The Road to War

U. S. Marine Corps Defense Battalions

Some Background

The Marine Corps mission, now a long tradition, is to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, or to repel the enemy’s assault by fire and close combat.  No matter what occupational specialty assigned, every Marine is a trained rifleman.  Up-close and personal is how Marines fight.  As an organization, the Corps has two essential purposes: (1) making Marines, and (2) winning battles.

People who seek to join the Marine Corps are already psychologically unique because every potential recruit knows what the Marine Corps will expect from them from the very beginning of their enlistment process.  Knowing this, however, is insufficient.  Every enlisted recruit and every officer candidate must measure up to the Corps’ uncompromising high standards.  They must demonstrate that they have what it takes to serve as a US Marine.  They do this either at recruit training depots or at the officer candidate school — which is where they earn the title, MARINE.

Marines are naval infantry.  Between 1775-1900, Marines primarily served in ship’s detachments, navy yards, and provisional forces for expeditionary service ashore.  Between 1900-1940, Marines participated in irregular warfare and counter-insurgency operations in support of American foreign policy.  Conventionally, Marines served with enviable distinction in the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and in the Middle Eastern Wars.

Organizationally, the Marine Corps is composed of its Headquarters element (Headquarters Marine Corps) (HQMC), its supporting establishments (Marine Corps Bases and Air Stations), and the Operating Forces.  The Operating forces (presently) consist of three infantry divisions, three air wings, three logistical commands, and their reserve counterparts.  The Marine Corps organizes its deployed forces as Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs), which range from battalion landing teams to reinforced infantry divisions.  While war strategies are matters for senior (flag rank) officers, battlefield tactics frequently fall within the purview of Marine noncommissioned officers (NCOs). 

The structure of the Marine Corps (1775-present) has been an evolutionary process.   At its beginning, Congress authorized the recruitment of two Marines battalions and directed that their officers organize them for service aboard ships of war as riflemen.  Historically, the size of the Marine Corps has expanded and contracted to meet the nation’s demands in times of peace and war.  In the Revolutionary War period, for example, the size of shipboard detachments depended on the ship’s size to which assigned. The size of the Marine Corps depended on the missions assigned to it by Congress.  Following the Revolutionary War, the new U.S. Congress determined that it could no longer afford to maintain a naval force, so both the Navy and Marine Corps disbanded between 1783-1798.  The Navy and Marine Corps have continuously served the American people since 1798; their size in ships and manpower ceilings is always a matter for the Congress to decide.

Sea Change

1898

Victory over Spain in 1898 was a pivotal event because it propelled a somewhat backwater United States onto the world stage and had a sudden and significant influence on the growth of the US Navy and Marine Corps.  With victory over Spain came vast territorial acquisitions that included the Philippine Islands, Guam, Samoa, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.  These were in addition to already existing US interests in Central America (Nicaragua and the Isthmus of Panama).  Territorial acquisition meant that the United States would have to defend these faraway places, and the only service that could do that was the US Navy — challenges never imagined before 1898.

Realizing that the post-Civil War Navy was initially out of its depth in this new world order, the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) established the General Board of the Navy in 1900.  The Board’s membership included the Navy’s most senior officers, men who were at the end of their careers upon whom he could rely on offering deliberate and objective analyses of world events and offering recommendations on a wide range of issues — from ship design to naval strategy and contingency planning and training.  The General Board undertook the development of war plans for responding to anticipated threats against the US East Coast, the Antilles, and, eventually, the Panama Canal.

Initially, the General Board of the Navy viewed Great Britain as a “most likely” threat to American interests and sovereignty.[1]  With greater allied cooperation with the United Kingdom, however, the General Board turned its attention toward Imperial Germany,[2] especially after Spain sold its Central Pacific territories to Imperial Germany and German military construction projects  in the Pacific and coastal China.  Japan’s victory over Imperial Russia in 1905 forced the US to consider conflict with the Japanese, as well.[3]

In late 1901, the Navy General Board demanded that (then) Major General Commandant Charles Heywood develop a four-company infantry battalion for expeditionary and advanced base defense training.  The Navy Board envisioned a Marine battalion that could rapidly deploy (ship to shore) in defense of American territories as part of the Asiatic Fleet and do so without awaiting the arrival of US Army units from the United States.  The writings of Captain Dion Williams,  (then assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence), emphasized the importance of the Navy’s ability to refuel its ships from Pacific coaling stations.  Since it was incumbent upon the Navy to defend those advanced bases, the Navy turned to the Marine Corps for this purpose.

One achieves an understanding of warfare by reading history and then thinking about an event’s causes, its actors, what they did, why they did it, the mistakes they made, and the consequences of conflict.  Learning how to prepare for war is a bit more complicated — often involving many years of trial and error.  In 1907, a battalion under Major Eli K. Cole[4] participated in a training exercise in Subic Bay, the Philippine Islands.  It took his Marines ten weeks to set emplace 44 heavy shore battery guns.  The lesson the Marine Corps learned from this exercise pointed to the wisdom of pre-staging men and material as “rapid response” elements of the naval expeditionary forces.  Cole’s exercise prompted the Navy Board to recommend establishment of permanent advanced bases within the Navy’s defensive sphere.

In 1913, Major General Commandant William P. Biddle ordered a Marine Corps Advanced Base Force.  He named it the 1st Advanced Force Brigade.[5]  Biddle further re-designated the Brigade’s two regiments as the Fixed Defense Regiment (under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles G. Long)[6] and the Mobile Defense Regiment (under Colonel George Barnett).[7]

World events temporarily interfered with the Corps’ effort to improve the Advanced Base Force concept.  In 1914, the President dispatched a Marine expeditionary force to Vera Cruz, Mexico.  The Marines used this event to test and validate previously developed theories;[8] these, in turn, providing essential lessons for ongoing developments in Marine Corps force structure.

SgtMaj Dan Daly USMC

During World War I, the 4th Marine Brigade operated as one of two brigades within the US Second Infantry Division.  The 4th Marine Brigade consisted of the 5th Marine Regiment, 6th Marine Regiment, and the 6th Machine-gun Battalion.  A fully deployed combat brigade was a significant increase in overall Marine Corps strength, but the American Expeditionary Force in Europe was not the only iron in the fire.  HQMC formed an additional expeditionary brigade for service in the Caribbean and Central America during the so-called banana wars.  In 1919-1920, post war reductions in funding forced the Marine Corps to disband several infantry regiments/separate battalions.

In 1921, Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune continued the work undertaken in previous decades — work that actually continues today.  Each achievement, methodological or technological, becomes the foundation upon which new ideas emerge — and so it goes.   In 1933, creating and perfecting the Advanced Base Force led to the creation of the Fleet Marine Forces (Atlantic and Pacific) — which became an integral part of the United States Atlantic and Pacific Fleets.

The primary mission of the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) was the seizure and temporary defense of advanced bases, in concert with US fleet operations.  In the 1920s and 1930s, the United States participated in a series of naval conferences designed to reduce the likelihood of war by limiting armaments (i.e., the size of national navies).  It was, at best, a romantic assumption.  The US Congress began thinking defensively, prompting a significant reduction in the size of the military services.  Defense is not how the Marine Corps wins battles; senior Marine officers remained focused on offensive operations and defensive thinking had no appreciable impact on the readiness planning of the Fleet Marine Force.

 The vast range of US territories and the requirement to defend them continued as a vital interest to the Navy and as a primary responsibility of the Marine Corps.  A formal review of responsibilities assigned to the Army and Navy, designed to avoid duplication of effort, determined that the Army should confine itself to continental land operations. The Navy should focus its attention on the security of overseas territories and possessions.

By 1937, the Navy began to consider creating Marine Corps security detachments, particularly at vulnerable locations in the Pacific, in conjunction with Plan Orange.  Initially, the Navy Board envisioned security detachments as battalion-sized organizations.  In 1938, the Navy Board recommended the placement of defense battalions at Midway, Wake, and Johnston Islands —in sufficient strength and size to repel minor naval raids.

Defense battalions were coastal artillery units armed with 5-inch guns (6), anti-aircraft guns (12), machine guns (48 .30 caliber) (48 .50 caliber), searchlights (6), and sound locators (6).  The Battalion’s usual complement involved 28 officers and 482 enlisted men, but a battalion’s size depended on the specific size of the area the battalion was charged to defend.  Once ashore, owing to the size of naval guns, the Battalion would become “immobile.”  In effect, once defense battalions assumed their positions, there would be no retreat.[9]

Initially, the Marine Corps envisioned four defense battalions; their importance (in relation to the Marine Corps as a whole) was significant.  Of the Corps’ total strength (27,000 officers and enlisted men), 9,000 Marines would serve as part of the Fleet Marine Force, and 2,844 of those would serve in defense battalions.

Defense battalions began to form in late 1939.  By 7 December 1941, there were seven active battalions: the 1st, 2nd, 6th, and 7th formed at Marine Corps Base, San Diego, California; the 3rd, 4th, and 5th formed at Parris Island, South Carolina.  The 5th Defense Battalion was the first such battalion to deploy to a potentially hostile shore.

Under the command of Colonel Lloyd L. Leech, the 5th Defense Battalion deployed to Iceland in June 1941 as part of the 1st Marine Brigade (Provisional).  In addition to the 5th Defense Battalion, the Brigade included the 6th Marines, 2nd Battalion, 10th Marines, and various other supporting units to reinforce British forces charged with blocking any German attempt to seize Iceland.  To facilitate training and instruction for the American Marines, the brigade commander assented to the 5th Defense Battalion’s incorporation into the British air defense system.

Over time, it became increasingly unlikely that Germany would seize Iceland.  However, while the Pacific command urgently needed the 1st Brigade, its eventual reassignment was contingent upon the arrival in Iceland US Army units to replace the Marines.  Before Pearl Harbor, statutory provisions precluded the assignment of non-volunteer troops to overseas locations.  Army conscripts could not serve in Iceland until a state of war existed between the United States and its adversaries.  The Brigade was finally relieved by Army units in March 1942.

Of the remaining defense battalions, all but one (2nd) deployed to the Pacific before Pearl Harbor.  The 2nd Defense Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Raymond E. Knapp, joined the 2nd Marine Brigade in Samoa in January 1942.  Already serving in Samoa was the 7th Defense Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Lester A. Dessez.[10]  The 7th Defense Battalion was the first FMF unit to operate in the South Pacific theater of operations.

The 3rd Defense Battalion formed in late 1939.  After initial training, the Battalion embarked for Pearl Harbor in April 1940.  In September, the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific ordered elements of the Battalion to Midway Island.  The entire Battalion reformed at Midway in February 1941.  In September 1941, the 6th Defense Battalion replaced the 3rd Battalion at Midway, which then returned to Hawaii and participated in defense of Pearl Harbor. Also, in Hawaii on 7 December 1941, was the 1st Defense Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Bert A. Bone, and the 4th Defense Battalion, under Colonel Harold S. Fassett. 

The preceding may seem like an orderly process, but it was far from that.  Moving large numbers of Marines and their heavy (and expensive) equipment is never easy, rarely tidy, and always compounded by higher headquarters.  For instance, in 1939, the 1st Defense Battalion formed by renaming the 2nd Battalion, 15th Marines, and then reorganizing it, re-equipping it, and re-positioning it to serve in its new role.  In February 1941, the 1st Defense Battalion arrived at Pearl Harbor from San Diego.  No sooner had the Battalion arrived when higher authority split it apart into subunits and redistributed them throughout the Central Pacific.  FMF Pacific (also, FMFPac) dispatched Detachment A, 1st Defense Battalion to Palmyra Island (arriving 10 March).  A month later, HQMC renamed the unit “Marine Detachment, 1st Marine Defense Battalion, Palmyra Island.” Additional subunits became Marine Detachments at Johnston (mid-July) and Wake (late-July).  Thus, on 7 December 1941, the 1st Defense Battalion had subunits on three atolls with their headquarters element remaining at Pearl Harbor.

By early December, Marine defense battalions defended Midway, Johnston, Palmyra, Samoa, and Wake.  The global war plan, then in effect, renamed “Rainbow Five,” called for the development of air bases at all these sites.  After 7 December, the United States had to concede Guam (and its small naval facility) to the Japanese owing to its position in the center of the Japanese-held Marianas Island group.  The Navy’s intention behind creating these small forward bases was two-fold.  Samoa would help protect communication routes in the Southwest Pacific; Midway, Johnston, Palmyra, and Wake were offered for the protection of Oahu installations.  None of the forward bases provided much protection, however.

At Pearl Harbor

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor started at 0755 on 7 December 1941.  The assault lasted two hours.  The defense battalions offered limited (and generally ineffective) opposition to Japanese forces.  This generally poor performance was not the fault of the defense battalions, however.  Japan’s attack was a surprise event well-timed for Sunday morning.  Accordingly, all US responses were haphazard. 

Before the Japanese attack, the United States was already preparing for hostilities — albeit with only limited intelligence information.  Hawaii-based commanders heard nothing from Washington beyond cautionary advice.  Reacting with caution, senior commanders ordered all munitions secured at widely dispersed locations.  Motor vehicles were carefully stored in are motor pools, berthed ships and parked aircraft were lined up neatly for ease of monitoring security — in case Japanese agents attempted to sabotage American military equipment.  When the Japanese attacked, air defense positions had no ammunition with which to shoot down enemy planes.  Within a few moments of the attack, air and ground commanders ordered munitions, but there  were no vehicles available to transport it.  By the time ammunition did arrive, the Japanese attack was over.

Within six minutes of the beginning of the Japanese attack, Marines from the defense battalion had machine guns set up and engaged the enemy.  These were the only weapons used in the defense of Pearl Harbor.  It was a bit too little. 

