Operations in the Dominican Republic, Part I

1917-4 EGAIt is often proclaimed that Christopher Columbus discovered America. He did no such thing.  What he did do is depart Spain with no clear idea about where he was going.  Then he quite miraculously bumped into an island, a large one, located in the present-day Greater Antilles.  At that time, Columbus didn’t know where he was.  He named the island Insula Hispana (Latin) or in Spanish, La Isla Española.  When he returned to Spain, he could not, with any degree of certainty, tell his employers where he’d been.  Clearly, however, Columbus did set into motion the beginning of an almost unbelievable Spanish Empire, both in terms of land and wealth.

The indigenous people of Hispaniola called themselves Arawak/Taino people.  The Arawak originated in Venezuela, traveling to their island paradise around 1200 A.D. Each settlement was a small independent kingdom.  At the peak of this society, there were five separate kingdoms.  There may have been as many as 750,000 people living on Hispaniola.

Typical of Hispanic society, Columbus and all those who came after him enslaved the natives.  It is a sad story, of course and one repeated many times at every location the Spanish conquistadores placed their boots in the Americas.  Also typical of the Spaniards, interest in Hispaniola waned as Spain conquered new regions on the mainland.  In 1665, the French began their colonization of the Island; they called it Santo Domingo.  In 1697, Spain ceded the western third of the island to France.  Santo Domingo quickly came to overshadow the eastern two-thirds in both wealth and population.  Under the French, with a system of enslavement used to grow and harvest sugar cane, Santo Domingo became the richest colony in the West Indies. Slavery kept the cost of production low and maximized profits.  It was also an important port for goods flowing to and from France and Europe.

Still, Santo Domingo was no paradise; tropical diseases created a high death-rate among European colonists.  Added to this were a series of slave uprisings in the late eighteenth century.  During the French Revolution in 1791, a major slave revolt broke out on Saint-Domingue. France abolished slavery in their colonies in 1794 and many of the ex-slave army joined forces with France in its European wars.  In 1795, Spain ceded the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola to the French.  It became the Dominican Republic and French settlers began to colonize some areas in the Spanish side of the territory.

In 1802, Napoleon reimposed slavery in most of its Caribbean islands, a decision reinforced by French army garrisons.  Yellow fever [1] ended up killing off many of these soldiers. After the French removed its remaining 7,000 troops in 1803, revolutionary leaders declared western Hispaniola the new and independent nation of Haiti.  France continued to rule Santo Domingo but in 1805, Haitian forces under General Henri Christophe attempted conquest of all Hispaniola.  A show of force by the French caused Christophe to withdraw back to Haiti.  In 1808, following Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, the criollos [2] of Santo Domingo revolted against the French and, with the aid of Great Britain, Santo Domingo was returned to Spanish rule.

Concerned about the influence of a society that had successfully fought and won against their enslavers, the United States and European powers refused to recognize Haiti (the second Republic in the Western Hemisphere).  To settle this issue, France demanded a rather substantial payment for compensation to slaveholders who lost their property, the effect of which threw Haiti into debt for many decades.  Haiti became (and remains) one of the poorest countries in the Americas, while the Dominican Republic gradually developed into one of the largest economies of the Central American-Caribbean region.

It was not long before the Dominicans began to regret their return to Spanish authority.  The Spaniards were cruel masters.  In 1821, Santo Domingo joined with other Caribbean and South American territories in declaring independence from Spain.  Initially, the Dominicans expressed a desire to attach their country to the new Republic of Columbia, far to the south.  Instead of that ever happening, independence brought new foreign domination: in 1822, the Haitian government sent troops to conquer its neighbor, which could offer no resistance.  From then until 1844, Haiti ruled Santo Domingo.  During this period, the Haitians made a concerted effort to stifle all Dominican cultural and economic activity.  Santo Domingo was reduced to a nation of economic stagnation and cultural and psychological despair.

