The Gun Maker

There are many positive things to say about the American Republic —along with a few deserved criticisms.  One of my criticisms is that we Americans seem never to learn important lessons from history —so we are continually forced to relearn them.  This relearning process is too often painful for our nation —for its complex society.  Maybe one day we’ll smarten up, but I’m not holding my breath.

Speaking of lessons unlearned, given their experience with the British Army the founding fathers were distrustful of standing armies.  I find this odd because the British Army’s presence within the thirteen colonies prevented hostile attacks against British settlements.  Years later, at the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812, observing how the American militia cut and run when confronted with a well-trained British Army, President James Madison remarked, “I could never have believed so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day.”

Our reliance on state or federal militia to defend our homeland was one of those unlearned lessons.  War is not for amateurs.  Federalized state militias during the American Civil War were not much of an improvement over the Revolutionary War minute men.  History shows us, too, that finding enough resources to fight a war against Spain in Cuba was very close to becoming an unmitigated disaster.  There was only one combat force ready for war in 1898; the U. S. Marine Corps was able to field a single (reinforced) battalion —one that was engaged with the enemy before the Army figured out which of its senior officers was in charge.  Who knows how many horses drowned because the Army couldn’t figure out how to unload them from transport ships and get them to shore.

The United States was still unprepared for combat service at the beginning of the First World War.  Politicians —those geniuses in Washington— had little interest in creating and maintaining a standing armed force.  Worse, our military leaders were incompetent and complacent, and as a result of this, the US military lacked modern weapons.  When Congress declared war against Imperial Germany, the American army was forced to rely on weapons provided by Great Britain and France.  It wasn’t that the United States had no weapons, only that our arsenal was a mishmash of firearms requiring an assortment of munitions that were both inadequate and inefficient for the demands of general war.  In particular, the United States arsenal included ten different revolvers of varying calibers, 12 rifles of foreign and domestic manufacture, and six variants of automatic weapons/machine guns.

Some Background

The Puckle Gun

The world’s first rapid-fire weapon was the brainchild of James Puckle (1667-1724), a British inventor, a lawyer, and a writer, who in 1718 invented a multi-shot gun mounted on a wheeled stand capable of firing nine rounds per minute.  The Puckle Gun consisted of six flintlock barrels, operated manually by a crew.  The barrel was roughly three feet long with a bore measuring 1.25 inches (32mm).  The weapon was hand loaded with powder and shot while detached from its base.  To my knowledge, this device was never used in combat.

Today, we classify machine guns as either light, medium, or heavy weapons.  The light machine gun (with bipod for stability) is usually operated by a single soldier.  It has a box-like magazine and is chambered for small caliber, intermediate power ammunition.  Medium machine guns are general purpose weapons that are belt-fed, mounted on bi-or tripods, and fired using full power ammunition.  The term “heavy machine gun” may refer to water-cooled, belt-fed weapons, operated by a machine gun team, and mounted on a tripod (classified as heavy due to its weight), or machine guns chambered for high-powered ammunition.  Heavy machine gun ammunition is of larger caliber than that used by light and medium guns, usually .50 caliber or 12.7mm.

Gatling Gun

One example of America’s use of rapid-fire weapons was the weapon designed by Richard J. Gatling in 1861, which seems to follow the Puckle design.  Called the Gatling Gun, it was the forerunner of the modern machine gun (and of modern electric motor-driven rotary guns and cannons).  It saw only occasional use during the American Civil War, and only sporadic use through 1911.  It was not an easily transportable weapon.

Wide use of rapid-fire (machine) guns changed the tactics and strategies of warfare.  Magazine or belt fed ammunition gave opposing armies substantial increases in fire power.  No longer could soldiers advance in a frontal assault without incurring massive casualties, which then led to trench warfare.  Machine guns would never have been possible without advances in ammunition —a shift away from muzzle loading single-shot weapons to cartridges that contain the round, propellant, and means of ignition.

The first recoil-operated rapid-fire weapon was the creation of Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1884, a British-American inventor.  The Maxim gun was used by the British in several colonial wars between 1886-1914.  Maxim’s work led to research and development by Hotchkiss[1], Lewis, Browning, Rasmussen[2], Mauser, and others.

First World War 

The only machine guns available to the United States at the beginning of World War I were the Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié, the Chauchat M1915, M1918 (pronounced Show-sha), which was a light machine gun made in France, Belgium, and Poland, the Colt-Vickers (called the potato digger) was a British water-cooled .303 caliber gun, the Hotchkiss 1914, and the Lewis gun[3].  While the Lewis gun was designed in the United States in 1911, no one in the Army’s Ordnance Department was much interested in it, which caused inventor Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis to seek license for its production in the United Kingdom in 1914.

Some of these machine guns were more dependable than others; they are, after all, only machines.  But one consequence of faulty weapons was the needless combat-related deaths of many young men, whose weapons failed to work at critical moments.  Whenever combat troops lose confidence in their weapons, they become less aggressive in combat; they lose their determination to win —they lose battles.

America’s War Department in 1914 was inept.  Not only were the Army’s senior leader’s incompetent, the entire organization was ill-prepared to carry out the will of Congress.  Of course, the Congress might have taken note of these conditions before declaring war on Germany in 1917, but it didn’t.  Before America could go to war, it was necessary to increase the size of the Army through conscription, complete re-armament was necessary, and massive amounts of spending was required to satisfy the needs of general war.  Until that could happen, until war technology could be developed, the American soldier and Marine would have to make do with French and British armaments.

In 1917, John Browning personally delivered to the War Department two types of automatic weapons, complete with plans and detailed manufacturing specifications.  One of these weapons was a water-cooled machine gun; the other a shoulder fired automatic rifle known then as the Browning Machine Rifle (BMR).  Both weapons were chambered for the US standard 30.06 cartridge.  After an initial demonstration of the weapons capabilities with the US Army Ordnance Department, a second public demonstration was scheduled in south Washington DC, at a place called Congress Heights.

On 27 February 1917, the Army staged a live-fire demonstration that so impressed senior military officers, members of Congress, and the press, that Browning was immediately awarded a contract for the production of the BMR and was favored with the Army’s willingness to conduct additional tests on the Browning machine gun.

In May 1917, the US Army Ordnance Department began this additional testing of the machine gun at the Springfield Armory.  At the conclusion of these tests, the Army recommended immediate adoption of Browning’s weapon.  To avoid confusing the two Browning automatic weapons, the rifle became known as the M1917 Rifle, Caliber .30, Automatic, Browning.  Over time, the weapon was referred to as simply the Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR.

What was needed then was a company capable of producing the weapons in the quantities needed to arm a field army —which is to say, three infantry corps, each consisting of three infantry divisions, each of those having three regiments, and each regiment consisting of three infantry battalions.  It would be a massive undertaking.  Since the Colt Firearms Company was already under contract to produce the Vickers machine gun for the British Army, Winchester Repeating Arms Company was designated the project’s primary manufacturer.  Winchester, after providing invaluable service to Browning and the Army in refining the final design to the BAR, re-tooled its factory for mass production.  One example of Winchester’s contribution was the redesign of the ejection port, which was changed to expel casings to the left rather than straight up.

The BAR began arriving in France in July 1918; the first to receive them was the US 79th Infantry Division.  The weapon first went into combat against German troops in mid-September.  The weapon had a devastating impact on the Germans —so much so that France and Great Britain ordered more than 20,000 BARs.

