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.


Forward Air Control (FAC)

Introduction

It wasn’t very long after the invention of the airplane that men began thinking about how this marvelous invention might be used in warfare.  The truth, however, is that the airplane went onto the drafting table in 1480 and stayed there until 1903.

By 1907, the U.S. Army Signal Corps had begun preparing itself for flight.  An aeronautical division was created and staffed with three first lieutenants who agreed they had what it takes to try anything once.  In 1909, the Wright Brothers delivered its first aircraft to the Army Signal Corps.  No doubt, lieutenants drew straws to see who would go first.

The first conflict to extensively use aviation support for ground forces was the First World War when military and naval aviation was still in its infancy.  Aircraft then were small, flimsy, and slow, and the effect of rifle caliber machine guns (and light bombs) offered limited effectiveness.  Even so, military, and naval aviation psychologically affected ground troops, particularly those in static positions.  Unlike artillery, the airplane was a personal enemy; even the sound of an aircraft could make an infantryman’s blood run cold.

Although slow on the uptake, military ground officers learned that aviation support required careful planning and coordination and that the most successful attacks of the war were those where ground officers took air warfare very seriously.  To be fair, however, many of these ground officers were still thinking about the Indian wars and horse cavalry.

One significant challenge to everyone (aviator and ground officer alike) was air-to-ground communications — initially limited to using hand signals, dropping handwritten messages from the cockpit, or messenger pigeons.  The first use of air-to-ground electronic signals occurred at the Battle of Gorlice by Benno Fiala von Fernbrugg, an Austro-Hungarian pilot, who sent a morse code message to an artillery unit.

The term ground commanders use to describe aviation support provided to ground troops is “Close Air Support” (also, CAS).  The Great War began in 1914, but it was not until 1916 that the aviation community developed a specific air support doctrine.  British aviators developed two tactics that fell under the heading of CAS: trench strafing and ground strafing.  These early shapers of doctrine realized there could not be close air support without forward air controllers guiding it.

In response to the allied use of aviation close air support, the German enemy was quick to develop air combat elements of its own.  When they did — allied aviation casualties increased substantially.

Navy-Marine Corps Aviation

U.S. Naval aviation began with pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss, who contracted with the Navy to demonstrate whether aircraft could take off and land aboard ships at sea.  Pilot Eugene Ely accomplished this feat in 1910.  Eugene apparently drew the short straw.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham began duty “in a flight status” at the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland.  Cunningham was the Marine Corps’ first aviator. 

During the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. Marines employed Curtiss Falcon aircraft and Vought Corsairs equipped with radios powered by airstream-driven generators — with a communications range of about 50 miles.  Another method of communication was for the pilot to drop messages in a weighted container and swoop in and pick up messages suspended from “clotheslines” between two high poles.  Under these circumstances, Marine aviation pilots functioned as FAC and strike pilots in operations against Nicaraguan Sandinistas.  In terms of combat aviation, the Marines excel when compared to the other services because of the support rendered to Marines by Marines.  Marine Corps Aviation is a “Marine Thing.” And while the Marines may not have “invented” CAS, they certainly deserve credit for perfecting it.

Now, about America’s Marines 

The U.S. Marine Corps is a unique organization within the Department of Defense.  Marines look different from other service personnel, and they think about warfare much differently than any of the other uniformed services.

The Marine Corps’ primary responsibility is to maintain an amphibious warfare capability.  To accomplish that mission, the Corps relies on ground forces that are relatively light and highly mobile.  Lacking a heavy footprint of forward-deployed forces (tanks, for example), the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) turns to its task-organized aviation components to provide heavy fire support to its maneuver elements.  

The primary link between ground and aviation forces is the Forward Air Controller (FAC).  FACs are Marine Corps aviators assigned to Battalion Landing Teams responsible for coordinating and controlling air assault support and close air support within their assigned ground units.  FACs also assist more senior air officers (AOs) within ground units in advising ground commanders on the tactical employment (and safety considerations) required for sound air combat operations.

The Marine Corps invests heavily in training its FACs — from initial officer training and naval flight school to completion of tactical air control party school.  This training (and lessons learned throughout previous campaigns and conflicts) continues to improve the sophistication and effectiveness of CAS.  The effectiveness of MAGTFs hasn’t changed in well over 100 years.  When enemy troops hear the sound of Marine Corps CAS aircraft, their blood turns cold because they know what is left of their miserable lives must be measured in seconds.

Some History

World War II

The Marine Corps reached its peak aviation capability with five air wings, 31 aircraft groups, and 145 flying squadrons.  Guadalcanal became an important defining point in the evolution of Marine Air.  Marines learned that they must achieve and then maintain air superiority, that transport ships were vital targets, and that the Marines must be prepared to create and defend expeditionary airfields.  But, for the first two years, Marines could not support the Fleet Marine Forces in the way it had trained; instead, Marine aviators flew in support of the fleet and land-based installations.

After the battle of Tarawa, Marines began flying CAS missions in support of the landing force.  The first real close air support mission provided to landing forces occurred during the New Georgia campaign, Bougainville, and the Philippines.  In these missions, Marine Corps air liaison officers coordinated air support with troops on the ground.  These measures were perfected during the Battle of Okinawa.

During World War II, Marine aviators accounted for 2,355 Japanese kills while losing 573 of their own aircraft.  Marines accounted for 120 aces and earned 11 medals of honor.  After the war, President Truman reduced Marine aviation organizations to three air wings and further reduced funding so that the Marine Corps could only afford a single air wing to fight in the Korean War.

The Korean War

The first major surprise of the post-World War II period arrived on 25 June 1950.  North Korea invaded South Korea — and they weren’t joking.  The United Nations Command in Tokyo, headed by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States Defense Department in Washington, D.C., were completely surprised.  The United States and the Soviet Union agreed at Cairo and Yalta that the Korean Peninsula should be temporarily and jointly occupied by U.S. and U.S.S.R. forces until Korea could learn to govern itself after many years of Japanese occupation.  The Americans never imagined that the Russians would launch a sneak attack to settle the issue militarily.

The expensive lesson learned by the Americans was that the USSR could not be trusted.  Ill-prepared UN and US forces were quickly overwhelmed by nine infantry divisions and one armored division of Soviet T-34 tanks.  The South Korean Army, barely a year old, only knew one tactic: run like hell.  South Korea’s capital city, Seoul, fell in three days.

In response to urgent requests for American reinforcements from the Far East Command, the 1st (Provisional) Marine Brigade was dispatched to South Korea, arriving on 2 August 1950.  The Brigade included a reinforced Marine infantry regiment and a Marine aircraft group.

The air group included Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 214, VMF 323, VMF 513, Marine Observation Squadron (VMO) 6, and Marine Tactical Air Control Squadron 2.  Altogether, the air group consisted of 60 Vought F4U Corsairs, 8 Consolidated OY Sentinels, and 4 Sikorsky HO3S-1s.

General MacArthur didn’t ask for an air group, but he got one anyway — that’s how Marines prepare for war.  The fact was that despite the Marine Corps’ efforts toward convincing the Army of the value of close air support in World War II, there was no Army interest in developing such a capability.  This situation only got worse once the Air Force became a separate service.  The flyboys wanted the glamor of being fighter pilots and strategic bomber drivers.  At that time, no one in the Air Force was interested in providing close air support to ground troops.  Both Navy and Marine Corps aviators are trained to provide CAS, but of the two, the Marines are better at it.  The close air support provided by Marine Corps pilots saved U.S. forces from annihilation in the Pusan Perimeter.

After the 10th Corps’ withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir, the Korean War bogged down in a slightly modified rendition of trench warfare.  The effectiveness of Marine Corps CAS had taught the Chinese Communists that they had a better combat survival rate by conducting nighttime operations.  In any case, with no interest by the U.S. Army or U.S. Air Force in close air support operations, most CAS missions performed in the U.S. 8th Army were conducted by the Royal Air Force, British Navy, Royal Australian Air Force, South African Air Force, Greek Air Force, and Royal Thailand Air Force.

Serving on call to Marine ground forces, Marine aviators continued to employ CAS during daylight operations but also began to develop radar-guided bombing techniques for night operations.  As previously mentioned, allied air forces began contributing to tactical air strike missions.  Assisting with tactical strike missions were Airborne Forward Air Controllers (also, Fast FAC), who (according to some statisticians) should be credited with 40,000 CAS sorties and air strikes that killed 184,000 enemy troops.

Despite having agreed on a common forward air control doctrine embodied in Field Manual 31 – 35 Air-Ground Operations, a turf war broke out between the Air Force and Army over FAC doctrine for the entire war.  The Marine Corps maintained its FAC operations in support of Marine ground forces.  The Navy and Air Force operated independently.  With no common doctrine agreed upon during the Korean war, forward air control systems were shut down in 1956.

War in Indochina

When Forward Air Control was revived in 1961, it reemerged as a jumble of errors — unreliable radios, inadequately configured aircraft, differing concepts of close air support, and impeding jungle terrain.  Control of Marine Corps aviation in Vietnam became a very sensitive issue from the outset of the Marine Corps’ in-country operations.

Senior Marine aviators remembered their experience in Korea, where the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing had been under the operational control of the U.S. Air Force.  They believed Air Force managers had unwisely employed Marine aircraft and aviation capabilities.  In particular, they deeply resented being denied “permission” to provide close air support to their Marine infantry brothers, which caused increased death and injury to Marines that would have otherwise been avoided.  In Vietnam, Marine aviation generals were determined not to allow a repeat of the Korean War experience.

In 1964, when air operations were undertaken over Laos and North Vietnam, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp[1] authorized General Westmoreland to designate the senior U. S. Air Force commander in Vietnam as coordinating authority since both Air Force and Navy air units were participating in these operations.  A year later, when the decision was made to “land the Marines” at Da Nang, it was natural for Admiral Sharp to direct that a similar arrangement be devised to coordinate fixed-wing aviation in support of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9thMEB).

The Commanding General, 9thMEB reported to the Commander, U.S. Military Assistance/Advisory Command, Vietnam) (COMUSMACV).  Major General Joseph H. Moore, Commander, 7th U.S. Air Force, Vietnam, exercised coordinating authority over tactical air support and traffic control.  CINCPAC reaffirmed the Air Force’s authority just before assigning a Marine F-4 fighter squadron to 9thMEB — General Westmoreland, COMUSMACV intended to place the Marine squadron under the operational control of General Moore, but Admiral Sharp objected.  Thirty days later, Admiral Sharp published a directive governing the conduct and control of close air support.  Admiral Sharp stated that close air support was the chief mission of U.S. aviation in South Vietnam.

After receiving CINCPAC’s instructions, Westmoreland ordered revisions to his “air support” directive.  The new order reiterated CINCPAC’s appointment of General Moore.  The CG III MAF (LtGen Walt) retained operational control of Marine aviation, but to ensure maximum utilization of all US aircraft, Walt’s instructions were to notify General Moore (2nd Air Division) of any un-utilized USMC aircraft so that they could be used in support of non-Marine Corps MACV operations.

The CG 1stMAW, Major General McCutcheon, met with General Moore to coordinate air efforts relating to air defense operations.  Moore wanted operational control over all air defense assets — General McCutcheon demurred.  The F-4 aircraft was a dual-purpose airframe, capable of CAS and air-to-air operations.  To relinquish these aircraft to the USAF would deprive Marine ground commanders of their most important (and most lethal) supporting arm.

There was not a lot of love between the Air Force and Marine Corps Aviators.[2]  According to the former Chief of Staff of the 1stMarine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW), Colonel Thomas J. O’Connor, “The arrival of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 531 (VMFA-531) and Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron One (VMCJ-1) (in Vietnam) marked the end of a long period of planning, coaxing, cajoling, begging, and outright pressure to obtain space for the units to operate out of Da Nang Airbase.  During the early planning stages [for the deployment], high-level commands battled at the Pentagon, CINCPAC, and in the Far East over [the question of] who would conduct air operations out of Da Nang.  Navy and Marine Corps commands invoked the nebulous authority of Marine Air-Ground Task Forces.  Events overtook the plans.  The Air Force was there [Da Nang] — and they invoked the military equivalent of “squatters rights” — they occupied the entire east side of the airfield.  The Air Force was unwilling to move around and vacate more space for the deploying Marine fixed-wing units.  Finally, under the weight of plans approved at high levels, and with Marines, deployment dates irrevocably approaching, the Air Force finally gave in.  Some promises about future construction to enlarge their area, commitments of Marine support of various projects, and a lot of sweet talks did the trick.”