Within mere hours after Japan’s attack, Navy and Marine commanders took steps to reinforce outlying island garrisons, rushing substantial numbers of Marines to Midway, Johnston, and Palmyra.  These Marines and their equipment came from the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Defense Battalions. Midway’s assets included 17 Scout/Bombers, ferried to the island commander via the aircraft carrier USS Lexington.  Once the ship returned to Pearl Harbor, additional flights were direct over-ocean movements.  The distance from Pearl Harbor to Midway was 1,137 miles.

Guam

The situation on Guam was bleak.  Lieutenant Colonel William K. McNulty’s 122 Marines (and 15 additional Marines serving on detached duty with the Guamanian Police Force) were overwhelmed by Japanese forces.

Johnston Island

Johnston Island, a spec of sand in the middle of the ocean, was too small and too close to the Hawaiian Islands to risk a land assault, but it was a tempting target.  Major Francis B. Loomis, serving as the 1st Defense Battalion executive officer, was present at Johnston Island when the Japanese made their move against Pearl Harbor.  As the senior officer present, Loomis assumed overall command of American military assets.

The first contact the Johnson Island Marines had with the Japanese occurred on 12 December when a submarine surfaced  8,000 yards off Sand Island and began firing green star clusters, which exploded high overhead.  Marines returned fire with a 5-inch gun, and the submarine withdrew.  Three days later, two Japanese ships opened fire and damaged several buildings and an oil storage facility.  Again, the Marines answered with a 5-inch gun, and the enemy ships withdrew before suffering any damage.  On the nights of 18, 21, and 22 December, enemy submarines returned to deliver harassing fire.  By the end of the month, reinforcements arrived from Hawaii, adding another 5-inch battery, another 3-inch battery, and 16 more machine guns —but the Marines heard no more from the Japanese for the duration of the war.

Palmyra Island

Palmyra Island experienced a single Japanese attack on 24 December.  A Japanese submarine surfaced 3,000 yards offshore and fired its deck guns at a dredge in the lagoon.  The 5-inch battery drove the submarine away.  Lieutenant Colonel Bone, commanding the 1st Defense Battalion, arrived with reinforcements at the end of December.  The Palmyra garrison became 1st Defensive Battalion in March.  Spreading Marines all over the Central Pacific had the effect of diminishing unit cohesiveness within the defense battalions.  To solve this problem, local commands absorbed the various “detachments” into their organizations.

Wake Island

By mid-December world attention was focused on events unfolding at Wake Island.  The unfolding battle electrified everyone.  On 7 December 1941, the Wake Island detachment totaled barely 400 officers and men, including 9 officers and 200 enlisted men who had only joined the detachment in the previous month.  The detachment commander was Major James P. S. Devereux.  The Island’s air support squadron included 12 F4F-3 Wildcats of Major Paul A. Putnam’s VMF-211 detachment, which arrived on 4 December.[11]  Putnam reported to Devereux, who reported to the Island Commander, Commander Winfield S. Cunningham, USN.

There were no optimists among the Marines of Wake Island.  Devereux’s detachment was understrength; one battery of 3-inch guns was completely unmanned.  Two other batteries could field only three of four guns (each), and Echo Battery had no height-finding equipment.  Ground and anti-air crew-served weapons were only half manned.  The detachment had no radar and no sound-locator equipment.  By the time Wake Marines learned of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, VMF-211’s dawn patrol was already aloft.  Putnam dispersed his remaining aircraft, and the detachment’s Marines manned their posts.

Shortly before noon on 8 December (Wake Island was in a different date-time-zone from Hawaii), 36 Japanese bombers attacked Wake Island, their bomb load mostly hitting the airstrip where seven of the eight parked Wildcats were destroyed, exploding aviation gas storage tanks, and killing 23 of the 55 enlisted aviation ground crewmen.  The bombers returned each day for the next six days, always at the same time of day.  Each day, the Japanese inflicted more damage and took more lives.  At 0300 on 11 December, a Japanese assault force appeared offshore.  Warships moved in after dawn to begin raking fire prelude to troop landings.  By 0615, the Marines had severely damaged the cruiser Yubari and sunk the destroyer Havate.  Additionally, Marines damaged a light cruiser, two destroyers, and a troop transport.  The Japanese withdrew to Kwajalein Island.

In the following week, Marines lost an additional three aircraft to Japanese bombers, half their trucks, and engineering equipment, most of their diesel fuel and dynamite, and the motor pool, warehouse, machine shop, and the blacksmith shop was wholly destroyed.  The Japanese destroyed the last two Wildcats on 22 December during aerial combat.  By this time, the Marines at Wake Island were running a pool on their expected shelf-life.

At dawn on 23 December, another Japanese assault force appeared offshore.  One-thousand Imperial Japanese Army and 500 Imperial Japanese Navy prepared to land on Wake Island.  Marines engaged the first wave of Japanese at 0245, but none of the 5-inch guns were able to take destroyers/transports under fire.  The 3-inch guns inflicted some damage, but not enough to hinder the landing.  Lacking any infantry support, overwhelming Japanese forces pushed the Marines back to secondary defensive positions.  Gun crews, in defending themselves, had to forsake the big guns.  By 0500, the Marines realized that the dance was about over.  At dawn, enemy carrier-based fighters and bombers arrived overhead.  Devereux advised Cunningham that he could no longer maintain organized resistance.  With Cunningham’s concurrence, Devereux surrendered his force to the Japanese landing force commander.

The story of Wilkes Island unfolded differently, however.  At Wilkes, the battle raged so fiercely that at daybreak, Captain Wesley Mc. Platt[12] not only destroyed the Japanese landing party after the initial Japanese assault, but he also reorganized his men and ordered a ruthless counterattack, killing every Japanese soldier he could find, one after another.  Captain Platt was out of contact with Devereux and did not know of the surrender until around 1330 when Platt saw Devereux approaching a Japanese officer.  Platt was not a happy camper, but he obeyed Major Devereux’s order to relinquish his arms to the Japanese.

Midway

Admiral Yamamoto’s plan for seizing Midway Island was typically complex.[13]  He also based his assumptions on faulty intelligence.  He believed that only two aircraft carriers were available to the Pacific Fleet after the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.  After the repair of USS Yorktown, the Navy had three carriers: Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown.  He also misread the morale of  the US Armed Forces and the general American population.  Admiral Yamamoto was a crafty fellow, but he did not know that the Americans had broken the naval code.  The key for the Americans was learning that the Japanese designation of Midway Island was JN-25.

Lieutenant Colonel Harold D. Shannon ordered his 6th Defense Battalion to “general quarters” as soon as he learned of the Japanese attack at Wake Island.  It was a sensibly prudent order, but its effect was that it kept his Marines on edge for an extended period.  No action developed that day, but shortly after dark, the Japanese destroyers Akebono and Ushio arrived offshore.  Their mission was to harass the Island’s defenders and determine the placement of Marine shore batteries.  Two Japanese rounds hit the Island’s power plant and disrupted the communications center.[14]  As the two ships set up for their second run into the beach, Shannon ordered his Marines to engage enemy targets at will.  Battery A’s 5-inch guns remained silent due to the break down in communications, but Battery B and Battery D opened up with their 5-inch naval artillery and 3-inch anti-aircraft guns.  The .50 caliber machine-guns fired once the destroyers were within range.  The Japanese ships withdrew shortly afterward.

Reinforcements and resupply soon arrived from Hawaii.  Among the heavy weapons were 7-inch guns removed from World War I ships that had been in storage for many years.  Midway Island was well-armed and adequately manned to repel an enemy assault; the American defenders responded to several Japanese probing raids early in 1942.  Aviation assets at Midway included both Navy and Marine Corps combat aircraft.  The Navy had four PBY squadrons (31 Patrol planes), and six Grumman TBF Avengers from VT-8.  Marine Corps aircraft included Scout/Bomber squadron VMSB-231 (17 SB2U-3 Vindicators), and the remainder of VMF-221 (arriving at Midway from USS Saratoga with 14 F2A-3 Brewster Buffaloes).  Following the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Pacific Fleet quickly replaced lost aircrews with additional Navy and Marine Corps air squadrons.

In May 1942, FMFPac reinforced the 6th Defense Battalion with three additional 3-inch batteries, a 37-mm anti-aircraft battery, a 20-mm anti-aircraft battery, and two rifle companies from the 2nd Raider Battalion with five light tanks in direct support.  FMFPac ordered all Marine aircraft at Midway consolidated under Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-22.  The MAG received 16 SMD-2 Dauntless Diver Bombers and seven Grumman Wildcat fighters.

As the Battle of Midway Island began on 4 June 1942, it became apparent that the defense of the atoll was of secondary importance to the air engagements at sea, but Midway was the bait that had drawn Yamamoto’s task forces within range of US carrier aircraft.  The Marines ashore were, however, ready for any eventuality.  PBYs from Midway first spotted Japanese naval units at 0900 on 3 June.  Army B-17s launched that afternoon to bomb the Japanese fleet, but none of the bombs hit their targets.  At 0545 on 4 June, Navy PBYs fixed an approaching air assault position consisting of over 100 Japanese torpedo, dive bombers, and escort fighters (numbers estimated).  US aircraft were in the air within ten minutes to intercept them.  Japanese Zeros easily destroyed Marine buffaloes, but not without losing several bombers and fighters of their own.  The survivors arrived over Midway at around 0630.  The Japanese attacked lasted thirty minutes.  Marine anti-air defenses claimed ten kills and seemed anti-climactic, but Japan’s air assault was what the Navy fleet commander wanted.  As these planes returned to their carriers, US aircraft followed them.

The Battle of Midway’s significance was that it signaled the end of the United States’ defensive war and the beginning of America’s offensive.  In these early days of a long war, the Defense Battalions’ Marines had played their role and contributed to the war effort.  With the arrival of additional Marines, most of whom had enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor, many found their way into the Defense Battalions.  By the end of 1942, the Marine Corps had 14 defense battalions.  Two years later, there were twenty such battalions.

Guadalcanal and beyond

The assault of Guadalcanal was the first American land offensive in the Pacific war.  The 3rd Defense Battalion provided support to the 1st Marine Division’s landing.  The landing force commander split the Battalion to support simultaneous operations at Guadalcanal and Tulagi.  The Battalion’s machine-gun sections and 90-mm anti-aircraft guns[15] went ashore in the first assault waves.  Similarly, the 9th Defense Battalion supported the assault on the Munda Peninsula in July 1943.  By this time, defense battalions employed 155-mm and 40-mm guns.  On Vella Lavella, the 4th Defense Battalion’s 90-mm gun was the Japanese pilot’s worst nightmare.  Both the 9th and 14th Defense Battalion went ashore with the landing forces at Guam in 1944.  When Japanese aircraft were no longer capable of threatening Marine occupied terrain, senior officers decided that the battalions had served their purpose.  HQMC disbanded most defense battalions after the war —but one (sort of) remains today.  One Marine responsibility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is to defend the naval base.  This mission is similar to that of the World War II-era defense battalion.

Sources:

  1. Cole, E. K.  Advanced Base Force Training.  Philadelphia: 1915.
  2. Davis, H. C.  Advanced Place Training.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1911.
  3. Jackson, R. H.  History of the Advanced Base.  Records of the General Board of the Navy, 1913.
  4. Jackson, R. H.  The Naval Advanced Base. Records of the General Board of the Navy, 1915.
  5. McBride, W. M.  Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1865-1945.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  6. Millett, A. R.  Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps.  New York: The Free Press, 1991.
  7. Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1974.

Endnotes:

[1] Incorporated as War Plan Red.

[2] Incorporated as War Plan Black.

[3] Incorporated as War Plan Orange.

[4] Eli Kelley Cole (1867-1929) graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1888, served as a naval officer for two years, and transferred to the US Marine Corps in 1890.  In 1915, Cole, Williams, Earl H. Ellis, John H. Russell, and Robert H. Dunlap were the Marine Corps’ deepest thinkers.  While commanding the 1st Provisional Brigade in Haiti, he received the Navy Cross Medal.  He later commanded the US Army’s 41st Infantry Division during World War I, and served as the first Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.  He passed away while still serving on active duty.

[5] The forebear of the 1st Marine Division.

[6] Designated 2nd Regiment, Advance Base Brigade on 18 February 1914 (today, 1st Marines).

[7] Designated 1st Regiment, Advance Base Brigade on 18 February 1914 (today, 2nd Marines).

[8] Fleet exercises were important rehearsals in the development of amphibious warfare and the establishment of advanced base defenses, including the art and science of loading/un-loading ships, transfer of equipment from ship to shore, employment of shore artillery, signal science, combat engineering, harbor construction/defense, and the employment of automatic weapons.

[9] See also, Wake Island (in three parts).

[10] Colonel Dessez’ also formed and trained the 1st Samoan Battalion (infantry) (territorial reserve).

[11] One of Putnam’s flight officers was Captain Frank C. Tharin, a graduate of the US Naval Academy (1934).  While serving on Wake Island, Tharin distinguished himself through his courage and aeronautical skill against overwhelming Japanese air forces.  He was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star Medal, and two Air Medals.  Tharin spend the war in a Japanese POW camp.  I worked for LtGen Tharin in 1968 at a time when Tharin served as the Operations Deputy to the Commandant of the Marine Corps.  General Tharin passed away in 1990.

[12] Wesley McCoy Platt survived the war as a POW.  The United States subsequently awarded him the Silver Star Medal, Legion of Merit, and Purple Heart Medal.  During the Korean War, Colonel Platt died of wounds while serving on the staff of Major General Oliver P. Smith, USMC, who commanded the 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir.

[13] Warfare is by its nature complex; overly complicated war plans simply increase the likelihood of failure at critical moments of the battle.  

[14] First Lieutenant George H. Cannon, a communications officer, received severe wounds from Japanese guns but he refused evacuation until the communications center was once more up and running.  Cannon died shortly afterwards. He received the Medal of Honor posthumously, the first Marine to receive the nation’s highest medal during World War II.