B. A. R.

The Marines, always considered the red-headed stepchildren of the U. S. Armed Forces, now serving alongside US Army infantry units, were never slated to receive these new weapons.  Undaunted, Marines of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment developed a bartering system with co-located units of the 36th Infantry Division.  The Marines traded their Chauchats to the soldiers in exchange for the new BAR.  Given what I know of the average Marine’s ability to scavenge needed or desired resources, I have no doubt that the Marines were able to convince the doggies that one day, the soldiers would be able to retain the French guns as war souvenirs[4], whereas the BARs would have to be surrendered after the war.  Unhappily for the Marines, senior Army officers learned of this arrangement and the Marines were ordered to surrender the BARs and take back their Chauchats.

The BAR was retained in continual use by the US Armed Forces (less the Air Force, of course) from 1918 to the mid-1970s.  The BAR’s service history includes World War I, Spanish Civil War, World War II, Second Sino-Japanese War, Chinese Civil War[5], Indonesian Revolution, Korean War, Palestinian Civil War, First Indochina War, Algerian War, and in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Cyprus, and the Thai-Laotian Border War.

The Man

The BMG and BAR were not Browning’s only accomplishments.

John Moses Browning was born into a Mormon family on 23 January 1855.  His father, Jonathan, was among literally thousands of Mormon pioneers that made their exodus from Illinois to Utah.  The elder Browning established a gun shop in Ogden in1852.  As a Mormon in good standing, Jonathan had three wives and fathered 22 children.

John Browning began working in his father’s gun shop at around the age of seven where he learned basic engineering and manufacturing principles, and where his father encouraged him to experiment with new concepts.  He developed his first rifle in 1878 and soon after founded the company that would become the Browning Arms Company.  In partnership with Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Browning developed rifles and shotguns, from the falling block single shot 1885 to the Winchester Model 1886, Model 1895, the Model 1897 pump shotgun, and Remington Model 8.  He also developed cartridges that were superior to other firearm company designs.

John Moses Browning

Browning Arms Company is responsible for the M1899/1900 .32 ACP pistol, M1900 .38 ACP, M1902 .38 ACP, M1903 Pocket Hammer .38 ACP, M1903 9mm Browning Long, M1903 Pocket Hammerless .32 ACP, M1906/08 Vest Pocket .25 ACP, M1908 Pocket Hammerless .380 ACP, the US M1911A1 .45 ACP, Browning Hi-Power 9mm Parabellum, the Colt Woodsman .22 long rifle, and BDA handguns in .38 and .45 ACP.  He developed ten variants of shotgun, eleven rifles, six machine guns, and was awarded 128 patents. 

The Legacy

What it takes to win battles is reliable weapons expertly employed against the enemy.  John Browning gave us expertly designed, quality manufactured weapons to win battles.

We no longer rely on state militias to fight our wars, but we have taken a turn toward including more reserve organizations in our poorly chosen fights.  The US also has, today, a robust weapons development program to give our Armed Forces a battlefield advantage.  Despite past failures in providing our frontline troops quality weapons, the US Marines have always succeeded against our enemies with the weapons at their disposal.  Occasionally, even entrenching tools were used with telling effect against the enemy.

If American Marines have learned anything at all about warfare since 1775, it is that success in battle depends on never taking a knife to a gunfight.

Sources:

  1. Borth, C. Masters of Mass Production.  Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945.
  2. Browning, J. and Curt Gentry. John M. Browning: American Gunmaker.  New York: Doubleday, 1964.
  3. Gilman, D. C., and H. T. Peck (et.al.), eds. New International Encyclopedia.  New York: Dodd-Mead.
  4. Miller, D. The History of Browning Firearms.  Globe-Pequot, 2008.
  5. Willbanks, J. H.  Machine guns: An Illustrated History of their Impact.  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Endnotes:

[1] Benjamin B. Hotchkiss (1826-1885) was an American who, after the American Civil War, with the US government little interested in funding new weapons, moved to France and set up a munitions factory he named Hotchkiss et Cie.

[2] Julius A. Rasmussen and Theodor Schouboe designed a machine gun that was adopted by the Danish Minister of War, whose name was Colonel Wilhelm Herman Oluf Madsen.  They called it the Madsen Machine Gun.

[3] The invention of Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis in 1911 that was based on the initial work of Samuel Maclean.  The US Army’s ordnance department was not interested in the Lewis Gun because of differences between the Chief of Ordnance, Brigadier General William Crozier and Colonel Lewis.

[4] Larceny has been a Marine Corps tradition since the 1890s.  During World War II, Marines were known to steal hospital sheets from adjacent Navy hospitals, make “captured Japanese flags” out of them, and sell them to sailors and soldiers as war souvenirs.  During the Vietnam War, anything belonging to the Army or Navy that was not tied down and guarded 24-hours a day was liable to end up on a Marine Corps compound.  In 1976, three Marines were court-martialed for stealing two (2) Army 6×6 trucks, attempting to conceal the thefts by repainting the trucks and assigning them fraudulent vehicle ID numbers.  In 1976, our Marines were still driving trucks from the Korean and Vietnam War periods.  Despite overwhelming evidence that these three Marines were guilty as hell, a court-martial board consisting of five Marine officers and a Navy lieutenant, acquitted them.  Apparently, no one sitting as a member of the court thought it was wrong to steal from the Army.

[5] Franklin Roosevelt’s “lend-lease” program provided thousands of US made weapons to the Communist Chinese Army during World War II.  The Communists under Mao Zedong hid these weapons away until after Japan’s defeat, and then used them to good advantage against the Chinese Nationalists.  Some of these weapons were used against American soldiers and Marines during the brief “occupation” of China following World War II.  The United States  government continues to arm potential enemies of the United States, which in my view is a criminal act.

Flying Sergeants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endnotes:

[1] The progenitor of the US Air Force.

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

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

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

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

[6] See also: A Damned Fine Pilot.

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

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

Building the Hive

Nothing happens in war without logistics.”

—Field Marshal Sir William Slim, British Army

USN 001

Some Background

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

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

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

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

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

Sanger W P S 001
William P. S. Sanger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Navy-Marine Corps Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Service Partnerships

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

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

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

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

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

Shields Marvin CM3 USN
CM3 Marvin Shields, USN

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

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

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

Sources:

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

 Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viet Nam: The Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eisenhower 001
President Dwight D. Eisenhower

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

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

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

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

Croizat VJ 001
LtCol V. J. Croizat USMC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Next week: The Marines Head North).

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From King to Joker

How administration policies moved America from greatness to mediocrity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dean Acheson

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

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

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

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Louis A. Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smith C B 001
Charles B. Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success has many fathers—Failure is an orphan.

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

Remembering the Ladies

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Abigail Adams

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

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

Johnson OM 001
Opha May Johnson (1878-1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endnotes:

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

[2] See also: Wings of honor.

7th Motor Transport Battalion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

U. S. Marines in Urban Warfare

EGA BlackUrban areas (cities and large towns), are important centers of gravity —points of interest that involve a complex range of human activities.  Throughout history military commanders have acknowledged that urban areas are either places that require protection, or they are centers that demand firm control.  These are mankind’s centers of population, transportation and communications hubs, seats of government, the sources of national wealth, and concentrations of industry.  Over the past three-hundred years, humans living in agrarian areas have migrated to towns and cities in ever-increasing numbers.  In just a few years nearly 85% of the world’s population will reside in urbanized areas —which places these areas squarely in the sights of military establishments seeking either to defend or seize them.  Urban areas are also areas where radical ideas ferment, dissenters cultivate allies, where human diversity leads to ethnic friction, and where disgruntled people receive the most media attention.

In its expeditionary role, the U.S. Marine Corps is trained to fight battles within urbanized terrain.  This was not always the case, but in recent history, Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) of various sizes have been deployed to address conflicts in urban areas: Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Beirut, Granada. The acronym for these operations is MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain).  Important for Marines is the fact that 60% of politically significant urban areas (outside allied or former Warsaw Pact territories) are located within 25-miles of littoral areas; 75% within 150 miles; and 87% within 300 miles. In armed conflict, whoever controls the cities exercises de facto control over a country’s natural resources.