This situation described by Colonel O’Connor would not change until the Marines constructed an expansion of airfield facilities at Da Nang, Chu Lai, and Marble Mountain.

The Number of Planes

Marine Corps aviation units also increased as the number of ground units increased within the III MAF.  In March 1965, two F-4 squadrons supported 9thMAB.  In April, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (MAG-16) (initially a composite helicopter air group) arrived to absorb the fixed-wing squadrons.  In May, advance elements of the 1stMAW headquarters arrived in Vietnam.  In June, MAG-12 arrived at Chu Lai; in July, MAG-11 joined the fight by assuming operational control over all fixed wing squadrons at Da Nang (from MAG-16), including VMCJ-1 VMFA-513, VMFA-542.  At the end of July, another helicopter air group arrived (MAG-36), along with a missile battalion (2d LAAM Bn).  In September, MAG-36 began operating out of Chu Lai with squadrons HMM-362, HMM-364, VMO-6, H&MS-36, and MABS-36.  HMM-363 operated at Qui Nhon.  MAG-16 at Da Nang operated with HMM-261, HMM-361, VMO-2, and two support squadrons (H&MS-16 & MABS-16); HMM-161 operated from Phu Bai.  HMH-462 arrived in Vietnam in late September 1965 and joined MAG-16.  Helicopter squadrons rotated between South Vietnam, the U.S. Seventh Fleet, and Marine Corps Air Stations on Okinawa.

The Control Factor    

General McCutcheon did not intend to deprive Marines of their aircraft, but he did understand the necessity of having one overall air defense commander.  A memorandum of agreement between the USAF and Marines highlighted the basic policies, procedures, and air defense responsibilities.  The Air Force had overall air defense responsibility.  McCutcheon designated Marine units to support the general air defense effort.

The system of CAS employed by Marines in South Vietnam was the product of innovative thinking during the island campaigns of World War II.  By 1965, the Marine air support doctrine had been continuously modified to keep pace with technological advances.  Marine attack aircraft were required to fly close air support missions against enemy troops within fifteen meters of friendly lines.  To reduce the risk to allied infantry, CAS was a controlled event by tactical air controllers (airborne) (also, TAC (A)) in high-performance aircraft, a forward air controller (airborne) (FAC (A)), or a forward air controller (ground) (FAC (G)).

Most III MAF aerial observers (AOs) performed their missions in light observation aircraft.  The AOs were also air controllers qualified to direct air strikes, artillery, and naval gunfire support.  Airborne controllers (familiar with the tactical situation on the ground) remained “on station” for extended periods.  AOs established and maintained contact with supported infantry units on Frequency Modulated (FM) tactical radios while directing attack aircraft over an Ultra High Frequency (UHF) net.  Communications for air support control was a “flexible” arrangement that depended on the circumstances and availability of ground radios.  FM radios of ground forces were incompatible with UHF radios of jet aircraft.  Moreover, UHF radios in ground units, usually at the battalion level or higher, were unavailable to company or platoon size units — where the fighting usually took place.

After the air controller relayed pertinent targeting information and mission requirements to the attack pilots on station, he then marked the target with a white phosphorus rocket or a colored smoke grenade.  Once the AO was certain the attack pilot had identified the intended target, he cleared the attack aircraft to make their firing run.  Once cleared, the lead pilot rolled in toward the target marker and dropped his ordnance.  Using the lead pilot’s “hits” as a reference, the controller furnished the second plane in the flight with whatever corrections were necessary and cleared the aircraft to make its run.  The above procedure continued until all attack aircraft had completed their mission.

The two types of CAS missions flown by Marines in Vietnam were preplanned and on-call.  The preplanned mission was a complex process.  First, a battalion commander would submit a request for fixed-wing aircraft through the air liaison officer — usually the day before his battalion began an operation.  The request would go to the Direct Air Support Center (DASC) and the Tactical Air Direction Center (TADC) of the air wing headquarters at Da Nang.  All CAS requests were assimilated at that level, and orders were issued to fixed-wing air groups (MAG-11 and MAG-12).

On-call missions could be processed and executed almost instantaneously — they were flown either in support of troops in contact with the enemy or against targets of opportunity located by airborne or ground controllers.  Once the air groups received their orders, they scheduled flights and issued mission requirements to the individual squadrons.  This procedure required approximately 20 hours from the initial time of request to deliver the ordnance to the target.

In the case of an emergency (on-call) mission, the TADC or DASG could divert in-flight aircraft from their original missions to a new target.  The TADG could also call on aircraft, which each air group maintained “on call” around the clock for just such contingencies.  Marine air also provided this combat support for other than Marine Corps units.  During the battle of Ba Gia in June 1965, the A-4s of Colonel Noble’s MAG-12 took off on their first night launch from Chu Lai to support the embattled outpost 20 miles to the south.

For three days, MAG-12’s Skyhawks and (F-4B) Phantoms bombed and strafed the enemy positions around the clock.  Four months later, F4Bs from Colonel Anglin’s MAG-11 and the A-4s from Colonel Brown’s MAG-12 flew 59 sorties in support of U.S. and South Vietnamese troops at the Plei Me outpost (20 miles southwest of Pleiku in northwestern II Corps).  The air assault against the outpost resulted in a significant engagement, the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, in which the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) killed 1,238 enemies in 12 days.  In the third quarter of 1965, MAG-11 and MAG-12 flew 4,614 sorties in support of Marine units and 1,656 sorties for the ARVN units.

Marine attack aircraft performed several other missions besides their primary task of close air support.  Both the F-4 and A-4 communities flew direct air support missions.  Similar to close air support, these strikes were not conducted near friendly lines and did not require integration with the ground unit’s fire support plan, although coordination did take place at an echelon of command above that of the maneuver unit.  The aim of the direct air support strikes was to isolate the enemy from the battlefield and destroy his troops and support mechanism.  The two fixed-wing groups also played a vital role in protecting the MAG-36 and MAG-16 helicopters.

During the Vietnam War, the United States introduced several fixed and rotary wing gunships, including several cargo aircraft modified to support gun platforms.  These performed as CAS and interdiction aircraft.  The first of these was the C-47 (Spooky) — converted from the Douglas C-47 airframe (DC-3).  It was highly effective in the CAS role.  The troops loved it.  The USAF also developed the Fairchild AC-119 and the Lockheed AC-130 gunship.  The AC-130 has been around for a long time; it is one of the finest airframes ever produced for defense purposes.  Multiple variants of the AC-130 exist and continues to undergo modernization.

Usually, close support is thought to be only carried out by Fighter-bombers or dedicated ground-attack aircraft, such as the A-10 — but even high-altitude bombers capable of high-precision guided munitions are useful in a CAS role.

During Operation Enduring Freedom, the scarcity of fighter aircraft forced military planners to rely on B1B aircraft relying on GPS-guided munitions and laser-guided JDAMS.  One benefit of the high-altitude airframe, aircraft can be utilized on 12-hour in-flight missions.  The USAF employed many of these airframes in Afghanistan.  International CAS missions were flown by Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway (F-16s), the U.K. (Harriers, Tornados), and several U.S. aircraft.

Finally, using information technology to direct and coordinate precision air support has increased the importance of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in using CAS, laser, and GPS to communicate battlefield data.  Recent doctrine reflects the use of electronic and optical technology to direct targeted fires for CAS.  Air platforms communicating with ground forces can also provide additional aerial-to-ground visual search, ground-convoy escort, and enhancement of command and control (C2), which can be particularly important in low-intensity conflicts.

For an interesting first-hand account of the Fast FAC mission, see The Playboy Club.

Sources:

  1. Blair, C.  The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953.  Random House, 1987.
  2. Corum, J. S.  Airpower in Small Wars: Fighting insurgents and terrorists.  Kansas University Press, 2003.
  3. Dorr, R. F.  Vietnam Air War Debrief.  London Aerospace Publishing, 1996.
  4. House, J. M.  Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century.  Kansas University Press, 2001.
  5. Krulak, V. H.  First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps.  Naval Institute Press, 1984
  6. Tenenbaum, E.  The Battle over Fire Support: The CAS Challenge and the Future of Artillery.  PDF, Focus Strategique, Institute Français, 2012. 

Endnotes:

[1] U.S. Grant Sharp, Jr., USN (1906 – 2001) served as Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet (1963 – 1964) and Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Command (1964 – 1968).  

[2] Despite their carnal relationships since 1947, there remains no true love between the USAF and USMC aviation community.


Marine Corps Artillery — Part 3

Post-World War II and Korea

Lessons Learned

Artillery equipment and technology may be an art form, but its application is pure science.  Training Marine Corps cannon-cockers for service in World War II included lessons learned from every engagement in which the Marine Corps participated from the beginning of the First World War.  Colonel Georg Bruchmüller of the Imperial Germany Army, an artillerist, pioneered what became known as accurately predicted fire.  Predicted fire is a technique for employing “fire for effect” artillery without alerting the enemy with ranging fire.  Catching the enemy off guard is an essential aspect of combat.  To facilitate this, the U.S. Army Field Artillery School developed the concept of fire direction control during the 1930s, which the Marine Corps incorporated within all artillery regiments as they came online in the early 1940s.  However, the proximity of artillery targets to friendly forces was of particular concern to the Marines, operating as they did on relatively small islands.  There is nothing simple about providing accurate and on-time artillery support to front-line forces; the performance of Marine artillery units during World War II was exceptional.

Period Note

In early May 1945, following the defeat of Nazi Germany (but before the collapse of Imperial Japan), President Truman ordered a general demobilization of the armed forces.  It would take time to demobilize twelve-million men and women.  Military leaders always anticipated demobilization following the “second war to end all wars.”  While men were still fighting and dying in the Pacific War, those who participated in the European theater and were not required for occupation duty prepared to return home to their loved ones.  The plan for general demobilization was code-named Operation Magic Carpet.  Demobilization fell under the authority of the War Shipping Administration and involved hundreds of ships.

Men and women of all the Armed Forces were, in time, released from their service obligation and sent on their way.  Many of these people, aided by the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act (1944) (also called the GI Bill), went back to academic and trade schools.  Between 1945 and 1946, America’s war veterans returned home to restart their lives — they married, started families, built homes, and settled down.

But to suggest that life was a bowl of cherries in 1946 would be a gross over-simplification of that time because the transition to peacetime America was difficult.  War costs were tremendous.  President Truman believed he should transfer funds earmarked for the armed forces to social programs.  He and others in his cabinet were concerned that if the government did not pursue frugal policies, the United States might once more enter into an economic depression.

Having been asked to suspend wage increases during the war, the ink was still wet on the surrender documents when labor unions began organizing walk-outs in the steel and coal industries.  Labor strikes destabilized U.S. industries when manufacturing plants underwent a massive re-tooling for peacetime production.  Americans experienced housing shortages, limited availability of consumer goods, an inflated economy, and farmers refused to sell their yield at “cost.”

Still, even in recognizing the administration’s challenges, President Truman’s response was inept and short-sighted.  Our average citizens, the men, and women who the government imposed rationing upon for four years, deeply resented the high cost of consumer goods.  This condition only grew worse when Truman accelerated the removal of mandatory depression-era restrictions on goods and services.[1]  Increased demand for goods drove prices beyond what most Americans could afford to pay.  When national rail services threatened to strike, Truman seized the railroads and forced the hand of labor unions —which went on strike anyway.

But for Some, the War Continued

In the immediate aftermath of Japan’s unconditional surrender, the 1stMarDiv embarked by ship for service in China.  The 11th Marines, assigned to Tientsin at the old French arsenal, performed occupation duty, which involved the disarmament and repatriation of Japanese forces.  Officially, our Marines took no part in the power struggle between Chinese Nationalists and Communists.  What did happen is that the Marines had to defend themselves against unwarranted attacks by Chinese Communist guerrillas.   By the fall of 1945, China was, once more, in an all-out civil war. 

The task assigned to Marines was more humanitarian than military.  By preventing communists from seizing land routes and rail systems, and by guarding coal shipments and coal fields, Marines attempted to prevent millions of Chinese peasants from freezing to death during the upcoming winter months.  But suffering peasants was precisely what the Chinese Communists wanted to achieve, and Marines standing in the way became “targets of opportunity.”