In 1844, Dominican nationalists succeeded in throwing off the Haitian yoke of domination.  It was the beginning of the emergence of the modern Dominican Republic.  It was a rough road, however.  Throughout the nineteenth century, the Dominican people experienced a succession of corrupt and arbitrary rulers who maintained themselves in power by playing upon the people’s fears of Haitian domination. The rule of caudillos [3] in Santo Domingo was also not a new story in Hispanic America: caudillos diverted the nation’s meager resources to serve their own personal designs.

Of these, General Ulises Heureaux [4] was among the most destructive. Keeping himself in power by methods that foreshadowed those of modern totalitarian regimes, Heureaux brought modest economic growth and strengthened the armed forces from a centralized government, which is also a consistent element of Hispanic governments.  He also fostered corruption and violence in Dominican politics and vastly increased the national debt by borrowing money from European and American banks —banks that expected their governments to support their claims for repayment and collect debts.

A succession of governments who found themselves in trouble at home made a habit of borrowing money from foreign governments; when the payment on the debts became due (or overdue), corrupt politicians often attempted to play their foreign creditors off against one another as a means of preventing foreign military intervention, which their behaviors in fact invited.

During the 1890s, a group of idealistic young generals and politicians organized to oppose Heureaux’s political machine.  They were led by General Horacio Vasquez.  As a figurehead for their movement, they chose the nation’s wealthiest planter, Juan Isidro Jimenez —a man who some described as completely lacking in character or vision.  After Heureaux’s murder, Vasquez and Jimenez proclaimed a new revolutionary government.  It began a period of political disorder that eventually provoked the United States [5] to intervene in Dominican affairs.

Heureaux’s enemies divided themselves into competing factions —groups loosely associated with Vasquez and Jimenez.  Juan Jimenez soon developed his own taste for power.  The feud led to a series of weak presidents, coup d’état, and counter-coups.  All the while, each successive regime continued to borrow money from foreign banks to purchase arms pay the men who would help them suppress revolution.  The Dominican Republic steadily sank even further into debt and political chaos; foreign creditors began to demand repayment, threatening military intervention if necessary.

Dominican financial delinquency and political upheaval attracted the attention of the United States.  After 1900, concern for the defense of sea approaches to the Panama Canal intensified American interest.  Dominican entanglements with European powers seemed particularly worrisome because, under the guise of upholding the claims of its citizens, a country such as Germany might be compelled to establish a colony and a naval base within striking distance of the Canal.  Combined Anglo-French-German expeditions against Venezuela [6] during the early 1900s caused President Theodore Roosevelt to threaten to send the US fleet to interdict foreign ships. European behavior dismissive of the Monroe Doctrine eventually brought the issue to a head: the United States decided to take strong action [7] to protect the Caribbean.

The Roosevelt Corollary received its first practical application in the Dominican Republic.  At the initiation of the Dominican president, the US and Dominican Republic (DomRep) negotiated a treaty under which American representatives would collect the customs revenues at Dominican ports and divide the proceeds between current government expenses and payments on foreign debt.  In February 1905, the agreement was submitted to both legislative bodies for ratification and, at the same time, the two governments established a modus vivendi, the practical effect of which placed the treaty into immediate operation.

The treaty met significant opposition in the US Senate, resolved in 1907 with DomRep legislature accepting the treaty later that year.  Meanwhile, between 1905-1907 under the modus vivendi, the claims against Dominican creditors were reduced from $30-million to approximately $17-million.  Beyond implementing a customs receivership, the 1907 also treaty provided for the floating of a bond issue of $20-million (at five percent interest) to be devoted exclusively to paying off long-dormant accounts and financing specified public works projects that were designed to reduce domestic discontent.  By 1912, Dominican debt had been reduced to about $14-million.

In 1906, Ramon Caceres was elected president of the DomRep.  He was perhaps the most honest and capable of Dominican leaders during this period.  He fully supported the receivership as the best possible solution to the country’s debt, and he was enthusiastic about using revenues to improve public services and stimulate economic development.  Caceres was assassinated on 19 November 1911 [8] and the internal stability of the DomRep deteriorated —along with its relationship with the United States.  New regimes resorted to their old habit of enriching themselves and borrowing foreign money to suppress revolutions.

