Marine Fighting Spirit

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cold War

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

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

Boiling Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Encounter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back on Hill 255

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

[1] See also, From King to Joker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why Peleliu?

Some Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March across the Pacific

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

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

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

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

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

On Peleliu

The island

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

The Japanese

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

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

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

The Marines

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

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

The Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chaplain

Background

In the days of the Merovingian dynasty (c. 450 – 751 AD), when Latin was still the language of the high-born, some people were called cappellani.  In the fourth century, the word referred to priests who dedicated themselves to preserving the religious relics of St. Martin of Tours.  St. Martin (b. 316 – d. 397 AD) was the patron saint of France, the father of the monastic life in Gaul, and the first “great leader” of Western Monasticism.  One of these relics was St. Martin’s half-cape (cappella).  St. Martin’s Cappella gave its name to the tent, later chapel, where the Cappella was preserved — over time, adding religious relics to the collection.  During the Carolingian dynasty (751 – 880 AD), and in particular, during the reign of Charlemagne, the priests who guarded St. Martin’s relics were called, in Old French, Chapelain.

In those days, Chaplains were appointed by the King, later Holy Roman Emperor.  They lived in the palace, and in addition to guarding the sacred relics, performed mass for the monarch on feast days, worked with the royal notaries[1] , and prepared any documents the emperor required of them.  In these duties, Chaplains gradually evolved into ecclesiastical and secular advisors to the king/emperor.  It became a tradition throughout western Christendom for monarchs to appoint their own chaplains.  Many of these chaplains became bishops.  This tradition continues today, as evidenced by the fact that the British Crown appoints members of the Royal College of Chaplains, although they no longer serve as the official keepers of records.

In modern usage, the term chaplain no longer addresses itself to any particular church or denomination.  Clergy and ministers appointed to various institutions (cemeteries, prisons, legislatures, hospitals, colleges, embassies, legations, and within the armed forces) are called chaplains.

Chaplains serve in the armed forces of most countries, usually as commissioned officers.  They are non-combatants and, as such, are not required to bear arms.  They may bear arms, if they choose, in defense of themselves and the sick or wounded.[2]  In the United States, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Moslem chaplains serve as chaplains in the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  Navy Chaplains provide the ecclesiastical needs of the Marine Corps.

U. S. Armed Forces chaplains provide religious services and advise their commander and fellow staff officers on religion, morality, and ethics.  They offer counseling services to service members and their families, operate pre-marriage counseling programs, make regular visitations to the sick and wounded, and provide opportunities for prayer services and last rites.  The Army, Navy, and Air Force Chief of Chaplains provide similar advice to the U. S. Secretary of Defense.

All military chaplains must be ordained and endorsed by a recognized religious organization.  A military chaplain’s rank is determined by years of service and criteria established by the military organization in which commissioned.  Chaplains are recognized in uniform by rank and religious affiliation.  The symbol for Christian Chaplains is the Roman Cross; a symbol of the Ten Commandments identifies Jewish Chaplains.  Moslem Chaplains wear a crescent as their religious symbol.

On 29 July 1775, the Continental Congress established the military chaplaincy, but chaplains did not wear a symbol of their faith until 1880.  In 1835, Army regulations required chaplains to wear black uniform coats without shoulder boards or symbols of rank.  The first symbol for chaplain was a shepherd’s crook or staff, approved in 1880;  the Latin Cross replaced the shepherd crook was adopted in 1898.  The first Jewish Chaplain was appointed during the American Civil War, but it wasn’t until World War I that Jewish Chaplains had their own religious symbol.

Navy Chaplains

On 28 November 1775, the Continental Navy published its regulations provided that, “The Commanders of the ships of the Thirteen United Colonies are to take care that divine service be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays unless bad weather or other extraordinary accidents prevent.”  The Navy recognized the need for chaplains but did not foresee a requirement for uniformed attire or insignia of rank or religious affiliation until 1847.  At that time, the prescribed uniform was a black coat with a black collar and cuffs with no insignia.  In 1864, the Navy Department authorized Navy Chaplains to wear the standard uniform of commissioned officers and the symbol of the Latin Cross.  Essentially, Navy chaplains served “as officers without rank.”