Truman’s rapid demobilization placed these China Marines in greater danger.  As the Truman administration ordered units deactivated, manpower levels dropped, and unit staffing fell below acceptable “combat readiness” postures.  Some replacements were sent to China, but they were primarily youngsters just out of boot camp with no clear idea of what was going on in China.  Losses in personnel forced local commanders to consolidate their remaining assets.  Eventually, the concern was that these forward-deployed Marines might not be able to defend themselves.

In September 1946, for example, the 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines (3/11) vacated Tientsin and joined the 7th Marines at Pei Tai-Ho.  Within 30 days, most Marine guards along railways and roadways withdrew, turning their duties over to the Nationalist Chinese Army.  Some of us may recall how Truman’s China policy turned out.[2]

In preparation for the 1948 elections, Truman made it clear that he identified himself as a “New Deal” Democrat; he wanted a national health insurance program, demanded that Congress hand him social services programs, sought repeal of the Taft-Harley Act, and lobbied for the creation of the United Nations — for which the United States would pay the largest share.[3]

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditure on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services.  There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free.”

—Sir John “Jack” Slessor, Air Marshal, Royal Air Force

Harry Truman ignored this and other good advice when he decided that the United States could no longer afford a combat-ready military force, given all his earmarks for social programs.  Truman ordered a drastic reduction to all US military services through his Secretary of Defense.[4]

By late 1949/early 1950, Truman and Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson gutted the military services despite multiple warning bells in Korea.  Johnson gave the Chief of Naval Operations a warning that the days of the United States Navy were numbered.  He told the CNO that the United States no longer needed a naval establishment — the United States had an air force.  In early January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, during a speech at the National Press Club, outlined America’s global defensive sphere —omitting South Korea and Formosa.  The Soviet Union, Communist China, and Communist North Korea were very interested in what Mr. Acheson did not say.

In June 1950, budget cuts reduced the entire Marine Corps FMF from a wartime strength of 300,000 Marines to less than 28,000 men.  Most artillery regiments were reduced to an understaffed regimental headquarters and a single battalion with less than 300 men.  After digesting Acheson’s January speech for six months, North Korea (backed by the Soviet Union), invaded South Korea three hours before dawn on 25 June 1950.

New War, Old Place

In March 1949, President Truman ordered Johnson to decrease further DoD expenditures.  Truman, Johnson, and Truman-crony Stuart Symington (newly appointed Secretary of the Air Force) believed that the United States’ monopoly on nuclear weapons would act as an effective deterrent to communist aggression.  There was no better demonstration of Truman’s delusion than when North Korea invaded South Korea.

North Korea’s invasion threw the entire southern peninsula into chaos.  U.S. Army advisors, American civilian officials, South Korean politicians, and nearly everyone who could walk, run, or ride, made a beeline toward the southern city of Pusan.  President Truman authorized General MacArthur, serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) (whose headquarters was in Tokyo), to employ elements of the Eighth U.S. Army to Korea to stop the NKPA advance.  The problem was that the U. S. Army’s occupation force in Japan was not ready for another war.  Truman’s defense cuts had reduced military manpower levels, impaired training, and interrupted the maintenance of combat equipment (including radios, motorized vehicles, tracked vehicles, artillery pieces, and aircraft) to such an extent that not one of the U.S. Armed Forces was ready for the Korean emergency.

The military’s unpreparedness for war was only one of several consequences of Truman’s malfeasance.  U.S. forces in Europe and Asia, whose primary interest was indulging the mysteries of Asian and German culture, were dangerously exposed to Soviet aggression.  Had the Soviet Union decided to launch a major assault on Europe, they would have slaughtered U.S. military forces.  Military personnel had become lazy and apathetic to their mission.  Mid-level and senior NCOs enriched themselves in black market activities, senior officers played golf and attended sycophantic soirees, and junior officers —the wise ones— stayed out of the way.  But when it came time for the Eighth U.S. Army to “mount out” for combat service in Korea, no one was ready for combat — a fact that contributed to the worst military defeat in American military history — all of it made possible by President Harry S. Truman.

In July 1950, General MacArthur requested a Marine Corps regimental combat team to assist in the defense of the Pusan Perimeter.  What MacArthur received, instead, was a Marine Corps combat brigade. HQMC assigned this task to the Commanding General, 1stMarDiv, at Camp Pendleton, California.

The challenge was that to form a combat brigade, HQMC had to reduce manning within every other organization inside the United States and order them to proceed (without delay) to Camp Pendleton.  It wasn’t simply an issue of fleshing out the division’s single infantry regiment, the 5th Marines.  A combat brigade includes several combat/combat support arms: communications, motor transport, field medical, shore party, combat engineer, ordnance, tanks, artillery, supply, combat services, reconnaissance, amphibian tractors, amphibian trucks, and military police.  The brigade would also include an aviation air group formed around Provisional Marine Air Group (MAG)-33, three air squadrons, an observation squadron, and a maintenance/ordnance squadron.

Marine supporting establishments cut their staff to about a third, releasing Marines for combat service from coast-to-coast.  HQMC called reservists to active duty — some of these youngsters had yet to attend recruit training.  All these things were necessary because, in addition to forming a combat brigade, the JCS ordered the Commandant to reconstitute a full infantry division before the end of August 1950.

Within a few weeks, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade formed around Brigadier General Edward A. Craig and his assistant (and the air component commander), Brigadier General Thomas J. Cushman.[5]  Lieutenant Colonel (Colonel Select) Raymond L. Murray commanded the 5th Marines, including three understrength infantry battalions: 1/5, 2/5, and 3/5.

HQMC re-designated the three artillery battalions of the 10th Marines (at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina) as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions, 11th Marine Regiment, and immediately transported them to Camp Pendleton.  The Korean situation was so dire that the newly appointed Commanding General, 1stMarDiv, Major General Oliver P. Smith, began loading combat units and equipment aboard ships even before the division fully formed.  Again, owing to Truman’s budgetary cuts, the re-formation of the 1stMarDiv consumed the total financial resources of the entire Marine Corps for that fiscal year.

One of the more famous engagements of the 11th Marine Regiment during the Korean War came on 7 December 1950 during the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir.  Machine-gun fire from a Chinese infantry battalion halted the progress of Marines along the main supply route.  Gulf and Hotel Batteries of 2/11 moved forward.  In broad daylight and at extremely close range, the cannon-cockers leveled their 105-mm howitzers and fired salvo after salvo into the Chinese communist positions.  With no time to stabilize the guns by digging them in, Marines braced themselves against the howitzers to keep them from moving.  When the shooting ended, there were 500 dead Chinese, and the enemy battalion had no further capacity to wage war.  One Marine officer who witnessed the fight later mused, “Has field artillery ever had a grander hour?”

In a series of bloody operations throughout the war, the men of the 11th Marines supported the 1st Marines, 5th Marines, 7th Marines, and the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division.  On more than one occasion, accurate artillery fire devastated Chinese communist forces, made more critical given that poor weather conditions frequently inhibited airstrikes in the battle area.

Despite North Korea’s agreement to open peace talks in June 1951, the brutality of the Korean War continued until 27 July 1953.  North Korea frequently used temporary truces and negotiating sessions to regroup its forces for renewed attacks.  At these dangerous times, the 11th Marines provided lethal artillery coverage over areas already wrested from communist control, provided on-call fire support to platoon and squad-size combat patrols, and fired propaganda leaflets into enemy-held territories.  The regiment returned to Camp Pendleton in March and April 1955.

(Continued Next Week)

Sources:

  1. Brown, R. J.  A Brief History of the 14th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1990
  2. Buckner, D. N.  A Brief History of the 10th Marines.  Washington: US Marine Corps History Division, 1981
  3. Butler, M. D.  Evolution of Marine Artillery: A History of Versatility and Relevance.  Quantico: Command and Staff College, 2012.
  4. Emmet, R.  A Brief History of the 11th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1968
  5. Kummer, D. W.  U. S. Marines in Afghanistan, 2001-2009.  Quantico: U.S. Marine Corps History Division, 2014.
  6. Russ, M.  Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.  Penguin Books, 1999.
  7. Shulimson, J., and C. M. Johnson.  U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Landing and the Buildup, 1965.  Washington: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1978.
  8. Smith, C. R.  A Brief History of the 12th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1972.
  9. Strobridge, T. R.  History of the 9th Marines.  Quantico: Gray Research Center, 1961, 1967.

Endnotes:

[1] The situation was much worse in Great Britain.  Not only were their major cities destroyed by German bombing, but war rationing also lasted through 1954 — including the availability of coal for heating. 

[2] This might be a good time to mention that all the U.S. arms and equipment FDR provided to Mao Ze-dong, to use against the Japanese, but wasn’t, was turned against U.S. Marines on occupation duty in China.  Providing potential enemies with lethal weapons to use against American troops is ludicrous on its face, but this practice continues even now.

[3] Restricted the activities and power of labor unions, enacted in 1947 over the veto of President Truman.

[4] President Truman had no appreciation for the contributions of the US Marine Corps to the overall national defense; he did not think the nation needed a Corps of Marines, much less afford to retain the Corps, because the US already had a land army (of which he was a member during World War I).  He never accepted the fact that the Marine Corps, as a combat force, provided unique strategic skills and in fact, Truman initiated several efforts to dissolve the Marines prior to the National Security Act of 1947, which ultimately protected the Marine Corps from political efforts to disband it.

[5] See also: Edward A. Craig — Marine.


The Playboy Club

The entry to the Playboy Club was not what you might suspect. No sophisticated foyer with muted music and a warm greeting by a Bunny that an aerospace engineer would reject due to her high drag profile. Our entry had curious names, like the Bicycle Seat, the Heart, the Parrot’s Beak, or the Light Bulb. Through those doorways, we entered the Ho Chi Minh Trail area in Laos, adjacent to the North-South Vietnamese demilitarized zone.

The names referred to geographical landmarks easily made out from the air, shaped like the title they carried. We flew the TA-4 aircraft; our mission was high speed, low-level visual reconnaissance. In short, we were after intelligence concerning troop movements, truck parks, supply areas, guns—anything to help take the guesswork out of the command estimate of enemy capabilities.

TF-9J Cougar 001We weren’t always called Playboys. In 1966, we used the call sign Condole and did mostly support work: calling in close air support, adjusting artillery, and coordinating naval gunfire. Some referred to us as “Fast FAC,” or fast moving forward air controllers. We used a trusty old two-seater called the TF-9J Cougar, which proved slow and ill designed for mission requirements. The most frequent gripe was the radio: we had to wire an infantry backpack PRC-25 radio to the glare shield in the back seat, remove the flight helmet, and talk over a hand-held mike.

In 1969, the tandem seat TA-4 Skyhawk replaced the Cougar, and with it came the call sign “Playboy.”

We were a rag tag outfit, much like Pappy Boyington’s Black Sheep in World War II. We became an integral part of the Marine Air Group’s Headquarters and Maintenance Squadron (H&MS), which performed the important job of intermediate maintenance for the fighter and attack squadrons within the Group. In that respect, it was NOT rag tag. When it came to flying, the aircrews came from everywhere. Usually they were shuffling paper in a staff section somewhere within the Air Wing. The nucleus was, of course, a handful of pilots assigned to H&MS.

TA-4 001AThe men who joined the Da Nang Playboy Club were volunteers, and carefully screened by the skipper. The crews were selected based on reputation, experience (one previous combat tour), and demonstrated professionalism. Initially composed of only pilots, four Naval Flight Officers (NFOs) were accepted during 1970. Three of the four were FAA rated pilots, and two of the three were eventually able to use their flying skills during the course of the program. Toward the end of the mission, the process of selecting pilots and aircrew was highly discriminating.

Our working area on the trail covered about 2,700 square miles, and we flew between one hundred and 1,500 feet above ground level as fast as that little bucket of bolts would go. It took quite a few flights before pilots and aircrew developed their 400-knot eyeball, but we did engage our targets, and we did collect valuable intelligence. The key to our mission effectiveness was “trail experience.” Aircrew eventually developed the capability of determining whether a group of bushes had moved from one day to the next, or if a clump of vegetation hadn’t been there the day before. Moving bushes usually received a bomb, or two.

