The West Florida Expedition

American history is quite fascinating —I would say even more so than the revisionist accounts offered in our public schools and universities over the past sixty years.  Two of my interests are the colonial and early founding periods of the United States.  History isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but there is so much we can learn from it —lessons that would positively contribute to modern society.  Ut est rerum omnium magister usus[1], and if true, if experience is the teacher of all things, then our learning from past mistakes can only aid us in the future.

One of the things I find interesting about the American Revolutionary War is how little attention historians have paid to the British loyalists.  After all, they too were part of that story.

1763 was a banner year for the British because, in that year, England finally triumphed over France after fighting one another to a standstill since 1689.  In the Treaty of Paris of 1763, England acquired Spanish Florida and French Canada.  British divided Florida into two provinces: West and East Florida.  West Florida included the southern half of present-day Mississippi, a rectangular region straddling the Gulf of Mexico from Lake Pontchartrain and Maurepas and the Mississippi River in the west, to the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola rivers on the east.  It extended northward to an imaginary line running east from the confluence of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, including the old Spanish port of Pensacola and the former French settlements of Mobile, Biloxi, and Natchez.

In the late 1760s, West Florida was sparsely settled because, except for a narrow strip of land along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, the soil was unsuitable for agriculture, which led settlers to rely on raising livestock.  The British anticipated settling West Florida effortlessly and for reasons of security, they reserved the area west of the Appalachian Mountains for Indians.  British policy at that time intended to avoid confrontations with the Indians by channeling white settlers either to Canada or to one of the two Florida settlements.  The British also decided to offer land to members of the British court as a reward for faithful military service.  As an example, 40,000 acres were set aside for the Earl of Eglinton near the Natchez and Pensacola settlements.  An untended consequence of land grants to noblemen was that they almost immediately began selling these lands, and by every measure, they were quite successful in doing so.

The British accorded settlers of lesser rank, 100 acres to the head of household and 50 acres for each member of his family, including slaves.  The head of a family could also purchase an additional 1,000 acres for a reasonable price —but clear title to this land was withheld until the settlers had cultivated their land for three to five years.  The settlement of West Florida increased steadily, especially in the Natchez area, until in 1773 when the foreign office inexplicably canceled the governor’s authority to grant land.

In 1775, with the outbreak of the American Revolution, the situation in West Florida changed rapidly.  Both Florida provinces were converted into sanctuaries for British loyalists escaping from colonial terrorists.  After 1775, West Florida enjoyed its greatest period of growth, an attraction among sturdy pioneers of Englishmen and Scotsmen.

Who were the loyalists, and why weren’t they interested in freedom from Great Britain?  They were generally older people, conservative by nature, well-established in the colonies with long-standing business interests in England.  Older people tend to resist change and the Revolutionary War period was nothing at all if not an era of momentous changes.  In the minds of British loyalists, a rebellion was not only morally wrong but also unwarranted.

Taxation without representation was a key issue at the outset of the American Revolution.  Parliamentary taxation affected everyone, including loyalists.  There was no overwhelming repudiation of taxes among the loyalists because, in the first instance, Parliament had the right to tax colonists.  Second, the colonists had long benefitted from the security provided by the British Army.  Among loyalists, it was entirely reasonable that Parliament expected colonists to help pay for the costs of maintaining these forces.  The loyalists also had no objection to “quartering soldiers in private homes.”  These were young men from back home who had come to America to protect British citizens from the ravages of the French and Indian attacks, why not give them a nice place to sleep?  Besides, which would be cheaper (tax-wise)?  Quartering soldiers in the homes of citizens, or constructing barracks for the same purpose?  Since everyone benefitted from these tax levies, why object to them? Of course, the British Parliament could have addressed this issue with greater sophistication, but the British people (especially those living in England) were used to an authoritarian legislature.

When the so-called “American patriots” resorted to violence against the Crown and those who remained loyal to Great Britain, the older, conservative, well-settled colonists felt alienated —and with good reason.  The patriots burned down their homes, torched their businesses, and physically and verbally assaulted them.  In many ways, patriot behavior was more like that of  hooligans and domestic terrorists than of good neighbors with interesting ideas about government and society[2].

Many loyalists, at least initially, were fence-sitters.  Among those, optimists who believed that if there was to be a separation from the mother country, it should take place naturally and amicably, under circumstances mutually beneficial to both sides of the Atlantic.  Some pessimists believed that the only possible result of revolutionary thought and action would be chaos, corruption, and mob rule[3].  In either case, when patriots began terrorizing them, they either became apathetic to the cause, or they moved even further to the right.  Some returned to England, others decided to stay in the colonies and fight for their King.  In New York, many loyalists were part of influential families, some of these with unmistakable ties to the French Huguenot-Dutch De Lancey[4] faction supporting the British Crown.  There were also “black” loyalists —slaves who had been promised freedom from slavery by the British government.  Colonial patriots made no such promises, from any quarter —north or south.

There were many prominent families among American patriots[5].  One of these was the family of a man named James Willing … a wealthy Philadelphia family.  His father Charles twice served as Philadelphia’s mayor; his mother was Anne Shippen, the granddaughter of Philadelphia’s second mayor.  James’ older brother was a merchant, a business partner with Robert Morris[6], and a delegate to the Continental Congress from Pennsylvania.  In his younger years, James sought his fortune in British West Florida operating a general store within the Natchez settlement.  The folks of Natchez were happy to live in America, but they were loyalists —and intensely so.  Willing, not being able to share those sentiments, and being rudely vocal about it, soon decided to return to Philadelphia[7].

In 1777, serving as a congressional spokesman, Willing returned to Natchez to convince the residents there to join the American independence movement.  His proposals rebuffed, he returned to Philadelphia with greatly exaggerated claims that the people of West Florida posed a serious threat to the cause of American independence, although he was probably right in thinking that loyalists would interrupt trade on the Mississippi River, a major source of colonial resupply.

Oliver Pollock, meanwhile (an Irish-born colonist with many years devoted to trading with the Spaniards in the West Indies), established a close working relationship with Alejandro O’Reilly[8] and other Spanish-Louisiana officials.  Granted the privilege of free trade with New Orleans, Pollock became a successful businessman, married, and raised his family there.  In 1777, Pollock was appointed Commercial Agent of the United States in New Orleans.  He used his influence and wealth to help finance American operations in the west, including the campaign by Major General (militia) George Rogers Clark[9].  In September 1778, Pollock introduced Colonel David Rogers and Captain Robert Benham to Louisiana Governor Bernardo de Gálvez.  Rogers delivered a letter to Governor Gálvez from Virginia patriot Patrick Henry —a letter that led to Spain to join the war against England.  In the British view, there could be no better example of treason than that.

In 1778, James Willing was calling himself a naval captain[10] in the service of the United Independent States of America[11]  Pollock received a letter from Robert Morris stating that Willing would be leading an expedition against loyalist settlements above New Orleans.  In his capacity as a naval captain, Willing led 29 men of the 13th Virginia Regiment from Fort Pitt and sailed down the Ohio River[12].  Willing’s mission may have been more on the order of moving supplies from New Orleans to Fort Pitt than it was conquering West Florida, but the correspondence Willing carried with him to Florida could be construed as authorization to punish British loyalists.  With his desire for adventure and a somewhat reckless nature, Willing boarded the gunboat Rattletrap[13] with his Virginians, now dubbed “marines.”

Willing and his marines departed Fort Pitt early on the night of 10 January.  A short distance from where the Wabash empties into the Ohio River, the Willing Expedition seized the large bateau[14] belonging to the Becquet Brothers, which was laden with pelts.  They also arrested a man named  La Chance and impounded his cargo of brandy —which Willing and his crew subjected to extensive tests for impurities.  Willing’s notoriety thus established, off they went into the Ohio River and southward.  The commander at Fort Kaskaskia, a Frenchman named Rocheblave, suspected that the Willing Expedition was moving toward Illinois and believed that the sort of insults offered to Becquet and La Chance was the sort of thing frontier settlers could expect from colonial hoodlums should they ever achieve a foothold into the western (French) colonies.

Painting by Charles Waterhouse

By the time the expedition reached the Mississippi River, Willing had added two canoes and ten recruits to his entourage.  One of these was a youngster named George Girty, whom Willing commissioned a second lieutenant.  George was the youngest of four brothers, a family whose only claim to history was that they all became British loyalists.  Historians know that Willing stopped at a Spanish post at the mouth of the Arkansas River, where, having warned the few American settlers living there that their lives were in peril from British loyalists, proceeded on his journey.  The then-petrified settlers ended up petitioning Spanish officials for their protection.

Willing arrived at the Natchez plantation of Colonel Anthony Hutchins[15], a loyalist, on 19 February, promptly arrested him and seized his property —including his slaves.  Willing then divided his force by sending two canoes on a scouting mission further south to the Natchez settlement —a farming community populated by American, English, and French settlers (all of whom lived together in harmony) —and until recent times, the home of James Willing.  The scouting party, well-armed and dressed as hunters, arrested all settlement inhabitants and secured their property.

Willing and his main body arrived the following morning.  According to later testimony, captive townspeople sent a delegation of four citizens to parlay with Willing.  They agreed to surrender and promised their neutrality if Willing restored their property.  Willing agreed, adding these stipulations: (a) that the settlers must agree to re-provision his expeditionary force, (b) that single men join the expedition, and (c) that all married persons relocate to Spanish territory within fifteen days.  From among the single men who joined the expedition, Willing appointed Richard Harrison a lieutenant of marines.

South of Natchez, Willing carried out a campaign of destruction to crops, livestock, and the homes of Loyalist settlers and carried off their slaves (likely sold in New Orleans).  William Dunbar and Frederick Spell, who witnessed Willing’s behavior, suggested in their later testimony that Willing was more interested in enriching himself than he was in any patriotic endeavor (which, by every account, seems to have been the case).  Willing, however, did not molest any “patriotic” Americans.

By this time, the British were aware of Willing’s marauders —which given the expanse of the territory and poor communications back then, is quite amazing.  In any case, the British dispatched their sloop Rebecca (well-armed with sixteen 4-pound and six swivel guns) up the Mississippi to interdict Willing’s campaign.  On 23 February, 18 marines under lieutenants McIntyre and Harrison captured Rebecca, which for a time ended Great Britain’s control of the Mississippi River.  McIntyre and Harrison sailed the vessel to New Orleans as a prize of war.  The ship would be renamed, Morris.

Oliver Pollock established and maintained a close relationship with Governor Bernardo de Gálvez.  During a future Spanish campaign against the British, Pollock would serve as Gálvez’ aide-de-camp.  When Pollock received word that Willing was approaching New Orleans, he recruited an additional 40 men to join the expedition and assisted him in transporting “British” property to New Orleans.  Of these 40 men, 26 men took it upon themselves to float downriver to join McIntyre and Harrison.  McIntyre’s group soon came upon the British Brig Neptune and seized her.  Neptune was laden with lumber and a handful of passengers bound for Jamaica.  McIntyre off-loaded the passengers, retained the cargo, and sailed her to New Orleans —the expedition’s second prize.

News of Willing’s expedition quickly spread throughout British West Florida and caused some panic among the loyalists.  They abandoned their large plantations, loaded their slaves, livestock, and valuables on boats and barges, and headed toward New Orleans where they petitioned Spanish officials for protection.  For their part, at least initially, Spanish officials were intent on remaining neutral in the conflict between the British and Americans, so they graciously received these refugees and accorded them Spanish hospitality.  Governor Gálvez similarly welcomed James Willing, which in large measure as a result of Oliver Pollock’s efforts.

