The Cousin

Preface

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

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

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

Beginnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transition

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

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

Southern Department Fights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Bloodiest Day

An-Nasiriyah, 2003

Task Force Tarawa

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highway 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intelligence Gained by Rescue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bloody Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Comm’s

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

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

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

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

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

Friendly Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special note:

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

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

Sources:

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

End Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Combat Leader

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

The Crucible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional background

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

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

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

Cold War Goes Hot

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Sheriff Arrives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changchon Ambush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

[2] See also, From King to Joker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Every Climb and Place

… Happy Birthday, Marines!

One of the greatest gifts bestowed on the American people during their formative period was the wisdom of the nation’s founding members to create, establish, and maintain a small but elite corps of individuals so imbued with patriotism and devotion that they willingly gave up their lives in the service to their country — and to one another.  They called themselves Marines.  In 1775, they were called Continental Marines.  They have never relinquished their sense of duty, or their honor since their creation on that blustery early November day 247 years ago.

The Marine Corps Hymn is both a chronicle of the story of American Marines and an ongoing pledge to the purpose of the U.S. Marine Corps — to which all Marines subscribe.

Although we do not know the name of the individual who penned the words to the Hymn, the words are much easier to trace (historically) than the music, which many scholars seem willing to attribute to the French composer,  Jacques Offenbach.  Offenbach’s opera was called Geneviève de Brabant.  Geneviève’s story is believed to rest on the events surrounding Marine de Brabant, the wife of Louis II, Duke of Bavaria and Count Palatine de Rhine.  Marie was suspected of infidelity and subsequently tried by her husband, found guilty, and beheaded (18 January 1256).  When the verdict was shown in error, religious officials required Louis to atone, which did very little for Marie, by then long dead.  The change in the name from Marie to Geneviève may relate to the so-called cult of Geneviève, patroness of Paris, France.

The opera was first performed in 1859 (or thereabouts).  But there are those who claim that Offenbach’s tune originated from a Spanish folk song long before 1859.  This too is interesting because Spanish classical music was already in decline by the beginning of the 18th century, replaced in many instances by post-renaissance Italian classical constructs in the 19th and 20th centuries.  If we address this question-mark, then we must also understand that symphonic music was never important to Spaniards, who preferred solo instrumental (guitar and piano) and vocal operas by local (regional) composers and then to this, we must add the fact that musically, there are twelve distinctive Spanish cultural regions.  Questions of music aside, the words to this song are exclusive “American Marine” — we simply do not know who. 

Continental Marines ceased to exist when the U.S. Congress decided that a standing naval and military force was no longer needed in the newly created United States of America — following the war with Great Britain in 1783, of course.  But within ten years, it became apparent to President Washington that the United States could not defend its sovereignty at home or abroad without a naval presence on the high seas, or a land army at home to address Indian unrest.  See also: At Tripoli.[1]

It was in response to intolerable insults to the United States by various leaders of the Turkish Empire and the barbary states that America’s first three presidents instituted somewhat hesitant and mostly inadequate policies directed at the Barbary States.  At Tripoli (Part I) describes the background and naval campaign implemented to address Islamist blackguards and wastrels.  In recognition of the extraordinary courage and patriotism of Captain William Eaton and First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, the Marine Corps Hymn recalls … “to the shores of Tripoli.”

Mexican-American War

During the Mexican-American War (1846-48), American Marines served alongside the U.S. Army under General Winfield Scott.  Following the battle of Mexico City, known as the Battle of Chapultepec, American forces captured the Chapultepec Castile, also known as the Halls of Montezuma.  It was this victory, in 1847, that effectively ended the war with Mexico.

In 1942, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, serving as 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps, authorized a change to the fourth line of the first stanza of the Marine Corps Hymn to include a reference to Marine Corps aviation.  The line, originally written “On the land as on the sea,” was changed to “In the air, on land, and sea.”[2]

The Battle Colors of the United States Marine Corps

The official Battle Colors of the U.S. Marine Corps are maintained at Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C., the oldest organization in the Marine Corps.  A duplicate battle color is retained in the office of the Commandant of the Marine Corps.  What distinguishes the Battle Colors of the United States Marine Corps from all other Marine Corps battle colors is that they contain the battle streamers of every battle fought by Marines since 1775.  The flags found in regular Marine Corps units, maintained in the office of battalion commanders and above (air squadrons, regiments, aviation groups, infantry divisions, air wings, and fleet Marine Force headquarters organizations, is that they contain battle streamers only of the battles those units participated in.  For example, a battalion that did not participate in World War I would not have any battle streamers associated with World War I.

The Battle Colors of the U.S. Marine Corps contain fifty-five battle streamers; they represent U.S. and foreign decorations and awards for combat service, expeditions, and campaigns since the American Revolution.  During the Marine Corps’ first 150 years, Marines in the field carried a variety of flags.  It was not until 18 April 1925 that Marine Corps Order Number 4 designated gold and scarlet as the official colors of the U.S. Marine Corps.  These colors, however, were not reflected in the official Marine Corps flag until 18 January 1939 when a new design incorporating the new colors was approved.  This design was essentially that of today’s Marine Corps standard and was the result of a two-year study concerning the design of a standard Marine Corps flag, and the units to which such a flag should be issued.

The 55 colored streamers which adorn the Battle Color represent the history and accomplishments of the Marine Corps. The newest streamers to be added to the Battle Color are the Afghanistan, Iraq, and Inherent Resolve Campaign Streamers.

