Blackie Cahill’s Fight

Some Background

At dawn on 25 June 1950, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) unleashed massive artillery fire into the Republic of (South) Korea (ROK).  On the heels of the barrage, the NKPA invaded the ROK with a force of 135,000 troops organized into eight infantry divisions, 24 artillery regiments, 120 Soviet T-34 tanks, five constabulary brigades, and 180 Soviet aircraft.

Understandably, the South Korean people were terrified, illustrated by a massive surge of refugees heading south from Seoul to safer locations.  However, they wouldn’t find any haven because the NKPA seized the ROK capital in two days and then continued their attack south.  The communists intended to seize the entire Korean peninsula.  Thousands of refugees preceded the NKPA forces — their legs moving as fast as possible to escape the slaughter.  The people were terrified, and by mid-July 1950, the United States and South Korean governments had done nothing to allay those fears.

The U. S. Army occupation forces stationed in Japan did what they could to stop the invasion, but they were young soldiers, untrained, inexperienced, inadequately equipped, poorly led, and sent to confront the NKPA in insufficient strength to stop the onslaught.  Throughout July, US Army forces experienced one defeat after another.  In time, victory over the Americans is what the NKPA commanders came to expect.

Every day, thousands of refugees streamed into the southeastern city of Pusan, seeking protection.  For the most part, the South Korean refugees were simple people.  They didn’t understand any of the reasons for this sudden war.  What they did know was that their lives were in jeopardy.  They had witnessed the NKPA’s ruthlessness; they had seen American Army slaughtered and overwhelmed.  The fear among the refugees was palpable.  One American journalist noted that in Pusan, one could almost smell the fear in the people — their panic worsening with each passing day.

But then, beginning in the late afternoon of 2 August 1950, a remarkable and easily observable transition began taking shape. American ships began arriving in the port city of Pusan.  The word went out.  These ships were carrying United States Marines.  People started crowding around the docks; they wanted to know more.  Unloading operations began as soon as the ships tied up along a pier.

Early the next morning, Marines began to form upon the pier.  They were dressed in combat uniforms, were well-armed, and carried field packs on their backs.  There were close to 5,000 men when assembled—a color guard formed in front of the Brigade.  A large crowd of Korean civilians stood back and observed the goings-on.  The Koreans no doubt wondered if these soldiers would save them; they may have noted that if any of these American Marines were fearful, it didn’t show in their demeanor or expressions.  Word quickly spread throughout the city.  There was still hope.

Although the average age of these young men was only 19½ years, they exuded discipline, confidence, and determination.  There was nothing timid about these youngsters; they understood their mission: find the enemy and kill him.[1]  It didn’t take long for NKPA commanders to realize that the tide was turning against them.

While company and platoon officers and NCOs mustered Marines on the pier, their Commanding General, Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, concluded his meeting with his subordinate commanders and senior staff.  Colonel (select) Raymond L. Murray commanded the 5th Marine Regiment.  Lieutenant Colonel George Newton commanded 1st Battalion; Lieutenant Colonel Harold Roise commanded 2nd Battalion, and Lieutenant Colonel Robert Taplett[2] commanded 3rd Battalion.  Craig issued his “commander’s guidance” (See also: The Fire Brigade), concluding with this strict admonition:

The Pusan perimeter is like a weakened dike; the Army intends to use us to plug the holes as they open.  We’re a brigade —a fire brigade.  It will be costly fighting against a numerically superior enemy.  Marines have never lost a battle; this Brigade will not be the first to establish such a precedent.  Prepare to move.”

Within an hour, the Marines of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade were en route toward a small town named Chang-won, the designated assembly area for the Eighth US Army reserve.

The Tactical Situation

The Battle of Osan was the first significant US engagement inf the Korean War.  Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army, ordered Task Force Smith (1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment (reinforced)) (1/21 INF) to set up a blocking position against an overwhelming NKPA force on 5 July.  It was an unreasonable assignment and failed to slow the NKPA assault for more than a couple of hours.  Task Force Smith suffered 180 dead, wounded, scattered, and/or captured.  NKPA soldiers bound some of the American prisoners with their hands behind their backs and then executed them.

As elements of the 24th Infantry Division (24 ID) arrived in Korea from Japan, the NKPA continued to press south, pushing American and South Korean forces back at Pyeongtaek, Cho-nan, and Chochiwon.  At the Battle of Taejon, 24 ID suffered 3,602 dead and wounded.  Nearly 3,000 U.S. soldiers were taken, prisoner.  The NKPA continued their attack.

By the time the Marines arrived on 2 August Eighth Army’s position was unsustainable.  US/ROK forces occupied a tiny section of the Pusan Perimeter’s southeast corner.  General Walton H. Walker, commanding the Eighth Army, had traded space for time.  All that remained in US hands was a small sector 90 miles long and 60 miles wide.  General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), ordered soldiers in by the thousands.  Not only did Walker need fighting units, but he also needed replacements for the dead and wounded.  The first to arrive included the 1st Cavalry Division (1 CAV), 2nd Infantry Division (2 ID), and 25th Infantry Division (25 ID).

Walker faced two critical challenges.  First, because replacements were arriving in piecemeal fashion, General Walker could only plug them into units positioned at critical junctions.  They could not attack the enemy; they could only hold these key positions — and even that was dicey.  The second problem was that Walker’s reinforcements, while fresh from stateside or territorial commands, were still only minimally trained.  Most of these men had no previous combat experience.  Walker worried because if the Eighth Army lost the Pusan Perimeter, there would be no way to land further replacements or supplies — and no way to withdraw any survivors.

The Battle for Hill 342[3]

General Walker designated the 25th ID as Task Force Kean, after the division commander, Major General William B. Kean.  Walker assigned Craig’s Brigade to reinforce Task Force Kean.  Kean’s subordinate units included the 24 INF, 27 INF, 35 INF, and the 5th Regimental Combat Team (5 RCT).

On 6th August, Colonel Murray led his 5th Marines toward Chindong-ni.  General Kean intended to replace the 27 INF with the 5th Marines.  Lieutenant Colonel Taplett’s 3/5 (reinforced) moved toward Changwon to replace 2/27 INF on the line two miles outside Chindong-ni, where the road to Mason takes a sharp northward turn into the village of Tosan.[4]

Taplett effected the relief of 2/27 INF within two hours, establishing his command post (CP) on the first step of Hill 255 co-located with Weapons Company, 3/5.[5]  Temporarily under the operational control of HQ 27 INF, Taplett answered to Colonel John H. Michaelis, the army regiment’s commander.  Taplett’s mission was to provide a blocking force; he needed a tight defensive line to do that.