Willing and his men were granted freedom of the city, provided with housing, and they were allowed to auction the property taken from loyalists, including their slaves[16].  The precise amount of the profits gained by Willing’s auction is unknown, but some estimates ranged as high as £60,000.00.  While appreciative of the courtesy and hospitality accorded to their subjects, British officials strongly protested the fact that Gálvez extended those same courtesies to James Willing, who in their view was nothing more than a pirate.  Neither were the British pleased about Willing’s auctioning British property.

Gov. Gálvez ignored British protests, and the longer he did so, the louder their protests became.  Within a short time, British petitions for redress were filed almost every day.  Finally, Gálvez appointed a commission to consider the merits of British complaints.  Until mid-March, Gálvez remained unconcerned with British protests.  But then came the arrival of the British sloop Sylph under the command of Captain John Ferguson.  In addressing the problem, Ferguson was simple and direct:

Having the honor to command one of His Britannic Majesty’s ships in this river, and having information that your excellency has received into your government a body of armed men, enemies to my Sovereign and that you have suffered them from the Spanish Territory to commit depredations on this River by forcibly seizing upon the vessels, property, and persons of British subjects, in violation of the Treatise of Peace, the Law of Nations, and the Rights of Men.  I cannot help looking at such conduct on your part, as a tacit if not an open declaration of war against the King, my master.

Governor Gálvez answered Ferguson with equal fervor[17].  He had no obligation (he said) to protect British citizens residing on British soil but (pending the report by his commission), Gálvez offered to return British goods and property seized by Willing.  This decision came as a blow to the Willing/Pollock clique.  They offered a stout defense of their activities, particularly as it related to the capture of the two British ships.  Neptune, argued Willing, having been seized on open water in British territory, was a  lawful prize of war.  Gálvez remained inflexible; Neptune must be returned.  When it appeared that Morris (formerly Rebecca) seemed more secure, Oliver Pollock proceeded to refit and man her.  William Pickles was selected to serve as Morris’ Captain, and Robert Elliott was chosen to serve as Commanding Officer of Marines (Daniel Longstreet was appointed to serve as Marine First Lieutenant)[18].

In April, Captain Ferguson and Sylph was relieved by Captain Joseph Nunn, commanding HMS Hound.  Nunn continued to press Gálvez on the issues raised by Ferguson; Gálvez continued to resist all British suppositions and remained firm with the Americans.  Nevertheless, believing that the British would initiate military action, Governor Gálvez requested reinforcements from the Viceroy of New Spain and began working on New Orleans defenses.  He also demanded that every British/American person living in New Orleans take an oath of neutrality or leave the city.  A few British departed the city, but most remained.  Americans were unanimous in their acceptance.

Gov. Gálvez felt better once the American and British had offered their oaths respecting Spanish neutrality.  Captain Nunn, on the other hand, did not feel better.  In his view, Gálvez had openly demonstrated his support for the colonial rebellion, and this placed Spain in opposition to the British Crown.  It wasn’t enough to cause Captain Nunn to initiate war with Spain, of course, but Gálvez’s cozy relationship with the colonists did prompt the British into reasserting their authority on the Mississippi River.

Before dawn on 19 April, Nunn sent a force of fifty men to recapture Fort Bute at Manchac (115 miles north of New Orleans) which had been seized by Willing’s expedition.  British riflemen killed two men and a woman and wounded ten others.  Fourteen Americans were taken, prisoner.  Willing was, by this time, concerned about retaining control of Natchez, which led him to dispatch a force of marines under Lieutenant Harrison to observe whether Natchez loyalists were keeping their oaths of neutrality.

Meanwhile, Colonel Hutchins had violated his parole by returning to his plantation.  In Natchez, Hutchins agitated among the citizens and urged them to take up arms against American colonists.  We do not know what Hutchins told these people, but we do know that he alarmed them to the point of organizing a stout defense at a location known as White Cliffs.

En route to Natchez, Lieutenant Harrison was forewarned by a man named John Talley of Colonel Hutchins’ mischief.  Harrison sent Talley ahead to offer assurances that his intentions were peaceful.  Hutchins’ work was well done, however, and upon Harrison’s approach, loyalist gunfire inflicted a heavy toll on the marines.  Harrison lost five men killed with several more wounded and captured; Harrison returned to New Orleans with only a few of his remaining force.

British West Florida Governor Peter Chester (—1799), with service between 1770-81, encouraged British settlers to return to their homes and “restore yourselves to that full allegiance and fidelity which you owe to your sovereign and country.”  And, he added, that should these citizens not comply with Chester’s advice, then they would be judged guilty of criminal neglect of their solemn duty.  With a British army garrison of  110 men from Pensacola guarding Fort Bute at Manchac, a British ship with a crew of 150 men, and 200 British militia protecting Natchez, loyalist settlers finally felt secure.  Thus renewed, British presence also stopped the flow of goods between New Orleans and Fort Pitt.

The Willing Expedition had aroused British loyalists along the river to such extent that Willing could no longer return to Philadelphia via the Mississippi.  And, the longer Willing remained in New Orleans, the less Gálvez and Pollock wanted to deal with him.  Gálvez was highly incensed when Willing circumvented the governor’s prerogatives by issuing a proclamation to Americans living in New Orleans.  The proclamation not only violated Willing’s oath, a condition of his being allowed to remain in New Orleans, it was also a violation of Spanish sovereignty.  But if the rift between Willing and Gálvez was significant, the break with Pollock was even worse.  With some justification, Willing criticized Pollock for his poor administration and questionable financial accounting[19].  Willing’s unpaid marauders were displeased to the point of deserting in large numbers.  It was only the consistent discipline and fair treatment of Lieutenant Harrison and Lieutenant George that kept most (not all) marines on duty.  In any case, Pollock was anxious to be rid of Willing and did not hesitate to express his annoyance with Willing in his reports to Congress.

Hoping for James Willing’s departure from New Orleans was one thing; witnessing his departure was another.  Effectively, Captain Willing had become a prisoner in New Orleans, but he had no one to blame but himself.  It was his actions that caused the British to block the Mississippi.  Willing had but two options for returning to Philadelphia: an overland march, or by sea.  Willing had no interest in walking back to Pennsylvania.

By mid-June, Oliver Pollock decided he’d had enough of James Willing and formally petitioned Governor Gálvez to allow work to proceed on Morris so that it might carry Willing and his men back to Philadelphia.  Without much consideration, Gálvez consented and the ship’s refit was soon started.  Unhappily for both Gálvez and Willing, the refit project experienced several delays.

Fed up with life in New Orleans, Lieutenant George and Lieutenant Harrison requested the governor’s permission to leave New Orleans via the overland route.  Governor Gálvez gave his consent conditionally: George and Harrison had to give their oath not to cause further dismay to any British subject.  Having offered their oaths, the officers soon departed.  After a year of overland travel, the marines finally returned to Fort Pitt.  After the marine detachment was officially disbanded, George accepted an appointment as a captain of an artillery in the Continental Army.

Accompanied by Lieutenant McIntyre, James Willing finally departed New Orleans in mid-November carrying dispatches for the Continental Congress.  The ship, however, was captured by a British privateer off the coast of Delaware and Willing was taken as a prisoner to New York where he remained until exchanged for British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton.  Some historians contend that Willing spent two years as a prisoner of war.  If this is true, when one considers his many depredations imposed on Mississippi River settlements, then a reasonable man might conclude that his internment was warranted.

James Willing died at his home in Haverford Township, Pennsylvania in 1801.  He was 51 years old.  For additional insight into the corruption of early-American officials, see also:  James Wilkinson, Image of Respectability.  The amount of dishonesty during the Revolutionary and early founding periods of the United States could lead one to conclude that as despicable as James Willing was, he had much in common with more than a few of our founding fathers.

Sources:

  1. DuVal, K. Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution.  Random House, 2016.
  2. Eron, R. Peter Chester, Third Governor of the Province of West Florida Under British Domination 1770-1781.  Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1925.
  3. Haynes, R. V. The Natchez District, and the American Revolution. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2011.
  4. James, A. J. Oliver Pollock, Financier of the Revolution in the West.  Mississippi Historical Review, 1929.
  5. Smith, C. R. Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975. 

Endnotes:

[1] Attributed to Julius Caesar, De Bello Civille.

[2] The same thing is happening today within the so-called Progressive Movement; modern conservatives (the classic liberals of the colonial era) are being regularly attacked because of their values.  Progressivism, as it turns out, is not very enlightened.

[3] It is impossible to say the pessimists were completely wrong about the level of political corruption in America.

[4] Followers of Oliver and James De Lancey.  Oliver was a wealthy merchant, politician, and British Provincial soldier; James was his nephew.

[5] Modern leftists define “patriotism” as an anti-government “far right” movement.  In 1775, it was a far-left movement.

[6] Robert Morris, Jr., (1734-1806) was an English-born financier who served in the Pennsylvania legislature, the Second Continental Congress, and the United States Senate.  He was a signer to the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the U. S. Constitution.

[7] According to his “friends and neighbors” in Natchez, Mr. Willing drank too much, talked too much, and thought too little.  This may be a fair assessment.

[8] O’Reilly (1723-1794) was born in Ireland became the Inspector-General of Infantry in the Spanish Empire, served as Captain-General and the second Spanish governor of Louisiana, and the first official to exercise power in Louisiana after France ceded it to Spain.  He was later made a count of Spain but known to creoles as “Bloody O’Reilly.”

[9] The older brother of William Rogers Clark.  A surveyor and militia officer who became the highest-ranking officer of the Revolution in the western frontier.  Most of his accomplishments occurred before his 40th birthday; subsequently, his drinking and indebtedness destroyed his reputation.  When Virginia refused to pay him for his Revolutionary war  expenses, he turned his attention toward the Spanish as a source of income, but mostly through questionable land speculation schemes.  His is not one of the great American stories of our founding years.

[10] James Willing is not listed as a commissioned officer of the Continental Navy.

[11] The title claimed was something Willing made up.  There is an organization today with a similar title claiming to consist of ten states, five provinces of Canada, and Guam.  ISA announced its independence in 2007 where its officials all wear tin foil hats.

[12] What the Continental Congress did not want was a sizeable expedition to West Florida to attack Pensacola and Mobile, an ambitious plan that had the support of Benedict Arnold.  Congress decided instead on a more modest expedition and placed Willing in charge of it.

[13] I’m not sure how to respond to questions about the naming convention involve with this vessel, but Rattletrap was purchased from John Gibson for 300 pounds in Pennsylvania currency.  It was a galley-type vessel with ten oars, and she/it was armed with two ¾-pound swivel guns.

[14] A long, light, flat bottom boat with a sharply pointed bow and stern.

[15] Colonel Hutchins was a retired British Army officer whose grant of land for military  service was 250,000 acres.  His home was located at White Apple Acres, which he occupied in 1773.  He served as a representative representing the Natchez district in the provincial assembly in Pensacola in 1778.  At times during the Willing Expedition, Hutchins was the de facto governor of the Natchez district.  He remained active in political and military affairs in present-day Mississippi for many years.

[16] Despite Spanish law, which forbade commerce with foreigners.

[17] The British were hardly in a position of strength in West Florida.  Eventually, Gálvez would seize both Pensacola and Natchez (1779).

[18] Both Robert Elliott and Daniel Longstreet’s names appear in the lineal list of officers of the Continental Navy and Marine Corps.

[19] Pollock was, as previously stated, a businessman whose every action was motivated by profit.  He is not remembered as a man having an abundance of scruples.

