The Cousin

Preface

Lieutenant Colonel William Washington of the 3rd Continental Light Dragoons rode quietly at the head of his regiment.  He was a large man for a light horseman.  He was over six feet tall with bear-like shoulders, a ruddy face, and clubbed brown hair.  One of his commanding generals described him as the “Hercules” of his day.  Perhaps.  That isn’t what we see in his portraits.  We see an ordinary-looking man with no wig or hat, a round, honest face, and a casual open stare.

By September 1781, Colonel Washington was 29 years old.  A wounded veteran of six years’ service, a former minuteman in Stafford County, Virginia, and a member of the Old Dominion gentry.  His cousin, of course, was the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.

William did not share those aristocratic attributes — he was more comfortable in the saddle than in parlors and drawing rooms drinking tea and discussing politics.  No, William was a fighter.  He amused himself with horse racing, good cigars, fine whiskey, and a modest wager.  He was unassuming, respectful of others, self-confident, good-humored, and friendly.  But there was also another side to William Washington: he was hot-tempered when his blood was up.  When he led his regiment into the fight, he was always the first man across the line of departure.  Like a badger, once he had hold of his enemy, he wouldn’t let go.  But, as with all good soldiers, it was only a matter of time before his luck ran out.

Beginnings

George Washington was 20 years old when Cousin William was born in 1752 — and only two years away from igniting the Seven Years’ War.  William’s parents were Bailey Washington, Sr., and Catherine Storke Washington, who were married in 1749.  William was their second-born child, whom Bailey named William after Catherine’s father, William Storke, the Sheriff of Stafford County.[1]  Bailey was moderately wealthy — the owner of 1,200 acres of prime agricultural land near Aquia Creek.  The bad news for William was that he would not stand to inherit this property.  Still, he was raised in a privileged environment, and while 1,200 acres wasn’t as large as the estate at Mount Vernon, it was large enough to require an investment in horses.  William Washington was raised in an environment of horse breeding, horsemanship, and horse racing.

At one time, Stafford County was part of Westmoreland County, created in 1664 as the Virginia colony sought to organize itself through a series of commonwealth structures.  In time, Stafford County (named after Staffordshire, England) gave way to such jurisdictions as Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince William counties and the city of Alexandria.

As a southern planter, Bailey Washington raised his children within the context of Anglo-Virginian culture, suggesting that William was brought up as a gentleman.  Beyond his primary education, William trained to become a church minister.  His post-primary education included Greek, Latin, mathematics, and theology.  William was well into training when the American Revolution sent him in a completely different direction.

In 1775, William Washington was 23 years of age with an incredibly acute sense of duty and of right and wrong.  When Virginia began raising troops to resist Great Britain, William gave up his studies and life as a planter’s son to join the patriot cause.  Patrick Henry delivered his Liberty or Death speech to the Virginia Convention in March.  Lord Dunmore, Virginia’s governor, wisely removed gunpowder from the public warehouse in Williamsburg to prevent it from falling into “local” hands, which only aroused the patriots even more.

Subsequently, news arrived from Massachusetts detailing the Battles of Lexington Green and Concord.  Like many of his fellow citizens in Stafford County, he was raised in the tradition of the Common Burden.  He was among the first of Virginia’s youth to answer the call “to arms.”  Already a member of the minutemen organization in Stafford County, he formed a militia company in the early summer.[2]  In Richmond, the convention created three infantry regiments commanded by Patrick Henry, William Woodford, and Hugh Mercer.[3]  On 12 September, at a meeting at the Spotsylvania Courthouse, local minutemen elected William Washington and Townshend Dade to serve as captains in Hugh Mercer’s 3rd Regiment of Infantry.  Assisting Mercer was Lieutenant Colonel George Weedon and Major Thomas Marshall.  Later that year, the regiment became part of Brigadier General Hugh Mercer’s Brigade of the Continental Army in New York and was assigned to the command of Major General Nathaniel Greene.

Fighting in the mid-Atlantic region, young Captain Washington commanded the 7th Company.  Lieutenant James Monroe, later the 5th President of the United States, served as Washington’s second-in-command.[4]  During the Battle of Trenton, Captain Washington and his XO distinguished themselves by leading a charge against a battery of Hessian artillery.  Washington and Monroe received serious wounds; both received the personal thanks of their Commander-in-Chief, General George Washington.  While recovering from his injuries, the Continental Army advanced William Washington to the rank of major and, on 27 January 1777, provisionally assigned him to serve in the newly created 4th Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons.[5]

Transition

During the night of 26 September 1778, the 3rd Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons, serving under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Baylor, had found billeting in the town of Old Tappan, New Jersey.  A town citizen with loyalist sentiments notified British forces, and Baylor’s command was attacked in their quarters while still asleep.  Colonel Baylor, wounded in the lung by a British bayonet, was captured and taken prisoner.  A short time later, Baylor’s XO, Major Alexander Clough, also injured, died of his wounds.[6]  In light of the loss of the regiment’s two principal command officers, Continental Army HQ advanced Major William Washington to Lieutenant Colonel and ordered him to assume command of the 3rd Dragoons.

Between September 1778 and the late summer of 1779, Colonel Washington recruited replacements and supervised their training.  On 19 November, the Army HQ ordered Washington to join the command of Major General Benjamin Lincoln in Charleston, South Carolina.

Southern Department Fights

On March 10, 1780, Washington’s regiment joined forces with the remnants of the 1st Continental Light Dragoons at Bacon’s Bridge, South Carolina.  His mission was to reconnoiter and screen against advancing British troops.  On 26 March, Washington had his first encounter with the British Legion, a brigade-sized unit of dragoons under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton.[7]  It was a minor victory near Rantowle’s Bridge on the Stono River.  Afterward, on the Ashley River during the fight at Rutledge’s Plantation, Colonel Washington again bested a detachment of Tarleton’s Dragoons.

On 14 April 1780, Colonel Tarleton assaulted the encampment of General Isaac Huger at Monck’s Corner, successfully routing the Continental force (including Washington’s Dragoons).  Washington’s losses included 15 dead, 17 wounded, 100 captured, and the loss of 83 horses.

Colonel Washington led his remaining troops across the Santee River to escape capture.  The severe attrition of Washington’s command forced its amalgamation with the 1st Continental Light Dragoons under Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Walton White.  While waiting to cross the flooded Santee River, British forces surprised and defeated Colonel White’s dragoons at Lenud’s Ferry on 6 May 1780.  With Colonel White’s capture, command of the dragoons passed to Colonel Washington.  Washington moved the regiment to North Carolina for recruitment, provision, and training when General Lincoln surrendered the southern army and the city of Charleston to Cornwallis on 12 May.

British forces defeated the reconstituted southern army, formed under General Horatio Gates, at the Battle of Camden, South Carolina, on 16 August 1780.  This loss opened up the south to British control.  General Nathanael Greene soon replaced Gates, whose cowardice in the field permanently discredited his former service in the northern theater

General Greene divided his army between himself and General Daniel Morgan.  Colonel Washington was placed under Morgan, who tasked Washington with conducting raids in western South Carolina.  Washington’s two notable successes included capturing Rugeley’s Mill on 4 December.  In this engagement, Washington bluffed 112 loyalists into surrendering a strongly fortified structure without firing a single shot.  To achieve the bluff, Washington used a Quaker Gun — a felled tree placed in the wagon bed and shaped to look like a large cannon.

In the second engagement at Hammond’s Old Store in the Little River district, Colonel Washington defeated 250 Georgian loyalists, killing or wounding 150 men and capturing the remaining one-hundred troops.

Colonel Washington’s successes became a source of irritation to General Charles Cornwallis, who soon turned to Colonel Tarleton and ordered him to “chase down” General Morgan’s “flying corps.”  Tarleton’s orders led directly to the Battle of Cowpens on 17 January 1781.

General Morgan’s battle plans called for Washington’s group of 80 Continental dragoons and 45 mounted Georgia infantry to serve as either a defensive or offensive unit (as the situation required).  Washington’s first encounter with the enemy involved the rescue of a South Carolina militia unit as it was reloading behind the front lines of Morgan’s left flank.  The unit was under an aggressive assault by Colonel Tarleton’s Legion.  Colonel Washington crushed the attackers, regrouped, and then pursued the British left flank infantry.  After repeated assaults by Washington, the Americans moved through the British infantry and attacked a small artillery position behind Tarleton’s front lines.

Surrendering troops create battlefield confusion.  This is what happened when the main British infantry decided to surrender their arms after Tarleton attempted to withdraw.  Washington, in close pursuit, found himself in an isolated position and, because of it, soon found himself the focus of an attack by Colonel Tarleton and two of his aides.  The courageous Washington met Tarleton head-on, calling out to him, “Where is now the boasting Tarleton?”

A young coronet of the 17th Dragoons, Thomas Patterson, rode up to strike Washington but was shot by Washington’s orderly as Washington struck Tarleton with a blow from his sword.  Colonel Tarleton returned the favor by shooting Washington in the leg, which luckily only creased his knee but also wounded Washington’s horse.[8]

Colonel Tarleton turned his horse and withdrew from the engagement.  Washington, whose temper had not yet cooled, pursued him for sixteen miles — eventually giving up the chase at Thickitty Creek, near the plantation of Adam Goudylock.  For his valor at Cowpens, Colonel Washington received a Congressional silver medal.[9]

After the Battle of Cowpens, Washington’s dragoons assisted the withdrawal of General Nathanael Greene to Dan River, Virginia, by providing rearguard actions against British forces under General Cornwallis.  Subsequently, Colonel Washington returned to North Carolina as a vanguard for Greene’s re-emerging army.

In March 1781, Washington’s dragoons fought at the Battle of the Guilford Court House, Greensboro, North Carolina.  This battle successfully fought as a defensive action gave General Cornwallis a victory — but an expensive one.  The fight only lasted around 90 minutes, but in that time, Cornwallis gave up a quarter of his men to death or incapacitation.  Upon learning of the battle’s details, Sir Charles James Fox, a British Member of Parliament, quipped that with another victory, such as at the Guilford Court House, the British Army in North America would be in ruins.

According to Cornwallis’ report, the British gave up three officers and 88 men of other ranks killed, with 24 officers and 374 men of other ranks wounded, with 25 men “missing in action.”  Colonel Tarleton was one of the wounded officers.

The Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill (also, the Second Battle of Camden) occurred on 25 April 1781 when British forces under Major General Francis Rawdon assaulted Continental troops occupying Hobkirk’s Hill.  After a fierce clash of arms, during which Colonel Washington could not assault Rawdon’s flank, General Green ordered a withdrawal, leaving Rawdon’s smaller force in possession of the hill.  Despite the British victory, Rawdon eventually fell back to Camden, abandoned it, and withdrew to Charleston.  Greene was willing to accept defeat in this and three other engagements for the longer-term benefit of depriving the British of their control of South Carolina beyond the city of Charleston.

The last Carolinas engagement during the American Revolution occurred at the Battle of Eutaw Springs.  In early 1781, Major General Greene initiated the campaign to end British control over the South Carolina backcountry.  His first objective was to capture a village designated as Ninety-Six.  On 22 May, Greene laid siege to the fortified village — but its loyalist residents would not budge.

Within thirty days, Greene became aware that General Rawdon was leading reinforcement to offer relief to Ninety-Six.  A Continental assault against the village was repelled, so to avoid having to confront Rawdon, General Green withdrew toward Charlotte, N.C.

General Rawdon did pursue Greene for several days but abandoned the pursuit because his men were exhausted and in need of resupply.  Ninety-Six was the only remaining inland British outpost after the fall of Augusta. Unable to sustain the outpost, General Rawdon decided to burn the village and withdraw to Charleston.  General Rawdon, being in poor health, decided to return to England, leaving command of Charleston in the hands of Colonel Alexander Stewart.

By mid-July, General Greene moved his exhausted army to a bivouac on the High Hills of Santee.  The men needed the rest, and Greene needed a place to await the arrival of reinforcements. 

On 13 August, Colonel Stewart led around 2,300 men to Thompson’s plantation (south of the Congaree River).  He then fell back to Eutaw Springs on 27 August (about 2 miles east of present-day Eutawville).  The Battle of Eutaw Springs was Colonel Washington’s final Revolutionary War action.  Midway through the fight, Greene ordered Washington to assault a portion of the British line positioned in a blackjack thicket along Eutaw Creek.[10]  The order was not only stupid, but it was also a needless sacrifice of good cavalry: the thicket proved impenetrable and British fire repulsed Washington’s mounted charges.  During the last charge, Washington’s mount was shot from under him, and he was pinned beneath his horse.  British troops bayonetted Washington, and he was taken prisoner and held under house arrest until the end of the war. 

On September 8, 1781, Washington’s final action was the Battle of Eutaw Springs, the last major battle in the Carolinas. Midway through the battle, Greene ordered Washington to charge a portion of the British line positioned in a blackjack thicket along Eutaw Creek. The thicket proved impenetrable and British fire repulsed the mounted charges. During the last charge, Washington’s mount was shot out from under him, and he was pinned beneath his horse. He was bayoneted, taken prisoner, and held under house arrest in the Charleston area for the remainder of the war.  General Charles Cornwallis said of Colonel William Washington, “There could be no more formidable antagonist in a charge, at the head of his cavalry, than Colonel William Washington.”[11]

In Conclusion

The list of patriot officers of William Washington’s quality is very small.  That Colonel Washington compares favorably with the most notable American Revolution heroes is indisputable — it is a shame that few Americans today know about this tremendously aggressive, tactically proficient, and strategically adept regimental commander.

Our schools teach that the American Revolutionary War ended with General Cornwallis’ surrender to George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, on 19 October 1781.  The worst of it is that it isn’t true.  Considerable fighting occurred in the two years after Yorktown and even expanded to the European continent.  After Yorktown, there were at least 200 additional fights in South Carolina alone — most often between Whig (patriot) and Tory (British loyalist) militias.[12]  Moreover, a violent civil war occurred between 1781 – 1783 as Indian tribes raged against each other, offering no quarter.

After Yorktown, the British embarked on an aggressive policy to reestablish its hold on the Caribbean. After Yorktown, the British confronted the combined forces of Spain, France, and the Dutch Republic. There was also the matter of French meddling in India, British mischief in Vermont, and the role of the Dutch navy in keeping the British “on alert.”

The last British soldier withdrew from the newly created United States on 25 November 1783 — three months after the signing of the instrument of peace (known as the Treaty of Paris of 1783) — a process that was begun in 1782, after Parliament voted to suspend military operations following Cornwallis’ surrender in late 1781.

Colonel William Washington met Jane Elliott of Sandy Hill, South Carolina, when she made his regimental battle flag, which he carried with him from the Cowpens to Eutaw Springs.  Retained under arrest in Charleston through the end of 1782, Colonel Washington nevertheless made good use of his time.  He and Jane Elliott were married on 21 April 1782.  Washington, unable to inherit his father’s Virginia estate, became quite wealthy through marriage (as did his cousin George).  Miss Elliott owned the Sandy Springs plantation and several other properties in St. Paul Parish.

In 1785, William and Jane Washington purchased a townhouse at 8 South Battery in Charleston.  They pursued low-country farming and raised thoroughbred horses.  William was elected to the state legislature between 1787 – 1804 and accepted the post of brigadier general of the state militia in 1794.

Following his presidency, George Washington retired to Mount Vernon to struggle with his predicament of being land-rich and cash poor.  He had vast acreages in the Virginia piedmont but could not sell the land due to the encroachment of squatters.  Ultimately, he grew restless in retirement, prompted by tensions with France.  In 1798, as part of the continuation of the French Revolutionary Wars, French privateers began seizing American ships — the so-called Quasi-War that lasted until 1800.

On 4 July 1798, President John Adams nominated Washington to serve as a lieutenant general as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armies.  President Washington accepted the post and served in it until his death 17 months later.  His work involved planning for a provisional army without offering specific details (to avoid political implications).  In recommending individuals to serve at high rank, Washington broke with the recommendations submitted by Thomas Jefferson.  By this time, the two men had become enemies.

While serving as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army, Washington offered his cousin William a commission as brigadier general in the U.S. Army.  William accepted the commission, particularly as it involved defensive works in South Carolina and Georgia, should the French attempt an invasion of the United States.  During this period, William served as an officer on his cousin’s staff.

In his late 50s, William Washington became ill and suffered from a lingering ailment — likely cancer.  He passed away on 6 March 1810, aged 58 years.  He was survived by Jane, his wife, and their son and daughter (Elizabeth).  Elizabeth was married to Major General Alexander Spotswood, the grandson of Colonial Virginia’s lieutenant governor.

Brigadier General William Washington — was one of America’s finest Revolutionary War officers.

Sources:

  1. Babits, L. E., and J. B. Howard.  Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of the Guilford Courthouse.  The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  2. Glen, J.  The Washington’s: A Family History.  Savas Publishing, 2014
  3. Glickstein, D.  After Yorktown: The final struggle for American Independence
  4. Haller, S. E.  William Washington: Cavalryman of the Revolution.  Heritage Books, 2001.
  5. Murphy, D.  William Washington, American Light Dragoon: A Continental Cavalry Leader in the War of Independence.  Westholme Publishing, 2014.

Endnotes:

[1] Do not confuse the subject of this essay, William Washington (1752 – 1810), with a distant relative, William Augustine Washington (1757 – 1810).  William Washington was George Washington’s second cousin once removed; William Augustine Washington was George Washington’s nephew.

[2] Beginning in 1774, minutemen were organized from within the ranks of colonial militia but trained specifically as an early form of special operations infantry.  These men were the “rapid reaction” force of the colonial militia.  They held themselves in readiness to report/respond to emergencies within moments of an alert.  The name derived from the fact that they were expected to respond “within a minute” of an alert.  

[3] Dr. Hugh Mercer was a Scot who eventually achieved the rank of Brigadier General in the Continental Army.  He previously fought as a Jacobite in the Battle of Culloden, in the Seven Year’s War, and in the early battles of the American Revolution.  He was killed in action at the Battle of Princeton.

[4] The “second-in-command” of an American military unit is variously referred to as “executive officer” or “deputy commander.”  The executive officer is usually referred to as simply XO, while a deputy commander is generally referred to as “deputy.”  When serving in temporary command, the XO or deputy will sign official documents as “Acting Commander.”

[5] The United States Army never had a cavalry component until 1861.  Before then, the horse-mounted troop was referred to as dragoons.  In effect, dragoons were horse-mounted infantry.  They would ride into battle, dismount, and fight as infantry.  After 1861, horse-mounted troops were called cavalry with a distinctly different mission.

[6] George Baylor previously served as General Washington’s aide-de-camp.  The 3rd Dragoons often served as security escorts for Martha Washington, who accompanied her husband during his military campaigns, and also served as Washington’s reconnaissance force, collecting and reporting information about the disposition of British Forces.

[7] The British Legion was an organization recruited and formed in the colonies of British loyalists.  A regimental-sized cavalry, the commander of the British Legion was Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton.

[8] A British version of this fight can be found in the records of the 17th Dragoons (Ch. 33)

[9] The Battle of the Cowpens was significant because the Americans totally destroyed the Brigade of Dragoons under Colonel Banastre Tarleton.  Such losses made the conflict a turning point in the war.  General Morgan’s success came as a result of his effective employment of a double envelopment of Tarleton’s force.  Of Tarleton’s 1,000 men, all of whom were British loyalists, 850 were killed or captured. 

[10] Blackjack red oak is a deciduous tree growing about 15 meters tall.  

[11] Balch, Thomas, ed., Letters, and papers relating chiefly to the provincial history of Pennsylvania. Applewood books, 2009, attributed to a letter written by Major William Jackson quoting General Lord Cornwallis.

[12] Such terms as patriot and loyalist are far too imprecise to use in any discussion about the American Revolution.  Glickman suggests using the words Whig and Tory … so that everyone knows who did what.  British loyalists were, after all, patriots as well. 


The Bloodiest Day

An-Nasiriyah, 2003

Task Force Tarawa

Task Force Tarawa was the alternate designation of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2ndMEB).  Normally, a Marine Brigade exists as a cadre command element for contingency planning and operational coordination.  When a brigade is needed for a mission-specific task, it is activated by the appropriate commander, Marine Expeditionary Force (M.E.F.), who will then direct the supporting division, air wing, and logistics commanders to provide battalions, squadrons, and other units to the Brigade for combat training and field operations.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2ndMEB was one of four major combat organizations subordinate to the Commanding General, I MEF.  In 2003, I MEF was operationally assigned to the Army’s V Corps.  2ndMEB included the following subordinate commands:

2nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT-2), formed from the 2nd Marine Regiment (2nd Marines).  Subordinate units of RCT-2 included 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines (1/2), with Company A, 2nd Amphibious Assault Battalion (Alpha 2ndAABn) attached, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8), 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2), 1st Battalion, 10th Marines (1/10) (Artillery), Company A, 8th Tank Battalion (USMC Reserve Forces), and a reconnaissance company (also from Marine Reserve Forces).

Combat Service Support Battalion 22 (CSSB-22).  Upon arrival in Kuwait, I MEF reassigned CSSB-22 to a general (logistical) support role under I MEF.

Marine Aircraft Group 29 (MAG-29).  Upon arrival in Kuwait, I MEF reassigned MAG-29 to provide tactical air support to the combined land force.

By the time 2ndMEB crossed the line of departure, it was operating solely as a ground maneuver component (rather than as a MAGTF) within I MEF.  The brigade’s mission was to secure bridges to facilitate the movement of I MEF northward toward Baghdad, thereby conserving the 1st Marine Division for ground combat with Iraqi forces.  Initially, at least to the Marines of RCT-2, the mission didn’t seem as if the combat team would play a major role in the march to Baghdad, but RCT-2 would fight one of the defining battles of the entire campaign.

Highway 1

Brigadier General Richard F. Natonski, commanding Task Force Tarawa, moved to his assembly point on 19 March.  The brigade’s position was on the far left flank of I MEF.  The 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv) was to the brigade’s right and V Corps on its left. The battle space was limited, so for the first few days, 2ndMEB operated within the area assigned to V Corps.