Lieutenant Colonel Taplett ordered Captain Fegan to set in his Company H (How Company) above his CP to have a good field of observation of enemy movements.  Taplett directed First Lieutenant Robert D. Bohn, commanding Company G (George Company), to set in two rifle platoons on Hill 99, situated west of Hill 255, and one platoon on a small knoll at the base of Hill 255.

Lieutenant Bohn directed the 1st Platoon to take the knoll position.  Commanding 1st Platoon was Second Lieutenant John J. H. Cahill, USMC.[6]  Cahill’s platoon was reinforced by a 75mm recoilless rifle platoon.[7]

The six platoons of George and How companies shared a tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) extending some 3,000 yards. Taplett’s only reserve force consisted of the headquarters element.[8]  Shortly after midnight on 7th August, Colonel Michaelis ordered Taplett to dispatch a rifle platoon to reinforce Baker Company, 1/27 INF atop Hill 342.  Taplett contacted Colonel Murray (CO, 5th Marines) to argue that he could ill-afford lose one-sixth of his infantry force.  Murray explained that General Dean had ordered Hill 342 held at all costs, and Taplett must provide the platoon.

Taplett assigned the mission to First Lieutenant Bohn; Bohn tasked Blackie Cahill.

Hill 342 was a massive molar-shaped structure rising steeply from the MSR west of Chindong-ni, extending northward 2,000 yards to another hill mass that was nearly 2,000 feet in elevation.  Elements of the NKPA 6th Infantry Division occupied the second hill mass.  The terrain was steep, the footing unsure, and the hillside inundated with shrub vegetation.  Before leaving 3/5’s perimeter, Taplett ordered Cahill reinforced with a machinegun squad and a radio operator.  None of Cahill’s men had more than a couple of hours of rest before embarking on this relief mission.

There was one minor glitch: Cahill reached Colonel Michaelis’ CP near a bridge south of Hill 99 at around 03:00.  Michaelis being absent, the regimental operations officer directed Cahill to proceed 700 yards further down the MSR and reported to the CO 2nd Battalion, 5 RCT (2/5 RCT), whose CP was located just north of the MSR at the tip of Hill 342’s eastern-most base. The Army operations officer informed Cahill that he wasn’t reinforcing Company B; he was replacing it.  27 INF needed this rifle company as part of General Kean’s reserve force.  5 RCT could not relieve Company B because 5 RCT was scheduled to begin an offensive within a few hours.

2ndLt Cahill no doubt wondered how a rifle platoon could realistically replace an infantry company, but Cahill was a combat veteran, and he made no bones about it.  After a quick briefing by an operations officer at 2/5 RCT’s CP, a guide led Cahill and his platoon northward, skirting the western base of Hill 352.  A few hundred yards along, the army guide discovered that he had lost his way in the darkness.  A few enemy artillery shells landed nearby, but there were no casualties.  When Cahill’s column reached the end of the valley, rifle fire erupted, wounding two Marines.  The army guide advised Cahill that he should not begin his climb until dawn because of the slippery footing and the nervous condition of Baker Company’s soldiers.  At 0500, Cahill’s Marines had marched 3 miles from Hill 99.

At dawn, Cahill realized that the earlier rifle fire had come from soldiers of 2/5 RCT, spooked by the Marine’s movements in the pitch-black early morning hours.  Cahill took the lead in the climb.  At first, the Marines made good progress, but the heat soon became a war-stopper.  The temperature was around 112 degrees.  Cahill’s Marines began gasping for air, sweating profusely, and stumbling on the steep, slippery pathways.  For every five steps upward, they slipped back three.  Water discipline collapsed, and canteens soon emptied.  It wasn’t long before Cahill’s Marines began collapsing from heat exhaustion, and some of these young men lost consciousness — they were on the verge of having a heat stroke.  Cahill’s platoon became a ragged file, but as Cahill’s NCOs urged the men forward, Cahill increased his pace and proceeded to the crest of the hill.

Cahill finally reached Hill 342’s summit at around 08:30, where he met the Army company commander.  The captain began briefing Cahill on his company’s defensive positions.  Baker Company, he explained, had been under continuous enemy fire within their triangle-shaped perimeter.  All three of the Company’s platoons were shattered.  Just as Cahill’s platoon began straggling into the army perimeter, NKPA forces opened fire from well-concealed positions from an adjacent hill.  Cahill’s NCOs quickly set the Marines into firing positions.  So far, Cahill had lost one man killed, six others wounded.  Considering both combat and heat casualties, Cahill’s 52-man platoon at the base of Hill 342 had only 37 effectives at its summit.  NKPA intensive fire had a demoralizing effect on the soldiers, and it was all the unit’s officers could do to keep them in their defensive positions.  In a brilliant move, Cahill suggested to the Army commander that he set Marines into positions among the soldiers.  Cahill understood service rivalry; knowing that the soldiers and Marines were eyeing one another, service pride kicked in, and the troops on the line, both Army and Marine, settled down to the business at hand.  Cahill lost two additional Marines to enemy fire as his NCOs were setting them into position.

Improvise — Adapt — Overcome

At noon, several companies of NKPA troops assaulted the summit of Hill 342 supported by intense machine gunfire.  Despite the onslaught, Marines and soldiers delivered well-aimed return fire.  However, the situation was desperate, and Baker Company was ordered by 5 RCT to remain in-place until a larger force of Marines could relieve them.  2ndLt Cahill used his radio to call in Army artillery support to silence enemy mortars.  As the artillery unit registered its fires, Cahill looked for and spotted an enemy, forward observer.  Yet, despite the artillery battery’s accurate barrage, NKPA mortars continued to rain down on the soldiers and Marines.  Then, with water and ammunition becoming in short supply, Cahill radioed in for an airdrop.  Within a short time, a USAF R4D flew over Hill 342 and dropped badly needed ammunition and water —  the resupply landed amid the enemy positions.

Cahill was back on the radio in short order.  1stMarBde handed the resupply mission to Marine Observation Squadron (VMO)-6, whose OY-2 aircraft dropped ammunition and water inside the Baker Company perimeter.  But, as the water cans hit the earth, most exploded, and the Marines and soldiers had to make do with only a few mouthfuls of water each.  Cahill’s Sergeant Macy volunteered to lead a patrol in search of water.  With permission granted, Macy and a few volunteers descended the southeastern slope under enemy fire, lugging 5-gallon cans along with them.  Meanwhile, the NKPA was working to surround and cut off Hill 342

While Cahill was making his way toward Hill 342, the rest of Taplett’s 3/5 (set in along the base of Hill 255) came under enemy mortar fire beginning at around 02:30 on 7 August.   Taplett was anxious about the situation with Cahill, but there was nothing he could do about it until sun up.