[15] The round of the 90-mm gun weighed 23 pounds.  It had a maximum range of 39,500 feet.


One Face of War

Private First Class John Wilson Hoffman, USMC

Lott, Texas is a small town in Falls County.  The settlement began in 1889 with the construction of the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railroad.  The town was named after Uriah Lott, who at the time was president of the railroad company.  In 1889, the settlement involved a total of around two-hundred folks.  They were church-going people, as evidenced by the fact that Lott, Texas had three churches in 1892.  There were also two cotton gins, and two gristmills.  In 1892, there were 350 people living in Lott and by then the town had a weekly newspaper.  In eight more years, the town had grown to 1,200 citizens.  Besides those working for the railroad, there were local farmers who raised corn and cotton.

But Lott was typical of small Texas towns.  Economic conditions were meager, and folks scratched out their existence through hard work barely rewarded.  And, as with most other Texas communities, the Great Depression took its toll and people began to move away.  In 1930, only 650 people were recorded living there in the national census.  Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration helped, of course.  Government subsidies encouraged diversification from farming into stock raising and truck farming.  Even now, though, economic opportunities are limited, and the town relies heavily on the speed trap along State Highway 44/US Highway 77.  In 2010, 759 people lived in Lott, Texas.

One of its citizens, born and raised for a time in Lott, was John Wilson Hoffman.  One of four children, John was born in 1922.  His parents, John Wilson Hoffman, Sr., and Sadie Hoffman, moved their family to Houston in 1929.  John graduated from Stephen F. Austin High School in the class of 1940 and the 18-year old went to work for Lindle Air Products Company as a shipping clerk.  In August 1942, John was 20-years-old, the nation was at war, and the young patriot John Wilson Hoffman, Jr. joined the United States Marine Corps.

J. W. Hoffman

After recruit training, the Marines assigned Hoffman to the 18th Marine Regiment — combat engineers with the 2nd Marine Division.  The regiment was not slated to participate in the Battle of Guadalcanal, but the 6th Marine Regiment was organizing and needed men to fill their ranks.  In mid-December 1942, John Hoffman was one of several dozen engineers transferred to the 6th Marines and Hoffman ended up in Lima Company, 3/6.  The regiment shipped out to New Zealand for pre-combat training.

The ladies of New Zealand are lovely to look at, and young Marines are easy to fall in love — as did John W. Hoffman, and he was so much in love with his New Zealand lassie that he didn’t want to leave her.  When 3/6 sailed for the Solomon Islands, John was not among them.  In fact, no one saw Hoffman again until 7 January 1943, when he surrendered to New Zealand police in Wellington.

When 3/6 returned from Guadalcanal in late February 1943, Hoffman was waiting for them at Camp Russell.  Hoffman received a court-martial for missing his movement.  During war, this is a serious offense — but it could have been worse.  Had his superiors charged him with desertion in time of war, he may have faced a death penalty.  Hoffman was found guilty of “missing movement,” and sentenced to ninety days in the brig.  He was also fined $15.00 per month for three months.  It doesn’t seem like much of a fine, but Hoffman was only making $50/month in 1943.

After three months of confinement in a Marine Corps brig, Hoffman was a changed man.  Upon release, he returned to his unit, stayed out of trouble, and applied himself to combat training.  His transformation from a love-starved puppy to a fighting grunt was so impressive that his company commander promoted him to Private First Class (PFC).

John Hoffman had become a “squared away” Marine.  When Lima Company mustered for their next combat assignment, John Hoffman was present and accounted for.  What no one in Lima Company knew was that their next assignment would take them to a tiny atoll in the middle of a very large ocean.  The atoll had a name — Tarawa.  The island was Betio.

Far above the station of mere privates, America’s war planners had been looking for an air base capable of supporting operations across the mid-Pacific — to the Philippines in the South, and to Japan in the North.  The need for advanced bases led these war planners to focus their attention on the Mariana Islands, which at the time were heavily defended by the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy.  Before the US could seize the Marianas group, they would have to control the Marshall Islands, but the Marshalls were cut off from direct communications with Hawaii by a Japanese garrison  on the small island of Betio, on the western side of the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.  Before the Americans could concentrate on the Mariana Islands, they would have to neutralize the Japanese on Betio.

Betio Island is Tarawa’s largest.  It is located about 2,400 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor.  Despite its size on the atoll, it is infinitesimally small.  It is a flat island, two miles long, triangle shaped, and at its widest point, only 800 yards from shore to shore.

If Evans Carlson’s diversionary raid at Makin Island accomplished anything at all, besides getting good Marines killed, it was that it sent a signal to the Imperial Japanese that their Island defenses were vulnerable to American attack — and that the Americans viewed the Gilbert Islands as an important objective. 

Thus warned, the Japanese reinforced Betio with its 6th Special Landing Force (Japanese Marines).  In total, the Japanese island commander, Rear Admiral Tomonari Saichiro, commanded 5,000 defenders.  An experienced engineer, Saichiro directed the construction of the Betio defenses.  Saichiro’s plan was to stop the Americans before they reached the island’s shore; and if that failed, then to make the American’s pay dearly for their audacity.  The Evans Carlson gave the Japanese a year to perfect Betio Island’s defenses.

The Gilbert Islands campaign was the largest invasion force yet assembled for a single operation in the Pacific.  There were seventeen aircraft carriers, twelve battleships, twelve cruisers, sixty-six destroyers, and thirty-six troop transports.  Aboard the transports were the 2nd Marine Division and the US 27th Infantry Division — totaling 35,000 troops.  The Marines began their assault at 0900 on 20 November 1943.  The 6th Marines, under the command of Colonel Maurice G. Holmes, would dedicate the 1st Battalion (William K. Jones, commanding) and 3rd Battalion (Kenneth F. McLeod, commanding) in the third and fourth wave assaults at Green Beach.[1]

It was at Green Beach, during the fourth wave attack, that Private First Class John Wilson Hoffman, Jr., met his end.  As Lima Company moved up to relieve elements of the 1st Battalion, an enemy bullet found Hoffman and instantly killed him.  The Marines of Lima Company gently laid his body to rest along with thirty other members of his company.  They did their best to mark the grave site as lethal battle raged around them and the Marines continued to move forward under heavy Japanese resistance.  It was a horrific battle.  The movement of tanks, artillery, and troops soon obliterated the grave marker.

As with so many other Marines who died at Betio over a period of 72-hours — 1,009 killed, 2,101 wounded — the Marine Corps eventually notified Hoffman’s parents that their son’s remains were unrecoverable.  History Flight[2] recovered John Hoffman’s body, where it had lain undisturbed on Betio Island for 76 years.  John Hoffman finally came back home to Texas in the spring of 2020.  There was no one left alive in John’s family who remembered him.

Some gave all.

Sources:

  1. Alexander, J. H.  Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
  2. Graham, M. B.  Mantle of Heroism: Tarawa and the Struggle for the Gilberts.  Presidio Press, 1998.
  3. Hammel, E. & J. E. Lane.  Bloody Tarawa.  Zenith Press, 1998.
  4. Smith, H. M.  Coral and Brass.  New York: Scribeners & Sons, 1949.

Endnotes:

[1] The 2nd Battalion (Raymond G. Murray, commanding) was assigned to assault and occupy the outer islands of Tarawa.  Murray later commanded the 5th Marines during the Battle of the Pusan Perimeter during the Korean War and in that capacity, participated in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.  Both Jones and Murray achieved flag rank with Jones retiring as a lieutenant general and Murray as a major general.

[2] History Flight is a privately operated non-profit organization dedicated to researching, recovering, and repatriating the remains of American servicemen from World War II through the Vietnam War period.  Since 2003, History Flight has recovered 130 missing servicemen in both the ETO and PTO.  John Hoffman’s remains were one of these.


Mayaguez

Crisis in Command

One could refer to this incident as the last episode of the Vietnam War, but doing so would only present half the picture.  Cambodia was also involved — and Laos — and China, and the Soviet Union.  We could probably call it a Southeast Asian War or the Third Indochina War.  But no matter what one chooses to call it, by mid-May 1975, the American people were gut-wrenchingly tired of Southeast Asia.

In over 25 years of direct or indirect combat operations, the American people gave up 58,000 of their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers.  Seventy-five thousand Americans sustained severe wounds; of those, more than 23,000 were permanently disabled, including five thousand who lost limbs and over a thousand multiple amputees.

Beyond this, the United States government squandered the nation’s wealth — with untold billions spent shoring up French Imperialism, bribing Vietnamese officials, bombing North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In the final analysis, the United States of America walked away from the entire episode with nothing to show for its mind-numbing costs.  Not one presidential administration, from Harry S. Truman to Gerald Ford, had any intention of winning that war.

The Trigger

SS Mayaguez

In the middle of May 1975, just weeks after the fall of Saigon, the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian Reds) “coast guard” seized a United States flagged ship named SS Mayaguez.  Following Phnom Penh’s fall on 17 April, the communists moved to control Cambodia, including its offshore islands.  Khmer Rouge and (north) Vietnamese forces clashed over territory claimed by both countries.  Operating in defense of Cambodian territory, the Khmer navy/coast guard instituted coastal patrolling to prevent Vietnamese incursions — and because of their belief that the CIA used merchant shipping to conduct intelligence-gathering operations along coastal areas.[1]

Within this tense environment, the Khmer navy captured seven Thai fishing boats on 2 May and charged them with territorial violations.  They also pursued a South Korean freighter on 4 May.  On 7 May, the Khmer navy seized a Panamanian-flagged ship near the island of Poulo Wai and questioned its crew for more than 36 hours.  Five days later, the Khmer navy fired on a Swedish vessel in the same area.  On that same day, the Khmer Rouge dispatched a company-sized unit to occupy Poulo Wai.  None of the merchant ships operating off the coast of Cambodia knew about this transfer.

Cambodia asserted its sovereignty twelve nautical miles outward from the shoreline of its mainland and all claimed islands — and had done so since 1969.[2]  In 1975, Poulo Wai Island was a potential site for oil exploration, explaining Cambodia’s sensitivity to foreign trespass.  The US had no interest in Poulo Wai other than suppressing what it believed to be a base for Cambodian pirates’ operations. 

On 12 May, the US container ship SS Mayaguez (owned by Sea-Land, Inc.[3]) transited near Poulo Wai en route from Hong Kong to Sattahip, Thailand.  At 1418, a Khmer navy swift boat approached Mayaguez and fired a shot across her bow.  Seven Khmer Rouge seamen boarded Mayaguez and ordered the captain to proceed to Poulo Wai.  The ship transmitted a mayday, which was picked up by an Australian vessel.  Mayaguez was carrying 107 cargo containers, 77 of which were US government and military cargo — including material from the United States Embassy in Saigon.

SS Mayaguez’ SOS call prompted notification to the US Embassy Jakarta, which transmitted the information to the National Military Command Center in Washington.  The National Security staff notified President Ford of the incident the next morning (Washington time).  Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger urged Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger to direct the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command, Admiral Noel Gayler, to launch a reconnaissance aircraft to locate Mayaguez — but even before any analysis of photographs, Kissinger and Deputy National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft had already decided that the crisis deserved a decisive response.  In the wake of the United States’ recent withdrawal from Cambodia and Vietnam, both Kissinger and Scowcroft believed that the US’s reputation was at stake.[4]  Presidential advisors also wanted to avoid another USS Pueblo incident.[5]  President Ford directed Kissinger to petition China for its help in releasing the Mayaguez.

President Ford and Kissinger drafted a press release to the American public stating that the seizure of a US-flagged ship was an act of piracy.  Technically, it was no such thing.  Meanwhile, Secretary Schlesinger ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to locate the ship and undertake measures to prevent its movement to the Cambodian mainland.  Kissinger sent a terse note to the Chinese Liaison Office in Washington demanding the “immediate release” of the ship and its crew.  The Chinese liaison office refused to accept the message, however — apparently, the Chinese were not in the mood for accepting demands from a country recently defeated by a nation of rice farmers.

In compliance with Schlesinger’s instructions, the Pacific command launched aerial reconnaissance missions from the Philippines and Thailand and diverted the USS Coral Sea from its course en route to Australia.  Pacific Command also dispatched a guided-missile destroyer with escort toward Mayaguez’s last known location.  Admiral Gayler also issued a warning order to the III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF), placing them on standby.  III MEF passed the mission through the 3rd Marine Division to the 9th Marine Regiment on Okinawa and to the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines (1/4) at Subic Bay, Philippine Islands.  As a rapid reaction company from 1/4 assembled at Cubi Point Naval Air Station for possible airlift to Thailand, a Battalion Landing Team (BLT) from the 9th Marines began its pre-deployment procedures on Okinawa.

On 13 May, an Orion aircraft identified a significant radar return near Poulo Wai and dropped flares on the suspected location of Mayaguez.  Young Khmer Rouge sailors, believing that they were under attack, opened fire.  Both photo-reconnaissance aircraft, already low on fuel, withdrew.  Replacement aircraft also received gunfire from Khmer ground forces.

Within a few hours after seizing the ship, the Khmer navy officials ordered the master of the Mayaguez, Captain Miller, to get underway.  He was instructed to follow a swift boat toward the Northeast.  Orion aircraft continued to track the ship’s movement.  Admiral Gayler ordered the Commanding General, 7th US Air Force, Lieutenant General John J. Burns, USAF, to assume operational control over US military recovery efforts.  Burns marshaled rotary-wing aircraft for a possible air assault mission.

A flight of two F-111’s marked the ship’s position, which was then nearing Koh Tang Island.  Soon after, F-4 Phantoms arrived and began firing into the water ahead of Mayaguez, indicating to Captain Miller that he was to halt.  It was then that the Khmer naval commander ordered the ship’s crew into two fishing boats for transfer to Koh Tang Island.