The Importance of Symbols

The Marine Corps is one of the nation’s smallest services, its size dependent upon missions assigned to it.  So, when we look back into its history, we won’t see vast numbers of Marines killed or wounded in battle.  But to provide some context, I want to offer some overall numbers reflecting the size of the Corps at various times along with the numbers of casualties (killed and wounded) in several conflicts.[3]

Historic PeriodOverall StrengthBattle casualties KIA/WIA
  American Revolution2,13149/70
  Quasi-war with France52506/11
  Barbary Wars35904/10
  War of 181264848/66
  Creek & Seminole War47208/01
  Mexican-American War1,75111/47
  Civil War (Union)3,860148/131
  Spanish-American War3,80607/21
  Samoan War3,14200/02
  Boxer Rebellion (China)5,86509/17
  Nicaragua (1912)9,69605/16
  Mexican Intervention (1914)10,38605/13
  Dominican Rep (1916-1920)17,16517/50
  Haiti (1915-1934)16,36110/26
  Nicaragua (1926-1933)16,06847/66
  World War I (1917-1918)52,8192,461/9,520
  World War II (1941-1945)475,60419,733/68,207
  Korean War (1950-1953)249,2194,267/23,744
  Dominican Rep (1965)190,21309/25
  Vietnam War195,95113,091/88,594
  Lebanon Intervention (1984)196,214240/151
  Persian Gulf (1988)197,35002/00
  Panama (1989)196,95602/03
  Persian Gulf War (1991)194,04024/92
  Somalia (1994)174,15802/15
  Afghan War (2001-2015)183,197378/4,955
  Iraq War (2003-2016)183,420853/8642

As with all the other military services, every Marine killed, wounded, and maimed in the service to their country signifies yet another mother/father, brother/sister, or wife/child with a broken heart.  War always affects more than those wearing a military uniform.  Those who elect to remain home where it is safe and comfortable during times of crisis never seem to understand this reality.  There are some Americans who do not even care.  It wasn’t always that way in America — but welcome to 2022.  But these symbols, our hymn, and the battle colors of the U.S. Marine Corps serve as important reminders of who we are and what we represent — and our commitment to God, Country, and each other. So … Here’s health to you and to our Corps — which we are proud to serve.

Happy Birthday, Marines!

Endnotes:

[1] Note that the opening line of the Marine Corps Hymn is, “From the Halls of Montezuma, To the Shores of Tripoli…” Whoever wrote the hymn has these events out of sequence, but I’ve tried it the other way around and it simply doesn’t work — so we will have to acknowledge some poetic license and I vote we keep the hymn the way it is now.

[2] The United States did not declare war during World War II until the Japanese first attacked the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941.  In 1940, however, the U.S. sent a regiment of 1,000 Marines to Iceland to help prevent an invasion by Nazi Germany.  This event inspired another unofficial stanza to the Marine Corps Hymn.  It was: “Again in nineteen forty-one, we sailed a north’ard course, and found beneath the sun the Viking and the Norse.  The Iceland girls were slim and fair, and fair the Icelandic scenes, and the Army found in landing there, the United States Marines.”

[3] Source of data: United States Marine Corps University.


The First to Die

Is it appropriate to argue and jockey for position in announcing the name of the first serviceman to die in Vietnam?  This controversy has been going on now for far too long, but families continue to rush forward to have their relative named as the first to die in America’s most unpopular war.  The problem is some confusion about what it is we’re talking about.  Do we mean to recognize the first serviceman killed in the Vietnam War?  Or do we mean the first serviceman killed in Vietnam?  Or do we mean the name of the first serviceman killed while engaged in combat?

Does it even matter?

Lieutenant Colonel Albert P. Dewey, U.S. Army, was killed by Viet Minh insurgents on 26 September 1945. 

Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbons, Jr., was killed in Saigon, South Vietnam on 8 June 1956 — shot and killed by a fellow airman during off-duty hours.

Captain Harry Griffith, U.S. Army (Special Forces) was killed at Nha Trang, South Vietnam on 21 October 1957, the result of a training accident.

Major Dale R. Buis and Master Sergeant Chester C. Ovnand of the U.S. Army, were both killed at Bien Hoa Air Base when the officer’s mess was attacked by Viet Cong sappers on 8 July 1959.

Specialist Fourth Class James T. Davis, U.S. Army was killed in a Viet Cong ambush on 22 December 1961.

Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr., was born in Stoneham, Massachusetts on 21 June 1920.  During World War II, Fitzgibbon served with the U.S. Navy, but after his discharge, he opted to join the newly created U.S. Air Force.  In the Air Force, Fitzgibbon was promoted to Technical Sergeant (E-6).  At the time of his demise, he was assigned to duty with the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) while attached to Detachment One, 1173rd Foreign Mission Squadron.  Fitzgibbon was involved in the training of Vietnamese Air Force Personnel.

The official date for the beginning of the Vietnam War, 1 January 1961, was officially announced by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson who, at the same time identified Specialist Davis as the first American serviceman killed in that war.

Believing that she had discovered a grievous error, the sister of Fitzgibbons, Ms. Alice Fitzgibbon Rose Del Rossi promptly notified the Department of Defense of its error, bringing to their attention her brother’s death in 1956.  Ah, but the Vice President had already spoken and Johnson was not a man who liked anyone to correct him about anything.  Ms. Del Rossi then petitioned her congressman who asked the DoD to reconsider the beginning of the Vietnam War.  Until then, hardly anyone even knew about Technical Sergeant Fitzgibbons.

After a high-level review by the Defense Department, the start date of the Vietnam War was changed to 1 November 1955, which was the creation date of the U.S. Military Advisory Assistance Group, Vietnam (MAAGV).  This date change resulted in the proposition that (at least chronologically), Sergeant Fitzgibbons was the first American serviceman to die in the Vietnam War — and his name was added to the Vietnam Wall. Fitzgibbons, however, was not the first combat death in Vietnam, nor even the first to die in wartime Vietnam.  Colonel Dewey owns that plank.