Tarawa’s first mission was to seize and hold Jalibah Airfield to facilitate logistic operations.  Subsequently, Tarawa would coordinate with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division to seize the Euphrates bridge on Highway 1, 7 miles west of the city of An-Nasiriyah.[1]  To avoid the possibility of having to engage the Iraqi army in urban fighting, and because a single crossing site was deemed insufficient for the smooth flow of combat forces and their equipment, I MEF and V Corps commanders determined to open up both the southeastern bridge (over the Euphrates River) and the Saddam Canal (northeastern bridge).  Doing so would widen the corridor for the movement of forces northward.

Coalition intelligence was aware that An-Nasiriyah was the location of the HQ of the Third Iraqi Corps (III Corps), which included the 11th Iraqi Infantry Division (guarding the city), the 51st Mechanized Infantry Division (protecting southern oilfields), and the 6th Armored Division (located at Al Amarah).  The coalition was also aware that irregular forces (Fedayeen and Ba’ath Party militia) were operating independently of the Iraqi III Corps.  These irregular forces were untrained for conventional warfare but also known as fanatical armed thugs who suppressed the civilian population and targeted regular soldiers who, in confronting Coalition troops, decided to take early retirement.

In addition to his mission of seizing the bridges, I MEF warned 2ndMEB, “ … be prepared to” confront irregular forces, which some officers anticipated would put up the fiercest resistance to Coalition forces — they had the most to lose should the Coalition succeed in removing Saddam Hussein from power.

Task Force Tarawa crossed the line of departure on 21 March.  By mid-day on 22 March, the brigade had moved forward 93 miles, seized Jalibah, and occupied the area east of the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 8.  Its only problem was its constricted battle space.  Because V Corps needed the north-south roadway, Tarawa’s forward movement was “cross country.”  Proceeding “off track” actually facilitated the rapid movement of the brigade because the Army’s vehicle load produced bumper-to-bumper congestion on the main road.  Brigade artillery silenced the sporadic enemy fire, and 2/8 accepted the surrender of 50 Iraqi soldiers.[2]

On the morning of 23 March, Tarawa relieved elements of the US 3rd Infantry Division and prepared to seize the southeastern bridge.  Meanwhile, I MEF informed BGen Natonski that the US 3rd Infantry Division had successfully defeated both the Iraqi 11th Infantry Division and 51st Mechanized Infantry Division.  This information led Natonski to believe that seizing the bridges would not entail a difficult fight.  That night, Colonel Ronald Bailey, commanding RCT-2, received his orders to seize the Highway 1 bridge no later than 0430 on 24 March and by 10:00, seize the eastern bridges.

By this time, Bailey’s Marines were sleep-deprived, and his motorized vehicles were thirsty.  Colonel Bailey asked for more time, more intelligence, and more fuel.  Unfortunately, Brigade headquarters could give Bailey none of these things.  Bailey’s problem was that he had to move his RCT an additional 50 miles on fumes — but this is what Marines do.  Bailey mounted up with Charlie Company, 2nd LAR, and led 3/2 toward the Highway 1 bridge, arriving at around 02.30.  Two hours later, Charlie Company held the bridge on Highway 1.

RCT-2 received much-needed fuel resupply early on 23 March.  At this time, Bailey anticipated only light resistance from An-Nasiriyah; 1/2 and 2/8 moved forward at 0300.  Shortly after that, the Marines began receiving enemy machine gun, artillery, and mortar fire.  Lieutenant Colonel Rick Grabowski’s 1/2 took the lead because his Marines had mechanized vehicles (AAVs and tanks).  2/8, under Lieutenant Colonel Royal Mortensen, followed in trace.

Commanding the tank company, Major William P. Peeples’ lead element began taking enemy fire at around 0700. A short time later, Peeples noted a smoking and badly damaged Humvee heading in his direction.

Intelligence Gained by Rescue

At about 0600 on 23 March 2003, an 18-vehicle Army resupply convoy of the 507th Maintenance Company (consisting of 31 soldiers) mistakenly veered from Highway 8, turning toward the city of An-Nasiriyah on Route 7.  The convoy commander was Captain Troy King, U.S. Army — by MOS and training, a supply officer with little combat training.  Iraqi technical vehicles[3] shadowed the convoy as it drove through Iraqi checkpoints adjacent to the Euphrates River.

Once passing the Al-Quds headquarters, Captain King realized he was lost and, having turned around, retraced the route taken through the city.  As the convoy turned left onto Highway 16, at around 0700, King’s vehicles began receiving enemy small arms fire.  Confused vehicle operators panicked; in the chaos, they divided up into three separate groups, each attempting to find their way southward out of An-Nasiriyah.

Group 1 made it through the Iraqi gauntlet unscathed and continued south until it encountered Marines who were moving northward toward An-Nasiriyah.  Group 2 made it through the kill zone, but their vehicles were so badly damaged that the soldiers abandoned them and set up a hasty defensive position about three miles south of the city.  Iraqi forces defeated Group 3 by snagging them in roadblocks.  Once the Iraqis stopped Group 3 vehicles, they opened fire with RPGs, mortars, and tank fire.  Eleven soldiers died, and six were taken prisoner.[4]

At around 0730, King’s Group 1 survivors contacted Alpha Company, 8th Tanks on Highway 7, about ten miles south of An-Nasiriyah.  When Major William P. Peeples, commanding the tank company, realized that a number of soldiers had fallen into Iraqi hands, he ordered his tanks forward to rescue as many soldiers as possible, which included ten soldiers from Group 2.

Captain King informed Peeples that his convoy had been ambushed, that his soldiers had taken several casualties, and that most of his element was pinned down and in need of assistance.  Peeples moved his entire company north to assist the soldiers, informing 1/2 by radio of his intentions.  En route, Peeples’ tanks destroyed some enemy artillery, one tank, and some anti-aircraft weapons.  With the assistance of Marine AH-1s and F/A-18s, Peeples rescued ten soldiers.  At the conclusion of the mission, Peeples had to return to the rear for refueling — which meant that Grabowski’s battalion would be without tank support for nearly two hours.

Meanwhile, BGen Natonski met with Captain King, later recalling that he was astounded by his account, but it alerted him to the fact that An-Nasiriya would not be a cakewalk.  Colonel Bailey agreed with Natonski that it was necessary to seize the brigade’s objectives as soon as possible, and both officers were aware that some elements of the 507th were still inside the city.  Natonski pulled Grabowski aside and said, “Do what you can to find those missing soldiers; they’d do it for us.”

Grabowski’s 1/2 moved quickly forward to assault Nasiriyah because bridge seizure would allow elements of the 1stMarDiv to pass north through the city along Route 7.  RCT-2’s lightning strike with AAVs and Cobra gunships allowed the Marines to seize the two bridges and, in the process, defeat two or more platoons of Fedayeen and Ba’ath Party militia.  In this heavy fighting, Marines also destroyed two anti-aircraft weapons and several mortars and artillery firing positions.

A Bloody Beginning

Grabowski’s 1/2, without tank support, proceeded with two companies abreast.  Bravo Company (mounted) occupied the right flank, Charlie Company on the left.  Two miles south of the city, 1/2 encountered a bridge that spanned a railway underpass.  Grabowski redeployed his Marines into column formation with Bravo Company in the lead.  Staff Sergeant Schielein reported seven to nine Soviet-style enemy tanks and an estimated 50 dismounted infantry waiting in the underpass.  Schielein directed his TOW and Javelin weapons systems, destroying eight of the enemy tanks.[5]

Grabowski’s attack plan was sound, but the situation began to unravel rather quickly.  The rescue of the 507th had caused delays in the game plan, and the shortage of fuel/absence of tanks had slowed 1/2’s progress even more.  As Bravo Company crossed the bridge at about 12:30, the Marines began receiving enemy small arms and rocket fire.  Lead tanks, buttoned up (poor visibility) missed the first turn to the right and took the second turn with infantry right behind.  Marines fanned out in a relatively open field that looked passable, but the Marines were deceived.  Just below the surface of the field lay a thick, gooey layer of silt and sewage several feet deep.  The lead tank suddenly sank to its axles; follow-on vehicles became mired as well.  This is when the enemy opened up — and this is when Grabowski, who was with the lead unit, lost communications due to excessive radio chatter and the presence of high-tension power lines.  There was no radio link with supporting artillery, and the battalion air controller, Captain A. J. Greene, could not vector air support.

Eventually, Bravo Company’s forward air controller, Captain D. A. Santare, was able to establish communications with on-station AH-1s to suppress enemy fire from surrounding rooftops.[6]  The Iraqis were using “shoot and scoot” tactics, but once the gunships were overhead, they realized that they couldn’t scoot fast enough.  The AH-1’s also became spotters for the Marines on the ground, who were unable to observe enemy positions or movements.

Once Captain Tim Newland’s Bravo Company had crossed the bridge, Alpha followed in trace.  The Alpha Company commander, Captain M. A. Brooks, established a perimeter around the northern side of the bridge.  Captain Wittnam, commanding Charlie Company, crossed over the bridge.  He could easily identify Brooks’ position but did not know the location of Bravo Company.  Without communications, Wittnam could not establish contact with Grabowski.  Captain Wittnam assumed that Grabowski and Bravo Company had proceeded straight down the road to the battalion’s final objective, the Saddam Canal Bridge, so that is where Wittnam led his company.  It was a good decision, reflecting his battalion commander’s intent, and, as it turned out, it was what Grabowski hoped he would do.

Grabowski established contact with this XO, Major Tuggle.  He sent Tuggle back to the refueling point with instructions to get the tanks forward as soon as possible.  Peeples ceased refueling operations and moved his tanks forward.  One tank experienced a mechanical breakdown almost immediately.  Just after crossing the railroad underpass, Peeple’s four remaining tanks engaged six enemy tanks, destroying three.  Continuing forward to Brooks’ position, the two officers established tank-infantry coordination to the detriment of the Iraqis.

Charlie Company passed through Alpha Company and raced through Ambush Alley while receiving heavy enemy fire.  Iraqi militia appeared from almost every doorway, every window, and every rooftop, firing rifles and RPGs.  Some of these militias even ran into the middle of the street to engage the Marines are point-blank range.

Bad Comm’s

Charlie 1/2 Marines responded in keeping with their training.  Exiting on both sides of the elevated roadway, Marines sought cover and returned accurate and overwhelming fire.  These same militias that had so easily decimated the 507th only hours before soon discovered that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.  Charlie Company Marines on both sides of the road advanced on the enemy’s positions.

Captain Wittnam also experienced disruptions to communications.  For a brief moment, Wittnam had Grabowski on the net and informed him that he’d secured the Saddam Canal bridge.  Grabowski was elated, but then communications were cut once more.  But few besides Grabowski had heard Wittnam’s sitrep and Wittnam once again lost the ability to access air cover or his own weapons platoon.

Charlie Company continued to engage the Iraqi enemy with their organic weapons.  Occasionally, Wittnam, his artillery forward observer (2ndLt Fred Pokorney, Jr.), and his mortar platoon commander (1stLt Ben Reid) went atop the elevated roadway in the center of Charlie Company’s position to gain situational awareness and identify targets.  In this way, Reid’s mortarmen were able to deliver sporadic effective fire.  Lieutenant Pokorney was finally able to establish contact with 1/10 and called in a fire mission.  Soon after, Iraqi mortars crashed into Charlie Company’s position, killing Pokorney and wounding several mortarmen.  Marine casualties were quickly loaded into an AAV and sent back through Ambush Alley to the Battalion Aid Station.  It was the only way the Marines had to evacuate their dead and wounded because the volume of fire prohibited a helicopter medevac.

This lack of communication then took a deadlier turn.  While Charlie Company held on to their position north of the Canal, Bravo Company Marines continued working their way through the streets and alleys to the eastern side of the Saddam Canal bridge.  They were in an urban fight they’d hoped to avoid.  Behind them, AAV’s and tanks were doing all they could to extract the mired vehicles.

Both the Bravo Company commander, Captain Newland, and his forward air controller, Captain Santare, not having heard Wittnam’s report, continued to believe that Bravo was still the forward element of the battalion.  They did not know that Charlie Company had actually moved northward, beyond the Saddam Canal, and was in a desperate struggle with Iraqi militia.  Similarly, Captain Greene, the battalion air officer, had no operable radios.  It was because of this that Captain Greene passed air control to Captain Jones and Santare, allowing them to direct their own air attacks.  What Green, Santare, and Newland did know was that Bravo Company was receiving a tremendous volume of fire from north of the canal.  Newland told Santare that as soon as he could air support from A-10s, he wanted them to start running missions north of the Saddam Canal.[7]  Santare understood that the situation was dire.  He went to the guard channel, which was normally only used for emergencies, and requested immediate air support.

Friendly Fire

Within seconds, fixed-wing aircraft began checking in with Santare.  Santare waited a few moments for a Marine or Navy aircraft with a forward air controller to answer, but none were in the area.  Instead, he began working with two USAF A-10s, call signs “Gyrate 73” and “Gyrate 74.”  The A-10s were part of a squadron from the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.  Circling high overhead, the A-10s attempted to get a fix on Santare’s position east of Ambush alley.

The A-10s identified vehicular targets north of the Saddam Canal and passed the locations to Santare.  Santare verified with Newland that Bravo Company was still the forward-most unit.  Captain Santare could see neither the A-10s nor the targets they identified.  Both Santare and the A-10 pilots could see smoke pouring from a burning vehicle on the highway and used that as a reference point.  Neither Santare nor the A-10 pilots realized that the burning vehicle was a Marine AAV.

LtCol Grabow’s operation order, then in effect, prohibited the use of Type III Close Air Support without his personal clearance.  Nevertheless, Newland determined that the situation was critical at a time when the battalion commander was out of communications and, since air support is a “use it or lose it” asset, Santare authorized Gyrate 73 and 74 to engage anything north of the Saddam Canal.

Charlie Company, meanwhile, was still under intense mortar fire.  Unit leaders, on their own authority, continued loading wounded Marines into AAVs for medical evacuation.  Marines who had been advancing toward the enemy eventually returned to the roadway in the vicinity of the AAV positions.  First Lieutenant Seeley, commanding third platoon, did not understand why the Marines were returning to the highway.  He was told that the word from the AAV drivers was that they were “loading up.”  Before he could make any sense of the situation, the A-10s began strafing Charlie Company.

Lieutenant Seely had experienced friendly fire before during Operation Desert Storm.  He knew immediately what was happening.  A Marine standing next to him was hit in the chest and killed.  Seely shouted an order to 2ndLt Swantner, commanding the first platoon, to fire pyrotechnics.  Swantner immediately popped two red star clusters, the cease-fire signal, but the A-10s made several more strafing runs.  The A-10 pilots mistook the AAVs, loaded with Marine casualties, as enemy armor, as previously reported to them by Captain Santare.  In all, Charlie Company had lost 18 Marines killed and 19 more wounded due to friendly fire.  Five AAVs were completely destroyed, and two more had to be abandoned.  Captain Wittnam lost half of his company and half of his officers.

The fight for control of the An-Nasiriyah corridor on 23 March 2003 turned out to be far tougher than anyone in Task Force Tarawa (or the MEF) expected.  Inadequate intelligence was part of the problem; hardly anyone anticipated stiff resistance from the Iraqi militia.  General Natonski had been told that the US 3rd Infantry Division had defeated the 11th Iraqi Infantry Division and that any remaining Iraqi forces would melt away or surrender.  In fact, the 11th Iraqi had not been defeated, nor the 51st Mechanized, nor even the Fedayeen or Ba’ath militia.  If part of the battle plan was knowing the enemy, none of the planners for the march into Nasiriyah knew that particular enemy.

The engagements of 23 March 2003 were successful because Marine officers, NCOs, and rank and file were well-trained, competent, courageous, well-coordinated, and highly motivated.  Mistakes were made, but that is part of the business of warfare.  What matters under such circumstances is how our warriors respond to those mistakes and mishaps.  The Marines of RCT-2 responded professionally, as we expect our Marines to respond.  There were also a few important lessons learned, particularly with regard to close air support (See also: special note (below)).

Special note:

Understandably, Marine survivors of the friendly fire incident were angry/bitter about what happened.  They may still harbor that anger.  The larger picture appears relevant, however.  The A-10s were receiving heavy anti-aircraft fire, which necessitated attacks from high altitudes.  This made target recognition difficult.  It also meant that they had to rely on the ground forward air controller to give them a correct picture of the ground battle.  In this incident, they were cleared to release their weapons by the Bravo Company forward air controller.  The pilot’s failure to recognize the “cease fire” flare could have just as easily been confused with tracer rounds being fired.  No one could help the loss of communications which disconnected the key leaders from one another.  Captain Santare did his best to confirm that Bravo Company was still the lead element of 1/2.  Moreover, because the city was designated as a “restricted fire” area, there was no preplanned air support for Task Force Tarawa’s assault.  When FACs are forced to improvise, the chances of something bad happening increases tenfold.

A subsequent investigation of the incident concluded that the primary cause of the incident was Captain Santare’s violation of the battalion commander’s standing order not to use Type III CAS without his express permission.  But Marines were being killed by a stubborn enemy who was determined to resist the Marine assault.  Captain Greene authorized Santare to establish direct contact with overhead fixed-wing aircraft, which given the circumstances of poor communications, Santare was forced to do.  Captain Santare acted in what he perceived as the best interests of his fellow Marines, an effort to save their lives — and yet, in doing so, caused the incident.  It wasn’t a matter of neglect or incompetence; it was simply gut-wrenching war.

Sources:

  1. Andrew, R.  U. S. Marines in Battle: The Battle of An-Nasiriyah.  HQ USMC, Washington, 2009.
  2. Lowrey, R. S.  Marines in the Garden of Eden: The Battle for An Nasiriyah.  Berkley Press, 2006.
  3. Livingston, G.  An Nasiriyah: The Fight for the Bridges. Caisson Press, 2004.
  4. Pritchard, T.  Ambush Alley: The Most Extraordinary Battle of the Iraq War.  Presidio Press, 2007.

End Notes:

[1] An-Nasiriyah was the point at which all Army and Marine Corps ground combat units would enter Iraq from Kuwait.  A railroad, several highways, and two major waterways converged in or around the city.  There were two sets of bridges spanning the Euphrates River in the southern section of the city, including the Saddam Canal, which ran along the city’s northern border.  Since the route of march would take coalition forces through the most densely populated section of the city, I MEF planned on opening up a second corridor.

[2] A congested MSR is asking for serious trouble.  The Army has not figured this out since the Korean War.

[3] Also, Non-standard tactical vehicles (NSTVs) (usually pickup trucks with weapons mounted in the rear bed or on the roof of the operating cab.

[4] Prisoners included PFC Jessica Lynch, Specialist Shoshana Johnson, and PFC Lori Piestewa.  Piestewa died of her wounds.  Lynch was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for being a blonde chick, and Johnson sued the Army because she didn’t get a medal, too. 

[5] Tube Launched Optically Tracked Wire-guided missile (TOW) (M-220); Javelin (FMG-148) is a man-portable antitank system.

[6] Each rifle battalion in Task Force Tarawa had one air officer and two forward air controllers; two of the three rifle companies had their own forward air controllers.  Captain Jim Jones was attached to Alpha Company; Captain Santare was assigned to Bravo Company.  The battalion air officer was Captain Greene. 

[7] There are three types of close air support, usually expressed as Type I, Type II, and Type III CAS.  Type I is when the air controller can see both the attacking aircraft and its target.  Type II is when the FAC cannot see the attacking aircraft or the target or when the attacking aircraft cannot acquire the target prior to the release of its weapons.  Type III is when the FAC can see neither the aircraft nor the target. 


No Promise of a Rose Garden

Since the Marine Corps’ earliest years, it has been the duty of senior noncommissioned officers to drill, drill, inspect, and drill again the young men who profess a desire to become a United States Marine. In the days of sail, the arts and sciences of Marine Corps training included instruction about history and traditions, discipline, marksmanship, sword drill, close order drill, physical fitness training, the care and cleaning of uniforms, equipment, and small arms, service at sea, and the fundamentals of naval artillery. There was then, in the olden days, as there is now, much to learn about serving as a Marine — but there is not much time to learn it. So, recruit training is as relentless as it is rigorous. Only the best-qualified recruit is allowed to graduate into that sea of faces we sometimes call the ranks of a Marine Brigade.

To young recruits, seasoned NCOs represent the “old Corps.” Of course, the expression “old corps” is somewhat of an old saw — and to some Marines, “old corps” was last year.  Marine NCOs are men who possess corporate knowledge of how the Marine Corps works — the often complex workings of the operating forces on land and at sea.  The process of training recruits has changed over the years, of course, but the well-established tradition does continue. In time, some of these young recruits will become Drill Instructors themselves.[1] Of course, for that to happen, a Marine has to have the stuffing to remain in the Corps long enough to become a seasoned NCO. Not everyone has staying power — and the mission becomes even more, demanding with seniority. The Marine Corps has never been an organization for lightweights.

In the days before recruit depots, most recruit training occurred at designated Navy Yards in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, or at the Marine Barracks on Eighth & I Streets — just down the street from the Washington Navy Yard. Back then, all training was localized. The quality of the training received had everything to do with the quality of the NCO trainer, and even though the Marine Corps demanded formal training for recruits since around 1804, there was no money for textbooks or other written materials.  Additionally, since Congress placed a ceiling on enlisted strength levels and made no allowance for drill instructors, trainers had to come from locally available personnel. 

Marine Corps staffing levels were such that the Corps could ill-afford to squander what they had available for their assigned mission. The Marine Corps has never had “an abundance” of NCOs suitable for service as drill instructors. But before 1900, recruit training fell upon the shoulders of NCOs assigned D.I. duty. For the most part.

In 1860, the United States began to prepare for a war between the states. Everyone knew that war was likely. Some people even looked forward to war. Washington politicians had tried diplomacy since 1820 and failed — maybe it was simply time to “get on with it.”

These preparations included recruiting additional men for service in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. In July, youngsters began streaming into the Washington Navy Yard for recruit training in Washington. But in mid-July, the Army needed men to confront rebels forming at Manassas — so, trained or not, Marine NCOs at the Navy Yard mustered their recruits and marched them off to join the picnic.

The First Battle of Manassas was no picnic — even though several members of Congress packed picnic lunches and escorted their wives to watch the fun.