Meanwhile, the Navy’s flotilla — Coral Sea, Holt, and Wilson — signaled that they would not arrive on station until 15 May.  None of these ships carried a Marine landing force.  USS Hancock (CVA-19), with a small contingent of Marines, would not arrive until 16 May, and USS Okinawa (LPH-3), with a BLT, would not arrive until 18 May.

On Okinawa, III MAF assigned the Special Landing Force (Task Force 79.9) to recover Mayaguez.  Company D, 1/4 was designated as the unit that would actually take Mayaguez, but General Burns wanted a more significant force.  Ultimately, the 3rdMarDiv assigned BLT 2/9 as its air assault force.  The battalion flew to Thailand on the morning of 14 May.  Only a few of the 1,100 officers and NCOs of 2/9 had any combat experience.

Seventh US Air Force earmarked nineteen of its helicopters to participate in the air assault.  Nine of these were HH-53C (Jolly Green) aircraft, and ten were CH-53s.  The HH-bird was capable of aerial refueling; the CH-53 was not.  Meanwhile, General Burns developed a plan to re-take Mayaguez with an assault force from the 56th Security Police Squadron.  He intended to drop 75 SPS volunteers on the containers aboard the ship on 14 May.

En route to Cambodia’s Southeast coastal region, one of the CH-53s (call sign Knife 13) crashed, killing all on board (18 police and five crewmen).  President Ford subsequently canceled General Burns’ plan because, beyond the loss of one aircraft and 23 men, these large helicopters were too heavy to land on shipping containers.  Instead, President Ford decided to await the arrival of the Navy and Marines.  However, President Ford ordered Burns to stop any Cambodian boats moving between Koh Tang and the mainland.

Early on 14 May, at Koh Tang, the Khmer navy loaded the Mayaguez crew onto a fishing vessel and, with an escort of two swift boats, headed toward the mainland at Kampong Som.  Air Force F-4s, A-7s, and an AC-130 gunship sunk one fast boat and convinced another to turn back.  Orbiting pilots reported the presence of 30 to 40 Caucasians on the fishing boat.  One senior pilot opined that he might be able to shoot the rudder off the fishing boat to stop its progress.

By this time, communicators had established a link between the White House situation room, the Pacific Command in Hawaii, and General Burns’ headquarters at Nakhon Phanom.  General Burns relayed the pilot’s idea for shooting off the fishing boat’s rudder to the White House, which NSC staffers immediately denied.  Ford decided that if anything, the Air Force should only drop tear gas onto the fishing boat but gave the go-ahead to sink all patrol boats.

Acting JCS Chairman, U. S. Air Force General David C. Jones, provided the NSC staff with a range of military options.  One major complication for the rescue operation was that no one knew for certain the Mayaguez crewmen’s location.  There was a long list of things the forward area commander didn’t know.

The NSC decided to proceed with a Marine assault to retake Mayaguez with a simultaneous attack by Air Force and Navy assets on Koh Tang and against Khmer naval vessels.

The Air Force’s tear gas assault did not affect the fishing boat, and it proceeded to Kampong Som.  Upon arrival, the ranking Khmer area commander wisely refused to allow the boat to dock; he anticipated a massive retaliatory attack by American aircraft.  The redirected fishing boat proceeded to Koh Rang Sanloem undetected by orbiting aircraft.

Marines from Delta Company 1/4 arrived in Thailand during the early-morning hours of 14 May; insofar as the American high command knew, the Cambodians detained crew members at Kampong Som, so higher authority canceled the planned assault on Mayaguez.  Delta Company Marines did what they always do … they waited for someone higher on the totem pole to make up their minds.  Meanwhile, Marines from BLT 2/9 began arriving at U-Tapao, Thailand.

That afternoon, President Ford ordered General Burns to proceed with a simultaneous assault on Koh Tang and Mayaguez; the assault would begin at sunrise on 15 May.  Since the Americans had no information about Koh Tang, the 2/9 Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Randall W. Austin, and his operations officer boarded a Beechcraft U-21 to conduct aerial reconnaissance of the island.

The problem with Colonel Austin’s aerial reconnaissance was that he could not get close enough to the island to see anything worthwhile without compromising the upcoming assault.  All Colonel Austin could tell about Koh Tang for sure was that heavy jungle foliage covered the island and that there were only three (potential) landing zones for an air assault.  He found two of these on the northern section of the island, which he designated East Beach and West Beach, and another beach located center of the island’s eastern shore.  The center beach was too narrow for vertical assault operations.

From photographs taken by reconnaissance flights, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimated an enemy footprint of between 150-200 Khmer Rouge with heavy weapons.  Colonel Austin never received this information; he proceeded with his planning on the generally held assumption that only a small number of Khmer navy irregulars were on the island.

Austin planned a two-company air assault, assigning the mission to Company E and Company G (Echo and Golf) 2/9.  They would fly to Koh Tang aboard three USAF CH-53s and three USAF HH-53Cs to seize and hold Koh Tang.  Two additional helicopters would make a diversionary thrust toward West Beach; the main assault would occur at East Beach.  From that East Beach, Austin planned to proceed to a small compound believed to be the location of Mayaguez’s crewmen.  Flight time from U-Tapao to Koh Tang was two hours.

Fifty-seven Marines from Delta Company 1/4, including a detachment of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians, a team of volunteers from the Military Sealift Command, and a Cambodian linguist, were transferred by helicopter to USS Holt, from which they would re-take Mayaguez.

Acting JCS Chairman Jones briefed President Ford and the NSC Staff on the operation plan.  Jones wanted to incorporate B-52s from Guam in bombing Kampong Som and the Ream Naval Base, but the president believed the B-52s were “excessive” and limited aerial bombing to carrier-based aircraft.  With that modification, President Ford approved the operation and gave the go-ahead.

None of the Mayaguez crewmen were at Koh Tang.  Moreover, island defenses included around 150 Khmer defenders.  These troops had not been placed on Koh Tang to counter an American assault but rather to prevent a Vietnamese takeover of the island.  The island’s commander had set up two heavy machine gun emplacements on East Beach with interlocking fires and well-developed defensive positions every twenty or so meters behind a sand berm.  The commander also set up one heavy machine gun at West Beach and armed those defenders with RPGs, 75-mm recoilless rifles, and mortars.

Meanwhile, the senior Khmer commander at Rong Sang Lem interviewed Captain Miller.  Miller was asked to contact the American military and persuade them to call off their anticipated attack; the Cambodian did not want an engagement with the Americans.  Miller told this commander that if he could return to the ship, restart her engines, it may be possible to contact his company in Bangkok, and they, in turn, could communicate with the US military.  The Cambodian military commander decided to return Captain Miller and nine of his crew to the ship the following day.

The operation to retake Mayaguez occurred the next morning, beginning at about 0600.  Delta Company Marines successfully conducted one of the few hostile ship-to-ship boarding operations since the American Civil War; the ship was secure within an hour.

On to Koh Tang

At about the same time, eight USAF helicopters approached the Koh Tang landing zones.  At West Beach, the first helicopter section (two aircraft) to arrive received heavy machine gunfire.  The aircraft with call-sign Knife 21 safely offloaded its Marines, but enemy fire destroyed one of its engines.  After disembarking the Marines, Knife 21 struggled into the air only to ditch two miles offshore.  Inbound Knife 22 also received damage while in-flight, forcing it to withdraw with Marines still on board — including the Gulf Company commander.

Thirty minutes later, CH-53s approached East Beach and encountered intense automatic weapons and RPG fire.  Knife 31 was hit by two RPGs, causing it to crash in a ball of fire fifty meters offshore.  The aircraft’s co-pilot, five Marines, and two Navy corpsmen were killed in the crash; another Marine drowned while swimming away from the wreck. Three additional Marines were killed by Khmer automatic weapons while trying to reach the shoreline.  Ten surviving Marines and three USAF crewmen were forced to swim for two hours before being rescued from the sea.  Among the surviving Marines was the battalion’s forward air controller, who used a USAF survival radio to call in A-7 strikes against the enemy position — doing so until the radio’s batteries failed.

An RPG hit Knife 23, which blew off the aircraft’s tail section, causing it to crash land on East Beach.  Twenty Marines and five aircraft crewmen safely exited the aircraft and set up a hasty defensive perimeter.  Knife 23’s co-pilot used his survival radio to direct airstrikes.  This group remained cut off for twelve hours.

Knife 32, inbound to East Beach, was hit by an RPG and aborted its landing.  After dumping his fuel, the pilot proceeded to rescue three of Knife 21’s crewmen.  The remaining inbound helicopters were diverted from East Beach to West Beach and landed their Marines; an AC-130 gunship, call-sign Specter, was called in to suppress Cambodian defensive fires.  Knife 32, Jolly 41, and Jolly 42 eventually landed 81 Marines on West Beach.  Gulf Company’s executive officer assumed command; Jolly 43 landed 29 Marines a half-mile further southwest.

By 0700, 109 Marines and five USAF crewmen were on Koh Tang, but in three isolated beach areas, each in close contact with Khmer Rouge defenders.  Marines on the northern end of West Beach attempted to link up with Colonel Austin’s command element but were beaten back by overwhelming enemy fire.  Lance Corporal Ashton Loney lost his life in this attempt.  Although isolated, the Marines could employ their 81-mm mortars for fire support, and communicators set up a makeshift radio net for directing air support operations.

An effort to extract the Marines on East Beach failed when Jolly 13 received severe damage in the attempt; with fuel lines ruptured, the aircraft flew to Rayong, Thailand.  Of the eight birds assaulting Koh Tang, enemy fire destroyed three and damaged five birds sufficiently to remove them from further operations.  Because only three helicopters of the assault force remained operational, two aircraft initially assigned to sea and rescue operations, Knife 51 and Knife 52, became part of the airlift element.  These five birds picked up the second wave of the Marine assault force and headed back toward Koh Tang.  Enemy fire damaged the fuel lines of Knife 52, which had to abort its landing; Knife 41 and Jolly 43 likewise aborted their landings and remained in a holding pattern offshore.

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s press minister announced that the crew of Mayaguez would be released and went further to explain why the ship had been “detained” in the first place.  The White House then engaged the Cambodian government in a war of press releases.  President Ford immediately took credit for the release of Mayaguez crew members when their release had nothing to do with Ford.  Meanwhile, the president ordered airstrikes to continue until the successful withdrawal of the assault force.

Acting JCS Chairman Jones determined that since the Mayaguez’s crew had been returned to US control, there was no reason to reinforce the Marines at Koh Tang.  The JCS notified all American forces to “ceasefire” and withdraw.  General Burns ordered the return of Austin’s second wave, but Austin convinced him that reinforcements were needed to prevent the Khmer Rouge from overrunning the Marine positions.  Austin ordered an additional one hundred additional Marines ashore.  At that point, there were 225 Americans on Koh Tang, 205 Marines on West Beach, and 20 Marines and five airmen at East Beach.

By 1400, enemy fire at West Beach had diminished substantially; the Khmer defenders’ main force had moved back from the shoreline with a minimal force remaining to keep pressure on the Marines.  Colonel Austin contacted the airborne command post for permission to push across the northern end of the Island to link up with the isolated Marines at East Beach.  He was advised to hold until another helicopter extraction attempt was made.  Jolly 11 and Jolly 43 made their attempt at 1415 but were repulsed by heavy fire.  Jolly 43 was forced to land aboard the Coral Sea.  Jolly 43’s pilot reported that he had received fire from one of the swift boats partially sunk the previous day. A-7’s soon arrived to destroy the boat.

At 1610, a USAF OV-10, call-sign Nail 68, arrived to take over air support functions above Koh Tang.  The arrival of Nail 68 was the first time the Marines had dedicated overhead fire support direction.  At 1700, the Khmer Rouge commander moved his men back to a previously established ammo dump.  Thus, resupplied with ammunition, the Khmer Rouge could re-engage the Marines.  At 1815, Jolly 11, though sustaining battle damage, was able to extract the Marines and airmen from East Beach.  Once the bird was clear, a C-130 dropped a daisy-cutter 15,000-pound bomb on the area of East Beach.  The bomb’s massive shockwave extended over the Marines at West Beach.  Colonel Austin directed that no more such bombs be employed, as they endangered his Marines.

In the darkness of the night, Knife 51, Jolly 43 (hastily repaired), Jolly 44 (brought online from a repair facility at Nakhom Phanom) began extracting the Marines from West Beach.  Knife 51 extracted forty-one Marines and flew them to the Coral Sea.  Jolly 43 extracted fifty-four Marines.  As Jolly 44 picked up forty-four Marines, the 66 remaining Marines came under intensive Khmer fire and were in danger of being overrun. 

The flight time to Coral Sea was around thirty minutes; to shorten the extraction time, First Lieutenant Robert Blough, USAF, delivered his Marines to USS Holt, which in a moonless night was a difficult maneuver.  Once the Marines had been offloaded, Blough returned to Koh Tang and picked up an additional thirty-four Marines.  Lieutenant Blough, whose aircraft began experiencing mechanical issues, flew the Marines to Coral Sea.

At 2000, Knife 51 landed and began loading Marines in the dark.  The only light available came from the muzzle flashes of enemy weapons.  Captain Davis and Gunnery Sergeant McNemar began combing the beach, looking for stragglers.  USAF Technical Sergeant Wayne Fisk stood on the ramp of his aircraft as two additional Marines appeared from the brush.  Fisk asked Davis if all his Marines were accounted for; Davis replied in the affirmative.  Nevertheless, Fisk combed the beach one last time, looking for stragglers and finding none, Knife 51 launched for the Coral Sea.

Because of the intensive enemy fire and no way to communicate with the Khmer defenders, the bodies of Marines and airmen killed in action were left where they fell, including LCpl Loney at West Beach.

