but there was no organized assault.  Foreign ministers agreed to form pro-active, mutually supporting military defenses with the few men at their disposal.  On 15 June, Captain Myers placed his Marines on the Tartar Wall, a critical position that would otherwise allow Boxers to direct devastating fire into the legation area.

On 25 June, Seymour was at the point of being overrun by Chinese Boxers and Imperial soldiers when Cradock’s regiment reached what remained of Seymour’s expedition.  Admiral Seymour and the relief force marched back to Tianjin unopposed on 26 June.  In total, Seymour suffered 62 killed and 228 wounded.

In Peking, Boxers decided to employ the anaconda tactic of squeezing legation guards to death.  To accomplish this, they constructed barricades some distance from the front of the Marine position—each day moving them further forward to the legation perimeter.  During the night of 28 June, Private Richard Quinn reconnoitered one of these barricades by low-crawling to the barricade.  His observation of Boxer activities provided useful intelligence as to the Boxer’s intentions.

On 2 July, Captain Myers determined that he had had enough of the Chinese “squeezing” strategy.  The Chinese barricade was, in Myers’ opinion, unacceptably close to the legation perimeter.  He decided to organize his men for an assault against the Chinese fence.

Marines of the Boxer Rebellion, 1900

Myers launched his assault at 0200 on 3 July.  The timing and weather conditions couldn’t have been more perfect.  The attack commenced in the middle of a torrential downpour.  The legation guard’s attack drove the Boxers back several hundred yards.  Two Marines were killed during the attack, and Captain Myers received a severe wound in the leg from a Chinese pike.  After the action, Captain Myers was evacuated to the Russian Legation. He received medical treatment; his injury was significant enough to cause Myers to pass his command to Captain Newt Hall.  After the assault, sniper and artillery fire died down, and diplomats agreed to an informal truce on 16 July.  The desultory fire continued, however, until the foreign legations were relieved on 14 August.

On 6 July, the U. S. Ninth Infantry Regiment joined the allied force near Tianjin.

On 10 July, Colonel Robert L. Meade, commanding the First Marine Regiment, led 318 Marines ashore from USS Brooklyn.  Meade led his Marines to Tianjin and joined up with Waller’s battalion.  Meade assumed command of all American military forces.

On 13 July, the allied forces launched an assault against Tianjin under Major General Alfred Gaselee, British Army (known as the Gaselee Expedition), appointed as Supreme Commander of the international force [Note 12].   Fighting took place for most of the day with little allied advance.  Meade’s 450 Marines suffered 21 casualties.  A Japanese-led night attack broke through the Chinese defenses, giving international force access to the walled city.

On 28 July, diplomats in the Legation Quarter received their first message from the outside world in more than a month.  A Chinese boy—a student of missionary William S. Ament, covertly entered the Legation Quarter with news that a rescue army of the Eight-Nation Alliance had arrived in Tianjin and would shortly begin its advance.  For some, the news was hardly reassuring because the Seymour expedition had failed to break through the Chinese Boxer and Imperial Army.    

Adna R. Chaffee

On 30 July, Brigadier General Adna R. Chaffee, U. S. Army, arrived in Tianjin to assume command of all U. S. Forces in China.  Also arriving with Chaffee was one battalion of Marines under Major William P. Biddle [Note 13], two battalions of the Fourteenth U. S. Infantry, the Sixth U. S. Cavalry, and one battery of the Fifth U. S. Artillery.  On 4 August, the international expedition of approximately 18,000 men departed from Tianjin for Peking.  Chaffee’s force included around 2,500 men, including 425 Marines.

On 5 August, Japanese forces of the international expedition engaged and defeated Chinese forces at Pei-Tsang.  A second battle occurred the next day at Yang-Stun.  For many allied troops, the unseen enemy was the broiling heat, which caused numerous heat casualties during the 75-mile march to Peking.

On 13 August, the Chinese broke the temporary truce with the foreign Legation with a sustained artillery barrage.  The barrage lasted until around 0200 on 14 August.

Five national contingents advanced on Peking’s walls on 14 August: British, American, Japanese, Russian, and French.  Each of these had a gate in the wall as their primary objective.  The Japanese and Russians encountered the heaviest Chinese resistance.  The British entered the city through an unguarded entrance and proceeded into the city with virtually no Chinese opposition.

Rather than forcing their way through a fortified gate, the Americans decided instead to scale the walls.  Marines destroyed Chinese snipers and set up an observation post from the vantage point of being on the high wall.  In the Marine’s assault, First Lieutenant Smedley D. Butler and two enlisted men received gunshot wounds.

U. S. Marines advanced to the Old Imperial City on 15 August, encountering sporadic resistance, but scattered gunfire did continue to plague the American Legation for several more months.  By the end of the siege, Marine casualties included 7 killed, 11 wounded, including Captain Myers and Assistant Surgeon Lippert.

Among the Marines who participated in the Boxer Rebellion, thirty-three received the Medal of Honor … including Private Harry Fisher [Note 14], killed on 16 July 1900; he was the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor posthumously.   

Diplomats signed a Boxer protocol in September 1901.

____________

Sources:

  1. Cohen, P. A. History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
  2. Edgerton, R. B.  Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the Japanese Military.  Norton & Co., 1997.
  3. Harrington, P.  Peking, 1900: The Boxer Rebellion.  Osprey Publishing, 2001.
  4. Martin, W. A. P.  The Siege of Peking: China Against the World.  New York: F. H. Revell Company, 1900.
  5. Myers, John T.   “Military Operations and Defense of the Siege of Peking.  Proceedings of the U. S. Naval Institute, September 1902.
  6. O’Connor, R. The Spirit Soldier: A Historical Narrative of the Boxer Rebellion.  New York: Putnam, 1973.
  7. Plante, T. K.  U. S. Marines in the Boxer Rebellion.  Prologue Magazine, Winter 1999.

Notes:

[1] Aided by a Chinese invention known as the magnetic compass, first used in Europe around 1200 AD.

[2] Later modified by the Treaty of Tordesillas, which established an arbitrary line east of which were relegated to Portugal, west of which belonged to Spain.

[3] In 1599, Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate closed its borders or limited contacts with foreigners until the mid-1800s.

[4] Between the 15th and 18th centuries, silver had become the medium of exchange between China and Spain.  Approximately 35% of all silver bullion produced in the Americas found its way to China.

[5] Sir Michael Seymour was the uncle of Sir Edward Seymour, also a Royal Navy admiral.

[6] Traditional Chinese viewed natural (cyclic) events, such as earthquakes, droughts, and severe flooding, as omens that the ruling Emperor had lost the mandate of heaven.  Such periods were frequently accompanied by civil unrest and dynastic changes.

[7] The German government was likely less bothered about the murder of two priests and more interested in using the incident to obtain more concessions from the Chinese government.

[8] Empress Dowager is the English title given to the mother or widow of an East Asian emperor.  Cixi was born with the name Yehe Nara Xing-Zhen of the Manchu clan.  She was selected as a concubine to the Emperor Xian-Feng and gave birth to a son in 1856.  When the Xian-Feng Emperor died in 1861, her son became the Tong-Zhi Emperor, and she became the Empress Dowager.  Calling herself Cixi, she ousted a group of regents appointed by the late Emperor and assumed the regency.  She gained control over the dynasty after installing her nephew as the Guangxi Emperor when her son died in 1875.  She may have poisoned her nephew after keeping him under house arrest for a while.

[9] The cities Tianjin and Tientsin are the same; they are merely English language spelling variations from the Chinese lettering.  However, there were two distinct areas of the city.  In 1900, there were two adjacent subdivisions, one to the Northwest was the ancient high-walled city measuring about one-mile on each side.  To the Southeast, about two miles away along the Hai River, was the treaty port and foreign settlements, measuring about a half-mile wide.  Around a million Chinese lived within the walled city; the port settlement housed around 700 European merchants, missionaries, and approximately 10,000 Chinese servants, employees, or businessmen.  Two of these residents were the American Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou Henry-Hoover.  Hoover later became President of the United States.

[10] Seymour’s glaring error was that (a) he assumed that his western force could easily push aside the Chinese Boxers, and (b) he elected not to include field artillery within the expedition’s composition.

[11] Chinese Boxers and Imperial troops employed well-aimed artillery against Seymour, and a number of different tactics to keep the western powers off their guard.  For example, the Chinese redirected waterways to flood the main routes of march, ambuscades, pincer assaults, and sniper attacks.  Seymour’s discovery of a substantial cache of Imperial Chinese arms and ammunition (including Krupp field guns), a million or so pounds of rice, and ample medical supplies saved the expedition from total destruction.

[12] The actual senior military officer present was General (Baron) Motomi Yamaguchi.  Yamaguchi was not selected as supreme commander owing to the fact that he wasn’t a white man.  The Japanese contingent did distinguish itself during this series of actions.

[13] Biddle served as 11th Commandant of the Marine Corps (Major General Commandant) (3 February 1911-24 February 1914).

[14] Harry Fisher was a soldier and a U. S. Marine and the first to receive a posthumous award of our nation’s highest military decoration.  After his award, it was discovered that Private Fisher had enlisted in the Marine Corps under a false name.  He had previously served in the U. S. First Infantry Regiment.  When the Army refused his request for sick leave (having contracted malaria during the Spanish-American War), he deserted for the purpose of receiving proper medical treatment.  When he afterward attempted to restore himself to duty, the War Department refused, and he was “discharged without honor.”  His real name was Franklin J. Phillips (20 Oct 1874 – 16 July 1900).  With a dishonorable discharge on his record, he changed his name to Harry Fisher and joined the U. S. Marine Corps.

Air Balloons and Such

Every Marine, regardless of military occupational specialty, is a rifleman.  There are specialists in the Marine Corps, of course —people trained to perform a specialized task, which, when combined with all other specialties, form the Marine Corps Team.  The Marine team has but one purpose: winning battles.  In contrast to the United States Army, which consists of several corps (three infantry divisions and supporting elements form a single corps, three such corps form a field army), the Marines are a single corps (three divisions, three air wings, and supporting elements).