In 1905, Navy Uniform Regulations provided that Chaplains would have ranks equivalent to line officers; they were to wear the standard navy officer’s uniform with the service braid in lustrous black (not gold as with line officers).  The Navy later modified this requirement in 1918 to include both the officer rank insignia and a gold cross.

Naval Staff Corps regulations discontinued the black braid and replaced it with the same gold braid worn by other officers – along with the Latin Cross.

In modern times, the Navy accepts clergy from religious denominations and faith groups, but an applicant’s request is contingent upon a favorable recommendation by their religious governing authority.  An applicant must meet the Navy’s requirements, including appropriate age and physical fitness.  Even after acceptance, the endorsing religious authority can revoke their endorsement at any time, the effect of which leads to the separation of the chaplain from naval service.

An applicant for service as a chaplain in the Navy must be a US citizen, be at least 21 years old, hold a post-graduate degree which includes 72-hours of study in theology, religious philosophy, ethics, and foundational writing.  Upon acceptance and commission, chaplains attend the Navy Chaplain School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.  There is also a Chaplain Candidate Program Officer program for seminary students interested in obtaining a commission before completing their graduate studies.

The modern mission for Navy chaplains includes religious ministry, religious facilitation for all religious beliefs, caring for Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard personnel (and their families), advising their commanding officers in spiritual matters, promote ethical and moral behavior, increase combat readiness through ministerial programs, improve morale and retention, and employ modern technology to support their missions.  Assisting Navy chaplains are enlisted religious program specialists.

Several Navy chaplains have distinguished themselves in combat, including Lieutenant Vincent Capodanno (Medal of Honor), Lieutenant Commander Joseph T. O’Callahan (Medal of Honor), Commander George S. Rentz (Navy Cross), Lieutenant Thomas N. Conway (Navy Cross),[3] and Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Aloysius H. Schmitt (Silver Star).  Navy ships were named in honor of O’Callahan, Rentz, and Schmitt.

There has seldom been a Navy chaplain far from the forward edge of the battle area, whether serving aboard ship or in the field with the Marines.  Pictured right, Navy chaplains conduct religious serves on Mount Suribachi, on Iwo Jima, Easter Sunday, 1945.

My personal salute to all military chaplains, particularly those of the U. S. Navy who, at the risk of their own lives, provide injured and dying Marines with comfort in their final moments.  In many cases, the face of a Navy Chaplain or a Navy Corpsman is the last face our mortally wounded Marines see.

Sources:

  1. Burgsma, H. L.  Chaplains with Marines in Vietnam (1962-1971).  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1985.
  2. Drury, C. M.  History of the Chaplain Corps.  Washington: Navy Publications Center, 1994.

[1] In Gaul and early France, the title of Notary was an employee of the Royal Chancelleries, titled “Notaries of the King” and served as scribes in the royal seigniorial and communal courts of justice who maintained records of all official proceedings.

[2] I have only known one chaplain who wore a sidearm in combat – a Presbyterian.

[3] A Catholic Priest, Lieutenant Conway was assigned as the chaplain aboard USS Indianapolis when a Japanese submarine torpedoed the vessel off the Philippine Island of Leyte on 30 July 1945.  More than 800 crewmen were forced into the ocean, some of whom were badly injured, and remained at the mercy of nature for three days.  These men were severely dehydrated and suffered numerous shark attacks.  Only 316 men survived the ordeal.  Conway was recognized for swimming through shark infested waters to administer to suffering crewmen, saving as many as 67 men.  Conway was one of the crew who didn’t survive; he stood by these men when they needed him most.  His award was delayed for 75 years, finally presented to family members on 8 January 2021.

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.


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.