The story of the Fitzgibbon family in Vietnam isn’t over.  Lance Corporal Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, U.S. Marine Corps (1944 – 1965) was killed while serving in Vietnam on 7 September.  Father and son are interred next to each other at the Blue Hill Cemetery in Braintree, Massachusetts.

And The Last …

Corporal Charles McMahon from Woburn, Massachusetts, and Lance Corporal Darwin Lee Judge from Marshalltown, Iowa, were both serving with the Marine Corps Security Guard, U.S. Embassy, Republic of Vietnam (Saigon) on 29 April 1975 (the day the Vietnam government collapsed) when they were killed by a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) rocket attack on the embassy.  At the time of McMahon’s death, he had served in Vietnam for less than thirty days; he was 21 years old.  Lance Corporal Judge had served in Vietnam for less than 60 days; he was only 19 years old.

The remains of these two Marines were transferred to the Saigon Adventist Hospital near Ton Son Nhut Air Base, pursuant to the procedures outlined by the State Department, but with the collapse of the South Vietnamese government and the rapid evacuation of the U.S. Embassy, their bodies were left behind during the withdrawal.

It was a year before their bodies could be returned to the United States, and only then because of the intervention of Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA). Corporal Judge was buried with full military honors in his hometown, however, no one from the American news media covered the burial ceremony.  I have no information about the burial ceremony of Charles McMahon. The Vietnam War was never very popular and it was probably too much trouble to report these sad events in the press.

McMahon and Judge were the last U.S. Servicemen to die in Vietnam; they were not the last young men to die in the Vietnam War.  The term “Vietnam War” includes the U.S. involvement in the so-called Mayaguez Incident, which resulted in another 18 Americans killed in the line of duty (and forsaken by their countrymen).  See also: Mayaguez: Crisis in Command.    

No Greater Love …

James Anderson, Jr.

Every Marine has his (or her) own reasons for joining the U.S. Marine Corps.  I suspect there are so many reasons that it may be impossible to catalog them all.  Jim Anderson was 19 years old when he signed up from Los Angeles, California.  Whatever his reason, Jim had just completed 18 months of college.  Apparently, his sense of duty to his country was more important than staying in college.

As with most “West Coast” Marines, Jim Anderson attended recruit training (boot camp) at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California.  After graduation, he was promoted to Private First Class, and, as with all West Coast Marines, attended Infantry training at Camp Pendleton, California.[1]

In late 1966, the Marines had been fighting in South Vietnam for going on two years.  In December, James joined the 3rd Marine Division, and he was subsequently assigned to Company F, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (Fox 3/3).  In February, the elements of five battalions participated in Operation Prairie II — a continuation of Operation Prairie I. which took place under the overall command of Brigadier General Michael P. Ryan, formerly the Commanding General, 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade.[2]  Ryan supervised the employment of 2/3, 3/3, 3/4, 1/9, and 2/9.

These operations were necessary because during the Tet Holiday, having agreed to a cease-fire, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) used the temporary truce to infiltrate across the DMZ into the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).  On 25 February, Marine artillery initiated the bombardment of NVA units within (and north of) the Demilitarized Zone (called the DMZ).  The NVA responded by bombarding the area of Con Thiên and Firebase Gio Linh.

On the morning of 27 February, a Marine reconnaissance patrol northwest of the Cam Lo Combat Base attempted to ambush a small unit of NVA soldiers.  As it turned out, the NVA unit was larger than the Marines thought, which became apparent when the NVA suddenly attacked the attackers.  The NVA unit was a rifle company of the 812th infantry regiment.  It didn’t take long for the Marines to get on the radio and call for assistance.  When the request came in for support, Lima Company, 3/4 was in the process of conducting a security patrol north of Cam Lo.  Operational authority diverted Lima Company to aid the recon unit.  Nothing seemed to be working out for the Marines that day because beyond being bogged down by thick vegetation, a company of NVA regulars attacked Lima Company, which stalled the effort to save the Recon Marines.

In view of these circumstances, Ryan ordered Golf Company, 2/3 from Camp Carroll to extricate the beleaguered recon patrol.  Golf Company linked up with the recon Marines at around 2340 that night.

At 0630 on 28 February, the NVA hit Lima Company’s position with more than 150 mortar rounds.  The communists followed their artillery bombardment with a major ground attack against three sides of the Lima Company’s perimeter.  Rocket-propelled grenades slammed into both Marine tanks supporting the company but remained in operation.  Within a period of two and a half hours, Lima Company repulsed three separate attacks.  In that time, the company lost four Marines killed and 34 wounded.  Ryan dispatched Marines from Fox Company 3/3 to reinforce Lima 3/4.  Fox Company linked up with Lima Company at around 1030.  Meanwhile, Golf Company 2/3 formed a blocking position on Hill 124.  En route to the blocking position, the Golf Company Marines found themselves engaged by NVA from both sides of their route of march.  The battle lasted well into the afternoon — with Golf Company losing seven killed, and 30 wounded.

At 1430, the 2/3 command element under Lieutenant Colonel Victor Ohanesian[3] moved with Fox Company from Lima Company’s position toward Hill 124.  Jim Anderson’s platoon had the point position.  This movement triggered an NVA ambush, and the Marines were hit with intense small arms and automatic weapons fire.  The platoon reacted quickly, forming a hasty defense, and mounting a stiff resistance.