MILLER JBHistory demonstrates that there has been an abundance of guerrilla and terrorist operations in built-up areas: Belfast, Caracas, Iraq, Managua, Santo Domingo, Viet Nam come to mind.  Beyond the fact that the control of urban areas offers certain psychological advantages that can affect the outcome of a large conflict, Marine planners are keenly aware that American embassies and consulates are located where host countries concentrate their centers of political and economic activity.  One mission the Marines share with other naval expeditionary forces is the emergency evacuation of US civilians caught up in urban insurgencies. (Photo: Cpl Blake Miller, USMC, Fallujah.  Credit: Luis Sinco, LA Times (Fair Use asserted)).

Urban areas have dramatically expanded over the past 100 years —often going beyond well-defined boundaries into suburban/countryside areas.  Connecting the inner-cities to peripheral areas has been a parallel expansion of transportation: highways, canals, and rail systems.  Industries and markets have grown up along these connectors and there has been an expansion of secondary roadways connecting outlying farms to urban areas —the effect of which further complicates the operational planning for and execution of military operations.  It widens the military footprint needed to deal with emergencies.

Urban warfare takes place in a unique battlespace —one  that provides aggressor and defender with numerous avenues of approach and defensive fields of fire.  In essence, there are four distinct battle areas: buildings, streets, subterranean networks, and air.  These are often fought simultaneously, which makes the urban warfare effort even more complicated.

The Marine’s first urban warfare experience occurred early in the Korean War.  Since then, with lessons learned through actual combat, the Marine Corps has evolved from knowing next to nothing about urban warfare to becoming America’s preeminent expert.  As a demonstration of this transition, I will offer my readers three examples: The Second Battle of Seoul, Korea (1950), The Battle for Hue City, Viet Nam (1968), and the First and Second Battles of Fallujah, Iraq (2003-4). Stay with me; I think you’ll find these interesting and informative.

Seoul, South Korea

The North Korean Army (NKPA) seized Seoul, South Korea during its invasion in late June 1950. After US Marines made their amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September 1950, General Douglas MacArthur assigned them the mission of liberating Seoul from the NKPA force, which by then was an understrength division.  In any normal situation, the NKPA would have the advantage of defending Seoul —but in this case, the NKPA were facing American Marines, the most tenacious combat force in the entire world —true then, equally true today.

KOREAN WAREven so, the advance on Seoul was slow and bloody.  The Marines faced the 78th Independent Infantry Regiment and 25th Infantry Brigade, in all, about 7,000 troops.  Moreover, the NKPA decided to put every effort into obstructing the Marine advance until they could be reinforced by units operating south of Seoul.  MacArthur, as Supreme Allied Commander, assigned responsibility for liberating Seoul (Operation Chromite) to his X Corps commander, Major General Edward Almond—who knew as much about urban warfare as he did about rocket ships to the moon.  In any case, MacArthur wanted a quick liberation of Seoul and Almond, a first-class sycophant, applied continue pressure to Major General Oliver P. Smith, commanding the 1st Marine Division, to “hurry up.”  To his credit, Smith would have none of it. (Photo: Marines attack Seoul, South Korea, 25 Sep 1950; DoD Photo (Fair Use asserted)).

Marines entered the city at 0700 on 25 September, finding it heavily fortified.  Buildings were heavily defended with crew-served weapons and snipers.  On the main highway through the city, the NKPA had erected a series of 8-foot-high barricades, located 200-300 yards apart.  Every one of the city’s intersections contained such an obstacle. Anti-tank and anti-personnel mines laced the approaches to these barricades, supported by anti-tank guns and machine guns.  The Marines had to eliminate these one at a time, which took about one hour for each barricade.  Casualties mounted as the Marines engaged in house-to-house fighting.

General Almond declared the city “secure” on the first day.  Clearing operations continued for five additional days, even though effective enemy resistance collapsed by 28 September.  In the aftermath of the Second Battle of Seoul, Korea, there was no time for the Marines to analyze the campaign —such analyses would have to wait for a later time —but here I will pause to reflect on what it must take to succeed in urban warfare: the esprit de corps of fire teams who must, in the final analysis, win or lose the contest.  Private First Class (PFC) Eugene A. Obregon from Los Angeles, California, was awarded the Medal of Honor for sacrificing himself to enemy machine gun fire to save the life of a wounded Marine on 26 September 1950.

Hue City, Viet Nam

In 1967, the North Vietnamese realized that their war strategy in South Viet Nam wasn’t working out quite the way they had intended.  It was time to try something else.  The government of North Viet Nam wanted a massive offensive, one that would reverse the course of the war.  When defense minister and senior army commander General Vo Nguyen Giap [1] voiced opposition to such an offensive, believing as he did that a major reversal of the war would not be its likely result, the North Vietnamese stripped Giap of his position, gave him a pocket watch, and sent him into retirement.  The politburo then appointed General Nguyen Chi Thanh to direct the offensive.  At the time, Thanh was commander of all Viet Cong forces in South Viet Nam.  When General Thanh unexpectedly died, senior members of the politburo scrambled to reinstate General Giap.

Earlier —in the Spring of 1966— Giap wondered how far the United States would go in defending the regime of South Viet Nam.  To answer this question, he ordered a series of attacks south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) with two objectives in mind.  In the first, he wanted to draw US forces away from densely populated urban and lowland areas to a place where he believed the NVA would have an advantage over them.  Second, Giap wanted to know whether the United States could be provoked into invading North Viet Nam.

Both questions seem ludicrous since luring the US/ARVN military out of villages and cities was the last thing he should have wanted, and unless China was willing to rush to the aid of its communist “little brothers,” tempting the US with invading North Viet Nam was fool-hardy.  In any case, General Giap began a massive buildup of military forces and placing them in the northern regions of South Viet Nam.  Their route of infiltration into South Viet Nam was through Laos [2].  General Giap completed his work at the end of 1967; there were now six infantry divisions massed within the Quang Tri Province.

Leading all US and allied forces in Viet Nam was US Army General William C. Westmoreland, titled Commander, United States Military Assistance Command, Viet Nam (COMUSMACV or MACV [3]).  Westmoreland responded to Giap’s buildup by increasing US/allied forces in Quang Tri —realizing that if one wanted to dance, they had to go into the dance hall. The one thing that Westmoreland could not do was invade either North Viet Nam or Laos [4].  Realizing this, Giap gained confidence in his notion of larger battles inside South Viet Nam. But even this wasn’t working out as he imagined.  Westmoreland was not the same kind of man as French General Heni Navarre.  For one thing, Westmoreland was far more tenacious.  Besides, meeting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) outside populated areas would allow Westmoreland to make greater use of air and artillery fire support assets.

In phases, Giap increased North Viet Nam’s military footprint in the northern provinces of South Viet Nam.  One example of this is the NVA’s siege of the Khe Sanh combat base.  President Lyndon Johnson was concerned that the NVA were attempting another coup de guerre, such as Dien Bien Phu, where General Navarre was thoroughly defeated.  Johnson ordered Khe Sanh held at all cost.  With everyone’s eyes now focused on the events at Khe Sanh, Giap was able to launch a surprise offensive at the beginning of the Tet (lunar new year) celebration.  He did this on 31 January 1968.  It was a massive assault: 84,000 NVA and Viet Cong (VC) soldiers who violated the cease-fire accord and executed simultaneous attacks on 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of the six autonomous cities (including Saigon and Hue), 64 of 242 district capitals, and 50 hamlets.