As the Air Force birds pulled Marines off the beach, the Marine’s defensive perimeter was contracted to facilitate force protection.  Lance Corporal John S. Standfast, the squad leader of the third squad, third platoon, Echo Company, provided cover for Gulf Company during its withdrawal; Standfast directed the pullback of his own men.  As his men contracted, he and platoon guide Sergeant Anderson continually checked to account for all hands.  Before boarding his extraction helicopter, the Echo Company commander, Captain Mike Stahl, informed Captain Davis from Gulf Company that all his men were inside the perimeter.  Captain Stahl did not realize that three Marines of one of his machine gun teams had set up a firing position behind a rocky outcrop beyond the perimeter’s right flank.

As Knife 51 lifted off, Marines began insisting that some of the men were missing.  Knife 51’s pilot, First Lieutenant Brims, radioed the FAC that he believed there were still Marines on the island.  Captain Davis assured the FAC that all Marines were off-island.  Two hours later, Captain Stahl discovered three of his Marines were missing: Lance Corporal Joe Hargrove, Private First Class Gary Hall, and Private Danny Marshall — the machine gun team — were missing.  Sergeant Anderson was the last to see these Marines alive when he ordered them back to the shrinking perimeter.

At 2020, USAF Staff Sergeant Robert Veilie at the airborne command post received a radio transmission from an unidentified American asking when the next helicopter was coming to pick them up.  Veilie authenticated the transmission and radioed to advise Holt that Marines were still on the island.  Holt instructed Veilie to pass the instruct the Marines to swim out to sea where they could be rescued.  The Marines declined because only one of the three Marines could swim.  Veilie advised the caller to take cover since airstrikes were scheduled at their likely position.  After acknowledging Veilie’s instructions, whomever Veilie talked to went off the air, and no more was heard from him.

Aboard Coral Sea, the Commander, Task Force 73, Rear Admiral Robert P. Coogan, met with Colonel Austin, Commander Coulter, who had just arrived from Subic Bay with a 14-man Seal Team, Captain Davis, and Gunnery Sergeant McNemar to discuss possible courses of action.  Admiral Coogan suggested that Coulter take the Wilson’s gig ashore at first light with a white flag to see if he could recover the remains of those killed in action and any possible stragglers.  Coulter was cool to the idea; he preferred taking his men ashore for a nighttime reconnaissance.  Coogan refused this notion; his orders from COMSEVENTHFLT were to cease hostilities — and he had no confirmation that these “missing” men were still alive.  Despite Wilson’s efforts to spot Marines between East Beach and West Beach, which included cruising offshore and loudspeaker announcements in English and Cambodian, there was no indication that the three Marines were still alive.  Moreover, Coogan was certain more lives would be lost during any forced rescue attempt.

On 16 May, Hargrove, Hall, and Marshall were declared “missing in action.” On 21 July 1976, all three Marines were reported Killed in Action, bodies not recovered.

Except — they weren’t.

In 1999, the Khmer Rouge commander at Koh Tang Island approached the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting, who advertised that they were looking for additional information about Koh Tang’s event.  The man’s name was Em Son.  According to his memory, on the morning of 16 May, he ordered his men to search the West Beach for any remaining Americans.  Around a hundred meters into the search, one of the Khmer defenders was hit by M-16 fire.  The Cambodians fired mortars into the area and captured a wounded Marine.  Em Son’s description of the man matched that of Joseph Hargrove.  The Cambodians continued their search and located an abandoned M60 machine gun and other various equipment.  A few minutes later, the Khmer discovered the body of a black Marine, believed to be LCpl Loney.  They buried Loney and took their wounded prisoner to Em Son.  When the wounded Khmer soldier died, Em Son ordered Hargrove executed.

Em Son also testified that about a week later, he and his men noticed that their food stores were being disturbed.  On searching, they discovered boot prints in the soil.  They set up a night ambush and, on the third night of their vigil, they captured two Americans.  Em Son’s descriptions matched those of Gary Hall and Danny Marshall.  On instructions from Kampong Som, the two Americans were taken to the mainland and transferred to the Ti Near Pagoda, where they were stripped to their underwear and shackled.  A week later, on orders from Phnom Penh, each prisoner was beaten to death with, he said, a B-40 rocket launcher. Hall’s body was buried in a shallow grave near the beach; Marshall’s body was dumped into a nearby cove.

The next of kin of all three of these abandoned Marines received the Purple Heart Medal.  They weren’t the only casualties.  In total, forty-one Americans were killed in the rescue of Mayaguez — one more American serviceman killed than the whole crew saved in the operation.  These casualty numbers reflect the 23 SPS and aircrewmen who died in the helicopter crash, the 18 killed assaulting Koh Tang Island (which includes Hargrove, Hall, and Marshall), and eighty personnel wounded or injured during the operation. 

Sources:

  1.  Caro, R. A.  The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent. New York: Random House, 1991.
  2. Lamb, C. J.  The Mayaguez Crisis, Mission Command, and Civil-Military Relations.  Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, 2018.
  3. Rumsfeld, D.  When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency. New York: Free Press, 2018.
  4. Shafer, J. “The Honest Graft of Lady Bird Johnson: How she and Lyndon came by their millions.” Slate Magazine, 16 July 2007.

Endnotes:


[1] I have no evidence suggesting that this claim had any merit.  I will only observe that if it was true, it was very poor headwork inside the CIA and shipping company boardrooms if they agreed to conduct it.

[2] Cambodia had long claimed a twelve-mile territorial limit of adjacent seas.  Its national policy toward seizing, detaining, questioning maritime crews had been in effect since 1969.  Most countries since 1982 claim a twelve-mile territorial limit.  But in 1975, the United States (and many other countries) only recognized a three-mile territorial limit.

[3] A major shareholder in Land-Sea/Maersk was none other than the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson.  According to Robert A. Caro, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of President Johnson (The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent), Johnson used his political power and influence to build her fortune beginning in 1943.  “Johnson had worked at politics for years to achieve power; now he was working at politics to make money.”  According to award winning journalist Jack Shafer, “Under Texas law, Lyndon Johnson owned half of her profits.”  The truth of Johnson’s Indochina War may thus be revealed to us; he, as a sitting president, profited from the war through his wife ownership of stock in a company that became the primary shipper logistics and war materials to the Republic of Vietnam.

[4] America’s reputation was already a shamble since Harry S. Truman’s gross incompetence involved us in the easily avoided Korean War (which, as of this date, technically still continues) and laid the foundation for similar events in Indochina eleven years later.

[5] USS Pueblo (AGER-2), initially constructed for the US Army as a freight and supply ship during World War II, was transferred to the US Navy in April 1966 as a light cargo ship.  Her subsequent designation as an environmental research vessel was a cover for her real purpose, signals intelligence (known informally as a “Spy Ship”).  In early 1968, USS Pueblo engaged in surveilling Soviet naval activity off the Japanese coast and gathered electronic intelligence from North Korea.  Claiming that Pueblo was illegally operating in North Korean waters (North Korea at the time claimed 50 nautical miles of sovereign territory), North Korean gunboats fired upon Pueblo (killing one crewman), seized the ship, interned the crew as prisoners of war, mistreated the crew, tortured the ship’s commander, and demanded a written apology by the US government as a condition of releasing the crew.  The United States signed the admission, and the North Koreans released the crew in late 1968 but retained possession of the ship and all of its highly classified material (hardware and software).

Operation Ranch Hand

Whoever fights monsters must see to it

that the process does not become a monster. —Nietzsche

Background

The Players

We cannot begin to demonstrate an understanding of history’s great tragedies until we appreciate and acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the men who shaped them.  Occasionally, high officials’ statements and behaviors reveal who they were, how they reasoned, and how they arrived at decisions that affected tens of thousands of other human beings.  Of course, people are complex animals, and we are all flawed in some ways.  Knowing that people are flawed should give those of us living in democracies something to think about before choosing our national leaders.

As one example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a man who had no qualms about developing atomic weapons or approving chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, but he was consistently an anti-colonialist and sympathetic to popular independence/nationalist movements. Roosevelt’s compassion, coupled with his moralism, limited his interest in colonialism to work performed by missionaries in far distant places unknown to most Americans.  It was Roosevelt’s anti-colonial sentiments that brought him to loggerheads with other leaders of the allied powers — notably Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle.

Mr. Roosevelt believed colonialism opened the door to secret diplomacy, which led to bloody conflicts.  These deeply held beliefs created tensions between Roosevelt, Churchill, and de Gaulle.  Both Churchill and de Gaulle intended to re-engage their pre-World War II colonial interests — including those in Southeast Asia and North Africa.

But Roosevelt, the pragmatist, also kept his focus on winning the war against Germany and Japan. To achieve that primary objective, he curbed his anti-colonial sentiments throughout most of the war — with some exceptions.  Roosevelt, for example, did not hesitate to signal his belief that the people of Indochina (present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) were much better off without French meddling in their internal affairs.  After World War II, Roosevelt intended to “push” France toward an agreement placing its Southeast Asian colonies into an international trusteeship — a first step, Roosevelt believed — toward achieving Indochinese independence.

Unfortunately, Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office on 12 April 1945 — before the end of the Second World War.  Whatever his intentions toward Southeast Asia, it was left unfulfilled.  Upon Roosevelt’s death, Harry S. Truman ascended to the presidency, and Truman was an entirely different man.  Truman did not share Roosevelt’s anti-colonialist sentiments; he was more concerned about maintaining good relations with the United Kingdom and France. As a result, America’s world war allies had little trouble retaining their colonial holdings once the war was over.  When nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh announced Viet Nam’s independence in 1945, Truman ignored him — preferring instead to back De Gaulle.

In fact, Truman developed no distinct policy toward Indochina until around 1947 and only then because of the re-emergence of the Soviet Union and its totalitarian power over most of Eastern Europe and not until Winston Churchill forewarned of a clash between communism and capitalism — his now-famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946[1].  Always “slow on the up-take,” or if not that, then his preoccupation with post-war US domestic policy, the Iron Curtain speech, and George Kennan’s “Long Telegram”[2] nudged Truman’s attention toward the Soviet Union, Europe, and the domino theory of global communism.

Approaching Indochina

The Truman Doctrine led US foreign policy toward two interrelated goals — the first being an ambitious (American taxpayer-funded) program designed to rebuild a massively destroyed Europe as a democratic, capitalist dominated, pro-US collection of nations and a global defense against Soviet-style communism.  The first of these attentions went to Greece and Turkey but soon extended into East and Southeast Asia, as well.  The connection between events in Europe and far-distant Indochina was the re-established colonial empires of Great Britain and France, precisely the clash between French colonialism and the Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, which began in 1945[3].

Chemical Warfare

In 1943, the outcome of the Pacific war was inevitable: Japan would lose.  What remained uncertain was how many allied troops would perish if it became necessary to invade the Japanese home islands.  Encouraged, perhaps, by Italy’s campaign against Abyssinia in 1939, the US Army contracted with the University of Illinois (Urbana/Champaign) and a botanist/bioethicist named Arthur Galston to study the effects of chemical compounds (notably, dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T)) on cereal grains (including rice) and broadleaf crops.

What Galston discovered was that certain chemicals could be used to defoliate vegetation.  It was from this discovery that the question arose — how best to disperse such chemicals?

Since the beginning of powered flight, highly placed civilian and military officials have debated aeronautics’ utility in conflict.  During the First World War, French, British, and American forces employed airpower to counter enemy aircraft, perform intelligence gathering functions, attack enemy observation balloons, and drop bombs on enemy troop and artillery concentrations.  In the Second World War, the allied powers refrained from using chemical and biological weapons — perhaps out of fear that the enemy would reciprocate its use — and (mostly) confined its lethal air assault to enemy industrial and transportation centers.  There were two exceptions, however.  Fire-bombing destroyed Dresden, Germany[4], Tokyo, Japan[5] — and the civilians who lived in those cities.  It was a travesty surpassed only by the use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan[6], in early August 1945 — the point being that aerial delivery of weapons or other means of mass destruction was not a new phenomenon among the world’s first nations.

In early 1945, the US Army tested various chemical mixtures at the Bushnell Army Airfield in Florida.  These tests were so successful that the US began planning to use defoliants against Japan — should it become necessary to invade the home islands.  The people working on the application of chemical warfare did not know about the Manhattan Project.  Because of the use of two atomic bombs in Japan, the allied invasion of the home islands was unnecessary — and neither was the use of herbicides.

Nevertheless, Great Britain and the United States continued their evaluations of defoliants’ use in the years following World War II.  The Americans tested well over 1,100 chemical compounds in various field tests, and the British conducted similar tests in India and Australia.  The first western nation to deploy chemical defoliants in conflict was the United Kingdom during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).

By the mid-1950s, events unfolding in Southeast Asia were already leading the United States toward an unmitigated disaster in foreign policy and economic expenditures.  In 1961, given the “success” of the use of defoliants on the Malaysian Peninsula, American and Vietnamese officials began to consider their service in Vietnam, as well.

Ranch Hand

Ta Cu Mountain, Vietnam

Even before President Lyndon Johnson escalated the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, war planners realized that the region’s dense foliage would challenge those involved in ground and air campaigns.  This factor led to Operation Ranch Hand — a U. S. Air Force effort between 1961-1971 to reduce jungle vegetation and deny food sources to North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong insurgents by spraying the dense forests with an estimated 20-million gallons of various herbicides.  The Air Force concoction, code-named Agent Orange, contained the deadly chemical dioxin, later proven to cause cancer, congenital disabilities, rashes, and severe psychological and neurological problems among those exposed to it and their offspring.

Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt accepted an appointment to the US Naval Academy in 1939.  Upon graduation, he was commissioned an Ensign on 10 June 1942.  Upon selection to Rear Admiral (Lower Half), Zumwalt assumed overall command of Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla Seven in 1965.  As Rear Admiral (Upper Half), Zumwalt became Commander, US Naval Forces (Vietnam) and Chief, U. S. Naval Advisory Group within the USMACV.  In 1968, he was promoted to Vice Admiral and served as the principal navy advisor to US Army General Creighton Abrams, serving as Commander, MACV.