Those young Marines did have initiative, but they were of little use in the fight beyond carrying ammunition to support Army artillery units. In 1861, Marines were trained for service at sea, not on land. In 1861, amphibious warfare doctrine was still sixty years into the future.

In 1911, Major General Commandant William P. Biddle standardized recruit training for all Marines, coast-to-coast: drill, physical exercise, hand-to-hand combat, and intensive marksmanship training. Biddle established four recruit training depots: Philadelphia, Norfolk, Puget Sound, and Mare Island. The depots at Philadelphia and Puget Sound were closed. Four years later, in 1915, the Norfolk training depot was moved to its present location, Parris Island, South Carolina.

As the United States began moving toward its involvement in the European war, the number of recruits-in-training at any one time surged from 835 to 13,286. After “boot camp,” Marines went to Quantico, Virginia, for their pre-deployment (unit) training. There to greet them, undoubtedly, were the NCOs — most of whom had served in combat during U.S. interventions in the Caribbean and Central America. Once in France, Marine units underwent additional “land warfare” training.

Boot Camp is where the Marine Corps makes Marines — and has been for the past 111 years. The people who make these Marines are called Drill Instructors (DIs). When most civilians think of the Marines (which probably isn’t often), they probably think of a recruiting poster, such as the one on the right. DIs are the stuff of legends — among the most professional leaders in the Marine Corps. The primary candidate for Drill Instructor School are sergeants and staff sergeants. Anyone eligible to serve as a drill instructor can be directed to appear before a Drill Instructor Screening Board — but not every NCO can become a DI. The Screening Board only selects the most qualified NCO to attend Drill Instructor School. Why? Because it is the solemn duty of the DI to transition undisciplined civilians into United States Marines — there’s no room for error.

What makes these Marines among the best in the Corps? They have to be exceptional in their regular MOS, they have to meet height/weight criteria, they have to look sharp in their uniforms, they have to be among the Corps’ top sharpshooters, and they have to achieve a near-perfect physical fitness score. If they’re married Marines, they have to have a stable family life and be financially secure. To become a DI, they must be even-tempered, judicious, and informed decision-makers. There are no “crazies” walking around under DI covers. Marine DIs might appear unhinged to the recruit standing in front of them, but that DI anger is all part of a carefully cultivated act — an act they learn at DI School.

Today, the two major recruit training depots (MCRDs) are located at Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego, California. There are DI Schools at each location. The coursework is tough, the physical training relentless, and there are uniform inspections every single day. There is no such thing as an un-squared away Marine Corps Drill Instructor. If an applicant is selected for DI School at PISC, his DI duty assignment will also be at PISC — that is, if they graduate. Not everyone does.

For that reason, DI candidates aren’t permitted to take their families with them to the MCRD until after they’ve graduated and received their first DI assignment. The work of a DI is relentlessly difficult, but so too is the life of a DI’s wife. Rocky marriages don’t last a single tour of DI duty.

DI duty is demanding. Whatever Marine Corps training demands of its recruits, it demands five times that of its drill instructors. If the recruits are awakened at 0500, the DIs are up at 0400. Recruits are put to bed at 2200, but their DI is up past midnight. Recruits may look ratty by the end of the day, but their DI always looks poster-perfect. They change into fresh uniforms three or four times a day.

Each recruit platoon has between 60-80 recruits. Because these recruits demand their DI’s full attention 24 hours a day (times forever), DIs work in teams of three or four — generally as follows:

  • Each platoon will have two or three Junior Drill Instructors (J.D.I.’s). These NCOs instruct in the training and discipline of troops; make sure that recruits are up on time, march to chow at the right time, march to medical and dental periods on time, march to training sessions on time, get showered, and hit the rack on time. J.D.I.’s also make sure their recruits write home to the folks regularly.
  • The Senior Drill Instructor (S.D.I.) is responsible for the platoon and the J.D.I.’s. The senior can be just as terrifying as the others but is also considered the “adult in the room.” If something goes wrong (no matter what) — it’s the SDI’s fault. It can be career-ending if something goes wrong (no matter what).

What most people don’t realize is that officer candidates have DIs too. They aren’t called DIs, but most have completed a successful tour of DI duty. At Navy and Marine Corps officer candidate schools, D.I.’s are called Sergeants Instructors.

NCOs have much to say about who may graduate and receive a Navy and Marine Corps commission.  This situation may seem strange — but one of an NCOs most important responsibilities is to help train, assist, and advise Navy and Marine Corps officers.  This relationship between officers and NCOs is a long-held tradition that lasts for an entire career.  Even general officers and admirals have senior enlisted advisors. Competent officers listen carefully to what their NCOs have to say. The not-so-bright officers will probably never make it past captain — which is not bad.

Marine Corps Drill Instructors take a solemn pledge:

“These recruits are entrusted to my care. I will train them to the best of my ability. I will develop them into smartly disciplined, physically fit, basically trained Marines, thoroughly indoctrinated in love of Corps and country. I will demand of them and demonstrate by my example the highest standards of personal conduct, morality, and professional skill.”

How Important is Boot Camp?

Twenty-four hundred Marines were killed or wounded on the first day of Operation Detachment. Historian J. A. Colon recently asked, “Was the Marine Corps’ success at Iwo Jima a matter of leadership, bravado, or fundamental training? What prompted the Marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions to succeed in a ruthless battle lasting 36 excruciating days? In this study, Colon examined the efficiency of recruit training (boot camp), replacement training, and unit training as it related to the success of the Iwo Jima campaign, noting in that study that one-quarter of all Medals of Honor awarded to Marines during World War II were earned on Iwo Jima.

Colon deduced that boot camp training proved far more essential than pre-operation or replacement training, a conclusion reached not through historiographical studies but through the personal testimonies of the Marines who fought that dreadful battle. Where the pre-operational training was incomplete, lacking realism, and the SWAG of operational planners, Marines retained their knowledge of boot camp training from the start of the operation to its conclusion. Boot camp imbued Marines with their sense of duty, gave them confidence in their weapons, and brought them to the point where they could endure the physical and mental stresses of bloody combat. What allowed the Marines to succeed at Iwo Jima, indeed, every Pacific combat operation was their self-discipline, self-confidence, and the esprit de corps instilled in them by their Marine Corps Drill Instructor.

To clarify — talk to anyone who has successfully served in the Marine Corps, and they will assure you that their boot camp training has remained with them all the days of their lives since graduation.

Drill Instructors, Platoon 224 Company E, 2ndBn RTR MCRD PISC

Sergeant J. S. Schweingruber

Sergeant R. S. Winston

Sergeant S. M. Nikolopoulos

Corporal J. D. Baker

Except for (Sergeant Major) Nikolopoulos, it’s been 60 years since I’ve seen these men. They were my drill instructors. That’s how significant Marine Corps Recruit Training is.

Endnote:

[1] The only service of the U.S. Armed Forces to use the term “drill instructor” is the U.S. Marine Corps.  In both the Navy, and Marine Corps, Marine Corps Drill Instructors train officer candidates, while Recruit Division Commanders (R.D.C.’s) train Navy enlisted personnel.  Air Force recruits are trained by Military Training Instructors(M.T.I.s).  In the Army, they are called drill sergeants.

[2] The drill instructor appearing in this 1968 recruiting poster is Sergeant Charles Taliano, USMC (Deceased) (1945-2010).  He was a native of Cleveland, Ohio.  He left the Marine Corps in 1968 to work in the publishing industry.  He retired in 1999 and relocated to Beaufort, South Carolina in 2001.  There, he served as the manager of the MCRD PISC gift shop.  He was buried at the Beaufort National Cemetery. 


John Arthur Hughes

Introduction

Courage, pluck, grit, and sand — all have similar colloquial meanings.  They are terms one might have overheard in a conversation between two men (not among the ladies).  They are words that refer to someone who has stamina, is physically and mentally tough, someone with a strength of character.

Author Mark Twain used such terms as grit and sand.  In Huckleberry Finn, Clemens wrote, “She had the grit to pray for Judas if she took the notion — there warn’t no backdown to her, I judge. You may say what you want to, but in my opinion, she had more sand in her than any girl I ever seen; in my opinion, she was just full of sand.

Words reflect how we think, and Americans seem to admire someone who demonstrates a strength of character and physical and mental toughness. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Mr. Clemens wasn’t the first to use such expressions.  They were slang in common use as early as 1862 and 1825, respectively.

Years ago, a cartoon circulated where I worked depicting a tiny mouse sitting hunched on its two hind legs, looking up into the sky.  A shadow appeared over the little mouse; it was an outline of a bird of prey.  Seconds before its demise, the little mouse displayed its pluck by giving the bird “the finger.”  The cartoon was very popular.  I may even have a copy of it among my papers.

We marvel at the toughness and resolve of our fellow man because such characteristics and attributes are part of America’s values.  This is why we read novels and develop affinities for the “good guys” who fight for justice or defend the weak.  Well, we at least used to admire such qualities.

Speaking of Pluck

The U.S. Medal of Honor is the highest combat award bestowed upon members of the Armed Forces to recognize gallant conduct in combat.  There are three medals, one each for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  The U.S. Navy was the first to award a medal of honor in 1861.  The last Medal of Honor issued was in December 2021.  In total, the Medal of Honor has recognized the gallantry of 3,525 Americans, 618 of those posthumously.

Nineteen servicemen have received two Medals of Honor — of those, five “double recipients” received both the Army and Navy Medal of Honor for the same action, all of which occurred during World War I.[1]  Fourteen men received two medals of honor for separate actions.  Two of those men were U.S. Marines: Major General Smedley D. Butler and Sergeant Major Daniel J. Daley.  Numerous others received the Navy’s two highest awards: the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.  One of these men was John Arthur Hughes.

John Arthur Hughes had grit.  Some might even argue that he had True Grit.

Born on 2 November 1880 in Brooklyn, John Arthur Hughes was the son of William H. T. Hughes, a director of the Ward Steamship Line, and his wife, Olive.  John was educated at the prestigious Berkeley School, graduating in 1900.  Although John received a congressional nomination to attend the U.S. Military Academy, he failed the entrance examination.  By then, his father had died — leaving attendance at college out of the question.  Joining the U.S. Marine Corps was not out of the question.

Curious to type

John Hughes joined the Marines on 7 November 1900.  He stood roughly five feet ten inches tall, weighed less than 136 pounds, and had a slender build — which was not altogether different than most other young Americans.  Initially, Private Hughes was serious about his role as a Marine.  He focused on his duties and earned high praise from his superiors.  In 1901, John Hughes sewed on the rank insignia of a Marine corporal — and four months after that, the Marines promoted him to sergeant.

The early twentieth century was a period of opportunity in the Marine Corps.  In 1898, the Marine Corps had taken an unexpected turn from that of a group of sea-going bellhops to an amphibious force of lethal capabilities while projecting naval power ashore.  See also the First Marine Battalion, 1898.  In 1901, John Hughes was what the Marines in the 1960s might describe as “A.J. Squared Away.”

Following the American Civil War, the primary source of Marine Corps officer commissions came from graduating students of the U.S. Naval Academy.  But it was also a time when naval power projection became exceedingly complex.  The Navy had transitioned from sail to coal-fired ships, demanding sophisticated operating systems with keen instruments and electrical capacities throughout their ships.  The navy required a steady stream of highly qualified naval architects and engineers to operate and maintain these ships.  This meant that the navy could no longer afford to offer Marine Corps commissions to Naval Academy graduates; they needed men wearing the navy uniform.  But the Marines needed qualified officers, too.

In 1898, Colonel Commandant Charles Heywood petitioned the Secretary of the Navy for permission to offer commissions to well-educated individuals from civilian life (not associated with a service academy) and to highly qualified enlisted men who had proven themselves as noncommissioned officers.  With the sizeable expansion of the Navy after 1900 came the growth of the Marine Corps, as well.  In 1900, the Marine Corps needed 18 Second Lieutenants.  Congress directed that only eight of these entrants could be civilian college graduates — the remaining ten had to come from either the Naval Academy or the enlisted ranks.  Since all of the Naval Academy’s graduates went to service with the Navy in 1900, Colonel Heywood turned to the Marine Corps NCO.[2]

Stepping Up

An insurrection was going on, and the American government needed its Marines to stop it. Sergeant John A. Hughes took his oath of office as a Second Lieutenant 0n 21 December 1901.  During the swearing-in ceremony, Hughes stood next to another former NCO named Earl H. Ellis, whom everyone called “Pete.”  After their training as newly commissioned officers, Hughes and others joined a replacement battalion bound for the Philippine Islands.

Upon arrival in the Philippines, Marine officials posted 2ndLt Hughes to the Marine Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Mancell C. Goodrell and the battalion under Major Constantine Perkins, a graduate of the Naval Academy.[3]  John Hughes’ impetuousness and unpredictability caused both Goodrell and Perkins some discomfort — much like too much gas after dining for a week on navy beans — because they had little patience for Hughes’ penchant for playing pranks.  Moreover, Lieutenant Hughes drank too much and did not appear to take to heart efforts to reform him in the mold of the Old Corps.[4]  It was then that Hughes’s reputation for “grit” began.  Some Marines began to refer to Hughes as Johnny the Hard; as we’ll see, he was one tough hombre.

According to researcher Colonel Merrill Bartlett, Major Perkins (of whom little is known) rated Hughes as an average officer, observing that Hughes was reckless and careless with a disposition toward boisterousness.  Apparently, Lieutenant Hughes and his running mates liked to sing loudly at 3 a.m., which irritated the senior officers billeted in officer’s quarters.

Despite his somewhat lackluster fitness reports, Hughes passed his examination for promotion, and a promotion board recommended him for advancement to First Lieutenant.  By this time, Hughes had become known, by reputation, as a hard ass.  He preferred to resolve minor disciplinary problems with his men through one-on-one instructional periods, often involving fisticuffs and somewhat harsh language. This type of behavior was the one drawdown among mustang officers: they knew what worked for them as sergeants and took those “successes” with them into the officer ranks — where they were not appreciated. In the modern Marine Corps, Hughes would likely face a court-martial for such conduct. The Marine Corps has every right to expect better of its commissioned officers.

After leaving the Philippines, Hughes reported to the Marine Barracks, Boston, where he served for two years as an assistant quartermaster and commissary officer.  In 1906, the Commandant posted Hughes aboard the U.S.S. Minneapolis and later detached him to constabulary duty with the 1st Provisional Regiment in Cuba.

Despite Hughes’ unwillingness to change his irresponsible behaviors, the Marine Corps promoted him to Captain in 1909 and ordered him to the Marine Barracks in New York City.  A short time later, Marine officials assigned him to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, via the troop ship U.S.S. Hancock.

In Cuba, Hughes and his men transferred to the auxiliary cruiser U.S.S. Buffalo, which transported the leathernecks to Panama in March 1910.  Just thirty days later, while assigned to the Third Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, Hughes participated in the bombardment and assault of Coyotepe Hill, Nicaragua.

The Marine Corps was a small service in the early 20th century; the officer corps was small enough that nearly every officer knew every other officer — particularly since these were men with whom they competed for promotion and assignment.  In this kind of environment, it wasn’t long before everyone knew about the incident involving Captain Hughes and his commanding officer, Major Smedley D. Butler. 

These two officers, each colorful in their own peculiar way, detested each other.  Butler opined that while Captain Hughes was efficient and knowledgeable, he was excitable and disloyal (to his commanding officer).  In April 1912, Hughes’ superior ordered him confined to quarters because of getting into a fistfight with a brother officer. Fighting among officers was strictly prohibited.

The Commandant is watching

In June, Hughes earned five days’ suspension from duty for “assumption of authority and insubordination.” The nature of Hughes’ alleged offense is lost to history, except as noted on his next fitness report.  But then, less than a month later, the impulsive Leatherneck absented himself from duty without authority and received another suspension from duty due to “unwarranted evasion of orders.”

Besides noting that he had been suspended from duty, Hughes’ reporting senior added that “he knows his profession thoroughly, but he is excitable and not always loyal, in his attention to duty, manner, and bearing, to his commanding officer.” But the incident that raised the hackles of his superiors occurred in April 1912, when Hughes was confined to his quarters as a result of a fistfight with a brother officer.  We believe the identity of this “brother officer” was Smedley D. Butler.

Major Butler cabled the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Colonel William P. Biddle, stating that he considered Hughes a menace to the welfare of his command and requested that the Commandant order his return to Washington under arrest or a transfer out of his command with a preference for sending him as far away from Central America as possible — even to the extent of recommending the Philippines.  But Butler did more than that.  He turned to his father, U.S. Congressman Thomas S. Butler, who served on the House Naval Affairs Committee.

Congressman Butler turned to the Secretary of the Navy for assistance in relieving his son from the challenges caused by the unrepentant Captain Hughes.  Secretary Meyer was in no mood for tattling or seeking special favors.  He denied the congressman’s request and directed the Commandant to inform Butler that he’d have to learn to deal with his challenges without the help of his father.  Secretary Meyer also noted that Major Butler had attempted to embellish the charges against Captain Hughes by adding previous incidents for which he had already been punished.[5]

Nevertheless, at the end of 1912, officials ordered Captain Hughes to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, for service with the Marine Barracks.  Within a year, however, the Commandant ordered all East Coast Barracks to provide the human resources needed to man two regiments of the Advance Base Force (A.B.F.) (forerunner to the Fleet Marine Force).

Captain Hughes reported to the Commanding Officer, 2nd A.B.F., at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where his commanding officer appointed him to command a rifle company.  The A.B.F. Commander was Lieutenant Colonel John A. Lejeune.

The purpose of these Navy-Marine Corps exercises was to test the concept of the A.B.F.  Still, a secondary objective, owing to declining political conditions, was to serve as a force in readiness for possible operations in Mexico.  With naval maneuvers judged successful, the A.B.F. set sail for New Orleans on 9 February 1914.  On 5 March, the A.B.F. received orders to proceed to Veracruz.

Veracruz, Mexico

In 1914, the Mexican-American War had been over for 66 years.  Still, diplomatic relations between those two countries remained strained — and the truth is that Mexicans, Texicans, and Americans had never gotten along.  Today, it is doubtful that they ever will.  U.S. policy toward Mexico hasn’t made many efforts to improve these relations, but neither has Mexico. 

In 1913, after assuming the office of president, Woodrow Wilson withdrew the United States’ official recognition of the government/presidency of Victoriano Huerta.  Wilson’s reasons for taking this action were that Huerta was using borrowed funds to purchase armaments and munitions for use against the people of Mexico to maintain his power over them.

Conditions deteriorated even more when Wilson imposed an arms embargo on Mexico in August 1913.  The final straw was the Mexican officials arrested nine U.S. sailors in Tampico, Mexico, for entering areas of the city marked as off-limits to foreign military personnel.  When this matter was not resolved to Wilson’s satisfaction, he ordered a naval force to capture Veracruz.

Captain Hughes led his 15th Rifle Company ashore on 21 April as part of the landing force.  For his conduct between 21-24 April, Captain Hughes was cited for conspicuous gallantry and was nominated to receive the Medal of Honor.[6]     

Major Butler was another nominee.  To his credit, Butler pleaded with his superiors to withdraw the medal, insisting he did nothing to deserve such a high-level award.  This issue of awarding the medal of honor to Marine officers had become political, and Butler’s complaints weren’t helping matters. Irritated, Butler’s superiors in the chain of command ordered him to stop moaning and wear the damn thing. Butler’s discomfort increased, however, when he learned that his superiors had also nominated Captain Hughes for the Medal of Honor. Modern historians believe Butler despised no man more than John A. Hughes.

While the Marine brigade was en route back to the north, Captain Hughes received orders that he would proceed to the Marine Barracks, Portsmouth.  In his final fitness report, despite his nomination for the Medal of Honor, Major Randolph C. Berkeley (also a Medal of Honor nominee) rated him poorly in leadership — for treating his men harshly.

In 1916, while serving as the Commanding Officer of the Marine Detachment, U.S.S. Delaware, Hughes landed with his Marines in response to civil unrest and banditry in the Dominican Republic.  President Wilson made a Marine presence in the Dominican Republic permanent after late October that year.

Meanwhile, Captain Hughes became eligible for promotion to major by achieving fifteen years of honorable service.  Amazingly — or possibly not, the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels denied Hughes’ advancement.  Historians suggest that usually, the Secretary of the Navy would take no hand in the matter of a Marine officer’s promotion, but in this case, it would seem that through his father, Smedley D. Butler was involved in urging Daniels to “do the right thing” for the Corps (and for Butler).

At this time, the Commandant, Major General George Barnett, received a telegram reporting that Captain Hughes had become a combat casualty — wounded by gunshot.  Barnett promptly took the telegram to Secretary Daniels and demanded that he release his hold on Captain Hughes’ promotion.

The Marine Corps promoted Hughes to Major on 16 March 1917.  Accompanying his promotion was a strongly worded memorandum from Secretary Daniels.  Merrill Bartlett tells us that the memo warned Hughes against any future drunkenness or harshness toward his men.

After Hughes recovered from his wound, he served as a staff officer at the headquarters of the A.B.F. in Philadelphia.  When the United States entered World War I, Hughes proceeded to Quantico, Virginia, to prepare for a substantial increase in Marine Corps manpower.

An Interesting Aside

Shortly after the U.S. entered the European war, Brigadier General John A. Lejeune wrote to this friend, Major Smedley D. Butler (then serving as a major general in the Haitian constabulary), informing him that he (Lejeune) expected to command a Marine brigade in the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.).  Should that happen, Lejeune wrote, he would offer Butler command of an infantry battalion.

Subsequent planning revealed that the A.E.F. commander, General “Black Jack” Pershing, reduced the Marine Corps’ footprint to a single regiment.[7]  Lejeune was sad to advise Butler that a colonel would command a single regiment and he had no further say in the matter.

Colonel Bartlett assures us that Lejeune’s letter to Butler was somewhat less than honest.  By then, Butler had burdened HQMC with a constant stream of requests for relief from his duty in Haiti and assignment to the A.E.F. in France.  Commandant Barnett was unsympathetic.  He first informed Butler that his position was vital to American interests in Haiti.  Secondly, he reminded Lejeune that Butler had used all of his political leverage to gain the coveted post to command the Gendarmerie d’ Haiti and that he could damn well remain there.