Giap chose to violate the Tet cease-fire because he knew that many South Vietnamese soldiers would be granted holiday leave.  It was a smart move and one that opened the door for Giap’s early successes.  VC forces even managed to breach the US Embassy enclosure in Saigon.  Within days, however, the offensive faltered as US/ARVN forces were able to defeat the communist onslaught.  Heavy fighting did continue in Kontum, Can Tho, Ben Tre, and Saigon… but the largest of these occurred at the City of Hue [5].  It was the Marine’s longest and bloodiest urban battle up to that time.

In 1968, Hue City was the third-largest city in South Viet Nam.  Its population was around 140,000 souls; about one-third of these lived inside the Citadel, north of the Perfume River which flows through the center of the city. Hue also sat astride Highway-1, a major north-south main supply route (MSR), located about 50 miles south of the DMZ. Hue was the former imperial capital of Viet Nam.  Up to this point, Hue had only occasionally experienced the ravages of war —mortar fire, saboteurs, acts of terrorism— but a large enemy force had never appeared at the city’s gates.  Given the city’s cultural and intellectual importance to the Vietnamese people —as well as its status as the capital of Thua Thien Province— it was only a matter of time.

The people who lived in Hue enjoyed a tradition of civic independence that dated back several hundred years.  Religious monks viewed the war with disdain; few of these religious leaders felt any attachment to the government in Saigon.  What they wanted was national conciliation —a coalition where everyone could get along.

Hue City was divided into two sectors: the Old Imperial City, and the New City.  These two sectors were divided by the Perfume (Hoang) River, which emptied into the South China Sea five miles southwest of the city. On the north bank of the river stood the Citadel, a fortress extending nearly 4-square-miles, shaped like a diamond.  Surrounding the Imperial City were 8-meter high walls that were several meters.  There were eight separate gates, four of which were located along the southeastern side. A winding, shallow canal ran through the Citadel, with two culverts that connected the inner-city canal with those on the outside.

The “New City” was constructed south of the Perfume River; a residential and business center that included government offices, a university, the provincial headquarters, a prison, hospital, and a treasury.  The US Consulate and forward headquarters of the MACV were also located there.

Despite Hue’s importance, there were few ARVN defenders within its limits.  On 30 January 1968, there were fewer than a thousand ARVN troops inside the City.  Part of this was because a large number of troops were on leave to celebrate the Tet holiday with their families.

Hue CitySecurity for Hue was assigned to the First Infantry Division (1st ARVN Division), then commanded by Brigadier General Ngo Quant Truong.  The 1st ARVN was headquartered within the fortified Mang Ca compound in the northeast corner of the Citadel. Over half of Truong’s men were on leave for the holiday when the offensive commenced; General Truong’s subordinate commands were spread out along Highway-1 from north of Hue to the DMZ. The nearest unit of any size was the 3rdARVN Regiment, consisting of three battalions, five miles northwest of Hue.  The only combat unit inside the city was a platoon of 36-men belonging to an elite unit called the Black Panthers, a field reconnaissance and rapid reaction company. Internal security for Hue was the responsibility of the National Police (sometimes derisively referred to as “white mice”).

The nearest US combat base was Phu Bai, six miles south on Highway-1.  Phu Bai was a major U. S. Marine Corps command post and support facility, including the forward headquarters of the 1st Marine Division, designated Task Force X-Ray.  The Commanding General of Task Force X-Ray [6] was Brigadier General Foster C. LaHue, who also served as the Assistant Commander, 1st Marine Division.  Also situated at Phu Bai was the headquarters elements of the 1st Marine Regiment (Stanley S. Hughes, Commanding) and the 5th Marine Regiment (Robert D. Bohn, Commanding).  There were also three battalions of Marines: 1st Battalion, 1st Marines (1/1) (Lt. Col. Marcus J. Gravel, Commanding), 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5) (LtCol Robert P. Whalen, Commanding), and 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines (2/5) (LtCol Ernest C. Cheatham, Jr., Commanding).

The attacking NVA force included 8,400 well-trained and equipped soldiers [7].  The majority of these were NVA regulars, reinforced by six VC main force battalions (between 300 and 600 men each).  The field commander of these forces was General Tran Van Quang.  The NVA plan of attack called for a division-sized assault on the Imperial City with other units serving as a blocking force.  True to form, the communists knew all they needed to know about their civilian and military objectives within the city.  VC cadres had also prepared a list of “tyrants” who were to be located and terminated —nearly all of these were South Vietnamese civilian and military officials.  Added to the list were US civilians, clergy, educators, and other foreigners.  The communists also knew all they needed to know about weather conditions.

The NVA plan, termed the General Offensive/General Uprising, was designed to incorporate both conventional and guerilla operations intending to destroy any vestige of the South Viet Nam government or western authority, and if not that, then to discredit their enemies and cause a popular uprising among the people. If all worked out according to plan, western allies would be forced to withdraw its forces from Vietnam.

There were a few senior NVA planners who thought that a popular uprising was highly unlikely; a few more expected that ARVN and US forces would drive the NVA out of the city within a few days —but, of course, such defeatist notions were best left unsaid. Meanwhile, the young, idealistic, and gullible soldiers believed the NVA propaganda and went in to combat convinced of a great victory.  When these same young men departed their training camps, they had no intention of returning.  Many wouldn’t.

The NVA assault commenced at 0340 when a rocket and mortar barrage in the mountains in the west served as a signal for the attack to begin.  The assault was over by daybreak and the communists began gathering up “enemies of the people” and killing them.  NVA and VC soldiers roamed the city at will and began to consolidate their gains. Responding to the attack, General LaHue rushed Marines forward with only scant information about the shape of the battle.  Company G 2/5 was pinned down short of the MACV compound.  They eventually forced their way into the compound, but in that process, the company sustained 10 killed in action (KIA).  After linking up with the handful of US Army advisors, the Marines were ordered across the river and fight their way through to the headquarters compound of 1st ARVN Division.  Overwhelming enemy fire forced the Marines back across the bridge. Company G took additional casualties; weather conditions prohibited the immediate evacuation of the wounded.

Soldiers of the 1st ARVN Division were fully occupied; the Marines engaged south of the river.  ARVN I Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam met with the III MAF commander, Lieutenant General Robert Cushman to devise a strategy for re-taking the city.  They agreed that ARVN forces would concentrate on expelling communists from the Citadel, and Marines would focus their assets in the New City.  By this time, General LaHue fully realized that his Marines were facing a large assault force.  He dispatched Colonel Stanley S. Hughes, CO, 1st Marines, to assume operational control of US forces.

Battle of Hue 1968A brutal building-by-building, room-to-room campaign was launched to eject communist forces. Untrained in urban warfare, the Marines had to work out their tactics and techniques “on the job.”  Their progress was slow, measured, methodical, and costly.  The progress of the Marines was measured in inches … every inch was paid for in blood.

On 5 February, Company H 2/5 took the Thua Thien Province headquarters compound, which had until then served as the NVA’s 4th Regiment command post.  This loss caused the NVA effort south of the river to begin faltering, but hard fighting continued over the next several days.  By 14 February, most of the city south of the river was once more in US hands but rooting out pockets of resistance would take another 12 days.  The NVA/VC continued sending rockets and mortars into Marine positions; snipers continued picking off American Marines. Operations south of the river had cost the Marines 34 dead and 320 WIA.  It had been even more costly for the communists; over 1,000 NVA and VC soldiers lay dead on the streets of the New City.

The battle continued to rage in the Imperial City.  Despite the insertion of ARVN reinforcements, their advance was stalled among the houses, narrow streets, and alley ways on the northwest and southwest wall.  The communists burrowed deeply into the walls and tightly packed buildings; they maintained control of the Imperial Palace.  They seemed to gain in strength with each passing day.  Somehow, NVA forces were regularly receiving reinforcements.