And, we learned to respect the enemy. Under constant surveillance and attack, he moved people, supplies, and constructed vast road networks with only basic equipment. And he did this in a systematic and successful way against the most highly industrialized and technologically sophisticated nation in the world. From that experience came the frustrating question, “How can they do that when we’re working so hard to oppose them?” The answer is both simple and complex; it forms the basis of our question of involvement in the first place.

We considered ourselves an unusual group, yet looking back we were only a cross section from any town in the United States. We had a Baptist preacher, and a hard-drinking, cigar chewing poker player. Some of these men became legends in their own time, now forgotten except among their comrades.

In the 19 months of the Playboy operations, we lost only one aircraft. Rick Lewis won the Silver Star by helping his back-seater during a rescue effort, and calling in air strikes against enemy gun emplacements. Don Schwaby, in another incident, had just entered the operations area when a small arms round hit the nose of his aircraft, went through the instrument panel, and continued into his oxygen mask. The slug came to rest between his lips, against his teeth, and never even broke the skin. Not many guys catch bullets that way.

The only death that resulted from the program was a shock to the squadron. After operating for so long in such a high-threat environment, we all had taken several hits. But we all came back. After all, Rick Lewis was a walking example. Lieutenant Colonel George Ward, groomed to take command of the squadron in only a few weeks, was shot through the head while on a mission. The back-seater flew the plane back to the base. A squadron commander shapes the personality of his unit; we all felt his loss. Reacting to his loss, higher authority imposed an altitude restriction on the squadron —no lower than five grand. But that was too high to do the job, so back down into the grass we flew. Later, as I watched the evacuation of Saigon on television, I thought about George Ward.

The Playboy Program ended during September 1970. I returned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point, North Carolina in December of that year. For a long time, I felt that I had been involved in the most exciting, professionally demanding, and personally challenging era of my life. And I was content in the knowledge that, as Patton suggested, if my son asked me what I did in Viet Nam, I would NOT have to tell him, I shoveled shit in Louisiana.

P Chapman July 2013In the years that have passed, several Playboys have tried to hold a reunion. It has never been successful. In the past, our duty assignments spread us so far apart, and since then we have all retired from active service. I’m quite certain our after-action reports gather dust in an obscure file drawer somewhere… As a group, we paid some very special dues to our country, to our Corps, and ourselves. Yet, if my son asks me what is or has been especially exciting to me as a Marine, I’ll have to answer, “The job I did today, and the one I get to do tomorrow.”

Semper Fidelis

Major Paul Webb Chapman, USMC (Retired)

Playboy 37

Operation Buffalo

July 1967

Some Background

As summarized in McNamara’s Folly, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara threw a costly wrench into the contest for control of the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ).  His inane plan not only escalated the material costs of fighting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), but it also dramatically increased the number of Marines, soldiers, and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops who were killed and wounded while building it.[1]

Not a single Marine commander favored the so-called McNamara Line in I CTZ.  Shaking his head in disgust, one Marine officer said, “With these bastards, you’d have to build the [wall] all the way to India and it would take the entire Marine Corps and half the Army to guard it — and even then, they’d probably burrow under it.”  Even the Commandant of the Marine Corps, in his testimony before Congress, rigorously opposed the McNamara Line.

The Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) assigned overall operational responsibility for I CTZ to the Third Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).  In land area, I CTZ involved roughly 18,000 square miles.   III MAF included the 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv), 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv), 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW), 3rd Force Logistics Command (3rdFLC), Provisional Corps, Vietnam, 1st Cavalry Division, 101st Airborne Division, Americal Division, Sub Unit 1, First Radio Battalion, 29th Civil Affairs Company, 7th Psychological Operations Battalion, and several ARVN and Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC) commands.

The McNamara Line placed US Forces in I CTZ in a dangerous position because in order to construct the barrier, III MAF had to divert Marines away from their combat assignments to build it.  With the 1stMarDiv operating near Chu Lai, in Quang Nam Province (65 miles south of Da Nang), responsibility for northern I Corps (abutting the demilitarized zone (DMZ)) fell to the 3rdMarDiv.  Despite the fact that the 3rdMarDiv was the largest Marine division ever formed in the history of the Marine Corps, it still didn’t have the men it needed to defend northern I Corps.

The task of building the McNamara Line fell upon Navy and Marine Corps combat engineers; Marine infantrymen provided much of the manual labor, and 3rdMarDiv regiments and separate battalions had to provide protection to those who labored in its construction.  Beside the already complicated matter of building the line, COMUSMACV wanted to project completed “yesterday.”

NVA commanders watched the construction activities with keen interest, no doubt asking themselves how the NVA could use the McNamara disruption to their advantage.  At the beginning of July 1967, the NVA had 35,000 troops assembled just north of the DMZ.  Their intention was to swarm across the Marine outpost at Con Thien, overwhelm US forces operating in Leatherneck Square,[2] and invade en mass all of Quang Tri Province.

Con Thien (The Hill of Angels) was important to the Marines because the location was situated high enough in elevation to provide an excellent observation post over one of the primary NVA routes into South Vietnam.  Moreover, anyone standing atop the 160-meter hill at Con Thien looking southeast could observe the entire forward logistics base at Dong Ha.

Operation Buffalo

The NVA (supported by heavy artillery and mortar fire) made two thrusts at Con Thien.   The first (and largest) of these attacks specifically targeted the Marine position at Hill 160.  Operation Buffalo commenced on 2 July.  Lieutenant Colonel Richard J. “Spike” Schening deployed his 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9) in and around Con Thien.  Alpha Company and Bravo Company operated north-northeast of a strong point along Route 561, Delta Company and H&S Company occupied the battalion’s perimeter, and Charlie Company was detached to provide security for HQ 9th Marines at Dong Ha.

According to the 9th Marine’s commander, Colonel George E. Jerue, “The TAOR assigned to the 9th Marines was so large that the regiment did not have the option of conducting security patrols on a regular basis.  The NVA, realizing these limitations, would withdraw from the area until after a patrol had completed its mission, and then re-infiltrate the area just cleared.”  It was for this reason that Alpha and Bravo companies were sent to control Route 561.

On the morning of 2 July, Captain Sterling K. Coates led his Bravo Company into its heaviest engagement of the Vietnam War.  Bravo Company and Captain Albert C. Slater’s Alpha Company moved abreast in a northward direction along Route 561.  Both companies stepped off at 08:00.  Alpha Company was on the right.  Route 561 was a ten-foot-wide cart path bordered by waist-high hedgerows.  Unknown to either Coates or Slater, two NVA infantry battalions were waiting for them behind well-prepared fighting positions.  The next few hours would transform the Hill of Angels into a meat grinder.

Within an hour, 2nd Platoon (2ndPlt) Bravo Company achieved its first objective, a small crossroad some 1,200 meters north of the trace.  Enemy snipers began taking 3rdPlt and the company command element under fire as soon as they reached the crossroad.  As Captain Coates shifted the 3rdPlt to suppress the enemy fire, the NVA intensified its delivery.  Coates halted the 3rdPlt’s advance and directed 2ndPlt to shift right in an attempt to outflank the enemy’s position.  At the same time, Captain Coates ordered 1stPlt to move forward for rear area security and/or reinforcement if required.  NVA fire halted 2ndPlt’s advance.  Within a few moments, Bravo Company began receiving heavy small arms fire from the front and both flanks.  With the Marines halted and assuming a defense, the NVA began to deliver artillery and mortar fire.

Alpha Company Marines tripped two booby traps, injuring several Marines.  The company advance was halted while Captain Slater called for a medevac.  Once the wounded Marines had been evacuated, Slater moved forward in an attempt to link up with Coates but was prevented from doing so by heavy enemy fire.

Bravo Company casualties were mounting by the second — its position rapidly deteriorating as the NVA successfully cut 3rdPlt and the command element from 2ndPlt.  With the Marines under heavy fire, enemy soldiers armed with flame weapons ignited the hedgerows on both sides of the road.  2ndPlt launched an assault to help 3rdPlt, but enemy artillery and mortar fire increased.  With a grass fire threatening to overwhelm them, Marines withdrew only to enter into a killing zone of NVA machine guns.

Enemy artillery killed Captain Coates, his radio operator, two platoon commanders, and the company artillery forward observer.  The Forward Air Controller, Captain Warren O. Keneipp, assumed command of Bravo Company, but without a radio operator, Captain Keneipp lost contact with 2ndPlt and had no control over subsequent events (please see comment below).  The company executive officer (XO) (2nd in command) was with 2ndPlt; his radio was the only source of comms with the battalion command post (CP), but cut off from the rest of the company, the XO was in no position to influence the action.

Staff Sergeant Leon R. Burns commanded 1stPlt.  He led the platoon forward to reinforce 2ndPlt and 3rdPlt, but enemy assaults hindered his advance.  Burns called in air strikes and specifically asked for napalm.  The strike delivered the much-needed munitions within twenty meters of the 1stPlt’s position.  After the airstrike, the enemy assault faltered, which allowed Burns to move forward and incorporate what remained of the 2ndPlt.  After placing his Marines into a hasty defense, the company’s Navy Corpsmen began treating their wounded Marines.

Upon learning that Alpha and Bravo companies had run into a hornet’s nest, and the Bravo Company commander had been killed, Colonel Schening dispatched Captain Henry J. Radcliffe (the Battalion Operations Officer) to take command of Bravo Company.  Radcliffe led forward an additional rifle platoon from Delta Company and four tanks.  First Lieutenant Gatlin J. Howell (the Battalion Intelligence Officer) accompanied Radcliffe because his familiarity with the terrain surrounding Con Thien.

Radcliffe’s arrival at the point of contact was timely because his relief platoon foiled an NVA attempt to encircle Bravo Company.  As the tanks and helicopter gunships dispersed the NVA, Delta Company moved forward with its two remaining rifle platoons.  Radcliffe directed the Delta Company commander to secure a landing zone.  Within minutes, Charlie Company began to arrive by helicopter from Dong Ha.

With additional support from Charlie and Delta companies, Radcliffe continued his assault.  When Captain Radcliffe made contact with Staff Sergeant Burns, he asked, “Where is the rest of Bravo Company?”  Burns answered, “Sir, you’re looking at all that’s left of Bravo Company.”

With Burns supervising the evacuation of wounded and dead Marines, Radcliffe continued forward to Bravo Company’s furthest advance.  At that point, Radcliffe established defensive positions and began attending to the 3rdPlt’s dead and wounded.  Lieutenant Howell, who had previously commanded 3rdPlt, quickly searched for Marines and helped move them back to the corpsman for triage.  At that moment, the enemy re-initiated artillery fire and the company’s withdrawal was made more difficult when two of the supporting tanks triggered landmines.

Radcliffe shepherded the casualties into the landing zone for medevac.  While waiting for the airlift, NVA dropped mortars into the LZ, inflicting even more casualties on the medical corpsmen and litter bearers.  By this time, the fog of war had completely descended upon 1/9’s forward elements.  With officers and senior NCOs killed and wounded, corporals took charge.  The NVA’s artillery assault on the landing zone precluded additional helicopter support, so ambulatory Marines began carrying their wounded brothers back to Con Thien.

Throughout the battle, Marine and naval gunfire engaged the enemy in a furious duel.  During that day, Schening’s CP received over 700 enemy artillery rounds.  Marine aircraft flew 28 sorties, dropping 90 tons of munitions on the well-fortified enemy positions.

Meanwhile, Captain Slater’s Alpha Company remained heavily engaged.  The number of Marine casualties brought the company to a standstill, prompting Slater to order his 3rdPlt to establish a hasty landing zone defense in the company rear area.  After the first flight of evac helicopters departed the zone, NVA hit the 3rdPlt with mortar fire and a ground assault.  Slater moved his 2ndPlt and command group to reinforce the 3rdPlt.  The NVA moved to within 50 meters of the company line before Marine fire broke the attack, but owing to the number of their casualties, Alpha Company was relegated to a defensive position until the NVA force withdrew later that evening.

As Colonel Schening moved his CP forward, he sent his XO, Major Darrell C. Danielson, ahead with additional reinforcements and transport to help evacuate the casualties.  When Danielson contacted the fifty remaining Marines, he organized a medical evaluation and called for medevacs.  Several Marines were bleeding out, everyone appeared to be in a state of shock.  Despite on-going enemy artillery and mortar fire, Danielson managed to extricate Alpha and Bravo companies back to Con Thien.