At around 02:00, Lieutenant Colonel Roise’s 2/5 began moving by truck to its terminus at the base of Hill 255.  NKPA delivered devastating mortar fire.  Roise was fortunate to lose only one Marine killed and eleven wounded — including Captain George E. Kittredge, the CO of Easy Company, 2/5.  Once 2/5 arrived in the vicinity of Hill 255, operational control of 2/5 and 3/5 reverted to Colonel Murray.  Murray ordered Roise to occupy Hill 99.  After repositioning 1/5, George Company 3/5 rejoined Taplett’s main body.

General Keane planned for 5 RCT to begin its assault at 0500, but the advance was stopped cold in the first hour.  The NKPA were not particularly impressed with Kean’s assault; they launched an attack of their own.  Cahill’s fight on Hill 342 constrained the entire 2nd Battalion, 5 RCT, in its attempt to hold open the Chinju Road.  Attaching Cahill’s platoon to Baker Company — and leaving the army company in place — was helping to do that, but the 5 RCT’s second battalion was temporarily lost to the regiment.

General Keane was desperate.  He ordered Murray to provide a battalion to relieve 2/5 RCT, and the mission assigned to 1/5.  Colonel Roise’s mission was to relieve the army battalion and clear the area of enemy forces.  Keane then ordered Craig to assume command of all forward units in the Chindong-ni area.[9]

When 2/5 reached the base of Hill 342, Colonel Roise ordered Dog Company to ascend the north fork toward Hill 342’s eastern spur and seize both the spur and the great hill.  First Lieutenant William E. Sweeney, newly appointed commander of Easy Company, was ordered to pass behind Sangnyong-ni and seize the western spur.  It was a wide dispersal of a light battalion, but Murray needed Roise to protect the valley between the two spurs and this was the only way he could do it.  The CO of D Company was Captain John Finn.  As the company ascended Hill 342, the Marines, having spent a sleepless night, began to experience the effects of rapidly increasing heat.  Thirty minutes into the climb, Finn’s Marines encountered rifle and machine gun fire.  Roise’s Operations Officer, Major Morgan J. McNeely, had previously told Finn that he would encounter no organized enemy resistance.  The constant chatter of Chinese-made burp guns proved McNeely wrong.

Finn called together his platoon commanders, assigning each a route to ascend Hill 342.   2nd Platoon, under Second Lieutenant Wallace J. Reid, was ordered to push through Taepyong-ni and begin his climb at its juncture with the spur.  Second Lieutenant Edward T. Emmelman would lead his 3rd Platoon to the top of the spur from the left.  Second Lieutenant Arthur A. Oakley, commanding 1st Platoon, would hold the right flank and ascend the southern slope of Hill 342.  Enemy opposition was scattered, but before Dog Company reached the crest of the spur, five Marines had received gunshot wounds.  As with Cahill’s Marines, Captain Finn’s men were suffering the effects of heat exhaustion in the triple-digit heat.

Captain Finn ordered his executive officer (XO), First Lieutenant Robert T. Hannifin, to establish the company headquarters and mortar section on the high ground directly above Taepyong-ni.  At dusk, Dog Company was still several hundred yards from the summit of Hill 342.  Finn radioed Roise for permission to rest his men for the night.  While Finn was communicating with Roise, 2ndLt Oakley climbed to the summit and contacted Cahill and the Baker Company commander — both of whom accompanied Oakley to Finn’s position.  The Army CO advised Finn to remain in place until early the next morning and Roise agreed.

During the early morning hours of 8 August, NKPA troops covertly approached the perimeter of Hill 342.  At first light, the enemy assaulted the crest of the hill.  The fight turned into a gruesome hand-to-hand struggle.  Soldiers and Marines repelled the attack, but not without taking serious casualties.  One Marine died from gunshot and bayonet wounds.  Captain Finn’s three platoons assaulted the hill, brushing aside enemy resistance and joining what was left of Baker Company and Cahill’s platoon.  While effecting the relief, NKPA rifle and automatic weapons punished the perimeter with intensive fire.

Once Dog Company was in possession of the summit perimeter, Baker Company and Cahill’s Marines descended the hill.  Cahill had lost one-third of his men.  Captain Finn fared no better.  NKPA fire killed several of his men while setting in their defenses, including 2ndLt Oakley and 2ndLt. Reid.  2ndLt Emmelman received a serious head wound.  As Captain Finn moved forward to recover Reid’s body, he too was struck in the shoulder and head.

First Lieutenant Hannifin, assigned to direct the company headquarters and mortar platoon, moved forward to join the rest of Company D at the summit.  Just below the summit, he encountered the First Sergeant, who was helping to evacuate Captain Finn.  Hannifin learned that he was now the CO of Dog Company.  He was also the only officer remaining alive in the company.  In the absence of officers commanding platoons, the NCOs stepped up.

1stLt Hannifin reached the summit of Hill 342 with just enough time to organize the defenses and set in his mortars before the NKPA initiated a second attack.  The Marines beat back the assault, killing dozens of the attackers, but the company had lost and additional six killed and 25 wounded.  While speaking with Roise on the field radio, Hannifin collapsed due to heat exhaustion.  Master Sergeant Harold Reeves assumed command of Dog Company.  Second Lieutenant Leroy K. Wirth, a forward observer from 1/11 assumed responsibility for all supporting arms, including aircraft from MAG-33 circling overhead.  Both Reeves and Wirth exposed themselves to enemy fire by ranging forward to call in airstrikes and reassess their tactical situation.

Easy Company 2/5 moved forward along the western spur of Hill 342 and dug in.  Colonel Roise dispatched Captain Andrew M. Zimmer, who was serving as 2/5’s assistant operations officer, to take command of Dog Company.  NKPA forces continued to harass Zimmer’s Marines at the summit, but because the enemy had taken a massive number of casualties in the fight, they gave the Marines of Dog Company a wide birth.

Major Walter Gall, commanding Weapons Company 2/5, dispatched a combat patrol to eliminate NKPA machine guns in Tokkong-ni.  Unable to dislodge the communists, the patrol returned to Gall and briefed him on the enemy situation.  With this information, 1stLt Ira T. Carr unleashed his 81mm mortar section and all enemy activity in Tokkong-ni ended.