Because the Marine Corps is a much smaller organization, which is the way we like it, Marines do not have the luxury of employing cooks or communicators that only cook and communicate.  Every Marine is a rifleman, including combat pilots, administrators, supply pogues, truck drivers, field engineers, and computer technologists.  Whether a general or a private, the Corps trains every Marine to pick up a rifle and kill an enemy.  The notion that every Marine is a rifleman makes the Marine Corps unique among all U.S. Armed Services.  The Corps’ distinctive training creates a common bond between Marines: officer and enlisted, men and women, whether ground, air, or logistics combat elements.  Marine aviators, for example, are hell on wings; they are also a lethal force on the ground should it become necessary.  Every Marine earns the title, Marine.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when Marine First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham reported to the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland, for duty under instruction.  He was the nucleus of what would become the Marine Corps’ air combat element.  A few short years later, Congress declared war against Imperial Germany, and the United States entered the First World War.  This event became the catalyst for the Navy and Marine Corps air arm, and a greatly accelerated growth in both Navy and Marine Corps manpower and combat technologies.

In those days, responsibility for procuring aircraft fell under the Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics (Also, BuAer).  Marine graduates of the U.S. Navy Flight School, Pensacola, Florida, became Naval Aviators.  Since those early days, the Navy and Marine Corps have developed aviation equipment, strategies, and tactics common to their unique “naval” mission of protecting the fleet through air superiority and projecting naval power ashore.  Marine pilots, however, provide close air support to ground forces —and this they do better than any other aerial arm of the Department of Defense.

At the beginning of the First World War, the entire Marine Corps consisted of a mere 511 officers and 13,214 enlisted men.  At the end of the “war to end all wars,” 2,400 officers and 70,000 men served as Marines.  Initially, HQMC assigned Captain Cunningham to command the Marine Aviation Company at Philadelphia.  Since there was only one aviation company, this simple designation was enough.  These early aviators’ mission was traditional, which is to say, attack and destroy enemy aircraft and provide intelligence on enemy forces’ location and movement.  Suddenly, the Marine Corps incurred a separate mission requiring different equipment types and a different aeronautical skill set.

With the expansion of Marine aviation, Captain Cunningham’s Aviation Company became the 1st Marine Aeronautic Company (1stMAC) with a workforce ceiling of ten officers and 93 men. 1stMAC’s mission was flying anti-submarine patrols in seaplanes.  HQMC approved a new aviation unit, designated as 1st Aviation Squadron (AS-1), to support the Marine Brigade in France. AS-1’s mission was to provide reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions.  The strength of the 1st Aviation Squadron was 24 officers and 237 enlisted men.

Following the war in Europe, Navy and Marine Corps planners distributed aviation personnel and equipment to Naval stations to support operating forces throughout the east coast of the United States and those in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  In the post-war environment, with less money available to sustain air combat forces, the Marine Corps began its desperate struggle to convince Congress that it should maintain, as a minimum, prewar levels of aviation personnel, bases, and equipment.  Leading the charge in this endeavor was Major Cunningham, who strenuously argued for Marine Corps aviation’s permanent adoption.

Congress officially limited the Marine Corps’ strength to one-fifth that of the U. S. Navy, in total, approximately 27,000 Marines.  Due in no small measure to Cunningham’s efforts, Congress approved an additional 1,100 Marines for aviation units.  Congress also approved permanent Marine Corps Air Stations at Quantico, Virginia, Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego, California.  On 30 October 1920, Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune approved an aviation table of organization[1] for four squadrons, each consisting of two flights. Simultaneously, the 1st and 4th Aviation Squadrons supported combat operations in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the 2nd and 3rd Aviation Squadrons trained at Quantico, Virginia.  By 1924, the Marine Corps had two air groups, each consisting of two squadrons.  The second air group took up station in San Diego, California.

As previously mentioned, the Marine Corps petitioned Congress for funds to maintain its air arm.  Part of this effort involved demonstrating to Congress and the American public the utility and worthiness of Marine Corps aviation.  To this end, the Marine aviators found it necessary to combine tactics and air strategy with headline-hunting public exhibitions.  One of these involved a march of 4,000 Marines from Quantico, Virginia, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  In this demonstration, the ground combat element maintained constant contact with aircraft along the route of march and provided air resupply of the men on the ground.

Additionally, Marine pilots continually tested new equipment and flying techniques, including record-breaking long-distance flights and air show competitions.  In the 1920s, air races became an American institution.  Marines sometimes flew navy aircraft in these competitions. Sometimes, they flew their own squadron’s aircraft. They occasionally flew experimental planes, testing not only their endurance but also the reliability of aircraft prototypes.  During this period, Notable pilots included First Lieutenant Ford O. Rogers, Major Charles A. Lutz, and Captain Arthur H. Page, Jr.

Arthur Hallet Page, Jr. was the first Naval Academy graduate to enter the Marine Corps Aviation program.  He may have been typical of aviators in his day, or at least he seems to have been the sort of fellow popularized in Hollywood films of that period —the flamboyant devil-may-care fellow.  From available sources at the USNA, we believe Captain Page had a colorful personality, a remarkable character, and was the embodiment of mature judgment.  He was good looking; a natty dresser had a good singing voice, possessed a near-professional dancing ability, and was frequently in the company of beautiful women.

Page was also a daring, foolhardy risk-taker —but a man others might describe as lucky as hell.  He graduated from the USNA, Class of 1918 (one of fourteen graduates) a year early due to the emerging European War.  Second Lieutenant Arthur H. Page, Jr., became a Naval Aviator (No. 536) on 14 March 1918.  His aviator number tells us how many Navy and Marine Corps pilots preceded him.

Capt A. H. Page, Jr., USMC

Today, we have few details about Page’s military career.  For the most part, early assignments appear typical of young officers.  He received his wings at the NAS Pensacola (1918). He then served several tours of duty attached to the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia —which may not have had anything to do with base security or operations (1919-20, 1923-24), service with the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade in Haiti —likely duties involving flight operations (1920-21), assignment as a flight instructor at NAS Pensacola (1924-25), as a student at Marine Corps Schools, Quantico (1925-26), service with the 3rd Marine Brigade in China (1926-28), an assignment at Marine Corps Base, San Diego, California (1928), and duty with the East Coast Expeditionary Force (1929).  His final assignment was at Headquarters Marine Corps (1929-30), during which time he engaged in flying exhibitions (previously discussed).

We also know that the Marine Corps established its first balloon detachment on 28 June 1918 under Captain Page’s command, very likely at Quantico.  The detachment’s mission artillery spotting in support of the 10th Marine Regiment (artillery), which in 1918 trained at Quantico for service with the American Expeditionary Forces.  After the Armistice on 11 November 1918, there being no need for the 10th Marines in France, HQMC deactivated the regiment in April 1919.

An aside:  Change within the Navy and War Departments, particularly involving aviation, was never easy.  Senior officers within both departments were simply the product of their training and experience and somewhat intractable in their national defense views.  Even following the First World War, Army and Navy leaders remained unconvinced that aviation should assume a more significant national defense role.  They may have maintained this view had it not been for the relentless efforts of William Lendrum Mitchell (1879-1936), an Army aviator.  Mitchell believed that “floating bases” was necessary to defend U.S. territories against naval threats, but the CNO, Admiral William S. Benson, dissolved navy aeronautics in 1919 (a decision later reversed by Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt).  It was a bit of service rivalry that senior navy aviators argued that land-based pilots no more understood naval aviation demands than ground commanders understood airpower capabilities.  They resisted any alliance with Mitchell.  Despite these attitudes, Mitchell urged the development of naval air service, arguing that air-delivered bombs would become a serious threat to enemy ships.  Not even Roosevelt agreed with Mitchell’s proposals in 1919.

BrigGen “Billy” Mitchell USA

Convinced that he was right on this issue, Mitchell became publicly critical of the Army and Navy’s senior leadership, judging them as “insufficiently far-sighted” regarding airpower.  Despite their misgivings, the secretaries of War and the Navy agreed to a series of joint Army/Navy exercises that incorporated captured or decommissioned ships as targets.  Mitchell believed that the nation’s spending on battleship fleets was a waste of money; he intended to demonstrate how easily aircraft could defeat the Navy’s dreadnaughts.  Mitchell received public support for the joint exercise when the New York Tribune revealed that the Navy had cheated on its test results.

Despite his popularity with the press, Mitchell’s criticism of Army/Navy leadership made him a pariah in both departments.  Nevertheless, the joint exercise proceeded with bombing attacks on a former German battleship by Army, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots armed with 230, 550, and 600-pound bombs.  Air-delivered bombs’ success and the German ship’s sinking caused the Navy to suspend shipbuilding and focus more on the possibilities of naval air power, but there were also political ramifications.  For starters, the Navy’s perceived weaknesses embarrassed President Harding —the blame of which fell at Mitchell’s feet.

As for Mitchell, his prickly personality left him with few friends in the Army hierarchy, a condition that only grew worse after Mitchell appeared before a Congressional committee and criticized his superiors and senior Navy officers.  In 1925, a tragic accident involving the airship Shenandoah prompted Mitchell to accuse senior Army/Navy leaders of gross incompetence and treasonable administration.  As Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, President Coolidge ordered Mitchell court-martialed.  The court-martial proceeding was more on the order of a media circus. Mitchell’s defense attorney was a sitting congressman.  Of the thirteen officers detailed as judges, which included Major Douglas A. MacArthur, none had an aviation background.  In its deliberations, the court ruled that the truth or falsity of Mitchell’s accusations were immaterial to the charge against him: Violation of the 96th Article of War, “Bringing disgrace and reproach upon the military services,” which included six specifications.  When the court found General Mitchell guilty of the charge and all specifications, he resigned his commission.

Despite Mitchell’s pissing-contest with Army/Navy leaders, the Marine Corps continued its experimentation with aviation platforms and aerial balloons.  Between 1924-29, the Marine Corps established a balloon observation squadron (designated ZK-1M).  Captain Page, meanwhile, continued evaluating experimental aircraft while challenging his aeronautical skills.  He flew the Curtiss F6C-3 plane to victory in the Curtiss Marine Trophy Race on 31 May 1930, defeating a field of mostly Navy pilots.  The F6C-3 was a member of the Hawk family of biplane fighters that, because of its performance evaluations by Navy/Marine Corps aviators, went through a series of design modifications to make it suitable for naval service.  Captain Page lost his life while participating in the Thompson Air Race in 1930.  There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots; there are no old bold pilots.