In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson sent envoys to the DomRep who were far less capable than those under earlier administration (Roosevelt-Taft).  They began throwing their weight around, making demands to form stable governments.  When this didn’t happen, the United States seized control over all Dominican revenues and began supervising public works projects.  In 1914, with rival politicians fomenting civil war, President Wilson decided that he’d had enough of the squabbling and sent in the U. S. Marines.

The Fifth Marine Regiment (5thMarines) made their presence known aboard ships of the US Navy off-shore.  It was enough to bring about a political truce and an orderly presidential election. Juan Isidro Jimenez assumed the presidency with US guarantees of support against future revolutions.  Of course, the US continued to insist that Jimenez abide by the 1907 Treaty [9].

On 15 April 1916, Jimenez arrested two close associates of the Dominican Minister of War, General Desiderio Arias.  General Arias had been one of the trouble-makers in 1914 and now established himself in the fortress of Santo Domingo, the nation’s capital. Supported by his loyal followers, Arias raised the standard of open revolt.  Opponents of Jimenez flocked to join the revolutionary army.  When Jimenez and Arias failed to make a settlement, the American Minister to Dominica called for Marines to protect the US legation.  Then, on 2 May, the Dominican legislature (under pressure from Arias) voted to impeach President Jimenez.  Jimenez then fled to the countryside to gather an army of his own.  Fighting commenced on 5 May 1916.  US Marines came ashore on that same day.

Marine in DomRep 001
Marines come ashore at Santo Domingo, 1916 Photo from National Archives

The landing force consisted of two rifle companies (about 150 Marines) from USS Prairie: The 6th Company, under Captain Frederic M. Wise, and the 9th Company, equipped with field artillery, under Captain Eugene Fortson.  Captain Wise, as senior officer present, exercised overall command of the contingent, which was designated a provisional battalion.  Captain Wise was a strict disciplinarian, a no-nonsense officer with a volatile temper.  His orders were to occupy the US legation and consulate, as well as the strategically placed Fort San Geronimo.  Wise was also ordered to assist President Jimenez against Arias’s rebel forces.

In fact, Captain Wise and his Marines found themselves in the middle of a miniaturized civil war.  Some 250 troops loyal to Arias were reinforced by hundreds of civilian irregulars to whom Arias had distributed rifles and ammunition from government arsenals. Arias controlled Santo Domingo City. No sooner had the Marines entered the city, Arias blockaded the principal avenues to deny the Marines access to resupply.  Captain Wise was not a happy man.

Forces loyal to President Jimenez numbered around 800.  They had initiated assaults upon the city from the north and west.  By the time Wise arrived ashore, Jimenez’ attack had already failed; his men running low on ammunition.  Captain Wise acted with a combination of courage and discretion.  Knowing that his 150 Marines could not defeat a thousand Dominicans, Wise put up a brave front.  While his men occupied their objectives, Wise went directly to Arias and demanded safe passage for foreign nationals out of the city, and the right to resupply his Marines.  Arias agreed to both points.  All foreign nationals were evacuated to the USS Prairie; hired civilians hauled supplies from dockside to the Marine positions.

WISE F M 001
Lieutenant Colonel Frederic M. Wise, USMC Photo from public domain

Captain Wise then established contact with General Perez, commanding the president’s forces.  Perez asked for 100 rifles and ammunition (Wise refused), and for artillery support for an attack scheduled for the next day, which Wise agreed to furnish. During the night of 5-6 May, Wise deployed his artillery and infantry to support a government advance.

Without consulting with any of his subordinates, President Jimenez resigned the presidency on 6 May, citing as his reason for doing so a refusal to turn American guns on his own people.  Perez was forced to abandon his assault and the Dominican Republic was suddenly without a national leader.  The Congress created a provisional council of ministers to carry out executive functions.

Unsure of what might happen next, Captain Wise requested additional forces from the USS Prairie; 130 sailors were sent ashore to reinforce him.  In conjunction with the US minister and naval commander, Wise arranged a truce between the warring factions.  Arias dismantled many of his fortifications and disbanded the civilian irregulars; most government troops withdrew to Fort San Geronimo just outside of Santo Domingo City.  Wise and his Marines held their original positions and awaited further instructions and reinforcement.