On the afternoon of 9 August, an Army unit relieved Dog Company at the summit and 2/24 INF relieved Roise’s 2/5 of its responsibility for Hill 342.  Documents later retrieved from enemy dead revealed that the NKPA forces engaged with soldiers and Marines at the summit were members of the 13th and 15th Regiments of the NKPA 6th Infantry Division.  Cahill reported a conservative estimate of 150 dead communists in the hill fight, in total around 400 enemy KIA, but the actual number is unknown.  What is known is that between 500 to 600 communist troops challenged the Marines and soldiers to the right to possess Hill 342 — and lost.

For his effort atop Hill 342, then Second Lieutenant Blackie Cahill received the Silver Star medal and a Purple Heart.  The courageous Marine officer would later receive three additional Purple Heart medals and the Bronze Star.

Sources:

  1. Appleman, R. E.  South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu.  Washington: Department of the Army, 1998.
  2. Catchpole, B.  The Korean War.  London: Robinson Publishing, 2001.
  3. Geer, A.  The New Breed: The Story of the U.S. Marines in Korea. New York: Harper & Bros., 1952.
  4. Hastings, M.  The Korean War.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
  5. Varhola, M. J.  Fire and Ice: The Korean War, 1950-1953.  Mason City: Da Capo Press, 2000.

Endnotes:

[1] Sixty-five percent of the Brigade’s officers and NCOs were combat veterans from World War II.

[2] Bob Taplett (1918-2004) served with distinction as a Marine officer for twenty years, serving in World War II and the Korean War.  He was awarded the Navy Cross and two awards of the Silver Star medal in recognition of his courage under fire.  Retiring in 1960, Taplett authored an autobiography titled Darkhorse Six, which was published in 2003.

[3] Hill 342 stood 342 meters above sea level (1,122 feet), a substantial climb in full combat gear in 112° temperatures.

[4] General Kean’s plan was to withdraw 27 INF to serve in division reserve, replacing it with 5th Marines.  The Army’s 5 RCT would serve on the Marine’s right flank.

[5] The 5th Marines, hastily formed for combat duty at Camp Pendleton, departed California on 7 July.  The regiment was understrength.  Typically, a Marine infantry battalion consists of an H&S Company, Weapons Company, and three rifle companies.  This is the standard configuration for a maneuver unit.  In July 1950, Murray’s battalions consisted of an H&S Company, Weapons Company, and two rifle companies.  These personnel shortages were the result of President Truman’s scheme to gut the U.S. military following World War II.

[6] Second Lieutenant John J. H. (“Blackie”) Cahill (1924-2005) served in the U. S. Marine Corps (1939-1974).  There is not much that we know about Cahill, beyond the fact that he likely served aboard ship during the New Guinea campaign, later participated in the island campaigns of the Gilbert Islands, at Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and Okinawa as an enlisted Marine.  He may have left active service at the end of World War II to attend college.  In 1950, Cahill was a 2nd Lieutenant with Company G, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines during the battle for Pusan.  He later served with the 5th Marines at the Chosin Reservoir.  He later served three tours of duty in Vietnam, notably at the Battle of Khe Sanh when he commanded 1st Battalion, 9th Marines.  Cahill’s twin brother Vincent also served in World War II in the Army Air Corps.  Colonel Vincent S. Cahill retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1976.

[7] The 75mm Recoilless Rifle was a tripod-mounted weapon weighing 114.5 pounds.  It fired HE, HEAT, and WP rounds, had a range of 7,000 yards, and was effective against T-34 tanks within 400 yards.  A RR platoon consisted of four rifles/14 Marines.

[8] Every Marine, regardless of MOS, is a qualified infantry rifleman.

[9] General Craig was underwhelmed with 5 RCT’s performance; there was, in his opinion, no good reason for the army regiment’s lack of advance — except that the forward area was confused.  In the one-lane dirt roads, military traffic had jammed the MSR and none of the US forces could advance or withdraw.  Craig realized that the slowness of the 5 RCT’s advance had opened the door to the NKPA, which had launched its own attack. 


Operation Buffalo

July 1967

Some Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Operation Buffalo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

[4] Awarded Navy Cross for this action.

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

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

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

[8] Awarded Navy Cross Medal.

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

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


Special Landing force

America’s flashing sword

Background

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

Winston Churchill, 1914

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

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

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

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

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

Organizational Overview

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force

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

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

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

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

Action in the Central Highlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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


Fidelity, Honor, Valor

Captain George W. Sachtleben, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines

Introduction

In January 1969, responsibility for combat operations in the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ) (Also, I Corps), which included the five northern-most provinces of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) rested with the Commanding General, III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF), who was then Lieutenant General Robert E. Cushman, Jr.   Cushman commanded 81,000 Marine and Army combat troops situated throughout the Quang Tri, Thua Thien, Quang Nam, Quang Tin, and Quang Ngai.

(a) Major General Charles J. Quilter commanded 15,500 Marines of the First Marine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW), which included 500 fixed and rotary wing aircraft at Chu Lai, Da Nang, Phu Bai, and Quang Tri.

(b) Major General Ormond R. Simpson commanded the 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv) just outside Da Nang, a force of 24,000 ground-combat Marines primarily assigned to Quang Nam Province.

(c) Major General Raymond G. Davis commanded the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv), 21,000 ground-combat Marines from Dong Ha, whose primary responsibility was Quang Tri Province.

(d) An additional 10,000 Marines provided combat logistics support to the MAW and two infantry divisions under Brigadier General James A. Feely, Jr., at Da Nang.

(e) An additional 1,900 Marines served in the Combined Action Program under Colonel Edward F. Danowitz — tasked with providing local area security to local villages and hamlets.

(f) In addition to these Marines, III MAF controlled combat operations involving a force of 50,000 U. S. Army troops involving elements of the 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized), Colonel James M. Gibson, Commanding, the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) under Major General Melvin Zais, both Army units serving under the US XXIV Corps, Lieutenant General Richard G. Stilwell, U. S. Army, based at Phu Bai.  

(g) An additional 23,800 soldiers of Major General Charles M. Getty’s 23rd Infantry (Americal) Division operated in Quang Tin and Quang Ngai Provinces.

(h) General Cushman also exercised operational control over the United States Army Advisory Group (USAAG), who advised and assisted RVN military units operating in the I CTZ.