By the spring of 1940, planners at HQMC were acutely aware of the problems associated with defending advanced bases against enemy air attack.  To address these issues, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) convened a board of senior officers to study air defense aspects.  It became the duty of the Anti-Aircraft Defense Board to formulate policies suitable to both the Navy and War Departments.  One agreement concerned the division of responsibility for barrage balloons and kite defenses protecting U.S. military installations.  Under this agreement, the Army assumed air defense responsibility for permanent naval bases. Simultaneously, the Navy would develop shipboard defenses and “at such advanced bases as are not defended by the Army.”

On 27 December 1940, the Secretary of the Navy assigned responsibility for anti-air defenses (not defended by the Army) to the Fleet Marine Forces.  From that point forward, Marine advanced base battalions assumed responsibility for the anti-aircraft defense mission at Guantanamo, Midway, Johnson Island, Palmyra, Samoa, Wake, Guam, and “any future location seized by American forces.” The CNO subsequently asked various bureaus and offices to comment or offer suggestions on the extent to which the Marine Corps should enter the barrage balloon field.  There were two views:

  1. The Director, Navy War Plans Division opined that balloons were unreliable anti-air defense mechanisms and noted that the small size of several advanced base locations (islands) meant that balloon defenses would be ineffective except against dive bombers. Moreover, the placement of such balloons would have to be so as not to interfere with friendly air operations, which would require moveable barge platforms.  At no time did the War Plans Division mention any reliance on carrier-based attack aircraft.
  2. The Director, Fleet Training Division expressed confidence in the efficiency of balloon defenses. He relied on the United Kingdom’s experience in London’s defense; it appeared to him that 50-100 balloons would provide adequate anti-air defenses.  Based on this one assumption, the Director envisioned that the Marine Corps would require two to four squadrons of 24 balloons each and around 200 men per squadron.  There was also the problem of availability because requisitions for Army balloon equipment strained industrial production capacities.

Barrage Ballon (Samoa)

The CMC took immediate steps to procure balloons, not only for the initial issue but also for replacement balloons.  HQMC also recalled to active service retired Major Bernard L. Smith[2] and placed him in charge of the Corps’ barrage balloon development.  During World War I, while serving as an assistant naval attaché in France, Major Smith’s study of lighter-than-air craft made him an “expert” in the field of balloon defense mechanisms.

In late April 1941, Major Smith (assisted by Captain Aquillo J. Dyess and Captain Robert S. Fairweather) established a training school at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia.  Smith led his officers and ten enlisted men to the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey, for a two-week course of instruction in the art of flying British-made Mark-5 and Mark-6 balloons.  Returning to Quantico, Smith and his Marines prepared course curriculum and liaised with balloon manufacturers.  When, more than a year later, Smith and his staff had yet to receive their first student, HQMC directed Smith to move his cadre to New River, North Carolina, where it became part of the Marine Corps Training Center, Camp Lejeune.

Still without students, Smith’s “school” essentially became a balloon research/development center; the Navy’s Anti-Aircraft Defense Board provided Smith with several varieties of British prototypes.  Smith was also involved in the study of rockets and fuses suspended from aloft balloons.  By late 1941, the arrival of balloon equipment allowed Smith to commence teaching balloon defense’s art and science.  Concurrently, HQMC directed the establishment of the 1st and 2nd Barrage Balloon squadrons to further order that defense battalions incorporate these squadrons into training and operations.  Typically, HQMC wanted to review the defense battalion’s evaluations of the practicality of barrage squadrons.  By early December, Smith advised HQMC that the 1st Barrage Balloon Squadron (designation ZMQ-1) was ready for deployment. In late December, Smith’s report was timely because the Army requested the Marines provide a squadron to defend the Panama Canal Zone.  Administratively, ZMQ-1 fell under the Fifteenth Naval District; operationally, the squadron supported the Army’s artillery command. ZMQ-1’s “temporary” assignment lasted through mid-September 1942.

Barrage Balloon maintenance facility

Meanwhile, ZMQ-2, under Captain Henry D. Strunk, joined the 2nd Marine Brigade in Samoa.  War with Japan led the Marine Corps to activate six additional Barrage Balloon Squadrons, although planners estimated a need for as many as twenty squadrons by 1944.  To meet this demand, HQMC increased Smith’s training unit’s size to five officers and 43 enlisted men.  In April 1942, HQMC assigned ZMQ-3 to the Pacific command; by September, the squadron was operating on the island of Tulagi —but with significant restrictions.  Concerned that deployed balloons would attract enemy aircraft to vital airfields and logistics storage areas, senior Navy and Marine Corps officers curtailed the use of balloons at Tulagi and Guadalcanal.  Instead, squadron personnel performed ground defense (infantry) duties.  ZMQ-3 departed Tulagi for Noumea, where it joined with ZMQ-1, ZMQ-5, and ZMQ-6.  HQMC ordered the deactivation of ZMQ-4, serving in Samoa, on 20 February 1943.  The unavailability of helium at forward bases hindered squadrons’ performance, as in Noumea’s case, forcing unit officers to alter their tactics: they only launched their balloons when an enemy attack was imminent.

Shortages of helium wasn’t the only problem plaguing ZMQ squadrons.  The task of logistical resupply in the Pacific was incredibly difficult.  Since senior commanders in the Pacific questioned barrage balloons’ utility, balloon squadrons had a lower priority for resupply than did the most-forward units.  Army logisticians paid scant attention to the needs of the attached Marines.  Back in Washington, the demands placed on BuAer to prioritize the resupply of aircraft squadrons similarly left the balloon squadrons only marginally effective.  For example, each balloon squadron required 4,000 high-pressure hydrogen cylinders.  The Marine’s demand for 14,500 cylinders per month fell considerably short, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.  To help coordinate balloon activities and address logistical shortfalls, HQMC ordered Major Charles W. May to assume command of the Marine Barrage Balloon Group on 10 January 1943.

One wartime epiphany was the Marine Corps’ realization that anti-aircraft guns had a greater effect on the enemy than the barrage balloons did.  In the spring of 1943, the Marine Corps’ Commandant asked the U.S. Army to assume full responsibility for aerial balloon activities.  The Commandant’s decision made perfect sense because, at that time, all Marine balloon squadrons served under the operational control of the U.S. Army.  In June, the Army agreed to absorb the balloon mission, making 60 officers and 1,200 enlisted Marines available to serve in other (more critical) combat units.  Beginning in March 1943, Marines of ZMQ-5 began training with 90mm anti-aircraft guns; ZMQ-6 followed suit.  By August, manning anti-aircraft guns became the primary focus of training and operations.  ZMQ-2 disbanded on 21 August, with all its Marines joining the 2nd Defense Battalion.

All barrage balloon squadrons ceased to exist by December 1943, and all Marines assigned to them transferred to the Marine Corps’ defense battalions.  Luckily, these Marines were not only skilled balloonists; they were also deadly as hell in their new assignment as anti-aircraft gun crewmen and as a rifleman, the essential role of every Marine.

Sources:

  1. Updegraph, C. L. S. Marine Corps Special Units of World War II.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1972.
  2. Barrage Balloons, Aerospace Power Journal, Summer 1989.
  3. 225th AAA Searchlight Battalion Veterans Association, online.
  4. Hillson, F. J. When the Balloon Goes Up: Barrage Balloons for Low-Level Defense.  Maxwell AFB: U.S. Air Force Command and Staff College, 1988.

Endnotes:

[1] The purpose of military tables of organization (and equipment) (also, T/O and T/O&E) is to standardize the personnel staffing of military units according to their mission and includes the numbers and types of weapons and accoutrements required by such organizations to complete their mission.

[2] Major Smith was the 6th Marine officer designated as a naval aviator.

Marine Glider Pilots

On 20 May 1941, German forces launched an airborne invasion of the Island of Crete.  It was the first airborne invasion in history.  German casualties at the end of the first day were massive.   Greek and allied forces in defense of Crete were confident they could hold off the German Luftlandeschlacht.  Those defenders were wrong.  On the second day, German airborne units seized the airfield at Maleme, and from that base, pushed the defenders entirely off the island.  It wasn’t long after that when the Secretary of the Navy telephoned the Commandant of the Marine Corps and asked, “Dude, how cool was that?”

The Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC), Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb,[1] had already announced his decision in October 1940 to designate one battalion of each infantry regiment as “air troops.” Marine Corps planners envisioned that these “air troops” would fly to their destinations.  Holcomb further imagined that one company would be trained parachutists, and the remaining two companies would e “air-landed” troops.  The verbiage was confusing, but this was the language used in 1940: air-troops vs. air-landed-troops.  One problem that went undiscovered until well-into pre-combat training was that the United States lacked enough aircraft to accomplish vertical assaults.  Another pinch of sand in the “para-Marine” concept was landing Marines in dense jungle terrain.  Oops.

After 1941, the subject of glider aircraft was always associated with the Marine Corps’ concept of airborne assault forces, which originated from “high level” interest after the successful German airborne invasion of Crete.  Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was in awe of the concept.  He directed General Holcomb to study the issue and determine whether it held any promise for amphibious operations.  Because the German’s operation in Crete involved gliders carrying 750 troops, the Commandant was also asked to consider glider operations.

Apparently, what the Commandant meant by “air troops” in 1940 was parachutists, and what he meant by “air-landed” troops were Marines landing near the battle area in aircraft.

As for the suitability of such aircraft, it was the duty of the Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics to study the feasibility of such operations and for procuring suitable vehicles to facilitate such tactics.  Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) would only recruit men for such service once the Navy decided they were both feasible and practical for projecting naval power ashore.  When the Chief of Naval Operations asked the Commandant how he intended to go about staffing a glider program, General Holcomb opined that he would find second lieutenants to volunteer for pilot training.  He would select co-pilots from among the noncommissioned officer ranks.  I can almost see the CNO’s eyebrows fluttering before he artfully changed the subject to another pressing issue.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Aeronautics, which had already undertaken gliders’ study, found Secretary Knox’s suggestion underwhelming.  In 1940, Naval Aviation had far more significant problems to deal with than glider feasibility.  Besides, the Navy had already studied (and shelved) the possibility of using gliders as flight training vehicles.  They determined that gliders did not contribute as much to flight training as engine-powered aircraft.  In any event, the Chief, Bureau of Aeronautics advised the CNO that glider design studies were underway, noted that these projects incorporated both land and sea-based gliders.  He had serious reservations about the practicality of gliders in any capacity.