PFC Anderson found himself bunched together with other members of his squad twenty yards in front of the enemy line.  As the battle intensified, several of Anderson’s squad members received debilitating gunshot wounds.  When an enemy grenade suddenly landed in the midst of the squad near Anderson’s position, Jim Anderson unhesitatingly, and with complete disregard for his own safety, reached out, grasped the grenade, and pulled it under his chest to shield his fellow Marines from shrapnel.  PFC Anderson’s personal heroism saved members of his squad from certain death.  In an instant, Private First Class James Anderson, Jr., gallantly gave up his life for his fellow Marines.[4]

When Operation Prairie II concluded on 18 March 1967, U.S. Marines had suffered 93 killed in action, and 483 wounded.  In this one operation, American forces killed 694 NVA regulars.  The fight continued under Operation Prairie III on 19 March.

Richard Allen Anderson

Richard was born in Washington, D.C. on 16 April 1948 but raised in Houston, Texas, graduating from M. B. Smiley High School in May 1966.  Richard Anderson also attended college before dropping out to join the Marines on 8 April 1968.  After graduating from boot camp in San Diego, California, and infantry training at Camp Pendleton, California, the Marine Corps ordered Richard to Sea School in San Diego.  Promoted to PFC on 1 July 1968, Richard completed his training in October and proceeded to Okinawa, Japan, where the Marine Corps assigned him to the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade and assigned to Company D, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines.

In January 1969, Marine Headquarters assigned Anderson to Company E, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion where he served as a platoon scout and later, as an Assistant Fire Team Leader.  The Marines promoted Anderson to Lance Corporal on 1 June 1969.

In the early morning hours of 24 August 1969, Anderson’s recon team came under heavy automatic weapons fire from a numerically superior and well-concealed NVA ambush.  Although knocked to the ground by the enemy’s initial fire and painfully wounded in both legs, LCpl Anderson rolled into a prone shooting position and began to return fire into the enemy’s ranks.  Moments later, he was wounded for a second time by an enemy soldier who had approached within eight feet of the Marine defensive line. 

Undeterred by his wounds, LCpl Anderson killed the enemy soldier and continued to pour a relentless stream of fire into the enemy.  Observing an enemy hand grenade land between himself and members of his fire team, Anderson immediately rolled over onto the grenade and absorbed the full impact of its deadly explosion.  Through Richard’s indomitable courage and selflessness, he saved his fellow Marines from certain death.  In that instant, Lance Corporal Richard A. Anderson gallantly gave up his life for his fellow Marines.

Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends

Conclusion

James and Richard Anderson, though sharing a last name, were unrelated — except that both were United States Marines.  Both men were in their twenties; both Marines distinguished themselves through virtuous behavior on the field of battle.  Both Marines were posthumously awarded the nation’s highest recognition: the Medal of Honor.  There was but one difference in these young men: their skin color.  Both of these young men gave all they had to give — and did it in order to save the lives of their Marine brothers.

Endnotes:

[1] Traditionally, honor graduates from recruit training receive promotions to Private First Class upon graduation.  It is likely that Anderson was so recognized in his graduating platoon.

[2] Michael P. Ryan, a former enlisted Marine, served at Iceland, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian during World War II.  For service at Tarawa, Ryan was awarded the Navy Cross medal for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service as a company commander and provisional battalion commander on Betio Island.

[3] Killed in action.

[4] James Anderson was the first black Marine to receive the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War.


Operation Urgent Fury — Part 1

The Invasion of Grenada

Introduction

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

U.S. Army Units

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

U.S. Air Force Units

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

U.S. Naval Units

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

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

Background

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

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

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

Contentious Issues

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

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

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

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

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

Military Intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Continued Next Week)

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Battleground Saigon — 1968

Background

The Tet Offensive of 1968 was a general uprising and major escalation of the Vietnam War.  It was one of the largest campaigns launched by the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) targeting the Republic of Vietnam Army (ARVN) and the United States military forces.

Communist forces launched the Tet Offensive prematurely in the early morning hours of 31 January.  It was a well-coordinated, country-wide assault involving more than 80,000 communist troops.  They attacked more than 100 towns and cities, 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of six autonomous cities, 72 of 245 district headquarters, and the capital in Saigon.

Communist leaders in the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi decided to launch the offensive in the belief that it would trigger a popular uprising leading to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government.  Although the initial attacks stunned the allies, causing them a temporary loss of control over several cities, American and South Vietnamese forces quickly regrouped beat back the attacks, and inflicted heavy casualties on NVA/VC forces.  A popular uprising never occurred.

Earlier, on 15 December 1967, U.S. forces communicated their confidence in the South Vietnamese military forces by turning over to them the authority and responsibility for defending the capital city.  From that day forward, U.S. forces present in Saigon would only be responsible for defending themselves and their facilities within the confines of the capital city.

On the night of 30 January 1968, four South Vietnamese police (Cảnh Sát) posts provided an outer line of defense for the United States Embassy.  Two military policemen from the 716th Military Police Battalion, 18th Military Police Brigade, guarded the vehicle entrance on Mac Dinh Chi Street.  Two U.S. Marines of the Embassy’s Marine Security Guard stood post inside the Chancery Building: Sergeant Ronald W. Harper and Corporal George B. Zachuranic.  Another Marine stood post on the roof of the Chancery Building; his name was Sergeant Rudy A. Soto.