Battle of Hue 1968-002An embarrassed General Truong was finally forced to appeal to the Marines for assistance. On 10 February, General LaHue moved a Marine battalion into the Citadel.  Two days later, elements of 1/5 made their way across the river on landing craft and entered the Citadel through a breach in the northeast wall. Two South Vietnamese Marine Corps battalions moved into the southwest corner, which increased the pressure on communist forces.  In spite of this, the communists held their positions.  American Marines began an advance along the south wall, taking heavy casualties.  The fighting grew even more savage as Marines brought in airstrikes, naval gunfire, and field artillery; the NVA grew more determined to resist the bloody American assault.  On 17 February 1/5 achieved its objective but doing so cost the battalion 47 KIA and 240 WIA. The battle for the Citadel continued.

On 24 February, ARVN soldiers pulled down the communist banner that had been flapping in the breeze for 25 days.  They replaced it with the RVN national ensign.  The battle was declared at an end on 2 March; the longest sustained battle in the Viet Nam war up to that time.  ARVN casualties included 384 KIA, 1,800 WIA, and 30 MIA.  US Marines suffered 147 dead, 857 wounded.  The US Army reported 74 dead and 507 wounded. NVA/VC losses were: 5,000 communists were killed inside Hue City; an additional 3,000 were killed in the surrounding area by elements of the 101st Airborne and 1st US Cavalry.

Forty percent of Hue City was utterly destroyed.  More than one-hundred-thousand Vietnamese civilians were homeless.  Civilian casualties exceeded 5,800 killed or missing.

From these two experiences, the US Marine Corps developed a doctrine for urban warfare: Marine Corps Warfighting Publication (MCWP) 3-53-3.  Today, Marines are trained in the tactics and techniques for urban warfare. This publication was published in 1998; the Marines would rely on these guidelines and procedures when they were dispatched to Fallujah in 2003 (See also: Fish & Chips and Phantom Fury).

Warfare is both lethal and complex.  Today, field commanders not only have to employ their infantry to win, they also have to consider the non-combat impact of such operations, the health and welfare of citizens, maintaining law and order, address media concerns, employ psychological operational teams, control refugees, guard against urban terrorism, and establish “rules of engagement.”  The enemy in the Middle East may not look like much of a threat, but they do pose a clear and present danger to US combat forces.  It is also true that insurgents exasperate US forces because they so easily blend in with innocent populations.  This is the nature of war in the early 21st century.  This is the danger imposed by domestic terrorists. Islamists are not fools; this enemy effectively uses our own rules of engagement to their advantage.  American politicians have never quite figured this out.

Endnotes:

[1] General Giap defeated the Imperial French after eight years of brutal warfare following the end of World War II.

[2] The reason behind America’s bombing of Laos and Cambodia, referred to by the liberal media as America’s Secret War.

[3] Major component commands included: US Army, Vietnam; I Field Force, Vietnam; II Field Force, Vietnam; XXIV Corps; III Marine Amphibious Force; Naval Forces, Vietnam; US Seventh Air Force; Fifth Special Forces Group; Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support; Studies and Observations Group; Field Advisory Element.

[4] The United States did deploy covert and special forces into Laos at a later time.

[5] Pronounced as “Way.”

[6] Task Force X-Ray went operational on 13 January 1968.

[7] In January 1968, everyone knew something was off-kilter. Tet was approaching.  The people were uneasy.  The cancellation of the Tet Truce and enemy attacks at Da Nang and elsewhere in southern I Corps dampened the normally festive spirit in Viet Nam.  The first indication of trouble came shortly after midnight on January 30-31 —a five-pronged assault on all five of the provincial capitals in II Corps, and the city of Da Nang in I Corps.  VC attacks began with mortar and rocket fire, followed by large-scale ground assaults by NVA regulars.  These were not well-coordinated attacks, however, and by dawn on 31 January, most of the communists in outlying areas had been driven back from their objectives.

 

Leading from the Front

EGA BlackThe post-World War II period was no easy time for the American people.  At the conclusion of the war, Americans were exhausted. They needed a normal economy; they needed peace; they wanted to get on with their lives.  President Harry Truman, in seeking cost-cutting measures, ordered a one-third reduction of the Armed Forces.  Between 1945-50, Washington, D. C. was a busy place.  War veterans were expeditiously discharged, the War Department became the Department of Defense, the Navy Department was rolled into DoD, the US Army Air Force became the United States Air Force, and the missions and structures of all services were meticulously re-examined. In terms of the naval establishment, about one-third of the Navy’s ships were placed into mothballs; in the Marines, infantry battalions gave up one rifle company  —Marine Corps wide, this amounted to a full combat regiment.

There was more going on inside the Truman administration, however.  In 1949, Secretary of State Dean Acheson produced a study titled United States Relations with China with Special Reference to the Period 1944-1949.  The short title of this document was the China White Paper.  It took Acheson 1,000 pages to explain how America’s intervention in China was doomed to failure.  China’s premier, Mao Zedong was overjoyed to hear of this.  Then, on 12thJanuary 1950, Acheson addressed the National Press Club; in his discussion of the all-important defense perimeter, Mr. Acheson somehow failed to include the Korean Peninsula and Formosa as being places that the United States was committed to defend.  Upon learning of this, North Korea’s premier Kim Il-sung called Moscow and requested a meeting with Joseph Stalin.

Thus, when North Korea launched their attack on South Korea on 25th June 1950, no one in America was prepared to defend our South Korean ally.  There had been no money for combat training, insufficient munitions for live-fire training, not enough fuel for military aircraft, and no replacement parts for military vehicles.  It was a situation that affected every military command, no matter where it was situated.

In Japan, the US military maintained its occupation forces throughout the main islands.  It was good duty: there was no training, only limited flying, and only rudimentary vehicle maintenance.  There were plenty of personnel inspections, though, and lots of liberty for the troops. Senior military officers played golf, company officers learned how to keep out of sight, and unsupervised NCOs engaged in black market activities.  As for the troops, they were content with drinking Japanese beer and chasing skirts (or, if you prefer, kimonos).

As with the Marines, Army units were understrength.  Unlike the Marines, the Army’s rolling stock was inoperable and senior divisional staff were either incompetent or lazy in the execution of their duties.  Quite suddenly, the US was once more at war and the ill-trained occupation forces were rushed into a North Korean Army meat-grinder in South Korea.

In South Korea, American military units were also understrength.  Units located in and around Seoul were mostly administrative, communications, or military police units. Eighth US Army, headquarters in Taegu, included three infantry divisions: 24th, 25th and 1st Cavalry.  All of these units were lacking in men, equipment, and combat experience. Most of the troops were conscripts. Junior officers were a puzzle. Senior officers were hoping to bide their time until retirement.  The Army of the Republic of Korea (ROKA) had a force of about 58,000 men when the North Koreans launched their invasion.  ROKA was ineffective in stopping the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) for several reasons.  These soldiers were armed but had no infantry training; their officers lacked leadership, and every time the ROKA confronted the NKPA, they were soundly defeated.

When the NKPA invaded South Korea, American military units and personnel stationed in Seoul  hightailed it south to avoid capture.  Elements of the 24th Division, fed piecemeal into South Korea, were chewed up almost as soon as they arrived.  No US Army unit was prepared to confront the 80,000-man NKPA invading force, which included ten mechanized infantry divisions.  In mid-July, NKPA forces mauled and routed the 24th Division at the Battle of Hadong, which rendered the 29th Infantry Regiment incapable of further combat service.  NKPA forces also pushed back the 19th Infantry Regiment, which opened up a clear path to Pusan in southern South Korea.