Colonel Schening reported his situation to the Colonel Jerue, the regimental commander: situation critical.  Jerue ordered Major Willard J. Woodring, commanding 3/9, to reinforce Schening[3].  Upon arrival, Schening directed Woodring to assume operational control of Alpha and Charlie companies (1/9).  Major Woodring directed a five-company assault on the enemy flanks while what remained of Bravo and the LZ security platoon from Delta company withdrew into Con Thien.  Woodring’s aggressive assault caused the NVA units to withdraw.  Later in the day, Staff Sergeant Burns[4] reported only 27 combat effectives remained in Bravo Company.  In total, 1/9 had lost 84 killed in action, 190 wounded, and 9 missing.  Of enemy casualties, no precise number exists.[5]

Enemy contact continued for the next three days.  At 09:00 on 3 July, an Air Force aerial observer reported several hundred NVA soldiers advancing on Marine positions north of Con Thien.  Echo Battery 3/12 dropped a massive number of rounds on the NVA position killing an estimated 75 communists.  To the east, Major Woodring called in artillery strikes for twelve hours in preparation for an assault scheduled for 4 July.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter A. Wickwire’s BLT 1/3 (Special Landing Force Alpha) reinforced the 9th Marines and tied in with Woodring’s right flank.[6]  Colonel George E. Jerue, commanding the 9th Marines, planned his assault to push the NVA out of the Long Son area, some 4,000 meters north of Con Thien.  Woodring began his assault at around 0630, encountering heavy resistance from well-concealed enemy positions southwest of Bravo Company’s engagement on 2 July.  A prolonged battle involving tanks, artillery, and close air support ensued for most of the day.  At 18:30, when Woodring halted his advance, 3/9 had lost 15 dead and 33 wounded.  Wickwire’s 1/3 had lost 11 wounded in the same action.

BLT 2/3 (SLF Bravo) under Major Wendell O. Beard’s BLT 2/3 effected an air assault at Cam Lo, joining Operation Buffalo at mid-afternoon on 4 July.[7]  This battalion moved west and then northward toward the western edge of the battle area toward Con Thien.

At daylight on 5 July, NVA artillery began firing on Marine units located northeast of Con Thien but kept its ground units away from the Marines as they advanced.  Meanwhile, search and recovery teams had begun the grim task of retrieving Bravo Company’s dead.

On 6 July, all battalions continued moving north.  Beard’s 2/3 ran into an enemy force supported by mortars less than two miles south of Con Thien.  Within an hour, 2/3 killed 35 NVA, while suffering 5 killed and 25 wounded.  Major Woodring and Colonel Wickwire advanced their battalions under intermittent artillery fire.  At around 09:00, Woodring decided to send a reinforced rifle company 1,500 meters to the north-northwest to cover his left flank.  Captain Slater’s Alpha Company, which now included the survivors of Charlie Company and a detachment from 3rd Recon Battalion, moved into position without enemy resistance and established a strong combat outpost.

Slater’s movement went unnoticed, but that wasn’t the case with the main elements of Woodring’s and Wickwire’s battalions.  Both units encountered heavy artillery fire.  By 16:00, neither of the battalions could go any further.  Wickwire had lost a tank but due to concentrated enemy artillery fire, was forced to pull back without recovering it.  Captain Burrell H. Landes, commanding Bravo Company 1/3, received a report from an aerial observer that 400 or more NVA were heading directly to confront Woodring and Wickwire.  A short time later, accurate NVA artillery fire began blasting the Marines.  As Woodring and Wickwire prepared to meet the approaching NVA under the enemy’s artillery assault, Captain Slater’s recon patrol reported that the approaching NVA was heading directly into Alpha Company’s position.

The NVA force was unaware of Slater’s blocking position until they were within 500 feet, at which time Slater’s Marines engaged the NVA.  Since the NVA didn’t know where the Marine’s fire was coming from, they scattered in every direction, some of them running directly into the Marine line.  Once the enemy had figured out where Slater’s Marines were positioned, they organized an assault.  The Marine lines held, however.  At one point, NVA troops began lobbing grenades into the Marine position.  Lance Corporal James L. Stuckey began picking the grenades up and tossing them back.  Stucky lost his right hand on the third toss when the grenade exploded as it left his hand.[8]  Stuckey remained with his fireteam throughout the night without any medical assistance.

While the Alpha Company fight was underway, elements of the 90th NVA Regiments attacked Woodring’s and Wickwire’s Marine with blocks of TNT.  Marines called in air support, artillery, and naval gunfire.  By 21:30, the Marines had repelled the enemy assault and caused the NVA regiment to withdraw.  At around 22:00, Woodring radioed Slater to return to the battalion perimeter at first light.

Alpha Company mustered before daylight on 7 July.  As the sun began to light the sky, Slater’s Marines discovered 154 dead NVA just beyond the Marine perimeter.  About an hour later, after Slater had returned to Woodring’s lines, the NVA unleashed a terrible barrage on Slater’s old position.  In front of Woodring and Wickwire’s battalion lay an additional 800 dead communists.  Later that morning, however, an NVA artillery shell found its way to 1/9’s command bunker, killing eleven Marines, including First Lieutenant Gatlin J. Howell,[9] who had gone to the aid of Bravo Company on 2 July.  Lieutenant Colonel Schening was wounded in the same incident.[10]

Operation Buffalo ended on 14 July.  Marines reported enemy losses at 1,290 dead, two captured.  Total Marine losses were 159 killed, 345 wounded.  The NVA attack at Con Thien was relatively short in duration but particularly vicious and the communists paid a heavy price.  Since the enemy dead were so horribly chewed up from air, artillery, and naval gunfire, the Marines were forced into counting the NVA solder’s water canteens for a sense of enemy dead.

Sources:

  1. Telfer, G. L. and Lane Rogers.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese, 1967.  Washington: Headquarters U. S. Marine Corps, 1984.
  2. Bowman, J. S.  The Vietnam War: Day by Day.  New York: Mallard Books, 1989.
  3. Nolan, K. W.  Operation Buffalo: USMC Fight for the DMZ.  Dell Publishing, 1992.

Endnotes:

[1] In this context, Robert McNamara was a war criminal.

[2] Located south of the DMZ, Leatherneck Square was a TAOR extending six miles (east-west) by nine miles (north-south); it’s corners were measured from Con Thien (northwest) to Firebase Gio Linh (northeast), and from Dong Ha to Cam Lo on its southern axis (an area of more than 54 square miles).  Between March 1967 to February 1969, 1,500 Marines and Navy Corpsmen were killed in this area, with an additional 9,265 wounded in action. 

[3] Awarded Silver Star Medal for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action between 2 July – 9 July 1967.  Colonel Woodring passed away in 2003.

[4] Awarded Navy Cross for this action.

[5] After 14 July, estimates of enemy KIA ranged from 525 to 1,200.

[6] Colonel Wickwire was awarded the Silver Star Medal for conspicuous gallantry for service on 6 July 1967.

[7] Retired Lieutenant Colonel Wendell Otis “Moose” Beard, a former NFL football player with the Washington Redskins, served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam Wars.  He was the recipient of the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart Medal.  He passed away in 1980. 

[8] Awarded Navy Cross Medal.

[9] First Lieutenant Howell was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his actions on 2 July 1967.

[10] Colonel Schening was also wounded at Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and during the Korean War.  This was his fourth Purple Heart Medal.  He was awarded the Silver Star Medal for service during the Korean War while serving as XO, Company C, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.  Colonel Schening passed away in 1996.


Special Landing force

America’s flashing sword

Background

Late in October 1914, two Ottoman warships (operating under the command of German officers) conducted a raid in the Black Sea.  They bombarded the Ukrainian port of Odessa and sank several ships.  Two days later, the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany against Russia.  Before the end of the year, the central powers had badly mauled British and French forces on the Western Front and effectively cut off overland trade routes by blockading the entrance to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles and cutting Russia off from resupply.

Winston Churchill, 1914

Although the idea to attack the Ottoman Empire originally came from French Minister Aristide Briand, the United Kingdom defeated the motion because the British hoped to convince the Turks to join the Allied effort.  Later, however, First Sea Lord Winston Churchill (who was then 41-years old) proposed a naval campaign to attack the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli, a peninsula located in the southern portion of  East Thrace, east of the Aegean Sea and west of the Dardanelles.  Churchill’s plan intended to threaten Constantinople, protect the Suez Canal, and open up a warm-water supply route through the Black Sea.

All good plans fall apart sooner or later.  In this case, the First Sea Lord didn’t know much about military operations beyond the small unit level and virtually nothing about naval warfare.  Consequently, the intelligence used to formulate the Gallipoli campaign was flawed.  After eight months of fighting, each side lost a quarter of a million men.  It was a resounding defeat for the Entente Powers, Turkey gained international prestige, and Churchill nearly lost his political career.  However, the operation did help propel the Turks toward their war of independence eight years later and prompted Australia and New Zealand to reconsider their relationship with the British Empire.

Following the First World War, the Gallipoli campaign led many military theorists to conclude that amphibious warfare was folly.  These experts decided that given the weapons of modern warfare, there was no way that a seaborne organization could force its way ashore and defeat a well-entrenched enemy.  It was not a belief shared by intellectuals in the United States Navy and Marine Corps, who began a protracted study of amphibious warfare capability in the 1920s.  They became convinced that successful amphibious operations were possible and set about discovering how to do it.

Between 1921 and 1939, Navy-Marine Corps war planners created the capabilities necessary for success in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II.  Through innovative thinking, trial, and error, the work accomplished by Navy and Marine Corps officers allowed the allied powers to project military power across vast oceans, wrest the continent of Europe away from the Axis powers, and seize Pacific bases on the long road to Japan.  Not only did the Navy-Marine Corps develop Amphibious Warfare Doctrine, but they also taught it to the armies of the United States and Great Britain for use in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the invasion of the Atlantic.

Since then, the Navy and Marine Corps have continually evaluated and improved US amphibious doctrine.  Today, naval operations include pre-positioned logistics ships, carrier-borne close air support of amphibious forces, and vertical lift assault capabilities.  These competencies are what makes the Navy-Marine Corps team relevant to America’s national defense — even despite the ridiculous assertion of General of the Army Omar Bradley, who while serving as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1949 said, “I predict that large scale amphibious operations will never occur again.”  He could not have been more wrong.  General Bradley was apparently unaware of the observation by Karl von Clausewitz in 1832: “A swift and vigorous transition to attack — the flashing sword of vengeance — is the most brilliant point of the defense.”  Modern naval warfare capability is America’s flashing sword.  The only question is whether political leaders have the will to employ it in the nation’s defense.

Organizational Overview

The Navy and Marine Corps meet the challenges of a wide range of contingencies through task force organization.  All naval task forces are mission-centered, which is to say that both the Navy and Marine Corps organize their combat units for one or more specific missions.  All Marine Corps combat units are capable of becoming part of an air-ground task force, referred to as MAGTF, which consists of a ground combat element (GCE), air combat element (ACE), and a combat logistics element (CLE).

MAGTFs are organized under a single commander and structured to accomplish one or more specific missions.  According to official Marine Corps doctrine, “A Marine air-ground task force with separate air-ground headquarters is normally formed for combat operations and training exercises in which substantial combat forces of both Marine aviation and Marine ground units are part of the task organization of participating Marine forces.”

The basic organization of a MAGTF is the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) — generally organized as follows:

  • The MEU command element (CE) includes a colonel (commanding officer) supported by a regular staff: S-1 (Manpower), S-2 (Intelligence), S-3 (Operations/Training), S-4 (Logistics), S-6 (Communications), naval gunfire liaison, and other special staff personnel.  The MEU CE includes about 200 Marines and sailors.
  • The GCE is a reinforced infantry battalion called a battalion landing team (BLT), commanded by a lieutenant colonel.  A BLT is a reinforced battalion consisting of three rifle companies, a weapons company, and a headquarters and service company.  Depending on the MEU’s mission, reinforcements may include an artillery battery, armored vehicle platoons, reconnaissance platoons, attached U. S. Navy field corpsmen, and a detachment of combat engineers.  All members of the BLT are trained to conduct seaborne operations in several landing craft variants and tiltrotor vertical assault operations.  A BLT will contain between 950-1,200 Marines.
  • The ACE is usually a composite air squadron (reinforced) commanded by a lieutenant colonel.  The ACE includes a medium tiltrotor squadron augmented by detachments of heavy, light, and attack helicopters, one detachment of amphibious flight deck capable jet aircraft, and a Marine air control group detachment with tactical air, traffic control, direct air support, and anti-aircraft defense assets.  The ACE also includes headquarters, communications, and logistical support personnel.  The number of personnel in a typical MEU ACE is around 600 troops.
  • The CLE is Combat Logistics Battalion.  A major or lieutenant colonel commands the CLB, responsible for providing service support, intermediate maintenance, intermediate supply, transportation, explosive ordnance technology, utilities, and bulk fuel.  The CLB consists of approximately 400-500 Marines.