RIVER FIGHTS: Vietnam War

USNFVSome Background

Following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States Military Assistance Advisory Group (Indochina) (USMAAG Indochina) became USMAAG (Vietnam) and with this transition, the United States became even more deeply involved in the affairs and prerogatives of the South Vietnamese (Republic of Vietnam) regime.  Wisely, President Eisenhower firmly resisted the urgings of some advisors to send in troops, but he did expand the role of military advisors and in time, all US armed services were represented on the USMAAG (Vietnam) staff.

In 1960, newly elected John F. Kennedy approved the USMAAG’s request for increases in the size of the South Vietnamese Army (also, Army of the Republic of Vietnam or ARVN) and an increase in the number of military and civilian advisors.  As Henry Bohn told us in 1855, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  John Kennedy began excavating a hole our government couldn’t stop digging.

Lay of the Land

The Mekong Delta extends from Saigon (now, Ho Chi Minh City) south and west to the Gulf of Thailand and the border with Cambodia.  Its area extends nearly 29,000 square miles and it is home to an estimated 15 million inhabitants.  In all, the Mekong Delta constitutes about a quarter of the total land area and half the population of the former Republic of Vietnam.  The Delta is a flat alluvial plain created by the Mekong River, a land surface covered by rice paddies, which makes this region one of the world’s most productive rice-growing areas.  It is by far the most important agricultural region in Vietnam.

In terms of overland communication, the Mekong Delta was an unmitigated disaster, as the region is intersected by a complex network of waterways and inundated by heavy rain and seasonal floods.  In 1960, there was but one major hard surface road, which extended from Saigon to Ca Mau. Secondary roads were either poorly surfaced or unattended.  While the land facilitated air combat operations, poor road systems, rice paddies, canals, wide ditches, and rivers complicated ground operations.  In contrast, the waterway system was very sophisticated, and the US MAAG realized early on that if the US intended to pacify the Mekong Delta (also, IV Corps Tactical Zone, or IV CTZ), it would have to consider implementing riverine operations.

Most Vietnamese in this area are concentrated along waterways that constitute the principal transportation routes, on average, around 400 people per square mile.  Typically, Vietnamese homes are surrounded by dense trees, shrubs, and bushes —cultivated for fruit, shade, or decoration.  The vegetation was pleasing to look at, but it also gave protection and concealment to communist insurgents.  When planning for operations in the IV CTZ, US military officers wanted to take the war to the enemy but do so without endangering local inhabitants.  With its population density, it was nearly impossible to move friendly forces without their being observed by unfriendly eyes.  The enemy always seemed to know when Uncle Sam was coming for a visit.

Vietnam’s Delta seacoasts have an extensive network of mangrove swamps.  Vegetation on the coastal mudflats is dense, root structure high, and tangled, which makes access difficult and cross-country movements challenging.  Rice paddies are separated by thickets of trees in varied patterns.  Large cultivated plantations are marked by rows of palm trees, many of which border deep ditches or wide canals.  Operational planners for riverine operations had to factor in water, vegetation, terrain, and the influence of sea tides; it also involved guesswork.  There was no way to accurately predict travel or operational times. 

The Enemy

The Mekong Delta (IV CTZ) was rife with communist insurgents … estimated at around 84,000 men in 1966.  Of those, around 20,000 were trained and well-armed combat troops with about 51,000 part-time guerrillas.  In 1966, there were no North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces operating in IV Corps.  Logistically, Viet Cong forces relied on support from local populations and whatever could be provided from North Vietnam.  Cambodia, bordering IV CTZ, was a haven for supplies moving down from the north.

Friendlies

ARVN forces in IV CTZ were subdivided into three divisional tactical zones: in the north, the 7th ARVN Division at My Thơ, in the center, the 9th ARVN Division at Sa Dec, and in the south, the 21st ARVN Division at Bac Lieu.  In total, around 40,000 men, including five ranger battalions and three armored cavalry squadrons.  Regular forces were augmented by Regional, Popular, and Irregular troops, and the National Police[1].  The conventional wisdom (back then) was that anyone joining Regional or Popular Forces organizations was “just asking for it” (VC assassination).  Unsurprisingly, both groups had high desertion rates, and the thing that made irregular troops so irregular was that one could never find them when they were needed.

Vietnamese naval forces in the 4th Naval Zone evolved from the French Dinassauts and included six river assault groups and eleven coastal groups that formed the so-called Junk Fleet.  Assault groups fell under the IV CTZ Commander; their primary mission was supporting ARVN riverine operations.  Each group could lift an ARVN infantry battalion.  In 1966, these units were used in their primary role about 10% of the time.  The reason for this was that the ARVN battalion commanders preferred airmobile operations; they were more fun and had greater visibility for purposes of promotion.

US Forces

United States Navy advisors entered the Mekong Delta in 1957 to replace the withdrawing French.  By 1966, the military advisory effort infused the entire RVN military structure.  In total, around 2,700 officers and enlisted men representing the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force were assigned to corps, division, and provincial organizations, and the IV CTZ Area Logistics Command.  The USN Advisory Group (RVN) provided advisors to the Vietnamese Navy’s six river assault groups and eleven coastal groups.

In 1965, the U. S. Army’s 13th Combat Aviation Battalion was assigned to the Delta to support ARVN operations; by August of that year, the battalion operated four assault helicopter companies and one air reconnaissance company.  By mid-1966, naval forces included TASK FORCE 115 (also, MARKET TIME) and TASK FORCE 116 (also, GAME WARDEN).  The mission assigned to Market Time was interdiction of coastal areas to prevent resupply of VC forces by sea.  Game Warden was tasked with interdicting enemy lines of communications and assisting ARVN forces in repelling enemy attacks on river outposts of Regional and Popular Forces.  Despite the optimism of the American administration, which predicted a communist free Mekong Delta by mid-1965, about one-third of all communist attacks in South Vietnam in 1966 occurred within the IV CTZ; Viet Cong forces controlled about 25% of the population of the Delta.

To the Vietnamese high command in 1966, the question of whether a province was “pacified” was entirely political.  The American reality was that the South Vietnamese government-controlled, in total, only about four percent of the land in IV CTZ.  ARVN commanders bragged that they controlled these areas but if true, it was only during hours of daylight; the Viet Cong controlled the night.

Riverine warfare is an extension of sea power.  The Navy’s control of the sea enables it to project its strength ashore, including inland waterways, into the heart of the enemy territory.  None of the Navy’s resources operate inside a vacuum; the Navy works as a team.  In this example, blue water ships, amphibious forces, and its aviation arm all supported riverine operations.  It was Vietnam’s communist insurgency within a vast inland waterway that led the Navy to reexamine its previous successes in riverine operations.

A key strategy in confronting and then defeating a guerrilla force is isolation and interdiction.  US strategy in Vietnam involved denying guerrilla forces freedom of movement, access to the general population, the ability to withdraw into remote sanctuaries to regroup, and the ability to resupply.  U. S. Naval forces in Vietnam played a key role in achieving all these objectives.  Coastal surveillance programs formed a tight barrier against the infiltration of personnel, arms, and supplies from the sea.  Taking surveillance one step further, the rigid control of fishing areas diminished the insurgent’s ability to feed himself, and river patrols established protocols for the inspection of junks and sampans, which were the primary method of transporting people and goods over hundreds of miles of inland waterways.

No less important in combatting guerrilla forces is gathering intelligence, which is often a slow, painstaking process.  One must first locate the enemy before he can be eliminated.  Finding the enemy was often facilitated by nurturing relationships with local inhabitants, which was also a key element in riverine operations.

Highly mobile and well-armed riverine forces coordinated their activities with ground and air forces to interdict guerrilla activities.  The Navy’s shallow-draft patrol craft seized the initiative in carrying the fight to enemy sanctuaries far up the rivers and into canals —areas that had not been previously penetrated by French or ARVN ground units.  To achieve these goals, the Navy employed a variety of combat and combat-support organizations, each with unique but well-coordinated missions: River Patrol Force, Mobile Riverine Force, Coastal Surveillance Force, Naval Advisory Group, and strike campaigns dubbed OPERATION SEALORDS[2].

An Imposing Environment

As previously explained, riverine operations assume many shapes because inland waterways form unique challenges.  Vietnam’s inland waterways were at least a bewildering maze of interconnecting systems, so the Navy implemented a wide range of strategies to address them —made more difficult after the NVA began infiltrating South Vietnam in 1968.  At that time, the US Navy began looking for more than increasingly dispirited guerillas; they were looking for hard-core NVA regulars, as well.  The Mekong Delta was a paradise for guerrilla operations, which the NVA demonstrated could be just-as-easily implemented by regular forces.  Thick vegetation along the waterways limits visibility and offers excellent opportunities for ambush; floating vegetation and heavily silted waters concealed mines and other explosive devices.  Command detonated mines often signaled the beginning of hellacious firefights —some of these taking places within 50-75 feet of opposing forces.

There are three distinct regions within the Mekong Delta: Plains of Reeds, northwest of Saigon, which during seasonal floods lies beneath six feet of water, the Lower Mekong, which is a vast rice-growing region and the location of the imposing Ca Mau forest, and the mangrove swamps at the mouth of the Mekong adjacent to the Rung Sat (Forest of Assassins) Special Zone (RSSZ), which includes the main shipping channel to Saigon.  In the mangrove swamps, tides are extreme and vegetation so thick that men on the ground lose sight of each other four feet apart.

OPERATION JACKSTAY

On 26 February 1966, Viet Cong forces ambushed the SS Lorinda, a Panamanian-flagged coastal freighter on the Lòng Tàu River, about 18 miles south of Saigon.  The attack wounded six crewmen and caused the ship to veer off course and run aground.  This was not a trend the Americans could allow to develop.  Accordingly, Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) ordered a punitive raid against insurgents operating within the shipping channel approach to Saigon.

Navy and Marine Corps operational planners put together a blue water force off the coast of Vietnam, the first major U. S. Navy riverine operation in the Rung Sat Special Zone (RSSZ); it marked a major turning point in the unfolding saga of projecting American sea power from the high seas and coastal waterways into the vast waterways of the Mekong Delta.   Before this, the Navy’s participation in the river war was limited to inshore operations conducted by Swift Boats and Coastal Patrol Boats assigned to the Vietnamese Navy and their U. S. Navy advisors.  From this point forward, the Navy became increasingly involved in the river war.  The operation was designated JACKSTAY.

JACKSTAY underscored the versatility made possible by the domination of the wetlands, whether offshore or in-country.  The operation, conducted in two phases, was planned to decimate the Viet Cong in the RSSZ, a 400-square mile area of swamp particularly suited for clandestine operations.  The region of the RSSZ had harbored communist insurgents for well over a generation; it was where the Viet Minh/Cong manufactured weapons, where they treated their wounded, trained recruits, and stocked their supplies from North Vietnam.

1:5 Unit PatchJACKSTAY was a two-phased operation plan[3] that called for an assault on the Long Thanh Peninsula (RSSZ) by the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5) from ships operating off-shore: the USS Princeton, USS Pickaway, USS Alamo, USS Belle Grove, and USS Merrick.  USS Robison, GAME WARDEN swift boats, and MARKET TIME patrol boats provided naval gunfire support.  Air groups from USS Hancock provided helicopter lift and close air support.

The operation kicked off on the morning of 26 March 1966 with preliminary naval bombardments by Robison and aircraft from Hancock.  Navy Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) swimmers, preparatory airstrikes by Seventh Fleet carrier-based aircraft, and naval gunfire all supported the operation. Throughout, amphibious craft and coastal surveillance craft provided surveillance and blocking operations against Viet Cong escape.  The long inland reach of U. S. Navy sea power quickly adapted to operational complexities.