At Camp Pendleton, California, the 1st Marine Division received a warning order.  A regimental combat team was quickly organized around the Fifth Marine Regiment (5th Marines): three understrength battalions under Lieutenant Colonel (Colonel select) Ray Murray.  Marine Aircraft Group 33 was attached as the air element, forming the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Edward Craig.  Craig’s deputy was Brigadier General Thomas H. Cushman, who also headed the reinforced air group.

As the brigade made sail on 14 July 1950, the balance of the 1st Marine Division was rapidly reorganizing: Marines were ordered to immediately report from the 2nd Marine Division, various Marine Corps bases and stations. Recruitment staffs were reduced. Reserve units were activated and dispatched to Camp Pendleton.  Many reserve units included men who had yet to attend recruit training.  The Seventh Marine Regiment (7th Marines) was reactivated.  Marines from all across the United States streamed in to find their slot in either the 1st Marines or 7th Marines.

The Brigade (with its full complement of equipment) arrived in South Korea on 2 August 1950.  Before the end of the day, General Craig led his infantry to establish the 8th US Army reserve at Changwon, 40 miles northwest of Pusan. On 6th August, the 5th Marines were attached to Major General William B. Kean’s 25th Infantry Division and moved an additional 13 miles southwest to Chindong-ni.  On that very night, Company G, 3/5 was rushed forward to defend Hill 342.  The Marines lost 11 men that night but inflicted 30-times that number of enemies killed.  The NKPA suddenly realized that there was a new sheriff in town.

Eighth Army units began to attack but were frequently overrun by counter-attacking NKPA forces.  Whenever this happened, the Marines were sent in to repel the NKPA, seal the gap in the lines, and restore American control over that sector.  This happened so frequently that Marine grunts developed a sense of contempt for the Army.  This attitude wasn’t entirely fair, but completely understandable.  The Marines began calling themselves “the Fire Brigade.”  The fact was that two-thirds of Marine officers and mid-to-senior NCOs in the 5th Marines had served during World War II.  They knew how to fight —they knew how to win battles.

They added to that experience between 15 August and 15 September; the 5th Marines were engaged in bloody combat almost from their first week in South Korea.  Commanding the 1st Marine Division, Major General Oliver P. Smith [1] arrived in theater at the end of August and began planning for an amphibious invasion of Inchon.  It was an audacious plan because of erratic tidal conditions in Inchon.  The Marines would have only so many hours to force their landing, and it would have to be carried out in increments —which meant that the lead units would be without reinforcements for between 12-20 hours.  General Craig’s Brigade was folded back into the 1st Marine Division.  BLT 3/5 under Lieutenant Colonel Bob Taplett spearheaded the Division assault.

After the 1st Marine Division and 7th Infantry Division knocked in the door to Inchon, Eighth Army tasked the Marines with clearing operations inside Seoul.  Urban warfare at its worst.  No sooner had this mission been accomplished, MacArthur placed the 1st Marine Division and the 7th Infantry Division under Major General Edward Almond, US Army, commanding X Corps.  The Marines landed at Wonson on the east coast of the Korean Peninsula on 26 October 1950; 7th Infantry Division landed at Iwon in early November.  Smith’s orders were to establish a base of operations at Hungnam.  For an account of the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, click here.

As with many young men of his day, Stanley J. Wawrzyniak dropped out of school to pursue adventure in the US military.  He initially joined the U. S. Navy with service as a hospital corpsman.  As it turned out, the Navy wasn’t Wawrzyniak’s cup of tea, and so he accepted discharge at the end of his enlistment and joined the Marines.  He was serving with the 5th Marines on 25 June 1950. He was one of 2,300 Marines sent to square away the South Korean peninsula.  Since few people could pronounce his Polish last name, everyone just called him “Ski.”

The Silver Star Medal

Silver Star 001On 28 May 1951, while serving with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, Staff Sergeant Wawrzyniak’s platoon assaulted a well-defended Chinese communist position.  Without regard for his own personal welfare, while under heavy enemy fire, Wawrzyniak moved forward shouting words of encouragement to his men as they advanced against the hail of enemy mortar and small-arms fire to gain the enemy position.  Although painfully wounded in the assault, Sergeant Wawrzyniak refused first-aid in order that he might remain to supervise the treatment and evacuation of other wounded Marines.  The initiative and aggressiveness displayed by Sergeant Wawrzyniak reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Naval Service. 

The Navy Cross [2]

Navy Cross 001On 19 September 1951, Staff Sergeant Wawrzyniak, while serving as Company Gunnery Sergeant, Company F, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, led an assault in his company’s final push against a heavily fortified and strongly defended enemy hill-top position.  During the assault, Sergeant Wawrzyniak courageously exposed himself to enemy small-arms and grenade fire while moving and maneuvering his force and marking enemy positions and targets.  As the squad neared the crest of the hill, Wawrzyniak observed an enemy position that threatened the squad’s entire left flank.  Wawrzyniak single-handedly charged the emplacement, killed all of its occupants, and although painfully wounded, he immediately rejoined the attack. Seizing an automatic rifle from a fallen comrade when his own ammunition was exhausted, he aggressively aided the squad in overrunning the enemy position, directed the pursuit of the fleeing enemy, and consolidated the ground position.  By his daring initiative, gallant determination, and steadfast devotion to duty in the face of hostile opposition, Staff Sergeant Wawrzyniak served to inspire all who observed him, contributing materially to the successes achieved by his company, thereby upholding the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

The Navy Cross (Second Award) [3]

Gold Star 001On 16 April 1952, while serving with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, an outnumbering enemy force launched an assault upon an outpost position.  The outpost commander and his immediate squad were cut off from friendly lines by intensive hostile fire.  Technical Sergeant Wawrzyniak unhesitatingly assumed command of the remaining Marines and promptly organized an effective defense against fanatical attackers.  With the position completely encircled and subjected to extremely heavy enemy machine-gun, recoilless rifle, mortar, and small-arms fire, Wawrzyniak repeatedly braved the hail of blistering fire to reach the outpost, boldly led the men back into the defensive perimeter, replenished their supply of ammunition, and encouraged them while directing fire against close-in enemy assaults. Although painfully wounded, Wawrzyniak refused medical treatment for himself and aided medical personnel in treating and dressing the wounds of his Marines.  By his outstanding courage, inspiring leadership, and valiant devotion in the face of overwhelming odds, Technical Sergeant Wawrzyniak upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

After the Korean War, Master Sergeant Ski was recommended for a commission as a Marine Corps officer.  In subsequent years, his reputation as a combat Marine followed him from post to station.  He somehow managed to add to his colorful legend with each successive assignment.

In 1960, Ski attended training at the Marine Corps Cold Weather Training Center.  While practicing a glacier rescue technique, he was accidently dropped by his belayer into a crevasse.  The fall caused serious internal injuries.  The only route out of the crevasse required a descent of 2,000 feet and traversing some 3-miles over extremely rough terrain.  Refusing to be carried out, Ski walked the entire way carrying his own rucksack.  During rest stops, Ski urinated blood.  When he later learned that his belayer was being blamed for the injury, Ski defended him, stating, “It wasn’t his fault; it was my fault for not making sure he was ready.”

Some months later, Ski was assigned as a student at the Escape, Evasion, and Survival Training Course.  Ski was assigned to lead an evasion team … which promptly disappeared and was unobserved by any instructor for four days. Ski’s team finished in first place for this training exercise, but then … Ski was used to finishing in first place. In his mid-30’s, he finished first at the Army’s Airborne and Ranger schools.  He didn’t brag about his accomplishments; he simply believed that an older, more experienced Marine ought to have finished first.

One of the duties of an adjutant is to communicate the orders of the commanding officer at assembled formations.  In one instance, Ski was ordered to read a letter of censure aloud at morning formation so that a Marine could be properly chastised for breaking the rules.  The problem was that the words used in the construction of this letter were a bit more than most of the assembled Marines could understand.  Realizing this, Ski shoved the letter into the hand of the Marine being chastised, telling him: “Here—you take this damn thing, read it, and don’t screw up again.”