Model USN Swift Boat

Zumwalt’s command was part of the “brown water” navy, which in his advisory capacity, controlled the Navy’s swift boats that patrolled the coasts, harbors, and river systems of South Vietnam.  Among his subordinate boat commanders was his son, Elmo Russell Zumwalt III (and John F. Kerry).  The brown water navy also included Task Force 115 (Coastal Surveillance Force), Task Force 116 (River Patrol Force), and Task Force 117 (Joint Army-Navy Mobile Riverine Force).

In 1968, the United States had been fully engaged in the Vietnam War for three years.  No one wants to fight a never-ending war, not the people who have to fight in it, not the people back home who suffer the loss of loved ones, and not the politicians whose popularity and careers are diminished by unhappy citizens.  American war planners wanted to turn the war over to Vietnamese military officials to decide their fate vis-à-vis the conflict with North Vietnam.  This task of turning the war over to the Vietnamese government was called Vietnamization, first implemented by President Richard M. Nixon.  Nixon, who previously served as Eisenhower’s vice president, wanted the United States out of the Vietnam conflict — but with honor.

To achieve Vietnamization, the “press was on” to move Vietnamese military forces as quickly as possible to the point where they could take over the war, allowing the United States to withdraw their forces.  President Nixon didn’t want to hear any excuses about how or why USMACV could not achieve it.

Admiral Zumwalt related the story of how he attended a briefing with General Abrams in 1968 when the discussion emerged about how soon the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) might assume control of the air war over South Vietnam.  A senior US Air Force officer opined that the VNAF might be ready as early as 1976.  Abrahams threw a fit … Vietnamization was taking too long, and the Air Force didn’t seem to understand that MACV didn’t have eight more years to fool around with the project.  When it was Zumwalt’s turn to speak, he laid out his plan for increasing the pace of Vietnamization among the riverine forces.  This moment was when the Admiral made his fateful decision to increase defoliation along South Vietnam’s inland waterways.  Zumwalt later said that he specifically checked with the Air Force about possible harmful effects of Agent Orange on US personnel; he said, “We were told there were none.”

But in 1988, Dr. James Clary, a USAF researcher associated with Operation Ranch Hand, wrote to Senator Tom Daschle, stating, “When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential damage [to humans] due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide.  However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us was overly concerned.  We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.”

Admiral Zumwalt’s son was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1983; in 1985, doctors also discovered stage three Hodgkins (another form of lymphoma).  Elmo R. Zumwalt III died in 1988, 42-years old.  His son, Elmo R. Zumwalt IV, suffers from congenital dysfunction that confuses his physical senses.  In 1985, Admiral Zumwalt told the press, “I do not have any guilt feelings because I was convinced then, and I am convinced now, that the use of Agent Orange saved literally hundreds and maybe thousands of lives.”

The Admiral could not have been more wrong as to the effects of Agent Orange and “saving lives.” The consequences of using dioxin to defoliate Vietnam’s dense jungle ended up killing up to 40,000 American servicemen[7], causing untold sickness and suffering to their offspring and killing as many as four million Vietnamese civilians.  Agent Orange killed his son — and the effect of this incomprehensible decision continues to manifest itself in 2021.  Admiral Zumwalt passed away in 2000 from mesothelioma.  He was 79 years old – he outlived his son by twelve years.

Sources:

  1. Associated Press (Online).  “Elmo Zumwalt, Son of Admiral, Dies at Age 42.”  13 August 1988.
  2. Clark, C. S. and Levy, A.  Sprectre Orange.  The Guardian.com.  2003.
  3. Mach, J. T.  Before Vietnam: Understanding the Initial Stages of US Involvement in Southeast Asia, 1945-1949.  Centennial Library: Cedarville University, 2018.
  4. Stellman, J. M. and Stellman, S. D., Christian, R., Weber, T., and Tomasallo, C.  The Extent and Patterns of Usage of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam.  School of Public Health, Columbia University, 2002.
  5. Veterans and Agent Orange.  National Academies, Institute of Medicine, Committee to Review Health Effects in Vietnam Veterans of Exposure to Herbicides, 2012.
  6. Vietnam Express (online). Due Hoang, Hoang Phuong, Dien Luong.  Out of Sight/Out of Mind: Vietnam’s Forgotten Agent Orange Victims, 2017.
  7. Zumwalt, E. Jr., and Zumwalt, E. III.  Agent Orange and the Anguish of an American Family.  New York: New York Times Magazine, 1986.

Endnotes:

[1] On 5 March 1946, then former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill condemned the Soviet Union’s policies in Europe, declaring that “… an iron curtain has descended across the [European] continent.”  It was the opening volley of the Cold War.

[2] George F. Kennan (1904-2005) was one of the US’ foreign policy wise men.  He was a historian and diplomat who advocated a containment policy toward the Soviet Union and helped Truman formulate the so-called Truman Doctrine.

[3] British forces entered Indochina in rather substantial numbers to accept the surrender of Imperial Japanese forces at the end of World War II.  Free French forces re-entered Vietnam soon after and observing the growing discord between French legionnaires and Vietnamese nationalists, and with no desire to be caught between the two, the British forces soon withdrew.  British colonial forces concentrated on their interests in Malaya (which also became a hotbed for communist inspired nationalism), Singapore, and Hong Kong.

[4] Raids conducted by my than 1,400 allied aircraft between 13-15 February 1945, resulting in 25,000 civilian deaths.

[5] Part of Operation Meeting House conducted on 9-10 March 1945 is the single most destructive bombing raid in human history.  It destroyed 16 square miles of central Tokyo and killed about 100,000 people.

[6] Death toll, a quarter of a million people.

[7] Even though these service men and women died from circumstances of their combat service, none of their names appear on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, DC.

The Atlantic War, 1939-45

Some background

Most people associate the World War II Era Navy and Marine Corps with the Pacific War — which is certainly accurate; the U. S. Navy was unquestionably the dominant force in the Pacific.  But the Allied powers could not have won the European war without superior naval power, as well.  Victory at sea was a keystone for allied triumph over the Axis power in all World War II theaters.

  • Pacific-Asian fronts
  • Europe (Nordic, Western, Eastern fronts)
  • Mediterranean, Africa, Middle East

Victory at sea involved the formidable task of keeping sea lanes open for the movement of troop transports,  combat equipment, raw materials, and food stores — in massive quantities earmarked for the United Kingdom, nearly isolated by hostile German forces.

Complicating the Navy’s Atlantic mission was the fact that theater area commanders had to compete for limited naval resources.  There were only so many aircraft carriers, only so many landing craft, only so many carrier-based aircraft — only so many men.  It was up to theater area commanders to find the best way of distributing these limited assets where they would do the most good.  As one can imagine, the Navy’s mission to protect ships, men, and material over vast areas of the world’s major oceans was no small undertaking — and neither was denying access to them by the Axis powers.

Within 15 years from the end of World War I, Germany began rebuilding its military and naval forces.  Between 1933 and 1939, without opposition and emboldened by European politicians who sought to avoid war at any cost, Germany seized and annexed Alsace-Loraine, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.  When Adolph Hitler discovered that the “free world’s” only response to this aggression was appeasement, and in concert with the Soviet Union, he launched a lightning invasion of Poland.  Allied powers responded to the invasion by declaring war on Germany, prompting Germany’s invasion of Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France — and then began its assault on the United Kingdom through aerial bombing and naval blockades.  Once Germany believed that it had neutralized the United Kingdom, Hitler foolishly invaded the Soviet Union.

Following the First World War, the United Kingdom decided to place all of its military aircraft under the Royal Air Force, completely neglecting its naval arm vis-à-vis sea-launched aircraft.  As a result of this poor thinking, the United Kingdom lost its maritime superiority.

In the years leading up to World War II, Royal Navy Aviation competed with the RAF for scant resources.  The decision taken by Britain’s war policy board was that strategic bombing must occupy a higher priority than seaborne attack aircraft — and did so even after the United States proved that long-range bomber aircraft were only marginally effective against moving ships at sea.  The use of B-24 Liberator aircraft against Japanese ships of war during the Guadalcanal campaign in 1942-43 reinforced the American’s earlier conclusion.

In 1939, the Royal Navy had a substantial base structure at both ends of the Mediterranean, at Alexandria, Egypt, Gibraltar, and Malta.  The French Navy had naval bases at Toulon and Mers-el-Kébir and deluded themselves into believing that the Mediterranean was “their sea.”

In September 1939, when the UK declared war against Germany, there were only seven aircraft carriers in the British fleet.  These were capital ships highly vulnerable to German submarines, battleships, and land-based aircraft.  Because the British had no carriers in the First World War, there was no battle-tested procedure for protecting aircraft carriers.

Substantial loses during the UK’s initial carrier operations underscored weaknesses of command decisions and employment doctrine.  HMS Courageous was lost in the second week of the war, sunk by the German submarine U-29HMS Ark Royal might have been lost in the following week were it not for defective torpedoes fired by U-39.  From these two incidents, the British Admiralty decided that carriers were too vulnerable for use as a submarine screening force.  In early June 1940, HMS Glorious was lost to German battleships off the coast of Norway [Note 1].

At the beginning of 1942, the U. S. Atlantic Fleet operated Carrier Division Three, which included the fleet attack carriers (CVA) USS Ranger, USS Hornet, and USS Wasp, and the escort carrier (CVE) USS Long Island.  Over the course of the war, American and British carriers became increasingly effective in a number of operational assignments — from providing air cover during amphibious operations to patrolling in search of enemy ships.

Unlike the Pacific war, where naval and ground commanders planned and implemented combat strategies and operations, European heads of government were the decision-makers in the Atlantic war.  Both Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler directly involved themselves in the details of operational planning; in contrast, Franklin Roosevelt left the details of fighting to his military commanders.

The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic was a contest of strategies between the Allied and Axis powers.  Both sides attempted to deny use of oceanic shipping.  British and American navies sought to blockade German shipments of raw materials from Norway; the Germans attempted to block American shipments of food and vital supplies to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.

Germany relied principally on its submarines, merchant raiders, battle cruisers, and land-based aircraft to destroy American shipping — of those, submarines were by far the most effective [Note 2].  Allied use of aircraft carriers contributed significantly to the ultimate success of the Battle of the Atlantic — used not only to protect convoys, but to locate and destroy German submarines, as well.  This success was the direct result of the Allied capture and deciphering German code machines.

In September 1939, Germany had fifty-seven submarines; twenty-two were suitable for combat operations in the Atlantic and only eight or nine could operate “on station” because of the time it took to return to their base for fuel, refit, and replenishment.  By March 1940, this small submarine force accounted for the sinking of 222 Allied ships — including two aircraft carriers, a cruiser, and two destroyers.  Germany’s application of underwater naval assault was “unrestricted,” evidenced by Germany’s sinking of the civilian passenger ship Athenia.

On land, it took Germany only six weeks to conquer France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands (10May-24 June 1940).  With the fall of France, Germany was able to establish a submarine base along the French coast, which brought their U-boats 1,000 miles closer to Allied convoy routes.

Within the space of two years, the production of German U-boats was sufficient to allow Germany’s Grand Admiral Erich Raeder and Admiral Karl Dönitz to begin employing submarines in groups (from eight to twenty) (the wolf pack).  In April 1941, German submarines destroyed half the convoy ships transiting from Halifax to Liverpool.  The action was significant enough to cause President Roosevelt to order the transfer of USS Yorktown, three battleships, and six destroyers from the Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic Fleet.  In September 1941, Roosevelt transferred 50 American destroyers to the Royal Navy [Note 3].  It was at this time that the United States Navy began escorting Britain-bound convoys as far as Iceland.  Despite these efforts, by the time the United States entered the war, German U-boats had destroyed 1,200 cargo ships.

American Attitudes, 1939-41

The American people well-remembered the terrible loss of life during World War I and they wanted nothing whatever to do with another European War.  Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for reelection with the promise of neutrality [Note 4].  When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Roosevelt declared American neutrality — but he also established a “neutral zone” in the Atlantic within which the United States would protect shipping.  The Navy assigned USS Ranger to patrol this “neutral” zone.

Even before 1939, Roosevelt’s opposition party in Congress watched developing world events and the president with growing concerns.  Members of Congress were well aware that Roosevelt was itching to involve himself in the European war, so in the 1930s, the congress passed a series of neutrality acts (1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939) that reflected the mood of the American people.  Americans had become isolationist and non-interventionist.  Whether these were carefully thought-out restrictions may not matter today, but the Acts made no distinction between victim or aggressor.

As Congress pushed back against Roosevelt’s apparent desire to engage in the emerging world war, Mr. Roosevelt crafted clever ways around congressional restrictions.  The so-called Lend-Lease program was enacted in early March 1941; it permitted President Roosevelt to provide Great Britain, Free France, the Republic of China, and Soviet Union with food, oil, and war materials [Note 5].   Congress earmarked more than  $50-billion for this purpose (about 17% of the USA’s total war expenditure) (in modern dollars, around $600-billion), most of which went to the United Kingdom.  Under this agreement, nations receiving war materials could use them until returned to the United States (or were destroyed).  Very little war material was returned to US control [Note 6].  The net-effect of Lend-Lease was that it removed any pretense of neutrality by the United States.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, President Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.  On 11 December, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States.  Mr. Roosevelt had his war.

Carriers and Their Functions

Large areas of the Atlantic were beyond the range of land-based aircraft in Canada, Iceland, and Great Britain.  The UK, with insufficient fleet resources, initiated programs to enhance convoy protection.  In 1940-41, Britain converted three ocean-going vessels, a seaplane tender, and an auxiliary cruiser  [Note 7] to help extend the protective range of land-based aircraft.  They called these vessels Fight Catapult Ships (FACs), Catapult Aircraft Merchant Ships (CAMs), and Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MACs).  Germany sank three of these ships in 1941 — the same year the British converted thirty-five additional merchant ships into catapult ships.