Nevertheless, CMC issued his call for volunteers in July 1941, advising all officers (second lieutenant through captain) that he needed 50 officers and 100 NCOs during the fiscal year 1942 to undertake glider training.  Initial training would occur at civilian schools, restricted to officers only until the Marine Corps could establish a glider school for enlisted men.  HQMC anticipated the need for 75 gliders capable of transporting ten combat loaded troops and two pilots —judged sufficient to transport one airborne battalion.  Such a project would challenge any early-war aeronautical industry but made even more perplexing because the largest glider manufactured in the United States in 1941 was a four-seat model not intended for people wearing combat gear.  Europeans had developed larger gliders, however, so American builders knew that it was doable.

Seeking to provide its unwanted assistance to the Bureau of Aeronautics, HQMC identified “desirable” features of the aircraft in its design: For instance: (1) The ability to take off from land or water; (2) Capable of transporting equipment, including light vehicles, 37-mm anti-tank guns, and if possible, light tanks[2]; (3) Configured for static line paratroop jumping; (4) Machine gun mounts for self-defense while airborne, and (5) a weight capacity of 12 men, each weighing 250 pounds in combat gear.  It is difficult to keep from laughing.

The Navy’s BuAer evaluated two prototypes, both of which fulfilled the Marine Corps’ requirement.  One of these was an amphibious, float-wing model available for production and open to bids.  The second glider was a twin-hulled seaplane glider whose plans were still on the drawing board the day before yesterday.

Glider pilot training presented unique problems.  When HQMC learned that the Army had enrolled officers in a soaring school in Elmira, New York, The Commandant directed First Lieutenant Eschol M. Mallory to evaluate this training.  By the way, Mallory was a Marine Corps Aviator who had certain biases against the idea of glider aircraft.  While in Elmira, Mallory learned that there was a second school in Lockport, Illinois.  Taking it upon himself to investigate both facilities, Mallory wrote a report for the CMC recommending that (1) glider training be restricted to qualified naval aviators because of (a) control problems, (b) navigation issues, and (c) because night/instrument flying precluded safe flight operations with novice pilots on the stick.  Additionally, in recognizing that 150 glider pilot trainees could not be pulled from existing resources, small as they were, Mallory recommended that should the CMC decide to proceed with the program, that (a) novice pilots be sent to the Lewis School outside Chicago and (b) that experienced pilots be sent to the Motorless Flight Institute at Harvey, Illinois.

The process of glider development was, from this point on, somewhat convoluted.  A series of conferences in 1941 to evaluate the progress of glider adaptation to Marine Corps combat service seemed favorable.  By October, the HQMC position on glider utilization had been fully developed and enunciated by the CMC.  Planners actually envisioned that gliders would be outfitted with outboard motors so that they could maneuver inside lagoons and other protected areas.  Of course, a few questions remained, such as the location of operating facilities where they would not interfere in regular aviation operations.

The CMC, who had earlier resisted the creation of commando battalions, was now on record as fully supporting the notion of glider operations within parachute battalions.  In retrospect, the situation illustrated senior leaders’ inability to foresee all possible tactical situations and the impact of their reluctance to conduct an adequate study, feasibility assessment, or experimentation and training.

Vernon M. Guymon

In November 1941, four Marine Corps officers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Vernon M. Guymon[3], enrolled in the glider pilot’s course at Motorless Flight Institute.  All of these officers were qualified naval aviators.  Guymon had been awarded the Navy Cross for his role in the air evacuation of sick and wounded Marines during the Nicaragua intervention in 1929.  Eight additional officers reported for training at the Lewis School.  All officers graduated shortly after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  But to maintain their proficiency, they had to fly —and at this early stage, there was still no glider aircraft in the Marine Corps aviation inventory.

In early January 1942, the Director of Aviation at HQMC indicated some hesitance in proceeding with the program.  First, he recommended a “temporary allowance” to form a glider detachment instead of a permanent glider organization.  The CMC concurred, and on 15 January, approved the temporary assignment of 14 officers and 56 enlisted men to the newly created Glider Detachment.  The manufacturer delivered one and two-man gliders to the Marine Corps during mid-March; the first 12-man gliders’ delivery was promised a short time later; it was a promise unfulfilled.  On 16 March 1942, the CMC requested the CNO to approve the formation of Marine Glider Group (MGG) 71, which would consist of an H&S Squadron 71, and Marine Glider Squadron (VML) 711.  The CNO approved the requested table of organization.

Activation of MGG 71 took place at the Marine Corps Air Station, Parris Island, South Carolina.  Initially, the group was equipped with three N3N-3 trainers, one SNJ-2, one J2F-3, one JE-1, and seven (7) two-man gliders.  Two of these gliders were kept in reserve.  HQMC assigned Lieutenant Colonel Guymon as Group Commander.

N3N-3 Trainer

By the summer of 1942, Guymon believed that training in two-man gliders was a waste of time.  Since all glider pilots (so far) were qualified naval aviators, the only training these pilots needed was transitional flying —best achieved in the 12-man gliders.  Colonel Guymon’s point was moot, however, because the Marine Corps still did not have 12-man gliders.  A search for a suitable glider base was undertaken and eventually selected at Eagle Mountain Lake, Texas.  HQMC considered additional sites, but none ever developed as glider bases or training facilities.

Two-place Glider

MGG-71 departed MCAS Parris Island on 21 November 1942 and arrived at Eagle Mountain Lake two days later.  Training continued even though the 12-man gliders still had not been delivered.  In February 1943, HQMC ordered the glider program’s suspension until the Marine Corps could satisfy the Pacific theater’s more pressing needs.  At HQMC, the Plans and Operations Division and Aviation Division jointly concluded that parachute battalions and glider squadrons were impractical in the Pacific War’s island-hopping campaigns.  CMC ordered the glider program terminated on 24 June 1943.  The Navy Department reassigned all USMC Glider aircraft to the U. S. Army; the Eagle Mountain Lake facility transitioned to a night fighter training base.

Sources:

  1. Updegraph, C. L. Jr., S. Marine Corps Special Units of World War II. History and Museums Division, HQMC, Washington, 1972.
  2. Sherrod, R. History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.
  3. Grim, J. N. To Fly the Gentle Giants: The Training of US WWII Glider Pilots.  Bloomington: Author House Press, 2009.

Endnotes:

[1] Thomas Holcomb (1879-1965) served as the 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps (1936-1943).  He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on 13 April 1900.  Holcomb was awarded the Navy Cross medal, four awards of the Silver Star Medal, and the Purple Heart.  Holcomb was a descendant of Commodore Joshua Barney of the Continental Navy.

[2] Proving that not every Marine officer was a genius unless one officer intended to defeat the program on the drawing board.

[3] Vernon Melvin Guymon (1898-1965) was a highly decorated Marine Corps mustang officer who retired as a Brigadier General in 1949.  Throughout his 30 years of service, he was awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, and two Purple Hearts.  While serving as a gunnery sergeant, Guymon was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in December 1918.  After service in the so-called Banana Wars in the early 1920s, he applied and was accepted for flight school.  He was designated a naval aviator on 15 November 1926.  Following the deactivation of MGG-71, Guymon was assigned to MAG-12 in the Pacific Theater, where he served as the Group Commander and later as Chief of Staff, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing.  Brigadier General Guymon retired from active duty on 1 March 1949.

Flying Sergeants

Aviation history began before there were airplanes and the first use of aviators actually began with lighter-than-air balloons.  In 1794, French observation balloons were used to monitor enemy troop movements.  Balloons were also employed during the American Civil War, as part of the Army Signal Corps, for observing enemy movements and artillery spotting, and this in turn necessitated the development of a system for communicating between aviators and ground personnel.

In 1906, the Commandant of the Army Signal School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Major George O. Squier, began studying aeronautical theory and lectured student-officers on the Wright flying machine.  One of his fellow instructors was a captain by the name of Billy Mitchell, whose expertise included the use of balloons in reconnaissance missions.  Mitchell also became interested in aeronautical principles.

Major Squier later served as an executive assistant to the Army’s Chief Signal Officer, Brigadier General James Allen.  In 1907, at Squier’s urging, Allen created the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps.  In December of that year, the Signal Corps requested bids for a heavier-than-air flying machine.  Not everyone in the Army agreed with this development, but ultimately, the Aeronautical Division became the world’s first military aviation organization[1] when it purchased the Wright Model A aircraft in 1909.

American naval interest in aviation followed the Royal Navy’s interests in developing aviation capabilities in 1908, when Prime Minister H. H. Asquith approved the formation of an Aerial Subcommittee within the Imperial Defense Committee.  At this time, the British were primarily interested in dirigible airships for over-water reconnaissance.

In 1910, American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss contracted with the U. S. Navy to develop and demonstrate an aircraft utility for ships at sea.  One of Curtiss’ pilots, Eugene Ely, took off from the cruiser USS Birmingham anchored off the Virginia coast in late November 1910.  Then, in January 1911, Ely demonstrated the ability to land on a navy ship by setting down aboard the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay —efforts which validated Curtiss’ theory.  At the time, landing and takeoff platforms were crude temporary constructs.  On 27 January 1911, Curtiss further demonstrated the suitability of naval aviation by piloting the first sea plane from San Diego Bay.  The next day, Navy Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson became the first Naval Aviator when he took off in a Curtiss grass cutter.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when First Lieutenant Alfred Austell Cunningham[2] reported to the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland “for duty in connection with aviation.”  Lieutenant Cunningham became the first Marine aviator in August of that year when he took off in a Burgess Model H aircraft, presented to him by the Burgess Company of Marblehead, Massachusetts.

In those early days, the Navy and Marine Corps had different concepts of naval aviation and they were substantial enough to lead Marine aviators to conclude that the Marines should have their own section within the Navy Flying School (created in 1914).  In the next year, the Commandant of the Marine Corps authorized the creation of a Marine Aviation Company for duty with the Advanced Base Force.  The company, manned by ten officers and forty enlisted men, was assigned to the Navy Yard, Philadelphia.