As Ski was promoted through the ranks, it became a bit obvious to others that his career might be limited.  He was serving as a field grade officer, without a college education.  He also a bit profane; he spoke in a way that one might expect from a company gunnery sergeant, but not from a field-grade officer.  This was never a problem among his enlisted Marines but was a handicap when among senior officers, who regularly complained about Ski’s colorful language.

Typically, general officers like to be pampered —perhaps thinking that having made it all the way to flag rank, they’re somehow entitled to having everyone of lesser grade kiss their ass.  Ski didn’t kiss ass.  How he ever wound up being assigned as the Protocol officer at Marine Corps Base, Camp Butler, Okinawa confused almost everyone who knew him.  It was during this assignment that Ski managed to offend a visiting senior officer.

It was during the Viet Nam War and at that time, Okinawa camps served as staging and transit facilities for combat replacements.  Not to put too fine a point on it, Ski’s boss wasn’t too pleased when this VIP expressed his displeasure over something Ski had (or had not) done.  The Commanding General called Ski in to his office for one of his “get closer to Jesus” moments.  The General pointedly told Ski that if he ever screwed up another senior officer visit, he’d find himself in Viet Nam.  Major Ski could hardly wait for the next general officer visit.

The Bronze Star Medal

Bronze Star 001In Vietnam, Ski was assigned to serve as Executive Officer, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.  During this assignment, Ski was awarded two Bronze Star medals and his fourth Purple Heart.  Ski was always “at the front.”  Why? Because that’s where leaders are supposed to be.  Even as a battalion XO, he would somehow manage to involve himself in such things as security patrols [4].  Ski would never re-enter friendly lines until he was certain that every Marine on patrol had been accounted for.  At the conclusion of one of these missions, an NCO told him, “Sir … you’ve got more balls than brains.”

I served under in Wawrzyniak in 1972-73. He commanded Headquarters Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, which at the time was located on Okinawa.  In this assignment, Ski wore three hats: Battalion Commander, Division Headquarters Commandant, and Area Commander for Camp Courtney, Okinawa.  I was one of the 1,700 Marines assigned to Wawrzyniak’s battalion, at the time a staff sergeant.  In addition to my regular duties, he assigned me as a platoon commander in the 3rd Marine Division honor guard, which also supported the co-located Headquarters of the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).  Colonel Wawrzyniak always provided feedback after an honor guard detail.  It was either “Good fucking job, Marine,” or “Ya fucked up, didn’t ya?  Get your shit together.”

At this time, III MAF was commanded by Lieutenant General Louis Metzger [5] (who was known by some as Loveable Lou). General Metzger was a no-nonsense general officer under whom I had previously served when he commanded the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade.

Metzger 001A World War II Era Marine, (then) Brigadier General Metzger demanded perfection from his officers.  His demeanor was gentlemanly, but direct.  He spoke with a baritone voice.  He never spoke at anyone, but rather engaged them in conversation.  Of course, throughout the conversation, he also engaged you with his eyes.  You knew that he was listening carefully to what you had to say —and he knew when someone didn’t know what they were talking about.  Whenever General Metzger asked a question, he expected a frank, honest, and well-thought-out response.  If one happened not to know the answer, all you had to do was say so and then go find out what he wanted to know.  If someone tried to bluff his way through a conversation with Lou Metzger, he’d eat you alive.  He always asked challenging questions —not to embarrass anyone, but because he expected a person of some position to know the answers to such questions..

During the Viet Nam War, 9th MAB had several important missions beyond providing the Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) with battalion landing teams.  One of these was the continual review of contingency operational plans —necessary at a time when the world situation was in a state of continual flux.  The General also had a photographic memory and the ability to speed read, comprehend, and analyze complex battle plans.  In this process of review, General Metzger wasn’t particularly pleasant whenever a staff officer knew less about these plans than he did —hence the label “Lovable Lou.”  Beyond his directness and his no-nonsense approach to serious matters, Metzger was an exceptional general officer.  One always knew where you stood with him.

Wawrzyniak 001A few years later as a lieutenant general in command of III MAF, Metzger was the senior-most officer of the “general mess,” the dining facility [6] for all officers serving in the 3rd Marine Division Headquarters and III MAF at or above the rank of colonel.  The General Mess included three general officers and around 15 or so colonels.  The only lieutenant colonel permitted to dine in the general mess was the Headquarters Commandant, who was also responsible for managing it.  One night at dinner, a somewhat grumpier than usual General Metzger had taken but a few bites of his salad when he threw his fork down on the table, looked down toward the end of the table where sat LtCol Wawrzyniak and said, “Damn it, Ski … why can’t we ever have fresh vegetables?”

Ski’s reply stunned everyone into silence.  “General, there aren’t any fucking fresh vegetables … so if you don’t like the fucking vegetables, then don’t eat the fucking vegetables.”  No one spoke to General Metzger in such a crude and insubordinate manner.  After what seemed like a very long pause Metzger said, “Okay, Ski … no need to get testy.”

Two very fine Marine Corps officers … both of whom it was my privilege to serve; two legendary Marines now long deceased.  These are the kinds of Marines who most effectively lead Marines to win battles. I think of Metzger and Wawrzyniak often, which in my own mind means that they live still.  How grand it would be to “return” to an earlier time and serve alongside them once more.

Few senior officers today are capable of filling either of these men’s combat boots —which is disturbing to me because our Marines deserve the best leaders— and these were two of the very best in their own unique style of leadership.  What Major Anthony J. Milavic once said about Ski is absolutely true: “Ski was a leader of Marines who knew each of us; communicated to each of us; and, each of us knew that he cared about us.  If he sometimes cursed at us, that was okay because he was always with us: at physical training, climbing a mountain, falling off a cliff, or in a combat zone —always  at the front— he was always with us.

Ski and Metzger are still with us … well, they’re with me anyway.  Memories.

Endnotes:

[1] See Also: Scholar-Warrior.

[2] United States’ second highest award for courage under fire in time of war.

[3] Ski was initially recommended for award of the Medal of Honor for this action.

[4] Security patrols are dispatched from a unit location when the unit is stationary or during a halt in movement to search the local area, detect the presence of enemy forces near the main body, and engage and destroy the enemy within the capability of the patrol.  It is standard to send out such patrols when operating in close terrain where there are limitations of observation and concentrated fires.

[5] Awarded two Navy Cross medals for exceptional courage under fire during World War II; Legion of Merit; two awards of the Bronze Star Medal.

[6] Military officers pay for their meals and other consumables at the end of each month.  Mess bills cost senior officers more than junior officers.

A Damn Fine Pilot

EGA 1868Here is the story of an exceptional Marine who enlisted when he was still very young —17-years of age.  I find it interesting that no matter what part of the country these young men and women come from, they all have similar reasons for “joining up.” If you asked these young people why they decided to enlist, I believe their answers would be remarkably consistent. The number one response, I believe, would be “opportunity.”  Most enlistees come from modest environments.  They probably did well enough in school but are not ready to continue with higher education.  Perhaps they can’t afford to attend college; military service will help with that. Maybe they have a sense of adventure; military service will help with that, too.  Possibly, they sense a need for some discipline in their lives; the military will definitely help with that.  Other reasons might include dismal job prospects after high school, to obtain top-notch training, gain a sense of accomplishment, a desire to travel or more simply, to get out of the house.

No matter what their reasons, they come to us by the thousands.  I do not intend to in any way degrade any of the other services, but the fact is that very few applicants have what it takes to become a United States Marine. Getting into the Marines is difficult —getting through basic training is even more difficult— and intentionally so.