But General Barnett had a problem that needed a resolution.  He required the names of qualified officers for service in the A.E.F.  He needed Lejeune’s advice — and one of the officers suggested by General Lejeune was Major John A. Hughes.

World War

When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the U.S. Marine Corps included 462 commissioned officers, 49 warrant officers, and 13,214 enlisted men.  Of those, 187 officers and 4,546 enlisted men served outside the continental limits of the United States.  Six weeks later, the Marine Corps had organized the 5th Marine Regiment (consisting of around one-sixth of the Corps’ total strength).  When the regiment sailed for France in June 1917, U.S. Marines accounted for one-fifth of the A.E.F.’s expeditionary force.

Closely following the 5th Marines in July and August 1917 was the 6th Marine Regiment and 6th Machine gun Battalion (M.G.B.)  Within one year of America’s entry into the war, the Marine Corps had placed as many enlisted Marines in France as had served on active duty at the outbreak of the war.  President Wilson’s policies in Central America and the Caribbean Sea demanded a massive increase in the number of Marines serving on active duty.  In June 1918, the authorized strength of the Marine Corps was 1,323 officers and 30,000 enlisted men.  The number of Marines serving on that date was 1,424 officers and 57,298 enlisted men.[8]

Colonel Albertus W. Catlin assumed command of the 6th Marine Regiment.[9]  Catlin assigned Major John A. Hughes to command the 1st Battalion, Thomas Holcomb (later, Commandant of the Marine Corps) to command 2/6, and Berton W. Sibley to command 3/6.

Upon arrival in France, Major Hughes settled his battalion at St. Nazaire.  He joined his fellow officers for temporary duty under instruction at the I Corps School of Infantry at Gondrecourt.  Hughes’ performance as a student prompted the Army to extend his temporary assignment through February 1918 so that he could serve as an instructor.  In mid-February, Hughes asked the Army to send him back to his battalion, and they refused — so Major Hughes packed his kit and returned to his battalion without orders.  The Army high command was unhappy with Hughes, but Colonel Catlin sorted it all out.

On 27 May 1918, Imperial Germany launched the third of its spring counteroffensive operations to bring the war to a close before the United States committed the total weight of its Army to the fight.  Within four days, German soldiers reached the Marne River at Château-Thierry.  Until this point, General Pershing had consistently refused to release any American forces to serve under foreign command, but with Imperial German troops sitting a mere 35 miles from Paris, Pershing rushed three American infantry divisions to Château-Thierry to halt the German advance.  One of those divisions was the U.S. Second Infantry with the 4th Marine Brigade.

Catlin’s 6th Marines occupied a position along the Paris-Metz highway, south of a small forest called Bois de Belleau (Belleau Wood), with orders to dig in and hold at all costs.  Having halted the German advance, the Brigade received new orders: expel the Germans from Belleau Wood.  Thus began the Battle of Belleau Wood, one of the Marine Corps’ most contested and bloodiest fights.  Before the end of this battle, the Marine brigade suffered a 50% casualty rate — and it was during this fight that Major John A. Hughes earned both the Navy Cross and Silver Star.  He also suffered the effects of poisoned gas, thereby earning his second Purple Heart medal.

Following the Battle of Belleau Wood, the German high command foolishly decided to cut the highway between Soissons and Château-Thierry.  The Marines deployed south of Soissons on 18 July.  After two days of bitter fighting, the Brigade gave up an additional 2,000 casualties — with most of the dead and wounded from the 6th Marine Regiment.  One of those injured Marines was Major Hughes.

By this time, Johnny the Hard was a physical wreck.  His previous wound had opened up and made walking difficult and painful.  His gas-seared lungs sapped his strength, and he had reached the limit of his endurance.  But despite his pain and discomfort, he did his duty and persevered until his superiors ordered him returned to the United States.

Before that happened, however, again, according to Colonel Bartlett, Major Hughes took a nasty fall as a bunker collapsed.  The major cussed and asked the Marines, “Say, any of you birds got a pair of wire cutters?”  Using those wire cutters, Major Hughes sat down and cut off a shard of bone protruding from his leg.

Grit.

Second Medal of Honor Recommendation

Major Hughes’ promotion to lieutenant colonel, effective 28 August 1918, finally caught up with him — along with another Silver Star medal and two French Croix de Guerre.  But one Marine Corps icon thought that Hughes deserved more.  Colonel Hiram I. Bearss (shown right), believing that Hughes earned the Medal of Honor for his performance at Soissons, put that recommendation in writing and sent it directly to the Commandant of the Marine Corps.[10]

In writing his recommendation, Bearss reported, “During the engagement east of Vierzy, on the 19th of July 1918, Lieut. Col. Hughes (then major) conducted his battalion across open fields swept by violent machine-gun and artillery fire.  His entire commissioned and non-commissioned staff were either killed or wounded. Though suffering the severest pain from an old wound, he led his battalion forward and, by his dauntless courage, [and] bulldog tenacity of purpose, set an example to his command that enabled [it] to hold [its] position against the enemy throughout the day [and] night, though without food or water and with very little ammunition. Major Hughes’ battalion had been reduced to about 200 men, but due to this magnificent example of gallantry and intrepidity, this remnant of a battalion held a front of over 1,200 yards. As a battalion commander, he risked his life beyond the call of duty.”[11]

The Commandant returned Bearss’ recommendation, noting that it should have been submitted through the chain of command to Headquarters, A.E.F., but by then, too much time had elapsed, and Hughes did not receive a second Medal of Honor for his World War I service.[12]

After five months in the Army hospital in France, Colonel Hughes was ordered back to the United States for further treatment at the U.S. Naval Hospital, Philadelphia.  After an additional two months of treatment, Hughes attempted to ask for an assignment to the A.B.F., but to no avail.  Colonel Hughes was no longer medically qualified for Marine Corps service.  The Commandant transferred Hughes to the disability retired list on 3 July 1919.

In retirement, Hughes joined his brothers in the Hughes Trading Company[13] but left two years later to work for Mack Trucking in Cleveland — and later the first director of the Ohio Liquor Control Department.  In 1936, the square-jawed Marine became the Director of Safety at the Great Lakes Exposition.  Ill health relating to his military service forced Hughes to retire again in 1937, and he moved to Florida.  Johnny the Hard passed away on 25 May 1942 while undergoing treatment at the Veterans Hospital.

Meanwhile — back in July 1918 — Smedley Calls His Daddy

At about the time Colonel Hughes had fought his last battle in France, Smedley Butler finally made his way to France — but only after side-stepping the Commandant of the Marine Corps and calling on his father to help him achieve an assignment in the A.E.F.  Congressman Thomas S. Butler spoke with Secretary of the Navy Daniels, who ordered the Commandant to send Butler to France with the next replacement draft.  This interference resulted in Butler’s meteoric rise from major to full colonel and command of the 13th Marine Regiment.

In the summer of 1918, Secretary of War Newton Baker and his senior staff had no interest in another Marine Brigade in France, but on 15 September, within only a few weeks of his father’s interference, Colonel Butler and the 13th Marines embarked for France.

To Butler’s profound disappointment, however, General Pershing decided to break up the 5th Marine Brigade and use the Marines as replacements and for logistical duties behind the lines.  When Brigadier General Smedley Darlington Butler arrived in France, General Pershing placed him in charge of a supply depot.  Within only a few months, Butler was awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, and the French Order of the Black Star — no doubt arranged for by his daddy in recognition of his non-combat service.  General Butler continued to cry on his father’s shoulder for the balance of his career.

No pluck, no sand, and no grit.

Sources:

  1. Bartlett, M. L.  The Spirited Saga of Johnny the Hard.  Naval History, U.S. Naval Institute, 2007
  2. Catlin, A.  With the Help of God and a Few Marines: The battles of Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood.  Blue House Books, 2016.
  3. Sweetman, J.  The Landing at Veracruz, 1914.  U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1968.
  4. “A Brief History of the Medal of Honor, U.S. Army Center of Military History, online.

Endnotes:

[1] During World War I, Marines served with the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.), which placed these men under the operational authority of the Department of War, even though at the time, they were regularly assigned to the Department of the Navy.  It was a bit confusing back then, so it was possible for a Marine to receive a medal of honor from both the Army and the Navy.  After the war, service regulations changed to reflect that a medal of honor can only be awarded once for a single action.  It is still possible to receive two such medals, but only for separate actions. 

[2] The process of commissioning enlisted men to serve as officers resulted in the term “mustang,” denoting an individual who “came up through the ranks” rather than someone who was born with a silver spoon in their mouth.  A mustang was a feral animal, not a “thoroughbred.”  Over many years, the Armed Forces found that in terms of leadership, raw determination, and professional knowledge, former enlisted men made better officers.  A few former enlisted men found their way to general officer status, but for the most part, accession to flag rank was reserved for graduates of the service academies.

[3] My primary source for this information is retired Lieutenant Colonel Merrill L. Bartlett.  Were it not for his fine writing at Naval History Magazine, I would never have heard of Colonel Goodrell or Major Perkins.

[4] Certain individual Marines had severe drinking problems at the turn of the century; more than one officer succumbed to the effects of alcoholism, including Pete Ellis — which remarkably all seemed to originate in the Philippines. 

[5] The incident suggests that despite his demonstrated courage in combat, Smedley Darlington Butler would have made a perfect centerpiece for a bouquet of assholes. 

[6] The Medal of Honor is awarded by the President of the United States in the name of the Congress of the United States — hence, the medal is often termed the “Congressional Medal of Honor.”  After the incursion into Mexico, Congress amended its legislation for the Medal of Honor to include naval officers.  Within the Department of the Navy, the conflict provided an opportunity to shower the Medal of Honor on selected participants at Veracruz.  Of the Navy contingent deployed to Veracruz, 28 officers and 18 enlisted men earned the award — and nine Marine Corps officers.    

[7] History tells us that ultimately the Marines did provide an infantry brigade to the A.E.F, but in the planning stages, Pershing did all that he could to avoid having Marines in his command.

[8] The two regiments and separate battalion formed the 4th Marine Brigade, with an authorized strength of 258 officers and 8,211 enlisted men.  The brigade fought in eight major engagements and suffered 12,000 casualties.  At the same time, the Corps maintained the 5th Marine Brigade in the A.E.F. reserve, provided the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division with staff officers and enlisted men, and provided officers to command U.S. Army infantry and aviation units.

[9] See also: With the Help of God and a Few Marines by Colonel Albertus W. Catlin, USMC (deceased). 

[10] Bearss, himself a holder of the Medal of Honor, commanded an Army infantry regiment and the U.S. 51st Infantry Brigade in France.  His moniker in the Marine Corps was “Hiking Hiram,” famous for his trek across the Island of Samar in the Philippines in 1901.

[11] Source, LtCol Merrill L. Bartlett, USMC (Retired) Naval History Magazine, 2007.

[12] General Barnett was right, of course.  The recommendation should have been submitted through the chain of command.  It is also possible that Barnett knew that Secretary Daniels would never allow the approval of the Medal of Honor for Hughes.

[13] In retirement, Colonel John A. Hughes provided a falsified dossier for “Pete” Ellis’ ill-fated spy mission to the Central Pacific in 1923. (Ellis assumed the identity of a salesman for the Hughes Trading Company as a cover for his undercover and somewhat bizarre escapade).


Market Garden, 1944

Ego:

(a) Self-esteem or sense of self-importance.

(b) The part of the mind that meditates between the conscious and unconscious, responsible for reality testing and personal identity.

Introduction

A military aviator with an inadequate grasp of aeronautics, who doesn’t know the capabilities and limitations of his aircraft type, a combat pilot who hasn’t mastered air combat maneuvering, or an airman who runs out of luck, is likely only to kill himself.  On the other hand, an inadequate field commander may very well die, but he is just as likely to kill hundreds or thousands of his men in the process.

No one doubts the stress experienced by a combat pilot, and no one should believe that it is an easy matter to command troops in the field, either.  A good leader, whether in the air or on the ground, must know their profession — but more than that, they must know themselves.  A pilot must never think of himself as better than his aircraft; a ground commander must never think of himself as better than his least experienced troops.  We expect our pilots and ground commanders to demonstrate confidence, not overconfidence.

Bernard Law Montgomery

According to his account, Bernard Montgomery was a horrid child made that way by his equally despicable mother and a father who was gone from home for long periods.  When Maud Montgomery died in 1949, her son Bernard refused to attend her funeral.  Bernard had become a bully toward his peers, including those at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.  It was something he should have grown out of long before he reached college, and his violent behavior nearly resulted in his expulsion from Sandhurst.  Nevertheless, he graduated in 1908, commissioned a second lieutenant with the 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment.  Later that year, Montgomery posted with his battalion in India.

Four years later, Montgomery served as battalion adjutant at Shorncliffe Army Camp, a training base in Kent, which served as a training/staging base during the First World War.  Montgomery moved to France with his battalion in August 1914.  The Royal Warwickshire Regiment became part of the 10th Brigade, 4th British Infantry Division.  In mid-October, he was twice wounded at Méteren, Belgium, and cited for conspicuous and gallant leadership.  In 1915, Montgomery served as Brigade Major (Temporary) with the 112th Brigade and later with the 104th Brigade.[1]  Between 1916-17, Montgomery served as a staff officer with the 33rd Division and the IX Corps, Plumer’s Second Army.  After the war, the Army reverted Montgomery to captain but appointed him to brevet major and command of the 17th Service Battalion.

When the British Army passed Montgomery over for attending the Staff College, placing in jeopardy any hope he had for permanent promotion or command, he directly appealed to the Commander-in-Chief, asking to have his name added to the list.

After Montgomery graduated, the Army appointed him to serve as Brigade Major, 17th Infantry Brigade, located in County Cork, Ireland, during the Irish War of Independence.  Montgomery did not believe the British could defeat the insurgency without resorting to harsh measures, but he also thought the better course of action would be to grant self-government to Ireland.

In May 1923, Montgomery was promoted to major and assigned to command an infantry company in his parent battalion.  From 1926 to 1929, he served as Deputy Assistant Adjutant at Staff College (Camberley) while serving as a temporary lieutenant colonel.

After his wife died in 1937, Brigadier Montgomery immersed himself in his military duties.  His unhappy childhood and the tragedy of his wife’s death likely contributed to his eccentricities and inferiority complex.  These factors made him over-compensate for his self-perceived inadequacies and drove him to assume the role of an overbearing bully or tyrant.  His intolerance of “lesser men” and constant suspicion that others were plotting against him produced a paranoid man who hardly anyone could tolerate, professionally or socially.

If there was one agreement among Montgomery’s associates, peers, and antagonists alike, it was that he was a difficult man to like.  British Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, a peer, could not understand why Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, General Dwight Eisenhower, didn’t fire Montgomery for his insufferable arrogance and insubordination.  Instead, Eisenhower tolerated Montgomery even though he was so full of himself that it frequently crossed the line into psychotic behavior.  The evidence for this was Montgomery’s repudiation of everything the Allied staff knew in 1944 about conducting successful military operations.  His stubbornness resulted in the combat deaths of good men — about which Montgomery seemed to care little.

It is difficult to know which of these generals hated the other more, Patton or Montgomery.  Their disputes, in the field and the press, have become the subject of many books and magazine articles.  Scholars who admired either of these men offered continuous praise; critics saw the squabbles as mean and petty, more focused on their egos than the sacred duty of leading men in combat.

A Californian by birth, Patton had ties to the Old South; his grandfather was killed in 1864 while serving as a Confederate colonel.  He attended the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and the US Military Academy (USMA).  He was an Olympic athlete and an early advocate of mechanized warfare.  Like Montgomery, Patton sought fame throughout his long career.  He possessed a legendary temper and could not abide unmanly behavior, leading to two incidents of slapping low-ranking soldiers.   The only difference between Patton and Montgomery was that Patton exhibited a superiority complex and was behaviorally less eccentric.

Toward Market Garden

In the weeks following D-Day, the speed of the Allied advance across France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands produced two false impressions among Allied leaders.  The first was that the Allied forces were winning against the Germans, and the second was that the German army was crumbling.  In  September 1944, neither of these was true.  Moreover, rapid advancement produced three crises: the first was that the advancing armies were spread too thin, the second was that the advancing troops outpaced their logistics train, and the third was that the front-line troops were exhausted.  All these conditions were dangerous in the extreme, not to mention foolhardy, as Allied forces approached Germany’s formidable Siegfried Defensive Line.

Relationships between Montgomery, Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton, became strained. By early September 1944, a crack developed within the Allied command. Montgomery became convinced that he alone could win the war and achieve it before Christmas 1944.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew the United Kingdom needed its alliance with the United States, so he supported General Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that maintaining a healthy partnership with the British would make them strong allies after the war.

Montgomery planned to bypass the German Siegfried Line by executing an allied envelopment into Germany through The Netherlands.  Neither General Patton nor General Bradley could support Montgomery’s plan arguing that it was logistically unsupportable.

Undeterred, Field Marshal Montgomery devised a plan of action in two parts: Operation Market and Operation Garden.  Operation Market would employ airborne forces behind enemy lines to seize German-held bridges.  Operation Garden would push land and armor forces through The Netherlands, across the bridges, and into Germany.  Together, the plan was called Market Garden.

Of the airborne units, Montgomery planned on 40,000 men parachuting into Germany.  The units earmarked for this operation were the 101st U.S. Airborne (assigned to seize five bridges), the 82nd U.S. Airborne (responsible for one bridge), the British 1st Airborne, and the Polish 1st Independent Airborne Brigade (actually focused on two bridges).  The two critical elements for the success of Montgomery’s plan were (a) seizing the bridges from the Germans and (b) holding them.

Americans back home had their favorite military heroes; some adored Eisenhower, who never held a combat command.  Other Americans idolized Patton, the epitome of a combat officer and a bull in a fine China shop.  Still, others supported Omar Bradley, the so-called “soldier’s general.”  The British needed their heroes, as well.  Political pressure pushed Eisenhower to appoint Montgomery as Commander 1st Allied Airborne Army.  General Eisenhower was fully aware that Montgomery was working on a plan, but Eisenhower (later supported by his staff) claimed that he didn’t know any of the details of Market Garden.

As an Army commander, Montgomery did not believe he needed to obtain Eisenhower’s permission to proceed.  In the aftermath of the Market-Garden disaster — even well after the war, Montgomery continued to claim that Eisenhower had approved his plan.  Every success in combat has a proud father; every disaster in war is a red-headed stepchild.

Was Field Marshal Montgomery delusional?  Evidence shows that Eisenhower “approved in principle” Montgomery’s three-pronged attack.  Still, there is no evidence that Eisenhower gave his final approval or that Montgomery asked for one.  Still, one would think that the appropriation of thousands of allied aircraft would have required Eisenhower’s approval.

Field Marshal Montgomery named Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Arthur Montague (“Boy”) Browning as Commander 1st Airborne Corps and Deputy Commander, First Allied Airborne Army, during Operation Market Garden.  Browning was a Montgomery sycophant who knew as much about generalship as he did about airborne operations. Browning shared many of Montgomery’s less appreciated traits: he was argumentative, arrogant, and full of himself.  American officers didn’t like Browning and, as important, didn’t trust him.  The relationship between Browning and US Army Air Corps Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton was toxic.[2]

When General Browning finally revealed his plan to the Royal Air Force staff on 10 September 1944, the RAF raised questions that were similar to those posed by General Brereton — questions about feasibility, logistics, and Northern European weather patterns.  One early problem was that in that part of Europe in September, there was insufficient daylight to conduct two airborne airlift operations in 24 hours.  Moreover, if Montgomery expected allied air cover for his assault force, then nighttime operations were out of the question.  A second issue was that General Browning expected C-47 aircraft to pull two fully manned glider craft.  Such an experiment was never tested.  General Brereton quite correctly refused to allow it.

Additionally, the Northern European weather pattern in late September is inconducive to large-scale airborne operations — or the logistics footprint required to pull it off.  In any case, the RAF and USAAC urged “Boy” Browning to reconsider his assault plan.  Browning refused, and when he did, the allied air forces refused to drop airborne troops closer than eight miles from Arnhem.   To do so, British and American air corps commanders argued, would subject the air forces to unacceptable risks.

During the operational planning phase of Market Garden, Dutch resistance leaders warned Montgomery that while the German army was withdrawing from coastal Europe, the Nazis were neither defeated nor dispirited.  Moreover, the resistance argued, it was foolhardy to march so many men 64 miles up a corridor firmly in German hands.

Major General Roy Urquhart, commanding the British 1st Airborne Division, communicated his misgivings about Market Garden to Lieutenant General Browning.[3]  Urquhart, who until then had never controlled an airborne unit, was cautioned by Browning about the effects of defeatism on unit morale.  After landing outside Arnhem, Urquhart discovered that after protecting Allied landing fields, he would have no more than a single brigade (a third of his force) to seize and hold the Arnhem Bridge.[4]  As events unfolded, only one allied unit reached the Arnhem Bridge: the British 44th Parachute Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Frost.[5]

There were other operational disasters, as well.  None of Urquhart’s high-frequency radios were working; he had no means of communicating with higher headquarters and could not receive intelligence reports from his subordinate units.  Urquhart was operating in the dark.

Market Garden was no cakewalk for the Americans, either.  Of the five bridges assigned to the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, the Germans destroyed two — which produced a bottleneck restricting the movement of Allied forces across the Rhine.  When the American commander learned about the two destroyed bridges, General Matthew Ridgeway slowed his pace of advance.  This decision allowed German forces more time to prepare their defensive works.

Brigadier General James M. Gavin, commanding the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, received orders from Browning to secure the Grosbeak Heights southeast of Nijmegen.  It was an order Gavin could not obey because, given shortages of boats and ammunition, he could only provide a single battalion of the 504th Parachute Regiment to hold the Nijmegen Bridge.

This operational and logistical planning failure allowed the Germans to reinforce a vital bridge, which delayed strengthening or relieving the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem.  Gavin’s 504th Parachute Regiment heroically seized the bridge across the Waal River, but by that time, the Germans had already killed or captured the men holding the bridge at Arnhem.