Enemy forces operating in RVN’s I CTZ included 123 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalions and 18 Viet Cong (irregular) (VC) battalions involving 90,000 troops.  There were additionally around 23,500 guerrillas and 16,000 political and quasi-military cadres and another 30,000 North Vietnamese regulars operating in Laos but within striking distance of the I CTZ.  These forces were controlled by five separate headquarters elements.

In January 1969, the communist forces were still reeling from their massive defeat during the Tet 68 campaign [Note 1]; it forced NVA and VC commands to reconsider their strategy for I CTZ.  Rather than attempting to defeat the American and RVN forces through massive assault, they adopted the policy of prolonging the conflict through small unit hit and run tactics, sapper attacks, harassment, terrorism, and sabotage.  Their focus became severing lines of communications, attacking rear area support bases, storage facilities, and defeating RVN’s pacification efforts.  Driving these strategies and tactics was the differences in terrain from II CTZ to the northwestern areas of I CTZ.  NVA regular units concentrated their forces in the uninhabited jungle-covered mountainous areas, close to border sanctuaries.

The Fight

In the Marine Corps mindset, defense is a temporary tactic used to dig in for the night, or rest, regroup, and resupply their combat forces before continuing the attack.  Locating the enemy, viciously attacking him, and destroying him is how wars are won.  But this wasn’t the national policy of the United States.  The mission in Vietnam was to defend South Vietnam — which gave up initiative to the enemy.  Marine and Army commanders hated this with a passion, but those were their orders.  But Major General Raymond G. Davis, commanding the 3rdMarDiv wasn’t about to sit around waiting for the enemy to attack him.  Soon after assuming command of his division, he ordered his regimental commanders to go find the enemy, and kill him.  General Cushman completely agreed with Davis’ thinking — as did Lieutenant General Herman Nickerson, Jr., when he replaced Cushman as CG III MAF on 26 March 1969.

General Davis’ idea of mobile operations depended on the helicopter, of course, but Ray Davis was no one trick pony.  He also sought to exploit intelligence gathered by small sized reconnaissance patrols, which were continuously employed throughout the 3rdMarDiv TAOR, which supplemented electronic and other human intelligence sources.  The recon patrols were called StingRay operations, who mission was to find, fix, and destroy the enemy with all available supporting arms.  StingRay operations were augmented by even smaller “snoop and poop” patrols, known as Key Hole forays.  Their mission was to “observe,” not engage.

On 9 April, Colonel Edward F. Danowitz [Note 2] relieved Colonel Robert H. Barrow as Commanding Officer, 9th Marines.  Danowitz was determined to continue the aggressive operations planned and executed by Colonel Barrow under General Davis’ policy of finding the enemy and killing him.

Despite the success of the 9th  Marines in Operation Dewey Canyon and the 3rd Marines in the Vietnam Salient, intelligence reports indicated that several regimental size enemy units were again infiltrating into the northern area of their Base Area 611, south of the salient, specifically elements of the 6th and 9th NVA regiments, the 675th Artillery Regiment, and various support elements.  Air reconnaissance indicated as well that the NVA were repairing Route 922 and that significant numbers of enemy were returning to the A Shau Valley and eastward into Base Area 101, which was located astride the Quang Tri/Thua Thien political boundary.

To counter these enemy infiltrations, elements of the 3rdMarDiv and 101st Airborne were ordered to execute Operation Apache Snow in the northern A Shau Valley and southern Da Krong River Valley, cut the enemy supply and infiltration routes at the Laotian border, locate and destroy enemy forces, base camps, and supply caches.  Operating under Lieutenant General Stilwell, XXIV commander, 1st Battalion and 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9 and 2/9) were assigned the task of occupying the southern Da Krong and blocking enemy escape routes into Laos along Route 922.

Movement to Contact

The 2/9 Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel George C. Fox.  Apache Snow began on 10 May when Lieutenant Colonel Thomas J. Culkin’s 1/9 leap-frogged over 2/9 and assaulted Fire Support Base Erskine, which overlooked the upper Da Krong and Route 922.  For the Marines, the timing was perfect because the enemy units had yet to reconstitute infantry regiments following their defeat in Dewey Canyon.  Culkin’s aggressive patrolling resulted in several skirmishes with enemy forces in transit, but each time the enemy refused the Marine’s invitation to dance. Fox’s 2/9, located 5 miles north, patrolled FSB Razor and LZ Dallas in an area north-northeast of Erskine.  They too encountered numerous small sized enemy units, who were also quick to fade into the jungle.

While the Da Krong remained relatively quiet, the same could not be said for the A Shau Valley, where four US Army battalions and an ARVN battalion encountered a well-defended hut and bunker complex on Hill 937 and commenced operations to clear it of elements of the 9th and 29th NVA regiments.  The battle lasted a week, concluding on 20 May 1969 with 500 enemy dead on the; Army casualties were 44 killed, 297 wounded.  Soldiers from the 187th renamed this hill complex “Hamburger Hill.”  Subsequently, surviving elements of the NVA regiments withdrew into Laos and avoided further contact with US and ARVN forces operating in the A Shau Valley.

The 3rdMarDiv continued to maneuver its battalions in western Quang Tri, which reduced the enemy’s threat.  During June, the 9th Marines initiated two simultaneous operations, named Cameron Falls and Utah Mesa, which targeted the 304th NVA Division attempting to establish a presence south of Route 9.  Evidence from reconnaissance missions indicated that elements of the NVA division had infiltrated into the lower Da Krong Valley, and were moving east and north  along Route 616 and the river.  A series of rocket attacks on combat base Vandegrift signaled the start of planned NVA pressure on allied positions by the 57th NVA Regiment.  Colonel Danowitz’s Marines were assigned the mission of searching for and destroying enemy forces within an area bordered in the North by Song Quang Tri, in the South by the Da Krong River, on the East by FSB Shepherd, and on the West by FSB Henderson.  This area was considered critical to the security of Vandegrift and the Ba Long Valley, which led to the population centers of Quang Tri and Dong Ha.

Cameron Falls began on 29 May.  2/9 moved unopposed toward FSB Whisman, which the battalion occupied; 3/9 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Oral R. Swigart, Jr., occupied FSB Shepherd.  At Whisman, 2/9 Marines began to shore up their defensives with obstacles, fighting holes, claymore mines, and trip flares.  At 0215 on 1 June, a small enemy force began probing 2/9’s defenses and ran up against a listening post manned by Golf Company.  Two Marines were killed, but he FSB was alerted.  Aggressive reaction by Golf 2/9 resulted in 19 enemy killed with two taken prisoner.