The Fight

Shortly after midnight on 31 January, Viet Cong (VC) sappers from the C-10 Sapper Battalion gathered at a VC safehouse in the rear of a car repair facility at 59 Phan Thanh Gian Street to receive their weapons and receive their final briefing before their planned assault.  Two of these men were employed by the U.S. Department of State.  Their orders were to seize the embassy grounds, break into the chancery building, and seize hostages.  The sappers were told that hundreds of anti-war and anti-government university students would converge on the embassy and stage a sit-down strike — thereby aiding the sappers in maintaining control of the Embassy.

Sappers approached the embassy in a truck with its lights off.  Cảnh Sát sighted the vehicle, but rather than acting they took cover.  As the vehicle off Mac Dinh Chi onto Thong Nhut the occupants opened fire on the military policemen guarding the vehicle gate.  U.S. Army Specialist-4 Charles L. Daniel and Private First Class William E. Sebast returned fire, closed, and locked the steel gate, and radioed that they were under attack.  Hearing the gunfire, Sergeant Ron Harper, who was at the rear of the Embassy, ran back through the rear door of the Chancery, across the lobby, past Corporal Zahuranic (who was in the process of calling for reinforcements), pulled a Vietnamese night watchman into the Embassy, and then closed and bolted the heavy teak doors to the Chancery.

The VC blew a hole in the perimeter wall at 0247 and gained access to the embassy compound.  Daniel and Sebast killed the first two VC through the breach.  Daniel radioed to his command that the VC were breaching the perimeter.  While on the radio, a VC armed with an automatic rifle emerged from the rear parking lot and killed Daniel and Sebast.  A second man carrying a rifle came around the building and the two men later determined to be the two employees of the State Department, joined the other VC on the front lawn.

On the Chancery roof, Sergeant Soto observed the VC coming through the wall and attempted to fire on them with his 12-gauge shotgun.  The weapon jammed.  He then emptied his .38 caliber revolver, but the fire was inaccurate from that distance.  Inside the Embassy grounds, the VC opened fire on the Chancery Building with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).  Several RPGs penetrated the walls of the Chancery, wounding George Zahuranic and destroying two radios in the guard post.  Soto tried unsuccessfully to contact the lobby guard post and assumed that the Marines were dead or otherwise incapacitated.[1]

The Commanding Officer of the 716th MP Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Gordon D. Rowe, received the distress call from the Embassy and dispatched several jeep patrols to investigate what was happening.  The first two vehicles took routes that passed through to the south of the rear vehicle gate, arriving at the base of an unfinished high-rise building — where the attacking VC had decided to shelter during the assault.  The VC destroyed these vehicles, killing two MPs and wounding three.  A third jeep reached the Embassy’s pedestrian gate without incident but was unaware of the situation.  VC gunners cut down Army Sergeant Johnnie B. Thomas and Specialist Owen E. Mebust as they exited their vehicle to investigate.

In addition to the three Marine Security Guards, there were two Vietnamese and six American civilians inside the Chancery building at the time of the assault.  The Americans armed themselves with .38 revolvers, Beretta pistols, and available M-12 shotguns — and then waited for the VC to enter the building.

Outside, the VC were unsure of their next move because MPs Daniel and Sebast had shot and killed the leaders of both sapper teams.  Together, the sapper teams had more than forty pounds of C-4 explosives and could have blown their way into the Chancery, had they thought of it.  Instead, they took up positions in or near the circular planters on the Embassy grounds and returned fire at the growing numbers of Americans shooting at them.

Major Robert J. O’Brien, USMC

Five blocks away from the U.S. Embassy, at “Marine House,” Captain Robert J. O’Brien received word of the attack from Corporal Dennis L. Ryan at around 0250.[2]  O’Brien mustered off-duty security guards, Sergeant Richard G. Frattarelli, Sergeant Patullo, Sergeant Raymond E. Reed, and Corporal Timothy P. Inemer, and headed for the Embassy.  Arriving at the Embassy, Captain O’Brien and his men immediately engaged the VC inside the compound but were driven to seek cover by the superior firepower of the enemy.  At around 0300, two civilian security officers (Mr. Crampsey and Mr. Furey) reinforced the Marine reaction force.  Attempts to shoot off the locks of the gates were unsuccessful in the darkness.

Meanwhile, according to Captain O’Brien’s after-action report, his reaction force and the two civilian security officers began receiving fire from the Cảnh Sát station 200 yards further distant from the Embassy.[3]  Cảnh Sát targeting U.S. Marines put the OIC out of communication with Marine House for about three and one-half hours until around 0630.

About 0300, Army MPs stopped O’Brien and Staff Sergeant Banks and their small team at the corner of Hai Ba Trung Street and Thong Nhut Boulevard near the Norodom Compound Gate.  O’Brien and Banks decided to split their force leaving one group at Norodom.  O’Brien led one group along the Embassy wall toward the main front entrance.  Enemy automatic weapons and RPGs drove them back toward Norodom Compound.  Remaining outside the compound, SSgt Banks integrated the Marines into existing firing positions.  He placed some of his men on the Consular section roof from where they could bring fire to bear on the Viet Cong inside the Embassy grounds.

About 0350, a group of about six or seven MPs arrived at Norodom and joined in the firefight with the Marine Security Guard.  At about this time, some of the Marine Security Guard had worked their way behind the Consular Buildings and found the rear gate by the maintenance shacks open.  Both Marine Security Guards and MPs tried to get into the Embassy Compound through this gate but were prevented from doing so by enemy automatic weapons and RPG fire from inside the Embassy compound.

The Norodom gate is where Sgt Jimerson was hit by enemy fire while trying to get through the gate.  The Viet Cong had this entrance covered from positions behind parked cars in the Embassy parking lot.  Sgt Jimerson was quickly evacuated to the 17th Field Hospital.  While this action was taking place other Marine Security Guards and MPs were exchanging fire with Viet Cong from the Norodom roof.