A Marine rifle company landed via surface craft near Dong Hoa on the western end of the peninsula with two additional companies executing a vertical assault at the center and on the eastern end.  The Marines encountered only scattered small arms resistance and soon established 21 four-man listening posts beyond their night perimeter.  During the night, VC attacked one of these posts initiating a firefight that resulted in two Marine KIAs and three enemies dead.  That same night, VC ambushed PCF-31[4] about one mile from Cần Giờ on the Long Thanh Peninsula, seriously injuring one crewman and severely damaging the patrol boat.

On 28 March, Marines made another unopposed surface assault on the Soài Rạp River, this time targeting an enemy logistics area on the Vam Sat River (linked to the headquarters element on the Soài Rạp River) and destroyed a cache of weapons that included over 1,000 grenades.

Higgins BoatFollowing airstrikes from the Hancock and naval gunfire from USS Henry County, USS Washoe County, and Ontos[5] fire from the deck of Henry County on 31 March, an 18-boat convoy entered the Vam Sat River.  Led by two Vietnamese-manned Higgins Boats[6], the convoy included two Vietnamese LCCPs rigged with chain drags and grapnels for minesweeping, and armored LCM-6 (equipped with mortars and automatic weapons), seven LCMs, a rifle company of Marines in two LCVPs, two LCPLs providing additional gunfire support, two LCM-3 salvage boats.  Helicopter gunships provided air cover.  Commander Derwin T. Lamb, USN commanded the convoy from the open deck of an LCPL positioned directly behind the Vietnamese minesweepers.  Captain John D. Westervelt, USN commanded the overall landing operation from an overhead helicopter.

As Lamb’s convoy approached the first bend of the Vam Sat River, Viet Cong command-detonated a crude electrical mine halfway between Lamb’s command LCP and the minesweepers.  An explosion reminiscent of Confederate torpedoes from a hundred years before reverberated across the water.  The craft escaped damage because they wisely hugged the shallows rather than navigating from the center of the channel.  The explosion signaled the commencement of intense small arms fire from the thick foliage on both banks.  Lamb led the convoy through the withering fire while all boats opened with their firepower.  Helicopter gunships strafed and rocketed VC positions about 100-yards inland, preventing the VC from bringing heavier guns to bear.  A mile further downriver, enemy fire became sporadic.

After landing a Marine rifle company in the heart of the dismal mangrove swamp, Lamb moved his convoy back up-river in the same formation to land two additional companies of Marines, who immediately disappeared into the thick underbrush.  When the Marines had completed their mission, LCMs (also, “Mike” boats) churned their way to shore, crashing their way through the overhanging tree limbs and into the dense undergrowth. Lowering the ramps cut an opening through the rotted vegetation, making it easier for the Marines to re-board.

During recovery operations, the convoy again ran into ineffective small arms fire.  The open LCMs, each carrying 60 Marines, may have been vulnerable targets were it not for the work of the gunships overhead and the fact that the VC riflemen were poor shooters.

JACKSTAY concluded on 6 April with the destruction of arms factories, training camps, a headquarters complex, and a makeshift hospital.  Large amounts of rice and other foods were captured, along with 60,000 rounds of ammunition and 300 pounds of gunpowder.  Sixty-three enemies were killed in the combined assaults, while American Marines lost five men killed in action.  Subsequently, Viet Cong activity decreased in this area of the Delta.

The results of JACKSTAY were far more significant than the 53 confirmed Viet Cong dead or the tons of material destroyed or captured.  Its success was laudable, of course, but so too was the projection of naval power into the heart of an enemy sanctuary.  As the Navy’s initial combined riverine operation, JACKSTAY served as a loud knock on the door to an enemy that had had its way in the RSSZ for far too long.  The message was unmistakable: the VC could run, and the enemy could hide, but they would not be able to elude the powerful arm of the United States Navy-Marine Corps team.  Ultimately, after scurrying around like rats, the communists would only die tired.

In the middle of JACKSTAY, on 1 April 1966, Rear Admiral Norvell G. Ward[7], USN assumed duty as Commander, U. S. Navy Forces, Vietnam (COMUSNAVFORV).  The purpose of NAVFORV was to consolidate several U. S. Navy programs under a single component command of the USMACV.  In addition to supervision of the support commands at Saigon and Da Nang, and the Navy Construction (Seabee) battalions, Ward assumed responsibility for missions assigned to the Naval Advisory Group, Coastal Surveillance Forces, and River Patrol Forces.  Mobile Riverine Force (TASK FORCE 117) was added in 1967.

Sources:

  1. Sherwood, J. D.  War in the Shallows: U. S. Navy Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, 1965-1968.  Washington, D. C.: Naval History and Heritage Command, Department of the Navy, 2015.
  2. Marolda, E. J.  Riverine Warfare: The U. S. Navy’s Operations on Inland Waters.  Washington, D. C.: U. S. Navy Historical Center, 2006
  3. Fulton, W. B.  Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969.  Washington, D. C.: Department of the Army, 1985.
  4. Affield, W. Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat’s Cox’n’s Memory of Vietnam. Hawthorne Petal Press, 2012.
  5. U. S. Army Field Manual 31-75: Riverine Warfare. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Army, 1971
  6. Friedman, N. US Small Combatants: PT Boats, Subchasers, and the Brownwater Navy, an Illustrated Design History.  1987.
  7. Joiner, G. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  8. Rowlands, K. Riverine Warfare: Naval War College Review, Vol 71, No. 1. Art. 5., Annapolis: Naval War College, 2018

Endnotes:

[1] Referred to as “White Mice” owing to their uniforms.

[2] SEALORDS was an acronym for Southeast Asia Lake, Ocean, River, and Delta Strategy.  SEALORDS was a joint operational concept involving US and RVN forces conceived by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt who at the time served as Commander, Naval Forces, Vietnam (COMNAVFORV).  Its intention was to disrupt enemy supply lines within and around the Mekong Delta.  The program was turned over to the Republic of Vietnam Navy (RVNN) in 1971.

[3] Operational planners realized that the insurgent force within the RSSZ was too large for a single battalion operation, so the purpose of JACKSTAY was limited to disrupting Viet Cong operations and a demonstration to the enemy that the US was well aware of their presence and that US/RVN forces could penetrate their sanctuary at will.

[4] PCF-31 (Patrol Craft, Fast) (also, Swift Boat) were 50’ aluminum boats used in patrolling Vietnam’s extensive waterways, part of the so-called Brown Water Navy.

[5] Officially, Allis-Chalmers Rifle, Multiple 106mm Self-propelled M50 light armored tracked anti-tank vehicle with service between 1956-1969

[6] Designed by Andrew Higgins based on watercraft used for operating in swamps and marshes in Louisiana.  Higgins produced nearly 24,000 of these boats, designated Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP), during World War II.  Variants of the Higgins Boats were created and designated for special purposes, such as LCU, LCI, LCA, and LCG.

[7] Admiral Ward was assigned to head the Naval Advisory Group, United States Military Assistance Command (Vietnam) on 31 July 1965.  The Naval Advisory Group was dissolved and renamed U. S. Naval Force, Vietnam on 1 April and Admiral Ward became its first commander.  During his assignment in Vietnam, Ward was instrumental in developing riverine and coastal interdiction strategies.  Admiral Ward served in the submarine service for most of his career beginning in 1931.  He retired from active duty in 1973, choosing not to accept a promotion to Vice Admiral to be with his cancer-stricken wife.  Admiral Ward passed away in 2005.

Diminished Honor

Occasionally, one wonders, “What in the hell is the matter with people?”  I have to say that the American navy has a rich history of honor, sacrifice, and fortitude, but there are a few blemishes, as well —which is true within all our military branches.  Our military is representative of our society —its strengths and weaknesses.  There is no justification for dwelling on them, but they do present important lessons and we either learn from them or repeat them to our sorrow.

Two disgraces stand out.  The first involves Rear Admiral (then Captain) Leslie Edward Gehres, USN (1898-1975) whose primary contribution to the Navy was his toxic leadership while in command of the USS Franklin (CV-13) (1944-1945).  Gehres assumed command of USS Franklin at Ulithi, relieving Captain J. M. Shoemaker.  Under Shoemaker, USS Franklin had come under attack by Japanese kamikaze aircraft.  At the change of command ceremony, Gehres told the ship’s crew, “It was your fault because you didn’t shoot the kamikaze down.  You didn’t do your duty; you’re incompetent, lazy, and careless.  You don’t know your jobs and I’m going to do my best to shape up this crew.”  The vision of this takes us to the film Caine Mutiny, starring Humphrey Bogart—a psychopath placed in command of the fictional destroyer, USS Caine.  One can only imagine how Captain Shoemaker felt having to listen to Gehres’ tripe on his last moment of command.

Gehres was raised in Rochester, New York and Newark, New Jersey.  He enlisted in the New York Naval Militia in 1914.  His unit was activated for World War I service and Gehres was assigned to USS Salem, USS Massachusetts, and USS Indiana.  Subsequently, Gehres attended the Reserve Officer’s Course at the USN Academy.  He was commissioned an ensign on 24 May 1918.  Gehres received a regular commission in the Navy in September of that year while serving aboard USS North Dakota in the Atlantic.  He was assigned to flight training at Pensacola, Florida and received his designation as a Naval Aviator in August 1927.

In November 1941, Gehres commanded Fleet Patrol Wing 4.  He spent most of World War II in the Aleutian Islands.  His subordinates referred to him as “Custer” because of his illogical tactics and erratic behavior.  Despite a rather poor reputation among his subordinates, Gehres was advanced to the rank of Commodore —the first Naval Aviator to achieve this rank.

USS Franklin
USS Franklin

In November 1944, he took a reduction in rank designation in order to assume command of USS Franklin.  His remarks at the change of command ceremony must not have done very much for crew morale.  In 1945, Franklin was assigned to the coast of the Japanese homeland in support of the assault on Okinawa.  Ship’s aircrews initiated airstrikes against Kagoshima, Izumi, and southern Kyushu.  At dawn on 15 March, the ship had maneuvered to within 50 miles of the Japanese mainland and launched a fighter sweep against Honshu Island and Kobe Harbor.  It was a stressful time for the crew, who within a period of six hours, had been called to battle stations on six separate occasions.  Gehres finally allowed the crew to eat and sleep but maintained crewmen at gunnery stations.

A Japanese aircraft appeared suddenly from cloud cover and made a low-level run on the ship to drop two semi-armor piercing bombs.  Franklin received a “last minute” warning of the approaching aircraft from USS Hancock, but Gehres never ordered “general quarters.”  One-third of the crew were either killed or wounded.  It was the most severe damage of any surviving USN aircraft carrier in World War II.  As a result of officer and crew activities, ten officers and one enlisted man was awarded the Navy Cross —one of those being Gehres.

(Chaplain) Father Joseph T. O’Callaghan refused the Navy Cross for his participation in the aftermath of the Franklin bombing.  Some speculated that the priest turned down the award because his heroic actions in the aftermath of the bombing reflected unfavorably on Gehres leadership as Commanding Officer.  President Truman intervened, however, and Father O’Callaghan was awarded the Medal of Honor on 23 January 1946.  True to form, Captain Gehres charged crewman who had jumped into the water, to avoid death by fire, with desertion.  Gehres charges against crewmen were quietly dropped by senior naval commanders in the chain of command.  Captain Gehres, while advanced to Rear Admiral (Lower Half), was never again assigned to a position of command.  By 2011, Gehres was universally excoriated for significant deficiencies in leadership.  Admiral Gehres became a study of poor leadership —but one wonders why the Navy promoted him to flag rank.  His behavior in command of USS Franklin became the very definition of “toxic leadership.”  Indeed, it was.