Aftermath and Conclusion

We remember Operation Market Garden as a colossal failure.  It was poorly conceived, inadequately planned, incompetently directed, and overly ambitious.  Montgomery/Brown failed to consider the most basic yet vital factors of warfare.  Montgomery underestimated the enemy’s strength, capability, disposition, and fighting spirit.  Moreover, Market Garden was logistically unsupportable, the terrain was ill-suited for corps-size operations, and weather patterns were ill-disposed to airborne operations.  Montgomery’s failure was more than negligent; it was malfeasant.[6]

Beyond losing 17,000 men to this poorly planned and executed fiasco, Market Garden had other consequences.  For instance, in seeking to establish a bridgehead across the Rhine, the Allied forces rushed offensive operations on three fronts in the south of the Netherlands.   To secure shipping to the vital port of Antwerp, the Allies advanced northwards and westwards.  The Canadian First Army seized the Scheldt Estuary.  Separately, Operation Aintree was designed to seize and secure the banks of the Meuse as a natural boundary for the established salient.  Aintree became a protracted battle, which eventually included Operation Overloon.  Operation Pheasant expanded the Market Garden salient westward.  The German counter-offensive intended to halt Allied use of the port of Antwerp, split the Allied lines, encircle four allied armies, and force a negotiated peace settlement.  In the aftermath of Market Garden, the Allied rush to victory resulted in over 90,000 men killed, wounded, or captured and the loss of 733 tanks and 1,000 aircraft.

Another unhappy consequence of Market Garden was the Dutch famine of 1944-45.  Dutch workers went on strike during the battle to aid the Allied assault.  Germany forbade food transportation in retribution, and in the following winter, more than 20,000 Dutch citizens were starved to death.

A healthy ego is as essential to field commanders as for high-performance jet pilots.  Montgomery did not have a healthy ego. Instead, the field marshal appears to have been a tormented man — one who may have suffered from Asperger’s Disorder for most of his life and a man who regularly relied on bluster and position to mask severe deficiencies as a field general.  It is one thing to make a costly mistake — our senior combat commanders are, after all, human beings with strengths and weaknesses — and tragic mistakes do happen in wars.  But it is quite another matter when a field commander risks the lives of thousands of men knowing that he’s exceeded his capability and then masks that failure by pretending there was no failure or trying to blame it on subordinate officers/commands.  This, I believe, describes Bernard Montgomery.  Browning was another matter altogether, but the men who served in the 1st Airborne Army in September 1944 deserved far better men to lead them. 

Sources:

  1. Badsey, S.  Arnhem, 1944: Operation Market Garden.  London: Osprey Publishing, 1993.
  2. Clark, L.  Arnhem: Operation Market Garden, September 1944.  Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 2002.
  3. Hoyer, B. K.  Operation Market Garden: The Battle for Arnhem.  Defense Technical Information Center, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, 2008

Endnotes:

[1] In the British Army, a brigade major serves the same function as a Brigade Executive Officer in the American Army; supervision of the several staff sections of the Brigade: Administration, Operations/Training, Intelligence, logistics, and special staff sections.  The brigade major usually held the rank of major (even if only a temporary advancement), intentionally ranked below officers commanding battalions.  The Brigade Commander directed his battalions, and the Brigade Major directed the Brigade Commander’s staff.

[2] If anyone in Europe knew about airborne operations, it was Lewis Brereton, whose entire career involved air assault operations.

[3] Robert Elliott (Roy) Urquhart (1901-88) fought with distinction at Arnhem, but in this battle, his division lost 75% of his men and was subsequently withdrawn from further combat service during World War II.  Major General Sir Richard Gale, Commander, 6th Airborne Division agreed with Urquhart’s assessment of the likely consequences of Market Garden, but Montgomery/Browning ignored him, as well.

[4] An SS training battalion was operating adjacent to the intended landing field.

[5] John Dutton Frost (1912-93) served with distinction with the parachute forces in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.  He commanded the 44th Parachute Battalion and was responsible for seizing the Arnhem Bridge and holding it against an entire German Panzer Division for four days.

[6] Supreme Allied Headquarters received numerous reports about German troop movements, including the identity of German units.  Eisenhower was so concerned that he sent this information to Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith to raise the issue with Montgomery.  Montgomery dismissed Eisenhower’s/Smith’s concerns and refused to alter his plan for landing airborne units at Arnhem.  Even when briefed by his own staff intelligence officer, who showed him photographic evidence of armor units at Arnhem, Browning dismissed his evidence out of hand — and then ordered the intelligence officer placed on sick leave owing to his “nervous strain and exhaustion.”


Combat Leader

Introduction

Valor, audacity, and fortitude are words and phrases that describe (or used to do), all of America’s Armed Forces.  America’s Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines are each replete with examples of individual and organizational esprit de corps.  What these men and organizations do in combat mirrors their mission and their training; how well they do it reflects the quality of their leaders and their individual fighting spirit, their willingness to improvise, adapt and overcome — their ability to sustain serious injury and keep on fighting.

America’s Marines have been at this now for going on 250 years.  The history of the Marines is replete with examples of courage under fire, refusal to quit, and victory without fanfare.  We don’t know much about the kind of training the Continental Marines experienced in preparing them for war with Great Britain in 1775, but we do know that despite the infinitesimal size of the early Corps, they displayed small unit camaraderie and self-confidence, and esprit de corps.  They were American Marines.  Their successes in battle far outnumbered their failures, and while they may have withdrawn, they never quit the fight.  Within two weeks of mustering on the stern of the Continental Navy’s flagship USS Alfred, these early Marines were en route to their first battle, which occurred at New Providence, Nassau, on 3 March 1776.  It wasn’t the bloodiest of battles, but they did their part in helping the navy accomplish its mission, and that’s what Marines do.

The British overwhelmed the Marines at Bladensburg during the War of 1812, but by that time, every other American military unit had already left the field of battle.  So well did those Marines acquit themselves that the Marine Barracks Washington was the only government building spared by the British Army when they burned that city.  Marine Barracks, Washington, is the oldest structure in Washington, D. C. today.

Outside the number of readers of this blog, few people today are aware of the Marine Corps’ battle history.  As naval infantry, American Marines protected their country’s interests from the coast of North Africa, throughout the Caribbean, in the Falkland Islands, Sumatra, West Africa, and in the Seminole Wars.  During the Mexican War, Marines seized enemy seaports along the Gulf and the Pacific Ocean.  A battalion of Marines fought under General Winfield Scott at Pueblo and carried the fight all the way to the “Halls of Montezuma.”  And during the Civil War, Marines fought at sea and onshore.  During the Spanish-American War, while the War Department and senior Army staff argued about who should do what, the Navy and Marine Corps were already ashore fighting.

The farther Marines get from one battle, the closer they get to their next.

The Crucible

The goal of military training in the United States is to ensure that when the politicians send the nation to war (as they frequently do), or send them into conflicts short of war, that America’s armed forces will be able to accomplish strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.  Ultimately, the goal of training is to develop individual combat skills within the fighting force and rehearse those individuals as a team to enable them to win battles quickly, efficiently, and with the lowest loss of life.  Because warfare continues to change in terms of technology and methodology, training is constant.  But there are no lessons in warfare greater than those learned in actual combat.

“Here lies the bones of Lieutenant Jones, a graduate of our finest institutions.

He died last night, in his very first fight, when he applied the school solution.”

During the Battle for Guadalcanal, America’s first major offensive in the Pacific War, American losses included 7,100 killed and 7,789 wounded.  The battle lasted six months and two days, from 7 August 1942 to 9 February 1943.   The Battle for Tarawa took place ten months later (between 20-23 November 1943).  Marines gave up 1,009 killed and an additional 2,101 wounded, with 88 missing/presumed dead.

There is no comparison between these two battles.  Both involved heavy fighting and horrible death, but the difference was that the Battle for Tarawa only lasted three days.  Had that fight lasted as long as the Guadalcanal campaign, it would have cost the United States well over 60,000 dead.  Another distinction is that the ratio of killed to wounded at Tarawa reflects the savagery of the fight.  Twenty percent of the Marines who landed at Tarawa were killed or wounded, but organizational losses were much higher.  The 2nd Amphibious Battalion, for example, lost half of its men and all but 35 of its 125 amphibian tractors.

The number of men lost at Tarawa within a period of only 76 hours caused a firestorm of controversy back in the United States — most of it involved heartbroken parents who found an ear with the American press, but some too from among the military hierarchy.  Douglas MacArthur was astounded by the losses and questioned the wisdom of Admiral Nimitz’s “frontal assault” strategies in the island-hopping campaign.  But the fact is that battles are not served up with clean linen.  Mistakes are always made in great undertakings, and in war, people die and receive horrific injuries.  The hard reality is that when war becomes necessary, its human and material costs are immaterial.  What matters most is winning.

But it is from within the confines of such horrors that the men who survive them learn how to conduct combat operations more efficiently — and quicker.  The one lesson never learned by politicians is that prolonged wars are never beneficial to anyone.

Additional background

At the conclusion of World War II, President Harry S. Truman wasted no time demobilizing the armed forces.  He was intent on making a smooth transition from a wartime economy to one that fulfilled the needs of a nation at peace.  Veterans were returning home from four long years of horror; they needed jobs, and Truman believed that it was the government’s duty to help create those jobs.  It was also a time of restructuring the Armed Forces.

The War Department was disbanded; in its place, a Department of Defense, which incorporated the service secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  But, toward achieving his goals for a nation at peace, Truman placed the military services on the chopping block.  Every service experienced sharp cuts in manpower and equipment.  Truman reallocated funds away from defense toward social programs. Suddenly, there was no money to repair airplanes, tanks, or radios.  There was no money for annual rifle requalification, no money for training exercises, and hardly any money to feed, clothe, and see to the medical needs of active-duty personnel.

During this time, the Marine Corps had but one advantage over the other services.  They all “gave up” one-third of the wartime strength, of course, but while combat veterans in the Army, Navy, and Air Force dwindled to about twenty percent of their total force, the Marine Corps retained half of their combat officers and noncommissioned officers — the men who had led the way through the Pacific, and miraculously survived.

Cold War Goes Hot

When the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) invaded South Korea in the early morning hours of 25 June 1950, they did so in overwhelming numbers.  It was a mechanized/combined arms force involving thirteen infantry divisions, an armored division of well-trained, superbly equipped troops, and to back them up, a full aviation division.[1]  Various sources tell us that the number of invading troops was between 90,000 —150,000 men.  An additional 30,000 men were part of the reserve force.

The suddenness of the Korean War caught the United States unprepared.  The men serving in forward units were young, inexperienced, and inadequately trained.  Their equipment was unserviceable.  There were shortages of ammunition and munitions.  Trucks wouldn’t run, radios wouldn’t work, planes couldn’t fly, and leaders couldn’t lead.  Within two weeks, US forces suddenly thrust into the heat of battle and suffered one defeat after another.  Within a month, the remains of thousands of young American soldiers were on the way home for burial and the United Nations forces.

General Douglas MacArthur, serving as Supreme Allied Commander, Far East, was headquartered in Tokyo, Japan.  Within this United Nations (UN) Command were several subordinate commanders, including Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet, and Commander, U.S. Eighth Army, and Commander, U.S. Fifth Air Force.  MacArthur was least happy with the Eighth Army’s preparedness for war (although it was hardly the fault of its commander).

Commanding the Eighth Army was Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, U.S. Army.  His subordinate commands included the U.S. 24th Infantry Division, 1st Cavalry Division, and the U.S. 25th Infantry Division — all of which were stationed in Japan as part of the post-war Allied occupation force.  In June 1950, not one of these organizations was prepared for a national emergency.[2]  The South Korean (ROK) armed forces numbered less than 70,000 men in the Republic of Korea.  One thing the South Koreans shared in common with the Eighth Army was that the men were poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly led.

Eventually, all UN forces were organized under the US Eighth Army.  By the time General Walker was able to organize an armed response, the NKPA had already overrun 90% of the South Korean peninsula.  The only terrain remaining in the possession of UN forces was a 140-mile perimeter around the port city of Pusan (southeast South Korea).  As previously stated, General Walker’s forces suffered one defeat after another throughout July and August 1950, racking up 6,000 casualties within around 45 days.[3]  The morale of the US/UN forces was at an all-time low.

Under these dire conditions, General MacArthur asked the JCS for a Marine regiment to help stem the tide of the invading NKPA.  A single regiment, mind you — when the NPKA had already mauled two infantry divisions within 30 days.  What MacArthur received, instead, was a Provisional Marine Brigade — the lead element of the rapidly organizing 1st Marine Division.

The New Sheriff Arrives

For the uninformed, a Marine expeditionary brigade is an awesome organization, chiefly because it incorporates ground, air, and service support elements designed to make the brigade a self-sustaining combat powerhouse.  The 1st Marine Provisional Brigade (1stMarBde) began forming around the 5th Marine Regiment (5thMar) at Camp Pendleton, California, on 7 July 1950.  Brigade combat support elements included an artillery battalion, tank company, combat engineer company, communications company, reconnaissance company, and shore party battalion.  The brigade’s air combat element was Provisional Marine Aircraft Group Thirty-three (MAG-33), which included three fixed-wing squadrons and a light helicopter squadron normally based at the Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS), El Toro, California.[4]

What made the 1stMarBde extraordinary was the circumstances under which it was formed.  Truman’s cuts were so devastating to the Marine Corps owing to its already small size, that on 25 June 1950, there was but one infantry regiment at Camp Pendleton — its personnel strength reduced by one-third and with most of its organizational equipment in depot storage.[5]  The regiment had three battalions (and a headquarters element), but each battalion was short one rifle company; each rifle company was short one infantry platoon.  These reductions simply meant that the Marines would have to fight harder.

The brigade pulled into Pusan Harbor on the evening of 2 August — with off-loading operations beginning almost immediately.  Troop leaders had already briefed their men about what to expect from this new enemy.  The Marines knew that they would be outnumbered, but they knew that not even superior numbers would save the North Koreans from their ultimate fate.  The one thing that seemed most noticeable the next morning, as battalions began to muster dockside, was the appearance of supreme confidence among those young Marines.

During the Korean War, US Marine combat commands operated within the Eighth Army.  General Walker decided to use the Marine Brigade as a stop-gap force.  Whenever the NKPA mauled and routed a US/UN Army unit, Walker sent the Marine Brigade to re-take the Army’s forfeited positions.  Had it not for these handfuls of Marines, the Pusan Perimeter would have collapsed, and the NKPA would have pushed the UN  forces into the South China Sea.

The First Provisional Marine Brigade was dangerously understrength, but what the Marines brought to the table was a foundation of exceptional officer and NCO leadership, combat experience, and an unparalleled fighting spirit.  When the NKPA met the US Marines for the first time, they quickly realized that they foolishly underestimated the lethality of the Marine Corps Air/Ground Team.

The Fire Brigade began combat operations almost immediately inside the Pusan Perimeter.  The North Korean Army may have had its way with our poorly trained army, but the Marines would have none of it.  Within a few days, American Marines began introducing NKPA soldiers to their worst (and last) day.

General Walker assigned Craig’s brigade to support the U.S. 25th Infantry Division (XX/25) under the command of Major General William B. Kean, U. S. Army.  In addition to the 1stMarBde, XX/25 included the U.S. 5th Regimental Combat Team (5RCT), U.S. 14th Infantry Regiment (III/14), U.S. 24th Infantry Regiment (III/24), U.S. 27th Infantry Regiment (III/27), and the U.S. 35th Infantry Regiment (III/35).  Altogether, Eighth Army HQ designated the division with all attachments as “Task Force Kean.”

Walker intended to initiate offensive operations against NKPA forces on 6 August.  Kean tasked the 1stMarBde and 5CT  to secure the area of Chinju from the NKPA 6th Division (NKPA/6).  Walker’s goal was the break up a suspected massing of NKPA troops near Taegu by forcing some NKPA troops southward.  Walker’s plan of attack was to move west from positions held near Masan, Seize Chinju Pass, and Secure a line as far as the Nam River.  The plan was only a contingency, however.  The success of Walker’s plan would depend on the arrival of the U. S. 2nd Infantry Division (XX/2) from the United States.

Overall command of the brigade fell to Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, USMC.  His assistant was Brigadier General Thomas J. Cushman, who also commanded Marine Aircraft Group-33.[6]  Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray (selected for promotion to colonel) served as Commanding Officer, 5th Marines.[7]  Below Murray, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (also 1/5) was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George R. Newton;[8] 2/5 was led by Lieutenant Colonel Harold S. Roise,[9] and 3/5 was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert D. Taplett.[10]  The skill and determination of these field commanders and the fighting spirit of their men won every battle.  The 1st Marine Brigade went to Korea with the finest combat commanders available, combat-tested Noncommissioned Officers, and a body of men who exhibited the highest qualities of the United States Marine.

To my knowledge, there has never been a shooting war without casualties.  Harkening back to the Pacific War, if there is one thing we know about amphibious operations, it is that there are no avoiding casualties during the assault phase, and this was particularly true when large numbers of Marines landed on small islands populated by fanatical enemies.  But from among the survivors of the great battles of World War II we will rediscover the gutsy Marine leaders who planned and executed America’s future battles — in Korea and Vietnam.

I have already mentioned the brigade commander, Brigadier General Edward A. Craig.  As a colonel, Craig served as the V Amphibious Corps’ operations officer during the Battle of Iwo Jima.  Craig was critical of Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith for his refusal to land the 3rd Marine Regiment when doing so would have provided much-needed relief to the Marines already ashore, and he argued, shorten the battle.

Colonel Raymond L. Murray, the Commanding Officer, 5th Marines, was an experienced combat officer with service on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan while in command of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines.  He was cited for conspicuous gallantry at all three battle locations, earning two Silver Star medals, the Navy Cross, and the Purple Heart.  Murray was awarded a second Navy Cross and two additional Silver Star medals during the Korean War.  Murray retired as a major general in 1968.

During World War II, Captain Kenneth J. Houghton participated in the Battle of Tarawa and the Battle of Saipan.  During the early days of the Korean War, he served as the Commanding Officer, Reconnaissance Company.  Houghton retired as a major general in 1977.

Changchon Ambush

At sundown on 11 August, Lieutenant Colonel Bob Taplett’s 3/5 dug in for the night on the road to Sachon.  The NKPA appeared to him somewhat disorganized.  For the first time since the North Korean invasion began, a sustained Eighth Army counterattack had not only stopped the communists but sent them into a withdrawal.  Taplett was about a day’s march from Sachon, while 5CT was racing along the shorter Chinju route northward, where enemy opposition had been light for the past two days.  Morale within the Army’s ranks seemed high, and radio traffic sounded optimistic.

General Craig was not at all optimistic.  Within the next 48 hours, the Marines were destined to carry out one of the most astonishing operations in the history of the Marine Corps: simultaneous battalion-sized assaults in opposite directions, 25 miles apart.  But at 0630 on 12 August, as 1/5 passed through 3/5 with the mission of seizing Sachon, there was no hint of any such development.  In fact, the front was quiet enough to make the senior NCOs nervous.  If one were to ask the company gunnery sergeant (pick any company), he’d tell you, “The enemy is up to no good, sir.”

1/5 moved out in column formation behind a 15-man detachment of the Recon Company under Captain Kenny Houghton.  Captain Tobin’s “Baker” Company followed behind.[11]  Two Marine tanks sandwiched in between the 1st and 2nd platoons.  Three more tanks were brought up to the rear of Captain Tobin’s company, followed by the rest of the battalion.

The eerie calm continued for another 4 or so hours.  At noon, with Sachon only four miles ahead, Captain Houghton led the battalion point around a bend into the thatched hamlet of Changchon.  Several Marines spied two skulking figures dashing for cover and opened fire.  When they did, the hills on both sides of the road erupted into flame.  Marine rifle fire had spooked the enemy into pre-maturely, revealing their ambuscade.  NKPA machine guns blazed away from the high ground in front and from both flanks.  It could have been a disaster for 1/5 Marines.

Captain Tobin ordered First Lieutenant Hugh Schryver’s 1st platoon forward along the roadside ditches; three Marines took hits, but the platoon reinforced Houghton’s thin line, who were busily engaged in returning enemy fire.  Tobin then sent First Lieutenant David Taylor’s 2nd platoon up behind the three tanks.  The roadway was too narrow for the tanks to maneuver, and the soil on either side of the road was too muddy to support the weight, but as mobile fortresses, they added to Marine firepower.

Within mere minutes, NKPA ambushers pinned down Tobin’s entire company, including the company headquarters further down the road, which received automatic weapons fire from higher up on Hill 250.  Lieutenant Colonel Newton requested airstrikes through his air controller, First Lieutenant James Smith.  Air support was all Newton had available.  Within a few minutes, Marine Corsairs dropped ordnance on Hill 250, after which Tobin directed 2nd Lieutenant Dave Cowling to attack the high ground.  Able Company sent forward a rifle platoon and a machine gun section.  To these reinforcements, Colonel Newton assigned the mission of attacking Hill 301.

As Cowling’s 3rd platoon crossed the roadway, tanks and mortars added their fires to the airstrikes, but enough of the enemy’s automatic weapons survived to catch the 3rd platoon in a crossfire, which forced the Marines back.  Cowling lost one man killed, and four wounded.  Meanwhile, Able Company occupied Hill 301 without meeting any resistance.

Smith notified Newton that he had two Corsairs overhead with five minutes of fuel remaining.  Newton asked that the pilot search for targets of opportunity along the road from Changchon to Sachon.  The Marine aviators visited an enemy convoy and left them with a lasting impression.

3rd platoon fell back on Hill 301 as Newton ordered the Able Company Commander, Captain John Stevens, to secure the nearby high ground on the right side of the road.  Newton’s maneuvering left Hill 250 as the center of enemy resistance on the right.  Marines dropped 113 mortar rounds on the enemy’s positions, and additional airstrikes followed.  This concentration of fire silenced the enemy machine guns, securing Baker Company’s right flank.

Meanwhile, Baker Company’s other two platoons and Captain Houghton’s Marines had their hands full on the left flank.  A brisk exchange of fire continued until Marine artillery solved the argument.  One NKPA position after another disappeared in a burst of glory.  Newton called for three more airstrikes, and these opened the door for a 2nd platoon left flank assault.