A major expansion of the Marine air component came with America’s entry into World War I.  Wartime enlargements resulted in renaming organizations and a substantial increase in personnel.  In July 1918, Marine Aviation Company was divided and renamed First Aeronautic Company and First Marine Air Squadron.  The aeronautic company deployed to the Azores[3] to hunt for German submarines, while air squadrons were activated and assigned to the 1st Marine Aviation Force in France.

In France, Marine aviators in provided bomber and fighter support to the Navy’s Northern Bombing Group.  Within the short time span of America’s participation in World War I, Marine aviators recorded several aerial victories and credit for dropping in excess of fourteen tons of ordnance on enemy forces.  In total, the 1st Marine Aviation Force included 282 officers and 2,180 enlisted men operating from eight squadrons.  Second Lieutenant Ralph Talbot[4] was the first Marine Corps aviator to earn the Medal of Honor for action against the Luftstreitkräfte, the air contingent of the German Imperial Army.

By the end of the First World War, Marine aviators had gained aeronautical expertise in a wide range of air support roles, including air to air, air to ground, close air support for ground troops, and anti-submarine patrolling.  Congress authorized an aeronautical force of 1,020 men and permanent air stations at Quantico, Parris Island, and San Diego.  From that time forward, whenever and wherever Marines confronted an enemy, their aviation arm accompanied them —at the time, in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and in Nicaragua.  It was during the Banana Wars that Marine Corps pilots expanded their unique application air air-ground tactics, resupply of ground forces in remote locations, and air-to-ground communications.

If there was one area where Marine aviation stood apart from the other services, it was in the number of enlisted men serving as pilots, especially in time of national emergency/war.  Enlisted pilots were not a “new” concept.  The French air services employed enlisted men as pilots, but if there was a general rule, it would have been that commissioned officers were the primary source for aviators[5].  The Navy implemented its (enlisted) Naval Aviation Pilot designation in 1919.  The Marines, as part of the Naval Services, also authorized enlisted men to serve as pilots.  First Sergeant Benjamin Belcher was the first Marine enlisted man to serve as a NAP in 1923.  Some of these men later received commissions, such as Marine Ace Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth A. Walsh[6], who scored 21 kills and earned the Medal of Honor during World War II.  Walsh served as an enlisted pilot in the 1930s until he was commissioned in 1942.  In that year, there were 132 enlisted pilots serving in front line (fighter/bomber) squadron.  In later years, enlisted pilots flew helicopters and jet aircraft.

Technical Sergeant Robert A. Hill, USMC performed 76 combat missions as the pilot of an OY aircraft.  Hill earned the moniker “Bulletproof” because he often returned to base after a combat mission with massive amounts of bullet holes in his bird.  Hill was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for evacuating wounded Marines near the Chosin Reservoir while under heavy enemy fire.  Enlisted pilots also flew R4D[7] transports, which were also used to medevac wounded men and the remains of men killed in action.

During the transition from propeller to jet aircraft, enlisted pilots trained in the Lockheed P-80 (also, TO-1) but only after 1949 and not without some objection by a few squadron commanders who did not want enlisted men flying high performance aircraft.  It was a bit confusing and difficult.  Some of the enlisted pilots in the Korean War had been commissioned during World War II and then reverted to their enlisted ranks in the post-war demobilization period.  Some of these temporarily commissioned pilots left the Marine Corps after World War II and then later regretted doing so.  It was possible for these men to re-join the Marine Corps, but only as enlisted men.  Reenlistment within 90 days entitled these men to rejoin at the rank of Master Sergeant (in those days, E-7[8]), and if beyond 90 days, they could be accepted as Technical Sergeant (E-6).

VMF-311 was ordered into the Korea War with its F9F Panthers and several NAP pilots.  Master Sergeant Avery C. Snow was the first NAP to complete 100 combat missions in a jet aircraft.  Snow achieved the rank of captain during World War II while serving with VMSB-232.

In 1952, Master Sergeant Lowell T. Truex was ordered to fly over an area near the Yalu River.  During his pre-flight briefing, Truex was told that Air Force F-86s would fly escort for his mission.  He was not at all happy to learn that he had no escort and he was flying alone in Indian Country.  When Truex spotted several MiG-15s taking off, he started sweating.  He hurriedly completed his photo-reconnaissance mission and returned to base.  Truex had a few unkind things to say about the Air Force during his post-Op debrief, but he was reassured that the Air Force birds were on station and had kept a close eye on the MiG’s.  The problem was service-rivalry; Air Force pilots had little regard for Marine Corps enlisted pilots, so they occasionally went out of their way to make the flying sergeants feel uncomfortable.

Master Sergeant James R. Todd completed 101 combat missions before rotating back to the States.  He flew 51 missions in Banshees, 10 in the F9F, 23 in the F7F, 13 in F4U-5Ps, and four escort missions in F4U-4Bs.  The F4U-4B was an armed aircraft, but in all the others, Todd had only his sidearm for self-defense —and a high-performance engine.  Like many of his contemporaries, Todd had been commissioned as a second lieutenant in World War II.  He was mustered out in September 1946 but returned to active duty in November of the same year.  He resigned his commission as a first lieutenant and then enlisted as a private.  After the ceremony, he was advanced to the rank of master sergeant.  He received photo reconnaissance training at NAS Pensacola, Florida so that by the time the Korean War broke out, he was well-experienced recon pilot.  It was a skill that would come in handy in the Korean conflict.

Note that in addition to their flying duties, NAPs also shared responsibility for supervising their squadron’s various divisions (flight line, powerplant, airframes, avionics, tool shed, and supply sections).

Enlisted Marines also flew combat missions in the Vietnam War, but by this time there were only a few remaining NAPs.  In 1973, there were only 4 NAPs on active duty;  all four of these men retired on 1 February 1973: Master Gunnery Sergeant Joseph A. Conroy, Master Gunnery Sergeant Leslie T. Ericson, Master Gunnery Sergeant Robert M. Lurie, and Master Gunnery Sergeant Patrick J. O’Neil.

A colorful era in Marine Corps aviation ended with the retirement of these flying sergeants.

Endnotes:

[1] The progenitor of the US Air Force.

[2] Cunningham (1882-1939) from Atlanta, Georgia, served in the 3rd Georgia Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American War.  Following his voluntary service, he worked as a real estate agent in Atlanta for ten years until 1903.  In 1909, he received a commission to second lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps.  His enthusiasm for aviation was contagious and he soon convinced the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General William P. Biddle, that aviation was well-suited to the concept of the advanced base concept.

[3] An autonomous region of Portugal, an archipelago consisting of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic.

[4] Ralph Talbot (1897-1918) from South Weymouth, Massachusetts, joined the U. S. Navy in 1917.  Owing to his participation in college level artillery reserve training, the Navy appointed him as a Seaman 2nd Class.  After ground training and flight training, he was appointed Naval Aviator #456.  At the time, the Marine Corps was having problems recruiting aviators so Talbot (and a number of other Navy pilots), in realizing that he would be in a better position to receive a combat assignment in the Marine Corps, resigned his navy commission and accepted a commission in the USMC.  He was assigned to the 1st Marine Aviation Force for duty with “C” Squadron.  Talbot was killed in an accident during takeoff at La Fresne aerodrome, France.

[5] At the beginning of World War II, the Royal Air Force would have been even worse off during the Battle of Britain were it not for their enlisted pilots.

[6] See also: A Damned Fine Pilot.

[7] This aircraft became a workhorse for America.  From its first design, the aircraft had several service and mission designations, including DC-3, R4D, C-47, Skytrain, Dakota, RC-47, SC-47, Spooky, EC-47, C-53, C-117, and C-129.

[8] In 1949, the highest enlisted grade was Master Sergeant (E-7).

Admiral of the Navy

Some background

As with most military officers of the 19th century, George Dewey was born into a prominent family that offered him the resources and support that he needed to achieve great success in life —and George Dewey did exactly that.  George’s father Julius was a physician in Montpelier, Vermont; an astute businessman (one of the founders of the National Life Insurance Company), and a devoted Christian.  George had two older brothers and a younger sister—all of whom received a good education.  When George reached his fifteenth birthday, his father sent him to the Norwich Military School (now Norwich University), where he studied for two years.

In 1854, George received an appointment to the U. S. Naval Academy; it was a time when the cadet corps was small —averaging only around one-hundred midshipmen per class.  Of course, the naval and military academies aren’t for everyone; each class experienced a significant attrition rate, which made the graduating class about a small percentage of its freshman populations.  George’s graduating class advanced fourteen young men, with George finishing fifth.  From then on, George Dewey served with distinction on several ships.  At the beginning of the American Civil War, Dewey served as an executive lieutenant on the USS Mississippi, a paddle steamer frigate assigned to the Gulf Blockading Squadron and later participated in operations at New Orleans, Port Hudson, and Donaldsonville.  In 1864, Dewey was transferred to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron for service on USS Colorado under Commodore Henry K. Thatcher.  Colorado took part in the two battles at Fort Fisher (Wilmington, North Carolina).  It was during the second battle that Dewey’s tactical ability and courage under fire led to favorable mention in the New York Times.

Following war time service, Dewey followed the normal progression of a naval officer.  Promoted to Lieutenant Commander, Dewey served as the executive officer[1] of the USS Colorado, served at the USNA at Annapolis, and as a shore survey officer with the Pacific Coast Survey.  While serving in this billet, George lost his wife due to complications of childbirth.

After four years of survey work, Commander Dewey received orders to Washington where he was assigned to the Lighthouse Board.  It was an important assignment and one that gave him access to prominent members of Washington society.  By every account, Dewey was popular among the Washington elite.  The Metropolitan Club invited him to apply for membership; it was a leading social club of the time.

In 1882, Dewey assumed command of USS Juniata with the Asiatic Squadron.  Promoted to Captain two years later, he assumed command of USS Dolphin, which was one of the original “white squadron” ships of the Navy[2].  In 1885, Dewey was placed in command of USS Pensacola, where he remained for three years.  Pensacola was the flagship of the European squadron.  From 1893-96, Dewey served as a staff officer at Naval headquarters.  He was advanced to Commodore[3] in 1896.