Commanding the Cruiser Squadron, Atlantic Fleet aboard USS Dolphin, Rear Admiral William Caperton [10] arrived offshore on 12 May 1916 and assumed overall command of the operation.  Marines from the 4th and 5th Companies (from Haiti) and a detachment from the 24th Company (from Guantanamo) came ashore on 13 May.  With 400 Marines ashore, Admiral Caperton met with Arias on 14 May and demanded that he disband his army and surrender his arms by 0600 on 15 May —or face a full-scale American assault.  General Arias refused Caperton’s demand but did agree to vacate the capital.  Marines entering the rebel-held area of the city on 15 May encountered no significant resistance.  The salts who had participated in the conflict at Vera Cruz were relieved; not one of them wanted another taste of urban warfare.

Marine strength continued to increase.  USS Panther arrived on 23 May with Colonel Theodore P. Kane commanding the 2nd Regiment of Marines and three additional rifle companies.  Kane assumed command of the land forces, setting up his headquarters in the American Consulate.  He stationed his Marines at key locations throughout Santo Domingo: on the east bank of the Ozama River, the northwestern approaches to the city, and at the Guardia Republicana barracks.  Additional Marines bivouacked at Fort Ozama.  Marines remaining afloat served as a reserve force off the north coast.  USS Sacramento, with two Marine companies, awaited orders off Puerto PlataUSS Panther and USS Lamson with two companies patrolled offshore near Monte Cristi.  By 28 May, Colonel Kane commanded eleven companies, drawn mostly from the 1st and 2nd Regiments in Haiti.  On deck in Santo Domingo were about 750 Marines.  Colonel Kane determined that he required a still larger force if he was to seize the entire country.

Meanwhile, the unresolved revolution had caused the collapse of the Dominican Republic’s civil government in many interior towns.  Some of these were left unprotected when civilian police detachments departed to fight for Jimenez.  Senior US commanders believed that the next step would have to be an occupation of the entire country.  Of concern, General Arias was at large with at least several hundred men.  No matter where Arias was located, his personality became a rallying point for bandits, local caudillos, and malcontents.  There were only about 300 remaining Dominican army troops, men who seemed somewhat unenthused about the possibility of engaging Arias further.

Continued next week

Sources:

  1. Wiarda, H. J. and Michael J. Kryzanek. The Dominican Republic: A Caribbean Crucible.  Boulder: Westview Press, 1982
  2. Diamond, J. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books, 2005
  3. Fuller, S. M., and Graham A. Cosmas. Marines in the Dominican Republic, 1916-1924.  History and Museums Division, U. S. Marine Corps, 1974

Endnotes:

[1] Yellow fever is a viral disease causing fever, chills, nausea, muscle pain, and severe headache. Liver damage can occur, causing a yellowing of the skin, hence its name.

[2] Criollo (French: Creole) persons are Latin Americans who are full or near full Spanish descent, which distinguishes them from multi-national Latinos and Latin-Americans of the post-colonial period European group.  They were at the top of a long list of social classes in Hispanic societies.

[3] Spanish word for military dictator.

[4] Heureaux ruled from 1882 to 1899 when he was assassinated.  Called Lilís, he was the son of Haitian mulatto parents.  He served as the 22nd, 26th, and 27th president of the Dominican Republic; when he wasn’t president, he control those who were.

[5] Perceiving it’s potential economic and strategic value, President Ulysses S. Grant made an attempt to annex the island republic in the 1870s.  He was unable to gain the support of the Congress, however.

[6] European navies in fact bombarded Venezuelan coastal towns.

[7] In December 1904, President Roosevelt issued the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The corollary reaffirmed US opposition to European military intervention in any Western Hemisphere country, for any reason, but also assumed responsibility for enforcing international good-behavior of the Latin American nations.  If Latin-American countries would not police themselves, the United States would do it for them.  This was the genesis of the so-called Banana Wars.