Charles B McVay III
Captain Charles B. McVay III

A second failure in navy leadership involved the case of Captain Charles B. McVay III (1898-1968).  Captain McVay was a highly decorated navy officer in command of USS Indianapolis (CL/CA 35) when the ship was torpedoed and sunk in the Philippine Sea on 30 July 1945.  Of the 1,197 crew, only 317 survived the sinking.  Of all ship’s captains in the history of the US Navy, McVay was the only officer ever court-martialed for the loss of his ship in a combat action.

At the time, USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser (formerly the flagship of Admiral Raymond Spruance, 1943-1944), was on a top-secret mission and under the direct authority of the President of the United States.  Its mission was to deliver two atomic bombs to Tinian Island.  Because the mission was top secret, speed was of the essence and to prevent attention to her course, no escorts were authorized.  This was a catastrophe of epic proportions.  Captain McVay, wounded, ordered his crew to abandon ship.  Of the 897 (approximate) crewmen who went overboard, 317 survived massive shark attacks over a period of five days.

Why was Captain (later promoted to Rear Admiral) court-martialed?  The Navy accused him of hazarding his ship by not following a zig-zag course through the Philippine Sea.  He was found “not guilty” of a second charge of “failing to order abandon ship in a timely manner.”  The fact was, however, that the Navy failed the USS Indianapolis on several fronts.  First, the Navy refused to provide the cruiser with escort ships, to which it was entitled during war.  Second, the Navy delayed its rescue of the crew (owing to the secret mission assigned to the ship) and no report of an overdue ship was made, again owing to the nature of its secret mission.

A navy court of inquiry recommended that Captain McVay be court-martialed.  Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander, U. S. Pacific Fleet disagreed, but he was overruled by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King [1].  The Japanese commander of the submarine that sank Indianapolis was called to testify at McVay’s court-martial.  He stated that given the proximity of Indianapolis to his submarine, zigzagging wouldn’t have made any difference —Indianapolis was dead the minute the torpedoes were fired.  Ultimately, Admiral King ordered any punishments to be set aside.

Captain McVay suffered for the remainder of his life over the death of his crew, but not a single man lost was the result of McVay’s competence.  After the loss of his wife to cancer in 1967, Charlie McVay took his own life in 1968.  This too was a failure of Navy leadership.  McVay was a good man chastised for no good reason other than as a scapegoat for poor Navy leadership.

Sources:

  1. The Day the Carrier Died: How the Navy (Nearly) Lost an Aircraft Carrier in Battle. James Holmes, National Interest Newsletter, 28 April 2019
  2. Stanton, D. In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors. Reed City Productions, 2001
  3. Hulver, R. A. and Peter C. Luebke, Ed. A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis.  Naval History and Heritage Command, 2018.

Endnotes:

[1] According to author Richard F. Newcomb (Abandon Ship), Admiral King’s insistence that Captain McVay appear before a court-martial was because Captain McVay’s father, admiral McVay (II) once censored King, as a junior officer for regulatory infractions.  According to Newcomb, Admiral King never forgot a “grudge.”

 

Vietnam Counterinsurgency

Phoenix 001Designed by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Phoenix program evolved into a cooperative effort between US, South Vietnam, and the Australian military.  It was designed to identify and destroy Communist Viet Cong infrastructure through infiltration, capture, interrogation, and assassination.  This all may sound hideous now, but in the late 1950s and the next ten years, some of the worst abominations were committed against innocent peasants by the Viet Cong.  To stabilize the South Vietnamese government, it was necessary to find out who these people were, and deal with them.

This is precisely what the Phoenix program did.  By 1972, Phoenix operatives had neutralized a bit under 82,000 suspected Viet Cong operatives, informants, and shadow-government cadres.  Sounds bad, I suppose.  Yet, at the same time, Viet Cong murdered 34,000 South Vietnamese village officials, innocent by-standers, and district or provincial civil servants.  As soon as the NVA and VC units had seized Hue City in 1968, they immediately began rounding up and killing civil servants, priests, teachers, any foreigner they could find, and anyone found at the US Special Forces compound.

History doesn’t change, only man’s perceptions of it.  Those who have never placed themselves in harm’s way are quick to criticize the program’s methods and results, never thinking what a blight upon humanity the Viet Cong were.  And by the way, I was in Vietnam in 2012; the deportment of Vietnamese uniformed personnel toward any and all foreigners hasn’t changed from the days when NVA and VC contemptuously beheaded fallen soldiers and marines.  The communists were then, and remain now, pure evil.

The main players in the Phoenix program were the CIA (in a supervisory role), USMACV (both military and civilian agencies), the government of South Vietnam, and the Australian special forces.  Speaking of this today, there appears three points of view: (1) Phoenix was a low-cost, well-coordinated, targeted effort to eliminate a ruthlessly vile enemy; (2) It was a counterinsurgency program run amok, and (3) A balanced analysis of historical fact.

Let’s take a look at it—because there are consequences to every human decision.  In history, we sometimes refer to these decisions and their resulting actions as “causes and effects.”  There may be one or more causes of an event, and these may produce any number of effects. Whenever we make important decisions, we hope (and sometimes pray) that there are no unintended consequences.  It does happen—and while there is not a lot we can do once Pandora’s box is opened, we should at least learn important lessons from our foopahs.

Background

A sense of nationalism (national and cultural unity) began in Vietnam around 3,000 years ago—at a time when the Vietnamese lived in two independent kingdoms.  Since then, the Vietnamese have constantly rejected (often through war) foreign meddling by the Chinese, Champs, Khmers, Siamese, French (twice), Japanese, internal civil strife, and then finally, the Americans.

Before World War II, Vietnam was colonized and brutalized by France.  By the time the Japanese enveloped Indochina, France was an ally of Japan and Germany.  Throughout Japanese occupation, an official French presence remained in Hanoi (even if it was ignored by the Japanese).  In September 1945, the Japanese Empire was defeated.  France quickly moved to recover its former colony. Vietnamese Nationalists had a different preference.

One of these nationalists was a communist named Ho Chi Minh (not his real name).  He wasted no time announcing the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.  It was a short-lived republic, however.  Nationalist Chinese and British occupation forces sided with the anti-communist Vietnamese who, having had enough slavery under French colonialism, rejected slavery under a communist regime.  Anti-communist Vietnamese were well-aware of what Stalin did to the Russian people between 1924 and 1945.

Vietnam held its first national assembly election in 1946.  Central and northern Vietnamese favored the communist ticket [1], those living in the south —not so much.  Then, France attempted to reclaim its previous authority by force —an unpopular move among many (but not all) Vietnamese.  It was the beginning of the First Indochina War and it lasted until 1953.

After the French defeat in 1953, the United States stepped in to help broker an agreement that would bring peace to the region.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  The 1954 Geneva Conference left Vietnam a divided nation.  Ho Chi Minh ruled the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north from Hanoi, and Ngo Dinh Diem ruled the Republic of Vietnam in the south from Saigon.

Between 1953 and 1956, North Vietnam instituted oppressive reforms.  Witness testimony from those living in the north suggested a government run assassination campaign that produced a murder ratio of one for every 160 residents.  If true, then the North Vietnamese regime murdered upwards of 100,000 people.  Today we think this number is a bit high, but it is true that an awful lot of people were brutalized and murdered.

As Ho Chi Minh crushed his people in the north, Ngo Dinh Diem crushed his people living in the south, carrying out murderous campaigns against political and religious opponents.

Today we can conclude that America’s involvement in South Vietnamese affairs was a massive mistake, but we should remember that there were other things going on in the world. President Truman had a lot of irons in the fire after 1946, and he wasn’t all that bright to begin with. The United States became involved with Vietnam as a consequence of its trying to convince France to relinquish its former colonies and to join an emerging NATO alliance.  Ultimately, tens of millions of American tax dollars went to French Indochina and then later, to the newly created Republic of Vietnam.  It was a commitment inherited by President Eisenhower who, to his credit, refused to engage the United States militarily beyond providing arms, equipment, and a small cadre of military and civil advisors.

The Second Indochina War broke out in 1954.  It was more on the order of a civil war between the communist north and the non-communist south.  Ho Chi Minh sought to unify Vietnam under his rule.  Ngo Dinh Diem sought to unite Vietnam under his rule [2].  Vietnam entered into a period of bloody civil war and the United States became South Vietnam’s proxy much in the same way that China became North Vietnam’s source of support.  Of course, there was one difference between the two Vietnam’s: Diem focused on consolidating his power in the south; Ho Chi Minh’s ruthlessness between 1946 and 1957 solved his problem.  Not having a lot of people nipping at his heals allowed Uncle Ho to initiate a communist insurgency in the south.  There are several names for these insurgents.  We mostly remember them as Viet Cong.

The Viet Cong Insurgency

Recall that most Vietnamese from the central highlands who participated in the first national assembly (1946) threw their support behind the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the communist regime). According to the 1954 Geneva accord, the people of Vietnam could relocate to one country or the other, of their choosing, through 1956.  In the mean, the shift in populations north or south was probably even.  Around 90,000 pro-communist Vietnamese relocated to the north; 10,000 of like persuasion remained behind.  Of those migrating south, some percentage were no doubt sent into the south to agitate.

From these pro-communist factions came the Viet Cong, or more formerly, the National Liberation Front and the People’s Liberation Army.  Their task of creating an insurgency was made easier by the fact that Diem was a tyrant [3].  It wasn’t long before the communists began a campaign of assassination and intimidation. They called it “exterminating traitors.” Another euphemism was “armed propaganda.”

The North Vietnamese Communist Party approved a people’s war on the South in January 1959.  Arms began flowing into the south along the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos.  A communist command center was created, called the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN).  Afterwards, with increasing frequency, communist insurgents began targeting US military and civilian advisors.  Bombings in Saigon were becoming more frequent.

The People’s War was waged primarily in the rural areas, home to a vast majority of South Vietnam’s (then) 16 million inhabitants.  Central to the task of fomenting rebellion and revolution in the countryside was what the Americans called the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) —a shadow government called the People’s Revolutionary Party and the National Liberation Front. NLF subcommittees existed in secret alongside South Vietnam’s political entities at the village, district, provincial and national levels.  A key mission of VCI was providing support to local communist military units: recruitment, intelligence-gathering, logistics support, and obtaining needed funds.  To achieve this last task, the VCI imposed taxes on peasant farmers and business owners.  People who refused to pay (or were unable to pay) simply disappeared. It was quite an operation: the Republic of South Vietnam governed during the day, the VCI governed at night.

VCI success depended in large measure on its ability to break the Vietnamese peasant’s strong kinship, adherence to tradition, including literally thousands of demonstrations where the village head man was humiliated in front of his villagers to emphasize the fact that the National Liberation Front would no longer tolerate adherence to the old ways.  Officials disappeared with amazing regularity.

In 1967, VCI teams numbered as many as 100,000 willing insurgents.  Most of South Vietnam’s efforts and resources, and those of the US military, went toward combating guerrillas and main-force units.  Citizen Nguyen was caught in the middle. Something had to be done.

Counter-insurgency

US and allied efforts haven’t all been 007ish.  Beginning in the early 1960s, and with the assistance of the USA, RVN launched a series of programs to identify, disrupt, and dismantle the VC’s shadow-government. Now anyone who suggests that this was a wrong move, or inappropriate, needs a few reality checks.  I wonder what the United States would do today if suddenly an insurgency developed from within our largest (and most dangerous) cities. Slap on the wrist, perhaps?  And, as they tried to destroy the VC shadow government, they stepped up military operations against VC and NVA units. Again, how would the US react to Mexico smuggling dangerous weapons across our border and putting them into the hands of MS-13 thugs?