Newton’s Marines cleaned up remaining NKPA positions, the climax of which was a group of the enemy approaching the crest of Hill 202 from the reverse slope.  Lieutenant Taylor dispatched Technical Sergeant Lischeski with a squad to prepare an appropriate welcoming committee.  Thirty-nine unsuspecting communists walked into the sergeant’s trap.  There was only one survivor, but even that was temporary.

The fight at Changchon lasted all afternoon, and darkness set in before Baker Company could complete setting in for the night.  Newton estimated that his enemy opposition was a reinforced NKPA company, the rearguard element for a withdrawing battalion.  In this action, 1/5 lost 3 killed in action, and 13 WIA.  After Newton’s companies had secured the high ground, medical personnel evacuated the battalion’s dead and wounded.

This was a single action, on a single day, at the beginning of the US/UN counteroffensive. 

Sources:

  1. Catchpole, B.  The Korean War.  Robinson Publishing, 2003.
  2. Fehrenbach, T. R.  This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History. Potomac Press, 2001.
  3. Montross, L., and N. A. Canzona.  U. S. Marine Corps Operations in Korea, 1950-1953, Volume I: The Pusan Perimeter. HQMC G-3 Branch, 1954. 
  4. Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History.  Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] Two of these infantry divisions were mixed Chinese/Korean organizations.

[2] See also, From King to Joker.

[3] Battles are not won purely on the size of opposing armies; they are won by the skill of their commanders and the fighting spirit (and capacity) of their men.  None of these conditions existed within the US/UN armed forces on 25 June 1950.

[4] Despite several demonstrations during World War II of the advantages air/ground interface (close air support of ground forces), the Army was never interested in developing this capability until Marine aviators saved their bacon numerous times during the Korean War. 

[5] For the Marine Corps to meet this combat requirement, HQMC had to transfer men and material from the 2nd Marine Division and 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point, transfer people from the supporting establishment (supply depots, recruiting staffs, schools, and HQMC in Washington), and active Marine Corps reserve units.

[6] Lieutenant General Thomas J. Cushman (1895-1972 ) was the recipient of two Legions of Merit medals and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.

[7] Major General Murray (1913-2004) was a highly decorated officer, having won two Navy Cross medals, four Silver Star Medals, a Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Purple Heart Medal.  Murray commanded 2/6, 3rd Marines, 5th Marines, 1st Infantry Training Regiment, and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC.  He fought at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Inchon, Seoul, the Chosin Reservoir, and the Vietnam War.

[8] Colonel Newton (1915-2003 ) was a graduate of the USNA, class of 1938, retiring in 1962.  While serving with the US Marine Legation Guard in Peking, China, he was captured by the Japanese and held as a prisoner of war (1941-1945).  He was awarded the Silver Star medal for conspicuous gallantry on 23 September 1950 and the Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious service while commanding the 1stBn 5thMar  7 July – 12 September 1950.

[9] Colonel Roise (1916-91) was the recipient of two Navy Cross medals in the Korean War.  He served on active duty from 1939 until 1965 with combat service at Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, Pusan, Inchon, Seoul, and the Chosin Reservoir.

[10] Taplett was awarded the Navy Cross medal for his gallant service at the Chosin Reservoir.

[11] In the 1950s, Army and Marine rifle companies were phonetically designated Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George, How, Item, Jig, King, and Love.


Lieutenant Colonel Frank E. Bourne DCM OBE

On 8 May 1945, as the United Kingdom and the United States began celebrating Victory in Europe (VE) Day, a 91-year-old British hero took his final breath at his home in Kent, England.  His name was Frank Edward Bourne.  Few people know about him today, but by the end of this post, I hope my readers will know about this remarkable man.

Frank was born in Balcombe, Sussex, southeast England, on 27 April 1854.  He was the last of eight sons born to James Bourne and Harriet Gibson, a farming family.  From every account, James and Harriett Bourne were good parents, hardworking, and respectable.  Frank was a bright young man, literate, and motivated to make something of himself.  What he wanted from life was a challenge, and if he could also have an adventurous life, even better.  Where did one go in the south of England to find an adventurous life?  They went to the Army, of course.

Frank Bourne enlisted in the British Army in Brighton, East Sussex, in December 1872.  Knowing his son was making a colossal mistake, James tried to change Frank’s mind, but the young man would not be detoured.  Frank’s enlistment record reflects that he stood five and a half feet tall, was of slender build, and had brown hair, grey eyes, and a dark complexion.[1]

A year later, having completed basic training, young Frank was posted to the Second Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot (also, 2nd Warwickshire).  He was one of those young men to whom soldiering came naturally.  In 1875, Frank was promoted to corporal and then, three years later, to Colour Sergeant — the senior noncommissioned officer in his rifle company (more or less equivalent to a company first sergeant in the U.S. military structure).  Because of his youth and relative inexperience, the men of Company B referred to him as “The Kid.”  Most of the privates in the company were in their thirties.

He may have taken a ribbing because of his relative youth, but the men highly respected Bourne.  He was the only literate enlisted man in the company, which allowed him to help his men write letters home to their families.  He was fair, even-handed, and very calm, and when he wanted the men to do something, they “snapped to.”

In 1879, Frank was 25 years old.  This was the year his battalion commander posted Company B to the missionary outpost at a ford (drift) along the Buffalo River abutting Zululand in South Africa.  The outpost was named Rorke’s Drift.  Colour Sergeant Bourne’s company commander was Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead.

In the native language of the Zulu people, Rorke’s Drift was called Kwa Jimu (Jim’s land); the mission was one belonging to the Church of Sweden, formerly a trading post owned by merchant James Rorke.  Under Lieutenant General Frederick Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford, Rorke’s Drift became a vital supply depot and field hospital under the overall command of Brevet Major Henry Spalding.  Company B was detailed to provide security for the depot/hospital.

On 20 January, Chelmsford marched his 2,000-man army to Isandlwana, some 10 miles east of Rorke’s Drift.  The next day, a small engineer detachment of No. 5 Field Company, Royal Engineers, under Lieutenant John Chard, arrived to repair the pontoons that bridged the Buffalo River.  Chard, unsure of his orders, rode to Chelmsford’s position to receive clarification.  He was ordered back to Rorke’s Drift with orders to construct defensive positions.

Spalding departed the station for Helpmekarr on 22nd January to ascertain the location of Captain Rainforth’s Company G, which was late in arriving.  Spalding left Chard in temporary command.  So informed, Lieutenant Chard went to the station to observe the work underway on the pontoons.  A short time later, two survivors from Chelmsford’s army arrived and informed the men at Rorke’s Drift that the British army had been defeated (in fact, wiped out) — and that the Zulu Army was en route.

Lieutenant Chard called a meeting with Lieutenant Bromhead and Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton (Commissary and Transportation Department) to decide whether they should defend Rorke’s Drift or withdraw to Helpmekarr.  Dalton opined that the Zulu would quickly overtake a small party with wagons of sick and injured men.  The consensus was that the soldiers should stay and defend.  See also The Battle of Rorke’s Drift.  It was the most incredible stand in British military history.

As senior NCO, Colour Sergeant Bourne was at the forefront of the company’s activities — from organizing and assigning the men to their defensive positions to providing them with an example of soldierly virtue and remaining conspicuously in the fight.  In his statement to the BBC in 1936, Bourne said, “Now just one word for the men who fought that night.  I was moving about amongst them at all times, and they did not flinch for one moment.  Their courage and bravery cannot be expressed in words.  For me, they were an example all my soldiering days.”

Frank Bourne was not one of the men to receive the Victoria Cross for the fight at Rorke’s Drift, but he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (the nation’s second-highest award).[2]  The medal carried with it an annuity of £10 monthly.  For Bourne and the surviving men of Company B, the Zulu War was over.  In 1880, 2nd Warwickshire departed South Africa for Gibraltar.  The British Army offered Bourne an officer’s commission, but not being wealthy enough to sustain an officer’s position, he turned it down.  He was instead promoted to Quarter Master Sergeant.[3]

At Gibraltar, Frank Bourne married Eliza Mary Fincham and began to raise his family; they eventually had five children.  His battalion eventually ended up in India and Burma but saw minimal action.  In 1890, Bourne was advanced to Honorary Lieutenant and appointed to serve as Adjutant, School of Musketry in Hythe, Southampton.  Bourne remained at this post for many years, eventually retiring as a Major in 1907.

In retirement, Major Frank Bourne DCM assisted Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts (a much beloved general officer known in the ranks as “Bobs”) with the administration of the National Service League and the National Smallbore Rifle Association.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Major Bourne rejoined the army and was posted as Adjutant, School of Musketry, Dublin.  By the end of the First World War, Bourne had been promoted to lieutenant colonel and awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE).[4]

One hell of a soldier.  Rest in peace, Colonel Bourne.

Sources:

  1. Find A Grave Memorials (online).
  2. Imperial War Museum, United Kingdom (online).

Endnotes:

[1] According to these records and photographic evidence, Frank Bourne looked nothing like the actor who played him in  the film, Zulu — Nigel Green.

[2] Queen Victoria created the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) in 1854 in recognition of gallantry in the field by “other ranks” of the British Army.  It is the oldest award for gallant conduct ranking only below the Victoria Cross (created in 1857).  In 1993, the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross replaced the DCM, CGM, and DSO.  The CGC is now the second-highest medal for gallantry in combat in the United Kingdom.

[3] During the Napoleonic War, the demand for experienced military officers prompted the British Army to offer battlefield commissions to enlisted men.  However, the system of commissions in those days required officers to purchase their commissions, which to most low-to-middle-class Englishmen, was cost prohibitive.   

[4] Technically, the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is an order of chivalry in recognition of public service outside civil service, established in 1917 by King George V.


Operation Urgent Fury — Part 1

The Invasion of Grenada

Introduction

Grenada was (and continues to be) a member of the British Commonwealth, but that didn’t stop President Reagan from ordering a military invasion of that island in 1983.  To achieve the President’s objectives, the U.S. Department of Defense employed the following military and naval units:

U.S. Army Units

  • 1st and 2nd battalions, 75th Ranger Regiment
  • 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment,
  • 1st and 2nd Battalions, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment,
  • 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 508th Infantry Regiment,
  • 27th Engineer Battalion,
  • 548th Engineer Battalion,
  • 1st Battalion, 320th Artillery Regiment,
  • 160th Aviation Battalion,
  • 269th Aviation Battalion,
  • 1st and 2nd Battalion, 82nd Airborne Regiment,
  • 65th MP Company,
  • 118th MP Company,
  • 411th MP Company,
  • 35th Signal Brigade,
  • 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion,
  • 319th Military Intelligence Battalion,
  • 9th Psychological Operations Battalion,
  • 7th Transportation Battalion,
  • 44th Medical Services Brigade, and
  • The 82nd Finance Company.

U.S. Air Force Units

  • Detachment, 136th Tactical Airlift Wing
  • Detachments, Air National Guard Tactical Fighter Squadrons
  • Detachment, 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing 
  • 26th Air Defense Squadron, NORAD
  • 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing
  • 437th Military Airlift Wing
  • 1st Special Operations Wing
  • Detachment, 317th Military Airlift Wing 

U.S. Naval Units

  • U.S. Navy Independence Carrier Battle Group
  • 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit.

At the end of the first day, U.S. Marines from the 22nd MAU controlled 75% of the island’s 135 square miles.  It was a condition that prompted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Army General John Vessey, to inquire of Major General Edward Trobaugh, Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division, “We’ve got two companies of Marines running around all over the island and thousands of Army troops doing nothing.  What the hell is going on?”

Background

Erick Gairy (1922-1997), Chief Minister of Granada, could have been a stand-in for American actor/comedian Eddie Murphy.  Gairy was a trained school teacher and served in that capacity from 1939-1941.  For several years afterward, he worked for Largo Oil and Transport Company on the Island of Aruba.  By the time Gairy returned to Granada, he’d become a political radical of the Marxist bent.

In 1957, Gairy’s radicalism prompted the British government to ban him from political activity until 1961.  Popular among the people of Granada, however, Gairy returned to politics in the election of 1961 and, owing to his party’s majority in the legislature, became Chief Minister.  When Gairy’s party lost the election of 1962, Gairy became the legislature’s opposition leader through the end of the legislative session of 1967.

In 1967, Gairy won the general election and formed a new administration as Premier of the Associated State of Grenada, which he led until 1974.  When Grenada achieved its independence from the United Kingdom in 1974, Gairy became the Island’s first Prime Minister.  A series of civil disturbances marked his administration.  His so-called Mongoose Gang (a secret police organization) used violence and threats of mayhem to intimidate voters and political opponents alike.  Despite international observers declaring the election fraudulent, Gairy was narrowly reelected in 1976 by a thin margin, and the civil violence continued.  Gairy’s primary opponent in 1976 was Maurice Bishop, who formed and headed the New Jewel Movement (NJM).  Maurice Bishop led an armed revolution and overthrew the government when Gairy was out of the country.  Bishop suspended the constitution and ruled by fait accompli until 1983.[1]

Contentious Issues

In 1954, the British government proposed the construction of a new international airport.  The project was a cooperative effort involving Great Britain, Cuba, Libya, and Algeria; the project took shape under Bishop’s administration.  Canadians designed the airfield, the UK funded it, and a London firm won the contract for building it.

The United States objected to the airport’s construction because the 9,000-foot runway could accommodate large Soviet aircraft and facilitate Soviet-Cuban military buildups in the Caribbean.  In the view of the U. S. Secretaries of Defense and State, the Point Salines Airport would easily facilitate the transfer of weapons from the Soviet Union to Cuba and several Central American rebel groups.  CIA sources confirmed that Granada was receiving regular arms shipments from the Soviet Union, which was part of a communist scheme to destabilize the region.  Unsurprisingly, California Democrat Ron Dellums (another black radical) traveled to Grenada (at the request of Bishop) and publicly announced that, in his opinion, US concerns were unwarranted.

In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan issued a series of warnings about the Soviet Union’s threat to the United States and its Caribbean allies.  CIA analysts concluded that the Point Salines airport did not require an excessively long landing strip or quite as many fuel storage tanks to accommodate regular commercial air traffic.  Nevertheless, the airport became operational in May 1983, officially named Maurice Bishop International Airport.

In October, Granada Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard initiated a coup d’état and placed Bishop under house arrest.  Mass protests facilitated Bishop’s escape, enabling him to vocally reassert his authority.  Bishop, however, was tracked down and murdered along with his conjugal partner, several government officials, and loyal supporters of the labor union movement.  With Bishop out of the way, General Hudson Austin, head of the People’s Revolutionary Army of Grenada, seized power and established himself as the head of government.[2]  Austin placed British Governor-General Paul Scoon under house arrest.

On 23 October, Governor Scoon sent a secret message to the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) asking for help.  The OECS, Barbados, and Jamaica made a joint appeal to the United States for assistance in dealing with “the current anarchic conditions, the serious violations of human rights, bloodshed, and the consequent threat to the peace and security of the region.”  Beyond these conditions, approximately 1,000 American medical students attended St. George’s University Medical School.  General Austin isolated them as hostages against any action the United States might take against his regime.

Military Intervention

Captain Carl R. Erie, U. S. Navy, served as Commander, Atlantic Amphibious Task Force.  His command included Amphibious Squadron-4 (PhibRon-4) and the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit (22ndMAU).[3]  Colonel James K. Faulkner, USMC, commanded the MAU, which consisted of a ground combat element (GCE), an air combat element (ACE), and a combat service support element (CSSE).  The GCE was Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8) under Lieutenant Colonel Ray L. Smith, USMC.  Serving as the ACE was Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 261 under Lieutenant Colonel Granville R. Amos, USMC.  Major Albert E. Shively commanded the CSSE.  The task force was en route to the Mediterranean as part of a regular US presence there.

Once the U.S. National Command Authority decided that military intervention in Grenada was appropriate and warranted, the Chief of Naval Operations directed Captain Erie to take up station at a point five-hundred miles northeast of Granada and await further instructions.  After consulting with Colonel Faulkner, Erie assumed that the mission, if directed, would involve a non-combat evacuation operation (NEO).  At that time, Erie had no specific information about the number or location of potential evacuees.

On 23 October, the U.S. military had no worthwhile information about Grenada.  None of Captain Erie’s ships had maps of Grenada.[4]  USS Guam did have outdated nautical charts produced by the United Kingdom in 1936, but their usefulness to a modern navy was marginal.  However, Commander Richard A. Butler, USN, who was then serving as Captain Erie’s chief of staff, did have personal experience as an amateur yachtsman in the waters surrounding Granada, and he was somewhat familiar with the area — including an awareness of coastal features, tides, surf, and beaches.  It was also fortunate that Lieutenant Colonel Smith had studied Granada while an Armed Forces Staff College student.

However, until Captain Erie received specific orders, there could be no planning because a NEO requires names and national affiliations of potential evacuees.  Beyond the estimate of “about 1,000 medical students,” Captain Eric was not receiving any information from the U.S. State Department.  Faulkner’s planning would encompass more than force landing, force security, and force extraction if the amphibious group were ordered to conduct something beyond a NEO.

Captain Erie finally received instructions to dispatch a helicopter to Antigua to pick up “advisors” and return them to PhibRon-4.  Still anticipating a NEO, senior Navy and Marine Corps officers assumed these people could be State Department representatives.

At 22:00 on 22 October, Captain Erie received another message directing PhibRon-4 to proceed to Grenada; a supplemental message provided general information on Grenadian military forces’ expected strength and disposition.  Erie was told to “stand by” for intelligence updates.

Ultimately, Captain Erie learned that the Grenadian military numbered around 1,200 men.  Military hardware included 12.7mm and 37mm anti-aircraft batteries provided by the Soviet Union.  Intelligence analysts warned Erie that a Grenadian reserve/militia force of between 2,000-5,000 men and 300-400 armed police could be expected to back the Army.  US intelligence also estimated between 30 to 50 Cuban military advisors, an unknown number of Cuban civilians, and around 600 Cuban construction workers.[5]

Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf, serving as Commander, U.S. Second Fleet (COMUSSECONDFLT) (serving also as Commander, Joint Task Force 120) (CJTF-120), messaged Erie to advise him that land operations, whatever they might entail, would fall under the authority of the U. S. Army commander.[6] An airborne assault would involve the 82nd Airborne Division, reinforced by U.S. Army Rangers.  Given this new information, Colonel Faulkner assumed that any mission handed to the Marines would be in support of Army forces, possibly in reserve.

When Erie’s helicopter returned from Antigua on 23 October, no state department personnel were onboard.  Instead, the aircraft’s passengers were U.S. Atlantic Fleet intelligence officers carrying updated information about Grenada and a draft operation order identifying Admiral Metcalf’s operational components: the 82nd Airborne Division, reinforcing components, and the Navy/Marine Corps Amphibious Force (Task Force 124).[7]

The urgency of the intervention compressed the time frame for the operation.  Still, much of the information Captain Eric needed to plan an amphibious assault remained unknown.  To Colonel Faulkner’s surprise, the operation order directed TF-124 to seize the Pearls Airport, the port of Grenville, and neutralize any opposing force within that operating area.  Army units (TF-121 and TF-123) would secure points on the island’s southern end, including the Bishop International Airport at Point Salines.  The carrier battle group (Task Group 20.5) and the U. S. Air Force elements would support the ground forces.

Colonel Faulkner, Lieutenant Colonel Smith, and Lieutenant Colonel Amos received Admiral Metcalf’s guidance a mere 30 hours before “H” Hour.  Faulkner intended to employ a combined air and surface assault to seize his assigned objectives, but he still didn’t have sufficient information to complete his assault plan.  The MAU operations officer wanted to give the GCE maximum strength and flexibility so that Smith could deal with whatever opposition might be waiting ashore.  Still, there remained questions about the suitability of a surface landing on the eastern beaches due to high winds and heavy surf.

Admiral Metcalf decided that D Day would occur on 25 October but added one constraint: no landing would occur before 0400 on D Day.  Colonel Smith and Colonel Amos wanted to launch their assault at first light to minimize the anti-aircraft threat; Metcalf’s restriction simply made that window even smaller.  Moreover, Admiral Metcalf’s rules of engagement (ROE) restricted gunplay to “… only those weapons essential for the mission’s success.”  Metcalf’s instructions ordered ground commanders to avoid disrupting the local economy as much as possible.  Marines were told to establish friendly relations with the Grenadian people whenever possible.  Colonel Smith emphasized this to his company commander: “We are liberating the Grenadians, not attacking them.”

The Marines completed their operational planning on 24 October.  Early that morning, Metcalf met with his boss and the Army commanders.  From this meeting, Admiral Metcalf changed H Hour to 0500.  PhibRon-4 rendezvoused with TG-20.5 off the coast of Barbados, and Metcalf arrived onboard USS Guam at 1745 to assume direct command of the joint task force.  Metcalf approved the operation plan.

At midnight, Navy SEALs went ashore to conduct beach reconnaissance operations.  The task force entered Grenadian waters at around 0200.  At 0400, SEALs reported a marginal beach for landing craft and tracked vehicles.  Accordingly, Captain Erie decided that the primary landing force would go in vertically.  Helicopters would land two rifle companies on the East Coast to seize Pearls Airport and the town of Grenville.  Once these Marines were “feet dry,” Erie would entertain Faulkner’s recommendation for an amphibious landing if the Marines could find a suitable beach.  As the MAU operations staff made last-minute preparations, grunts watched a film on the mess deck — The Sands of Iwo Jima.

(Continued Next Week)

Sources:

  1. Adkin, M.  Urgent Fury: The Battle for Grenada: The Truth Behind the Largest U.S. Military Operation since Vietnam.  Lexington Books, 1989.
  2. Cole, R. H.  Operation Urgent Fury: The Planning and Execution of Joint Operations in Grenada.  Washington: Pentagon Study, 1997.
  3. Dolphin, G. E.  24 MAU 1983: A Marine Looks Back at the Peacekeeping Mission to Beirut, Lebanon.  Publish America, 2005.
  4. Moore, C.  Margaret Thatcher: At Her Zenith in London, Washington, and Moscow.  New York: Vintage Books, 2016
  5. Russell, L.  Grenada, 1983.  London: Osprey Books, 1985. 
  6. Spector, R. H.  U. S. Marines in Grenada.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1987.
  7. Williams, G.  US-Grenada Relations: Revolution and Intervention in the Backyard.  Macmillan, 2007.