When the navy began looking for a new Asiatic Squadron commander, no one seriously considered Commodore Dewey because he was too junior in rank.  As it turns out, though, Dewey’s Washington-area assignments and his membership in the Metropolitan Club paid off.  Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt interceded with President McKinley for Dewey’s assignment as Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Squadron.  It was a fortunate turn of events for the United States.

Dewey assumed command of the Asiatic Fleet in January 1898 and departed for Hong Kong to inspect US warships at the British colony.  Upon arrival in Hong Kong, Dewey learned of the destruction of USS Maine in Havana Harbor.  Even though skeptical of the possibility that the United States would go to war against Spain[4], Dewey readied his squadron for war.  Washington dispatched USS Baltimore to Hong Kong and Dewey purchased the British colliers Nanshan and Zafiro, retaining their British crewmen.

Spanish-American War

At the time Congress declared war against Spain, the United States military was a shamble.  The Army was barely capable of confronting hostile Indians in the American west, much less a major European power.  The Army was understrength, underequipped, undertrained, and worse than this, an incompetent officer corps led it.  The Navy was in a rebuilding process (thanks to Roosevelt), and the strength of the Marine Corps was small and widely distributed throughout the world.  The only edge the United States had against Spain was that the Spanish military was in far worse shape.

When the United States declared war, the United Kingdom quickly asserted its neutrality.  As a neutral power, the British governor ordered the US fleet out of the harbor.  Dewey removed his squadron into Chinese waters near Mirs Bay, north of Hong Kong.

The congressional declaration came on 25 April, retroactive to 21 April.  Five days before the Congressional declaration, however, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long ordered the formation of an expeditionary battalion of Marines.  By 21 April, the First Marine Battalion[5] was already embarked aboard ship and headed for Key West, Florida for staging and final preparations for war.  Meanwhile, the US Army was still trying to figure out how to organize regiments for duty in the field.

On 27 April, Dewey sailed from Chinese waters aboard his flagship USS Olympia with orders to attack the Spanish Fleet at Manilla Bay.  Three days later, the Asiatic Squadron was poised at the mouth of Manilla Bay.  He gave the order to attack at first light on the morning of 1 May 1898.  Dewey’s squadron soundly defeated the Spanish in a battle that lasted only six hours.  The Spanish fleet was either sunk, captured, or scuttled; fortifications in Manilla were rendered moot.  Only one American sailor died in the assault, an older chief petty officer who suffered a heart attack.  Owing to his success at Manilla, Dewey was advanced to Rear Admiral on 1 May 1898. 

The U. S. Coast Guard Joins the Fight

At the time of the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, US Coast Guard Revenue Cutter McCulloch was at sea on an extended shakedown cruise from Hampton Roads to her assigned station at San Francisco.  On her arrival in Singapore orders were received to proceed with all possible speed to Hong Kong and report to Commodore Dewey for further duty.  The ship arrived on 17 April and sailed with the fleet for Mirs Bay and a week later, to Manila.  While a smaller vessel and not built for naval service she was a very welcome and valuable addition to the Asiatic Squadron.  McCulloch performed excellent patrol and dispatch services throughout the period of hostilities and until November 1898 when she resumed her voyage to San Francisco.

On 29 June 1898 McCulloch received a signal from Olympia; which read “Spanish gunboat sighted bearing north-west apparently attempting to reach Manila, intercept and capture.”  McCulloch broke her record getting under way and set a course to get between the gunboat and the foreign shipping of Manila.  The unidentified ship changed her course to meet the cutter head on flying a flag at the fore, a pennant at the main, and a flag at the gaff, all of which were indistinguishable because of the light.  However, upon closing with the ship, McCulloch discovered that she was flying a white flag at the fore. After heaving to, a boarding officer discovered that the ship was the Spanish gunboat Leyte, which had escaped during the early morning of 1 May.  Leyte had remained in hiding in one of the numerous rivers emptying into the bay but could neither escape to sea or avoid the attacks of the Filipino insurgents and so her commanding officer decided to surrender.

McCulloch’s prize crew hauled down the Spanish flag and raised the US flag.  The prize crew promptly proceeded to Olympia and anchored off her starboard quarter. McCulloch accompanied her and sent a whale boat to the Leyte to take her commanding officer and the prize master to the flagship.

That morning, McCulloch had refueled in a manner customary to the Coast Guard, but not to the Navy.  Moreover, a heavy rain squall had kicked up a choppy sea.  When the whale boat came alongside Olympia, the prize master and captured Spanish captain mounted the gangway and were promptly escorted to Admiral Dewey, who was sitting, as usual, in a wicker chair on the quarter deck.  The prize master saluted and said, “Sir, I have to report the capture of the Spanish gunboat Leyte.  I herewith deliver the officer commanding on board.”  If the prize master anticipated a hero’s welcome, he was disappointed.  Admiral Dewey looked up sharply and said, “Very well, sir … and I want to tell you that your boat’s crew pulls like a lot of damn farmers.[6]

From that wicker chair on the quarterdeck there was very little that went on in Manila Bay that escaped Admiral Dewey’s sharp eyes.  His tongue was known as rapier sharp[7].

Philippine Occupation

All was not going well for the Americans in the Philippines.  With the defeat of Spain, Philippine nationalists revealed themselves and they were not entirely pleased about having to exchange one colonial master for another.  In 1895, Emilio Aguinaldo joined other nationalists seeking to expel Spanish colonials and achieve national independence through armed force.  While Dewey was attacking the Spanish from the sea in 1898, Aguinaldo was attacking them from land.  Initially, Dewey and Aguinaldo enjoyed a cordial relationship, but within six months, Dewey was threatening to shell Aguinaldo’s forces in order to allow the unopposed arrival of US Army forces under the command of Major General Wesley Merritt[8] who was tasked to take formal possession of Manilla on 13 August 1898.

In May, Major General (of volunteers) Elwell S. Otis, U. S. Army was dispatched to the Philippines with reinforcements for Merritt.  In late August, Otis replaced Merritt as Commander, Eighth Army and military governor of the Philippines.  As the military governor, first Merritt and later Otis were supreme in all matters ashore.  Because the Philippine Islands was America’s first extraterritorial possession, there was an associated learning queue; mistakes were made, and occasionally, American arrogance got in the way.

Of issues pertaining to jurisdiction and policy in the Philippines (generally) and to the local vicinity of Manila (particularly), there was no single point of view and not all questions were settled to everyone’s satisfaction.  Under these circumstances, there were occasions when someone stepped on someone else’s toes  Admiral Dewey had wanted to subdue Manilla, but in lacking enough land forces to achieve it, had no other option than to wait for the arrival of the US Army.

The affairs of the newly acquired territory were conducted by a joint board in which Admiral Dewey and General Otis were its most influential members. Meetings were held on shore and were usually agreeable affairs, but not always.  Admiral Dewey had little patience for long-winded discussions; on one occasion, having listened to blather long enough, stormed out of the meeting and returned to his ship.

In order to properly police the Pasig river and the adjacent back country it was necessary to have an efficient riverine force.  This duty fell to the Army.  Four vessels were so employed: the Oeste, a large tug given to the Army by the Navy; the Napindan, the Covadonga and the larger Laguna de Bay, which served the river patrol’s flagship.  The two latter-named boats were chartered or commandeered vessels.  Laguna de Bay had sloping casemated upper works and looked like a small edition of the confederate Merrimack [later, CSS Virginia].  All four vessels were protected with boiler plate and railroad iron.  This small fleet was manned by the 3rd US Artillery[9].

Occasionally this non-descript collection of river boats, which were mission-sufficient (but far from “ship shape”) would come out of the Pasig river for a turn in the bay on some business or other.  Now, since the waters of the bay were within Admiral Dewey’s domain, each time one of the river craft went beyond the lighthouse Dewey became apoplectic with rage and would order them back.  It happened too frequently, which prompted Dewey to send Otis a terse note warning him that the next time he found a river craft operating in the bay, the Navy would sink it.  The river craft never again reappeared in Manilla Bay.  General Otis was the better man in this instance by not challenging Dewey’s warning.

Admiral Dewey was ordered back to the United States on 27 September 1899.  Upon arrival, he received a hero’s welcome, which involved parades in New York City and Boston.  By an act of congress, Dewey was promoted to the special rank of Admiral of the Navy in 1903, his date of rank retroactive to 1899.  The congressional act provided that when such office became vacant, upon Dewey’s death, the office would cease to exist.  He was, therefore, the only officer of the United States Navy to serve in that rank, one he retained until his death on 16 January 1917.  George Dewey served as a naval officer for 62 years.

Sources:

  1. Adams, W. H. D.  Dewey and Other Great Naval Commanders, a Series of Biographies. New York: G. Routledge, 1899.
  2. Albion, R. G.  Makers of Naval Policy 1798-1947. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980.
  3. Barrett, J. Admiral George Dewey: A Sketch of the Man. New York: Harper, 1899.
  4. Dewey, G.  Autobiography of George Dewey, Admiral of the Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987.
  5. Ellis, E. S. Dewey and Other Naval Commanders. New York: Hovendon Press., 1899.
  6. Love, R. W. Jr.  History of the U.S. Navy, 1775-1941. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1992.

Endnotes:

[1] Second in command.

[2] The squadron of evolution (white squadron) was a transitional unit in the late 19th century.  It was composed of protected cruisers (Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago) and dispatch boats (Dolphin and Yorktown).  Bennington and Concord joined the squadron in 1891.  USS Chicago served as the squadron admiral’s flag ship.  Having both full rigged masts and steam engines, the White Squadron was influential in the beginning of steel shipbuilding.

[3] In 1896, Commodore was a one-star rank junior to Rear Admiral.  In 1899, the navy abandoned the rank (revived during World War II) and used it exclusively as a title bestowed on US Navy captains placed in command of squadrons containing more than one vessel or functional air wings not part of a carrier air wing.  Today, the equivalent rank for commodore is Rear Admiral (Lower Half), and even though such persons wear two stars of a Rear Admiral, they are equivalent to the one-star rank of brigadier general in the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

[4]  Dewey believed there was little to gain from a war with Spain.  Dewey had a short view of the situation because there was much at stake in this conflict.