At around 0400, the VC fired several rockets at the Norodom roof, which injured Corporal Ryan, who was also evacuated to the hospital.  Corporal James C. Marshall, Corporal Wilson, and two Army MPs remained on the roof and continued to fire at the VC.  Marshall was hit with shrapnel from an RPG explosion but remained in place and continued to engage the enemy until killed by automatic weapons fire.

Sergeant Scheupfer, who remained at ground level, received a shrapnel wound to his hand.  O’Brien and Crampsey climbed onto the rooftops of buildings along the rear wall of the Embassy Compound facing the Mission Coordinator’s House.  From that position, O’Brien and Crampsey brought two or three VC under fire.  Meanwhile, an aide to Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker contacted the head of the Saigon Police and demanded reinforcements.  The officer commanding the first precinct (nearest the Embassy) blatantly refused to move his men in the darkness of the early morning.[4]

SSgt Banks notified GySgt Allen Morrison at the Marine House of the difficulty he was having in trying to gain entrance to the embassy.  Morrison advised Banks to hold in place until daylight when reinforcements and resupplies could be moved up.  This was a sound tactical decision.  By this time, Banks had learned from Harper that no Viet Cong had gotten inside the building, but Corporal Zahuranic was wounded.  Additional MPs began to arrive at the time and began taking up positions in the vacant lot across the street from the Embassy.

At 0420, General William Westmoreland, Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV), ordered the 716th MP Battalion to clear the embassy as their first priority.  Colonel Rowe, lacking armored vehicles or helicopters, moved reinforcements by truck and jeep to cordon off the Embassy.  The tactical situation was confused and hampered by darkness and lack of communications between allied forces (Marines inside and outside of the Embassy, Marines with supporting Army MPs, Americans with Vietnamese police).  In any event, it was easier to locate a herd of unicorns than it was any presence of Cảnh Sát around or near the U.S. Embassy over the next 18 hours.

At 0500, a helicopter carrying troops from the 101st Airborne Division attempted a landing on the roof of the Embassy, but enemy fire drove it off.  An hour later, another helicopter landed on the roof of the Embassy, picked up Corporal Zahuranic, and dropped off three cases of M-16 ammunition.  Since the Marines didn’t have M-16s, the resupply was a wasted effort.

At dawn, MPs were able to shoot the locks off the Embassy gate on Thong Nhut Boulevard and ram open the gates with a motor vehicle.  Once the gate was open, Army MPs and Marine Security Guard reinforcements charged into the Embassy compound.  The second team of MPs stormed the rear parking area.  Within a few moments, all remaining VC were either killed or dying from gunshot wounds.  At about this time, a helicopter carrying troops from the 101st Airborne landed on the roof and began the task of clearing the building.

After the U.S. Embassy buildings and grounds were declared secure, General Westmoreland and his security detail arrived by car to inspect the grounds.  Ambassador Bunker directed that the Embassy reopen for business at mid-day.

(Continued next week)

Endnotes:

[1] Marine Security Guards were armed with either .38 caliber revolvers, 9mm pistols, or M-12 semi-automatic shotguns.  Handguns (or side arms) are not accurate beyond 20 yards and shotguns are “close-in” weapons.  While the Marines did return VC fire, their weapons were not suitable for a sustained firefight with men armed with AK-47 automatic rifles.

[2] Lieutenant Colonel Robert Joseph O’Brien (1931 – 2020) served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars.  He passed away on 23 January 2020, 52 years after the battle of the U.S. Embassy.  He was survived by his wife Joanne and three grown children.   

[3] O’Brien’s report may have been edited to avoid any allegation that Vietnamese police were in acting in accordance with Viet Cong sappers — but if two Embassy employees were involved with the sappers, it is not inconceivable that the police were also aiding the enemy.  

[4] Out of a contingent of 300 National Policemen in Saigon, only 25 reported for duty during the Tet Offensive.





Marine Corps Artillery — Part 4

Post-Korea and Beyond

Post-Korea Reorganization

For U.S. Marines, the Korean Peninsula wasn’t the only dance hall. No sooner had HQMC directed the transfer of three battalions of the 10th Marines to the 11th Marines, than the rebuilding of the 10th Marines with new recruitments and artillery training began.  In the mid-1950s, the 10th Marines played a pivotal role in the Lebanon Emergency, fleet training exercises, and deployments supporting NATO exercises in Norway, Greece, Crete, Gibraltar, the Caribbean, and West Indies. The Cold War was in full swing.

Between 1955 and 1965, Marine Corps artillery battalions trained with new weapons and maintained their readiness for combat.  No one in the Marine Corps wanted to return to the bad old days of the Truman administration.  Should the plague of war revisit the United States, the Marine Corps intended to meet every challenge by maintaining a high state of combat readiness.  Artillery Battalions trained to support infantry regiments and, as part of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force, firing batteries frequently deploy with battalion landing teams (BLTs).  In 1957, new tables of organization increased the size of artillery battalions by adding a 4.2-inch mortar battery.  A new mortar was introduced in 1960, called the “howtar.”  The new M30 4.2-inch mortar was a rifled, muzzle-loading, high-angle weapon used for long-range indirect fire support.  In addition to other “innovations,” cannon-cockers participated in (helicopter-borne) vertical assault training, which given the weight of artillery pieces, was not as simple as it sounds.  The howtar, while still in service, is (to my knowledge) no longer part of the USMC weapons inventory.