Endnotes:

[1] Maurice Bishop was a Marxist revolutionary and head of the Marxist/Leninist/Black Liberation Party.

[2] Austin had the tacit approval of the Soviet government to proceed with the coup d’état and take over the government.  Contrary to Congressman Dellums’ assessment, the threat to the United States and Caribbean allies was real.  Austin also had close ties to Communist Cuba, as did several members of the NJM movement, including Bishop, Coard, and Scoon.

[3] Today, Marine Amphibious Units are referred to as Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs).  MEU commanders exercise operational and administrative supervision of battalion landing teams (BLTs) (reinforced battalions task organized for a specific type of mission) and composite air squadron (with vertical lift aircraft), and an expeditionary service support (logistics) group.

[4] USS Guam (LPH-9), USS Trenton (LPD-14), USS Fort Snelling (LSD-30), USS Barnstable County (LST 1197) or USS Manitowoc (LST-1180).

[5] In reality, Cuban military forces included around 800 men, a quarter of whom were regular military.

[6] Major General Edward Trobaugh commanded the 82nd Airborne Division; Major General Jack B. Farris serving as deputy commander XVIII Airborne Corps exercised overall command of ground operations during Operation Urgent Fury.

[7] On Sunday morning, 23 October 1983, terrorist bombers attacked International Peacekeepers in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 U.S. Marines and Navy corpsmen, 58 French military, and 6 civilians.  The Marines and Corpsmen were members of BLT 1/8, sister battalion of the GCE of the 22nd MAU (which before the Grenada warning order, were en route to relieve 1/8 on station Beirut.


Marine Fighting Spirit

Introduction

Valor, audacity, and fortitude are words used to describe America’s Armed Forces.  The histories of the military services are replete with examples of individual and organizational esprit de corps.  What these men and organizations do in combat mirrors their mission and training; how well they do it reflects the quality of their leaders and the unit’s fighting spirit — their willingness to improvise, adapt and overcome — their ability to sustain serious injury and keep on fighting.

America’s Marines have been at this now for going on 250 years.  The history book of the U.S. Marines is awash with examples of courage under fire, refusal to quit, and victory without fanfare.  We don’t know very much about the kind of training the Continental Marines experienced in preparing them for war with Great Britain in 1775, but we do know that despite the small size of the Corps back then, that handful of Marines distinguished themselves and laid the foundation for what a United States Marine Corps should one day become.

They were American Marines.  Their successes in battle far outnumbered their failures, and while they may have been forced to withdraw from the field of battle, they never quit the fight.  Within two weeks of mustering on the stern of the Continental Navy’s flagship USS Alfred, these early Marines were en route to their first battle — which occurred at New Providence, Nassau, on 3 March 1776.  It wasn’t the bloodiest of battles, but they did their part in helping the navy accomplish its mission.  That’s what Marines do.

The British overwhelmed the Marines at Bladensburg during the War of 1812, but by that time, every other American military unit had already left the field of battle.  The American Marines acquitted themselves so well that the British honored them by sparing the Marine Barracks in Washington (then the headquarters of the United States Marine Corps) from destruction.  The Marine Barracks was the ONLY government building spared — and this explains why Marine Barracks, Washington, is the oldest structure inside the nation’s capital.

Outside this blog’s small number of readers, few Americans today know the Marine Corps’ battle history.  As naval infantry, American Marines protected their country’s interests from the coast of North Africa, throughout the Caribbean, in the Falkland Islands, Sumatra, West Africa, and in the Seminole Wars.  During the Mexican War, Marines seized enemy seaports along the Gulf and the Pacific Ocean.  A battalion of Marines fought under General Winfield Scott at Pueblo and carried the fight all the Halls of Montezuma.” During the American Civil War, Union Marines fought on land and sea.

The farther Marines get from one battle, the closer they get to their next.

The Cold War

At the conclusion of World War II, President Harry S. Truman wasted no time demobilizing the armed forces.  He was intent on making a smooth transition from a wartime economy to one that fulfilled the needs of a nation at peace.  Veterans were returning home from four long years of horror; they needed jobs, and Truman believed that it was the government’s duty to do what it could to help create those jobs.  It was also a time of restructuring of the Armed Forces.  The War Department was disbanded; in its place, a Department of Defense incorporated the service secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  But, in achieving these goals, Truman placed the military services on the chopping block.  Every service experienced sharp cuts in manpower and equipment.  Suddenly, there was no money to repair airplanes, tanks, or radios.  There was no money for annual rifle requalification, no training exercises, and hardly any money to feed, clothe, and see to the medical needs of active duty troops.

During this time, the Marine Corps had but one advantage over the other services.  They all “gave up” one-third of the wartime strength, of course, but while combat veterans in the Army, Navy, and Air Force dwindled to about twenty percent of their total force, the Marine Corps retained half of their combat officers and noncommissioned officers — the men who had led the way through the Pacific, and somehow miraculously survived.

Boiling Korea

When the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) invaded South Korea in the early morning hours of 25 June 1950, they did so in overwhelming numbers.  It was a mechanized/combined arms force involving thirteen infantry divisions, an armored division of well-trained, superbly equipped troops, and a full aviation division to back them up.  Various sources tell us that the number of invading troops was between 90,000 —150,000 men.  An additional 30,000 North Korean soldiers were held “in reserve.”

General Douglas MacArthur, serving as Supreme Allied Commander, Far East, was headquartered in Tokyo, Japan.  Within this United Nations (U.N.) The command consisted of several subordinate commanders, including Commander, U. S. Seventh Fleet, Commander, U.S. Eighth Army, and Commander, U.S. Fifth Air Force.

Commanding the Eighth Army was Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, U. S. Army.  His subordinate commands included the U.S. 24th Infantry Division, 1st Cavalry Division, and the U.S. 25th Infantry Division — all of which were stationed in Japan as part of the post-war Allied occupation force.  At the end of June 1950, because of Truman’s cuts to the military services, not one of the Army’s occupation divisions was prepared for a national emergency.[1]  In the Republic of Korea, the South Korean (ROK) armed forces numbered less than 70,000 men.  The one thing the South Koreans shared with the U.S. Eighth Army was that the men were poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly led.

Eventually, all U.N. ground forces were organized under the U.S. Eighth Army.  By the time General Walker was able to organize an armed response, the NKPA had already overrun 90% of the South Korean peninsula.  The only terrain in possession of U.N. forces was a 140-mile perimeter around the port city of Pusan (southeast South Korea).  Throughout July and August, General Walker’s forces suffered one defeat after another.  Casualties were mounting, and the morale of these “U.N.” forces was at an all-time low.  Within thirty days, the U.S. Army suffered 6,000 casualties.  The losses borne by the ROK Army were massive.[2]

General MacArthur asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for a Marine regiment to help stem the tide of the invading NKPA.  To clarify: General of the Army Douglas MacArthur wanted a regiment of Marines to stem the tide of 150,000 communist troops — when the NPKA had already mauled two Army infantry divisions in 30 days.  What MacArthur received, instead, was a Marine combat brigade — which became the lead element of a re-constituted 1st Marine Division.

A Marine expeditionary brigade is an awesome organization because it incorporates ground, air, and service support elements designed to make the brigade a self-sustaining combat powerhouse.  The 1st (Provisional) Marine Brigade (1stMarBde) began forming at Camp Pendleton, California, on 7 July, its core element was the 5th Marine Regiment (with reinforcing elements: artillery, tanks, engineers, communications) and Marine Aircraft Group 33 (three fixed-wing squadrons and a helicopter squadron).

What made the 1stMarBde extraordinary was the circumstances under which it was formed.  Truman’s cuts were so devastating to the Marine Corps (owing to its already small size) that on 25 June 1950, there was but one infantry regiment at Camp Pendleton — in reduced strength.  The regiment had three battalions (and a headquarters element), but each was short one rifle company; each rifle company was short one rifle platoon.  These reductions simply meant that the Marines would have to fight harder.

The brigade pulled into Pusan Harbor on 2 August; what the Marines discovered was that they were outnumbered and out-gunned by a formidable enemy.  US Marine combat commands during the Korean War operated within the Eighth Army.  General Walker decided to use these Marines as a stop-gap force.  Whenever the NKPA mauled and routed an American Army unit, Walker sent Marines to re-capture the Army’s forfeited positions.  Were it not for this handful of Marines, the Pusan Perimeter would have collapsed, and the NKPA would have succeeded in pushing the tip of America’s spear into the sea.

As previously mentioned, the Marine Brigade was dangerously understrength — but what the Marines brought to the table was exceptional officer and NCO leadership, combat experience, and an unparalleled fighting spirit.  When the NKPA met the US Marines for the first time, they quickly realized that they had foolishly underestimated the lethality of the Marine Corps Air/Ground Team. 

The Fire Brigade began combat operations almost immediately inside the Pusan Perimeter.  The North Korean Army may have had their way with our poorly trained army, but the Marines would have none of it.  US Marines introduced many NKPA soldiers to their worst (and last) day.

Overall command of the brigade fell to Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, USMC.  His assistant was Brigadier General Thomas J. Cushman, who commanded Marine Aircraft Group-33.[3]  Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray (selected for promotion to colonel) served as Commanding Officer, 5th Marines.[4]  Below Murray, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (also, 1/5) was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George R. Newton;[5] Lieutenant Colonel Harold S. Roise led 2/5,[6] and 3/5 was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert D. Taplett.[7]  The skill and determination of these field commanders and the fighting spirit of their men won every battle.  When the Marines of the fire brigade went to Korea, they went with the finest combat commanders available, with combat-tested Noncommissioned Officers and a body of men who exhibited the highest qualities of the United States Marines.

First Encounter

General Walker assigned the brigade to the U.S. 25th Infantry Division (U.S. 25TH) on 6 August; Craig’s orders were to move forward and reinforce thinly spread elements of the Army’s 5th Regimental Combat Team (5 RCT) and the 27th Infantry Regiment (27 INF).  The 5 RCT tried to organize an assault against NKPA forces on 7 August; 27 INF was moving to the rear to serve as 8th Army Reserve.  To facilitate early relief of the 27th, Taplett’s 3/5 accelerated its departure from Changwon and arrived at Chindong-ni less than two hours later.  Serving with 3/5 were elements of 1st Battalion, 11th Marines (1/11) (artillery), and a platoon of engineers.  Murray ordered Taplett to relieve 2/27 INF on Hill 255.

Colonel Taplett was aware of increased enemy activity within his assigned tactical area of responsibility (TAOR).  With only two rifle companies available, Taplett established his area defense with wise use of attached units.  Slowly, additional units began to arrive from the Brigade, including Captain Kenneth J. Houghton’s Reconnaissance Company and a mortar platoon.  Because of the location of the units, Taplett fell under the operational control of Colonel John H. Michaelis, commanding 27 INF.

After reporting to Michaelis, Taplett did his due diligence by pre-registering artillery and mortar on the northern approaches to Chindong-ni and set his battalion in for the night.  Shortly before midnight, a heavy enemy assault on Hill 342 mauled the U.S. Army company defending it.  Michaelis ordered Taplett to send a reinforced platoon to relieve the beleaguered company.  Initially, with only six rifle platoons, Taplett begged off.  Rather than ordering Taplett to execute his last order, Colonel Michaelis deferred the matter (tattled) to Major General William B. Kean, commanding U.S. 25th.[8]

Hill 342 (342 meters above sea level) (1,100 feet) abutted another hill formation that exceeded 600 meters.  The NKPA wanted possession of the hill to facilitate cutting off the U.N.’s main supply route (MSR).  Taplett assigned this mission to Golf Company (1stLt Robert D. Bohn, Commanding), who detailed the mission to Second Lieutenant John H. Cahill, commanding the 1st Platoon.[9]

Bohn reinforced Cahill’s platoon with a radio operator and a machine gun squad.  Moving westward along the MSR, Cahill reached Michaelis’ command post (C.P.) within an hour.  Michaelis’ operations officer instructed Cahill to proceed 700 yards further down the MSR, where a guide would meet him and lead him to the 2/5th RCT for further instructions.

Lieutenant Cahill met his guide without difficulty, but apparently, the guide had become disoriented in the darkness.  After some delay, Cahill’s platoon reached the base of Hill 342.  Two shots rang out; two Marines fell wounded.  The Army guide advised Cahill to withhold his climb to the summit until daybreak.  Shortly after first light, Cahill discovered that U.S. soldiers had shot his men — nervous young men who were unaware that friendly units were moving through their security area.

Cahill and his Marines began their ascent at daybreak.  Shale rock made footing treacherous on the steep hill; the Marines struggled in full combat gear.  The sun burned down upon the Marines, and because they had not yet learned how to conserve their water ration, they soon found themselves approaching heat exhaustion.  Despite the heat, Cahill and his NCOs kept the Marines moving.  Two-thirds of the way to the top, enemy small-arms and machine gun fire added to their misery.  Nearing the top, Cahill instructed his NCOs to keep the Marines moving while he increased his pace; he needed to liaise with the army company commander.  Cahill ignored the enemy fire and proceeded to the top of the hill.

By the time the Marines struggled into the Army perimeter, they’d been climbing for more than three hours (342 meters = 1,122 feet).  Enemy machine gun fire killed one Marine and wounded six others (including Cahill’s platoon sergeant and his platoon guide).[10]  Eight additional men became heat casualties.  Of the 52 Marines that began the climb, only 37 remained combat effective.

Cahill and his remaining NCOs set their Marines in among the Army’s already established defensive perimeter — a wise move because service pride enjoined each man to maintain a high standard of military conduct.  The enemy killed two more Marines as their sergeant set them into defensive positions.  At noon, the fight atop Hill 342 became a siege.

As North Korean soldiers moved slowly to encircle the Americans, defending soldiers and Marines conducted themselves with determination, good discipline, and accurate defensive fire.  Since there was no infantry/artillery coordination in the Army, Cahill used his radio net to obtain artillery support from the 11th Marines to suppress enemy mortar fire.

If enemy small arms and mortar fire wasn’t enough, soldiers and Marines atop Hill 342 began running out of water and ammunition.  Cahill radioed 3/5 requesting air resupply.  When USAF R4Ds delivered the much-needed water and munitions, they dropped them behind enemy lines.  A second airdrop delivered by MAG-33’s VMO-6 was more successful, but not by much.  When the water cans came into contact with mother earth, they exploded.  Marines and soldiers nevertheless retained their precarious positions — but it wasn’t as if they had much choice in the matter.  The Americans had no way out.

Back on Hill 255

Throughout the early morning of 7 August, Colonel Taplett’s front around Chindong-ni became the focus of enemy shelling, ending at around 0400.  Cahill’s first reports to Taplett’s headquarters caused some anxiety.  Taplett concluded that the operation was quickly turning into a goat rope.  At around 0200, LtCol Roise’s 2/5 departed Changwon in a convoy that was too long and too slow.[11]

Roise reached Chindong-ni at around 0500 and entered a schoolyard at the base of Taplett’s hill.  The schoolyard became a bottleneck of vehicles, and the North Koreans used this opportunity to inflict injury and confusion with a steady barrage of mortar fire.  Roise’s battalion suffered one man killed and eleven more wounded; the accuracy of enemy fire kept the Marines undercover.  Murray’s headquarters element, following Roise’s unit, was held up on the road far outside Chindong-ni; had the enemy known this, the 5th Marines CP would have been a sitting duck.

Colonel Murray regained operational control of his battalions once he arrived at Hill 255.  Considering the enemy situation on Hill 342 and hostile activity north of the village, Murray ordered 2/5 to occupy and defend the expanse of Hill 255 above Taplett’s Company H and directed Newton’s 1/5 to occupy Hill 99.  This decision relieved Taplett’s Company G to support 3/5’s lower perimeter on Hill 255.  General Craig’s arrival at 0700 was heralded by renewed enemy shelling.

Craig’s advance hinged on 5 RCT’s success at the Tosan junction.  General Craig arranged for land lines to the Army regiment.  News from the front was not good.  5 RCT jumped off at 0630 — but not for long.  The NKPA 6th Division sat waiting just forward of the regiment’s line of departure. 

The situation atop Hill 342 kept the 5 RCT’s second battalion occupied with a fight for the Chinju Road.  The battalion progressed, but the roadway was choked with men, equipment, and refugees.  Shortly after 0700, Kean ordered Craig to provide a battalion for the relief of an Army unit at Yaban-san.  This would free 5 RCT to make a strike at the road junction two miles further west.  Murray ordered Roise to relieve the men atop Hill 342 and seize the rest of the problematic hill formation.

At 1120 Kean ordered Craig to assume control of all troops in the area of Chindong-ni until further notice.  Craig went forward to conduct personal reconnaissance, ascertaining that enemy resistance was relatively light but with few friendly gains because of the scattered and confused nature of the fighting.  The MSR between Sangnyoung-ni at the base of Hill 342 and the Tosan junction was still jumbled up, and well-placed enemy snipers confused the situation even more.

When Roise’s battalion reached the road junction where Cahill had met his Army guide the night before, he ordered Captain John Finn, Jr., commanding Company D, to ascend the North fork, which traced the eastern spur of Hill 342 and seize the entire hill.  Roise ordered First Lieutenant William E. Sweeney, commanding Company E, to pass behind Sangnyoung-ni and capture the western spur.  Roise took a chance with this maneuver because his battalion was dangerously understrength.

A determined enemy wasn’t the Brigade’s only problem.  The Marines had been constantly on the move since 3 August; they were reaching an exhaustive state — made worse by high daytime temperatures.

Enemy fire began pouring in on Finn’s Marines; Captain Finn ordered his men to take cover in the rice fields bordering the roadway.  He had no valuable intelligence about the enemy’s battle plan, but he instructed his platoon commander to ignore the enemy fire coming from the direction of Tokkong-ni and focus on their advance on Hill 342.  Finn ordered Lieutenant Wallace to lead his Platoon through Taepyong-ni and climb the spur at its junction; Lieutenant Emmelman’s 3rd platoon would take the hill on the left of the spur; Lieutenant Oakley’s 1st platoon would hold the company’s right flank and climb the southern slope of Hill 342.  Finn’s Executive Officer (XO), First Lieutenant Hannifin, would establish the company C.P. and set up 60-mm mortars on the hill overlooking Taepyong-ni.

Captain Finn led his men forward over the same route taken by Lieutenant Cahill twelve hours earlier.  Terrain prevented him from hearing or observing the exertions of his men.  A few hundred yards from the summit, Finn radioed Roise to advise that his men were exhausted from their climb.  While Finn’s assault had scattered the enemy, the company lost five Marines injured by enemy wife, and twelve men had collapsed from heat exhaustion.  As Finn rested his men, Lieutenant Oakley climbed to the summit, met with Army and Marine commanders, and led them to Finn’s position.  The Army commander advised Finn to hold his men in place, rest them, and continue their climb in the morning  Roise approved the delay by radio.

Lieutenant Sweeney’s ascent was no easier.  Company E received sporadic enemy fire, but it was mostly ineffective.  The real enemy was the heat.  Sweeney rested his Marines at dusk; he had advanced midway to the summit of Hill 342.

Dawn Attack

During the hours of darkness, NKPA forces inched their way around the summit of Hill 342.  Just before dawn, the NKPA greeted defending soldiers and Marines with short bursts of automatic weapons and rifle fire.  The defenders returned fire and hurled grenades down the steep slope, but a small enemy force came close enough to mount an attack on the Northeast section of the defensive triangle.  After fierce hand-to-hand fighting at the point of contact, the American defenders forced an enemy withdrawal.  One of Cahill’s men died from bayonet and gunshot wounds; several other defenders received serious injuries.  Brushing aside light enemy resistance, Company D moved up to the summit.  Just as Company D entered the perimeter, the NKPA unleashed withering fire from positions that ringed the defensive area.

Finn set his company into the perimeter and ordered the Army and Marine units to withdraw.  Lieutenant Cahill had lost six killed and 12 wounded — a third of his original contingent of men, but the two beleaguered units managed to frustrate the NKPA’s effort to establish an observation post on Hill 342.

Company D fared no better in consolidating its control of the hill.  Captain Finn lost Second Lieutenants Oakley and Reid.  Lieutenant Emmelman received a serious head wound while directing machine gun fires, and Captain Finn was himself wounded in the head and shoulder.  As Navy corpsmen evacuated Finn and Emmelman, Lieutenant Hannifin, on the way up with mortars, learned that he was now the Company D commander.  Reaching the summit, Hannifin never had time to organize his defensive positions before the NKPA initiated a second assault.  Concentrated fire from the Marines pushed the communists back, but Company D had suffered six killed in action and 25 wounded men.

Enemy fire slackened off around mid-day.  While speaking with Roise on the battalion radio net, Hannifin collapsed from heat exhaustion.  Master Sergeant Harold Reeves assumed command of the company; Second Lieutenant Leroy K. Wirth, an artillery forward observer, assumed command of the company’s mortar section.  Reeves and Wirth continuously ranged forward of the company perimeter to call in air and artillery strikes.  Company D remained steady, and the NKPA lost interest in trying to dislodge them.  Captain Andrew M. Zimmer was dispatched from the regimental staff to assume command of Company D.

Company E relocated to a position 100 yards along the western spur and dug in.  NKPA harassment continued, but there was no more hard fighting on the crest of the hill.  Major Walter Gall, commanding Roise’s Weapons Company, dispatched a small patrol to see if they could dislodge enemy machine guns inside Tokkong-ni.  After a brief slug match, the enemy remained in control of the village.  After Gall’s patrol withdrew from Tokkong-ni, First Lieutenant Ira T. Carr unleashed his 81-mm mortars on the village, which brought enemy resistance to an end.

After 8 August, NKPA forces gave the Marines a wide birth.  Company D was withdrawn from Hill 342 on the afternoon of 9 August, replaced by a battalion of the 24 INF.  Members of the brigade who had no World War II experience could now claim they were combat veterans.  The Americans learned from enemy documents later captured that the soldiers defending Hill 342 had held off elements of two North Korean regiments of the 6th NKPA Division.