[8] Political assassination became a frequent strategy within Latin American countries; being fast, cheap, and permanent, no place on earth has had a greater number of such incidents.

[9] In 1915, US Marines occupied the Dominican Republic’s neighbor, Haiti, in an effort to establish stable government.  Wilson’s stated policy was to “teach the Latin Americans to elect good men.”

[10] Rear Admiral William Banks Caperton, USN (1855-1941) graduated from the USNA in 1875.  He commanded naval force interventions in Haiti (1916), Dominican Republic (1916), and served as Commander, Pacific Fleet (1916-1919).  He participated in the Spanish-American War, and World War I.  He was a recipient of the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.

Marine Detachments (1775-1998)

Resolved, That two Battalions of marines be raised, consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant Colonels, two Majors, and other officers as usual in other regiments; and that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken, that no persons be appointed to office, or insisted into said battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage by sea when required: that they be insisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present war between Great Britain and the colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress: that they be distinguished by the names of the first and second battalions of American Marines, and that they be considered as part of the number which the continental Army before Boston is ordered to consist of.

Continental Congress, 10 November 1775

OLD EGA 001This was the instrument that created the Marine Corps.  The entire purpose of the Marines back then was to serve aboard ships of the Continental Navy —its original purpose and duty, but the concept of such employment goes back much further in history.  Roman ships had detachments of naval infantry whose purpose it was to take the battle to the decks of enemy ships, but seagoing marines have been a fact of naval warfare long before then —which is to say marines in some form or fashion, even if not referred to as such.

We cannot speak of American Marines 2,500 years ago, of course, but we do know that the first American Marines were British colonialists who first served as such under Colonel Alexander Spotswood and Colonel William Gooch (both of whom served as lieutenant governors of the colony of Virginia) during the War of Jenkin’s Ear in 1741.  Four battalions were raised for this purpose, but the enterprise did not end well for those men.  Most were defeated by rampant tropic diseases, which made them ineffective as a fighting force.

After the Congress’ authorization for a Corps of Marines, Tun Tavern [1] in Philadelphia became the main recruitment office for Marines.  Here, able bodied seamen were lured into Marine Corps service for six and two-thirds dollars per month, a daily ration of bread, one pound of pork or beef, potatoes or turnips, or a half-pound of peas, and a half-pint of rum.  Recruits were also promised butter once a week, pudding twice each week, and an allotment of cheese three times a week. Their uniforms included green overcoats and white trousers —so long as clothing was available.

Samuel_Nicholas
Captain Samuel Nicholas

In 1775, the owner of the Inn was a man named Samuel Nicholas [2].  Nicholas was commissioned a captain of Marines and charged with the initial recruitment effort.  He was responsible for leading the first 300 Marines in a raid at New Providence Island in the Bahamas to seize war materials greatly needed by General George Washington.  Ultimately, the Marines seized two forts in the face of almost no British resistance and helped themselves to available guns, powder, cannon balls, mortars, and various caliber of shells.  Marines did receive three rounds of British cannon fire, but no one was injured.

On their return voyage, the Continental Navy suddenly faced the twenty or so guns HMS Glasgow at Block Island.  When the smoke cleared, seven Marines lay dead and four others required treatment for serious wounds.  British casualties included four killed or wounded.

Seagoing Marines (also referred to as seadogs) were involved in many of the battles in the American Revolution.  Marine sharpshooters stationed on platforms above the masts delivered devastating fire to the decks of enemy ships. Occasionally, the Marines would conduct raids ashore along America’s long coastline.

When peace finally came in 1783, the Congress decided that it could no longer afford a naval establishment and the Continental Navy and Marine Corps were disbanded.  Up until then, the Continental Marines had consisted of 124 officers and 3,000 enlisted men.  There was no naval force in the United States between 1783 and 1794; in that year, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates, all of which would have stationed aboard them detachments of US Marines.  They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and so it was with the reemergence of the Navy and Marine Corps.  Moorish raiders operating in the Mediterranean and Atlantic seaboard had begun seizing US flagged vessels and holding them, their cargoes, and crews, for ransom.  In 1793 alone, the US lost eleven merchantmen to Barbary pirates.  Added to this, European wars continued to involve American ships and the newly-created United States of America was forced to break free of its isolationist policies.