The size of a MAGTF may expand if its mission increases in scope.  A more extensive operation may demand a larger MAGTF organization, such as a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB).  The MEB consists of a regimental combat team (RCT), a composite Marine Aircraft Group, and a Combat Logistics Regiment.  The officer commanding an MEB is usually a brigadier general.  The MEB can function as part of a joint task force, as the lead element of a Marine Expeditionary Force, or alone.

Any mission that exceeds the capability of a brigade will involve a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF).  A MEF commander is usually a lieutenant general who exercises operational authority over a reinforced Marine infantry division, reinforced Marine aircraft wing, and a Combat Logistics Group.

Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force

The Navy’s Amphibious Ready Group consists of an amphibious task force (ATF) and an amphibious landing force called Special Landing Force (SLF).  The ARG/SLF  was first established in 1960.  The SLF deployed to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) as part of the first deployment of American ground forces.  The 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines (BLT 2/9) served as the SLF to support the Marine expeditionary landing at Da Nang in March 1965.  In mid-April, III MAF temporarily dissolved the SLF because its amphibious assets were required to support the 3rd Marine Amphibious Brigade (3rdMAB) landing at Chu Lai.

Subsequently, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT) and the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (CG FMFPac) outlined the advantages of maintaining an amphibious capability in support of the Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) — a dedicated force for conducting amphibious raids, assaults, and floating reserve.

President Lyndon Johnson’s formal commitment of US military forces to RVN in March 1965 presented General William C. Westmoreland (COMUSMACV) with a dilemma.  As a military assistance/advisory commander, Westmoreland lacked sufficient ground combat forces to meet threats imposed by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces operating in the central highlands.  Without adequate ground troops, General Westmoreland had no way of defending US military installations, particularly those in the area of Qui Nhon, where the threat of VC hostilities was most imminent.  US Army units and allied forces from South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand would not arrive in RVN until June.  Westmoreland didn’t like it, but he had no choice but to turn to the Marines for security.  Accordingly, the National Military Command Center (NMCC) directed the Commanding General, Third Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF), to provide air/ground security operations until the arrival of the Army’s ground combat forces.

III MEF[1] headquarters was located in Okinawa.  Its ground combat subordinate was the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv), also located in Okinawa.  3rdMarDiv routinely provided two BLTs to the Commander, US Seventh Fleet (COMSEVENTHFLT), to satisfy the landing force requirement for two special landing forces (designated SLF(A) and SLF(B)).  Tasked to provide Marines to support COMUSMACV, III MAF requested the support of COMSEVENTHFLT), who promptly made the ARG/SLF available to Westmoreland.

Action in the Central Highlands

Qui Nhon was a densely populated agricultural region located along the coastal plain southwest of Da Nang.[2]  Population density and agricultural production were the magnets that attracted VC[3] and NVA forces in the area.  Within three days of the NMCC’s tasking, the Special Landing Force conducted combat operations in the central highlands.

Operations in and around Qui Nhơn could not have been better timed.  The Marine’s surprise assault threw the VC force structure into confusion and delayed their hostilities along the coastal plain, but the landing also helped facilitate the gathering of local intelligence and allowed the Marines to test hypotheses for the pacification of local civilians.  The actual operation was uneventful, but it did demonstrate the flexibility and responsiveness of the ARG and the SLF to achieve limited objectives within a more extensive operation. 

In mid-August 1965, Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) intelligence officers communicated their belief that the 1st VC Regiment was preparing to attack the Marines at Chu Lai in Quảng Tri Province.  The basis for this assessment was an early July VC assault that overran ARVN units stationed at Ba Gia.  Accordingly, III MAF developed a plan to launch a preemptive assault against the enemy regiment, then located on the Van Tuong Peninsula, ten miles south of Chu Lai.  Its precursor was Operation Thunderbolt, conducted adjacent to the Trà Bồng River, a two-day area security/information collection mission jointly assigned to the 4th Marines and 51st ARVN Regiment.

The Marine assault against the 1st VC Regiment, designated Operation Starlight, occurred between 18-24 August 1965.  It was the first major offensive campaign conducted by the US military in South Vietnam.  Colonel Oscar Peatross commanded the RLT.  His subordinate commanders and their battalions included Lieutenant Colonel Joseph R. Fisher, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines (2/4), Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. Muir, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines (3/3), and Lieutenant Colonel Charles H. Bodley, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines (3/7), which operated as the SLF reserve force.

The combined arms assault of three battalions of Marines on the 1,500-man 1st VC Regiment, located in and around the village of Van Tuong, was overwhelmingly effective; the Marines reduced the communist regiment to half of its effective strength.

Meanwhile, in late July, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), approved Operations Dagger Thrust and Harvest Moon.  Dagger Thrust was a series of amphibious raids on suspected enemy concentrations along the coastal regions of South Vietnam.  Of the five raids, only two produced significant contact with communist forces, but three uncovered notable stores of arms and munitions.  The raids were so effective that the enemy never knew when the Marines would come — only that they eventually would come, and the result of their visitations would not be pleasant.  As a consequence, some VC soldiers began floating their resumes for a new line of work.

In December 1965, Operation Harvest Moon was a reaction to the 1st VC Regiment’s attack on the Regional Force garrison at Hiệp Đức near the entrance to the Quế Son Valley.  Initially serving as a reserve force, heavy fighting prompted the operational commander to commit the SLF, quickly turning the tide against the Viet Cong regiment.  The staggering losses imposed on VC forces by the Marines caused General Võ Nguyên Giáp to increase the NVA’s footprint in South Vietnam, and this redirection of the American’s attention would enable new VC cadres to infiltrate population centers.  Apparently, Giáp assumed that the U. S. Marine Corps was a one-trick pony.  He was wrong.

By 1969, the ARG/SLF had conducted sixty-two amphibious landings against VC/NVA elements operating inside the Republic of Vietnam.  The SLFs made significant contributions to MACV’s operational mobility and flexibility by offering a timely striking power.

Among the significant benefits of the two SLFs were their flexibility, the element of surprise from “over-the-horizon” assaults, and their on-shore maneuverability.  Once ashore, operational control of the SLF passed from the ARG Commander to the senior ground combat commander.  Another plus was the SLF’s self-sustaining character, which stood in contrast to regular force ground units that relied on static functional organizations for airlift, logistics/resupply, fire support, and medical triage capabilities.

In the early 1990s, the Navy-Marine Corps planners began a re-examination of the ARG/SLF concept and developed an innovation they termed Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG).[4]  Currently, there are nine ESGs, ten Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs), and several Surface Warfare Action Groups (SWAGs).  ESGs allow the Navy to provide highly mobile/self-sustaining naval forces for missions in all parts of the world.  The ESG incorporates the capabilities of CSGs, SWAGs, ARGs, and MEUs to enhance the capabilities of combat commanders within six geographical regions.

Currently, there are seven Marine Expeditionary Units — three under the I Marine Expeditionary Force (US West Coast), three operating under the II Marine Expeditionary Force (US East Coast), and one operating under the III Marine Expeditionary Unit (Japan).

No one in the Navy and Marine Corps wants to go to war, but they know how to go to war.  They are America’s flashing sword.  Quite frankly, only an idiot would like to see these forces come knocking on their door, but we will need the Navy-Marine Corps combat team until the world has finally rid itself of idiots.

Sources:

  1. Bean, C.  The Story of ANZAC from 4 May 1915 to the Evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula.  Canberra: Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, 1921 (11 editions).
  2. Broadbent, H.  Gallipoli: The Fatal Shore.  Camberwell: Viking Press, 2005.
  3. Cassar, G. H.  Kitchener’s War: British Strategy from 1914-1916.  Lincoln: Potomac Books, 2004.
  4. Halpern, P. G.  A Naval History of World War I.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
  5. Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History (Fourth Edition).  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] Temporarily changed to III MAF because the government of RVN objected to the word “expeditionary.”

[2] My reference to places in Vietnam, used in past tense, speaks to events in locations that then existed.  Since the end of the Vietnam War, the government of Vietnam has renamed many of the hamlets, villages, and districts of the former South Vietnamese republic.  Qui Nhơn is now known as Quy Nhơn.

[3] Short name for the National Liberation Front of Southern Vietnam, an armed communist revolutionary organization that operated in South Vietnam and Cambodia.  The VC organized both regular and guerrilla forces to combat the South Vietnamese and United States military forces.

[4] ESGs are part of the Navy’s Expeditionary Task Force concept.


The Cactus Air Force

Guadalcanal — 1942

Some Background

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

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

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

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

Assembling Air Forces

Major Lofton R. Henderson, USMC

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

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

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

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

Henderson Field, OFFiCIAL USMC PHOTO

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

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

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

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

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

Ground Combat Interface

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aftermath

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

[6] See also: Building the Hive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Air Balloons and Such

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capt A. H. Page, Jr., USMC

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

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

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

BrigGen “Billy” Mitchell USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barrage Ballon (Samoa)

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

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

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

Barrage Balloon maintenance facility

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

Marine Glider Pilots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vernon M. Guymon

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

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

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

N3N-3 Trainer

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

Two-place Glider

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

Nawzad —2008

Some Background

Men have used spears in warfare for well over 3,000 years —and they continued using them even after the invention of firearms.  The use of spears began as implements for hunting in pre-history.  They were fashioned by burning one end of a straight stick until it had become pointed, its makers scraping the wood further to make the pointed end even sharper, which increased its lethality.

The hunting spear may have been one of mankind’s earliest technological advances, inspired by early man’s demand for food.  Scientists in Germany discovered this kind of weapon embedded into the skeletal remains of an elephant.  No one is quite sure when humans turned these hunting weapons upon one another; we only know that it was a long time ago.  What we do know is that spears were far more efficient than clubs, and likely preferable because of their versatility.  A spearman could thrust his weapon into an enemy or throw it from a distance.

Over time, hunters-gatherers became agriculturalists.  With farming came the domestication of animals and less demand for hunters.  One demand remained, however: the defense of small villages to protect loved ones and food stores.  When men learned that more spearmen were far more efficient in self-defense than one or two uncoordinated defenders, they began to develop offensive and defensive tactics.  At first, it is likely that the employment of these maneuvers more closely resembled a Chinese fire drill than a military formation, but in time someone came up with the idea that a well-drilled formation fared better in warfare than a mish-mash of stick-wielding yahoos.

The earliest formation was the phalanx, a closely packed block of spearmen.  The phalanx made the spear far more deadly in close combat; even back then there was no ribbon for coming in second.  The phalanx formation made ancient Greece into a military power with subsequent armies adopting similar formations over the next 2,000 years.

Gladius Hispaniensis

The Roman armies did such a good job of emulating Greek strategies that they eventually took over the known world.  The Roman started with the basics of Greek tactics and improved on them.  While retaining the spear (pilus) the Romans also used swords (Gladius).  Initially, Roman swords were much like those used by the Greeks, but from around the third century BC, Rome adopted the Celtiberian[1] sword; they called it Gladius Hispaniensis.  This sword was shorter in length, better made, and far more manageable for close-in fighting.  The Roman spear was especially adapted to Roman tactics, used as a kind of close-combat artillery, but constructed more on the order of a javelin.  After throwing their pilum in a single volley, Roman legions then charged into their enemy in close formation with shield (scutum) and gladius.

Rome’s demise[2], after 1,100 years of military domination, produced several hundred years of political and social instability.  The next innovation of the spear came in the form of the lance, a weapon used from horseback by mounted knights.  Knights led infantry (foot) formations (that retained the spear as its primary weapon), but it was the mounted warrior that led to most military innovation in subsequent years—such as saddles, stirrups, a longer “cavalry” sword.  Cavalry (or its earliest form) became the Middle Ages’ most important combat component.  Eventually, polearms replaced spears as infantry weapons.