In January 1941, the United Kingdom began converting captured German merchant ships to escort carriers (CVEs).  While CVEs were slow and lightly armored, they did provide platforms for dispatching and retrieving land-based aircraft.  Britain’s first CVE was christened HMS Audacity.  The ship carried six operational aircraft with room for an additional eight, but because there was no hanger deck or elevator, aircraft were maintained on the flight desk.

In April 1941, the United States began converting merchant hulls to CVEs.  The first American CVE was christened USS Long Island.  A second American CVE was transferred to the UK, who christened her HMS ArcherArcher was capable of operating 15 aircraft.  The Americans constructed five additional CVEs, (transferring four to the Royal Navy): HMS Avenger, HMS Biter, HMS Dasher, HMS Tracker, and the USS Charger.

Lessons learned from USS Long Island led to substantial improvements to forty-four successive CVEs.  The new constructs were capable of carrying between 19-24 aircraft.  Thirty-three of these went to the United Kingdom.  Additional CVEs were constructed from tanker hulls, which were longer and faster than the merchant hull ships.

Aircraft carriers operating in both oceans had similar functions.  They supported amphibious landings, raided enemy ports, searched for enemy submarines, escorted merchant convoys, transported aircraft, troops, vital supplies, and served as training platforms for carrier-rated pilots.

The Turning Point

In the spring of 1943, German submarines assaulted 133 Allied ships, a major decline from previous periods.  The Battle for the Atlantic had taken an abrupt turn.  On 21 April, Germany sent 51 U-boats to attack a 42-ship convoy transiting from Liverpool to Halifax.  Designated Convoy ONS-5, the shipments were protected by nine naval escorts.  U-boats sunk thirteen ships; escort vessels and Catalina flying boats sunk seven U-boats and badly damaged seven more.  In total, for that month, Allied forces destroyed 43 German submarines.  For the next six months, beginning in May 1943, the Allies dispatched 64 North Atlantic convoys with 3,546 ships to Great Britain.  Not a single ship was  sunk en route.

Faced with such massive losses, Grand Admiral Dönitz ordered his submarines into the Central Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.  These were the areas used by the United States to transport men and materiel to the Mediterranean to support operations in Sicily and the India-Burma campaign.  To counter Dönitz’ strategy, the U. S. Navy authorized anti-submarine groups, which included destroyers and CVEs, to operate apart from convoys.  Between June – December 1943, Allied hunter-killer groups [Note 8]  destroyed 31 German U-boats, including ten of the so-called resupply submarines.  Admiral Dönitz’ strategy in the Central and South Atlantic fared no better than his North Atlantic scheme.

Hunter-killer battle groups were a team effort.  CVEs used the F4F Wildcat fighter to look for submarines, and when spotted (either by air or radar), dispatched TBF Avengers with bombs, depth charges, and torpedoes.  Allied destroyers and destroyer escorts served to screen the CVE hunter-killer groups [Note 9].

By the end of 1944, the Allied powers dominated the Atlantic.  Dönitz moved his submarine force around, but the US & UK were reading the admiral’s mail.  He ordered 58 U-boats to counter Allied landings at Normandy.  German U-boats sank four Allied ships at the cost of 13 U-boats.  After Normandy, Dönitz withdrew his submarines to Norwegian waters, which drew the Allies’ attention to the German battleship Tirpitz (a sister ship to Bismarck), which lay at anchor in Norway.  Tirpitz did very little during World War II, but the ship did offer a potential threat to Allied navies.  In early 1944, the Allies’ focus on Tirpitz deceived the German high command into believing that an Allied invasion of Norway was imminent.  Once Tirpitz was sunk in November 1944, the Royal Navy felt comfortable sending the carriers HMS Formidable and HMS Indefatigable to the far east to join the British Pacific Fleet.

At the beginning of 1945, HMS Implacable was the only Allied fleet carrier in the Atlantic, supported by 12 British and 10 American CVEs.  All other fleet carriers were sent to the Pacific Theater to finish the war with Japan even as the war with Germany continued.  Thirty German U-boats attacked a 26-ship convoy in February 1945, supported by German Torpedo-Bombers, but aircraft from CVEs Campania and Nairana drove the U-boats away with no loss of merchantmen.  Convoys bound for Russia continued through May 1945 [Note 10].

Marines in the Atlantic

We seldom read or hear about Marines who served in the Atlantic War.  This is very likely because fewer than six-thousand Marines participated in Atlantic, North African, and European campaigns during World War II.  Of course, before the war, US Marines served at various U. S. Embassies.

In 1941, about four-thousand Marines of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade served in Iceland through February 1942.  But given the expertise of U. S. Marines in amphibious warfare, the Navy Department assigned several senior Marine officers to serve as planners/advisors for invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy.  For example, Colonel Harold D. Campbell [Note 11], an aviator, was responsible for planning air support for the 6,000 man raid on Dieppe [Note 12].  Marines were also responsible for training four U. S. Army combat divisions in preparation for their amphibious assault of North Africa.  In North Africa, Marines from ship’s detachments executed two raids in advance of the main invasion: one operation involved seizure of the old Spanish Fort at the Port of Oran; a second raid secured the airfield at Safi, Morocco.  Both operations took place on 10 November 1942, the Marine Corps’ 167th birthday.

Fifty-one Marines served with the U. S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), participating in behind the lines operations in Albania, Austria, Corsica, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Rumania, Sardinia, and Yugoslavia from 1941 to 1945.  See also: Marines and Operation Torch, Behind the Lines, and Every Climb and Place.

At sea, Marines assigned to detachments aboard battleships and heavy cruisers served as naval gun crews during the North African, Sicily, and Normandy invasions [Note 13].  Reminiscent of the olden days of sailing ships, Navy ship commanders sent their Marine sharpshooters aloft to explode German mines during Operation Overlord (the invasion of Normandy) [Note 14].  On 29 August 1944, Marines from USS Augusta and USS Philadelphia participated in the Allied acceptance of the surrender of Marseilles and 700 German defenders.

When General Eisenhower assumed the mantle of Supreme Allied Commander, his staff consisted of 489 officers.  Of these, 215 were American officers, including Colonel Robert O. Bare, who served on the staff of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, Allied Naval Commander.  Bare worked on the plan for the Normandy invasion.  While serving with the British Assault Force, Bare was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.  At the completion of his tour in Europe, Bare participated in the Palau and Okinawa campaigns.  During the Korean War, Bare served as Chief of Staff, 1st Marine Division.

Colonel Jeschke (1894-1957)

Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk served Eisenhower as Commander, Western Naval Task Force.  Assigned to Kirk’s staff was Marine Colonel Richard H. Jeschke [Note 15].  Jeschke served Kirk as an assistant planning officer in the operations staff.  Of the total 1.5 million Americans serving in Europe, 124,000 were naval personnel.  Fifteen-thousand of those served on combat ships, 87,000 assigned to landing craft, 22,000 assigned to various naval stations in the UK, and Marine Security Forces, United Kingdom.  On 6 June 1944, Rear Admiral Don P.  Moon (Commander, Force Uniform), frustrated with delays in landing operations, dispatched Colonel Kerr ashore to “get things moving.”  Kerr diverted troops scheduled to land at Green Beach to Red Beach, which expedited the operation.  Colonel Kerr credited the low casualty rates during the landing to the accuracy and rate of fire of naval artillery.

The landing at Omaha Beach was a different story.  German defenses inflicted 2,000 casualties on a landing force of 34,000 men.  Rear Admiral John L. Hall dispatched Colonel Jeschke and First Lieutenant Weldon James ashore at Omaha Beach to observe and report back to him the effectiveness of naval gunfire support from USS Texas.

Colonel John H. Magruder II, USMC served as the naval liaison officer to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group.  Many Marine officers were assigned to various posts because of their fluency in foreign languages.  Magruder was fluent in Dutch.  Major Francis M. Rogers served as an interpreter for General Edouard de Larminent, Commander, II French Corps.  Rogers was fluent in both French and Portuguese.    

Sources:

  1. Allen, H. C.  Britain and the United States.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1955.
  2. Dawson, R. H.  The Decision to Aid Russia, 1941: Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.
  3. DeChant, J. A.  Marine Corps Aviation Operations in Africa and Europe.  Washington:  Marine Corps Gazette, 1946.
  4. Donovan, J. A.  Outpost in the North Atlantic.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1992.
  5. Edwards, H. W.  A Different War: Marines in Europe and North Africa.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1994.
  6. Eisenhower Foundation.  D-Day: The Normandy Invasion in Retrospect.  Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1971.
  7. Morrison, S. E.  The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963.
  8. Menges, C. A.  History of U. S. Marine Corps Counter-intelligence.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1991.
  9. Roskill, S.  The Navy at War, 1939-1945.  Chatham, Kent, Great Britain: Mackays of Chatham, 1960.

Endnotes:

[1] Glorious was ordered to help evacuate aircraft during the UK’s withdrawal from Norway.  The ship left the main body of the fleet when discovered by the German battleships.  German 11-inch guns literally ripped Glorious apart.  Alone, without aircraft aloft, and only 4-inch protective guns, Glorious had no chance of survival in a hostile sea.  Captain Guy D’Oyly-Hughes, commanding Glorious, was a former submarine skipper.  He decided to set out alone so that he could, once at sea, court-martial Wing Commander J. B. Heath, RN, and Lieutenant Commander Evelyn Slessor, RN, who had refused to obey an order to attack shore targets.  Heath admitted his refusal, but argued that his mission was ill-defined and his aircraft unsuited to the task.

[2] German submarines accounted for 70% of world-wide allied shipping losses.

[3] The agreement was also known as the Destroyers-for-Bases Agreement.

[4] In a joint statement issued on 14 August 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill announced their joint goals for the world following World War II.  Later dubbed The Atlantic Charter, it established an outline of objectives that included dismantling the British Empire, the formation of NATO, and a general agreement on tariffs and trade.  An American-British alliance was formed in 1939 with Roosevelt and Churchill secretly meeting eleven times.  The Atlantic Charter made clear Roosevelt’s support of Great Britain, but in order to achieve the charter’s objectives, the United States would have to become a participant in the war.  This could not happen, politically, unless there was first of all a cataclysmic event that propelled the United States into the war.  From 1939 forward, Roosevelt did everything he could to cause the Japanese to attack the United States —which they did on 7 December 1941.

[5] Canada had a similar program they referred to as “Mutual Aid.” 

[6] The Lend-Lease arrangement with China (suggested in 1940) involved a plan for 500 modern aircraft and enough war materials to supply thirty divisions of ground troops.  With the Chinese civil war “on hold” until the defeat of China’s common enemy (Japan), Roosevelt dealt independently with both sides through General Joseph Stilwell.  Neither Chiang Kai-shek nor Mao Zedong ever intended to return Lend-Lease equipment to the United States; rather, both sides intended to use these armaments on each other after war with Japan was settled.  As it turned out, American Marines died from weapons and ammunition manufactured in the United States when turned against them by Mao’s communist forces in 1945.

[7] OBVs were merchant ships pressed into service by the Royal Navy and converted into auxiliary carriers.

[8] The hunter-killer groups included US CVEs Card, Bogue, Core, Block Island, Santee, and HMS Tracker and Biter.  USS Block Island was the only American CVE sunk in the Atlantic War.

[9] At a time when the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty (1922) limited the construction of large battleships, the United States began building replacement ships for obsolete World War II destroyers.  The Navy produced 175 Fletcher-Class destroyers (DD), designed as torpedo attack ships with a secondary mission of anti-submarine warfare and screening for capital ships.  Destroyer Escorts (DE) were a smaller variant ship with specialized armaments capable of a smaller turning radius.  Both ships were referred to as “tin cans” because they were lightly armored.  They relied more on their speed for self-defense.  During World War II, the U. S. Navy lost 97 destroyers and 15 destroyer-escorts.

[10] Convoys to Russia during the war involved 740 ships in 40 convoys, which provided 5,000 tanks and more than 7,000 aircraft.  German U-boats destroyed 97 of these merchantmen and 18 escorting warships.  Germany lost three destroyers and 38 U-boats.

[11] Harold Denny Campbell (1895-1955) served in both the First and Second World War.  On 6 December 1941, Colonel Campbell assumed command of Marine Aircraft Group 11 at Quantico, Virginia.  In May 1942, he was personally selected by Lord Mountbatten to serve as a Marine Aviation advisor to the British Combined Staff.  After promotion to Brigadier General in 1943, Campbell assumed command of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing in Samoa and in 1944 commanded the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing in the Peleliu campaign.

[12] The raid was conducted by British and Canadian commandos.  Tagged as Operation Jubilee, the purpose of  the amphibious raid to test the feasibility of lightening raids for intelligence gathering and boosting the morale of “folks back home.”  It was a much-needed learning experience because aerial and naval support was inadequate, the tanks were too heavy for a “lightening raid” and the Allies under-estimated the strength of German defenses.  Within ten hours of the landing, the German army killed, wounded, or captured 3,623 British/Canadian commandos.  The British also lost 33 landing craft and a destroyer.  Operation Jubilee became a textbook lesson on what not to do in an amphibious operation.

[13] U. S. Navy battleships usually included a detachment of two-hundred Marines; battle cruisers usually had a detachment of around 80 Marines.

[14] I am trying to imagine a Marine sharpshooter 200 feet in the air on a pitching ship, shooting German anti-ship mines with any degree of accuracy.  Damn.

[15] Colonel (later, Brigadier General) Jeschke (1894-1957) served with distinction in both the Atlantic and Pacific campaigns: on Guadalcanal, and during the invasions of Sicily and Normandy.