From information provided by the prisoners, Colonel Fox learned that the 57th NVA Regiment’s command post (CP) was located to the southwest of Whisman.  The 2/9 commander issued a warning order to Fox and Golf companies to prepare for a sweep of the suspected location of the enemy CP; additional intelligence indicated that a large enemy force was moving northeast toward Hill 824.  Danowitz redirected the attack toward Hill 824 with two companies from 2/9 in a sweep northeast along the Da Krong River, and two companies of 3/9 advancing east from FSB Shepherd.  Swigart reported the terrain and vegetation exceedingly difficult — the twelve foot high elephant grass restricted air movement, making the advance exceedingly hot.  As elements of 2/9 and 3/9 converged on Hill 824, both battalion commanders reported that the enemy force was deployed around the hill in considerable strength.

Contact

On 5 June, Hotel Company 2/9 encountered a well-fortified NVA battalion on the southern bank of the Da Krong.  The initial engagement was a fight that lasted 12 hours.  The best description of this fight comes from the Silver Star award citation issued to Captain George W. Sachtleben, of Chicago, Illinois:

The President of the United States takes pleasure in awarding the Silver Star to Captain George W. Sachtleben, United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action  while serving as Commanding Officer, Company H, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division in connection with operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam.

On the afternoon of 5 June 1969, during operation Cameron Falls, two platoons of Company H advanced on a trail along the Da Krong River eight miles southwest of the Vandegrift Combat Base when they initiated contact with a company-sized North Vietnamese Army force occupying well camouflaged positions on a cliff overlooking the trail.  Due to their location, the Marines were extremely vulnerable to the heavy volume of enemy rocket-propelled grenade, small arms, and automatic weapons fire, but continued to fight from a narrow ledge with their backs against the river.

Despite suffering serious wounds sustained during the initial moments of the fire-fight, Captain Sachtleben skillfully deployed his forces to counter the hostile attacks, directed the accurate delivery of supporting arms fire, and organized the movement of casualties to a relatively safe area.

Throughout the fight, he completely disregarded his own safety as he boldly moved about the hazardous area shouting instructions and encouragement to his men.  After establishing an initial perimeter, he directed a limited assault which secured a toe-hold on a portion of one cliff looming over his position.

Throughout the night and the following morning, he directed both offensive and defensive actions which thwarted or repulsed repeated North Vietnamese Army attacks.  Although aware that the enemy was reinforcing and faced by the fact that his company was running dangerously low on ammunition, that his key officers and noncommissioned officers were wounded, and that his men were nearing exhaustion, Captain Sachtleben fearlessly deployed his men, directed their fire, and fought with such tenacity that the North Vietnamese force broke contact late in the afternoon of the second day and retreated away from the Marines.

Captain Sachtleben’s’ dynamic leadership and valiant actions inspired all who observed him and were instrumental in his company accounting for 54 enemy killed as his company decisively defeated the North Vietnamese Army force.  By his courage, bold initiative, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of great personal danger, Captain Sachtleben upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service. 

A subsequent sweep of the area revealed a dozen more enemy remains, enemy bunkers, caves, and senior officer’s living quarters.

Final Tribute

The United States Marine Corps paid tribute to Captain Sachtleben at Arlington National Cemetery, shown below:

Sources:

  1. Sergeant Stanley R. Richard, United States Marine Corps.
  2. Smith, C. R.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: High Mobility and Standdown, 1969.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1988.

Endnotes:

[1] The number of enemy battalions went from around 94 in mid-1968 to around 23 in early 1969.

[2] Born in Chicago and raised in New Jersey, Edward Danowitz entered the Marine Corps in 1942 and served in World War II, Korea, the Dominican Republic, and in Vietnam.  He retired in 1972.  After his military service, he joined the faculty at Rollins College where he taught the Russian and Spanish languages.  He passed away in 2013 at the age of 92 years.

245th Anniversary of the U. S. Marine Corps

10 November 1775 — 10 November 2020

Who are these people who claim the title, U.S. Marine?

They are men and women who come from every part of the United States of America.  They are all high school graduates with many having college credits or degrees.  Many left their homes as teenagers seeking adventure; with an average age of 25-years, Marines are the youngest overall of all the uniformed services.  They are patriots—men and women who love their country enough to be willing to place themselves in harm’s way defending the American way of life.  When they left home, they left all the comforts of home to discover the unknown.

At recruit training or officer’s candidate school, they learned the basics of what it takes to become a Marine.  They learned that in the Marine Corps, learning is a lifetime endeavor.  Upon graduating from Bootcamp or OCS, every Marine receives his or her first Marine Corps Emblem, signifying that they have passed the test for becoming a United States Marine.  They then proceed to infantry training because every Marine is a rifleman.

There are dozens of occupational fields in the Marine Corps, many of these are highly technical areas that demand further training.  After their initial period of training, Marines are scattered to the four winds and the corners of the earth.  In the process of becoming a United States Marine, they discovered a new family —one composed of men and women who believe as they do, whose values and devotions equal their own.  They inherited a unique tradition of devotion to duty that exceeds those of any other service organization; it has been passed to them by every previous generation dating back to 1775.  In time, they will pass this tradition on to those who follow them.  Part of this tradition demands that they keep faith with their God, their Country, and their Corps.  In the Marines, no one cares what color skin you have; they only care about the content of your character.  There is no place in the Marine Corps for people of low character.

Marines seldom get enough sleep, yet their energy levels remain high.  They take great pride in their uniforms and work constantly to present the best possible military appearance.  No one ever wants to become a “raggedy assed Marine.”  They are professionals who work hard to develop, maintain, and enhance their unique skills.  They are scholars who constantly read about the art and science of warfare.  The more they learn, the more they want to know.

Marines are also known to play hard.  Some smoke and drink too much, but they are absolutely devoted to maintaining their personal and professional integrity, their honor, their commitment.  They are courageous in the face of great danger.  They do not behave bravely on the battlefield for the Corps; they do it for each other, but this is what makes the Marine Corps unique.  Tragically, Marines sometimes lose a brother or sister; when this happens, they honor them publicly and mourn them privately.

We don’t pay Marines enough money, but most never joined for money —they joined to serve.  All they ask in return for their many sacrifices is the gratitude of the American people, and the respect they have earned and deserve.  Sometimes, it’s the little things that matter most: letters from back home matter because there are occasions when Marines aren’t sure they’ll ever see home again.