The polearm provided a defense against mounted assaults —an innovation that enabled the Swiss to become the most feared military force in Europe during the Middle Ages.  The most widely recognized polearm of that period was called a halberd, a cross between a spear and an ax with a hook.  The halberd was useful in stabbing, slashing, and pulling riders from their horses.

The pike was an exceptionally long spear fielded by large blocks of men (similar in many ways to the Greek phalanx, but without shields).  Pikes enabled infantry to hold off charging cavalry.  By this time, military formations had begun to field fire arms so the pike blocks also protected musketeers while they reloaded their weapons.  When muskets and rifles became the primary weapon of field armies, bayonets became the primary means used by riflemen to defend themselves in close combat.  When attached to the musket or rifle, the two weapons served the same purpose as the ancient spear.

U.S. Marine Corps bayonet

Bayonets continue to function as a close-in weapon in modern military arsenals.  They are primarily used while searching for the enemy in confined spaces, or whenever a field commander anticipates close combat.  There are many examples of the use of the bayonet in World War II and the Korean War.  The command, “Fix Bayonets” is chilling because at that point, everyone knows that a knife fight is about to take place.

In Afghanistan

When First Lieutenant Arthur E. Karell ordered “Fix Bayonets,” the hunkered down Marines of Fox Company’s 3rd Platoon began to perspire.  The sound of Marines withdrawing their bayonets from scabbards and affixing them to the ends of their rifles was distinctive.  Click, click, click.  Lieutenant Karell’s order was precautionary because he didn’t know what to expect in the quiet darkness.  All he knew was that his orders placed he and his men at that specific spot, and that Helmand Province (later known as Marineistan[3]) is where someone high up in his chain of command had decided that U.S. Marines could do the most good.  Karell was part of the vanguard of Marines who would become predators —their prey was the Taliban.

Nawzad, Afghanistan was a ghost town.  The 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines (2/7) assumed responsibility for pacifying this enemy-occupied but once-populated town in a remote and god-forsaken area of southeast Afghanistan.  The people who used to live in Nawzad (some 10,000 in number (estimated)) abandoned their mud-brick homes and melted away into the dusty area surrounding it.  With the departure of these simple people, the Taliban moved in and made themselves at home.  Karell’s battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Richard D. Hall, had sent Fox Company to issue eviction notices.

The fact was that Colonel Hall didn’t know much more about Nawzad than Karell; Hall had no “intel” of the enemy situation because Helmand Province wasn’t a priority for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO’s coalition headquarters in Kabul.  Up until 2/7’s arrival in Helmand Province, the ISAF had ignored Nawzad.

The quiet darkness of early morning was periodically interrupted by the sounds of distant  jackals, which was enough to straighten the Marine’s neck hair.  Karell’s Marines didn’t know what awaited them, but whatever it was, it was about to get its ass kicked.  The Taliban were dangerous, of course, but they weren’t U.S. Marines.  They may have intimidated poor farmers and the U.S. Army led ISAF in Kabul, but they weren’t going to cower Fox 2/7.  Still, neither Lieutenant Karell nor his company commander had a firm picture of the enemy situation.

The 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines was initially activated on 1 January 1941 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  Its world war service included Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and Okinawa.  During the Korean War, 2/7 participated in the landing at Inchon, the Battle of Seoul, the landing at Wonsan, and the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.  Captain William Barber received the Medal of Honor for his extraordinary courage while commanding Fox Company.  The battalion deployed to Vietnam from July 1965 until October 1970.  While based at Twenty-nine Palms, California, the battalion was deployed for Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-91 with additional service in Iraq in 2004, 2005, 2006.  The battalion deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, and again from 2012-2013.

2/7 spearheaded the return of Marines to Afghanistan in April 2008, engaging in combat almost from the very first day.  It was the hardest hit battalion in the Marine Corps in 2008.  During its eight month deployment, the battalion lost 20 Marines killed in action; 160 wounded in action, and of these, thirty amputees.

It was 15th June 2008 and Karell was seconds away from launching his first combat assault.  Most of his noncommissioned officers were combat veterans, but their previous experience had been in Iraq.  Afghanistan was a horse of a different color.  From their position in a dried-up irrigation ditch, in the pitch-black early morning, the only thing the Marines could see was the vague outline of a thick mud wall that stood higher than most Marines were tall.  The wall separated the town from a small, scraggly forest.  Up until then, it was “Indian country,” and no one from Fox Company had seen what lay on the other side.  They only knew that whenever a patrol came near the wall, someone from the other side started shooting at them.  Not knowing the enemy situation beyond the wall prompted Karell to issue his order, “Fix Bayonets.”

Karell began the platoon’s advance, stealthily creeping along in the dark with he and his platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant (SSgt) Gabriel G. Guest, leading the way.  This is how Marines do combat: leaders at the tip of the spear.  Despite a long list of unknowns, the Marines of the 3rd Platoon had confidence in their lieutenant.  Karell possessed all the positive attributes of an outstanding combat leader.  He was calm in stressful situations.  He moved with purpose and self-confidence.  He was open with and respectful of his men.  He was willing to admit when he’d messed up.  He learned from his mistakes.  In the eyes of his superiors, Karell had additional traits: knowledgeable, thoughtful, aggressive, good at planning and even better in execution.  In short, Karell was a hunter-warrior —a dangerous predator.

As Karell’s Marines moved forward, they could hear the growling engines of support vehicles coming up behind them.  Suddenly, from behind the wall, a rocket-propelled grenade shattered the silence of the night —the explosive swooshing above the heads of the leathernecks toward the approaching support vehicles.  Marine machine guns opened up; enemy machine guns answered.  Muzzle flashes from the base of the wall revealed the enemy’s positions.

The instant before the shooting started, Karell’s Marines were nervous; an instant after, Marine Corps training took over.  The Marine’s first emotion was that they were pissed off that someone was shooting at them.  After coordinating by radio with Fox Actual, once the Marine’s machine guns shifted their fires, Karell launched his assault toward the enemy.  2nd Squad laid down a base of fire as Karell and the 1st Squad rushed forward.  Then 1st Squad took up suppressing fires as 2nd Squad advanced.  The Marines of 3rd Platoon ignored the enemy’s fire as deadly rounds snapped past them, but they were expending a lot of ammunition.  SSgt Guest began relaying ammo resupply forward. The enemy machine gun went silent and the enemy began running in the opposite direction.

Lieutenant Karell brought combat engineers forward.  After firing mine clearing devices into the area in front of the wall, they blew a gaping hole through the adobe barrier.  Karell’s platoon poured through the wall and took up a hasty defense position until the platoon was ready to pursue the enemy.  What they found inside the compound stood in stark contrast to the desolate moonscape on the outside.  It was a garden setting, complete with flowing water and a forest of fruit trees.

Karell and his Marines had no time to enjoy it; the lieutenant organized his Marines to begin destroying enemy bunkers.  Their progress took them into the light forest.  Standing before them was a white mound that rose above the trees.  Karell estimated that the damn thing was forty-feet above ground.  The skipper[4] supposed it could be a command bunker.

From where the 3rd Platoon was standing the mound looked like a stone fortress.  It was “no big deal.”  The Marines started climbing weighted down by the intense morning heat, their weapons, ammunition, and body armor.  They were looking for caves —but found none.  They expected enemy resistance —but there was none.  When he reached the top, Lieutenant Karell did a quick search of the area.  All he found were scars from artillery of some earlier battle.  Karell laughed —his 3rd Platoon had captured a huge rock.

2/7 was sent to Nawzad to train Afghan police.  The ISAF reasoned that if the Marines could train local police, the police would then be able to protect their own community.  The fly in that ointment was that there were no police in Nawzad.  Absent the police training mission, Colonel Hall queried higher headquarters about his new mission.  He was told to make it possible for the Afghan people to return to their long-deserted town.  There was no mention of how he was to accomplish this task, of course, only that the Marines needed to “get it done.”  So, Hall executed the Marine Corps plan: find the Taliban and convince him that he’s in the wrong business.

Helmand Province in Afghanistan

While it was true that the battalion’s mission had changed, little else had.  Since ISAF controlled all in-theater air assets, 2/7 would not have dedicated air support.  Marine grunts love their aviators, and this has been true all the way back to the early days of Marine aviation —when Marines began to explore the utility of aircraft for ground support missions.  For two decades, the Marines perfected air-ground operations during the so-called Banana Wars.  During World War II, Navy and Marine Corps aviation perfected the art and science of close air support.  They employed these skills in the Korean War.  In fact, it was during the Korean War that the Marines taught the Army a thing or two about on-call close air support.  In Afghanistan, however, the Marines would have to REQUEST air support through the ISAF.  Maybe they would get it, maybe they wouldn’t.  There was no guarantee that 2/7 Marines would have their USMC Cobra pilots (their combat angels) overhead.

By the time 2/7 arrived in Nawzad, the once-thriving city was already long-abandoned.  It was likely that Taliban or drug trafficking warlords had driven them away.  But Colonel Hall was resourceful and smart.  Before the scheduled deployment of his Battalion, Hall went to Helmand Province and talked to people on the ground.  He came away with the understanding that, despite his (then) stated mission to train a police force, his Marines would do more fighting than training.

A week after Lieutenant Karell’s rock climb, Captain Russ Schellhaas, the Fox Company commander, assigned Karell’s 3rd Platoon to support of his 1st Platoon during an operation that unfortunately found 1st Platoon in the middle of a minefield.  It was a horrible day for twenty-six seriously wounded Marines.  A few days after that, Staff Sergeant Chris Strickland, an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technician was killed while attempting to disarm an improvised explosive device (IED).

The mission of the Marine combat engineer is to enhance the mobility and survivability of ground combat forces.  Among its several specific tasks are expedient demolition, route/area minesweeping operations, and a range of other force protection measures.  Thirty days later, it was Lance Corporal John Shrey’s duty to conduct minesweeping operations while leading Lieutenant Karell and his platoon’s 3rd Squad through a potential IED minefield.  Karell and his Marines followed him as if they were baby ducks.

Once the Marines had made it through the minefield, they concealed themselves in a grove of scrubby underbrush within sight of their point of interest —a supposedly abandoned compound with a single adobe shack.  Intel claimed that insurgents were using the compound as a rallying point, a place where they stored their gear before laying in more IEDs.  North of the rally point was a band of trees, within which was another series of compounds —in distance, about a half-mile in length.  Heavily armed Taliban occupied these compounds and used them as IED factories and safe havens.  According to the 2/7 operations officer, the Taliban were Pakistanis who had come to fight through what the Marines were calling “Pakistan Alley.”  And the Marines knew that it was only a matter of time before they would have to clear it out.  For now, though, the Karell concentrated on the immediate threat: the rally point.

At daybreak, the 3rd Squad could hear the Moslem call to prayer echoing through the northern forest.  Lieutenant Karell also detected the sound of armored vehicles bringing up the rest of his platoon.  Shouts erupted from insurgents just inside the tree line; two Pakis ran from the wood carrying RPGs.  They were unaware of Karell’s presence in the grove.

Enemy machine-gun fire opened-up against a Marine bulldozer as it barreled its way through a minefield, clearing a lane to the rally point.  An RPG was fired at the MRAP carrying Karell’s second squad.  The leader of the 2nd Squad was a young corporal by the name of Aaron Tombleson.  At 23-years of age, Tombleson was responsible for the lives and welfare of twelve Marines.  His point man was Private First Class Ivan Wilson, whom everyone called “Willie.”

Explosions began erupting near the MRAP.  Lieutenant Karell heard a loud detonation and this was followed by the giant tire of an MRAP flying toward 3rd Squad.  With none of his men injured in the blast, Corporal Tombleson quickly transferred his squad to a second vehicle.  It was already a jumbled day and it was still early in the morning.

Marines of Fox Company 2/7 in 2008          Photo credit to Sgt F. G. Cantu, USMC

The bulldozer went on to punch a hole through the wall of the compound but had gotten stuck in the rubble and tight surroundings.  A fire team from 2nd Squad dismounted to provide security for the engineers while they attempted to straighten out the bulldozer.  Willie led the fireteam alongside the MRAP toward the rear of the dozer, but incoming small arms fire began pinging the side of the MRAP.  The fire team took cover and began returning fire.  PFC Wilson on point ran to the edge of the compound and took a kneeling position to return fire.  In that instant, an IED exploded under him.  Lieutenant Karell heard the explosion, followed seconds later by a radio report that the 2nd Squad had four or five casualties with one KIA.