Lieutenant Cahill later offered a conservative estimate of 150 enemy dead on the slopes of Hill 342.  Colonel Roise estimated an additional 400 enemy KIA after its fight.  The North Koreans learned from the Marines in the Pusan perimeter that there was a new sheriff in town.  Marines would continue killing North Koreans in large numbers for the next several weeks.

Sources:

  1. Chapin, J. C.  Fire Brigade: U. S. Marines in the Pusan Perimeter.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 2002.
  2. Geer, A.  The New Breed.  New York: Harper Brothers, 1952.
  3. Daugherty, L. J.  Train Wreckers and Ghost Killers: Allied Marines in the Korean War.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 2003.
  4. Montross, L. And Canzona, N. A. U. S. Marine Corps Operations in Korea, 1950-53 (Vol.  I): The Pusan Perimeter.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1954.

Endnotes:

[1] See also, From King to Joker.

[2] Battles are not won purely on the size of opposing armies; they are won by the skill of their commanders and the fighting spirit (and capacity) of their men.  None of these conditions existed within the US/UN armed forces on 25 June 1950.

[3] Lieutenant General Thomas J. Cushman (1895-1972 ) was the recipient of two Legions of Merit medals and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.

[4] Major General Murray (1913-2004) was a highly decorated officer, having won two Navy Cross medals, four Silver Star Medals, a Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Purple Heart Medal.  Murray commanded 2/6, 3rd Marines, 5th Marines, 1st Infantry Training Regiment, and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC.  He fought at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Inchon, Seoul, the Chosin Reservoir, and the Vietnam War.

[5] Colonel Newton (1915-2003 ) was a graduate of the USNA, class of 1938, retiring in 1962.  While serving with the US Marine Legation Guard in Peking China, he was captured by the Japanese and held as a prisoner of war (1941-1945).  He was awarded the Silver Star medal for conspicuous gallantry on 23 September 1950 and the Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious service while commanding the 1stBn 5thMar  7 July – 12 September 1950.

[6] Colonel Roise (1916-91) was the recipient of two Navy Cross medals in the Korean War.  He served on active duty from 1939 until 1965 with combat service at Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, Pusan, Inchon, Seoul, and the Chosin Reservoir.

[7] Taplett was awarded the Navy Cross medal for his gallant service at the Chosin Reservoir.

[8] MajGen Kean assumed command of the US 25th Infantry Division in 1948.  The failure of his division to perform in combat rests directly with him.

[9] Bohn retired from active duty as a Major General in 1974.  Bohn was awarded two Silver Star medals, two Legions of Merit, two Purple Hearts, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal.

[10] The platoon guide is responsible for the resupply of ammunition, rations, and water.  He processes casualties, manages prisoners, and assumes the duties of the platoon sergeant when necessary.

[11] South Korean “roads” were unpaved, single-lane affairs that winded around the base of hills.  Driving at night was treacherous because vehicles drove in total darkness.  Added to the congestion of military vehicles was a steady stream of civilians trying to get out of the way of two conflicting armies.  Hidden among those civilian refugees were North Korean sappers.  “Goat Rope” was an adequate description of the activities on 7 August 1950.


Why Peleliu?

Some Background

Japan’s industrial growth during the Meiji Period was nothing short of extraordinary.  Many industrial and business success stories involved large family-owned conglomerates (zaibatsu’s).  Their phenomenal economic growth sparked rapid urbanization, and the population working in agriculture decreased from around 75% (1872) to about 50% (1920).  Of course, there were substantial benefits to this growth, including increased longevity and a dramatic increase in population from around 34 million in 1872 to about 52 million people in 1920.  But poor working conditions in the zaibatsu industries led to labor unrest, and many workers and intellectuals turned to socialism, which the government oppressed.  Radical activists plotted to assassinate the emperor — the so-called High Treason Incident of 1910.[1]  Afterward, the government created the Tokko secret police to root out left-wing agitators.

Some historians focus on Imperial Japan’s expansion beginning in 1931, but it started much earlier.  Japan’s participation on the side of the Allies during World War I sparked a period of economic growth.  It earned the Japanese new colonies in the South Pacific, seized from Germany.  As a signatory of the Treaty of Versailles, the Japanese enjoyed good relations with the international community and participated in disarmament conferences.  However, the Japanese deeply resented and rejected the Washington Naval Conference’s imposition of more significant restrictions on Japanese naval forces than it did on the United States and Great Britain (a ratio of 5:5:3), but Tokyo relented once a provision was added that allowed the Japanese to fortify their Pacific Island possessions but prohibited the U.S. and U.K. from doing so.

Between 1912 – 1926, Japan went through a period of political, economic, and cultural transition that strengthened its democratic traditions and improved its international standing.  Known as the Taishō Democracy (also “political crisis”), democratic transitions opened the door to mass protests and riots organized by Japanese political parties, which forced the prime minister’s resignation.[2]  Initially, this Political turmoil worked to increase the power of political parties and undermine the oligarchy.  Ultimately, the government reacted by passing the Peace Preservation Act on 22 April 1925.

The Act allowed the Special Higher Police to suppress socialists and communists more effectively.  When Emperor Hirohito ascended to the throne in 1926, Japan entered a twenty-year period of extreme nationalism and imperial expansion.  Smarting from what they considered a slight by the League of Nations in arms limitations agreements, the Japanese renounced the Five Power Treaty and initiated an ambitious naval construction program.

The sudden collapse of the U.S. economy in 1929 triggered a global economic depression.  Without internal access to natural gas, oil, gold, coal, copper, and iron resources, the Japanese heavily depended on trade relations with countries that had the resources needed to sustain their economy.  When international cooperation prevented the Japanese from obtaining these materials, a very aggressive Japanese government initiated plans to seize areas rich in natural resources.

In 1931, Japanese forces invaded Manchuria in northeastern China to obtain the resources needed to sustain naval construction. Six years later, the Japanese swept into the heartland of China, expecting a quick victory.  Chinese resistance, however, caused the war to drag on.  War is expensive; the cost of Japan’s Chinese adventures placed a severe strain on its economy, but its most significant concern was food and oil.  Japan obtained food from Southeast Asia, and plenty of oil was available in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.

Beginning in 1937 with significant land seizures in China, and to a greater extent after 1941, when annexations and invasions across Southeast Asia and the Pacific created the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the Japanese government sought to acquire and develop critical natural resources to secure its economic independence.  Among the natural resources that Japan seized and developed were coal (China), sugarcane (Philippines), petroleum (Dutch East Indies and Burma), tin and bauxite (Dutch East Indies and Malaya), and rice (Thailand, Burma, and Cochin China (Vietnam)).

By 1940, the United States broke one of the Japanese communications codes and was aware of Japanese plans for Southeast Asia.  If the Japanese conquered European colonies, they could also threaten the U.S.-controlled Philippine Islands and Guam.  To confound the Japanese, the U. S. government sent military aid to strengthen Chinese resistance; when the Japanese seized French Indochina, President Roosevelt suspended oil shipments to Japan.

March across the Pacific

In December 1941, Japanese Imperial forces assaulted the U. S. Navy Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and invaded Siam, Malaya, Hong Kong, Gilbert Islands, Guam, Luzon, Wake Island, Burma, North Borneo, the Philippines, and Rangoon.  The invasion of the Dutch East Indies and Singapore and the bombing of Australia followed in January 1942.

The U.S. and its allies initiated offensive operations against the Empire of Japan on 18 April 1942 with the sea-borne Doolittle Raid on the Japanese capital city, Tokyo.   The Battle of the Coral Sea, Battle of Midway, and the landing of U.S. Marines on Guadalcanal soon followed.  From that point on, the Allies moved ever closer to the Japanese home islands, and with each successful island battle, American air forces became a more significant threat.

Between June and November 1944, the Allied forces launched Operation Forager against Imperial Japanese forces in the Mariana Islands.  The campaign fell under the command of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz as Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet and Commander, Pacific Ocean Area.  Admiral Nimitz initiated Forager at the request of General Douglas MacArthur, who was planning his much-promised return to the Philippine Islands.  MacArthur believed that Japanese forces on the Palau Islands offered a substantial threat to his plans for the Philippines.  He requested that Nimitz neutralize that threat as part of his more extensive Marianas Campaign.

Concurring with MacArthur’s threat assessment, Admiral Nimitz ordered the seizure of Peleliu Island, some nine-hundred-fifty miles east of the Philippines.  Nimitz assigned this mission to the 1st Marine Division with two objectives: (1) Remove any Japanese threat from MacArthur’s right flank, and (2) Secure a base of operations in the Southern Philippines.  The Marine operation plan was code-named Stalemate II.  As it turned out, the code name was prophetic.

After evaluating the mission, Major General William H. Rupertus, Commanding the 1st Marine Division, predicted that the Division could seize Peleliu within four days.  The general’s assessment was excessively optimistic either because allied intelligence was grossly inadequate or because General Rupertus suffered from the early stages of an illness that claimed his life six months later.  The Battle for Peleliu would not be the piece of cake General Rupertus anticipated.

On Peleliu

The island

Just under six miles long (northeast to southwest) and two miles wide, the island was a tiny piece of real estate.  The island’s highest point, at 300 meters in elevation, was Umurbrogol Mountain, a hypsographic (limestone) formation with many natural caves, geographic fissures, narrow valleys, and rugged peaks.  Thick jungle scrub vegetation completely covered the slopes of the mountain ridges masking their intricate contours from aerial observation.

The Japanese

Following significant losses in the Solomons, Gilberts, Marshalls, and Marianas, the Imperial Japanese Army developed new defensive strategies and tactics.  They abandoned their old strategy of trying to stop the Allies on the beaches, where Japanese defenders would be exposed to naval gunfire.  Their new strategy was to disrupt the amphibious landing as much as possible and implement an in-depth defense at locations further inland.  This new strategy, which the Allied forces would also experience at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, was to kill as many Americas as possible.

The Japanese island commander, Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, exercised command authority over the 2nd Infantry Regiment, 14th Imperial Japanese Infantry Division.  Artillery, mortar, tanks, and numerous Koran and Okinawan laborers augmented Colonel Nakagawa’s three-thousand infantry — in total, he commanded 10,500 men.  In defense of Peleliu, Nakagawa made good use of the island’s terrain — its caves and fissures, to create heavily fortified bunkers and underground positions interlocked in a honeycomb fashion.

Nakagawa also used the beach terrain to his advantage.  The northern end of the landing beaches faced a nine-meter coral promontory that overlooked the beaches from a small peninsula.  The Marines tasked with assaulting this promontory called it “the point.”  Nakagawa’s promontory defense included 47mm guns and 20mm cannons supporting a battalion of infantry.  He also mined the landing area with anti-tank mines and improvised explosive devices from 150mm howitzer shells.

The Marines

Rupertus’ operational plan called for landing his three infantry regiments along a 2,200-yard beach on the island’s southwest coast.[3]  His operation plan called for the 1st Marines to land its 2nd Battalion and 3rd Battalion on White Beach Two and White Beach Three; the 1st Battalion would serve in regimental reserve.  The 5th Marines would land two battalions at Orange Beach (retaining one battalion in reserve), and the 7th Marines would also land on Orange Beach, south and to the right flank of the 5thMarines.  Again, one battalion of the 7th Marines would be held in reserve.

The regimental commanders were Colonel Lewis B. Puller (1stMar), Colonel Harold D. Harris (5thMar), Colonel Herman H. Hanneken (7thMar), and Colonel William H. Harrison (11thMar).

The Battle

D-day was 15 September 1944.  Rupert intended to land 4,500 of his men in the first 19 minutes.  The initial eight waves (in amphibious tractors) followed a single wave of tractors with mounted 75mm howitzers.  The most challenging assignment fell to the 1st Marines: Rupertus ordered Puller to drive inland, pivot left, and attack northeast straight into Umurbrogol Mountain.  Puller’s Marines renamed that mountain Bloody Nose Ridge.  They called it that for a good reason: it was Nakagawa’s main defense.

At the end of the first day, the Marines held the landing beach … period.  The 5th Marines made the most progress that day, but a well-organized Japanese counterattack pushed the regiment back toward the ocean.  Naval gunfire and air support destroyed Nakagawa’s armored-infantry attacking force.  At the end of the first day, Marine casualties included 200 dead and 900 wounded.  At the end of the first day, General Rupertus still had not figured out Nakagawa’s new defense strategy.

On Day Two, the 5th Marines moved to capture the airfield and push toward the eastern shore.  Japanese artillery inflicted heavy casualties as the Marines proceeded across the airfield.  The ground temperature on Day Two was 115° Fahrenheit, so in addition to losses due to enemy fire, Marines dropped due to heat exhaustion.  The water provided to the Marines was tainted with petroleum residue and made them sick.

From his position, Puller ordered Kilo Company to capture the point at the end of the southern-most location of his assigned landing site.  Despite being short on supplies, the Kilo Company commander executed Puller’s order.  Within a short time, the Marines had advanced into a Japanese kill zone, and Kilo Company was quickly surrounded.  One platoon, however, began a systematic, highly aggressive effort to eliminate the Japanese guns with rifle grenades and hand-to-hand fighting.  After eradicating six machine gun positions, the Marines turned their attention to the 47mm gun, which was soon destroyed.

No sooner had Kilo 3/1 captured the point when Nakagawa ordered his men to counterattack.  In the next 30 hours, the Japanese launched four major assaults against that one rifle company.  Kilo Company was running low on ammunition; they were out of water — and surrounded.  These Marines had but one strategy remaining: close combat.  By the time reinforcements arrived, there were only 18 Marines left alive in Kilo 3/1.

After securing the airfield, Rupertus ordered Colonel Harris’ 5th Marines to eliminate Japanese artillery on Ngesbus Island, connected to Peleliu by a man-made causeway.  Harris, however, was unwilling to send his Marines across the causeway.  He decided, instead, on an amphibious assault across the sound.  Even though pre-landing artillery and close air support killed most of the island’s defenders, the 5th Marines faced lethal opposition from the ridges and caves.  In executing Rupertus’ order, Harris gave up 15 killed and 33 wounded.

After capturing the Point, Puller’s 1st Marines moved northward into the Umurbrogol pocket.  Puller led his Marines in several assaults, but the Japanese repulsed each attempt — but worse for these Marines, their advance found them confined to a narrow area of operations between the two ridges, each one supporting the other in a deadly crossfire.  This was the reason the Marines called it Bloody Nose Ridge.[4]  Puller’s casualties increased by the minute.  The Japanese defenders demonstrated exceptional fire discipline, striking only when they could inflict the maximum number of casualties.  Japanese snipers even killed the stretcher-bearers sent to evacuate wounded Marines.  After dusk, Japanese infiltrators actively searched for weaknesses in Puller’s line of defense.

Major Raymond G. Davis commanded the 1stBn 1stMar (1/1) during its assault of Hill 100.[5]  Accurate fire from Japanese defenders and thick foliage hampered Davis’ advance for almost a full day.  Vectoring Captain Everett P. Pope’s Charlie Company toward what Davis thought was the crest of a hill, Davis and Pope were disappointed to find that it was another ridge occupied by a fresh line of Japanese defenders.

On 20 September, Major Davis ordered Charlie Company to take Hill 100, a steep and barren coral slope of a long ridge that the Japanese dubbed East Mountain.  Initially, Captain Pope had the support of two Sherman M-4 tanks, but on their approach to the ridge, both vehicles slipped off the side of a narrow causeway, rendering them ineffective.  Despite intense enemy fire, Pope moved his men safely over the causeway without sustaining any casualties.

Once Pope and his Marines reached the base of the hill, they began to receive well-aimed enemy fire, which continued unabated as the Marines struggled up the hill.  In this fight, Pope lost 60 Marines killed or wounded.  It was then that Captain Pope realized that his maps were inaccurate.[6]  There was no crest — only an extended ridge with high ground and well-defended Japanese positions looking down on the Marines.  From almost point-blank range, Japanese mortars and field guns opened up from atop the cliff.

Pope’s company was at 30% of its effective strength at dusk, and those few Marines were running out of ammunition.  After sunset, Japanese night attacks became vicious, bloody free-for-alls.  Marines fought the enemy with K-Bar knives, entrenching tools, and empty ammunition boxes.  The melee turned into a fistfight with men biting off one another’s ears, and, as the enemy withdrew, the Marines threw chunks of broken coral at them.

Given his combat losses, Captain Pope was forced to deploy his men in a thin defensive perimeter until dawn, when the Japanese began firing again.  By this time, Pope had nine men left alive and withdrew his company under cover of smoke rounds fired from artillery support batteries.[7]  In six days of fighting, Davis’ battalion suffered a loss of 71%.  Puller’s losses within that same period were 1,749 men — a casualty rate of 70%.[8]

With the 1st Marine Regiment no longer effective as a combat organization, Major General Roy Geiger, commanding III Marine Amphibious Corps, sent the U.S. 321st Infantry Regiment to relieve the 1st Marines.[9]  The 321st and 7th Marines finally encircled Bloody Nose Ridge on D+9.

By 15 October, Japanese defenders had reduced the 7th Marines to about half their effective strength.  Geiger ordered Rupertus to pull the 7th Marines out of the fight and replace them with the 5th Marines.  Colonel Harris employed siege tactics to destroy Japanese positions, sending in bulldozers and flame tanks.  In another fifteen days, Geiger determined that the 1st Marine Division was no longer an effective fighting division and replaced it with the U.S. 81st Infantry Division, which assumed operational control of Operation Stalemate II.[10]

The Battle of Peleliu lasted another six weeks (totaling 73 days).  Even then, the island wasn’t completely secured.  A Japanese lieutenant with 34 soldiers held their positions, as they were ordered to do, until 22 April 1947; it took a former Japanese admiral to convince the lieutenant that the war was over.

Military analysts classify the Umurbrogol fight as the most difficult battle the United States encountered in the Pacific War.  The 1st Marine Division suffered over 6,500 casualties — one-third of its combat strength.  Additionally, the U.S. 81st Infantry Division suffered an additional 3,300 losses.

Back in the United States, the Battle for Peleliu became a controversial topic for two reasons.  First, despite MacArthur’s concerns about the possibility of Japanese air attacks, the island of Peleliu had no strategic value to either MacArthur or Nimitz.  Second, nothing at Peleliu justified the loss of so many American servicemen.  However, the Americans gained fore-knowledge of what to expect from future engagements with the Imperial Japanese Army at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  Despite Marine complaints about the lack of effectiveness of pre-assault naval bombardments, there was no significant improvement in naval gunfire support at Iwo Jima, but some improvement during the Battle of Okinawa.

After the battle, press reports revealed that during consultations with Nimitz during the planning phase, Admiral Halsey recommended against the landing at Peleliu; he believed it would have been a better use of amphibious forces to by-pass Peleliu and reinforce MacArthur’s landing on Leyte.  After consulting with MacArthur, Nimitz discarded Halsey’s recommendations because MacArthur didn’t want any help from the Navy.

Eight Marines received the Medal of Honor for courage above and beyond the call of duty during the battle for Peleliu — five of which were posthumous awards.

Sources:

  1. Alexander, J. H.  Storm Landings: Epic Amphibious Battles in the Central Pacific.  USMC History Division, 1997.
  2. Blair, B. C., and J. P. DeCioccio: Victory at Peleliu: The 81st Infantry Division’s Pacific Campaign.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.
  3. Camp, D.  Last Man Standing: The 1st Marine Regiment on Peleliu, September 15-21, 1944.  Zenith Press, 2009.
  4. Henshall, K.  A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower.  Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
  5. Hook, G. D. (and others).  Japan’s International Relations: Politics, Economics, and Security.  Sheffield Centre for Japanese Studies/Routledge, 2011.
  6. Ross, B. D.  Peleliu: Tragic Triumph.  Random House, 1991.
  7. Sledge, E. B.  With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.  Oxford University Press, 1990.

Endnotes:

[1] Japanese authorities made mass arrests of leftists; twelve were executed for high treason.

[2] A period of political upheaval following the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912.  Within 12 months, Japan had three prime ministers.

[3] 1st Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Regiment, and 7th Marine Regiment.

[4] The Seizure of Umurbrogol Mountain took five infantry regiments and 60 days of fighting.  At the time General Geiger relieved the 1st Marine Division, it was no longer a fighting force.

[5] Davis received the Navy Cross for his role in the Battle of Peleliu.  He would later receive the Medal of Honor during the Korean War.  A veteran of three wars, Davis would eventually command the 3rdMarDiv in Vietnam.  He retired as a four-star general.

[6] Inaccurate maps are disasters waiting to happen.  Combat commanders rely on maps to target enemy positions for supporting fires (artillery and air support).  Inaccurate maps, therefore, place friendly forces at risk of receiving “friendly fire.”  Nothing will shake a field commander’s confidence more than to realize that he cannot rely on his maps.

[7] Captain Pope was awarded the Medal of Honor.

[8] According to then LtCol Lewis Walt, serving as the XO of the 5th Marines, after a few days into the Battle, Colonel Puller was clad only in filthy, sweat-soaked utility trousers.  He was unshaven, haggard, and unwashed.  Walt said, “He was absolutely sick over the loss of his men.  He thought we were getting them killed for nothing.”  And yet, Puller, the fighter, led his Marines forward.  Brigadier General Oliver P. Smith, ADC, stated, “It seemed impossible that men could have moved forward against the intricate and mutually supporting defenses the Japs had set up.  It can only be explained as a reflection of the determination and aggressive leadership of Colonel Puller.”

[9] Once committed to combat, the assaulting unit has but two options: continue the attack and overwhelm the enemy’s defenses or withdraw.  By the time the 1st Marines had become fully engaged with the Japanese defenders (which wasn’t long), Rupertus had already committed the entire 1st Marine Division to the assault at Peleliu.  At that point, there could be no withdrawal; the division would have to fight until either it defeated the Japanese, or until there was no one left to continue the assault.  When it became apparent to Geiger that Rupertus’ division was no longer able to carry on the attack, he began to commit elements of the reserve division, the US 81st Infantry Division.

[10] Major General Paul J. Mueller commanded the US 81st.  While the 1stMarDiv assaulted Peleliu, Mueller’s division assaulted Angaur Island, Pulo Anna Island, Kyangel Atoll, and Pais Island.  The Palau campaign officially ended in January 1945.