Here we have a young man by the name of Kenneth Walsh. He was born on 24 November 1916. He came from Brooklyn, New York graduating from Dickinson High School, Jersey City, New Jersey in 1933.  He was probably a smart kid, graduating at the age of 17 years —about a year ahead of his peers.  Within a few months of his graduation, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He attended recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina.  Afterwards, he trained to become an aircraft mechanic and a radioman.  He served at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia.  Then, in 1936, he entered naval flight training at NAS Pensacola, Florida.  His rank upon entering flight school was private.  Upon obtaining his gold wings as a naval aviator, he was promoted to corporal.

He was assigned to fly scout-observation aircraft and over the next four years, he served on three aircraft carriers.  He was subsequently assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron 121 in North Carolina.  At the time of Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Walsh was serving as a master technical sergeant.  He was appointed as a Warrant Officer (designated a Marine Gunner) on 11 May 1942. A year later he was commissioned a First Lieutenant.

What made Walsh unique at this point was that he was among only a handful of Marine Corps officers who were qualified to serve as landing signal officer aboard U. S. Navy aircraft carriers.  He was also one of the most experienced Marine Corps pilots at the time.  Remaining assigned to VMF-124, Walsh flew the Vought F4U Corsair.  This aircraft was distributed to VMF-124 beginning in October 1942.  Marines found that these aircraft needed a few important refinements.  It was also a difficult aircraft to fly, but the refinement/learning curve was short.  The F4U aircraft had the range that the Pacific theater Grumman F4F Wildcats didn’t have.  Only the P-38s and F4U’s had the required combat range.  The fact was that these men and their flying machines were needed in the Pacific theater yesterday.

VMF-124’s Corsairs were sent to Espiritu Santo in the jeep carrier USS Kitty Hawkin January 1943. Upon arrival, VMF-124 was sent immediately to Guadalcanal, arriving on 12 February 1943.  The aircraft landed and while they were being refueled, their pilots were getting their first combat brief.  The mission: to escort a PBY Catalina which was assigned a search and air rescue mission for downed Wildcat pilots in hiding on Vella Lavella. On their first day in combat, the pilots logged 9 flight hours.

What Ken Walsh and his squadron mates wanted most was to familiarize themselves with the air combat area: islands, enemy locations, weather patterns.  They wouldn’t get the time for this.  The next day, Lieutenant Walsh led a four-plane element escorting B-24s to Bougainville —300 miles up the slot.

Another day, another mission.  Walsh had his first exposure to actual combat on 14 February. Again, his section was assigned to escort B-24’s to Bougainville … but this time, Japanese Zeros were waiting for them.  The Japanese had their own coast watchers.  The Americans lost eight aircraft that day; the Japanese lost three.  The incident was dubbed “The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.”

As one of the first Corsair squadrons, VMF-124 was anxious to establish a tactical doctrine that later arriving squadrons could build upon. This is how things are done in Marine aviation.  VMF-124 pilots turned to an experienced Wildcat pilot for his advice.  “What is the best way to approach combat with the Japanese?”  His answer was simple:  “You gotta go after them.”  The Corsair had an advantage over the Zero; it was something Walsh learned early on: altitude.  He also learned to avoid slow speed engagements because the Zero had superior maneuverability at speeds below 260 knots.

On 1 April 1943, Walsh was on patrol over the Russell Islands.  The Corsairs circled their assigned area quietly for two hours and then were relieved by a section of P-38 Lightening’s.  No sooner had the Corsairs departed the pattern, Zeros jumped the P-38’s. Walsh alerted his flight to return to assist the P-38s.  A wild melee was taking place and at first, the Zeros didn’t notice the Corsairs. Walsh lined up one Zero for a deflection shot but missed.  His wingman scored the kill.  They approached a second Zero; Walsh splashed him.

Walsh scored three more kills on 13 May 1943.

On 10 August, Walsh’s aircraft had been badly shot up. The plane was on fire, and Walsh had limited ability to control flight.  A Zero lined up to finish him off, but Walsh’s wingman splashed him, saving Walsh’s life.  Walsh managed to reach an emergency strip at New Georgia, but his landing was shoddy. He crashed into another Corsair on the line, but he survived.

By mid-August, VMF-124 had been moved to Munda, a recently captured Japanese airstrip.  Walsh was flying CAP over the invasion beaches at Vella Lavella when the flight director warned him of inbound bogeys.  Some Zeros and Vals (Aichi D3A Type 99 Carrier Bombers) soon arrived. Walsh shot down two before a Zero clobbered him, hitting his starboard wing tank.  The plane could still fly, and Walsh headed for home and ended up landing safely.  Battered, yes, but the Corsairs had prevented the Vals from reaching their airfield. By this time, Walsh had increased the number of his victories to 10.

WALSH - FDR 001On 30 August, Walsh fought an incredible battled against fifty Japanese aircraft, destroying four enemy fighters before he had to ditch his damaged Corsair.  Next, assigned to escort bombers headed toward Bougainville, Walsh’s plane developed engine problems.  He made an emergency landing at Munda and secured a replacement Corsair and soon went off to rejoin his section —flying alone.  From his vantage point, he saw Zeros attacking the B-24s.  Walsh shot down two of these.  On his return to base, he picked up a message from other B-24’s in trouble over Gizo.  He flew off to help, again downing two Zeros—but not before he was hit himself. He was forced to ditch off Vella Lavella.  It was his third water landing in six months.

Ultimately, Ken Walsh score 21 kills, 17 of which were Zeros —second only to Colonel Greg Boyington in air combat victories.  He lost five aircraft.  He was shot down on three occasions.  He ended his first combat tour in September 1943.  On 8 February 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented Captain Walsh with the Medal of Honor.

Citation:

USN MOH 001For extraordinary heroism and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty as a pilot in Marine Fighting Squadron 124 in aerial combat against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands area.  Determined to thwart the enemy’s attempt to bomb Allied ground forces and shipping at Vella Lavella on 15 August 1943, First Lieutenant Walsh repeatedly dived his plane into an enemy formation outnumbering his own division 6 to 1 and, although his plane was hit numerous times, shot down 2 Japanese dive bombers and 1 fighter.  After developing engine trouble on 30 August during a vital escort mission, First Lieutenant Walsh landed his mechanically disabled plane at Munda, quickly replaced it with another, and proceeded to rejoin his flight over Kahili.  Separated from his escort group when he encountered approximately 50 Japanese Zeros, he unhesitatingly attacked, striking with relentless fury in his lone battle against a powerful force.  He destroyed 4 hostile fighters before cannon shellfire forced him to make a dead-stick landing off Vella Lavella where he was later picked up.  His valiant leadership and his daring skill as a flier served as a source of confidence and inspiration to his fellow pilots and reflect the highest credit upon him and the United States Naval Service.

Walsh K A 001Walsh returned for a second combat tour with VMF-222 flying the advanced F4U.  Between 28 April and 12 May 1945, Walsh was awarded seven (7) Distinguished Flying Crosses for heroism during service in the Philippine Islands.  He scored his last victory on 22 June 1945 downing a Kamikaze over northern Okinawa.  Following the US victory over Imperial Japanese forces, Walsh was assigned to duty as the MAG-14 Assistant Operations Officer on Okinawa.  He returned to the United States in March 1946.

During the Korean War, Walsh served as a C-54 (transport) pilot with VMR-152 (15 July 1950 to November 1951).  He was promoted to Major in 1955, and to Lieutenant Colonel in 1958.  Having completed thirty years of honorable and faithful service, Colonel Walsh retired from the United States Marine Corps on 1 February 1962.

Colonel Walsh passed away on 30 July 1998, aged 81 years.  He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.