Three frigates were launched in 1797; they were christened USS United States, USS Constellation, and USS Constitution.  A congressional act on 1 July of that year reactivated the Marine Corps.  The Act called for five lieutenants, eight sergeants, eight corporals, three drummers, three fifers, and 140 privates to man these ships in Marine Detachments.  From this point forward, the strength of the Marine Corps seagoing Marines continued to grow.

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson, who was no friend of the American Navy, decided that the country could ill-afford to maintain the naval establishment.  Ships were decommissioned or dismantled, and the Marine Corps was cut to 26 officers and 453 enlisted men.

Yet, even as the President was looking to reduce America’s debt, the Navy-Marine Corps team had managed to create turmoil among French privateers operating in the West Indies during the so-called Quasi-War [3] (1798-1800).  The war was “quasi” because it was undeclared.  The French were surprised by the fighting skills of America’s fledgling Navy, among whose senior officers included Stephen Decatur, Silas Talbot, and William Bainbridge.

Overwhelmed at sea, French ships withdrew to littoral areas of the West Indies and adopted the tactics of ambushing American commercial ships.  Undaunted, the US Navy pursued the French into shallow waters.  USS Delaware was the first American warship to claim a French prize.  USS Constellation captured the French ship Insurgente, a 40-gun ship of the line, on 7 February 1799.  Constellation also captured the 52-gun Vengeance after a five-hour battle in 1800.  Both of these vessels sustained heavy damage, however.

Lieutenant Bartholomew Clinch commanded the Constellation’s Marine Detachment during both sea battles; his Marines were recognized for delivering devastatingly accurate fire upon the French ship.  Lieutenant James Middleton led a landing party of Marines from USS Merrimack and USS Patapsco to defend the port of Curacao from a French raid.  Marines were also employed to seize an English ship being held under heavy cannon fire at Puerto Plata in Santo Domingo.

Suffering these depredations at the hands of the American Navy and Marines, the French soon signaled their interest in ending the war —but not before Marines from USS Enterprise captured nine French privateers, defeated a Spanish brig, and re-captured eleven American vessels.  In December 1800, Enterprise also defeated L’Aigle and Flambeau with much credit given to Marine sharpshooters.

Firing Pennsylvania
Firing the Philadelphia

President Jefferson’s frugality campaign came to an end when he realized that Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian, and Tripolitan raiders were costing the Americans several million dollars a year, or roughly one-fifth of the nation’s income, paid either as ransom for captured Americans, or in bribes paid to allow US merchantmen to sail in Mediterranean waters.  In 1805, Tripoli’s pasha foolishly declared war on the United States by capturing USS Philadelphia and imprisoning its crew, which included 44 Marines.  To prevent the Tripolitans from using Philadelphia against the American Navy, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a raid into the harbor aboard the captured French ketch, USS Intrepid, boarded Philadelphia, overpowered the pirates, and burned the ship to its waterline. An eight-man squad of Marines participating in this raid was led by Sergeant Solomon Wren.

One of the more audacious actions during the Barbary Wars was the overland expedition led by William Eaton and Marine First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, who had recruited mercenaries and marched six-hundred miles through the Libyan desert to attack the fort at Derna.  After heavy fighting, during which Eaton was wounded, O’Bannon’s remaining force assaulted the fort and defeated it.  This was the first time the United States flag was raised over foreign territory and the origin of the words to the Marine Corps Hymn, “…to the shores of Tripoli.”

Seven years later, during the War of 1812, Marine Lieutenant John Marshal Gamble became the only Marine Corps officer to command a U. S. Navy ship, the captured British whaling ship Greenwich.  Lieutenant Colonel Gamble retired from active service in 1834.

During the War of 1812, a young officer by the name of Captain Archibald Henderson served aboard USS Constitution, distinguishing himself in engagements with HMS Java, Cyane and Levant.  He was brevetted to Major in 1814.  Colonel Henderson was later appointed to serve as the fifth Commandant of the Marine Corps, a post he would retain for 38-years.  He was brevetted to Brigadier General in January 1837.