The Marine Who Commanded Ships

Historically, one of a kind

The first American ship to carry the name Essex was a 36-gun frigate [Note 1] constructed by Mr. Enos Briggs of Salem, Massachusetts, a design of Mr. William Hackett, and named in honor of Essex County, Massachusetts [Note 2].  United States Ship Essex was launched on 30 September 1799, presented to the United States Navy in December, and accepted for service on behalf of the Navy by Captain Edward Preble, USN, the ship’s first Commanding Officer.  In January 1800, USS Essex departed Newport, Rhode Island in company with USS Congress; their mission was to serve as escorts for a convoy of merchant ships.  The United States was then engaged in the Quasi-War with France [Note 3]; Essex and Congress were ordered to protect these merchant vessels from assault and confiscation by the French Navy.  After only a few days at sea, a storm de-masted Congress and she was forced to return to the American coast.  Essex continued on alone.  USS Essex was the first US Navy ship to cross the equator and the first American man-of-war to make a double voyage around the Cape of Good Hope (March, August 1800).

The second cruise of the Essex took her to the Mediterranean under the command of Captain William Bainbridge, serving in the squadron of Commodore Richard Dale [Note 4].  During this journey, Essex participated in the Barbary Wars through 1806.  Upon return to the United States, Essex underwent refit until 1809 when she was re-commissioned as a patrol vessel along the East Coast of the United States.

Period Note

The Jay Treaty of 1795, more formally The Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America, was the framework of Alexander Hamilton, supported by George Washington, and brokered by John Jay.  The Jay Treaty was intended to resolve certain deficiencies in the Treaty of Paris (1783) whose sole purpose was to avoid further confrontations with Great Britain.  The goals of the Jay Treaty were mostly fulfilled (withdrawal of British Army forces in the Northwest Territory, cessation of US confiscation of property belonging to British loyalists, etc.) but several issues remained unresolved, such as Great Britain’s impressment of American sailors from ships and ports.  From 1803, when Great Britain went to war with Napoleonic France, the British established a naval blockade to choke off trade with France.  The United States disputed this blockade, proclaiming it illegal under internationally recognized laws of the sea.  But to enforce the British blockade, and to make its point of naval supremacy, the British navy increased its impressment of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy.  This behavior, more than any other, inflamed the passions of the American people.  In 1811, USS President closed with a Royal Navy sloop operating off the coast of North Carolina, challenged her, and then fired upon the smaller vessel.  Eleven British sailors were killed.  So now the passions of the British people were inflamed.  As a result of this incident, the British became greatly annoyed and began arming North American Indians and encouraging them to attack American frontier settlements.  The United States declared war against the United Kingdom on 18 June 1812.  It became known as Mr. Madison’s War.

With the outbreak of war, David Porter [Note 5] was promoted to Captain on 2 July 1812 and assigned to command USS Essex.  Sailing his ship to Bermuda, Porter engaged several British transports, taking one of these as a prize of war.  On 13 August, Porter captured HMS Alert, the first British warship captured during the conflict.  By the end of September, Essex had taken ten British merchantmen as prizes.

In February 1813, Porter sailed Essex into the South Atlantic where he sought to disrupt the British whaling fleet.  His first action in the Pacific was the capture of the Peruvian vessel Nereyda.  His purpose in seizing this vessel was that it held captive and impressed American whaling crewmen.   Over the next year, Porter captured 13 British whalers; one of these was a French registry vessel, captured by the Royal Navy, sold to the owner of a British whaling fleet, and re-named Atlantic.  In capturing these ships, Porter also took 380 British seamen as prisoners.  In June, Porter offered parole to these captives, providing that they would not again take up arms against the United States.  Porter renamed Atlantic as Essex Junior and appointed his executive officer, Lieutenant John Downes, to command her.

John Marshall Gamble (1791-1836) was only eight-years old when Essex went into service in 1799.  Born in Brooklyn, New York, Gamble received his appointment to second lieutenant of Marines on 16 January 1809 when he was only 17 or 18-years old.  At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Gamble commanded the Marine Detachment, USS Essex [Note 6].  Gamble was an accomplished Marine Corps officer but he is distinguished as the only Marine officer to command a United States Navy ship of war.  Actually, Lieutenant Gamble commanded two ships, both British prizes pressed into United States service — seized and renamed USS Greenwich [Note 7] and USS Sir Andrew Hammond.  Gamble also distinguished himself during a land action on an island called Nuku Hiva where Captain David Porter established the first US Navy Base in the Pacific Ocean.

Nuku Hiva is the largest of the Marquesas Islands (French Polynesia).  Captain Porter arrived at Nuku Hiva at a time when island natives were at war with one another.  Shortly after landing his shore party, Porter claimed the island on behalf of the United States and ordered the construction of a fortification and an adjacent village, which he named Fort Madison and Madisonville, respectively, after President James Madison.  He also constructed a dock that was needed to facilitate repairs to his growing fleet of ships.  For reasons known only to himself, Porter involved himself in the tribal conflict —possibly to curry favor with the majority of the warring natives.

Porter’s first expedition into the interior was led by Lieutenant Downes.  He and forty others, with the assistance of several hundred native islanders called Te I’is, captured a redoubt held by as many as 4,000 Happah warriors.  Afterwards, the Happah joined the Te I’is and Americans against another island group called Tai Pi.  Captain Porter led a second expedition, which involved an amphibious assault against the Tai Pi shoreline.  This second expedition, with Captain Porter in overall command, included 30 American sailors and Marines (with artillery), under Lieutenant Gamble, and 5,000 native warriors.  From this point on, however, Captain Porter’s fate took an unfortunate turn.

On or about 13 July 1813, following a sharp naval engagement, Lieutenant Gamble, commanding USS Greenwich, captured the British armed whaler Seringapatam. [Note 8]  The engagement was significant because, at the time, Seringapatam posed the most serious British threat to American whalers in the South Pacific.  Subsequently, Captain Porter wrote to Lieutenant Gamble, stating, “Allow me to return to you my thanks for your handsome conduct in brining Seringapatam to action, which greatly facilitated her capture, while it prevented the possibility of her escape.  Be assured sir, I shall make a suitable representation of these affairs to the honorable Secretary of the Navy.”

Captain Porter reported Gamble’s conduct to the Navy Department: “Captain Gamble at all times greatly distinguished himself by his activity in every enterprise engaged in by the force under my command, and in many critical encounters by the natives of Madison Island, rendered essential services, and at all times distinguished himself by his coolness and bravery.  I therefore do, with pleasure, recommend him to the Department as an officer deserving of its patronage.”

During the sea battle between Greenwich and Seringapatam, which took place off the coast of Tumbes, Peru, damage to Seringapatam was not particularly significant, but did necessitate repairs to return the vessel to a state of sea worthiness.  There were no human casualties on either side.  Once the Americans repaired Seringapatam Captain Porter assigned Masters Mate James Terry of the USS Essex as prize master, and Seringapatam joined Porter’s squadron.

In September 1813, Porter returned Essex to Nuku Hiva (along with four prizes) for repairs.  Around mid-December, Porter ordered Essex re-provisioned and readied for sea.  With Essex Junior as an escort Porter began a patrol of the Peru Coast.  Seringapatam, Hammond, and Greenwich remained at anchor under the guns of Fort Madison and Gamble assumed command of the garrison.  Many of the crewmen of the captured ships were American; they and several British crewmen volunteered to serve under Porter.  There were also six British prisoners of war who refused to serve the United States.  Not long after Porter set sail, local natives became so troublesome that Gamble was forced to land a detachment of men to restore order.  At this point, Gamble’s mission was to maintain order, guard the captive ships, guard prisoners of war, and do so with but a hand full of men.

Four months later, Lieutenant Gamble despaired of Porter’s fate [Note 9] and ordered repairs and rigging for sea of Seringapatam and Hammond.  When signs of mutiny appeared among the men, Gamble ordered all arms and ammunition placed aboard Greenwich.  Despite these precautions, mutineers freed the British prisoners of war and captured Seringapatam on 7 May, wounding Lieutenant Gamble in the scuffle.  Mutineers placed Gamble in an open boat and Seringapatam sailed for Australia.  

Gamble, returning to Hammond, set sail with a skeleton crew bound for the Caribbean Leeward Islands but was intercepted en route by the British sloop HMS Cherub.  As it turned out, Gamble’s capture served the interests of the United States.  At the time of his capture, Gamble was in possession of gifts intended for the King of the Leeward Islands.  Captain Tucker of HMS Cherub seized these gifts as prizes of war.  More than that, Tucker, having discovered several American ships in the Leeward Islands harbor, sent demands to the king to surrender these ships to him at once.  When the king refused, Tucker landed a detachment of Royal Marines to enforce his demands.

Upon landing, the Royal Marines discovered that it was literally impossible to enforce their captain’s demands while surrounded by very angry Caribs [Note 10].  Captain Tucker wisely withdrew his force and sailed away.  Meanwhile, when the king learned that his gifts had been confiscated by the Royal Navy, he was incensed and diplomatic relations between Great Britain and the Leeward Islands deteriorated.

At the conclusion of the War of 1812, Gamble returned to his duties as a Marine officer.  He was promoted to captain on 18 June 1814, advanced to Brevet Major on 19 April 1815, and to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel on 3 March 1827.

John M. Gamble died on 11 September 1836 at the age of about 44-45 years.  In terms of the family’s legacy, the destroyer USS Gamble (DD-123) and Port Gamble, Washington were named in honor of John Gamble and his brother, Peter, who served as a Navy lieutenant during the War of 1812.  USS Gamble served as a destroyer in World War I and a minesweeper in World War II.  Owing to the ship’s condition after two world wars, the Navy scuttled the ship in July 1945.

Sources:

  1. 1.Daughan, G. C.  The Shining Sea: David Porter and the Epic Voyage of the USS Essex During the War of 1812.  Basic Books, 2013.
  2. 2.Captain David Porter, USS Essex, and the War of 1812 in the Pacific.  U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, 2014.  Online.
  3. 3.Porter, D. D.  Memoir of Commodore David Porter of the United States Navy.  Albany: J. Munsell, 1875.
  4. 4.Toner, R. J.  Gamble of the Marines: The Greatest U.S. Marine Corps Stories Ever Told.  I. C. Martin, 2017.
  5. 5.Turnbull, A. D.  Commodore David Porter, 1740-1843.  New York and London: Century Press, 1929.

Endnotes:

[1] A frigate in the days of sail was a warship that carried its principal batteries on one or two decks.  It was smaller in size than a ship of the line (which is to say, smaller than the warships that were used in the line of battle), but full rigged on three masts, built for speed and maneuverability and used for patrolling and escort duty.  They were rated ships having at least 28 guns.  The frigate was the hardest-worked warship because even though smaller than a ship of the line, they were formidable opponents in war and had sufficient storage for six-months service at sea.  A “heavy frigate” was a ship that carried larger guns (firing 18-24 pound shot) developed in Britain and France after 1778.

[2] Essex County, Massachusetts was created by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on 10 May 1643.  Named after the county in England, Essex included the towns of Salem, Lynn, Wenham, Ipswich, Rowley, Newbury, Gloucester, and Andover.  Essex County was the home of Elbridge Gerry, known for creating a legislative district in 1812 that gave rise to the word gerrymandering, which suggests that politicians in Massachusetts have been corrupt for at least the past 208 years.

[3] An undeclared war between the US and France from 1798 to 1800.  John Adams was president.  When the US refused to repay its debt for the Revolutionary War, American politicians argued that after the French overthrew their king, the nation to whom this debt was owed no longer existed; accordingly, said certain members of the US Congress, the debt was null and void.  In response, France began seizing US flagged ships and auctioning them for payment.

[4] After 1794, the US Congress was unwilling to authorize more than four officer ranks in the Navy.  These were Captain, Master Commandant, Lieutenant, and Midshipman.  Commodore, therefore, was a title only, temporarily assigned to a U.S. Navy captain who, by virtue of seniority, exercised command over two or more U.S. naval vessels, and the rank Master Commandant was later changed to Commander.

[5] David Porter (1780-1843) was a self-assured naval officer who served on active duty with the U.S. Navy from 1790-1825, and as Commander-in-Chief of the Mexican Navy from 1826-1829.  He later served as Chargé d’Affaires of the United States to the Ottoman Empire (1831-1840) and United States Minister to the Ottoman Empire (1840-1843).  Porter was the adoptive father of David G. Farragut, the U.S. Navy’s first admiral.

[6] Gamble was promoted to Captain USMC in June 1814.

[7] Captain Porter later decided to burn Greenwich to keep the ship from being recaptured by the British South Atlantic squadron; it was a sensible decision because destroying the ship deprived the British of valuable whale oil, which at the time, was in high demand in England.

[8] Seringapatam was constructed in 1799 as a warship for Tippu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore.  The British stormed his citadel at Seringapatam, and Sultan was killed.  The British then sailed the ship to England where it was sold to British a whaling merchant.  The ship made six voyages to the Southern Atlantic and Pacific until captured by Greenwich.

[9] Gamble’s concern was well-founded.  On 28 March 1814, Royal Navy Captain James Hillyar forced Captain Porter’s surrender at the Battle of Valparaiso.  HMS Phoebe and HMS Cherub disabled Essex to the point where he could no longer resist.  Following the battle, Captain Hillyar provided care and comfort to Porter’s wounded crew, disarmed Essex Junior, and gave Porter his parole to return to the United States.  Captain Hillyar sailed the Essex to England, where it was used as a transport ship, prison ship, and then ultimately sold at public auction for £1,230.

[10] The Caribs (now called Island Caribs) for whom the Caribbean was named, inhabited the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles.  They were noted for their aggressive hostility and fiercely resisted European colonization.  They identified themselves with the Kalina people, or mainland Carib of South America.  They continue to exist within the Garifuna people, also known as black Caribs in the Lesser Antilles.

 

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.