Here are a few of the programs implemented under the Phoenix umbrella:

(1) The Open Arms program, beginning in 1963.  It offered amnesty and resettlement to encourage defections from the VC.  Through this one program, close to 200,000 people came in and spilled their guts about the VC: who, what, where, and how.  We already knew the why.

(2) Census Grievance Program sought to interview family members to see how the government could be more responsive to the needs of average families. Actually, the questions were asked in such a way as to elicit information about VC activities in that locality.  This ploy generated more information than RVN officials could manage.  It was the time before computers.

(3) Counter-Terror Teams attempted to mirror the VC counterparts.  These individuals were organized, trained, and equipped by the CIA to perform small-unit operations within VC dominated areas.  The teams were to capture or kill members of the VCI.  Success was personality driven.  Some teams were effective, others not so much.  If one looks hard enough, it was possible to find corruption at every level of Vietnamese government and society.  It was true in 1960, its’ true today.  A lot of people died under the auspices of this program.  If someone made a mistake, well … you can’t bring them back.

As previously mentioned, the program was the brainchild the CIA, but Army Special Forces and other snake eaters loved it.  It was great fun.  Thousands of people running around killing other thousands.  But while it did reduce the number of VC (and some of the RVNs as well), it really didn’t do much for the rice farmer who just wanted everyone to leave him alone.  More to the point, Phoenix didn’t save South Vietnam, either.

The Marine Corps had a better idea —one that General Westmoreland, the MACV commander absolutely detested and fought against.  The Combined Action Program (CAP) began in 1965 as an operational initiative/counterinsurgency program whereby a Marine rifle squad of thirteen Marines and one attached U. S. Navy Corpsman was placed within or adjacent to a rural Vietnamese village or hamlet to provide security to the villagers.  The Marine squad was augmented by a Vietnamese Popular Forces (PF) squad consisting mostly of individuals too young or too old for active service with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

CAP was not a perfect counterinsurgency tool, however; there were problems:

  • Training for Marines/Navy personnel assigned to CAP was inadequate. The in-country school consisted of two weeks of orientation to Vietnamese history and culture.  Under the best of circumstances, Marine volunteers spoke only rudimentary Vietnamese, so at the very outset, there was a language deficiency.
  • Marines assigned to the CAP first served half of their 13-month in-country tour of duty with a regular rifle company. Unless these Marines “extended” their tours of duty in Vietnam, they would rotate back to the United States within six or so months.  Frequent turnovers of key personnel resulted in a lack of continuity.
  • The program was personality dependent. Squad leaders who were fully engaged and proactive in this mission helped to produce quality results within the village.  Not every NCO was detail oriented, and these kinds of situations produced villagers who would not cooperate with the Marines and, in fact, may have created the greatest danger to CAP personnel.
  • Not every village could produce a sufficient number of Vietnamese to serve in a PF contingent. Whenever villages communicated apathy to the Marines, too often the Marines developed a “to hell with it” mindset.  It was for this reason that program managers wanted only the best sergeants to serve as NCOIC of the CAP.  This didn’t always happen, however.

The genesis of the Combined Action Program/Platoon was the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual (1940), which was developed over many years from Marine Corps experience in the Caribbean/Central America during the so-called Banana Wars.  Between 1915-1933, Marines learned how to defeat a counterinsurgency —they passed these lesson on to future generations.  Was the CAP successful?  The answer is “mostly,” but the only people who can authoritatively answer this question are those who served in Combined Action Platoons.  I’ve provided a few posts about the CAP in the past:

Go ahead and check them out. I’ll be here if you have any questions.

Sources:

  1. Combined Action Platoons: A Possible Role in the Low-Intensity Conflict Environment, Major Charles W. Driest, USMC, School of Advanced Military Studies, U. S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1990
  2. The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency, William Rosenau and Austin Long, National Defense Research Institute, The RAND Corporation, 2009

Endnotes:

[1] Communist agents employed a wide range of strategies to secure a pro-communist referendum, including the murder of non-communist politicians and intimidation at polling stations.

[2] Lyndon Johnson told the American people that it was necessary to commit US forces in defense of South Vietnam.  It was only partially true.  The series of South Vietnamese presidents following (but also including) Diem had every intention to unify the country under his own flag.  American troops were fighting and dying in Vietnam in furtherance of this goal.

[3] Ngo Dinh Diem had unique problems in the south.  Culturally, they were fiercely independent and wanted to stay that way.  In the vacuum of repatriated Japanese, war lords began taking control of large areas of South Vietnam.  Diem acted harshly to squash these gangsters.  Ho Chi Minh never had these kinds of problems.  The people of North Vietnam were used to doing what they were told.

Marines in Panama, 1903-04 (Part II)

But what most people do not know

BGen G F Elliott 1904
BrigGen George F. Elliott USMC

On 18 December 1903, Secretary of the Navy William Moody directed the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Brigadier General George F. Elliott [1], to personally report to the President of the United States.  His orders from President Roosevelt were to proceed in person, taking passage aboard USS Dixie, from League Island to Colón, Panama.  Take command of the entire force of United States Marines and seamen that is or may be landed for service in the State of Panama.

The president’s order was significant because no Commandant had been ordered into the field since Colonel Commandant Archibald Henderson was sent to Florida to deal with the Indians in 1836.  No Commandant has been ordered to the field since.

General Elliott was ordered to Panama because of Roosevelt’s reliance on the US Navy and Marine Corps in numerous diplomatic crises during his administration [2].  Faced with the possibility of conflict in Panama in late 1903, Roosevelt instinctively reached out for sea power.  This time, however, he needed the land element of the Navy-Marine Corps team. When, on 3 November, Panamanian revolutionaries declared their country’s independence, Colombia threatened the use of force to recover its lost province.  General Elliott’s presidential mission was one of the most strategically audacious gambits of the early 20th century because when he sailed south to assume command of the rapidly growing force of U.S. Marines on the isthmus, he carried with him plans for the invasion of Colombia and the occupation of one of its major cities.

Based on Colombia’s behavior in early to mid-1903, President Roosevelt anticipated that Colombia would likely attempt to retake its lost province. In mid-November, Washington began forwarding intelligence reports to US military and naval commanders concerning Colombian troop movements —reports that estimated that up to 15,000 soldiers were on the move toward Panama.

Rear Admiral Henry Glass (Commander, Pacific Squadron) at Panama City and Rear Admiral Joseph Coghlan (Commander, Caribbean Squadron) at Colón believed that Panamanian weather would be their allies.  Both officers remained confident of the fighting spirit and strength of the U. S. Marines in Panama.  Both admirals reported to Washington that there was no chance that a Colombian force would advance upon them until after the dry season. Admiral Glass must have developed a case of indigestion a few days later after learning that a Colombian expedition of 1,100 men had already tested an overland route into Panama.

President Roosevelt had himself received that same report from a separate source in Colombia.  The President was told that the Colombians intended to establish a forward base at the mouth of the Atrato River, near the Panamanian border.  Moreover, American diplomats were reporting deep-seeded anger toward Americans in the capital city, Bogota.

The new government of Panama was still in the process of organization.  It did not have a force able to defend against a significant assault by Colombian forces —and it was clear to all concerned that Colombia intended to reclaim its province.  It was up to the Americans to defend Panama, which meant that it was up to the Marines.

As reports of a likely invasion started flowing in to his headquarters, Admiral Glass wired Washington for instructions on the extent of his authority to defend the new republic.  On 10 December, Secretary Moody drafted a reply that would order Glass to establish camps of fully equipped Marine battalions at inland points to forcibly prevent hostile entry by land into the State of Panama.  The draft also directed that he maintain good communication between these camps and Navy vessels, cut trails, buy or hire pack animals as necessary to support overland expeditions.  Moody’s order was never sent, however.  When Moody presented his draft to the President, Roosevelt ordered him to hold off until the matter could be considered in greater depth.

The next day the Secretary of the Navy, presumably acting on Roosevelt’s further consideration, transmitted an order that marked a dramatic shift in the rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Panama: “Establish strong posts, men and Marines with artillery in the direction of the Yavisa or other better positions for observation only and rapid transmission of information but do not forcibly interfere with Colombian forces advancing by land.”

Moody changed the rules of engagement further a week later. He directed Glass to assume an almost completely defensive role.  In doing so, he retreated from previous instructions from Washington, which ordered Glass to defend all territory within 50 miles of the Panama Railroad, which carried a vast amount of commercial goods across the narrow isthmus and thus represented the most commercially and strategically important Panamanian national asset. According to this clarification, telegrammed in cipher, Moody’s instructions to Glass on 11 December were to maintain posts in the vicinity of Yavisa for observation only.  Do not have post beyond support from ships or launches.  Withdraw your posts if liable to be attacked.  It is the intention of the Government to continue active defense against hostile operations to the vicinity of the railroad line on the Isthmus and for its protection. Disregard all previous instructions that may appear to conflict with these.

Roosevelt’s earlier threats may have been bluster, but it is also possible that Colombia’s military expedition caused Roosevelt to reconsider America’s long-term interests in the region.  There’s also a third possibility: Roosevelt decided to shift his strategy for dealing with Colombia.  His new strategy?  A Marine assault in Colombia.

General Elliott assumed his duties as the tenth Commandant of the Marine Corps on 3 October 1903 —one month before the revolution in Panama.  Elliott was the only Marine Corps Commandant educated at the US Military Academy at West Point.  Elliott made the unusual decision to accept a commission in the Marines late in 1870.  Subsequently, his exemplary performance of duty in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and in the Philippines during the insurgency against the American occupation resulted in his rapid promotion.  Then, in mid-December 1903, the president called upon his knowledge of tropical warfare in dispatching him to Panama.  After meeting with Secretary Moody on 18th December, General Elliott proceeded to assemble his force.  Elliott made it clear to his officers that the men needed to be prepared for service in “heavy marching order” as well as for rapid movement and sustained combat.

On 11 December, the auxiliary cruiser USS Prairie departed Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with a battalion of Marines under the command of Major Louis C. Lucas.  Arriving at Colón on the 13th, Lucas took his battalion into camp at Bas Obispo.  At League Island, the auxiliary cruiser USS Dixie, recently returned from delivering Major John A. Lejeune’s nearly 400 Marines to Panama, embarked Elliott’s two additional Marine battalions, the first under the command of Major James E. Mahoney, the second led by Major Eli K. Cole.  With a combined force of 635 Marines and his staff of seven officers and 11 enlisted men, Elliott departed Philadelphia on 28 December and arrived at Colón on 3 January 1904.  The Provisional Marine Brigade was formed.

General Elliott’s priorities included establishing his Marines in the field and realigning the command structure to match the size of his force. Elliott ordered Major Cole’s battalion to proceed to Empire, a town along the railroad approximately 30 miles from Colón; there they would take quarters alongside Lejeune’s battalion.  It had come ashore on 4 November to coerce a Colombian battalion into leaving the newly declared republic.  Lejeune’s men then spent the intervening month providing light security and communications relay before receiving orders to move into base camp at Empire.  Major Lejeune’s professionalism and attention to detail (as well as the welfare of his Marines) led him to order an extensive reworking of the existing facilities of the former French Canal Company’s buildings at Empire.  New freshwater and sewage systems were installed, jungle growth cleared, and the houses for the Marines cleaned and disinfected with healthy doses of carbolic acid.  Only then did Lejeune allow his Marines to move into the quarters they would occupy for most of the next year.  Lejeune’s and Cole’s battalions were designated 1st and 2nd Battalions, respectively, 1st Marine Regiment, Colonel W. P. Biddle, Commanding.