Numerous men of Marine Corps fame served as seagoing Marines, including Henry Clay Cochrane, John Twiggs-Myers, Smedley D. Butler, and John Quick.  An overview of combat service involving ship’s Marine Detachments includes:

  • Barbary Wars
  • Florida Indian Wars
  • Operations in Haiti
  • Firefighting at St. Thomas, Virgin Islands
  • Falkland Islands engagement
  • Slave suppression operations in South America
  • Diplomatic security in Japan
  • Operations ashore in China to protect American lives and property
  • Fiji Island raids to avenge the murders of American seamen
  • Union and Confederate forces in the American Civil War
  • Combat operations in Korea, 1870s
  • Peace-keeping missions in Haiti and Egypt
  • Spanish-American War (Philippines and Cuba)
  • Panamanian revolution and construction of the Canal

With the outbreak of the so-called Great War, Marine Corps senior officers began planning for a significant increase in troop strength.  The demand for amphibious/land forces began to outpace the requirement for shipboard detachments.  These continued, of course, but in smaller numbers.

During World War II, Marine Detachments performed strategic raids as part of the Atlantic and Pacific fleets.  In 1942, the Marines serving aboard USS Philadelphia (CL-41) landed at Safi, French Morocco to secure the airfield until relieved by Army units.  On 6 June 1944, shipboard Marines participated in the Normandy invasion by detonating floating mines blocking the path of US Navy ships operating in the English Channel.  They also manned secondary batteries aboard Navy cruisers and battleships.  On 29 August 1944, during the invasion of southern France, Marines from USS Philadelphia (CL-41) and USS Augusta (CA-31) went ashore to take charge of 700 Germans who had been manning fortified garrisons around the French harbor in Marseilles.  In the Pacific, the seadogs manned naval guns as Japanese kamikaze bombers attempted to destroy Navy vessels operating off the coast of Okinawa.  On 2 September 1945, Marines aboard the USS Missouri participated in ceremonies accepting Japan’s unconditional surrender to allied forces in Tokyo Bay.

The end of World War II propelled the world into the atomic age and cold war with the Soviet Union and China.  With war at an end, the United States reexamined its military footprint.  Under President Truman, the size of the military was sharply reduced.  Both the Navy and Marine Corps were reduced by one-third of their operating forces. The National Security Act of 1947 (Title 10, United States Code 5013) reaffirmed the seagoing mission of the Marine Corps: “… the Marine Corps shall provide detachments and organizations for service on armed vessels of the U. S. Navy and shall provide security detachments for the protection of naval property at naval stations and bases.”

Due to significant cutbacks in the operating forces under the Truman administration, the Navy and Marine Corps were barely able to respond to North Korean aggression in 1950.  Ships that had been mothballed were reactivated.  The same carriers, battleships, and cruisers that had served in World War II were brought back for the Korean War.  There would be no sea battles, however.  Off shore navy platforms provided air support and battleships and cruisers provided naval gunfire support to the land forces.

The cold war produced significant advances in technology.  The US Navy continued to protect sea lanes throughout the world and participated in operations in Lebanon, Santo Domingo, Formosa, Cuba, and a then relatively unknown placed called Viet Nam.  Marine Detachments continued to serve aboard cruisers, battleships, and carriers, but their roles were changing.  Some of these ships had been transformed into nuclear powered vessels; additional security was needed to safeguard “special weapons.”

On 29 July 1967, while serving at Yankee Station, an aircraft aboard the USS Forrestal (CVA-49) exploded setting off a series of fires and secondary explosions.  This was another important function of seagoing Marines: firefighting. Among the casualties from this incident were 134 sailors killed, 64 seriously wounded.  On 14 January 1969, another fire erupted aboard USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) while operating off the coast of Hawaii, resulting in 28 deaths, 128 injuries, the destruction of 15-aircraft, and a monetary loss of more than $128-million.  Few events are more deadly at sea than a shipboard fire.