Young Marines grow up fast, because serving as a leader is a weighty responsibility.  Most Marine corporals have more responsibility than do most corporate executives.  They learn to make hard decisions; they learn how to live with the consequences of those decisions.  Yet, in some other ways, Marines never grow up at all … almost every Marine has a wicked sense of humor.

Marines fight for freedom; that is, the freedom of people whom they’ve never met.  Some Marines experience the crucible of war and must learn how to deal with its physical and psychological effects.  No matter whether Marines served in combat or not, every Marine stands the chance of going into a war zone; Marines are known to volunteer for combat service.  Every Marine knows that tough training pays off.  They sweat in tough training, so they won’t have to bleed in combat.  All Marines give something of themselves in the service of their country —some Marines give all.

Never ask a Marine what it’s like to serve in combat —it is an experience that defies explanation.

Marines love their time-honored rites and ceremonies, for these are the things that strengthen their bond with fellow Marines.  When the going gets tough, it is this bond that nurtures them.  The future may be uncertain, but one thing is constant: a Marine can always count on a fellow-Marine.  It’s what Marines do.  Together, Marines learn how to deal with victory and tragedy.

At the end of their Marine Corps adventures, some Marines go back home and take up their lives where they left off … but none of these men and women are ever the same as when they left for boot camp because being a Marine is a lifelong endeavor.  There are no ex-Marines.

One-third of all Marines remain in the Corps because they have fallen in love with the uniqueness of the Marine Corps lifestyle.  They crave the challenges of adventurous service.  Some Marines remain in the Marines because the Corps has become their home.

You should know that Marines are great story-tellers.  Most of these stories contain embellishments; the more often they are told, the greater the embellishments become.  Eventually, their stories become legend —and in some cases, myth.  Elite forces tell such tales.  Some are hilarious, some are true, and some are both.  No matter what the tale, Marines always speak highly of their Corps.

The title Marine is earned the hard way and remains effective throughout a Marine’s lifetime.  It has no monetary value, but it is a priceless gift.  When Marines meet one another, in uniform or civilian attire, there is also the exchange of a nod, or perhaps a tight smile.  There is but one exception to the Marine for Life Rule: it is that no one can remain part of the Marine family who dishonors themselves or our Corps.

To those who are serving as Marines presently, to those who have gone before, I thank you for your sacrifices.  Remember the good times, and if you haven’t done so, I urge you to seek your peace for the unhappy moments.  Stand tall, always, because future generations will one day stand upon your shoulders.

I know this because I am a United States Marine.

Nawzad —2008

Some Background

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

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

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

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

Gladius Hispaniensis

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

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

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

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

U.S. Marine Corps bayonet

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

In Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helmand Province in Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Warrior No One Forgot

Templer KnightPeople have admired chivalrous conduct for thousands of years, long before we invented a word for it.  It does not confine itself to mounted warriors wearing armor and confronting a determined enemy.  Chivalry was a code employed by a culture of warriors, which extends to the notion of good men skilled in warfare willing to place their lives and fortunes “on the line” in defense of innocents, in defense of the realm, in defense of religious beliefs.  The code was already in writing by the time of Charlemagne and is chronicled in La Chanson de Roland, which tells of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 A.D.  Historians have restored the code, which appears in summary form below:

  • To fear God and maintain His church (community)
  • To serve the liege lord in valor and faith
  • To protect the weak and defenseless
  • To give succor to widows and orphans
  • To refrain from the wanton giving of offense
  • To live by honor and for glory
  • To despise pecuniary reward
  • To fight for the welfare of all
  • To obey those placed in authority
  • To guard the honor of fellows
  • To eschew unfairness, meanness, and deceit
  • To keep faith
  • At all times, speak only truth
  • To persevere to the end in any enterprise once begun
  • To respect and honor women
  • Never refuse a challenge from an equal
  • Never turn one’s back upon a foe

Of these eighteen tenets, 12 relate to chivalrous behavior, as opposed to combat.  For people like me, they remain relevant and elemental in the behavior of true ladies and gentlemen and closely align themselves with the New Testament’s I Corinthians, 13.

If I speak in the tongues of men or angels but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all that I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; Love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others; It is not self-seeking, nor easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.

Love never fails.  But where there are prophecies they will cease.  Where there are tongues, they will be stilled.  Where there is knowledge, this too will pass away.  For we know in part, and we prophecy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I spoke as a child; I thought like a child.  I reasoned like a child.  But when I became a man, I put away the things of childhood.  For now, we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but we will see face to face.  Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three alone remain: faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love.

During the early and late Middle Ages, the code of chivalry was incorporated into rites of knighthood, standards of behavior expected of those who served the interests of others, more than their own interests[1].  They also included strict rules of etiquette and behavior.  The codes were so exemplary that poets, lyricists, and writers incorporated them into their tales.  Since most people were illiterate, wandering minstrels communicated these ideals throughout the land.  In the post-Roman period of England (c. 500 A.D.) Arthurian myths strengthened notions of personal fortitude and courage in the face of adversity, of honor, honesty, valor, and loyalty.

I believe these two things: (1) King Arthur was not a myth; (2) No organization in the world today better emulates the chivalrous code than the United States Marine Corps.  This is what I believe, but I do not exclude any other of western civilization’s stalwart military or public service organizations.  I only intend my statement to emphasize the frequency of such laudatory qualities within the brotherhood of the US Marine Corps.

The stories from antiquity, mythical or otherwise, serve as teaching moments.  There may not have been a greater general in all antiquity than Julius Caesar, but he was a flawed man (professionally and personally) whose mistakes were devastating to Rome and its people.  King Arthur too was an illustrious leader, a man whose human frailty led to his demise and that of his Camelotian kingdom.  Not too many years ago, the American people spoke of the Kennedy White House as Camelot, but revealed history tells us that Jack Kennedy and his lovely bride were troubled people whose personal behaviors destroyed them, their legacy, which deeply troubled their citizen-admirers’.

The bane of humankind is our moral frailty.

Historians have claimed that the Arthurian stories were legend or myth because there are no written records to validate them.  Nor is there any physical evidence that he ever lived —until recently.  British archeologists believe that they have uncovered the burial tomb of a man named Arthur that dates back in time to around 500 A. D[2].  Perhaps King Arthur was a myth, but I doubt it.  King Arthur is the warrior from antiquity that no one ever forgot.  His existence may not be as well documented as that of Jesus of Nazareth, but the evidence that does exist is enough to convince me that such a man did exist —but more to the point, his is a story that can help us discover who we are, and how we might use the lessons of time to improve ourselves; how we might better serve our families, our communities, and our nation.