Back to East Asia

In the early 1960s, the Cold War showed signs of easing.  The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963) seemed to foreshadow a period of détente after the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The hope for world peace fell apart with incidents in Asia, Africa, and Latin America — of which the war in Vietnam was an extraordinary event.  From 1954 to 1975, nearly half a million Marines fought in the jungles of Vietnam (See also: Viet Nam: The Beginning).

In 1962, all Marine ground units began counterinsurgency training, which was mostly exercises designed to improve small unit combat patrols and area security operations.  In June, the 11th Marines went through another re-organization.  The 1st and 4th 155-mm Howitzer Batteries, Force Troops, FMF became the 4th Battalion, 11th Marines.  Marine Corps Base, Twenty-nine Palms became the permanent home of the 4th Battalion because its weapons demanded more area for live-firing exercises.

In late July 1964, the US Seventh Fleet assigned the destroyer, USS Maddox, to perform a signals intelligence mission off the coast of North Vietnam.  On Sunday, 2 August, the ship was allegedly approached by three North Vietnamese Navy (NVN) motor patrol boats.  The official story of this incident is that after giving the NVN a warning to remain clear of the ship, the patrol boats launched an assault on Maddox.  Nothing like that actually happened, but it was enough to give President Lyndon Baines Johnson a war in Indochina.[1]

Following this incident, Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Commander, US Pacific Fleet, activated the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9thMEB).[2]  Brigadier General Raymond G. Davis, who was at the time serving as Assistant Division Commander, 3rd Marine Division, was named to command the Brigade.[3]

9thMEB formed around the 9th Marine Regiment (9thMar), including the regimental headquarters (HQ) element and three battalion landing teams (BLTs) —in total, around 6,000 combat-ready Marines.  When the Maddox incident faded away, the US Pacific Fleet ordered the 9thMEB to establish its command post at Subic Bay, Philippine Islands, with its BLTs strategically distributed to Subic Bay, Okinawa, and “afloat” at sea as part of the Special Landing Force (SLF), Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), US Seventh Fleet.

Between 28 December 1964 — 2 January 1965, North Vietnamese Army (NVA)/Viet Cong (VC) forces overwhelmingly defeated a South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) battalion and its US military advisors at Binh Gia.  It was a clear demonstration to the Americans that the ARVN could not defend the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).[4]

Brigadier General Frederick J. Karch assumed command of 9thMEB on 22 January 1965. At that point, President Johnson ordered the Marines into Da Nang — their specific mission was to secure the airfield against enemy Viet Cong (VC) intrusions. In late February, VC forces assaulted the US base at Pleiku, killing 9 Americans, wounding 128 others, and damaging or destroying 25 military aircraft. Karch led the 9thMAB ashore on 7 March 1965.  In addition to BLTs 2/9 and 3/9, 9thMEB also absorbed Marine Aircraft Group 16 (MAG-16), which was already conducting “non-combat” ARVN support missions at Da Nang (See also: Vietnam, the Marines Head North).

Fox Battery, 2/12, attached to BLT 3/9, was the first Marine Corps artillery unit to serve in the Vietnam War.  The arrival of additional artillery units prompted the formation of a Brigade Artillery Group, which included Alpha Battery, 1/12, Bravo Battery, 1/12, and Fox Battery, 2/12.  These firing batteries employed 105-mm howitzers and 4.2-inch mortars.  The arrival of Lima Battery, 4/12, added a 155-mm howitzer battery and an 8-inch howitzer platoon.[5]  As the number of Marine infantry units increased in Vietnam, so did the number of artillery units.  The I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ) was further divided into Tactical Areas of Responsibilities (TAORs) and assigned to the 3rd Marine Division (from Okinawa) and 1st Marine Division (from Camp Pendleton, California).

In the summer of 1965, most of the 11thMar departed Camp Pendleton and moved to Camp Hansen, Okinawa.  Within mere days of their arrival, 3/11 and Mike Battery, 4/11 proceeded to RVN.  Assigned to Chu Lai to support the 7th Marines, elements of both regiments went immediately into Operation Starlight.  During August, 1/11 moved to Okinawa.  Alpha Battery went ashore in Vietnam with the Special Landing Force (SLF) in December.  HQ 11th Marines arrived in Chu Lai in February 1966, joined by 2/11 from Camp Pendleton.  The battalions of the 11thMar supported infantry regiments, as follows: 1/11 supported the 1stMar; 2/11 supported the 5thMar, and 3/11 supported the 7thMar.  4/11 served in general support of the 1st Marine Division.

The I CTZ was the northernmost section of South Vietnam.  It consisted of five political provinces situated within approximately 18,500 square miles of dense jungle foliage.  The area of I CTZ was by far larger than any two infantry divisions could defend or control, so the Marine Corps developed a tactical plan that assigned its six available infantry regiments to smaller-sized TAORs.  These TAORs were still too large, but it was all the Marines could do under the rules of engagement dictated to them by the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (USMACV).  The relative isolation of combat units created a dangerous situation.  Marine artillerists were no exception

Although two artillery regiments operated in Vietnam, they were not equal in size or mission.  By 1967, the 12th Marine Regiment was the largest artillery regiment in Marine Corps history — task organized to support a larger number of infantry units within a much larger TAOR.  All artillery units were assigned to support infantry units throughout the I CTZ; tactical commanders placed these artillery units where they were most effective — fire support bases (FSBs) at strategic locations.