3rd Squad’s Navy Corpsman was HM3 Tony Ameen.  He requested Karell’s permission to move up to help attend to the wounded.  Assuming 2nd Squad’s corpsman was overwhelmed in treating the injured, Karell told Ameen he could go —but only with an engineer to sweep for mines.

With Lance Corporal Shrey leading the way, Ameen and another Corpsman, HM Jack Driscoll, and a few additional Marines to provide security, moved up.  The going was slow.  As the medical team inched forward behind Shrey, another explosion erupted, and a plume of smoke appeared behind the tree line.

“Doc” Ameen, impatient with the rate of march, bolted out of line and rushed forward.  This is what Navy Corpsmen are trained to do.  They run to their wounded Marines —and this explains why 2,012 Navy Corpsmen have been killed in combat since the Navy Medical Corps was founded in 1871.  Forty-two corpsmen lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.  There are 21 U.S. Navy ships named after Navy Corpsmen; they have received over six-hundred medals for valor —including 23 Medals of Honor and 179 Navy Cross medals.

A few steps past Shrey, Ameen stepped on another IED.  Ameen went flying head over heel.  He lost one foot and half of his left hand.  Shrey, knocked to the ground by the concussion and bleeding from both ears, got groggily to his feet.  Despite his injury, Shrey maintained his presence of mind and shouted to Doc Driscoll to halt in place.  LCpl Shrey did not want another casualty among the corpsmen.

Meanwhile, Corporal Tumbleson and seven of his Marines —all that was left of his squad— carried Willie to the MRAP; as the Marines struggled to place him inside the vehicle, Wilson attempted to help them.  It was then that he and realized that his arm was missing.  Willie slipped into unconsciousness.  Nearby, a contingent of ISAF Estonian soldiers rushed forward to help get Willie to the Medevac Landing Zone.

Lieutenant Karell called for an airstrike, which after a few minutes destroyed the compound.  Afterward, Karell moved his platoon forward and occupied the compound.  That afternoon, during retrograde back to Nawzad, another MRAP set off an IED, but there were no more human casualties; the truck was damaged beyond repair.  When the Marines arrived back at the company command post (CP), Karell learned that Willie had died on the medical evacuation helicopter.

Even though 3rd Platoon Marines were shaken and exhausted from the day’s events, Karell assembled them to break the news about PFC Wilson.  Afterward, the Marines never spoke about the battle of the compound —they only talked about the day Willie died.  That night, Karell led an eight-man patrol from 1st Squad back to the enemy rally point.  The Marines had learned that the Taliban often returned to a battle site to assess the damage and lay in more IEDs.  No sooner had Karell and his men reached the area just outside the compound, they heard movement ahead of them.  Apparently, the enemy also heard the Marines approaching and withdrew.  Karell wasn’t looking for another fight —he wanted to get his Marines back in the saddle after losing Wilson.

Conditions in Nawzad were what one might expect in Afghanistan.  2/7 Marines were fighting in temperatures that hovered around 120-degrees Fahrenheit.  The chow sucked —but then, all MREs[5] do.  Critical resupply was continually interrupted by enemy activity along the main supply route (MSR).  There was no running water.  The constant swirling of powdery Afghan dust clogged the Marine’s throats —they were continually rinsing their mouths with water, gargling, and spitting it out.  Lack of contact with the outside world challenged unit morale, but worse than that, the Marines believed that their sacrifices were serving no worthwhile purpose.  They were sent there to train police, but instead, the Marines became the police.  And the fact was that a single battalion of Marines was an insufficient force to deal with the overwhelming number of Taliban/Pakistani insurgents over so large an area.  As a result, the Marines were spread too thin —a direct consequence of President Obama’s decision to withdraw the military from Afghanistan.  There were no replacements for evacuated casualties; the Marines would have to fight with what they had.  Corporal Tombleson’s squad, for example, started off with twelve Marines, casualties reducing it to eight —a 33% reduction in combat efficiency.

The attitudes of Marines of Fox Company mirrored those of the other line companies.  Everyone believed that when 2/7 was pulled out, as one day it must, there would be no one to replace them —and they wondered, if this was true, then why were they in Afghanistan at all?  Staff Sergeant Kevin Buegel, who replaced the wounded and evacuated Staff Sergeant Guest as platoon sergeant, was pissed off.  The very idea of losing Marines for no good purpose was a constant source of irritation.  Eventually, word came down that Obama had reversed his earlier decision to withdraw all US forces.  2/7 would be replaced by another battalion landing team after all.

In late October 3rd Platoon assumed the company vanguard (the point) position when Fox Company plunged into Paki Alley to root out and destroy Taliban forces.  Hall’s 2/7 had already cleared Nawzad but clearing the Taliban from the alley would be a tough fight, as urban-type warfare always is.

Lieutenant Karell’s platoon was engaged in clearing operations; each of his rifle squads moving deliberately through their assigned sectors.  At one location, the 1st Squad encountered a Taliban shooter in the structure’s basement.  Marines called out to him in Pashtu to surrender, but he kept shooting at them with an AK-47.  Corporal Joe Culliver was an intelligence analyst temporarily attached to Fox company.  He wanted the shooter taken alive, if possible; one of the Karell’s Marines told him, “Don’t count on it.”  Nothing the Marines did convinced this shooter that it would be to his advantage to surrender.

1st Squad’s delay of advance was becoming a critical issue because the three squads moving forward provided mutual security during the platoon’s operation.  Lieutenant Karell decided that they’d wasted enough time on this one holdout.  Marines tossed hand grenades into the basement; the insurgent answered with more rifle fire.  Staff Sergeant Buegel was pissed off; he always was about something.  He rigged a C-4 explosive and tossed it into the basement.  Whatever impact the explosion had appeared negligible because the shooter continued to unleash measured fire.  Karell knew that the shooter was wounded, knew that he wasn’t going to surrender, and he knew that he was not going to leave him alive in the rear of his Marines.

Elsewhere in the Alley, the Taliban was putting up one hell of a fight.  The enemy employed mortars, machine guns, and hand grenades against the 3rd Platoon.  Karell needed to close the door on this shooter.  Marines inched down the stairwell and poured hot lead around the adobe corer into the open basement.  The shooter finally went silent.  Karell, with his pistol at the ready, entered the basement with Corporal Culliver right behind him.  The Taliban was laying on the floor along the wall on the far side of the room.  He was badly wounded.  Spread out across the floor in front of him were dozens of needles and empty ampules of morphine.  The shooter was higher than a kite, and this explained his apparent lack of pain.  As Karell approached the shooter, he suddenly heaved, reaching for his AK-47.  One of the Marines behind Karell fired twice, killing the Taliban.

Folks back home believe (because this is what the U.S. media tells them) that the Taliban are deeply religious people, dedicated to their belief system, that they are willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of their god.  This could be true among those who run dozens to hundreds of madrassas, and it may even apply to Afghanistan’s dozens of warlords.  Taliban fighters, on the other hand, are seriously malnourished men radicalized by drug addiction.  Culturally and historically, the average Afghan is opposed to any form of government and there is nothing any western coalition can do to change that.  It is a situation that has existed since the days of Alexander the Great.  The only options available to western forces is that of (a) relieving them of their misery and sending them into whatever awaits them in the afterlife (although, with a population exceeding 36 million people, this is highly unlikely), or (b) leaving them alone.

3rd Platoon fought on.  Now, finally, with the backing of newly assigned cobra gunships, pilots[6] could see Karell’s three squads dangerously separated in the urban setting.  3rd Platoon’s fight lasted well over seven hours.  Karell believed his Marines were making progress, but that’s not what the cobra pilots were seeing.  From their vantage point, dozens of insurgents were swarming eastward toward the Karell’s Platoon.  It was only the gunship’s well-aimed rockets that drove them back toward Pakistan.

After seven hours, Lieutenant Karell was running out of daylight —and everything else— and his platoon was only half-way through the series of walled compounds.  Marine engineers destroyed several IED factories and knew more of them lay ahead.  The problem was that the 3rd Platoon was an insufficiently sized force to seize and hold the compounds.  Worse, the combat engineers were out of explosives —so that even if the 3rd Platoon did capture additional IED factories, there was no way to destroy them.  Captain Schellhaas knew that when he ordered the withdrawal of his platoons, it would be only a matter of time before the insurgents filtered back in.

Caught in the middle of all this was the Afghan farmer who only wanted to raise his poppies in peace[7].  The day following 3rd Platoon’s assault on Paki Alley, Karell led a motorized patrol to a small hamlet known as Khwaja Jamal.  In the spring, someone from this village was always taking pot-shots at patrolling Marines; since then, the insurgents there had either withdrawn or gone underground.  More recently, 2/7 Marines had established a dialogue with village elders.  Everyone in Khwaja Jamal was curious about these American interlopers.  It worked to the Marine’s advantage that their living conditions were equal to those of the poor farmers, but while the Marines —the product of 21st Century American society— enjoyed their creature comforts, Afghanis steadfastly rejected modernization in every form.

Were these villagers’ friend or foe?  A third of them were intent on selling Marines their ample supply of illicit drugs; another third wanted to know about American farming and irrigation techniques —and then there was a group of younger men who demanded to know why the Marines were in Afghanistan at all, how many soldiers they had, and how far could their guns shoot.

In December, when 2/7 was withdrawn, Nawzad was still empty of civilians.  By then, a third of Karell’s platoon had been killed or wounded.  Platoon sergeant Buegel was himself wounded by an IED, but he was one of the lucky ones.  Maybe the good Lord likes cranky people.  Relieved by Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 3/8, BLT 2/7 Marines returned to California to resume their lives.  Some of these men left the Corps at the end of their enlistments, some remained on active duty.  The majority of those who remained on active duty were transferred to other posts or stations.  As new men reported for duty with 2/7, replacing those ordered out, the battalion began its workup for a subsequent tour in Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Karell, who was at the end of his obligated service, decided to remain on active duty.

Sources:

  1. Brady, J. The Scariest Place in the World: A Marine Returns to North Korea.  New York: Dunne Books, 2005
  2. Drury, B., and Tom Clavin. The Last Stand of Fox Company.  New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009
  3. Henderson, K. A Change in Mission.  Washington: Washington Post Company, 2009
  4. Kummer, D. W. S. Marines in the Global War on Terrorism.  Quantico: History Division, USMC.  2014
  5. Martin, R. Breakout—The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.  Penguin Books, 1999.

Endnotes:

[1] Celtiberians were Celticized people inhabiting the central-eastern Iberian Peninsula during the final centuries BC.

[2] There are dozens of explanations for the collapse of Rome, among them corruption, social malaise, and the fact that Rome attempted to incorporate barbarians into the Republic/Empire —people who were culturally non-Roman, and who therefore lacked the uniqueness of Roman esprit-de-corps.

[3] At the end of 2007, the most optimistic description possible for Helmand Province was that it was a gaggle turned stalemate.  When the Marines were sent to Helmand Province, Marine commanders decided they had had enough of fighting battles the Army way; they intended to fight the Taliban on their own terms.  It wasn’t long before the U.S. Army hierarchy in Kabul complained to Washington that the leathernecks had gone rogue; the Marines refused to do anything their Army superiors wanted them to do.  But the Marines know how to win battles.  They win battles through aggressiveness, thinking outside the box, and terrifying the hell out of the enemy.  This mindset is a significant contrast to Army careerism.  The Army began referring to Helmand Province as Marineistan.

[4] Skipper is an informal naval term denoting the Commanding Officer of a Marine company, the Commanding Officer of a Navy ship, or a Navy/Marine Corps aircraft squadron.

[5] Meals, Ready to Eat.  Also, Meals Rejected by Ethiopians.

[6] Every Marine officer is trained as an infantry officer.  A combat pilot knows exactly what his ground counterpart is facing and strives to support the grunts in every way possible.

[7] Fifty-two percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) is generated by their illicit drug trade.  Given that the majority of its 36 million people are happy to remain in the stone age, one wonders how “saving” Afghanistan is in the United States’ national interests.