In the post-World War II period, the duties of seagoing Marines were set forth in U. S. Navy Regulations (1047): “A Marine Detachment detailed to duty aboard a ship of the Navy shall form a separate division thereof.  Its functions shall be (1) Provide for operations ashore, as part of the ship’s landing force; or as part of the landing force of Marines from ships of the fleet or subdivisions thereof; or as an independent force for limited operations.  (2) To provide gun crews.  (3) To provide internal security of a ship.  (4) To provide for the proper rendering of military honors.  In addition to these duties, Marines also provided the ship’s captain with a Marine orderly, brig sentries, and guards for special weapons.

Eventually, the Navy replaced their deck guns with guided missiles and computer-controlled weapons systems.  There was no longer a need for Marines to man antiquated naval guns.  USS Oklahoma (CL-91) was the Navy’s last gun cruiser.  She was retired in the late 1970s, replaced in 1979 by the amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19).  Her sister ship was USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20), placed in service in 1981. Initially, both of these ships had Marine Detachments, but because of their mission of directing amphibious operations, and because these ships incorporated Marines especially trained for planning and conducting amphibious operations, the detachments were deemed excess to requirements and were removed.

In small but steady increments, ship’s detachments were reduced in the Navy fleet. In 1979, the Commandant of the Marine Corps changed the mission of seagoing Marines.  From that time, Marine duties involved little more than providing security for special weapons storage spaces, the transfer of such weapons aboard ship, provide security for the ship, provide gun-crews as required, and such other duties as may be assigned by competent authority.  Marines no longer performed landing operations or brig security.  In 1986, the Commandant specifically precluded Marines from performing any duty that would detract from their primary role of safeguarding special weapons.

Between the early 1980s and 1990s, the battleships USS New Jersey and USS Iowa were reintroduced into naval fleets.  When one of the gun turrets of the Iowa exploded, killing 47 crewmen, Marines helped in firefighting and damage control operations.  Still, the accordion effect of manpower management caused the Navy and Marines to again reevaluate the Marine Detachments.  By the early 1990s, the United States entered another dangerous period: international terrorism.  In meeting this demand, Headquarters Marine Corps created the Marine Corps Security Forces (MCSF) with the stated mission of providing trained personnel and cadres to security departments at designated naval installations. The MCSF also provided mobile training teams to support anti-terrorism training at navy bases.

Detachments of Marines served exceptionally well aboard US Navy vessels since Corps’ very beginning; this ended in 1998. The last Marine Detachment bid farewell to the USS George Washington (CVN-73) on 1 May 1998.  A 223-year tradition of service at sea came to an end. Time marches on.

MARDET CINCLANT
Marine Detachment CINCLANT

Personal note: it was my privilege to serve at Marine Detachment, CINCLANT/ CINCLANTFLT/SACLANT in Norfolk, Virginia from June 1964 to October 1966.  Today, the detachment is known as Marine Security Guard (MSG) Detachment, U. S. Fleet Forces Command.  At that time, it was the only non-seagoing detachment in the Marine Corps.  The two detachment commanders during this period were Major Figard and Major Kraynak. The executive officers were 1stLt Gaumont and 1stLt Ahern.  The First Sergeant was Donald A. Whiteside (retired in grade of Captain).  I was promoted to corporal and sergeant while stationed in Norfolk.

Endnotes:

[1] Tun Tavern was established in 1686 by Joshua Carpenter, the brother of Samuel who was a wealthy Quaker merchant.  The brewery and pub was located on King Street (later, Water Street) and Tun Alley, a caraway that led to Carpenter’s wharf.  The word “Tun” comes from old English meaning barrel or keg of beer.  The tavern became an early meeting place for a number of notable groups, including Freemasons in early America.

[2] While not officially appointed as such, Nicholas is traditionally regarded as the first Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[3] This conflict erupted during the administration of John Adams.  After the French monarchy was abolished in September 1792, the United States determined that its debt to France was cancelled. The French Republic thought otherwise and began to seize American ships and sell them as repayment of America’s debt.  The war was fought almost entirely at sea.