Although originally conceived as a temporary tactical arrangement, several FSBs became long-term (semi-permanent) operating bases.  They were quite literally blasted into existence from heavily forested hilltops.  For as much as possible, the FSB system provided mutually supporting fires, but this was not always possible.  The size of FSBs varied according to the size of the units assigned.  Typically, an FSB hosted a single firing battery (six 105mm or 155mm howitzers), a platoon of engineers, field medical and communications detachments, helicopter landing pads, a tactical operations center, and an infantry unit for area security.  Larger FSBs might include two firing batteries and a BLT.[6]

Beyond their traditional tasks, Marine artillerists were often required to provide for their own defense against enemy probes and outright assaults.  FSBs were also the target of enemy mortar and artillery fires.  When infantry units were unavailable, which was frequently the case in Vietnam, artillerists defended themselves by manning the perimeter, establishing outposts, and conducting combat/security patrols.  VC units foolish enough to assault an FSB may very well have spent their last moments on earth contemplating that extremely poor decision.  The only thing the NVA/VC ever accomplished by shooting at an American Marine was piss him off. Every Marine is a rifleman.

In 1968, the VC launched a major assault on all US installations in Vietnam.  It was called the Tet Offensive because it took place during the Vietnamese new year (Tet).  The tactical goal was to kill or injure as many US military and RVN personnel as possible — playing to the sentiments of the anti-war audience back in the United States and discrediting the US and ARVN forces in the eyes of the Vietnamese population.  Marine artillery played a crucial role in defeating attackers from multiple regions within I CTZ, but the offensive also changed the part of Marine artillery after 1968.  Before Tet-68, supporting fires were routine, on-call, and a somewhat minor factor during USMC ground operations.  After Tet-68, artillery took on a more significant fire support role.  1968 was also a year of innovation as Marine artillery units incorporated the Army’s Field Artillery Digital Computer Center (FADAC) (which had been around since 1961) and the new Army/Navy Portable Radio Communications (25).[7]

In addition to providing tactical fire direction and support to Marine Corps infantry units, USMC artillerists also provided fire support to US Army and ARVN units operating in the I CTZ.  Following the communist’s failed Tet-68 offensive, the Commanding General, 3rd Marine Division (Major General Raymond G. Davis) initiated an offensive campaign to diminish or destroy NVA/VC units operating within I CTZ and demilitarized zones (DMZ).  Marine artillery units joined with Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force attack aircraft, B-52 bombers, and naval gunfire from the U.S. Seventh Fleet to destroy enemy sanctuaries and artillery positions within the DMZ and Laos.  These overwhelming bombardments allowed infantry units to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses, reduce the size of their forces, destroy enemy defensive fortifications, and disrupt their logistics efforts.  What transpired within I CTZ was an impressive demonstration of inter-service cooperation that gave US forces the upper hand in RVN’s northern provinces.

Conclusion

Marines continue to learn essential lessons from their many past battles and conflicts.  For example, the Small Wars Manual, 1941, is still used by Marines as a resource for certain types of operations.  The expression Every Marine is a Rifleman is as true today as it was in 1775 — Marine artillerists are no exception.  During Operation Enduring Freedom, Golf Battery, BLT 1/6 performed several essential combat functions, which in addition to fire support missions, included humanitarian assistance, convoy security, area security for Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ripley, UN Team security, prisoner security, and its transition into a provisional rifle company.[8]  Given the diverse range of military occupational specialties involved, making that transition was a challenge for Battery officers and NCOs.

Marines representing a wide range of occupational specialties within a firing battery, from cannon-cockers and lanyard snappers to FDC operations specialists, motor transport drivers and mechanics, cooks, and communicators molded themselves into cohesive fire teams, rifle squads, platoons, and ultimately, a responsive and highly lethal infantry company.  The effort and result were the embodiment of task force organization.  Golf Battery formed three fully functional infantry platoons (two rifle and one weapons platoon), each containing the requisite number of radio operators and a medical corpsman.  The effort was fruitful because the individual Marine, adequately led and motivated, is innovative, adaptable, and resourceful in overcoming any challenge.

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

[1] On 7 July 1964, the US Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized President Johnson to take any measures he believed were necessary to retaliate against North Vietnam’s aggression and promote peace and security in Southeast Asia.

[2] The 9thMEB was later deactivated and its units absorbed into the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).  In March 1966, the brigade was re-activated as the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (9thMAB) reflecting its primary special landing force mission under the US Seventh Fleet.

[3] General Davis (1915-2003) served on active duty in the US  Marine Corps from 1938 to 1972 with combat service in World War II, Korea, and the Vietnam War.  Davis was awarded the Medal of Honor while serving as CO 1/7 during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.  He was also awarded the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, the Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart Medal.  General Davis’ last assignment was Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[4] RVN had been in political turmoil since November 1963 when President John Kennedy authorized the CIA to orchestrate the removal of Ngo Dinh Diem as President of South Vietnam.  Diem and his brother were assassinated on 2 November; Kennedy himself was assassinated on 22 November 1963.

[5] The 8-inch howitzer is a 203-mm gun with a range of 20.2 miles; the 155-mm howitzer has a range of 15.3 miles.

[6] Fire Support Base Cunningham at one time hosted five artillery batteries (2 105-mm, 2 155-mm, 1 4.2-inch mortar).

[7] Also, AN/PRC-25 (Prick 25) was a lightweight, synthesized VHF solid-state radio offering 2 watts of power, 920 channels in two bands with a battery life of about 60 hours.  The term “lightweight” was relative.  The radio added 25-pounds to the radioman’s usual combat load.  The PRC-25 was a significant improvement over the PRC-10.  It has since been replaced by the PRC-77.

[8] The official US designation for the War on Terror (7 Oct 2001-28 Dec 2014).


Marine Corps Artillery — Part 3

Post-World War II and Korea

Lessons Learned

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

Period Note

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

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

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

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

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

But for Some, the War Continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New War, Old Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Continued Next Week)

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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