[5] Five days before the declaration of war, Acting Secretary of the Navy John D. Long ordered Major General Charles Heywood, Commandant of the Marine Corps, to organize one battalion of Marines for expeditionary duty with the North Atlantic Squadron.  The battalion was named the First Marine Battalion and placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, a 40-year veteran of service as a Marine.

[6] It is the responsibility of seniors (officers or enlisted men) to lead and mentor their subordinates.  There can be little doubt that Admiral Dewey was an irascible fellow; I have worked under such men myself.  But I believe Dewey’s snappishness resulted from his own training, his uncompromising insistence that subordinates exhibit pride in their seamanship and strive for perfection in the art and science of the naval profession.

[7] Story related and passed down from Captain Ridgley, U. S. Coast Guard, who at the time served aboard McCulloch.

[8] Merritt served in the Civil War as a cavalry officer with additional service in the Indian wars and the Philippine-American War.  After Dewey’s destruction of the Spanish Fleet, Merritt was placed in command of the newly formed Eighth Army Corps.  Merritt, with all available troops in the United States, departed for the Philippines form San Francisco in early June 1898.  In August 1898, Merritt became the first American military governor of the Philippine Islands.

[9] It was no small matter to train artillerymen to operate water craft.

No Guts, No Glory

From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine.

Our flag’s unfurled to every breeze
From dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in ev’ry clime and place
Where we could take a gun;
In the snow of far-off Northern lands
And in sunny tropic scenes;
You will find us always on the job
The United States Marines.

Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve;
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes;
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.

Well, it’s all true, of course, but what most people do not understand is that before there can be victory in battle, there must be the development of doctrine and consistent training that develops a sense of unit and individual esprit-de-corps.  Winning battles is what the Marines do, but victory on the field of battle is no coincidence.  The superlative battle history of the Marine Corps is a result of years of developing doctrine, a process of scholarly discussions about how things should work, and the finding out what does work, and then implementing vigorous training, and constant rehearsal so that such things work consistently well.

This was not always the case, however.  Between 1775-1890, Marine Corps service was a somewhat narrow band of tasks and missions.  In the early days, the Corps’ primary mission was service aboard ship —and the Marines were quite useful to the captains of Continental/United States Navy vessels … it was simply that their missions were limited in scope.  This was true during the Civil War, as well, when the mission of ship’s detachments were finite.

In the 1890s, the Navy began its transition from sail to steam propulsion engines.  While having begun its experimentation with steam engines as early as 1816, US Navy vessels continued to hoist sail until the 1880s.  The official transition came with the commissioning of the battleships USS Maine and USS Texas and with this transition, the mission of shipboard Marine Detachments began to change, as well.  Over time, not every ship’s captain saw a need for a Marine Detachment aboard his ship.  There were only so many capital ships, only so many ships’ detachments, and so many billets for non-shipboard Marines.  Marine leaders realized that without a distinctive mission, without unique expertise, then the Corps would, in time, become passé.  The question became one of maintaining relevance at a time of rapid doctrinal and technological changes.

One of the Marine Corps’ scholarly leaders at the time was Robert Watkinson Huntington who, by 1890, had served in the Marine Corps for just under 30 years.  In that many years, Huntington learned how to do things —to get things done.  Huntington was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1897.  Then in command of the Marine Barracks, New York Navy Yard, Brooklyn, Huntington received orders from the Commandant of the Marine Corps to immediately raise a battalion of Marines for possible service against Spain in Cuba.  It was no easy task to raise a battalion of combat-ready Marines at a time when there was no other battalion-sized unit in the Marine Corps.

LtCol Huntington’s Battalion, Cuba

To accomplish this task, Headquarters Marine Corps had to redirect four company’s worth of Marines from headquarters type units, recruiting stations, training commands, ships detachments, and Marine Barracks organizations up and down the Atlantic coast.  As Huntington started the process of raising this battalion, named the First Marine Battalion (Reinforced), Marine quartermasters began organizing the shipment of combat equipment and tropical weight uniforms to Key West, Florida.  While senior Army commanders were still haggling about seniority and raising an expeditionary force, Colonel Huntington was already in Cuba leading his Marines ashore.  It was this tireless effort and the success of the First Marine Battalion that provided the Marine Corps with its uniqueness: an amphibious force capable of projecting naval power ashore.

At one time, the world’s naval and military philosophers uniformly believed that successful large-scale amphibious operation was an impossibility—and with good reason.  While amphibious warfare has been conducted since ancient times, Napoleon’s failures to control the English Channel and invade England, the Crimean War, and the disaster of Gallipoli were frequently cited as classic examples of its failure as a strategy.

The performance of the First Marine Battalion (Reinforced) in Cuba initiated a love affair between the American people and their Marines.  Emotionally manipulated by the yellow press, the American people believed that the Spanish had blown up the battleship USS Maine.  They needed American heroes; the Marine Corps gave them a few.  The exceptional performance of the U. S. Marines in World War I reinforced this feeling.  After World War I, thoughtful, studious Marine officers began working with their Navy counterparts in the development of airpower and amphibious capability — Charles G. McCawley, Charles Heywood, George Elliott, William Biddle, George Barnett, John A. Lejeune, Alfred Cunningham, Roy Geiger, Robert Huntington, Dion Williams, and Earl Hancock “Pete” Ellis among them.

BrigGen Dion Williams

How does one mount a successful operation against a hostile shore without adequate information about the landing site, hydrographics, enemy displacements, the size of a hostile force?  Answer: it can’t be done successfully.  The officer who pioneered the concept of amphibious reconnaissance forces was (then) Major Dion Williams, USMC  (1869-1952).  While attending the Naval War College (1905-1907), Williams wrote a paper entitled Naval Reconnaissance, Instructions for the Reconnaissance of Bays, Harbors, and Adjacent Country.  This work became the first official US doctrine concerning amphibious reconnaissance.  Williams focused his attention on the creation and employment of specialized forces in the conduct of pre-assault reconnaissance; most of Williams’ concepts were later incorporated into the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations (1934).

By any definition, Brigadier General Williams was a well-rounded career officer who, before his retirement in 1935, served as Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.  His contributions to the Marine Corps Reconnaissance mission continues to this day.

Marine Corps reconnaissance battalions had their beginnings in 1942-43, an idea sparked during the Guadalcanal Campaign.  The Commanding General, 1st Marine Division, Major General Alexander A. Vandergrift, approved a recommendation submitted by Colonel William J. Whaling[1] to form a scout-sniper company.  Whaling’s proposal was for a special operations/special missions company trained in long-range patrolling and as snipers.  Centralized training for its personnel was judged to be critical because, while combat patrolling was (and continues to be) governed by lessons learned in combat, the skill sets, and processes of gathering intelligence through long-range patrolling was viewed differently by the 1stMarDiv and 2ndMarDiv.  What the Amphibious Corps commander wanted was consistency in roles, missions, and command relationships.  The task then became one of standardization, or how to deploy limited reconnaissance assets and clarification of command relationships.

If the scout-snipers operated in general support of the Division, scouting missions would likely originate with the Division Operations Officer (G-3) in cooperation with the Division Intelligence Officer (G-2).  Information gathered would be returned to the G-3/G-2 and this intelligence would be used in the planning of subsequent offensive operations.

If scout-sniper assets operated in a direct support role, elements of the scout-sniper company would be temporarily assigned to the Division’s subordinate commands (regiments), who deployed a platoon or squads within the regimental tactical area of responsibility  (TAOR).  In these instances, the regimental S-3/S-2 would likely coordinate the activities of the temporarily attached scout-sniper element with higher headquarters.  Any intelligence gathered would of course be shared with the Division G-3/G-2.

The Scout-Sniper mission, which followed their training, involved long-range scouting, patrolling, escape and evasion techniques, land/maritime navigation, knife fighting, close-quarter combat, demolitions, combat swimming, underwater (scuba) training, hydrographic survey, amphibious reconnaissance, and rubber boat training.  Scout-sniper officers also attended the Navy’s Amphibious Scout School, which emphasized ambushes, and amphibious raids.

When the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (9thMAB) went ashore at Da Nang on 8 March 1965, reconnaissance assets were attached to battalion landing teams (BLTs) to provide direct support to the BLT commander.  For example, Company A[2], 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion (Alpha 3rd Recon) was attached to Battalion Landing Team (BLT), 3/9.  Additional reconnaissance platoons subsequently arrived as attachments to BLTs (3/4, 1/3, 2/3).  It was a matter of task organizing reconnaissance assets and attaching them to combat commands where they could do the most good.

Once in country, four recon platoons were reformed as Delta Company under Captain Patrick G. Collins.  Delta 3rd Recon operated in direct support of the brigade until 7 May 1965, when Lieutenant Colonel Don H. Blanchard led the 3rd Recon Battalion ashore at Chu Lai with the 3rd Marine Amphibious Brigade (3rdMAB).  Within a few days, Blanchard was ordered to move his battalion, (with Alpha and Charlie Companies) to Da Nang.  Delta Company joined the battalion at Da Nang, while Bravo Company remained at Chu Lai.  Under the concept of mission directed task organization, the 3rd Recon Battalion became an administrative headquarters element that provided reconnaissance assets to infantry battalions on an as-needed basis.

Lieutenant Colonel Roy R. Van Cleve assumed command of 3rd Recon Battalion on 1 September.  Twenty days later, Van Cleve realigned his battalion in compliance with the III MAF general support directive.  Headquarters, Alpha, Charlie, and Delta companies were to operate from Da Nang, while one platoon from Charlie Company would serve at Hue/Phu Bai; a newly designated Recon Group Alpha (consisting of Bravo Company, 3rd Recon Battalion, and Charlie Company, 1st Recon Battalion) would focus on operations from Chu Lai.

Because the infantry battalions at Hue, Phu Bai, Da Nang, and Chu Lai were assigned to static defense missions[3], Colonel Van Cleve wondered, “Reconnaissance of what?”  Van Cleve’s Marines were not performing reconnaissance missions; they were performing security patrols.  Rules of engagement within the TAOR limited patrols to the parent unit’s own front yard.  Geography dictates scheme of maneuver … so when defensive locations afforded Marines with good observation, there was less demand for a reconnaissance patrol.  Hue/Phu Bai reduced their recon contingent to one platoon.