Arthurian 001Many tales were written about King Arthur and his knights of the round table, most of which were romantic constructs that incorporated supernatural or mythical beings, which were clearly imaginative inventions.  Three hundred years earlier, however, Nennius[3] records Arthur as a historic figure in Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons), an account unfettered by flights of fancy.  The Britons, of course, were tribal Celts who occupied all of Britain before being pushed into Wales by the Romans, Angles, and Saxons.  Arthur was one of the last Britons[4] to make a successful stand against the Anglo-Saxon invasions, a conflict that continued through the rise and progeny of King Alfred the Great (847-99).  If Nennius correctly records the events of the time, given that present-day England was divided by squabbling tribes in the post-Roman period, then Arthur would not have adorned himself in shining armor.  He would wear the attire of a Celtic chieftain, which most likely incorporated the clothing and armor of late-Roman style.  There would have been no great castles, but something more on the order of wooden stockades incorporated with then-existing Roman fortifications/settlements.

Historic facts about this period of Romano-British England are more fascinating than the fanciful tales because history is more plausible.  Monk Nennius never told us where Arthur was born, but he did list his battles —notably his last battle at Badon, which occurred near Aquae Sulis (present-day Bath).  The significance of the battle was that the Britons prevailed over the Anglo-Saxon horde, pushing them back to the British Saxon Shore.  We know this from the Anglo-Saxon’s own records of the time, and from archaeological evidence.  That the Britons had a powerful, unifying leader, seems undeniable.

Was there such a place as Camelot?  Yes-and no.  Colchester, England is the site of the earliest Roman settlement, although evidence suggests that the settlement existed before the arrival of Romans in 55 B.C.  It was then called Camulodunon, which also appears on coins minted by the chieftain Tasciovanus between 20-10 B.C.  It would be easy to make this association, but Colchester is far removed from Aquae Sulis and there is yet another possibility.

In the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, there is a 7th-century work titled The Song of Llywarch the Old.  It contains one of the oldest references to King Arthur, composed of a series of poems attributed to a poet named Llywarch, who praises the exploits of a chieftain named Cynddylan, who died fighting the Anglo Saxons in 658 A.D.  Cynddylan, according to Llywarch, was the direct descendant of Arthur, which implies that Arthur once ruled the kingdom that Cynddylan ruled.  It was the kingdom of present-day Powys, Wales, which at the time covered the area described above, in the south and west-central England and east-central Wales.  The Anglo-Saxons eventually defeated the Britons, pushing them into the Welsh mountains where a modern-day county still retains the old kingdom’s name.  The Romans called this area Viroconium.

When Rome abandoned Britain in 410 A.D., most of their settlements were abandoned and Britain fell into the so-called Dark Ages.  Romans and their mixed-blood descendants, however, continued to occupy Viroconium.  It had been the fourth largest town in Romano-Britain after Londonium(London), Lindum Colonia (Lincoln), and Eboracum (York).  While the Anglo-Saxons quickly overran the largest cities (above), Viroconium was far distant from the invasive Germans and remained free and evolved into the Briton’s most important city in the early Dark Ages.  These ruins still exist with archeological evidence that the town went through a process of reconstruction around 500 A.D.  We know the town today as Wroxeter, which is 25 miles northwest of Worcester, my lovely bride’s hometown.  Ancient manuscripts tell us that Arthur ruled over the Briton’s most important city —which would have been Viroconium.

Still, Arthur is not a Welsh name.  The ruler of Viroconium around the time of Arthur was named Owain Ddantgwyn (pronounced Owen Thant-gwyn), which sounds nothing like Arthur.  During the early Middle Ages, British warriors were given honorary titles of real or mythological animals thought to represent their prowess in battle.  One of these was the Welsh word “Arth,” meaning Bear.  In Viroconium around 500 A.D., its ruler Owain Ddantgwyn was known as the Bear, hence, Arth.  Scholars today connect the Welsh word for bear with the Latin word for bear, Ursus, which then became, in later years, Arthur, a king, and a person who actually did exist.

The tales of King Arthur are entertaining, but the history of the real warrior is more fascinating.  Our admiration for such a fellow continues because, among other things, he helped create the code of honor that serves as our guide for achieving and maintaining nobility.

Knights in the sense of the Middle Ages never existed in the United States, of course —Americans eschewed the notion of kings or of men born into families of nobles.  Instead, we Americans believe that every person can obtain nobility by acting nobly.  The Knight’s Code of Honor that I borrowed (above) is a nifty tool for helping us achieve nobility —as a guide for the way we live our lives.

cropped-marine-recon-002.jpgAs for knights —we do have them, but we call them by another name.  Their standards are high, their tolerance for failure is low, they do remarkably brave things almost on a daily basis while never seeking recognition.  They are guardians of the weak, they succor the suffering, and live according to a unique code of honor.  These knights demand fairness, serve justice, always persevere, and they keep the faith.  In fact, it is their motto: Semper Fidelis.  We call these modern-day knights United States Marines.

“Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for a friend.”

—John 15:13

Remarkably, much about the US Marines is modeled on the warrior that no one forgot.  Personally, given who I am, I hope no one ever does forget.

Sources:

  1. Anderson, G.  King Arthur in Antiquity.  London: Roufledge (2004)
  2. Phillips, G.  The Lost Tomb of King Arthur.  Rochester: Bear & Company, 2016
  3. Dumville, D. N.  Sub-Roman Britain: History and legend.  1977

Endnotes:

[1] Our observation that chivalrous codes did exist does not suggest that every individual who took such oaths always observed them.  Every person has strengths as well as weaknesses; some of us have destructive character flaws.  In ancient society, and today, there are plenty of scurrilous fellows who took oaths for only one purpose, to advance themselves, and then violated them on a more-or-less on-going basis.

[2] Read: The Lost Tomb of King Arthur, by Graham Phillips, Rochester: Bear & Company, 2016.

[3] Nennius was a Welsh monk of the 9th century.  Nennius, who lived in Brecknockshire, present-day Powys, was a student of the bishop Elfodd of Bangor, who convinced ecclesiastics of his day to accept the Continental dating of Easter.  Much of Nennius’ effort was based on earlier works, notably De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which was written by Gildas between 500-579 A. D.

[4] Popular writers suggest that Arthur Pendragon was descended from a Welsh and Romano-British line, which given the history of Rome’s presence in Britain, and the areas in which they settled (Aquae Sulis (Somerset)-West Mercia (Wroxeter/Worcestershire)), the suggestion is credible.