LWT Waller 001
Colonel L. W. T. Waller USMC

Major James Mahoney’s battalion proceeded to Bas Obispo, where it quartered alongside Major Lucas’ Marines.  These two units comprised the 2nd Marine Regiment, Colonel L. W. T. Waller [3], Commanding.  Both regiments, together counting approximately 1,100 men, formed the Marines’ 1st Provisional Brigade, Panama, Brigadier General George F. Elliott, Commanding.

General Elliott’s priorities also included reporting to the senior Navy officers in country to present his orders.  He first called on Admiral Coghlan at Colón.  Shortly thereafter he rode a train across the isthmus to meet with Admiral Glass.  To each he presented a letter from the Secretary of the Navy, part of which read: “The Department forwards herewith, in the charge of Brigadier General Elliott, USMC a plan for the occupation of Cartagena, Colombia.  As will be seen, the plan contemplates occupation against a naval enemy, but the information it contains, and the strategy involved may be readily applied to the present situation.”

The plan General Elliott presented was almost certainly a regional modification to several operational plans formulated during the late 1890s.  The plan was a bold military and diplomatic strategy that reflected well on the sophistication of American military planning that had been noticeably lacking throughout most of the nineteenth century.  After nearly five years of frustrating American involvement against jungle-based Filipino insurrectionists, and two months of armed reconnaissance in Panama, Roosevelt recognized the utter futility of defending Panama’s numerous bays, ill-defined borders, and porous mountain passes.  He therefore chose to forgo a defensive strategy in favor of offensive action on a battlefield of his own choosing.

Rather than defend Panama in the event of a Colombian attempt to regain its lost province, the president instead planned to embark his Marine Brigade on waiting ships for an amphibious assault on the Colombian port city of Cartagena —the country’s chief source of tariff revenues.  The naval force would then capture the port and its defense installations before subduing the city itself.  The plan, if successfully executed, would have placed Roosevelt in position to dictate the terms of a subsequent peace settlement with the Colombian government.

In the meantime, General Elliott instituted a training program to maintain his Marines at a high level of combat readiness. Simultaneously, he dispatched his forces on quick “out-‘n-back” expeditions that fulfilled the dual purposes of maintaining security while building the Marine’s understanding of the surrounding countryside.

On 21 January, General Elliott reported that he had constructed rifle ranges in the two camps and directed the regiments to practice their marksmanship with rifles and automatic weapons.  The Marines also practiced assault tactics, entrenching procedures, and the construction of obstacles to slow and confuse a counter-attacking enemy force.  In short, General Elliott knew that these were the skills his Marines would need to capture and defend Cartagena.  Marine commanders dispatched reconnaissance parties throughout the small country to map roads and trails. This effort resulted in the first comprehensive survey of the isthmus of Panama.  The Leathernecks’ morale and discipline, meanwhile, remained high—with a few minor exceptions, of course.

Word soon came to the Marines —a rumor— that a group of Colombian insurgents planned to poison their water supply.  General Elliott acted immediately: he ordered that any individual attempting to tamper with the water supply would be shot on sight.  Admiral Glass quickly reminded the General that “a state of war does not exist on the Isthmus of Panama,” and perhaps Elliott should simply take additional precautions to guard his water barrels. General Elliott no doubt appreciated the Admiral’s advice, but he let his order stand.

Meanwhile, Secretary Moody wrote to update Elliott on the situation at hand.  After expressing his pleasure with the professionalism displayed by the Commandant and his staff throughout their deployment to Panama, the Navy secretary informed him that “If Colombia actually begins hostilities against us, a Brigade of the Army will proceed to the Isthmus.” This force, Moody cryptically explained, would allow Elliott to disengage his force in Panama and turn his attention to another duty that would “be important.”

If Colombia decided to accept the new status quo in Panama, the secretary suggested Elliott’s force might take part “in some operations connected with the winter maneuvers.” Moody also enjoined Elliott to communicate frequently with Washington and made clear who the intended recipient of the communiqués would be:  Let the Department know through the proper channels of your daily operations. Remember the Department is always annoyed by long silence, and please also remember that the Army, which has only a couple of officers down there, is furnishing the President every day with pages of cipher cable, much of which, though dealing with small matters, is of considerable interest.  Let your scouting be thorough and extending a long distance and give us daily accounts of it.

On 12 January 1904, following a cabinet meeting, Secretary of War Elihu Root issued a statement denying any plan on the part of the United States to dispatch troops to Panama to fight Colombian forces. This appears to have been classic disinformation.  While Army troops would be dispatched to Panama in the event of a Colombian invasion of the new republic, the real strategic response would come from the Marines on the ground in Panama.  But they were not intended to battle Colombians in Panama; they would fight Colombians —in Colombia.

By the end of January 1904, General Elliott’s brigade of Marines, backed by ships of the Pacific and Caribbean squadrons, were ready to assault Cartagena to ensure the continued independence of Panama.  The invasion, of course, never took place.  Colombia protested, probed, and negotiated, but never made a serious attempt to reoccupy its former province and, hence, never triggered Roosevelt’s audacious plan.

A treaty between Panama and the United States, the Isthmian Canal Convention, was ratified by the U.S. Senate on 23 February 1904 and signed by President Roosevelt two days later.  According to its terms, the United States guaranteed the independence of the Republic of Panama.

General Rafael Reyes-Prieto, commander-in-chief of the Colombian Army and presumptive political heir to the country’s presidency, had traveled to Panama shortly after the revolution in an attempt to lure the nascent republic back into the Colombian fold, but on realizing he would be unsuccessful, he continued on to the United States.  There, he was treated with every courtesy, but when the question of Panama’s independence was raised, it was understood, in the words of a contemporary observer, “that what has been done could not be undone.”  Reyes came to understand that American public opinion was behind Roosevelt’s policy of upholding the revolution in Panama.

Rafael Reyes 001
Rafael Reyes Prieto

Finally, Reyes held out hope that the $10 million promised to Colombia under the rejected Hay-Herrán Treaty might still find its way into the country’s treasury.  And by the end of January 1904, rumors that Colombia would “sooner or later receive a certain financial consolation for her loss of territory provided she abstains from violent proceedings” were circulating throughout Washington. That’s what happened. By the middle of March, Colombian troops operating along the Panamanian frontier were withdrawn and the government declared that it did not intend to invade its former territory.  In 1921, the U.S. Senate ratified the Thomson-Urrutia Treaty that provided Colombia $25 million for the loss of Panama.

A large portion of the 2d Marine Regiment was withdrawn from Panama on 14 February 1904 and redeployed to Guantanamo Bay to take part, as Secretary Moody had previously suggested, in annual winter maneuvers.  General Elliott and his staff departed two days later, leaving Colonel Waller in command of the 800 remaining Marines.  That arrangement lasted until 7 March, when Waller took a battalion back to League Island, leaving Major Lejeune behind with his original battalion of 400 men to provide security and reconnaissance on the isthmus.  Lejeune’s command remained for another nine months.  But U.S. Marines would remain a presence in Panama until 1912, when Captain John F. Hughes finally departed with his force of 389 men —except that I was there with BLT 2/8 in 1964 and again as part of an advance party in 1990.

Sources:

  1. Wicks, D. H. “Dress Rehearsal: United States Intervention on the Isthmus of Panama, 1886.  Pacific Historical Review, 1990
  2. Collin, R. H. Theodore Roosevelt’s Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Latin American Context (1990)
  3. Graham, T. The Interests of Civilization: Reaction in the United States Against the Seizure of the Panama Canal Zone, 1903-1904.  Lund Studies in International Relations, 1985.
  4. Nikol, J. and Francis X. Holbrook, “Naval Operations in the Panama Revolution, 1903.” American Neptune, 1977.
  5. Turk, R. “The United States Navy and the Taking of Panama, 1901-1903.”  Military Affairs, 1974.

Endnotes:

[1] George Frank Elliott (30 Nov 1846-4 Nov 1931) was promoted to Colonel in March 1903, and advanced to Brigadier General on 3 October 1903 when he assumed the post of Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[2] See also: Handsome Jack.

[3] See also: He Served on Samar; Major Waller’s CourtSergeant Major Quick.

Marines in Panama, 1903-04 (Part I)

Roosevelt TR 001
President Theodore Roosevelt

Arguably, the most important action President Theodore Roosevelt ever took in foreign affairs related to the construction of the Panama Canal.  It was controversial abroad —it was controversial at home.  Those who opposed the canal claimed that Roosevelt’s actions were unconstitutional.  If true, then so too were Thomas Jefferson’s actions when he acquired the Louisiana Territory.  At different times, the congressional do-nothings accused Roosevelt of usurping their authority. They must not have known Roosevelt very well; he was a man of action.

Some background

A canal across the isthmus of Panama was first discussed in 1534, when Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain ordered a survey for a route through the Americas that would shorten the voyage for ships traveling between Spain and Peru.  In 1668, the British physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne speculated that such an undertaking would be a good idea; after all, it only involved “but a few miles” across the isthmus.  A little more than 100-years later, Thomas Jefferson (then US minister to France), suggested to the Spanish that they proceed with their project; after all, it would be far less treacherous than sailing ships around the tip of South America. Besides, he added, the tropical ocean currents would naturally widen the canal thereafter and it would be easy to maintain it.

By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, numerous canals were constructed in other countries.  Engineers were learning how to do this.  The success of the Erie Canal in the 1820s was inspiring, and the collapse of the Spanish Empire in the New World led to a surge of American interests in building an inner-oceanic canal.

Of course, in the first eighty-years following independence from Spain, Panama was a department (province) of Colombia.  Panama voluntarily joined Colombia in 1821.  It was not a happy marriage, however, and the Panamanians made several attempts to secede, notably in 1831 and again during the Thousand Days War of 1899-1902.  Among the indigenous people, the struggle was one for land rights [1] under the leadership of Victoriano Lorenzo [2].

Panama outline mapEarlier, in 1826, American officials attempted to open negotiations with Gran Colombia (present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama) to gain a concession for the construction of a canal.  Fearing domination by an American presence, Gran Colombian president Simón Bolívar and officials of New Granada politely declined American offers.

The British also opened discussions about constructing an Atlantic-Pacific canal in 1843  but in the absence of any Colombian interest, no plan was ever formulated.  Moreover, negotiations to construct a isthmus-wide railroad were similarly ignored.   However, in 1846, New Granada officials and the United States negotiated the so-called Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty. The treaty granted the United States transit rights through Panama, and, while acknowledging the right of the United States to protect these transit rights, also pledged America’s neutrality in matters pertaining to the internal affairs of New Granada.

With the discovery of gold in California in 1848, renewed interest in a sea-to-sea canal was undertaken by William H. Aspinwall, an American shipping magnate. His efforts resulted in a steamship route from New York City to Panama, and from Panama to San Francisco, with an overland portage through Panama.  It was one of the fastest routes between San Francisco and the East Coast of the US —about 40 or so days in total.  Nearly all of the gold taken from California was shipped through this routing.  The ever-competitive Cornelius Vanderbilt similarly established steamship routes to Nicaragua [3] and an overland route to the Pacific.

Between 1850-55, the United States constructed a railroad in Panama; it became a vital link in trade (and later, the route for the Panama Canal).  Late in 1855, the engineer William Kennish published a report entitled The Practicality and Importance of a Ship Canal to Connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Twenty-two years later, two French engineers surveyed the route and submitted a French proposal for a canal through Panama.