Reconnaissance Areas of Responsibility (RAOR) were defined according to base camp assignment.  At Da Nang, the ROAR extended 4 to 10 kilometers forward of the Da Nang perimeter.  At Chu Lai, recon teams supported two regiments (4th Marines and 7th Marines); each regimental commander determined his own ROAR[4].  The range of reconnaissance missions was limited by the range of radio equipment, the life of batteries[5], and surrounding terrain.  The field radio PRC-25 replaced the older PRC-47 and PRC-10, neither of which was suitable for deep patrolling.  Added to the foregoing, Marine commanders had legitimate concerns about the size of reconnaissance patrols.  While true the Marines were operating from fixed bases, there had to be a balance in the size of the patrol.  It had to be small enough to be effective, and large enough to fight its way out of an enemy entrapment.

Conflict in Vietnam wasn’t a rehash of the Korean War and all Marine combat units in Vietnam underwent doctrinal tests, particularly since MACV insisted on a static defense strategy.  For reconnaissance Marines, 1965 was a year of adjustment.  The 3rd Marine Division had its 3rd Recon Battalion, and the 1st Marine Division had the 1st Recon Company; both organizations experienced great difficulty responding to the demands of supporting three (growing) TAORs: Da Nang, Chu Lai, and Hue/Phu Bai.  3rdReconBn and 1stReconCo were dissimilar in their mission-centered organization.  The mission of 3rdRecon was to support its parent infantry division (and subordinate commands); 1stReconCo, on the other hand, was a force level unit whose mission was to conduct pre-assault and distant post-assault reconnaissance in support of an amphibious or vertical assault force.

Between 23-27 February 1965, Marines of the 1stReconCo partnered up with the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) and conducted underwater reconnaissance of RED Beach 1 and 2 (Da Nang) in preparation for the amphibious landing of BLT 3/9.  This was exactly how reconnaissance was envisioned by (then) Major Dion Williams, as already discussed.  Similar missions were completed at Hue and Phu Bai, including underwater river reconnaissance of the Perfume River and at Chu Lai.  This was extremely dangerous work.  On 27 March, Corporal Lowell Merrill was one of five Marines/Sailors caught in a VC crossfire while surveying near the Tra Bong River.  Three of these men died from their wounds, including Corporal Merrill[6].   1stReconCo Marines also performed as a quick reaction force to protect downed helicopters—efforts which were directed by the III MAF G-2, but none of the missions taken on by 1stReconCo were easy, made more difficult by supply problems.  To help solve these issues, the III MAF commander transferred elements of the company to the operational control of the 3rdReconBn.

The earliest reconnaissance patrols in Vietnam were comparatively large, ranging from 12-22 Marines; a few were company-sized patrols, but there was no safety in numbers.  On 12 July, an 18-man patrol from Alpha Company was operating near Dai Loc, about 18 kilometers southwest of Da Nang when it tangled with a company of Viet Cong.  The patrol was led by 27-year-old First Lieutenant Frank S. Reasoner, USMC, a native of Spokane, Washington.  He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1955 and having completed the Naval Airman’s course in 1956 was designated an Airborne Radioman.  After promotion to Corporal, Reasoner attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School.  He received an appointment to the U. S. Naval Academy in 1958, graduating in 1962 with his subsequent assignment to the 3rdReconBn.  He assumed command of Alpha Company on 20 June 1965.

First Lieutenant Reasoner’s patrol had affected a deep penetration of heavily controlled enemy (communist) territory when it came under heavy fire from an estimated VC force of 100 men.  Reasoner, on point with five other Marines at the point of enemy contact, immediately deployed his Marines for an assault.  Shouting encouragement and tactical instructions to his men while still isolated from the main body of the patrol, Reasoner organized a base of fire while under intense enemy machine gunfire.  Repeatedly exposing himself to the enemy’s devastating attack, Lieutenant Reasoner skillfully provided covering fire to effect the evacuation of wounded Marines.  Despite killing several of the enemy and silencing their machine gun, Marine casualties continued to mount.  When Reasoner’s radio operator was hit, the lieutenant moved to his side and began to treat his wounds while moving him rearward toward a position of greater safety.  When the Marine was hit again, Reasoner courageously went to his aid a second time, running through grazing enemy fire.  It was then that Lieutenant Reasoner fell mortally wounded.  Acting with unreserved gallantry and devotion to his men, First Lieutenant Frank S. Reasoner gave his life to the service of his country.

Lieutenant Reasoner was the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor (posthumously) during the Vietnam War.  Before his family received this award, the Commanding Officer 3rdReconBn dedicated the battalion’s base camp to his memory.  “Greater love hath no man than this: the lay down his life for a friend.” —John 15:13.  The U. S. Navy further honored Frank Reasoner by naming FF-1063, a Knox-class frigate, after him.

First Lieutenant Frank S. Reasoner was but one of the thousands of young Marines and Navy Corpsmen who gave their last full measure of devotion to their country.  Not every hero gave up his life in Vietnam; some lived on … carrying with them to the end of their days the painful memories of the horrors of war, the loss of friends.

Sergeant Jimmie L. Howard, from Burlington, Iowa, was a student at the University of Iowa when he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps on 12 July 1950.  During the Korean War, Howard was awarded the Silver Star Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal, and two Purple Hearts while serving with the 1st Marines.  He subsequently served as a squad leader with the 1st Amphibious Reconnaissance Company (later redesignated as 1stReconCo).  Promoted to Staff Sergeant[7] (E-5)  in 1956, Howard served in several assignments, which included duty as a military policeman, a platoon sergeant in 2/9, Guard NCO, and as a Counterguerrilla Warfare instructor.  In April 1966, was assigned as a platoon sergeant with 1stReconCo.

During the evening of 13 June 1966, Staff Sergeant (E-6) Howard led a patrol of 15 Marines and two Navy Corpsmen into a drop zone behind enemy lines atop Hill 488.  His mission was to observe enemy troop movements and interdict these by calling in for air and artillery strikes.  Aware of the presence of the Marines, a well-trained North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalion engaged Howard’s patrol with automatic weapons and overwhelming rifle fire.  Ignoring the unrelenting fury of hostile fire, Howard repeatedly exposed himself to mortal danger while directing the operation of his small force.  As the enemy fire increased in its intensity, Howard demonstrated calm resolve and exceptional courage by directing the fire of his own men and distributing ammunition to those who needed it.  When his radio operator was wounded and incapacitated, despite being painfully wounded in his legs by an enemy grenade, Howard called in artillery and airstrikes with uncanny accuracy.  By dawn, the next day, Howard’s patrol had suffered five killed in action and all but one Marine wounded.  When rescue helicopters attempted to land on Hill 488, Howard waived them off emphasizing that the hillside was still crawling with enemy troops.  He instead called in for additional airstrikes which he directed perilously close to his own position and delivered concentrated rifle and machine-gun fire on the enemy.  In this way securing a helicopter landing zone, the Howard patrol was soon evacuated.  In recognition of his valiant leadership and courageous fighting spirit, Howard was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

There was never a shortage of guts or glory among Recon Marines in the Vietnam War.

Semper Fidelis …

Sources:

  1. Hildreth, R., and Charles W. Sasser. Hill 488.  New York: Pocket Books,
  2. Shulimson, J., and Charles W. Johnson. Marines in Vietnam, 1965: The Landing and the Buildup.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps , 1978.
  3. Shulimson, J. S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966: An Expanding War.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1982.
  4. Vetter, L. C. Never Without Heroes: Marine Third Reconnaissance Battalion in Vietnam, 1965-1970.  Random House/Ballantine Publishing, 1996.

Endnotes:

[1] Whaling was a highly decorated career officer whose service began in 1917.  On 7 December 1941, Whaling served as the Executive Officer, Marine Barracks, Hawaii and witnessed the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.  He was subsequently recalled to Washington as a witness to the Roberts Commission.  He was subsequently assigned as Commanding Officer, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines in January 1942 and later assigned as the Executive Officer, 5th Marines Regiment (5thMar).  Whaling was legendary as a combat officer, but his administrative skills were lacking.  It was something he shared with his Commanding Officer, Colonel Leroy P. Hunt.  Colonel Hunt was charismatic, a superior troop commander, but he had no ability to organize or plan complex operations.  Whaling was promoted to colonel on 21 May 1942.  After landing on Guadalcanal, the performance of the 5th Marines was judged lacking by General Vandergrift who not only relieved Colonel Hunt, but also Colonel Whaling.  Hunt was ordered back to the United States; Whaling was retained at Guadalcanal as a division staff officer.  He was later promoted to major general, retiring from active service in 1954.  Whaling was the recipient of the Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Air Medal, and two Purple Heart Medals.

[2] Alpha Company was the first division recon asset deployed to Vietnam.

[3] General William C. Westmoreland’s (COMUSMACV) defense strategy for South Vietnam.  Sitting  around waiting for the enemy to take the initiative is not how the Marine Corps operates; a bended knee is not a Marine Corps tradition.

[4] Farming out recon platoons meant that the regimental/battalion commanders had to be trusted to use the skill set of recon Marines.  Too often, regiments/battalions used the recon Marines in contravention to approved doctrine to missions that nothing at all to do with gathering intelligence.

[5] Battery life is less in hot/humid climates.

[6] Camp Merrill was named in Lowell’s honor.

[7] The Marine Corps has undergone several changes in its rank structure, officer and enlisted, since 1775.  In 1958, the proportion of serving noncommissioned officers was 58% of the total USMC enlisted strength, which when compared to the percentage of NCOs in 1941, at 25%, was exceedingly high.  The problem was one of advancing technology and increased demand for technical leaders.  Specialization led to an imbalance of the enlisted rank structure and some confusion about whom was senior to whom.  The Commandant of the Marine Corps ordered a new rank structure in 1958, to take effect in 1959.  A transitional period of dual rank structures initially scheduled to end on 1 January 1965, and to ensure that no Marine lost a rank due to administrative reshuffling, “acting ranks” allowed Marines to retain their titles until promoted into the new rank structure.  The transitional period ended in 1963.