In March 1885, Colombia reduced its military presence in Panama in order to address rebellions in other areas.  With a reduced military footprint, Panamanian rebels began an insurgency.  The US Navy was dispatched to protect US personnel and property.  Establishing a base of operations at the city of Colón, the American Navy was soon challenged by the Chilean Navy, who at the time had the strongest naval force in the Americas.  The Chilean cruiser Esmeralda was dispatched to seize and control Panama City.  Esmeralda was instructed to “stop by any means possible the eventual annexation of Panama by the United States.”  Note: I’m not quite sure how Chile intended to accomplish this with their ships on the Pacific Coast, and most of the US Navy on the Caribbean side of Panama.

Meanwhile, undaunted, the French proceeded with their Panama Canal operations between 1881-94.  Ferdinand de Lesseps [4] was able to raise considerable funds for this undertaking, mostly from revenues generated by the Suez Canal, but in practical terms, the undertaking in Panama was far more complex than the Suez project due to the terrain and tropical climate.  As time progressed, the French discovered that they were completely unprepared for such an undertaking in Panama.  There were no similarities between the Suez Canal and one like it in Panama.  Tropical Panama was a nest of poisonous snakes, spiders, and insects.  The rainy season transformed the Chagres River into a raging torrent exceeding ten feet above normal in depth.  Moreover, Panama was a land of malaria and other diseases.  By 1884, the death rate among French workers averaged 200-men per month.  Labor recruiters in France downplayed these conditions by not mentioning them.

Bunau-Varilla 001
Phillipe Bunau-Varilla

Eventually, French money ran out.  By 1889, the French had expended $287-million; twenty-two thousand men died from diseases and accidents, and more than 800,000 investors lost their money, which must have been devastating.  Work was suspended on 15 May 1889; the scandal became known as the Panama Affair, and those deemed responsible were hauled into French courts —including Gustave Eiffel [5].  Despite this setback, another company was formed in 1894, but its efforts were mostly confined to managing the Panama Railroad, maintaining costly French equipment, and the sale of idle assets.  By then, the French were hoping to recoup $109-million. Eventually, its manager, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla [6] became convinced that canal efforts should pursue a lock-and-lake project rather than a sea-level canal modeled after the Suez project.

In 1898 Manuel Antonio Sanclemente was elected President of Colombia; José Manuel Marroquin-Ricaurte became his Vice President.  On 31 July 1900, Marroquin executed a coup d’état by imprisoning Sanclemente at a location a few miles outside of Bogota. Due to the mysterious disappearance of the President, Marroquin declared himself the sole power in Colombia.  In plain language, he became a dictator.  The absence of Sanclamente from the capital became permanent upon his death in prison in the year 1902.

The (centralist) Colombian constitution of 1886 denied to Panama the right of self-government; all power was vested within the Colombian regime.  When Panamanians declared their independence on 3 November 1903, there was no Colombian Congress.  As we will see, Marroquin’s coup d’état did not work out to the overall best interests of the Colombian people.

From the American perspective in 1900, if there was any lessons to be learned from the Spanish-American War, it was that the United States needed a canal somewhere in the Western Hemisphere.  The question to be answered was “where.”  There were two possibilities: a canal across the isthmus of Panama, or a canal across Nicaragua.

Meanwhile, in order to liquidate French interests in Panama, project manager Phillipe Bunau-Varilla wanted $100-million; eventually, he would end up settling for $40-million.

José Manuel Marroquín
José Manuel Marroquin-Ricaurte

In 1902, the United States Senate voted in favor of the Spooner Act, a commitment to pursue the Panamanian option —provided that the US could obtain the necessary rights from Colombia.  President Marroquin authorized his Ambassador to negotiate a treaty with the United States. Thus, on 22 January 1903, US Secretary of State John Hay and Colombian Charge-de-affairs Dr. Tomás Herrán signed a treaty for the construction of a canal in Panama.  Colombia would gain $10-million and an annual payment, and the United States would achieve a renewable lease in perpetuity for the land proposed for the canal. The US Senate ratified the treaty in March.

President Marroquin wielded absolute power in Colombia.  It was entirely up to him whether to accept the Hay-Herrán accord or reject it.  He decided to reject it —and in order to provide an excuse for doing so, he devised the plan of summoning a special session of Congress —a puppet congress that would do as they were told.

By July 1903, when the course of internal Colombian opposition to the Hay-Herrán Treaty became obvious, a revolutionary junta emerged in Panama. The junta was led by José Augustin Arango, an attorney for the Panama Railroad Company.  He was aided by Manuel Amador Guerrero and Carlos C. Arosemena, all of whom represented prominent Panamanian families.  Arango was the brain of the revolution; Amador was the junta’s visibly active leader.

With financial assistance arranged by Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a French national representing the interests of de Lesseps’s company, native Panamanian leaders conspired to take advantage of the United States’ interest in a new regime on the isthmus.

In August 1903, Theodore Roosevelt became convinced that Colombia was likely to repudiate the agreed-to treaty.  At the President’s direction, Secretary Hay, personally and through his Minister [7] at Bogota, repeatedly warned Colombia that grave consequences might follow a rejection of the treaty.  There were two possibilities: one was that Panama would remain loyal to Colombia.  In this case, Roosevelt was prepared to occupy the isthmus of Panama and dig his canal anyway.  Subsequently, Roosevelt and Hay met with Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, who informed the president of the likelihood of a revolt by Panamanian rebels, whose desire it was to sever their ties to Colombia.  Bunau-Varilla expressed his hope that should such a thing occur, that the United States would support Panama.

This information was confirmed on 16 October by two US Army officers (Captain Humphrey and Lieutenant Murphy), who had recently returned to Washington from Panama.  They informed President Roosevelt that, in their opinion, Panama would most-assuredly revolt against the Colombian government.  The Panamanian people were united in their criticism of the government in Bogota; the people were disgusted by Marroquin’s silence on the pending treaty —but that Panamanians would likely await the results of Colombia’s puppet congress before making their move —sometime around the end of the month.  President Roosevelt then directed the Navy to station warships at several locations in Panama and be ready to respond to any crisis that may arise.

The possibility of ratification did not wholly pass away until the close of the session of the Colombian Congress on the last day of October. To no one’s surprise, Colombia’s legislature unanimously voted to reject the treaty.  Having thus voted, the Congress was immediately dismissed.

Marines in Panama 1903
US Marines guard rail depot, Colon, Panama 1903

Panama declared its independence on 3 November 1903. President Roosevelt enthusiastically recognized the new government on 4 November.  US warships blocked sea lanes against any possible Colombian troop movements on 5 November.  Meanwhile, in Panama, practically everyone on the isthmus, including Colombian troops stationed there, joined the revolution.  Initially, there was no bloodshed.  But on 6th November four hundred new Colombian troops were landed at Colón.  USS Nashville arrived at Colón at about the same time.  When the Colombian commander foolishly threatened the lives of Americans in Colón, Nashville’s commanding officer landed his Marines and sailors to protect them.  Through a mixture of firmness and tact, Commander Hubbard not only prevented any assault on American citizens, but he also persuaded the Colombian military commander to reembark his troops for Cartagena.  On the Pacific coast, a Colombian ship shelled Panama City; one man was killed —the only life lost in the entire revolution.

On 16 December, the Marines from Nashville were relieved by a 400-man Marine Battalion from USS Dixie under the command of Major John A. Lejeune [8], USMC.

No one connected with the American Government had any part in preparing, inciting, or encouraging the revolution, and except for the reports of our military and naval officers, which I forwarded to Congress, no one connected with the Government had any previous knowledge concerning the proposed revolution, except such as was accessible to any person who read the newspapers and kept abreast of current questions and current affairs.  By the unanimous action of its people, and without the firing of a shot, the state of Panama declared themselves an independent republic. The time for hesitation on our part had passed.

 —President Theodore Roosevelt

The rights granted to the United States in the so-called Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty were extensive. They included a grant “in perpetuity of the use, occupation, and control” of a sixteen-kilometer-wide strip of territory and extensions of three nautical miles into the sea from each terminal “for the construction, maintenance, operation, sanitation, and protection” of an isthmian canal.

The United States was also entitled to acquire additional areas of land or water necessary for canal operations and held the option of exercising eminent domain in Panama City. Within this territory, Washington gained “all the rights, power, and authority . . . which the United States would possess and exercise if it were the sovereign . . . to the entire exclusion” of Panama.

The Republic of Panama became a de facto protectorate of the United States through two provisions: the United States guaranteed the independence of Panama and received in return the right to intervene in Panama’s domestic affairs.  In exchange for these “rights,” the United States was to pay the sum of $10 million and an annual payment (beginning 9 years after ratification), of $250,000 in gold coin. The United States also purchased the rights and properties of the French canal company for $40 million.  In 1977, President Jimmy Carter agreed to relinquish US control of the Panama Canal Zone effective at midnight on 31 December 1999.  Carter’s action was the end of a process that began at the direction of President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.

Unsurprisingly, Colombia was the harshest critic of United States foreign policy at the time —but President Roosevelt wasn’t quite finished with Colombia just yet …

Continued next week …

Sources:

  1. Wicks, D. H. “Dress Rehearsal: United States Intervention on the Isthmus of Panama, 1886.  Pacific Historical Review, 1990
  2. Collin, R. H. Theodore Roosevelt’s Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Latin American Context (1990)
  3. Graham, T. The Interests of Civilization: Reaction in the United States Against the Seizure of the Panama Canal Zone, 1903-1904.  Lund Studies in International Relations, 1985.
  4. Nikol, J. and Francis X. Holbrook, “Naval Operations in the Panama Revolution, 1903.” American Neptune, 1977.
  5. Turk, R. “The United States Navy and the Taking of Panama, 1901-1903.”  Military Affairs, 1974.
  6. Hendrix, H. J. Commander, USN.“TR’s Plan to Invade Colombia.”  S. Naval Institute, Proceedings Magazine.

Endnotes:

[1] Hispanic society was nothing if not harsh.  If you weren’t born into wealth (which is to say, entitled to land), then you would never achieve a higher station in life.  It remains that way to this very day.

[2] The political struggle in Panama was one between federalists and centralists following independence from Spain.  Under the centralist regime, Panama was established as the Department of the Isthmus; during federalist regimes, it was the Sovereign State of Panama.

[3] The genesis, perhaps, of America’s problem with Nicaragua.  At this time, the Nicaraguans (wisely) did not trust the motives of the American government.

[4] Vicomte de Lesseps (1805-1894) was a French diplomat, entrepreneur, developer of the Suez Canal, and the Chief Operating Officer for the Panama Canal project.

[5] Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (1832–1923) was a French civil engineer and a graduate École Centrale Paris.  He made his name building various bridges for the French railway network, most famously the Garabit viaduct.  He is best known for the world-famous Eiffel Tower, built for the Universal Exposition in 1889 in Paris and his contribution to the construction of the Statue of Liberty in New York.

[6] Bunau-Varilla (1859-1940) was a French engineer, soldier, diplomat, and entrepreneur.  Through American lawyer William Nelson Cromwell, he became quite influential with Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary of State, John Hay.

[7] American diplomats accredited to foreign governments from the time of Benjamin Franklin through the late-nineteenth century held the rank of Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, or in abbreviated terms, “Minister.”  Within the diplomatic corps, the term Ambassador (short for Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary) is a diplomatic agent of the first class.  The term Ambassador has become the generic title for the chief of a diplomatic mission.  Before the twentieth century, only major powers sent and received ambassadors.  The term “extraordinary” was originally applied to an envoy sent on a special mission, as opposed to “ordinary,” which meant an envoy in residence.  Today the term Extraordinary is widely used in diplomatic circles.  The term “plenipotentiary” originally meant having the authority to conduct normal diplomatic business, as opposed to the function of negotiating treaties, which required special authority.

[8] John A. Lejeune later served as Commanding General, US 2nd Army Division in World War I and the Thirteenth Commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps.