It is true — war dogs served the Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Britons, and Romans. They served as sentries, area security patrol dogs, and attack dogs. Atilla used large dogs in his campaigns, and these were often gifted among European royalty. Frederick the Great used them to carry messages, and the French used dogs to guard naval installations in the 1700s.
In East Asia, the 15th-century Vietnamese emperor Lé Loi raised a pack of over 100 hounds, tended and trained by Nguyễn Xí, whose skills earned him a promotion to the emperor’s commander of shock troops.
The first official use of dogs for military purposes in the United States was during the Seminole Wars. Union troops routinely destroyed packs of bloodhounds because they were used for hunting down runaway slaves. In the Civil War, hounds were employed to pass messages and guard prisoners. During World War I, dogs were used as mascots in propaganda and recruiting posters.
In the Marines — World War II
The Marine Corps decided to experiment with war dogs in the late summer of 1942. A new turn for the Marines, but not for the dogs — as I said, they’ve been doing warfare things for a long while. The only question was, should they use Mastiffs, as did the Romans — or Shih Tzu, like the French?
Previously, in the 1920s, a Marine serving as an officer in the Garde d’Haiti trained a dog to work at the point of his combat patrols to alert him to bandit ambuscades. Marine historians believe that it’s probable that this Marine’s experience was later responsible for suggesting the use of dogs in jungle warfare (Small Wars Operations).
In World War II, the Marine Corps war dog training program was initiated at the direction of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, who directed the Commanding General, Training Center, Fleet Marine Force, Marine Barracks, New River, North Carolina (designated Camp Lejeune in December 1942) to initiate a training program for dogs when personnel and material become available. Shortly after, one officer and 19 enlisted Marines began training at the Fort Robinson, Nebraska, dog school. Four additional Marines began temporary duty at Fort Washington, Maryland — also in connection with training dogs.
The plan was that upon completion of training, Marines in Nebraska would return to Camp Lejeune, each with two dogs; the Marines at Fort Washington would return each with two messenger dogs. An additional twenty dogs would be procured by Miss Roslyn Terhune, given obedience training in Baltimore, and shipped to Camp Lejeune by the end of January 1943.
After procuring sixty-two dogs (42 from the Army), the Marine Corps received additional animals from various sources (Dogs for Defense, Inc., Doberman Pinscher Club of America, and private individuals willing to offer their animals as donations to the war effort). These were the primary sources of procurement of Marine Corps war dogs until 1 March 1945. After then, the Marine Corps and Coast Guard established and operated a joint procurement agency.
Marines considered an animal’s breed of secondary importance to the general excellence of war dogs. Still, the breeds found most suitable for German Shepherds (Alsatians), Belgian Sheepdogs, Doberman Pinschers, Collies, Schnauzers, Airedales, Rottweilers, and some mixtures of these animals. Other breeds could be acceptable, provided the individual animal met the required specifications in other respects.
Dogs accepted into the Corps had to be one to five years of age, of either sex, 25 inches high, weighing at least 50 pounds, pass a rigorous physical examination, and be proven not to be gun shy.
In the earliest days, the Marines highly regarded the Doberman Pinscher, rightly or wrongly, because:
(1) It was generally believed that the shorthaired Doberman was more adaptable to the heat of the tropics than many of the long-haired breeds (dog experts and fanciers held divided opinions on this point)
(2) Dog handlers were almost unanimous in their praise of the Doberman Pinscher and the German Shepherd for scout and messenger work; and,
(3) In the early days of the war dog training program, the Doberman Pinscher Club of America procured a large proportion of the dogs enrolled, which means that the emphasis was on Dobermans — hence an early preponderance of this breed over others.
However, the Marine Corps clarified that it had not established a policy favoring Doberman Pinschers over any other breed. In early 1945, the Marine Corps declined an invitation to have some of its Dobermans participate in a show out of concern that others may interpret that the Marines preferred one breed over another.
Most of the first dogs shipped overseas (the 1st War Dog Platoon) were Doberman Pinschers; the remainder were German or Belgian Shepherds.
When the Marine Corps initiated its war dog program, the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard had already instituted working dog programs with established training centers with several training programs for different purposes. The Marine Corps, however, is a combat organization. Senior officers saw no point in dedicating manpower resources unless dogs contributed directly to killing the enemy or reducing combat casualties. Consequently, Marine war dogs were confined to two types:
Scout and messenger dogs. At that time, the 1st Marine Division was still fighting on Guadalcanal. It was apparent that the South Pacific plans of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a march up the Solomons chain meant that Marines would continue to operate in jungle terrain for a while at least, where concealment by the enemy was relatively easy. Infiltration tactics were the order of the day.
At first, it was difficult to find trainers thoroughly appreciating this combat angle. Marine planners initially selected trainers because they had civilian experience training dogs. Senior officers at HQMC visualized this program as one involving dog training — for training dogs rather than teaching them for a combat role. This lack of appreciation for reality training made combat Marines hesitant to volunteer for the program. It soon became apparent that if dogs were to be helpful in combat, their trainer and handler would have to be good combat Marines, capable of scouting and patrolling, with the dog being the means of increasing the radius of operations.
At the same time, operations officers understood that tactical situations might dictate a need for messenger dogs, and the best animals for that mission were the Dobermans and German Shepherds. There were other great breeds, as well — it was only that Dobermans and Shepherds performed in a consistently exceptional manner.
The training cycle at War Dog Training Company (Camp Lejeune) lasted 14 weeks. Selection for specific skill training took two weeks — and a time when dogs and Marines became acquainted with one another. Two Marines, selected for their experience in handling dogs, were assigned to each dog as trainer and attendant — a relationship carried into combat: two Marines and their dog forming a “dog unit.”
The next six weeks were devoted to training the dogs to interpret and obey the various commands and to familiarize the men with their dogs’ mental workings and reactions. Successful training was accomplished only through intelligent, patient, and sympathetic handling and treatment, and the chief reliance was made solely on praise and scolding. The final six weeks of the course were given to more advanced work, including combat work, which meant attacking any person or place the dog had become alert on command.
The initial advanced training for scout dogs started with the dog being fastened to a chain fixed to a post or wall with his handler beside him. A stranger approached threateningly, the handler commanding the dog to “watch.” When the dog showed aggressiveness towards the stranger, the latter ran away, and the handler praised the dog.
As training progressed from day to day, the dog was shifted from the chain to the leash in the hands of the handler, and the work was continued until the dog attacked persons, first on the training field and later in the woods or jungle. In the end, the dog was always alerted to discover the enemy when put on “watch” by his handler. The manner of his alerting could take various forms, one might strain at the leash, another show general excitement, another by crouching. Whatever the method, the handler, during the training, learned to “read” his dog’s reactions and act accordingly.
Messenger dogs were trained by first having one of the handlers move away a few yards. The other handler then put the messenger collar on the dog and ordered him to “report.” The first handler then called the dog and praised him when the dog reported. By slow degrees, the distance between the distant handler and the dog was increased until the former was out of sight and sound. Finally, the messenger dog would travel several miles from one handler to the other. This way, communication could be established between patrols, outposts, and the command post.
Throughout their training, the dogs, both Scout and Messenger, and their handlers were regularly subjected to small arms and high explosive gunfire.
The dog handlers were selected for their intelligence, character, physical ability, and any previous training as scout snipers (without dogs). When such men were unavailable, they had to be trained as scout-snipers concurrently with dog handling. Since dogs, from the point of view of training, can only respond successfully over limited periods, it was possible to spend half the time of the men training dogs and half the time training the men as scout-snipers. Paradoxically, the dog on duty could outperform a human in alertness, lack of sleep, and general condition, but in actually learning his lessons, it was found necessary to give frequent breaks and not spend too many hours a day on the lessons. Previous experience as a dog handler was not a prerequisite, but men who had associated with animals and had that indefinable ability to read their minds and understand them were the most successful.
No known means of compelling a man to be an expert dog handler existed. Many of the best handlers came from farms that had handled hunting dogs and farm stock. Some men soon learned they were not war dog men and were immediately transferred to other duties. In the same way, the dogs demonstrating that they did not have the qualities of a war dog in the Marine Corps were returned to their former owners.
Before leaving the War Dog Training Company at Camp Lejeune, the men, and dogs were formed into platoons consisting of 1 officer, 65 men, and 36 dogs (18 scout and 18 messenger). One man was assigned to each of the 18 scout dogs as handler, and two men to each of the 18 messenger dogs as handlers. The unit was further divided into three squads composed of 6 scout dogs — 6 handlers, 6 messenger dogs — 12 handlers, and a noncommissioned officer in charge. In addition, there were six supernumeraries, two for each squad, which provided relief for the regular handler in case of illness or casualty, and a platoon sergeant.
Each Marine infantry regiment incorporated a war dog platoon. An officer serving on the regimental staff became the Commanding Officer’s advisor in using dogs and commanding the platoon. The tactical use of the dog platoon always depended upon the mission of the regiment and its subordinate units. The war dog platoon could be employed as a unit or subdivided as needed.
The first Marine Corps dog unit sent to the Pacific was the 1st Marine War Dog Platoon, arriving in the South Pacific on 11 July 1943. This unit went into the Bougainville operation while attached to the 2d Marine Raider Regiment. Marine Raiders were enthusiastic over the performance of the war dogs during Bougainville.
Marine War Dogs also served on Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa — and during occupation duty in mainland Japan following the surrender.
The Vietnam War introduced American troops to a new kind of warfare. Patrolling inside thick, triple-canopy jungles was dangerous by day and even more perilous by night. Enemy fighters used the jungle to their advantage, employing guerilla tactics (such as ambushes, mines, tunnels, and traps) in ways that U.S. troops hadn’t encountered before. A well-trained dog became an extension of his handler’s senses — seeing, hearing, and smelling otherwise undetectable danger.
The German Shepherd (Alsatian) was the most common service dog in the Vietnam War, used for scouting, sentry duty, mine/tunnel detection, and water patrols. Labrador retrievers were also widely used, primarily as trackers. Dogs were trained to alert their handlers to hidden dangers, from snipers to tripwires and weapons caches. Dogs could even detect enemy fighters submerged in rivers, breathing through hollow reeds, and waiting to attack American watercraft.
War analysts claim that these animals (and their handlers) are credited with saving as many as 10,000 U.S. lives and preventing certain injuries for countless more. They were so effective that they became special targets for the enemy, who began attacking kennels and offering bounties for the shoulder patch of a dog handler or the tattooed ear of a service dog. Many handlers wanted to bring their dogs home to America when the war ended. But in a decision by a Democrat-run Defense Department, these dogs were classified as equipment. At this time, dog handlers were not allowed to adopt their animals. Most animals were left behind, transferred to the South Vietnamese Army, systematically euthanized, or abandoned. America’s war dogs were the only combat troops that never went home.
On 18 December 1903, Secretary of the Navy William Moody directed the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Brigadier General George F. Elliott, to personally report to the President of the United States. His orders from President Roosevelt were to “proceed in person, taking passage aboard USS Dixie, from League Island to Colón, Panama. Take command of the entire force of United States Marines and seamen that may be landed for service in the State of Panama.”
The President’s order was significant because no Commandant had been ordered into the field since Colonel Commandant Archibald Henderson was sent to Florida to deal with the Indians in 1836. Moreover, no commandant has been ordered into the field since 1903.
Why would the President order the Marine Corps Commandant into the field? President Roosevelt had great trust and confidence in the Navy-Marine Corps to carry out his orders without delay or fuss. Faced with the possibility of conflict in Panama in late 1903, Roosevelt instinctively reached out for sea power. This time, however, he needed naval infantry, as well. When Panamanian revolutionaries declared independence, Colombia threatened to use force to recover its lost province. General Elliott’s presidential mission was one of the most strategically audacious gambits of the early 20th century. When he sailed south to assume command of the rapidly growing force of U.S. Marines, he carried plans for the invasion of Colombia and the occupation of one of its major cities.
Based on Colombia’s behavior in early to mid-1903, President Roosevelt anticipated that Colombia would likely attempt to retake its lost province. In mid-November, Washington began forwarding intelligence reports to U.S. military and naval commanders concerning Colombian troop movements —reports estimating that as many as 15,000 soldiers were moving toward Panama.
Rear Admiral Henry Glass (Commander, Pacific Squadron) at Panama City and Rear Admiral Joseph Coghlan (Commander, Caribbean Squadron) at Colón believed that Panamanian weather would serve the interests of the Americans. Both officers remained confident of the fighting spirit and strength of the U. S. Marines in Panama, and both admirals reported to Washington that there was no chance that a Colombian force would advance upon them until after the dry season. Admiral Glass must have developed a case of indigestion a few days after learning that a Colombian expedition of 1,100 men had already tested an overland route into Panama.
President Roosevelt had received that same report from a separate source in Colombia. Roosevelt was informed that the Colombians intended to establish a forward base at the mouth of the Atrato River, near the Panamanian border. Moreover, American diplomats reported deep-seated anger toward Americans in Bogota’s capital city.
The new government of Panama was still organizing. It did not have a force able to defend against a significant assault by Colombian troops — and it was clear to all concerned that Colombia intended to reclaim its province. It was up to the Americans to defend the new state of Panama — it was up to the Marines.
As reports of a likely invasion started flowing into his headquarters, Admiral Glass wired Washington for instructions on the extent of his authority to defend the new republic. On 10 December, Secretary Moody drafted a reply that would order Glass to establish camps of fully equipped Marine battalions at inland points to forcibly prevent hostile entry by land into the State of Panama. The draft also directed that he maintain good communication between Marine ground units and Navy vessels and that he cut trails and buy or hire pack animals as necessary to support overland expeditions. Moody’s order was never sent, however. When Moody presented his draft to the President, Roosevelt ordered him to hold off until the matter could be considered in greater depth.
The next day the Secretary of the Secretary of the Navy, presumably acting on Rosevelt’s further consideration, transmitted an order that marked a dramatic shift in the rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Panama: “Establish strong posts, men and Marines with artillery in the direction of the Yavisa or other better positions for observation only and rapid transmission of information but do not forcibly interfere with Colombian forces advancing by land.”
Secretary Moody again changed the rules of engagement a week later. The Secretary directed Glass to assume an almost entirely defensive role. In doing so, he retreated from previous instructions from Washington, which ordered Glass to defend all territory within 50 miles of the Panama Railroad, which carried a vast amount of commercial goods across the narrow Isthmus and thus represented the most commercially and strategically important Panamanian national asset.
According to this clarification, telegraphed in cipher, Moody’s instructions to Glass on 11 December were: “… maintain posts in the vicinity of Yavisa for observation only. Do not have posts beyond support from ships or launches. Withdraw your posts if liable to be attacked. The government intends to continue active defense against hostile operations near the railroad line on the IIsthmus and for its protection. Disregard all previous instructions that may appear to conflict with these.”
Roosevelt’s earlier threats may have been bluster, but it is also possible that Colombia’s military expedition caused Roosevelt to reconsider America’s long-term interests in the region. There’s also a third possibility: Roosevelt shifted his strategy for dealing with Colombia. His new strategy? A Marine assault in Colombia.
General Elliott assumed his duties as the tenth Commandant of the Marine Corps on 3 October 1903 —one month before the revolution in Panama. Elliott was the only Marine Corps Commandant educated at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He made the unusual decision to accept a commission in the Marines late in 1870. Subsequently, his exemplary performance of duty in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and in the Philippines during the insurgency against the American occupation resulted in his rapid promotion.
In mid-December 1903, President Roosevelt called upon Elliott’s knowledge of tropical warfare in dispatching him to Panama. After meeting with Secretary Moody on 18 December, General Elliott proceeded to assemble his force. The Commandant made it clear to his officers that the men needed to be prepared for service in “heavy marching order” and for rapid movement and sustained combat.
On 11 December, the cruiser U.S.S. Prairie departed Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with a battalion of Marines under the command of Major Louis C. Lucas. Arriving at Colón on the 13th, Lucas took his Battalion into camp at Bas Obispo. At League Island, the auxiliary cruiser U.S.S. Dixie recently returned from delivering Major John A. Lejeune’s nearly 400 Marines to Panama, embarked Elliott’s two additional Marine battalions, the first under the command of Major James E. Mahoney, the second led by Major Eli K. Cole. With the combined force of 642 Marines, General Elliott departed Philadelphia on 28 December and arrived at Colón on 3 January 1904. The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade was thus formed.
General Elliott’s priorities included establishing his Marines in the field and realigning the command structure to match the size of his force. Ellio ordered Major Cole’s Battalion to proceed to Empire, a town along the railroad approximately 30 miles from Colón; there, they would take quarters alongside Lejeune’s Battalion, which had come ashore on 4 November to coerce a Colombian Battalion into leaving the newly declared republic.
Lejeune’s men then spent the intervening month providing light security and communications relay before receiving orders to move into base camp at Empire. Major Lejeune’s professionalism and attention to detail (as well as the welfare of his Marines) led him to order an extensive reworking of the existing facilities of the former French Canal Company’s buildings at Empire. New freshwater and sewage systems were installed, jungle growth cleared, and the houses for the Marines cleaned and disinfected with healthy doses of carbolic acid. Only then did Lejeune allow his Marines to move into the quarters they would occupy for most of the following year. Lejeune’s and Cole’s battalions were designated 1st and 2nd Battalions, respectively, 1st Marine Regiment, Colonel W. P. Biddle (pictured right), Commanding.
Major James Mahoney’s Battalion proceeded to Bas Obispo, where it was quartered alongside Major Lucas’s Marines. These two units comprised the 2nd Marine Regiment, Colonel L. W. T. Waller (pictured right), Commanding. Both regiments, together, counted approximately 1,100 men.
General Elliott’s priorities also included reporting to the senior Navy officers in the country to present his orders. He first called on Admiral Coghlan at Colón. Shortly thereafter, he rode a train across the isthmus to meet with Admiral Glass. To each, he presented a letter from the Secretary of the Navy, part of which read: “The Department forwards herewith, in charge of Brigadier General Elliott, USMC, a plan for the occupation of Cartagena, Colombia. As will be seen, the plan contemplates occupation against a naval enemy, but the information it contains and the strategy involved may be readily applied to the present situation.”
General Elliott’s plan was almost certainly a regional modification to several operational plans formulated during the late 1890s. The plan was a bold military and diplomatic strategy that reflected well on the sophistication of American military planning that had been noticeably lacking throughout most of the nineteenth century. After nearly five years of frustrating American involvement against jungle-based Filipino insurrectionists, and two months of armed reconnaissance in Panama, President Roosevelt recognized the futility of defending Panama’s numerous bays, ill-defined borders, and porous mountain passes. He, therefore, chose to forgo a defensive strategy in favor of offensive action on a battlefield of his own choosing.
The battlefield of President Roosevelt’s choosing was Cartagena, no doubt anticipating that with U.S. Marines walking post inside his capital city, the President of Columbia would prefer a negotiated settlement. The naval force would first capture the port and customs house, then its defense installations, and then occupy the city itself. If the plan was successful, Roosevelt would dictate terms.
In the meantime, General Elliott instituted a training program to maintain his Marines at a high level of combat readiness. Simultaneously, he dispatched his forces on quick “out-‘n-back” expeditions that fulfilled the dual purposes of maintaining security while building Marine’s understanding of the surrounding countryside.
On 21 January, General Elliott reported that he had constructed rifle ranges in the two camps and directed the regiments to practice their marksmanship with rifles and automatic weapons. The Marines also practiced assault tactics, entrenching procedures, and the construction of obstacles to slow and confuse a counter-attacking enemy force. In short, General Elliott knew these were the skills his Marines would need to capture and defend Cartagena. Marine commanders dispatched reconnaissance parties throughout the small country to map roads and trails. This effort resulted in the first comprehensive survey of the isthmus of Panama. Meanwhile, the Leathernecks’ morale and discipline remained high — with a few minor exceptions, of course.
Word soon came to the Marines —a rumor— that Colombian insurgents planned to poison their water supply. General Elliott acted immediately: he ordered that anyone attempting to tamper with the water supply be shot on sight. Admiral Glass quickly reminded the General, “a state of war does not exist on the Isthmus of Panama.” Perhaps Elliott should simply take additional precautions to guard his water barrels. General Elliott no doubt appreciated the Admiral’s advice but let his order stand.
Meanwhile, Secretary Moody wrote to update Elliott on the situation at hand. After expressing his pleasure with the professionalism displayed by the Commandant and his staff throughout their deployment to Panama, the Navy secretary informed him, “If Colombia actually begins hostilities against us, a Brigade of the Army will proceed to the Isthmus.” This force, Moody cryptically explained, would allow Elliott to disengage his Marines in Panama and turn his attention to another “important” duty.
If Colombia decided to accept the new status quo in Panama, the secretary suggested Elliott’s force might take part “in some operations connected with the winter maneuvers.” Moody also enjoined Elliott to communicate frequently with Washington and clarified who the intended recipient of the communiqués would be: “Let the Department know through the proper channels of your daily operations. Remember, the Department is always annoyed by a long silence, and please also remember that the Army, which has only a couple of officers down there, is furnishing the President every day with pages of cipher cable, much of which, though dealing with small matters, is of considerable interest. Let your scouting be thorough and extend a long distance and give us daily accounts of it.“
On 12 January 1904, following a cabinet meeting, Secretary of War Elihu Root issued a statement denying any plan on the part of the United States to dispatch troops to Panama to fight Colombian forces. This appears to have been classic disinformation. While Army troops would be dispatched to Panama in the event of a Colombian invasion of the new republic, the real strategic response would come from the Marines on the ground in Panama. But they were not intended to battle Colombians in Panama; they would fight Colombians — and do it in Colombia.
By the end of January 1904, General Elliott’s brigade of Marines, backed by ships of the Pacific and Caribbean squadrons, were ready to assault Cartagena to ensure the continued independence of Panama. The invasion, of course, never took place. Colombia protested, probed, and negotiated but never seriously attempted to reoccupy its former province and, hence, never triggered Roosevelt’s audacious plan.
A treaty between Panama and the United States, the Isthmian Canal Convention, was ratified by the U.S. Senate on 23 February 1904 and signed by President Roosevelt two days later. According to its terms, the United States guaranteed the independence of the Republic of Panama.
General Rafael Reyes-Prieto, commander-in-chief of the Colombian Army and presumptive political heir to the country’s presidency, had traveled to Panama shortly after the revolution in an attempt to lure the nascent republic back into the Colombian fold, but on realizing he would be unsuccessful, he continued on to the United States. There, was treated with every courtesy, but when the question of Panama’s independence was raised, it was understood, in the words of a contemporary observer, “that what has been done could not be undone.” Reyes understood that American public opinion was behind Roosevelt’s policy of upholding the revolution in Panama.
Finally, Reyes hoped that the $10 million promised to Colombia under the rejected Hay-Herrán Treaty might still find its way into the country’s treasury. And by the end of January 1904, rumors that Colombia would “sooner or later receive a certain financial consolation for her loss of territory provided she abstains from violent proceedings” were circulating throughout Washington — and that’s what happened.
By the middle of March, Colombian troops operating along the Panamanian frontier were withdrawn, and the government declared that it did not intend to invade its former territory. In 1921 the U.S. Senate ratified the Thomson-Urrutia Treaty that provided Colombia $25 million for the loss of Panama.
A large portion of the 2d Marine Regiment was withdrawn from Panama on 14 February 1904 and redeployed to Guantanamo Bay to take part, as Secretary Moody had previously suggested, in annual winter maneuvers. General Elliott and his staff departed two days later, leaving Colonel Waller in command of the 800 remaining Marines.
On 7 March, Colonel Waller took a battalion back to League Island, leaving Major Lejeune behind with his original Battalion of 400 men to provide security aBattalionaissance on the isthmusIsthmusBattalionBalion remained for another nine months. U.S. Marines would remain a presence in Panama until 1912 when Captain John F. Hughes led his force of 389 men home.
Except — I served in Panama during the emergency of 1964 while a member of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines.
Wicks, D. H. “Dress Rehearsal: United States Intervention on the Isthmus of Panama, 1886. Pacific Historical Review, 1990
Collin, R. H. Theodore Roosevelt’s Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Latin American Context (1990)
Graham, T. The Interests of Civilization: Reaction in the United States Against the Seizure of the Panama Canal Zone, 1903-1904. Lund Studies in International Relations, 1985.
Nikol, J. and Francis X. Holbrook, “Naval Operations in the Panama Revolution, 1903.” American Neptune, 1977.
Turk, R. “The Uni ed States Navy and the Taking of Panama, 1901-1903.” Military Affairs, 1974.
 George Frank Elliott (30 November 1846 – 4 November 1931) was promoted to Colonel in March 1903 and advanced to Brigadier General on 3 October 1903 when he assumed the post of Commandant of the Marine Corps.
The start date for history is that first moment in time when a human being recorded some past event — that, were it not for the record of that event, we could not know about it. In Panama, that moment occurred in 1501, when Rodrigo de Bastidas began his exploration of the Isthmus of Panama’s east coast. This is not to say that there were no human beings in Panama — only that we don’t know very much about them beyond the guestimates of archeologists and anthropologists.
Christopher Columbus’s fourth voyage in 1502 took him in a southeasterly direction from the upper region of Central America to the areas of Bocas del Toro, Veragua, the Rio Chagres and Portobello (named by Columbus). In these early times, Spanish explorers referred to the Isthmus of Panama as Tierra Firme.
Several years later, the Spanish Crown granted Alonso de Ojeda and Diego de Nicuesa the right to colonize the area between the Gulf of Uraba (northern Colombia) and present-day Honduras. The plan was to create a unitary administration somewhat similar to what later became Nueva España (New Spain (Mexico)). Tierra Firme was later appointed to control over present-day Jamaica and several other Caribbean islands. Vasco Nunéz de Balboa created the first permanent settlement, called Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien (later, Dariena) (northern Colombia) in 1513, from which he began his famed expedition — one that made him the first European to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean — which he named the South Sea.
It was Balboa’s fantastical descriptions of the isthmus that prompted King Ferdinand II to name this new territory “Golden Castile.” Ferdinand appointed Pedro Arias Divila (also Pedrarias) (a veteran soldier) as its governor. He arrived in the New World in June 1514 with 22 ships and 1,500 men. In 1519, Pedrarias moved his capital to Castilla del Oro, founding a new location for a city he named Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Panamá (Panama City). Without any concrete evidence to support this contention, the origin of the word “Panama” is believed of native origin, its meaning “many fish.” Pedrarias was also instrumental in settling present-day Nicaragua.
Panama remained part of the Spanish Empire for over 300 years. In the total of the Americas, no other region would prove to be as strategically or economically important. Encroachment attempts by other European countries to seize Panama prompted the Spanish Crown to establish the Viceroyalty of New Granada in 1713 and Panama was placed under its protection. Unfortunately, the capital of New Granada was located at Santa Fe de Bogotá — its remoteness was a major obstacle in effective governance. Equally problematic was the competition between the Viceroyalty of Bogotá and the Viceroyalty of Peru — a somewhat infantile competition that lasted for over a hundred years.
The Spanish Empire reached its zenith under Habsburg rule in the late 18th century. But as order unraveled in Europe in 1808, political instability in new world colonies increased as well. It was the beginning of the Latin American independence movement that swept through Spanish-American colonies like a cholera pandemic.
New Granada finally achieved full independence from Spain in 1819, freeing Panama as well. The citizens of Panama considered uniting with Peru or other Central American federations but eventually joined Gran Colombia at the urgings of the much-admired Simón Bolívar. Panama declared its independence in 1821.
The very notion of a man-made canal between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea originated in the 1500s when Señor Balboa envisioned a shortcut across the narrow isthmus. But at the time, such an undertaking was deemed impossible — which is where the matter stood until around 1826 when U.S. Secretary of State Henry Clay considered the advantages of a canal across the newly independent Federal Republic of Central America. By this time, of course, American engineers had bragging rights over the construction of the Erie Canal — demonstrating that men were not just dreamers, they were also doers.
Secretary Clay’s idea (and those of others) was to cut across Nicaragua to the lake of the same name, which would, he supposed, provide a ready supply of water for a canal with locks to raise and lower ships for the journey from the Pacific and Atlantic. Congress, however, turned Clay down because of Nicaragua’s political instability. There was some talk about the likelihood that Nicaragua would separate into a half-dozen countries. If this should happen, the instability would interfere with American ambitions. In fact, political power in Colombia changed several times.
In 1843, Great Britain announced its plans to embark on a canal project, focusing its attention on Panama. Compared to Nicaragua, the distance in Panama coast-to-coast was less, but it too was a fleeting idea — one taken up by the famed engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal.
In 1846, the United States signed the Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty with New Granada (Colombia y Panama) — a mutual cooperation treaty granting the U.S. significant transit rights within the isthmus, as well as certain military powers to suppress social conflicts and independence struggles targeting Colombia. Over the years, the United States intervened in Panama many times — usually confronting rebellious civilians, peasant guerrillas, or independence struggles.
From the beginning of the California Gold Rush (1848), the U.S. spent the next seven years building a trans-isthmian railway, a project which (according to the Mallarino-Bidlack Treaty), granted the U.S. political and economic access to Panamanian affairs. The province of Panama, of course, was part of New Granada — later an independent country of the same name.
In March 1885, Colombia reduced its military presence in Panama by reassigning troops to quell disturbances in Cartagena. Panamanian insurgents, with fewer soldiers to shoot at them, took full advantage of the situation, and this, in turn, triggered U.S. intervention pursuant to the Treaty of 1846.
Between 1869 – 1877, U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant ordered seven survey expeditions to study the feasibility of a cross-isthmus canal. As travel and trade in the Western hemisphere increased, the desirability of a canal increased. The distance between New York and San Francisco around Cape Horn, through treacherous seas, was 13,000 miles. The journey took months.
The War of the Pacific
This conflict involved Chile vs. the Bolivia-Peruvian alliance that lasted between 1879 – 1884. It was a territorial dispute that eventually increased the territory of Chile. Initially, the argument involved Bolivia and Chile; Peru was dragged into the fray because of its alliances with Bolivia. Chilean armed forces occupied the Bolivian port city of Antofagasta on 14 February 1879.
Oddly, hostilities weren’t declared between Chile and Bolivia until 1 March, and another month passed before Peru joined the fight. Initially, the fight was a naval campaign with Chile struggling to establish a seaborne supply corridor for forces operating in the world’s driest desert. Subsequently, Chile’s land campaign became overwhelming. Bolivia withdrew after late May 1880, and Chilean forces occupied Peru’s capital in January 1881. Afterward, the fight became a guerrilla war that simply wore down Peruvian forces to the point of agreeing to territorial concessions. The three countries signed peace accords in 1883 and 1884.
The U.S. Navy had no part in this war, but this is not to say that there was no connection to the United States. During the war, a lone U.S. Navy ship sat in the harbor at Callao, Peru — ostensibly to protect American interests during the war’s final stages. The ship was U.S.S. Wachusett (commissioned in 1861), and its commanding officer was a somewhat mediocre seaman named Alfred Thayer Mahan. Sitting in a foreign port isn’t a very exciting duty, although it was probably great fun for the crew. As for Captain Mahan, he spent his time reading books in the English Gentleman’s Club. Historians tell us that it was at Callao that Mahan began to formulate his concept of sea power.
The Chilean Navy had recently acquired a protected cruiser from a British shipbuilder known as Armstrong-Mitchell in 1882 or 1883. A protected cruiser is constructed in such a way as to provide maximum protection to that area of the ship most critical to its operation: the propulsion plant and its magazines. The Chilean navy commissioned this ship Esmeralda and proclaimed her the swiftest and most powerfully armed cruiser in the world. In 1885, Esmeralda appeared along the coast of Panama to observe U.S. activities ashore. The ship was, in its time, an awesome sight, particularly when compared to the wooden-hulled ships of the line of the United States Navy.
President McKinley and Roosevelt’s Canal
In 1897, President McKinley became the 25th President of the United States. He was an advocate of protectionist policies and tough diplomacy. Within twelve months, McKinley took the United States to war with a major European power (although one on standing on its last Imperial legs). The United States won the Spanish-American War (in record time), but that feat had more to do with Spanish incompetence than American might. The war might have gone “the other way” had it not been for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps … and one very talkative Assistant Secretary of the Navy whose name was Theodore Roosevelt.
The condition of the American navy following the Civil War was abysmal. The Navy’s ships were rotting at the waterline. The Navy and Congress were guilty of criminal neglect. The Navy for not raising holy hell about the state of its ships, and Congress for failing to provide sufficient funds to maintain the fleet. Worse, perhaps, the Navy didn’t have much of a mission, and its officers were retired on active duty. In short, the U.S. Navy was a disgrace.
How bad was it, really? In 1884, a French naval officer visited a U.S. Navy ship and complimented its captain for the ship’s brilliant display of antique weaponry — suggesting, of course, that an American ship of the line was a floating museum. A year later, President Grover Cleveland’s first message to Congress was a scorching indictment of the U.S. Navy. In the President’s opinion, what made the state of the Navy humiliating was that Italy, Spain, and Holland boasted a more powerful navy than the United States — and Chile had more powerful ships, as well. Captain Mahan must have been deeply embarrassed.
The impetus for a modernized, stronger Navy capable of projecting U.S. power overseas was competition for colonial possessions, the creation of numerous coaling stations, and an 1889 war scare between the United States and Germany over territorial claims in the Samoan Islands. Two years later, a Chilean mob attacked U.S. sailors on shore leave in Valparaiso, killing 2 and wounding 17. President Benjamin Harrison tried to take a hard line, but as soon as the President understood that Chile had a stronger navy than his own, he soon backed off.
In 1897, the U.S. Navy was not ready for war — simply “more ready” than the Army, and that wasn’t saying much. The one service that was ready for war was the U.S. Marine Corps. See also First Marine Battalion.
The one thing the U.S. Navy/Marine Corps did not lack in 1898 was a strategic vision. Even though the U.S. and Spain had been at peace for over 80 years, Navy and Marine Corps thinkers imagined and contemplated war with Iberia and planned for it. These men were keen observers of the conflict between Spain and the Cuban revolutionaries (1868 – 1878).
President McKinley, of course, was assassinated in 1901, which propelled Theodore Roosevelt into the presidency. Arguably, the most important action President Theodore Roosevelt ever took in foreign affairs related to the construction of the Panama Canal. It was controversial abroad —it was controversial at home. Those who opposed the canal claimed that Roosevelt’s actions were unconstitutional. The charge was possibly true — the denizens of Washington never worry about such things as violations of the U.S. Constitution. Roosevelt, of course, was a man of action.
Driven by patriotic fervor, supported by the investments of a hundred-thousand investors and the expectation of great wealth, the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique began work that would cross the Colombian isthmus of Panama and unite the Atlantic with the Pacific. There was ample evidence that Lesseps had done his due diligence.
The Panama Railway had made in excess of $7 million in the first six years of its operations. The railroad, which had cost upwards of 6,000 human lives to build, failed to dampen Mr. Lesseps’ enthusiasm. The project would be a sea-level canal dug along the path of the Panama Railroad. It would extend fifty miles in length (half as long as the Suez Canal), and it would cost around $132 million. Lesseps estimated a project lasting 12 years.
The canal became a French project on 1 February 1881, but ultimately, it was another failed attempt. Neither Lesseps nor any of his company was prepared for the harsh Central American environment. Ultimately, Mr. Lesseps gave up 22,000 workers who died of one cause or another; all the money spent on the project was wasted, and the project ended in 1888.
Shortly after ascending to the presidency, Theodore Roosevelt spoke of the Panama Canal in a speech to Congress. He argued enthusiastically, “No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent is as of such consequence to the American people.” The President acted quickly. In 1902, the United States reached an agreement to buy the rights to the French canal and property and its equipment for a sum of $40 million. The U.S. then began to negotiate a treaty with the government of Colombia. The U.S. Department of War would direct the excavation. The American public sensed a scandal in the making — or worse, good money is thrown after bad.
In a short time, Colombia grew reticent in its negotiations. Roosevelt and Panamanian business interests collaborated on the instigation of a revolution. The battle lasted only a few hours because Colombian troops in the city of Colón accepted bribes to lay down their arms. On 3 November 1903, the Colombian province of Panama became the independent country of the same name. And, since the U.S. initiated the hullaballoo in the first place, it assumed a parental interest in Panamanian affairs. Members of the Roosevelt administration prepared Panama’s Constitution in advance of the “revolution,” the wife of a prominent Panamanian lobbyist sewed the country’s first flag (her husband became the Panamanian ambassador to the United States), and a treaty was signed that were favorable to American interests. The United States promptly deposited $10 million to the Panamanian government.
(Continued next week)
Wicks, D. H. “Dress Rehearsal: United States Intervention on the Isthmus of Panama, 1886. Pacific Historical Review, 1990
Collin, R. H. Theodore Roosevelt’s Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Latin American Context (1990)
Graham, T. The Interests of Civilization: Reaction in the United States Against the Seizure of the Panama Canal Zone, 1903-1904. Lund Studies in International Relations, 1985.
Nikol, J. and Francis X. Holbrook, “Naval Operations in the Panama Revolution, 1903.” American Neptune, 1977.
Turk, R. “The United States Navy and the Taking of Panama, 1901-1903.” Military Affairs, 1974.
 The idea of a canal across Nicaragua did not end in the mid-1800s. The United States ordered a survey in 1916 as a hedge against the unworkability of the Panama Canal, and the People’s Republic of China evaluated prospects in 2012. Concern for the safety of Lake Nicaragua settled the matter — for now.
The act of mutiny occurs whenever a group of people (especially soldiers or sailors) refuses to obey orders and (or) attempts to take control away from their lawfully appointed officers or senior NCOs. In all, there were 19 mutinies in the Royal Navy. Two of these occurred in 1797, known as the Spithead and Nore mutinies — the first in an increasing number of outbreaks of maritime radicalism in the so-called Atlantic passage. At the first, the Spithead mutiny was peaceful and successfully addressed common economic grievances. The Nore mutiny was just the opposite.
A Word About Marines
Historically, as a principal duty, marines serve as naval infantry. The word is French for “by sea,” which is probably why the French have always referred to English troops as marines. They always arrived by sea.
Initially, a ship’s crew assumed the tasks of marines at sea. They were, first, sailors. There was not much distinction between sailors and soldiers aboard ships because, for the most part, the crews of vessels fighting one another met in close combat, and it was a melee. Sailors had to know how to fight. But they also had to know how to fight once they reached their destinations.
In antiquity, Roman soldiers fought on Roman combat ships as marines. The Italians were the first to employ specially trained sailors to serve as naval infantry (c. 1200s). The chief magistrate of Venice assigned ten companies of these specialized troops to a naval squadron and sent them off to address some disagreement with the Byzantines. The mission went well for the Italians, and so they decided to retain such men and called them “sea infantry.” Soon after, the idea caught on with other countries. The Spanish Marine Corps, founded in 1537, is the world’s oldest (still-active) corps of marines. The Netherlands created its corps of marines in 1665. In most cases, though, modern marines are specially trained sailors.
The British Royal Marines were the first naval infantry who were NOT sailors. During the 1600s and 1700s, the Royal Navy would form regiments of marines by taking soldiers from the British Army and disbanding them when no longer needed on active service. In 1775, the American Congress formed Marine battalions modeled on the role of their British counterparts — to serve as naval infantry. Today, U.S. Marines are trained from the beginning of their commissions/enlistments to serve as naval infantry — although the Continental Congress stipulated in the recruitment of marines “that particular care be taken, that no persons be appointed to office or enlisted into said battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage by sea, when required.”
The employment of Marines as general handymen and orderlies for flag officers of the Navy is no innovation. So ingrained had this idea become by 1881 that a naval encyclopedia in that year defined the word “orderly” as “a Marine private detailed as a messenger for the commanding officer.” The admiral’s orderly, therefore, had to be a leatherneck — a bluejacket wouldn’t do. And it became the role of marines, not engaged in combat at sea, to preserve order aboard ship. In port, sentinel posts were established to prevent desertion — and at all times, marines kept an ear cocked for the faintest rumblings of mutiny.
Mutiny at sea was always problematic — and in 1797, what made it so was the fact that Great Britain was at war with Revolutionary France. The Royal Navy was a primary component of the war effort. There were also concerns among home offices — that the mutinies might be part of broader attempts at revolutionary sedition instigated by “troublemaking organizations,” such as the London Corresponding Society and the United Irishmen (see also: “Conclusion”).
Spithead was an anchorage near Portsmouth, and at anchor were sixteen ships under the command of Admiral Alexander Hood, Lord Bridport. No country has done a marvelous job caring for its Navy’s ships or the men who handle them, and the United Kingdom is no exception. And the men were not happy. Between 16 April to 15 May, the men of the channel fleet protested against the living conditions aboard ship, they demanded more pay for their services, better food, increased shore leave, and compensation for sickness and injury.
On 26 April, a supportive mutiny broke out on the additional 15 ships, each of which sent delegates to Spithead to participate in negotiations. It was probably about time for a review of pay accorded to the men of the sea. Their pay tables dated to 1658. The pay was still reasonable for those times — even through the Seven Years’ War. But in the last decades of the 18th century, nations experienced high inflation rates. Sailors with families to support were struggling to make do.
Another sore point for the Navy was the fact that, in recent years, the government granted pay increases to the British Army, to militia forces, and even to naval officers. But another issue affecting morale — and perhaps the Royal Navy’s budget- was its new practice of coppering the hulls of its warships. In 1761, coppering meant that combat ships no longer had to return to port as often to have their hulls scraped. The additional time at sea significantly altered the sea service rhythm, yet the Admiralty had made no adjustments. Senior officers were slow to grasp the difficulty of the deck-hands work. Impressment was a common practice suggesting that some of the crew served against their will.
Finally, in the war with France, the British Admiralty announced a new quota system known as the Quod. More than one clever politician discovered that sending convicted criminals to serve with the Navy was convenient. Generally, these “conscripts” did not mix well with a ship’s company. Dissention aboard ship was one of the items on a marine’s to-do list.
The mutineers were led by elected delegates and tried to negotiate with the Admiralty for two weeks, focusing their demands on better pay, demanding an end to the so-called 14-ounce purser’s pound. And the men wanted to get rid of a few officers, as well. No one mentioned flogging or impressment … but they could not abide an ass wearing an officer’s uniform. Throughout the mutiny, the crews maintained their regular naval routines aboard their ships and their discipline, and they consented to allow some ships to leave Spithead for convoy escort duties or combat patrols and promised to suspend the mutiny and go to sea immediately if French ships were spotted heading for English shores.
Negotiations broke down over such issues as pardons for mutineers, and some minor incidents broke out with a few unpopular officers. When the situation calmed down again, Fleet Admiral Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe (brother of Major General Sir William Howe) intervened to negotiate an agreement to obtain a royal pardon for all crews, the reassignment of some unpopular officers, a pay raise, and abolition of the purser’s pound.
The Nore Mutiny
The Nore is a long bank of sand and silt running along the south-central portion of England’s final narrowing of the Thames Estuary. Until 1964, it was the seaward limit of the Port of London. It was so dangerous that the world’s first lightship was established there in 1732.
Inspired by the example of their comrades at Spithead, the sailors at The Nore also mutinied an incident that began on 12 May 1797. The sailors of HMS Sandwich seized control of the ship, and several other ships within call’s reach followed their example. Other ships quietly slipped away despite gunfire from the ships in rebellion. Scattered ships make it difficult to organize mutinies among other ships, but each involved vessel quickly elected its delegates. The men of HMS Sandwich elected Seaman Richard Parker to serve as President of the Delegates of the Fleet.
Seaman Parker was a former master’s mate who was reduced in rank at a court-martial for insubordination and subsequently discharged. Life was hard for Parker in Exeter, and he fell into debt. This situation caused the county council to nominate Parker for duty with the Navy, and he found himself as an ordinary seaman aboard Sandwich. He had only recently joined the crew when the mutiny broke out. Parker, an older and more experienced man, fully aware of the squalid conditions aboard Sandwich, took no part in the mutiny, but he did empathize with the crew, and he agreed to represent them with the officer commanding — even though he exercised no control over the actions of the mutineers.
Crewmen formulated a list of eight demands and, on 20 May 1797, presented them to Admiral Charles Buckner. They wanted pardons, increased pay, and modifications of the Articles of War and demanded that the King dissolve Parliament and make immediate peace with France. As one might imagine, the demands infuriated the Admiralty, which offered nothing in return except a pardon (and the concessions already made at Spithead) in return for an immediate return to duty. By the first of June, mutinied ships formed a blockade of the Thames.
Captain Sir Erasmus Gower, commanding HMS Neptune in the upper Thames, put together a flotilla of fifty loyal ships and determined to use them to prevent mutineers from reaching the City of London. It was essentially Gower’s intentions that made the mutineers at Nore begin to waiver, but not before they made the wrong decision to blockade London, which prevented merchant vessels from entering port. Parker then decided to move the mutinied ships to France — which infuriated the regular English sailors and caused them to take back a few ships.
Among most of the mutineers at The Nore, if anyone was thinking about treason, it was only a few. Most men simply wanted less squalid living conditions, better food, and better pay. Parker issued orders to allow passage to merchant ships on the Thames but ordered the detention of the Royal Navy’s victualling ships. Historians claim that Parker wanted the Admiralty to have a good impression of the mutineer’s intent; other academics argue that it was a bit more complex than that. And, in any case, Parker was out of his depth.
After the successful resolution of the Spithead mutiny, the Admiralty was not inclined to make any further concessions, mainly as they felt some leaders of the Nore mutiny had political aims beyond improving pay and living conditions. The rebellion fell apart when Parker signaled ships to sail to France. When the mutineers (on most ships) observed the signal, they refused.
It did not take long for the Royal Navy to convict Seaman Parker — of treason and piracy. It also did not take the Royal Navy to hand him from the yardarm of Sandwich. Shown at right is Parker’s death mask.
Following Parker on the yardarm were 29 other seamen. An additional 29 went to prison. Nine men received a flogging, and several more found themselves headed for the penal colony in Australia. Most men, however, received no punishment — which until then was unheard of in the Royal Navy.
One tidbit: posting the watch
Ship’s crews stand their watches (periods of duty) according to the hour of the day. In the days of sail, watches were divided into two sections: port and starboard. Each of these was on duty for four hours, and then they were off duty for four hours. One stroke of the bell indicates the first half hour of the watch. An additional bell strikes for each succeeding half-hour. Eight bells indicate the end of a four-hour watch. Whenever the time calls for two or more bells, they are sounded in groups of two.
The first five watches
First watch: 20:00 to 00:00
Middle watch: 00:01 to 04:00
Morning watch: 04:01 to 08:00
Forenoon watch: 08:01 to 12:00
Afternoon watch: 12:01 to 16:00
Following the afternoon watch, the next four hours are divided into two “Dog Watches.” The first dog watch occurs from 16:01 to 18:00, and the second dog watch from 18:01 to 20:00. The dog watch can be changed every day so that each watch gets a turn at eight hours of rest at night. Otherwise, each crew member would be on duty for the same hours daily.
Before The Nore mutiny, Royal Navy vessels sounded five bells to signal the end of the last dog watch; after The Nore mutiny, five bells no longer signified the last dog watch because that was the signal aboard Sandwich to begin the mutiny.
There have seldom been what one might call “good feelings” between the English and the Irish. The Society of United Irishmen was a sworn association in the Kingdom of Ireland formed after the French Revolution to secure “equal representation” of all the people. In 1798, the society instigated a republican insurrection in defiance of the British Crown. Espousing principles they believed had been vindicated by the American Revolution, and the French Declaration of the rights of man, Presbyterian merchants who formed the organization in Belfast vowed to make cause with their Catholic brethren. In 1800, England abolished the Irish legislature, and everything went downhill from that point forward.
At the time of the Spithead and The Nore mutinies, British politicians assumed that the United Irishmen were behind these troubles as part of a plot to overthrow the British monarchy and establish in its place a British Republic. This was not true, of course, but given their turbulent past, everyone (Irish or British) was prepared to believe it.
Nalty, B. Certain Aspects of Manpower Utilization in the Marine Corps: Historical Background. Marine Corps Historical Reference Series, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1959.
Roulo, C. Why Are Marines Part of the Navy? U.S. Department of Defense, online publication.
Manwaring, G. E. The Floating Republic: An Account of the Mutinies at Spithead and The Nore in 1797. Harcourt-Brace, 1935.
Woodman, R. A Brief History of Mutiny. Carroll & Graff, 2005.
 Introduced by Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger) in 1795. The system required every British county to provide a certain number of men for service in the Royal Navy. The quota depended on the population of the counties. In some cases, county commissions found it difficult to meet their quota, so they offered bounties to landsmen, which created some dissension among regular swabbies. The system lasted through 1815, when the British decommissioned most of its navy.
 The purser’s pound was an arrangement where the ship’s purser was allowed to keep 2 ounces of food for every 16 ounces of food sold to the crew.
 Howe commanded HMS Baltimore during the Jacobite Uprising in 1745.
 Master’s Mate is no longer a rank in the British or American navies. Originally, the master’s mate was an experienced senior petty officer who assisted the ship’s master but was not in line for an officer’s commission. By the mid-18th century, though, this rate was a senior midshipman awaiting a commission to lieutenant.
Nearly everyone recalls that the Seven Years’ War (1756 – 1763) was a global conflict that involved most of Europe’s great powers. It was primarily fought in Europe, in the Americas, and the Asian Pacific — but there were concurrent conflicts that included the French and Indian War (1754 – 1763), the Carnatic Wars (a series of conflicts in India’s coastal Carnatic region, 1744 – 1763), and the Anglo-Spanish War (1762 – 1763).
Opposing European alliances were led by Great Britain and France, both of which were seeking to establish global pre-eminence at the expense of the other. France and Spain opposed Great Britain in Europe and overseas with land armies, naval forces, and colonial forces. Great Britain’s ally, Prussia, sought territorial expansion in Europe and consolidation of its power. Great Britain also challenged France and Spain in the West Indies — with consequential results. Prussia wanted greater influence in the German principalities, and Austria wanted to regain control of Silesia and contain Prussian influence.
The conflict forced the realignment of traditional alliances (known as the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756), where Prussia became part of the British coalition (which included a long-time competitor of Prussia, the principality of Hanover — which was in personal union with Britain). At the same time, Austria ended centuries of conflict between the Bourbon and Habsburg families by aligning itself with France, Saxony, Sweden, and Russia. Spain also aligned with France (1761). Smaller German states joined the war or supplied mercenaries to the parties involved.
Additionally, Anglo-French conflicts broke out in their North American colonies in 1754, when British and French colonial militias and their respective Native American allies engaged in small skirmishes and later full-scale colonial warfare. These colonial conflicts became a theatre of the Seven Years’ War when war was officially declared two years later. In the end, France lost most of its land on the Continent. Some historians claim that it was the most important event to occur in North America during the 18th century — prior to the American Revolution.
Spain entered the war on the side of France in 1762, but the effort to invade British ally Portugal was unsuccessful. As it turned out, Spain’s alliance with France was a disaster because the British gained footholds in Havana, Cuba, and in Manila, The Philippines.
Inside Europe, the area that generated most of the conflict was Austria’s desire to recover Silesia from Prussia. This contest was resolved in 1763, but more importantly, the war’s end signaled the beginning of Great Britain’s rise to become the world’s foremost colonial and naval power. Until after its revolution, France had no chance of becoming a supreme power. Prussia confirmed its status as a great power and, in doing so, altered the balance of power in Europe.
What most people do not realize, however, is that The Seven Years’ War marked a new beginning in the art and science of warfare. Frederick the Great embarked on land campaigns that later influenced Napoleon’s field commanders. Such terms as command and control and maneuver warfare both belonged to Frederick the Great. At sea, the British Royal Navy committed to decisive action under the leadership of Admiral Horatio Nelson. His innovations gave us Rule Britannia and the British Way of War.
What sets the Seven Years’ War apart from all prior Anglo-French experiences is not in the evolution of its transatlantic maritime conduct but in the innovation of a distinct military theory: amphibious operations.
Central to this doctrinal leap was Sir Thomas More Molyneux’s 1759 masterpiece, titled Conjunct Expeditions. It begins: “Happy for that People who are Sovereigns enough of the Sea to put [Littoral War] in Execution. For it comes like Thunder and Lightning to some unprepared Part of the World.”
Sir Thomas was an Oxford-educated guards officer serving on half-pay and a member of Parliament. His masterpiece was a unique addition to existing professional military literature. But while certain accomplishments were recognized for their importance as strategic blows, Quebec for example, none have become as studied or analyzed as Molyneux’s dissertation on amphibious warfare. The doctrine belongs to him alone.
There were indeed insulated instances of tactical flag signals and landing schemes that pre-date Molyneux’s Conjunct Expeditions, but his effort was the first to codify methods for employment by both land and sea forces.
Although he was writing primarily for a military audience (his training was Army, after all) rather than to a naval assembly, he sought to reduce, “if possible, this amphibious kind of warfare to a safe and regular system and to leave as little as we can to fortune and her caprices.” Sir Thomas was a brilliant man, an instinctive thinker who understood that every new expedition will, in all probability, produce some new improvement. He knew that while theory informs practice, its execution demands good judgment. His brilliance is illustrated by the fact that he placed “doctrine” second to the objectives and aims of the nation. The purpose of doctrine was to serve the national interests — as was a knowledge of geography, proper utilization of resources, galvanized political will, individual courage, and devotion to the success of such operations.
His understanding of the relationship between political ends and military means elevated his work to the level of that of Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz, who much later developed treatises on military theory incorporating the moral, psychological, and political aspects of war. Molyneux understood the importance between strategic intent and doctrinal capability. He knew that the disconnect between the two, or a failure to adapt to an evolving situation, brings forth the likelihood of defeat. Such principles are observable during The Seven Years’ War: Great Britain adapted its war aims and methods — France did not.
The world’s vast oceans presented Great Britain’s navy with significant challenges beyond navigation and regular seamanship. There was a question of how best to project the Royal Navy’s power from sea to shore — a challenge that lasted two-hundred years. Today, naval and military war planners give as much thought and consideration to warfare in the littoral (nearshore) regions as they do the deep blue sea. But close-to-shore operations offer complex challenges that no one thought of in 1754. And opportunities that no one imagined. Molyneux indeed put in writing concepts that had never before been put to paper, but amphibious operations (without doctrine) had been a fact of warfare for three-thousand years. It had simply not reached its full potential.
We believe that the ancient Greeks were the first to use amphibious warfare techniques. This information was passed to us from Homer’s The Iliad and the Odyssey. It is, of course, possible that such an operation may have occurred at an earlier time, at a different place, but was simply not recorded in history. Still, according to the Iliad, Greek soldiers crossed the Aegean Sea and stormed ashore on the beaches near Troy, which began a siege lasting ten years. Then, in 499 B.C., the Persians launched a waterborne attack against the Greeks. At the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. Persian forces established a beachhead in their attempt to invade Greece. They employed ships specifically designed for off-loading ships near shore, and while the Persians successfully executed their amphibious operation, the Greeks defeated the Persian armies as they moved inland.
At the beginning of 56 B.C., Caesar split his army up and sent them out from their winter quarters to the various corners of Gaul. He dispatched his lieutenant in charge of cavalry, Titus Labienus, to Belgae to fend off German tribalists at the Rhine. To Quintus Titurius Sabinus and three legions, he assigned responsibility to pacify the Venelli on the northern coast. He directed Publius Crassus to lead twelve cohorts to southeast Aquitania near Hispania to pacify the ancient Basque. Caesar’s plan was intended to prevent rebellious tribes from joining forces against Roman authority.
In the winter of 57 BC, the tribes inhabiting the northern coast of Gaul surrendered their allegiance to Rome — and then, almost immediately raised an insurrection against their Roman governor, Julius Caesar. The insurrection was led by Veneti (modern-day Brittany) and Venelli (modern-day Normandy). There was no formal Roman government to rebel against, but as a matter of principle, the tribalists felt obliged to rebel against Roman authority.
With his remaining four legions, Caesar himself moved east from Belgae territory toward the Veneti on the eastern coast of Gaul. In fear of Rome’s infantry, the Veneti began abandoning their villages to set up fortified strongholds along rivers and tributaries where tides made passage difficult. None of those conditions stopped the Romans, however. Having seized the Veneti strongholds, Caesar forced them toward the sea, where the rebels had collected a large naval force from among their fleets docked between Gaul and Britannia — about two hundred and twenty ships strong.
Caesar had no intention of allowing the Veneti to succeed in their rebellion. He ordered assistance from the Roman navy in building ships, a project that took all summer. A member of Brutus’s family was placed in command of this fleet while Julius Caesar stood aground with his land force on the coastline to observe the fight.
The challenge facing the Romans was not the size nor the skill of the enemy but the construction of their ships. Roman ships were lighter with deeper hulls — ill-suited to traverse the rocky, shallow coastline. The Veneti’s ships were constructed of heavy oak, flat-bottomed, and suitable for nearshore operations. The strength of the oak and its thickness made the Roman technique of ramming ineffective. But the Veneti ships were also slower. The Romans were engineers. They developed a long pole with a large hook fastened to its tip, which would be shot at the yards and masts of the Gallic ships. The effect of such hooks destroyed the sails of the Veneti ships while keeping them afloat in the water. The device used to project these poles was re-engineered ballistae. After encircling the Veneti boats, Roman marines boarded them and put the crew to the sword. From this experience, the Romans learned how to utilize boats to land on Britannia’s shore. However, as a historical footnote, the tribes in Gaul were not, as they say, very fast learners. See also: Mare Nostrum.
Beginning around 800 A.D., the Norsemen (Vikings) began their raids into Western Europe via major rivers and estuaries. The people living along these rivers were so terrified of these raiders that even the lookout’s shout was enough to cause cardiac arrest in some people. In 1066, William the Conqueror successfully invaded England from Normandy, and he successfully imposed his will upon the Angles and Saxons then living in what became known as Angle Land (England). But other efforts to force a sea-to-shore landing weren’t as successful. Spain’s Armada came to a disastrous result while attempting to land troops in England in the year 1588.
The Marines and their Corps
The first U.S. Navy amphibious landing occurred during the American Revolution when in 1776, sailors and Marines stormed ashore in the British Bahamas. The Nassau landing wasn’t much to brag about (back then or now), but it was a start. Among the more famous amphibious raids conducted by Marines assigned to ship’s detachments occurred during the Barbary Wars.
While Marines did conduct ship-to-shore raids during the American Civil War, the Union Army conducted most amphibious raids because, in those days, the principal mission of American Marines was to serve aboard ship, not conduct raids ashore. Following the civil war, however, in the 1880s and 1890s, Navy squadron commanders occasionally dispatched their Marine Detachments ashore (augmented by ship’s company (called Bluejackets)) to emphasize Navy power in connection with U.S. gunboat diplomacy. The reader will find an example of such “amphibious operations” in the story of Handsome Jack.
U.S. Marines became serious students of amphibious warfare beginning with the landing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 1898 — by every measure, a complete success and a demonstration to the nation that the Navy and Marine Corps had a unique skill set that might prove useful in future conflicts. In 1910, the Marines moved one step closer to forming a Fleet Marine Force organization with its creation of an Advanced Base Force — a concept seeking to provide an adequate defense of naval bases and installations within the Pacific Rim.
Other countries attempted to employ amphibious operations, but mostly with disastrous results — such as during the Crimean War (1853) and the debacle at Gallipoli (1915 – 1916). As a consequence of the Gallipoli disaster, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps began studying Amphibious Warfare in earnest in the 1920s and 1930s.
During the inter-war period (between world wars), international committees met to discuss how to achieve world peace. Among the recommendations was an agreement to impose a reduction to naval armaments. This effort was an unqualified disaster (and probably did as much to ignite World War II as the Allies’ unreasonable demand for reparations in 1919), but while government leaders hemmed and hawed, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps proceeded with the development of specialized amphibious warfare equipment and doctrine.
Additionally, new troop organizations, landing craft, amphibious tractors that could travel on water and land, and landing tactics were devised, tested, re-examined, and retested. Training exercises emphasized using naval artillery and carrier-based aircraft to provide close fire support for assault troops. Combat loading techniques were developed so that ships could quickly unload the equipment required first in an amphibious landing, accepting some reductions in cargo stowage efficiency in return for improved assault capabilities.
To facilitate training for officers and NCOs in these newly acquired capabilities, a Marine Corps School was established at Quantico, Virginia — where subject matter could not only be taught but rehearsed, as well. In 1933, the Navy and Marines established the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) concept from what had been known as the Advance Base Force. The FMF became America’s quick-reaction force and became the standard vehicle through which emerging ideas about amphibious warfare could be tested through annual fleet landing exercises.
By 1934 Marine tacticians had developed effective amphibious techniques, and it was in that year the Marine Corps published its Tentative Landing Operations Manual, which today remains an important source of amphibious warfare doctrine. These preparations proved invaluable in World War II when the Marines not only spearheaded many of the attacks against Japanese-held islands in the Pacific War but also trained U.S. Army divisions that also participated in the Atlantic theater as well as the island-hopping Pacific Campaigns.
After a succession of U.S. defeats by the Imperial Japanese Navy, the tide of war turned. At Coral Sea in the southwest Pacific and Midway in the central Pacific, U.S. aircraft carriers stopped the Japanese advances in history’s first carrier-versus-carrier battles. Quickly taking the initiative, the United States began its offensive campaigns against the Japanese when, on 7 August 1942, the 1st Marine Division assaulted Tulagi Island and invaded Guadalcanal in the southwest Pacific. For an account of this engagement, see the series: Guadalcanal: First to Fight.
In the European-Mediterranean theaters, the distances were shorter from allied bases to the assault beaches, but the demand for amphibious expertise was equally high. Allied naval forces scrambled to secure amphibious shipping and landing craft to support the Atlantic-Mediterranean war effort. Senior Marine officers assigned to Naval Planning Staffs played an important role in the success of the invasion of North Africa (1942), Sicily, and Salerno (1943). The Atlantic War was challenging from several different aspects, and some of these efforts weren’t revealed until well after the end of the war. Colonel Pierre Julien Ortiz served with the OSS behind the lines, and Hollywood actor Sterling Hayden served as a U.S. Marine captain with the OSS in the Aegean Sea.
When Germany surrendered to the allied powers on 7 May 1945, Pacific War planners were putting the final touches on their invasion plan for mainland Japan. They were also awaiting the arrival of additional shipping and manpower from the European Theater. No one with any brains was enthusiastic about the idea of having to invade Japan.
The Battles for Saipan, Guam, Tinian, Peleliu, the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa established one painful reality: an invasion of mainland Japan would be costly. Allied war planners had learned an important lesson from the Japanese during their island-hopping campaigns. The Japanese were using a suicidal defensive strategy. They realized they could not stop the Allied juggernaut — but they could certainly kill a lot of allied troops in their “defense in depth” strategy. This fact led allied war planners to envision another one million allied infantry dead before Japan finally capitulated — that is … unless a miraculous alternative somehow presented itself.
And one did
Much has been written about the decision to drop (two) atomic bombs on Japanese cities. Even General MacArthur argued that the Japanese were already beaten — that there was no justifiable reason to drop “the bomb.”
One can argue that General MacArthur was in a position to know whether atomic warfare was necessary, but in 1945, General MacArthur was 65 years old. He was from the “old school” American military. He did not believe that dropping nuclear weapons on innocent citizens was a moral course of action — and this was a fine argument. But then, neither was sending another million men into harm’s way when there was an alternative course of action. And, in any case, the Japanese themselves — by adopting their defense-in-depth strategy — signaled their understanding that they could not win the war. If the Japanese had to die in the war, then by all means, take as many Allied troops as possible along. This appalling (and incomprehensible) attitude pushed allied war planners into making that horrendous decision.
Two significant facts about this decision stand out. First, Japanese arrogance did not allow senior Japanese officials to admit they were beaten. They were happy to “fight on” until every Japanese man, woman, and child lay dead on the Japanese archipelago. Second, it took two (not one) atomic bombs to convince the Japanese they were beaten. Two. There was no need for two, but the Japanese would not capitulate until the bombing of Nagasaki three days after Hiroshima.
When the Japanese finally did surrender, on 2 September 1945, World War II ended. The suffering of the Japanese people, however, continued for many years. Between 1945 – 1948, thousands of people died from starvation or exposure to frigid weather every single night for nearly three years. While this was happening, Allied forces had to manage the repatriation of Japanese Imperial forces throughout the Far East. In 1946, the Chinese civil war resumed and continued through 1949. In the face of all this, President Truman set into motion the deactivation of America’s wartime military (even though some of these men were still in harm’s way in China).
Following hostilities, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) reviewed all after-action reports from amphibious operations. As expected, many landing craft and amphibious-vehicle casualties were due to enemy action — but many were also related to problems with tidal waves and rip currents caused by undersea mountains that contributed to capsizing, swamping, or broaching landing craft.
For example, the analysis revealed flaws involving amphibious boats and tracked vehicles operating on confined landing areas, the slope of the beach, water levels, and soil. ONR found that saturated sand near the water’s edge would liquefy (and trap) landing vehicles due to the vibrations produced by an overabundance of vehicular traffic. One of the reasons allied forces continued to conduct training exercises on war-torn beaches (such as Iwo Jima) was to observe these conditions in detail and prepare findings that would improve the capabilities of U.S. amphibious assault vehicles.
When the Korean War exploded late in June 1950, America’s military hierarchy, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), had already made up its mind that amphibious warfare was a relic of the past. They could not have been more wrong about that. The North Korean attack was lightning quick, overwhelming, and entirely the fault of Mr. “The Buck Stops Here Truman.” The poorly trained South Korean military was swept aside like a pile of autumn leaves — and the small American military advisory group with it. Nor were any of General MacArthur’s occupation forces serving in Japan any help. The only two services ready for this event were the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps — but only barely.
The North Korean Army was stopped in August 1950, but it was an awful bloody event that Truman somewhat dismissively linked to police action. It raged for three years and set into motion a series of armed conflicts that lasted twenty-five years. What turned this looming disaster around was an amphibious assault — one that General Omar Bradley, the JCS Chairman, said couldn’t be done. It took a Marine Corps two-star general to prove Bradley wrong. While the North Korean Army began its stranglehold of the Pusan Perimeter, Major General Oliver P. Smith was planning the invasion of Inchon, Korea. On 16 September 1950, the amphibious assault that couldn’t be done had become a matter of history.
Following the Korean War, the United States permanently assigned naval task forces to the western Pacific and Mediterranean areas. In each of these strategically vital locations, one or more reinforced Marine infantry battalions served as the special landing force within the fleet amphibious ready group. The ARG/SLF provided quick responses to crises in Lebanon (1958), Laos (1961), Thailand (1962), the Dominican Republic (1965), and the Republic of Vietnam (1965).
More recently, 45 amphibious ships carried Marines to the Middle East and supported them in the late 1980s and 1990s — essentially, 75% of the Navy’s total active fleet. Before 1991, generally regarded as the Cold War period, U.S. Marines responded to crises about three to four times a year. Following Operation Desert Storm, the Marine Corps’ amphibious capabilities were called on roughly six times a year. Why? Because it is more cost-effective to maintain a rapid reaction force of Marines than to maintain the costs of maintaining American military bases overseas.
Today, the U.S. Marine Corps maintains three Marine Expeditionary Forces to respond to any crisis — no matter where in the world it might occur. Each MEF, working alongside a U.S. Navy Fleet command, can deploy any size combat structure from battalion landing teams and Marine Expeditionary Units (air, ground, logistics support capabilities) to expeditionary brigades and reinforced MEFs.
During the Vietnam War, III MEF became the largest Marine Corps combat command in the entire history of the Corps — exercising command authority over 80,000 Marines assigned to the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Marine Division, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, the Force Logistics Command, and numerous U.S. Army and Vietnamese infantry organizations and their supporting elements. Over a period of more than six years, III MEF participated in 400 combat operations. Each Marine Expeditionary Force has the same quick-reaction capability.
No matter where these Marines might originate, there is one guarantee: when they arrive at their destination, they will be ready to fight a sustained engagement. At that instant, when they bust down the enemy’s front door, the enemy will know that these Marines have come from across the sea — just as Sir Thomas More Molyneux envisioned that they should.
Anderson, F. The War that Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War. Penguin Books, 2006.
Baden, C. The Ottoman Crimean War (1853 – 1856). Brill Publishing, 2010.
Blanning, T. Frederick the Great: King of Prussia. Yale University, 2016.
Fehrenbach, T. R. This Kind of War. Brassey’s Publications, 1963.
Fowler, W. H. Empires at War: The Seven Years’ War and the Struggle for North America. Douglas & McIntyre, 2005.
Heck, T. and B. A. Friedman, Eds., On Contested Shores: The Evolving Role of Amphibious Operations in the History of Warfare. Marine Corps University, 2020.
Marine Corps Publication: III Marine Expeditionary Force: Forward, Faithful, Focused, (2021).
Ricks, T. E. The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. Penguin Press, 2012.
Savage, M. U.S. Marines in the Civil War. Warfare History Network, 2014.
Taylor, A. J. P. The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848 – 1918. Oxford Press, 1954.
Willmott, H. P. The Last Century of Sea Power: From Port Arthur to Chanak, 1894 – 1922. Indiana University Press, 2009.
 “Personal Union” simply means that two countries share the same head of state — in this case, the monarch, George II.
 Anderson, F. Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. Random House, 2007.
 The ancient city of Troy was called Ilion (hence, the poem called Iliad). The city actually existed around 1,400 years B.C., and although the poem was believed written down around 800 B.C., it was carried down from one generation to the next as part of an oral tradition for several hundred years. Homer, of course, receives credit as its author.
 After full and frank discussions between the War and Navy departments, the Navy decided (and the War Department agreed) that there was no significant role for the U.S. Army in the matter of defending advanced naval bases/coaling stations in the Pacific Rim. For one thing, the Navy envisioned a defense force that it actually owned/controlled. That would be the Marines, of course. For another (as reflected in the Army’s rather poor showing during the Spanish-American War), the Army is simply too large/too heavy to operate as a strike force.
 For many years after the war, Japanese officials complained that ground zero at Nagasaki was an orphanage. This may be true. There were no “surgically precise” bombs in World War II. On the other hand, why did it take two atomic bombs to convince Japanese officials that the war was over?
 In 1946, General Bradley also predicted there would never again be a need for an amphibious operation.
Anyone who believes that the American Revolution was a war easily fought doesn’t know enough about American history. We might argue that the revolution first occurred as an idea in the heads of British citizens who began to wonder if they could forge their future without the interference of the king or parliament. Fighting the revolution was an entirely different matter. Still, before we get to that discussion, we need to explore what else was happening in the world besides men muttering over their mead in a Massachusetts pub about burdensome taxes.
In the last years of the Seven Years’ War (also called the French and Indian Wars), British fleets and armies ranged across the world stage, dismembering France and Spain’s colonial empires. But in London, from around 1750, British ministers had to consider the prospect of defending British territories from a wide range of enemies.
Looking at North America, it was logical to assume that some colonies could defend themselves, but there were questions about the other colonies. Nova Scotia would be a problem — French catholic priests would see to that. In any case, if the British knew anything about the French from the previous 400 years, it was that the French could not be trusted. One could always tell when a French diplomat was lying because his lips were moving. In any case, if the French seized Halifax, all the other British American colonies could be rolled up without much effort.
The Virginia colony was always reliable and well-populated with men who knew how to fight. Pennsylvania’s Quaker politicians would open their doors to the French without a quibble. No one knew where the ethnic German colonists would come down on the question of war with France. Georgia and South Carolina could not defend themselves against the Cherokee, much less French marines. In the West Indies, enslaved Black people outnumbered British Army regulars and colonists. The thought of a slave revolt was disturbing, indeed. This was only the tip of the iceberg.
Yes, the French Bourbons were threatening, but so too were the highland Scots, Irish Catholics, and North American Indians, and there was this ongoing and highly perturbing talk inside England about republicanism. British politicians decided it was time to act. Highlanders became the flower of the British Army, and Irish Catholics were recruited as well. In Pennsylvania, German colonists formed two regiments of Royal American infantry. Amazingly, 21,000 American colonists stepped up to defend the British colonies in 1758. Before 1763, most native Indian tribes had sided with the British. Arcadian troublemakers found themselves deported to Louisiana. There was even some talk of forming a pro-British French militia.
And yet, the preceding concerns were only half of the problem. North America had no four-lane highways to move large numbers of troops. Those troops would have to be transferred by ship if that were necessary. The Atlantic coastline was the only highway. Additionally, there were no “fast means of communication.” Coordinating widely dispersed military forces was difficult in the extreme.
The revolutionary campaigns were complex, made so by weather, climate, the distances between cities, thick foliage, and the lack of adequate roads to move troops, artillery, and supply wagons. The British Army was, in 1775, the world’s premier land army. Who, in their right mind, would challenge it?
In those days, armies depended on foraging to feed the men and animals. There was no question that the British Army could forage; the king owned everything — he could take what he needed. His subjects might be compensated, or they may not. The Continental army had to rely on the patriotic spirit of local farmers. A third of these farmers were British loyalists, with another one-third opportunists who would offer forage to whoever paid the highest.
The American Revolutionary War was a complicated series of campaigns. It is hard to imagine the distances in an age where automobiles can travel five hundred or more miles in a single day. It would take an American or British soldier 33 days to march 500 miles in 1775. Granted, the number of men who participated in the American Revolution pales compared to modern warfare, but the number of combatants was significant for those days. As with all armed conflicts, whatever could have gone wrong, did.
American land forces included (in total over seven years) 200,000 patriots. American naval forces included 106 Continental and State-owned ships. We don’t know how many men served in the navy, but Continental Marines had 132 officers and 2,000 enlisted men. The Americans were aided by 53 French navy ships and an unknown number of French land forces. Including all losses (Continental Army/State militia and civilian populations), the Americans gave up 70,000 war dead, 6,100 wounded in action, 17,000 losses from disease, and around 130,000 additional deaths attributed to smallpox.  The total of French allied dead was 2,112. Setting aside America’s war dead, the average life expectancy for a white male adult in 1780 was 39 years.
Opposing the Americans during the revolution were 48,000 British troops, 30,000 German troops, 25,000 loyalist troops, and 13,000 American Indians. What we know of British casualties is limited. Historians contend that British combat dead totaled 5,500 men; German allies lost 7,774 men, of which 1,800 died in battle. Nearly 5,000 German troops deserted in North America. Of British loyalists, 7,000 died during the American Revolution, including 1,700 combat dead and 5,300 from unspecified diseases.
American Marines were created upon the recommendation of the Naval and Marine Committees of the Second Continental Congress in October and November 1775. The officer commissioned to recruit the two Marine battalions was Samuel Nicholas, a native of Philadelphia. Nicholas was born in 1744 (d. 1790), the youngest of three children of Anthony and Mary Chute-Cowman Nicholas. Anthony was a blacksmith; Mary’s uncle Attwood Shute was the mayor of Philadelphia from 1755-58. Samuel graduated from the College of Philadelphia (present-day University of Pennsylvania) in 1759. On 28 November 1775, Sam Nicholas was commissioned by the Second Continental Congress to serve as Captain of Marines. He was the first officer commissioned in the Continental Naval Service.
Upon confirmation of his appointment, Captain Nicholas started planning his recruitment campaign around the number of ships that would require a complement of Marines. Captain Nicholas’ secondary assignment was the command of the Marine Detachment aboard USS Alfred. In this capacity, Captain Nicholas answered to Commodore Esek Hopkins.Alfred sailed on 4 January 1776 for Nassau (See also, The Marine’s First Amphibious Raid). Nicholas returned to Philadelphia in April 1776 and resumed command of the Marine battalions. In June, Congress promoted Nicholas to Major Commandant Continental Marine Corps.
In October 1776, the people of Philadelphia speculated that when British General Sir William Howe was tired of chasing patriots in New York, he would march his army to invade their fair city. Fearing such an eventuality, the Continental Congress organized committees and met with various members of the Pennsylvania legislature to plan a defense of the city. A Pennsylvania committee submitted its recommendations to the Continental War Board. They proposed that Congress permanently assign four companies of Marines in Pennsylvania or at Trenton to defend Philadelphia from British or Loyalist troops. The Pennsylvania committee also suggested an additional two Virginia militia battalions and a German militia battalion.
Contrary to the general concerns of Philadelphia citizens, British General William Howe was already engaged in Westchester County and, for the time being, posed no threat to Philadelphia. Major Nicholas and his staff continued recruiting and training Marines in Philadelphia through the fall of 1776. By then, the First Battalion was well-organized, disciplined, and (more or less) functional. Nicholas adequately provided for their nutritional needs and saw they were accorded comfortable billets. Still, some Marines deserted from their service responsibilities, with few returning to face the consequences.
Private Henry Hassan took his punishment but, within a month, deserted for a second time. Even then, the Marine Corps was not everyone’s cup of tea. One Marine who returned may have regretted his decision when, having been found guilty at a court-martial of desertion and quitting his post without authority, received fifty lashes on his bareback for desertion and twenty-one additional lashes of the whip for quitting his post.
The Marines Mobilize
Suddenly, in mid-November, Philadelphia was abuzz with rumors of an approaching British fleet. Congress directed the Marine Committee to arrange its naval forces in the Delaware River. Accordingly, USS Randolph was made ready for sea. Major Commandant Nicholas ordered Captain Shaw to select Marines from the First Battalion, prepare them for duty at sea, and report to the officer commanding the frigate.
Captain Shaw’s Marines reported to Randolph before the ship’s crew. In 1776, few mariners were interested in serving in the Continental Navy with British sloops of war roaming the American coastlines and taking station in busy seaports. The rumor of an approaching British fleet was only that; the fleet was actually several British merchantmen, but Randolph’s preparations continued.
Meanwhile, the land war was turning against General Washington. After defeats at Long Island, White Plains, Fort Washington, and Fort Lee, General Washington began his long retreat through New Jersey. He was in desperate need of veteran soldiers. The British Army’s march to Trenton posed a real threat to Philadelphia. By late November, General Washington was in a precarious situation; the British pushed him from Harlem Heights to Upper Westchester County. He crossed the Hudson on 13 November and began his painful and embarrassing withdrawal to Hackensack, Newark, Elizabeth Town, and Brunswick.
From Brunswick, Washington sent a letter to President (of Congress) John Hancock begging for immediate reinforcements. Hancock wanted to help, but with common knowledge that 10,000 British troops were enroute, there were no long queues of volunteers at the recruiting offices. Washington led his under-staffed army out of Brunswick on 2 December, marching them through Princeton and finally halting them on the banks of the Delaware River.
When General Howe occupied Brunswick, everyone still above the ground inside Philadelphia went into cardiac arrest. All Philadelphia shops and schools closed by order of the Council of Public Safety. All able-bodied citizens and militia took up arms to defend the city. What actually happened was that the good citizens of Philadelphia, able-bodied or not, ignored the Council of Public Safety, loaded their wagons, and deserted the city. There was much to accomplish in such a short period of time, and defending the city was not very high on anyone’s agenda.
Once city officials realized their fellow citizens were gutless wonders, they urgently appealed to the Congress for Continental Marines. Responding to the will of Congress, Major Nicholas detailed three companies of Marines for the defense of Pennsylvania. Company officers inspected their men and readied them for service in the field. With orders to report to General Washington, Major Nicholas marched his Marines down to the waterfront to board gondolas.
The Marines’ departure from Philadelphia did nothing to bolster the morale of its few remaining citizens. While Major Nicholas proceeded to General Washington’s camp, city officials formed a regiment of militia — three battalions — in all, around 1,200 men. These were citizens who didn’t get away from Philadelphia fast enough. They were well-clothed but poorly armed. Within a few days, the regimental commander, Colonel John Cadwalader, was ordered to proceed and report to General Washington.
General Washington was happy to receive reinforcements — even Marines — but he wasn’t sure what to do with them. This problem was solved when Colonel Cadwalader arrived on 5 December. Since Cadwalader and Major Nicholas were Philadelphians, Washington asked Cadwalader to absorb the Marine battalion into his regiment, along with the USS Delaware and USS Washington crews under captains Charles Alexander and Thomas Read. Colonel Cadwalader’s regiment became a de facto brigade with these additional forces.
However, General Washington had far more on his plate than personnel issues. For one thing, Washington was puzzled by General Howe’s delay in Brunswick. Washington decided to march his men toward Princeton on 7 December. Informants cautioned Washington that he was walking into a collision with the British. Since it was not the time or place of his choosing, General Washington again retreated to Trenton and withdrew across the Delaware River. In this process, Washington ordered his men to remove or destroy anything valuable to the enemy.
General Washington did not know that Similar problems plagued general Howe. He did not have timely or reliable information about his enemy. Wisely, Howe was cautious in his pursuit of Washington but unwisely divided his force into two corps. The first, under Major General James Grant, Howe ordered to Trenton. The second corps, under Major General Charles Cornwallis, General Howe ordered to Maidenhead — a position halfway between Trenton and Princeton.
The vanguard of Grant’s force reached Trenton just as the last of Washington’s army crossed the river into Pennsylvania. General Cornwallis’ troops reached the East bank of the river 15 miles above Trenton, but Washington had wisely removed all boats from that location and positioned his field canon on the west bank. These measures brought General Grant’s advance to a screeching halt.
Once General Howe became aware that Grant and Cornwallis lost their momentum, he abandoned his immediate plan for a Pennsylvania campaign. Instead, he ordered Grant and Cornwallis to establish winter camps. Ultimately, these cantonments stretched from Hackensack to Burlington on the Delaware River. General Howe then went to his winter camp.
Observing British forces constructing bridges and river-side docks, Washington logically concluded that Howe’s delay was only temporary. Desperate for reliable knowledge concerning British activities, General Washington sent a letter to Pennsylvania’s Council of Safety asking them if it would be possible to send Commodore Thomas Seymour upriver to reconnoiter the area. He also ordered Colonel Cadwalader to send a battalion to Dunk’s ferry. The battalion’s two-fold mission was to guard the crossing and scout the area of Bordentown across the Delaware River.
On 11 December 1776, Hessian Colonel Carl E. U. von Donop departed Trenton with a force large enough to seize Bordentown and Burlington. Von Donop encountered only light resistance from local militia, but his presence forced Washington’s scouting party back across the river. The Germans had no problem occupying Burlington, but local Loyalists complained that his presence would only attract the attention of the Continental Navy. Von Donop organized a delegation of Burlington citizens to confer with Commodore Seymore to receive his assurances and gain information from Seymour that might benefit General von Donop. Meanwhile, Hessian troops began patrolling inside the town.
Commodore Seymour met with citizen delegates and, to his credit, was direct in response to their inquiries. Seymour would have no sympathy for Burlington if von Donop occupied it. As soon as he observed the Hessian town patrols, Seymour opened fire, forcing von Donop’s army to withdraw northward and aggravating the ulcers of the townspeople.
On 12 December, Marines from USS Hancock, serving under Marine Captain William Shippin, occupied Burlington. Reports from Seymour and his scouts confirmed Washington’s suspicions. Consequently, Washington established a defensive perimeter on the West Bank of the Delaware south of Burlington. Brigadier General Philemon Dickinson secured Yardley’s Ferry and tied his defense line with that of Brigadier General James Ewing. Colonel Cadwalader’s force tied in with Ewing from Hoop’s mill to Dunk’s Ferry.
While General Washington created his line of defense, militia General Israel Putnam supervised the defense of Philadelphia. In the middle of these preparations, such as they were, HMS Roebuck anchored just inside Delaware Bay. Roebuck’s position prohibited ships from reaching the open sea. Congressional delegates ordered the Marine Committee to send warnings of Roebuck’s station to local merchantmen.
The Committee then considered the employment of Randolph and Hornet — both ship’s captains received instructions placing them under General Putnam’s orders. Congress offered a $10,000 bounty to the crew and Marines of Randolph if Captain Nicholas Biddle could bypass HMS Roebuck and get into the open sea.
Having done its duty in defense of Philadelphia, Congress promptly removed itself to Baltimore. Congressional delegate Robert Morris, however, remained behind as a congressional liaison to General Putnam. He advised Putnam to send Randolph and Hornet to sea without delay. Putnam agreed and ordered both frigates readied for sea. Morris’ idea was to send Biddle to sea in search of British ships operating off the coast of New York. Despite Biddle’s recruitment of sailors from the city prison to man his ship, he did not have a full crew complement and was reluctant to shove off without an entire crew.
Captain James Nicholson, commanding Hornet, received different instructions. Since Hornet had a barely adequate crew, Morris and Putnam ordered Nicholson to sail to South Carolina and, once clearing the capes, proceed to Martinique, where he might find crewmen and military stores needed for Washington’s army.
Both Continental ships set sail on 14 December, setting a course for Hog Island. The following day, a messenger vessel overtook them with instructions to put into Chester to await the arrival of merchantmen destined for France. While anchored in Chester, another boat arrived from Philadelphia, recalling both ships. After Morris learned that HMS Falcon and two bomb ketches (ships rigged for firing mortars) had arrived to reinforce Roebuck, he recalled Randolph and Hornet, fearing their loss to the Royal Navy.
Morris was also concerned about Captain C. Alexander’s frigate Delaware; he asked Washington to release the ship back to Philadelphia. Colonel Cadwalader, under whose command Delaware was placed, concurred. Major Nichols formed a detachment of Marines for service on Delaware, placing them under the command of First Lieutenant Daniel Henderson and Second Lieutenant David Love. The shifting of officers led to the temporary appointment of Sergeant James Coakley to First Lieutenant. The loss of 20 Marines from Cadwalader’s command had little effect on Washington because, on 14 December, the British had gone into winter quarters.
The Marines under Major Nicholas numbered around 130 officers and men. While under Cadwalader’s command, the Marines shared the usual service duties with the brigade, including guard duty. Cadwalader, well aware of General Washington’s concerns about gaining intelligence about enemy movements/intentions, assigned his guard units the additional task of obtaining information and passing it up the chain of command. Guard units were also instructed to harass the enemy whenever possible.
Washington appreciated Cadwalader’s foresight. He constantly fretted over the possibility of a sudden attack by Howe’s forces, particularly since Washington’s army was weak and under-equipped. An army collapse at that point would be a disaster for the patriot cause. Of additional concern to Washington was that most of his army’s enlistments would expire on 31 December 1776. These factors prompted General Washington to seize the initiative against Howe while he still had an army. News of Howe’s withdrawal and the scattering of his forces encouraged Washington’s line of thought. By 24 December, General Washington had formulated a plan for offensive operations.
Washington’s primary objective was Trenton. His plan called for crossing the Delaware River at three locations, executed by Cadwalader’s brigade, Hitchcock, Ewing, and a militia company under Captain Thomas Rodney. Captain Rodney would cross the river near Bristol and join Colonel Griffin, who was already in New Jersey. Together, this force would march on Trenton and join Washington’s main body. Ewing would cross the river at Trenton Ferry to the north of Cadwalader. Ewing’s primary task was to capture the Assunpink Bridge to prevent the Hessians from escaping Trenton. Washington commanded 2,400 troops and decided to cross at McKinley’s Ferry, ten miles above Trenton. Once his three brigades reformed in New Jersey, Washington intended to march on Princeton and Brunswick.
Trenton was under the control of Hessian Colonel Johann Gottlieb. In keeping with German tradition, Gottlieb’s regiment celebrated Christmas with feasting and strong drink. Washington readied his men in Pennsylvania, but a fierce winter storm set in as the day progressed. Snowfall was dense, and the temperature was agonizingly bitter. Nevertheless, by 1800, Washington had sent his advance force across the Delaware River. Poor weather, dropping temperatures, and coagulating river ice impeded Washington’s operations by midnight. By then, Washington’s operation was already three hours behind schedule.
The army wasn’t assembled and ready to march until 0400. Throughout the night, the storm worsened. General Washington divided his command into two corps. Brigadier General Nathanael Greene led the first of these toward the left and seized the Pennington Road, while Colonel Arthur St. Clair proceeded southeast, down the river road.
Within a mile of Trenton, Greene deployed his men to form a half-circle around the town. Greene’s approach alerted the Hessians. A number of pickets retreated to an area north of town. Washington launched his main assault at around 07:00. Patriot artillery opened fire into the ranks of Hessians, whom Gottlieb had formed to repel the patriot force. The barrage decimated the Hessians, and they withdrew to the edge of town. German officers rallied their men, reformed the ranks, ordered “fix bayonets,” and started back to confront Washington’s force. Soon aware that they were outnumbered, the Hessians began a fighting withdrawal. Unhappily for the Germans, they withdrew into elements of Ewing’s force at the Assunpink Bridge. With their officers dying right and left, the German troops became confused and soon surrendered.
The second group of Hessians rallied under Major von Dechow to re-take the bridge, but they were soon defeated. The battle lasted barely two hours. Washington suffered the loss of one man killed and three wounded. The Hessians lost 22 killed, 83 wounded, and 891 captured. Six hundred Germans managed to escape capture and moved rapidly toward Bordentown.
As it turned out, Washington’s force assaulted the Hessians without the support of either Cadwalader or Ewing’s full complement. As Cadwalader attempted to cross the Delaware River, the storm increased in intensity; dangerous ice impeded his movements. Out of concern that the storm might cause the loss of his canon, Cadwalader delayed sending his main force across the Delaware River.
General Ewing faced the same predicament and, with the exception of his initial advance guard, made no further attempt to cross the river. General Washington, meanwhile, was unaware of any of these circumstances. Having defeated the Hessians, his mission accomplished, General Washington returned across the Delaware River. He dispatched a force to accompany his prisoners to Philadelphia and resumed his defense of the West Bank.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Robert Morris had no success recruiting crews for Pennsylvania’s militia Navy. Service at sea with low pay may have been too much to ask. Captain Biddle grew obstinate about not having a full crew, but with Washington’s victory at Trenton, there was no longer a reason to send Randolph to sea.
Late in the day on 26 December, General Washington received a letter from Cadwalader explaining his reasons for failing to complete his mission. When General Cadwalader wrote his letter, he did not know where Washington was. He informed Washington that he intended to cross the Delaware River “the following morning.” By then, Washington had returned to Newtown, Pennsylvania. Washington’s reply asked Cadwalader to delay crossing the river until the two men could confer. Of course, except for one regiment under Colonel Hitchcock, Cadwalader had already crossed.
Having received General Washington’s instructions, Colonel Hitchcock canceled his planned movement across the river. He dispatched a messenger to Cadwalader advising him of recent events and instructions. Cadwalader conferred with his officers. Ultimately, Cadwalader decided to remain in New Jersey and make an attack against Burlington. He sent Colonel Joseph Reed ahead with a small scouting force. At 0400 on 28 December, General Cadwalader marched to Bordentown and took possession of the military stores abandoned by the Hessians. There being no food for his men, however, Cadwalader proceeded to Crosswicks, where he located food stores.
Major Nicholas’ Marines, being attached to Cadwalader’s brigade, did not participate in the Battle of Trenton, but they would not have long to wait for their first taste of land warfare. From Crosswicks, Cadwalader rejoined Washington outside of Princeton on the night of 2 January 1777. Washington attached Cadwalader’s brigade to Brigadier General Greene’s Division. At dawn on the morning of 3 November, Major Nicholas’ Marines arrived at the outskirts of Princeton. Green placed the Marines in reserve.
General Washington’s plan called for a dawn assault on Princeton, but at dawn, he was still two miles from the town. Intending to delay Cornwallis, Washington sent 350 men under Brigadier General Hugh Mercer to destroy the bridge over Stony Brook. Shortly before 0800, Washington wheeled his army to the right through Clarke’s farm and proceeded to enter Princeton through an undefended section.
En route to Stony Brook, Mercer’s brigade encountered two British infantry regiments and a cavalry unit under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood. This collision of combatants was the initiating engagement in the Battle of Princeton. Mercer and his men put up a stout defense against overwhelming forces. The British, mistaking Mercer for Washington, quickly surrounded him and demanded his surrender. Incensed, Mercer drew his sword and attacked his captors. Defending themselves, the enemy beat him to the ground and bayoneted him repeatedly.
With Mercer’s executive officer dead, junior officers and troops became disorganized. Having observed the fight, General Washington rallied what troops remained of Mercer’s force and pushed the British back.
Upon hearing the clatter of muskets, Brigadier General Cadwalader led his 1,100 men against Colonel Mawhood, whose men at the time were disorganized. Mawhood rallied his men, reorganized them, and put them into ranks for an assault or defense. Cadwalader’s brigade was mostly composed of untrained, inexperienced, poorly armed militia. Nicholas’ Marines occupied the brigade’s right flank, but observing Mawhood’s battle line, the militia on the left began to falter.
General Washington, observing Cadwalader’s hesitance, ordered Colonel Edward Hand to move his sharpshooters forward to the right of the Marines. Washington courageously rode amongst the young militiamen and encouraged them. Colonel Hitchcock’s regiment soon arrived and took a position to Colonel Hand’s right. The Americans advanced against Mawhood’s left and center, forcing the British to withdraw and scatter. Despite Mawhood’s efforts to rally his men, the British line was defeated.
Washington’s Continentals controlled Princeton within an hour, and the British withdrew to Maidenhead. Washington estimated enemy casualties were around 500 incapacitated and 100 left dead on the field. Of his own, Washington reported 30-40 slain, including Brigadier General Mercer, Colonel John Haslet, Captain Daniel Niel, Ensign Anthony Morris, Jr., and Marine Captain William Shippin.
The Battle of Princeton was the first time in the Revolution that General Washington’s army saw the fleeing backs of British Redcoats — and the Continental Marines had their first taste of land battle. General Howe regarded Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton as minor inconveniences, but to the Americans, having taken on the world’s greatest land army, the victories proved that the British could be beaten. In writing of the American victories at Trenton and Princeton, modern British historian Sir George Trevelyan observed, “It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.”
Collins, V. L. A Brief Narrative of the Ravages of the British and Hessians at Princeton, 1776-1777. New York: Arno Press, 1968.
Fischer, D. H. Washington’s Crossing. Oxford University Press, 2006.
Ketchum, R. The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton. Holt Publishing, 1999.
McCullough, D. 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Smith, C. Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783. Washington: Headquarters U. S. Marine Corps, 1975.
 Most of the 17,000 dead due to disease involved Americans imprisoned on British prison ships. British prison ships were obsolete, captured, or damaged ships used to house American prisoners of war. Conditions aboard these ships were appalling; far more men died as British prisoners than died in actual combat. The men languished in frigid conditions without adequate nourishment or clean water. According to historian Edwin G. Burrows, disease and starvation killed half of those taken on Long Island and as many as two-thirds of those captured at Fort Washington in 1776 — a realistic estimate of between 2,000 and 2,500 men in the space of two months. British guards harassed and abused the men constantly. Of the total, 10,000 men died from simple neglect. When they died, the British simply threw their bodies overboard into the New York harbor. Well over 1,000 prisoners were transported to England, where they performed forced labor in the mines. The British released some prisoners after they agreed to serve in the British Navy.
 Commodore was an honorary title (not a formal rank) bestowed on navy captains serving in command of two or more vessels of the Continental (later U. S.) Navy. Esek Hopkins was forced out of the Navy in 1778.
 There were around 80 Marine privates in a company and five companies of Marines in a battalion. It is amazing to imagine that the war board imagined that ten companies of Marines could defend against one or more British regiments.
 A Revolutionary War (period) gondola (also a gunboat) was a 54-foot, 29-ton boat armed with a single 24-pound bow canon.
 During the period from the Revolutionary War to the end of World War II, the Army operated under the War Department, and the naval forces operated under the Navy Department. When Nicholas reported to General Washington, the Army Commander-in-Chief was uncertain that the naval forces were reliable (or useful) — one problem was that they had no obligation to obey Washington’s orders. They were in the Navy Department with a completely different chain of command.
 On 6 July 1776, Pennsylvania’s Committee of Safety authorized the purchase of ships for the defense of Philadelphia. By October, thirteen small ships had been constructed, six of which were operational by August: Bulldog, Burke, Camden, Congress, Dickinson, Effingham, Experiment, Franklin, Hancock, Ranger, and Warren. Deciding overall command of the fleet was contentious, however. The first commodore was Thomas Caldwell, who resigned due to ill health. Caldwell was replaced by Samuel Davidson, a junior captain whose appointment ahead of more senior men nearly caused a mutiny of officers. Davidson was removed from naval service and replaced by Thomas Seymour. Captain John Hazelwood objected to serving under Seymour owing to his advanced age. Eventually, the Committee of Safety removed Seymour and appointed Hazelwood in his place.
 This reflects that even in these early days of American Marines, the Marine Corps placed tremendous trust and confidence in their noncommissioned officers and offered the most exceptional among them advancement into the officer ranks.
 Washington promoted Cadwalader to Brigadier General.
 Mercer, later discovered on the battlefield, was rushed to the home of two Quaker women. They nursed Mercer for nine days until he passed away.
 Actual British casualties were 270 men of all ranks.
Since the Marine Corps’ earliest years, it has been the duty of senior noncommissioned officers to drill, drill, inspect, and drill again the young men who profess a desire to become a United States Marine. In the days of sail, the arts and sciences of Marine Corps training included instruction about history and traditions, discipline, marksmanship, sword drill, close order drill, physical fitness training, the care and cleaning of uniforms, equipment, and small arms, service at sea, and the fundamentals of naval artillery. There was then, in the olden days, as there is now, much to learn about serving as a Marine — but there is not much time to learn it. So, recruit training is as relentless as it is rigorous. Only the best-qualified recruit is allowed to graduate into that sea of faces we sometimes call the ranks of a Marine Brigade.
To young recruits, seasoned NCOs represent the “old Corps.” Of course, the expression “old corps” is somewhat of an old saw — and to some Marines, “old corps” was last year. Marine NCOs are men who possess corporate knowledge of how the Marine Corps works — the often complex workings of the operating forces on land and at sea. The process of training recruits has changed over the years, of course, but the well-established tradition does continue. In time, some of these young recruits will become Drill Instructors themselves. Of course, for that to happen, a Marine has to have the stuffing to remain in the Corps long enough to become a seasoned NCO. Not everyone has staying power — and the mission becomes even more, demanding with seniority. The Marine Corps has never been an organization for lightweights.
In the days before recruit depots, most recruit training occurred at designated Navy Yards in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, or at the Marine Barracks on Eighth & I Streets — just down the street from the Washington Navy Yard. Back then, all training was localized. The quality of the training received had everything to do with the quality of the NCO trainer, and even though the Marine Corps demanded formal training for recruits since around 1804, there was no money for textbooks or other written materials. Additionally, since Congress placed a ceiling on enlisted strength levels and made no allowance for drill instructors, trainers had to come from locally available personnel.
Marine Corps staffing levels were such that the Corps could ill-afford to squander what they had available for their assigned mission. The Marine Corps has never had “an abundance” of NCOs suitable for service as drill instructors. But before 1900, recruit training fell upon the shoulders of NCOs assigned D.I. duty. For the most part.
In 1860, the United States began to prepare for a war between the states. Everyone knew that war was likely. Some people even looked forward to war. Washington politicians had tried diplomacy since 1820 and failed — maybe it was simply time to “get on with it.”
These preparations included recruiting additional men for service in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. In July, youngsters began streaming into the Washington Navy Yard for recruit training in Washington. But in mid-July, the Army needed men to confront rebels forming at Manassas — so, trained or not, Marine NCOs at the Navy Yard mustered their recruits and marched them off to join the picnic.
The First Battle of Manassas was no picnic — even though several members of Congress packed picnic lunches and escorted their wives to watch the fun.
Those young Marines did have initiative, but they were of little use in the fight beyond carrying ammunition to support Army artillery units. In 1861, Marines were trained for service at sea, not on land. In 1861, amphibious warfare doctrine was still sixty years into the future.
In 1911, Major General Commandant William P. Biddle standardized recruit training for all Marines, coast-to-coast: drill, physical exercise, hand-to-hand combat, and intensive marksmanship training. Biddle established four recruit training depots: Philadelphia, Norfolk, Puget Sound, and Mare Island. The depots at Philadelphia and Puget Sound were closed. Four years later, in 1915, the Norfolk training depot was moved to its present location, Parris Island, South Carolina.
As the United States began moving toward its involvement in the European war, the number of recruits-in-training at any one time surged from 835 to 13,286. After “boot camp,” Marines went to Quantico, Virginia, for their pre-deployment (unit) training. There to greet them, undoubtedly, were the NCOs — most of whom had served in combat during U.S. interventions in the Caribbean and Central America. Once in France, Marine units underwent additional “land warfare” training.
Boot Camp is where the Marine Corps makes Marines — and has been for the past 111 years. The people who make these Marines are called Drill Instructors (DIs). When most civilians think of the Marines (which probably isn’t often), they probably think of a recruiting poster, such as the one on the right. DIs are the stuff of legends — among the most professional leaders in the Marine Corps. The primary candidate for Drill Instructor School are sergeants and staff sergeants. Anyone eligible to serve as a drill instructor can be directed to appear before a Drill Instructor Screening Board — but not every NCO can become a DI. The Screening Board only selects the most qualified NCO to attend Drill Instructor School. Why? Because it is the solemn duty of the DI to transition undisciplined civilians into United States Marines — there’s no room for error.
What makes these Marines among the best in the Corps? They have to be exceptional in their regular MOS, they have to meet height/weight criteria, they have to look sharp in their uniforms, they have to be among the Corps’ top sharpshooters, and they have to achieve a near-perfect physical fitness score. If they’re married Marines, they have to have a stable family life and be financially secure. To become a DI, they must be even-tempered, judicious, and informed decision-makers. There are no “crazies” walking around under DI covers. Marine DIs might appear unhinged to the recruit standing in front of them, but that DI anger is all part of a carefully cultivated act — an act they learn at DI School.
Today, the two major recruit training depots (MCRDs) are located at Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego, California. There are DI Schools at each location. The coursework is tough, the physical training relentless, and there are uniform inspections every single day. There is no such thing as an un-squared away Marine Corps Drill Instructor. If an applicant is selected for DI School at PISC, his DI duty assignment will also be at PISC — that is, if they graduate. Not everyone does.
For that reason, DI candidates aren’t permitted to take their families with them to the MCRD until after they’ve graduated and received their first DI assignment. The work of a DI is relentlessly difficult, but so too is the life of a DI’s wife. Rocky marriages don’t last a single tour of DI duty.
DI duty is demanding. Whatever Marine Corps training demands of its recruits, it demands five times that of its drill instructors. If the recruits are awakened at 0500, the DIs are up at 0400. Recruits are put to bed at 2200, but their DI is up past midnight. Recruits may look ratty by the end of the day, but their DI always looks poster-perfect. They change into fresh uniforms three or four times a day.
Each recruit platoon has between 60-80 recruits. Because these recruits demand their DI’s full attention 24 hours a day (times forever), DIs work in teams of three or four — generally as follows:
Each platoon will have two or three Junior Drill Instructors (J.D.I.’s). These NCOs instruct in the training and discipline of troops; make sure that recruits are up on time, march to chow at the right time, march to medical and dental periods on time, march to training sessions on time, get showered, and hit the rack on time. J.D.I.’s also make sure their recruits write home to the folks regularly.
The Senior Drill Instructor (S.D.I.) is responsible for the platoon and the J.D.I.’s. The senior can be just as terrifying as the others but is also considered the “adult in the room.” If something goes wrong (no matter what) — it’s the SDI’s fault. It can be career-ending if something goes wrong (no matter what).
What most people don’t realize is that officer candidates have DIs too. They aren’t called DIs, but most have completed a successful tour of DI duty. At Navy and Marine Corps officer candidate schools, D.I.’s are called Sergeants Instructors.
NCOs have much to say about who may graduate and receive a Navy and Marine Corps commission. This situation may seem strange — but one of an NCOs most important responsibilities is to help train, assist, and advise Navy and Marine Corps officers. This relationship between officers and NCOs is a long-held tradition that lasts for an entire career. Even general officers and admirals have senior enlisted advisors. Competent officers listen carefully to what their NCOs have to say. The not-so-bright officers will probably never make it past captain — which is not bad.
Marine Corps Drill Instructors take a solemn pledge:
“These recruits are entrusted to my care. I will train them to the best of my ability. I will develop them into smartly disciplined, physically fit, basically trained Marines, thoroughly indoctrinated in love of Corps and country. I will demand of them and demonstrate by my example the highest standards of personal conduct, morality, and professional skill.”
How Important is Boot Camp?
Twenty-four hundred Marines were killed or wounded on the first day of Operation Detachment. Historian J. A. Colon recently asked, “Was the Marine Corps’ success at Iwo Jima a matter of leadership, bravado, or fundamental training? What prompted the Marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions to succeed in a ruthless battle lasting 36 excruciating days? In this study, Colon examined the efficiency of recruit training (boot camp), replacement training, and unit training as it related to the success of the Iwo Jima campaign, noting in that study that one-quarter of all Medals of Honor awarded to Marines during World War II were earned on Iwo Jima.
Colon deduced that boot camp training proved far more essential than pre-operation or replacement training, a conclusion reached not through historiographical studies but through the personal testimonies of the Marines who fought that dreadful battle. Where the pre-operational training was incomplete, lacking realism, and the SWAG of operational planners, Marines retained their knowledge of boot camp training from the start of the operation to its conclusion. Boot camp imbued Marines with their sense of duty, gave them confidence in their weapons, and brought them to the point where they could endure the physical and mental stresses of bloody combat. What allowed the Marines to succeed at Iwo Jima, indeed, every Pacific combat operation was their self-discipline, self-confidence, and the esprit de corps instilled in them by their Marine Corps Drill Instructor.
To clarify — talk to anyone who has successfully served in the Marine Corps, and they will assure you that their boot camp training has remained with them all the days of their lives since graduation.
Drill Instructors, Platoon 224 Company E, 2ndBn RTR MCRD PISC
Sergeant J. S. Schweingruber
Sergeant R. S. Winston
Sergeant S. M. Nikolopoulos
Corporal J. D. Baker
Except for (Sergeant Major) Nikolopoulos, it’s been 60 years since I’ve seen these men. They were my drill instructors. That’s how significant Marine Corps Recruit Training is.
 The only service of the U.S. Armed Forces to use the term “drill instructor” is the U.S. Marine Corps. In both the Navy, and Marine Corps, Marine Corps Drill Instructors train officer candidates, while Recruit Division Commanders (R.D.C.’s) train Navy enlisted personnel. Air Force recruits are trained by Military Training Instructors(M.T.I.s). In the Army, they are called drill sergeants.
 The drill instructor appearing in this 1968 recruiting poster is Sergeant Charles Taliano, USMC (Deceased) (1945-2010). He was a native of Cleveland, Ohio. He left the Marine Corps in 1968 to work in the publishing industry. He retired in 1999 and relocated to Beaufort, South Carolina in 2001. There, he served as the manager of the MCRD PISC gift shop. He was buried at the Beaufort National Cemetery.
Courage, pluck, grit, and sand — all have similar colloquial meanings. They are terms one might have overheard in a conversation between two men (not among the ladies). They are words that refer to someone who has stamina, is physically and mentally tough, someone with a strength of character.
Author Mark Twain used such terms as grit and sand. In Huckleberry Finn, Clemens wrote, “She had the grit to pray for Judas if she took the notion — there warn’t no backdown to her, I judge. You may say what you want to, but in my opinion, she had more sand in her than any girl I ever seen; in my opinion, she was just full of sand.”
Words reflect how we think, and Americans seem to admire someone who demonstrates a strength of character and physical and mental toughness. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Mr. Clemens wasn’t the first to use such expressions. They were slang in common use as early as 1862 and 1825, respectively.
Years ago, a cartoon circulated where I worked depicting a tiny mouse sitting hunched on its two hind legs, looking up into the sky. A shadow appeared over the little mouse; it was an outline of a bird of prey. Seconds before its demise, the little mouse displayed its pluck by giving the bird “the finger.” The cartoon was very popular. I may even have a copy of it among my papers.
We marvel at the toughness and resolve of our fellow man because such characteristics and attributes are part of America’s values. This is why we read novels and develop affinities for the “good guys” who fight for justice or defend the weak. Well, we at least used to admire such qualities.
Speaking of Pluck
The U.S. Medal of Honor is the highest combat award bestowed upon members of the Armed Forces to recognize gallant conduct in combat. There are three medals, one each for the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The U.S. Navy was the first to award a medal of honor in 1861. The last Medal of Honor issued was in December 2021. In total, the Medal of Honor has recognized the gallantry of 3,525 Americans, 618 of those posthumously.
Nineteen servicemen have received two Medals of Honor — of those, five “double recipients” received both the Army and Navy Medal of Honor for the same action, all of which occurred during World War I. Fourteen men received two medals of honor for separate actions. Two of those men were U.S. Marines: Major General Smedley D. Butler and Sergeant Major Daniel J. Daley. Numerous others received the Navy’s two highest awards: the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. One of these men was John Arthur Hughes.
John Arthur Hughes had grit. Some might even argue that he had True Grit.
Born on 2 November 1880 in Brooklyn, John Arthur Hughes was the son of William H. T. Hughes, a director of the Ward Steamship Line, and his wife, Olive. John was educated at the prestigious Berkeley School, graduating in 1900. Although John received a congressional nomination to attend the U.S. Military Academy, he failed the entrance examination. By then, his father had died — leaving attendance at college out of the question. Joining the U.S. Marine Corps was not out of the question.
Curious to type
John Hughes joined the Marines on 7 November 1900. He stood roughly five feet ten inches tall, weighed less than 136 pounds, and had a slender build — which was not altogether different than most other young Americans. Initially, Private Hughes was serious about his role as a Marine. He focused on his duties and earned high praise from his superiors. In 1901, John Hughes sewed on the rank insignia of a Marine corporal — and four months after that, the Marines promoted him to sergeant.
The early twentieth century was a period of opportunity in the Marine Corps. In 1898, the Marine Corps had taken an unexpected turn from that of a group of sea-going bellhops to an amphibious force of lethal capabilities while projecting naval power ashore. See also the First Marine Battalion, 1898. In 1901, John Hughes was what the Marines in the 1960s might describe as “A.J. Squared Away.”
Following the American Civil War, the primary source of Marine Corps officer commissions came from graduating students of the U.S. Naval Academy. But it was also a time when naval power projection became exceedingly complex. The Navy had transitioned from sail to coal-fired ships, demanding sophisticated operating systems with keen instruments and electrical capacities throughout their ships. The navy required a steady stream of highly qualified naval architects and engineers to operate and maintain these ships. This meant that the navy could no longer afford to offer Marine Corps commissions to Naval Academy graduates; they needed men wearing the navy uniform. But the Marines needed qualified officers, too.
In 1898, Colonel Commandant Charles Heywood petitioned the Secretary of the Navy for permission to offer commissions to well-educated individuals from civilian life (not associated with a service academy) and to highly qualified enlisted men who had proven themselves as noncommissioned officers. With the sizeable expansion of the Navy after 1900 came the growth of the Marine Corps, as well. In 1900, the Marine Corps needed 18 Second Lieutenants. Congress directed that only eight of these entrants could be civilian college graduates — the remaining ten had to come from either the Naval Academy or the enlisted ranks. Since all of the Naval Academy’s graduates went to service with the Navy in 1900, Colonel Heywood turned to the Marine Corps NCO.
An insurrection was going on, and the American government needed its Marines to stop it. Sergeant John A. Hughes took his oath of office as a Second Lieutenant 0n 21 December 1901. During the swearing-in ceremony, Hughes stood next to another former NCO named Earl H. Ellis, whom everyone called “Pete.” After their training as newly commissioned officers, Hughes and others joined a replacement battalion bound for the Philippine Islands.
Upon arrival in the Philippines, Marine officials posted 2ndLt Hughes to the Marine Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Mancell C. Goodrell and the battalion under Major Constantine Perkins, a graduate of the Naval Academy. John Hughes’ impetuousness and unpredictability caused both Goodrell and Perkins some discomfort — much like too much gas after dining for a week on navy beans — because they had little patience for Hughes’ penchant for playing pranks. Moreover, Lieutenant Hughes drank too much and did not appear to take to heart efforts to reform him in the mold of the Old Corps. It was then that Hughes’s reputation for “grit” began. Some Marines began to refer to Hughes as Johnny the Hard; as we’ll see, he was one tough hombre.
According to researcher Colonel Merrill Bartlett, Major Perkins (of whom little is known) rated Hughes as an average officer, observing that Hughes was reckless and careless with a disposition toward boisterousness. Apparently, Lieutenant Hughes and his running mates liked to sing loudly at 3 a.m., which irritated the senior officers billeted in officer’s quarters.
Despite his somewhat lackluster fitness reports, Hughes passed his examination for promotion, and a promotion board recommended him for advancement to First Lieutenant. By this time, Hughes had become known, by reputation, as a hard ass. He preferred to resolve minor disciplinary problems with his men through one-on-one instructional periods, often involving fisticuffs and somewhat harsh language. This type of behavior was the one drawdown among mustang officers: they knew what worked for them as sergeants and took those “successes” with them into the officer ranks — where they were not appreciated. In the modern Marine Corps, Hughes would likely face a court-martial for such conduct. The Marine Corps has every right to expect better of its commissioned officers.
After leaving the Philippines, Hughes reported to the Marine Barracks, Boston, where he served for two years as an assistant quartermaster and commissary officer. In 1906, the Commandant posted Hughes aboard the U.S.S. Minneapolis and later detached him to constabulary duty with the 1st Provisional Regiment in Cuba.
Despite Hughes’ unwillingness to change his irresponsible behaviors, the Marine Corps promoted him to Captain in 1909 and ordered him to the Marine Barracks in New York City. A short time later, Marine officials assigned him to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, via the troop ship U.S.S. Hancock.
In Cuba, Hughes and his men transferred to the auxiliary cruiser U.S.S. Buffalo, which transported the leathernecks to Panama in March 1910. Just thirty days later, while assigned to the Third Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, Hughes participated in the bombardment and assault of Coyotepe Hill, Nicaragua.
The Marine Corps was a small service in the early 20th century; the officer corps was small enough that nearly every officer knew every other officer — particularly since these were men with whom they competed for promotion and assignment. In this kind of environment, it wasn’t long before everyone knew about the incident involving Captain Hughes and his commanding officer, Major Smedley D. Butler.
These two officers, each colorful in their own peculiar way, detested each other. Butler opined that while Captain Hughes was efficient and knowledgeable, he was excitable and disloyal (to his commanding officer). In April 1912, Hughes’ superior ordered him confined to quarters because of getting into a fistfight with a brother officer. Fighting among officers was strictly prohibited.
The Commandant is watching
In June, Hughes earned five days’ suspension from duty for “assumption of authority and insubordination.” The nature of Hughes’ alleged offense is lost to history, except as noted on his next fitness report. But then, less than a month later, the impulsive Leatherneck absented himself from duty without authority and received another suspension from duty due to “unwarranted evasion of orders.”
Besides noting that he had been suspended from duty, Hughes’ reporting senior added that “he knows his profession thoroughly, but he is excitable and not always loyal, in his attention to duty, manner, and bearing, to his commanding officer.” But the incident that raised the hackles of his superiors occurred in April 1912, when Hughes was confined to his quarters as a result of a fistfight with a brother officer. We believe the identity of this “brother officer” was Smedley D. Butler.
Major Butler cabled the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Colonel William P. Biddle, stating that he considered Hughes a menace to the welfare of his command and requested that the Commandant order his return to Washington under arrest or a transfer out of his command with a preference for sending him as far away from Central America as possible — even to the extent of recommending the Philippines. But Butler did more than that. He turned to his father, U.S. Congressman Thomas S. Butler, who served on the House Naval Affairs Committee.
Congressman Butler turned to the Secretary of the Navy for assistance in relieving his son from the challenges caused by the unrepentant Captain Hughes. Secretary Meyer was in no mood for tattling or seeking special favors. He denied the congressman’s request and directed the Commandant to inform Butler that he’d have to learn to deal with his challenges without the help of his father. Secretary Meyer also noted that Major Butler had attempted to embellish the charges against Captain Hughes by adding previous incidents for which he had already been punished.
Nevertheless, at the end of 1912, officials ordered Captain Hughes to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, for service with the Marine Barracks. Within a year, however, the Commandant ordered all East Coast Barracks to provide the human resources needed to man two regiments of the Advance Base Force (A.B.F.) (forerunner to the Fleet Marine Force).
Captain Hughes reported to the Commanding Officer, 2nd A.B.F., at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where his commanding officer appointed him to command a rifle company. The A.B.F. Commander was Lieutenant Colonel John A. Lejeune.
The purpose of these Navy-Marine Corps exercises was to test the concept of the A.B.F. Still, a secondary objective, owing to declining political conditions, was to serve as a force in readiness for possible operations in Mexico. With naval maneuvers judged successful, the A.B.F. set sail for New Orleans on 9 February 1914. On 5 March, the A.B.F. received orders to proceed to Veracruz.
In 1914, the Mexican-American War had been over for 66 years. Still, diplomatic relations between those two countries remained strained — and the truth is that Mexicans, Texicans, and Americans had never gotten along. Today, it is doubtful that they ever will. U.S. policy toward Mexico hasn’t made many efforts to improve these relations, but neither has Mexico.
In 1913, after assuming the office of president, Woodrow Wilson withdrew the United States’ official recognition of the government/presidency of Victoriano Huerta. Wilson’s reasons for taking this action were that Huerta was using borrowed funds to purchase armaments and munitions for use against the people of Mexico to maintain his power over them.
Conditions deteriorated even more when Wilson imposed an arms embargo on Mexico in August 1913. The final straw was the Mexican officials arrested nine U.S. sailors in Tampico, Mexico, for entering areas of the city marked as off-limits to foreign military personnel. When this matter was not resolved to Wilson’s satisfaction, he ordered a naval force to capture Veracruz.
Captain Hughes led his 15th Rifle Company ashore on 21 April as part of the landing force. For his conduct between 21-24 April, Captain Hughes was cited for conspicuous gallantry and was nominated to receive the Medal of Honor.
Major Butler was another nominee. To his credit, Butler pleaded with his superiors to withdraw the medal, insisting he did nothing to deserve such a high-level award. This issue of awarding the medal of honor to Marine officers had become political, and Butler’s complaints weren’t helping matters. Irritated, Butler’s superiors in the chain of command ordered him to stop moaning and wear the damn thing. Butler’s discomfort increased, however, when he learned that his superiors had also nominated Captain Hughes for the Medal of Honor. Modern historians believe Butler despised no man more than John A. Hughes.
While the Marine brigade was en route back to the north, Captain Hughes received orders that he would proceed to the Marine Barracks, Portsmouth. In his final fitness report, despite his nomination for the Medal of Honor, Major Randolph C. Berkeley (also a Medal of Honor nominee) rated him poorly in leadership — for treating his men harshly.
In 1916, while serving as the Commanding Officer of the Marine Detachment, U.S.S. Delaware, Hughes landed with his Marines in response to civil unrest and banditry in the Dominican Republic. President Wilson made a Marine presence in the Dominican Republic permanent after late October that year.
Meanwhile, Captain Hughes became eligible for promotion to major by achieving fifteen years of honorable service. Amazingly — or possibly not, the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels denied Hughes’ advancement. Historians suggest that usually, the Secretary of the Navy would take no hand in the matter of a Marine officer’s promotion, but in this case, it would seem that through his father, Smedley D. Butler was involved in urging Daniels to “do the right thing” for the Corps (and for Butler).
At this time, the Commandant, Major General George Barnett, received a telegram reporting that Captain Hughes had become a combat casualty — wounded by gunshot. Barnett promptly took the telegram to Secretary Daniels and demanded that he release his hold on Captain Hughes’ promotion.
The Marine Corps promoted Hughes to Major on 16 March 1917. Accompanying his promotion was a strongly worded memorandum from Secretary Daniels. Merrill Bartlett tells us that the memo warned Hughes against any future drunkenness or harshness toward his men.
After Hughes recovered from his wound, he served as a staff officer at the headquarters of the A.B.F. in Philadelphia. When the United States entered World War I, Hughes proceeded to Quantico, Virginia, to prepare for a substantial increase in Marine Corps manpower.
An Interesting Aside
Shortly after the U.S. entered the European war, Brigadier General John A. Lejeune wrote to this friend, Major Smedley D. Butler (then serving as a major general in the Haitian constabulary), informing him that he (Lejeune) expected to command a Marine brigade in the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.). Should that happen, Lejeune wrote, he would offer Butler command of an infantry battalion.
Subsequent planning revealed that the A.E.F. commander, General “Black Jack” Pershing, reduced the Marine Corps’ footprint to a single regiment. Lejeune was sad to advise Butler that a colonel would command a single regiment and he had no further say in the matter.
Colonel Bartlett assures us that Lejeune’s letter to Butler was somewhat less than honest. By then, Butler had burdened HQMC with a constant stream of requests for relief from his duty in Haiti and assignment to the A.E.F. in France. Commandant Barnett was unsympathetic. He first informed Butler that his position was vital to American interests in Haiti. Secondly, he reminded Lejeune that Butler had used all of his political leverage to gain the coveted post to command the Gendarmerie d’ Haiti and that he could damn well remain there.
But General Barnett had a problem that needed a resolution. He required the names of qualified officers for service in the A.E.F. He needed Lejeune’s advice — and one of the officers suggested by General Lejeune was Major John A. Hughes.
When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the U.S. Marine Corps included 462 commissioned officers, 49 warrant officers, and 13,214 enlisted men. Of those, 187 officers and 4,546 enlisted men served outside the continental limits of the United States. Six weeks later, the Marine Corps had organized the 5th Marine Regiment (consisting of around one-sixth of the Corps’ total strength). When the regiment sailed for France in June 1917, U.S. Marines accounted for one-fifth of the A.E.F.’s expeditionary force.
Closely following the 5th Marines in July and August 1917 was the 6th Marine Regiment and 6th Machine gun Battalion (M.G.B.) Within one year of America’s entry into the war, the Marine Corps had placed as many enlisted Marines in France as had served on active duty at the outbreak of the war. President Wilson’s policies in Central America and the Caribbean Sea demanded a massive increase in the number of Marines serving on active duty. In June 1918, the authorized strength of the Marine Corps was 1,323 officers and 30,000 enlisted men. The number of Marines serving on that date was 1,424 officers and 57,298 enlisted men.
Colonel Albertus W. Catlin assumed command of the 6th Marine Regiment. Catlin assigned Major John A. Hughes to command the 1st Battalion, Thomas Holcomb (later, Commandant of the Marine Corps) to command 2/6, and Berton W. Sibley to command 3/6.
Upon arrival in France, Major Hughes settled his battalion at St. Nazaire. He joined his fellow officers for temporary duty under instruction at the I Corps School of Infantry at Gondrecourt. Hughes’ performance as a student prompted the Army to extend his temporary assignment through February 1918 so that he could serve as an instructor. In mid-February, Hughes asked the Army to send him back to his battalion, and they refused — so Major Hughes packed his kit and returned to his battalion without orders. The Army high command was unhappy with Hughes, but Colonel Catlin sorted it all out.
On 27 May 1918, Imperial Germany launched the third of its spring counteroffensive operations to bring the war to a close before the United States committed the total weight of its Army to the fight. Within four days, German soldiers reached the Marne River at Château-Thierry. Until this point, General Pershing had consistently refused to release any American forces to serve under foreign command, but with Imperial German troops sitting a mere 35 miles from Paris, Pershing rushed three American infantry divisions to Château-Thierry to halt the German advance. One of those divisions was the U.S. Second Infantry with the 4th Marine Brigade.
Catlin’s 6th Marines occupied a position along the Paris-Metz highway, south of a small forest called Bois de Belleau (Belleau Wood), with orders to dig in and hold at all costs. Having halted the German advance, the Brigade received new orders: expel the Germans from Belleau Wood. Thus began the Battle of Belleau Wood, one of the Marine Corps’ most contested and bloodiest fights. Before the end of this battle, the Marine brigade suffered a 50% casualty rate — and it was during this fight that Major John A. Hughes earned both the Navy Cross and Silver Star. He also suffered the effects of poisoned gas, thereby earning his second Purple Heart medal.
Following the Battle of Belleau Wood, the German high command foolishly decided to cut the highway between Soissons and Château-Thierry. The Marines deployed south of Soissons on 18 July. After two days of bitter fighting, the Brigade gave up an additional 2,000 casualties — with most of the dead and wounded from the 6th Marine Regiment. One of those injured Marines was Major Hughes.
By this time, Johnny the Hard was a physical wreck. His previous wound had opened up and made walking difficult and painful. His gas-seared lungs sapped his strength, and he had reached the limit of his endurance. But despite his pain and discomfort, he did his duty and persevered until his superiors ordered him returned to the United States.
Before that happened, however, again, according to Colonel Bartlett, Major Hughes took a nasty fall as a bunker collapsed. The major cussed and asked the Marines, “Say, any of you birds got a pair of wire cutters?” Using those wire cutters, Major Hughes sat down and cut off a shard of bone protruding from his leg.
Second Medal of Honor Recommendation
Major Hughes’ promotion to lieutenant colonel, effective 28 August 1918, finally caught up with him — along with another Silver Star medal and two French Croix de Guerre. But one Marine Corps icon thought that Hughes deserved more. Colonel Hiram I. Bearss (shown right), believing that Hughes earned the Medal of Honor for his performance at Soissons, put that recommendation in writing and sent it directly to the Commandant of the Marine Corps.
In writing his recommendation, Bearss reported, “During the engagement east of Vierzy, on the 19th of July 1918, Lieut. Col. Hughes (then major) conducted his battalion across open fields swept by violent machine-gun and artillery fire. His entire commissioned and non-commissioned staff were either killed or wounded. Though suffering the severest pain from an old wound, he led his battalion forward and, by his dauntless courage, [and] bulldog tenacity of purpose, set an example to his command that enabled [it] to hold [its] position against the enemy throughout the day [and] night, though without food or water and with very little ammunition. Major Hughes’ battalion had been reduced to about 200 men, but due to this magnificent example of gallantry and intrepidity, this remnant of a battalion held a front of over 1,200 yards. As a battalion commander, he risked his life beyond the call of duty.”
The Commandant returned Bearss’ recommendation, noting that it should have been submitted through the chain of command to Headquarters, A.E.F., but by then, too much time had elapsed, and Hughes did not receive a second Medal of Honor for his World War I service.
After five months in the Army hospital in France, Colonel Hughes was ordered back to the United States for further treatment at the U.S. Naval Hospital, Philadelphia. After an additional two months of treatment, Hughes attempted to ask for an assignment to the A.B.F., but to no avail. Colonel Hughes was no longer medically qualified for Marine Corps service. The Commandant transferred Hughes to the disability retired list on 3 July 1919.
In retirement, Hughes joined his brothers in the Hughes Trading Company but left two years later to work for Mack Trucking in Cleveland — and later the first director of the Ohio Liquor Control Department. In 1936, the square-jawed Marine became the Director of Safety at the Great Lakes Exposition. Ill health relating to his military service forced Hughes to retire again in 1937, and he moved to Florida. Johnny the Hard passed away on 25 May 1942 while undergoing treatment at the Veterans Hospital.
Meanwhile — back in July 1918 — Smedley Calls His Daddy
At about the time Colonel Hughes had fought his last battle in France, Smedley Butler finally made his way to France — but only after side-stepping the Commandant of the Marine Corps and calling on his father to help him achieve an assignment in the A.E.F. Congressman Thomas S. Butler spoke with Secretary of the Navy Daniels, who ordered the Commandant to send Butler to France with the next replacement draft. This interference resulted in Butler’s meteoric rise from major to full colonel and command of the 13th Marine Regiment.
In the summer of 1918, Secretary of War Newton Baker and his senior staff had no interest in another Marine Brigade in France, but on 15 September, within only a few weeks of his father’s interference, Colonel Butler and the 13th Marines embarked for France.
To Butler’s profound disappointment, however, General Pershing decided to break up the 5th Marine Brigade and use the Marines as replacements and for logistical duties behind the lines. When Brigadier General Smedley Darlington Butler arrived in France, General Pershing placed him in charge of a supply depot. Within only a few months, Butler was awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, and the French Order of the Black Star — no doubt arranged for by his daddy in recognition of his non-combat service. General Butler continued to cry on his father’s shoulder for the balance of his career.
No pluck, no sand, and no grit.
Bartlett, M. L. The Spirited Saga of Johnny the Hard. Naval History, U.S. Naval Institute, 2007
Catlin, A. With the Help of God and a Few Marines: The battles of Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood. Blue House Books, 2016.
Sweetman, J. The Landing at Veracruz, 1914. U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1968.
“A Brief History of the Medal of Honor, U.S. Army Center of Military History, online.
 During World War I, Marines served with the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.), which placed these men under the operational authority of the Department of War, even though at the time, they were regularly assigned to the Department of the Navy. It was a bit confusing back then, so it was possible for a Marine to receive a medal of honor from both the Army and the Navy. After the war, service regulations changed to reflect that a medal of honor can only be awarded once for a single action. It is still possible to receive two such medals, but only for separate actions.
 The process of commissioning enlisted men to serve as officers resulted in the term “mustang,” denoting an individual who “came up through the ranks” rather than someone who was born with a silver spoon in their mouth. A mustang was a feral animal, not a “thoroughbred.” Over many years, the Armed Forces found that in terms of leadership, raw determination, and professional knowledge, former enlisted men made better officers. A few former enlisted men found their way to general officer status, but for the most part, accession to flag rank was reserved for graduates of the service academies.
 My primary source for this information is retired Lieutenant Colonel Merrill L. Bartlett. Were it not for his fine writing at Naval History Magazine, I would never have heard of Colonel Goodrell or Major Perkins.
 Certain individual Marines had severe drinking problems at the turn of the century; more than one officer succumbed to the effects of alcoholism, including Pete Ellis — which remarkably all seemed to originate in the Philippines.
 The incident suggests that despite his demonstrated courage in combat, Smedley Darlington Butler would have made a perfect centerpiece for a bouquet of assholes.
 The Medal of Honor is awarded by the President of the United States in the name of the Congress of the United States — hence, the medal is often termed the “Congressional Medal of Honor.” After the incursion into Mexico, Congress amended its legislation for the Medal of Honor to include naval officers. Within the Department of the Navy, the conflict provided an opportunity to shower the Medal of Honor on selected participants at Veracruz. Of the Navy contingent deployed to Veracruz, 28 officers and 18 enlisted men earned the award — and nine Marine Corps officers.
 History tells us that ultimately the Marines did provide an infantry brigade to the A.E.F, but in the planning stages, Pershing did all that he could to avoid having Marines in his command.
 The two regiments and separate battalion formed the 4th Marine Brigade, with an authorized strength of 258 officers and 8,211 enlisted men. The brigade fought in eight major engagements and suffered 12,000 casualties. At the same time, the Corps maintained the 5th Marine Brigade in the A.E.F. reserve, provided the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division with staff officers and enlisted men, and provided officers to command U.S. Army infantry and aviation units.
 Bearss, himself a holder of the Medal of Honor, commanded an Army infantry regiment and the U.S. 51st Infantry Brigade in France. His moniker in the Marine Corps was “Hiking Hiram,” famous for his trek across the Island of Samar in the Philippines in 1901.
 Source, LtCol Merrill L. Bartlett, USMC (Retired) Naval History Magazine, 2007.
 General Barnett was right, of course. The recommendation should have been submitted through the chain of command. It is also possible that Barnett knew that Secretary Daniels would never allow the approval of the Medal of Honor for Hughes.
 In retirement, Colonel John A. Hughes provided a falsified dossier for “Pete” Ellis’ ill-fated spy mission to the Central Pacific in 1923. (Ellis assumed the identity of a salesman for the Hughes Trading Company as a cover for his undercover and somewhat bizarre escapade).
“Ven I vaunt to send a damned fool, I send myself.”
One of the Marine Corps’ “colorful” characters of the past was Major Louis Cukela. Cukela was born in the kingdom of Dalmatia on 1 May 1888 (modern-day Croatia). A “mustang,” Cukela rose in ranks from Private to Major over a career spanning 29 years. Three things made this officer a colorful character: his broken accent, short temper, and unquestioned courage and valor in combat.
Louis Cukela received his primary education in Dalmatia with further schooling at the Merchant Academy and Royal Gymnasium. In 1913, he migrated to the United States with his brother, both young men deciding to settle in Minneapolis, Minnesota. There may not have been many job opportunities in Minneapolis in the early part of the 20th century, which could explain why Cukela decided to join the U.S. Army in 1914. Corporal Cukela accepted his discharge from the army in 1916.
Seven months later, before the United States officially entered Europe’s Great War, Louis Cukela enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Officially, the United States entered the war on 6 April 1917. In late May, President Wilson directed the Secretary of the Navy to issue orders detaching a Marine regiment for service with the U.S. Army in France. The regiment would be known as the 5th Regiment of U.S. Marines. And, as a demonstration of the combat readiness of these Marines, the regiment sailed for France sixteen days later.
Cukela served in the 66th rifle company in the Norfolk, Virginia area. As the Marines reformed for service with the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.), Marine rifle companies formed as part of infantry battalions within regiments. The 15th rifle company (Pensacola) joined the 49th, 66th, and 67th companies to create the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. The 1stBn embarked aboard the U.S.S. DeKalb, arriving at St. Nazaire on 26 June.
Initially, the Army assigned these Marines to the U.S. First Infantry Division. Many of these Marines had combat experience, but not as part of a land army. This necessitated that the marines undergo training to familiarize them with land operations. This training involved instruction by French infantry officers and N.C.O.s in offensive and defensive operations, trench warfare, grenade throwing, bayonet fighting, and infantry-artillery coordination. Until this training could be accomplished, the Marines performed communications duties (as messengers) and certain other logistical duties.
In September 1917, the 5th Marines was assigned to serve under the U.S. Second Infantry Division. In October, the regiment became part of the 4th Brigade of Marines (one of two infantry brigades in the 2nd Division). Despite the regiment’s pre-combat training, General Pershing had no confidence that the 5th Marines were ready for service in the line. In March 1918, the Marine Brigade relocated to the relatively quiet area of Toulon. To acquaint Marines with combat service opposing German troops, the regiments rotated battalions into the trenches for a set period of time. When the Marines were not standing watch, they were kept busy improving or repairing their trenches.
On 19 – 20 March, during a battalion relief operation, the enemy launched a raid in force. The extraordinary effort of the 49th Company, 3rd Battalion, sent the enemy reeling back to their own trenches. At this time, the German high command began paying closer attention to those American Marines. On 30 May, the A.E.F. assigned the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division to the French Sixth Army, after which the Marine Brigade received the mission of stemming a German thrust toward Paris. Retreating units and civilian refugees clogged up the lines of communication, requiring the Marines to disembark from their motorized vehicles and proceed toward Meaux.
Gunnery Sergeant (later Second Lieutenant) Cukela fought in every engagement in which his regiment participated. That’s what Marines do — but it was just as well they were focusing their attention on the Germans because, according to Major General James G. Harbord, commanding the U.S. Second Infantry Division, the French high command was a disaster. No one knew anything — and didn’t seem to care.
On 2 June, the battalions of the 5th Marines occupied reserve and line duty north of the Marne River and west of Chateau-Thierry. Harbord struggled to organize the lines of the French XXI Corps and cover the withdrawal of French infantry/artillery units. Harbord finally accomplished this by mid-day on 4 June 1918. That afternoon, 2/5 repulsed two German assaults against the withdrawing French and convinced the Germans to withdraw into defensive positions.
The French Sixth Army ordered the XXI Corps to straighten its lines; XXI Corps assigned the mission to the 2nd Infantry Division, and Harbord handed it off to the Marine Brigade. Second Battalion, 5th Marines successfully mounted the first attack and straightened out the allied lines. For the second attack, General Harbord sent the Marines into Bois de Belleau (Belleau Wood). The fight set a single American infantry division against five German divisions. By the end of the battle on 23 June 1918, the 5th Marines had suffered 2,000 killed and wounded — but the struggle also set into motion a massive German withdrawal that continued until the Armistice.
On 18 July 1918 at Soissons, the 66th Company operated in the Forêt de Retz some 50 miles northeast of Paris, near Villiers-Cotterets, when a German strong point held up the company’s advance. Alone, of his own volition, Cukela crawled beyond the company’s lines toward the German defenses. Despite the enemy’s bullets zipping just above his head, he captured an enemy machine gun by bayoneting its three-man crew. Then, using German grenades, Cukela demolished the remaining part of the enemy’s strong point. He silenced the Germans, captured four prisoners, and captured two undamaged machine guns. For this action, the United States awarded Gunnery Sergeant Cukela two medals of honor — one from the U.S. Army and another from the U.S. Navy. 
In addition to his two medals of honor, Cukela also received three Silver Star medals and several French National/Military awards: Legion of Honor (Chevalier), Military Medal, and three Croix de Guerre.
Cukela may have been entitled to two purple heart medals, as well, for wounds received while engaged with the enemy. He did not receive these awards because, believing his wounds minor, he never reported to sick bay for treatment.
On 1 November 1919, First Lieutenant Cukela joined the 1st Marine Brigade in Haiti. Soon after arriving and being made aware of the mission of garrisoning Marines in Haitian towns, Cukela took aside one promising young second lieutenant and observed it was a waste of time. Instead, the Marines should pursue the Cacos into the mountains and be done with them. It was a logical proposal, and the young lieutenant — Lewis B. Puller — never forgot Cukela’s advice.
While serving in the Caribbean, Cukela’s brigade commander charged him with executing three Haitian detainees. A medical officer examined Cukela and reported him as highly agitated and smelling of alcohol. Reputation-wise, Cukela was thought to have a propensity for executing Cacos. Cukela was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the “word,” having gotten out, prompted the Commandant to reassign him to the Dominican Republic.
His battlefield appointment to Second Lieutenant took place on 26 September 1918, and a regular commission was conferred on 31 March 1919. He advanced to First Lieutenant on 17 July 1919 and Captain on 15 September 1921.
In 1955, Warner Brothers cartoonist and story writer Warren Foster (1904 – 1971) developed a tale he titled Sahara Hare. It was a continuation of the epic contest between Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam (who appears in the tale as Riff Raff Sam). Bugs pops up in the desert, thinking he’s arrived at Miami Beach. Meanwhile, while riding on a camel, Sam suddenly comes upon Bugs’ tracks and exclaims, “Great horney toads! A trespasser is getting footy prints all over my desert.” Sam orders the camel to slow down and loudly says, “Whoa camel, whoa! Whoa!” Ignored by the camel, Sam whacks him on the head and tells the half conscience camel, “When I say Whoa, I means WHOA!”
Funny stuff, if you enjoy Warner Brothers Cartoons — but it makes you wonder if Warren Foster ever served in the Marines and knew or ran across one of the great Cukela stories. Captain Cukela was no Cossack; he had little interest in equestrian pursuits and rode like a sack of rice. Assigned to attend the Army Infantry Officers School at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Army emphasized infantry tactics but also demanded that its officer students demonstrate mastery of the horse. One day, his mount took off at a gallop toward Alabama, and nothing Captain Cukela did could persuade the horse from the gallop. He ordered “Stop Horse” on several occasions — to no avail. Finally, Captain Cukela balled up his fist and whacked the horse as hard as he could on its forehead, and the animal sank to its knees. Dismounting, Captain Cukela admonished the horse, “I am Cukela — you are the horse. I tell you, stop — you stop. You not stop, damn you, I break your head.”
On 30 June 1940, the date of his retirement, Cukela was promoted to Major — but he was recalled to active duty a month later in anticipation of war with Japan.
During World War II, Major Cukela served as a supply officer at Norfolk, Virginia, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was returned to the retired list on 17 May 1946 — achieving 32 years of active military service.
After Major Cukela suffered a stroke in 1955, he lay dying at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. One afternoon, a prominent Lieutenant General visited his bedside. Cukela, even in his weakened state, had no trouble recognizing Chesty Puller — but kept referring to him as “Lieutenant.” Cukela observed to Puller that he was dying. General Puller answer, “That’s all right, old man. You’re going to Valhalla — where all Marines go.
Louis Cukela, aged 67 years, passed away on 19 March 1956.
Cukela made the famous quote, shown at the beginning of this post, after receiving a garbled and incomprehensible field message. According to author and biographer Colonel Merrill Bartlett, USMC (Retired) Cukela’s strange comments caught on quickly in the A.E.F. — even to General Pershing, himself.
Who’s Who in Marine Corps History. History Division, HQMC
Yingling, J. M. A Brief History of the 5th Marines. Washington, D.C., 1963, 1968.
 The rapid organization, equipping, and embarkation of the regiment was the product of considerable forethought by senior Marine Corps planners.
 The weather was hot, the roads dusty, and the Marines were over-burdened by carrying their supplies and equipment on their backs. Morale was not improved with the dejected and terrorized looks appearing on the faces of French soldiers moving away from the battle site. It was at this time when Captain Lloyd W. Williams of the 2nd Battalion told a French colonel that the Marines would not retreat — “We just got here.”
 Following World War I, the U.S. Navy decided to recognize two kinds of heroism. One involving extraordinary courage in the face of the enemy, and the other recognition for non-combat service. The ribbon pattern on the medal awarded for non-combat reflected an up-side-down star. The new pattern medal was designed by the Tiffany Company (1919), reflecting actual combat. It was known as the Tiffany Cross Medal of Honor but due to its similarity with the German Cross, the medal was unpopular, and several awardees requested a newer design once issued in 1942.
The Mahabharata is an ancient epic poem that offers philosophical discourses interwoven in the stories of two families during a time of great stress on the Indian subcontinent. It may date 5,000 years ago, but there is considerable debate about its exact dating. Within the Mahabharata is a discussion between ruling brothers concerning what constitutes acceptable behavior on a battlefield. The debate involves the concept of proportionality:
“One should not attack chariots with cavalry; chariot warriors should attack chariots. One should not assail someone in distress, neither to scare him nor to defeat him. War should be waged for the sake of conquest; one should not be enraged toward an enemy who is not trying to kill him.”
The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the ancient Torah, also called the words of Moses, is believed to be around 3,300 years old. Verse 19 tells us:
“When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human that they should be besieged by you? Only trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siege works against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.”
The preceding are examples of ancient “laws of warfare.” In modern times, such laws are a component of international law that regulates the conditions for initiating war and the conduct of warring parties. The laws define sovereignty, nationhood, states, territories, occupation, and other “critical” aspects of international law, such as declarations of war, acceptance of surrender, treatment of prisoners, military necessity, and distinction and proportionality. There are also prohibitions on certain weapons that may cause unnecessary human suffering.
War crimes are violations of the laws of war that give rise to individual criminal responsibility for actions by combatants, such as the intentional killing of civilians, prisoners of war, torture, taking hostages, unnecessarily destroying civilian property, perfidy, rape, pillaging, conscription of children, and refusing to accept surrender. In the modern sense, laws of war have existed since 1863, codified during the American Civil War.
During Japan’s imperialist expansion, militarism had a significant bearing on the conduct of the Japanese Armed Forces before and during the Second World War. At that time, following the collapse of the shogunate, Japanese Emperors became the focus of national and military loyalty. Japan, and other world powers, did not ratify the Geneva Convention of 1929, which sought to regulate the treatment of prisoners of war. Japan did ratify earlier conventions, however, in 1899 and 1907. An Imperial proclamation in 1894 instructed Japanese soldiers to make every effort to win a war without violating international laws. History reflects that the Japanese observed these rules after 1894 and during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.
According to apologists, pre-World War II Japanese servicemen were trained to observe the Code of Bushido, which extols to every serviceman that there is no greater honor than to give up their lives for their Emperor, and nothing is more cowardly than to surrender to one’s enemy. This argument seeks to explain why Japanese servicemen in World War II mistreated POWs. The POWs were contemptible to the Japanese because they were “without honor.” When the Japanese murdered POWs, beheaded them, and drowned them, it was acceptable because by surrendering, the POWs had forfeited their right to dignity or respect. However, the apologists do not seem able to explain using POWs for medical experiments or as guinea pigs for chemical and biological weapons.
The Japanese military between 1930-1945 is often compared to the German army of about the same period because of the sheer scale of destruction and suffering both armies caused. According to Sterling Seagrave, a noted historian, Japan’s criminal conduct began in 1895 when the Japanese assassinated Korean Queen Min. He tells us that estimates of between 6-10 million murdered people, a direct result of Japanese war crimes, is exceedingly lower than the actual number of people the Japanese killed. He estimates between 10-14 million would be closer to the truth.
According to the Tokyo Tribunal, Japan’s death rate of Chinese held as POWs was considerably higher than the average (as a percent) because Emperor Hirohito removed the protections accorded them under international law in 1937. After 1943, a similar order was issued to the Imperial Japanese Navy to execute all prisoners taken at sea.
In addition to charges (and convictions) for the torture of POWs, the Tokyo Tribunal also charged Japanese war veterans with executing captured airmen, cannibalism, starvation, forced labor, rape, looting, and perfidy. Japanese Kamikaze pilots routinely attacked hospital ships marked with large red crosses, a tell-tale sign that they were noncombatant ships. Some have suggested that Kamikaze pilots did this to escape being shot down before they could damage an enemy vessel.
Trial and punishment
After Japan’s surrender, on 29 April 1946, the International Military Tribunal (Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal) began proceedings to try certain Japanese personnel for war crimes. The Tribunal brought charges against twenty-five individuals for Class A war crimes and 5,700 for Class B violations. Of these, 984 received death sentences (920 executed), 475 received life sentences, 2,944 received “some” prison time, 1,088 individuals obtained acquittals, and 279 charged individuals never went to trial.
Efforts to reduce non-capital sentences began almost immediately. In 1950, General Douglas MacArthur, serving as Supreme Allied Commander, Far East, ordered reduced sentences for good behavior and paroled those serving life sentences after fifteen years. In April 1952, Japanese citizens began to demand the release of prisoners because they had not received “fair trials” or because their families were suffering hardships. The Japanese (mostly civilians, by the time) began to argue that the war criminals were not criminals — they were only doing their duty. In May 1952, President Truman issued an executive order establishing a clemency and parole board for war criminals. By the end of 1958, the Tokyo Tribunal ordered all Japanese war criminals not already executed, including Class A convicts, to be released. All of these people were suddenly “rehabilitated.”
In Japan, there is a difference between legal and moral positions on war crimes. Japan violated no international law, they argue, because Japan did not acknowledge such international laws. But the Japanese government has “apologized” for such incidents because they caused unnecessary suffering. The Japanese like to apologize for issues where no apology is adequate. It’s all about “saving face” for themselves — without genuine guilt for the horrific suffering they inflicted upon men (and women) who were only doing their duty as members of the Allied forces.
The other side
The preceding discussion in no way attempts to absolve American servicemen who were also guilty of war crimes, particularly since this topic addresses war crimes perpetrated against Japanese soldiers taken as prisoners of war. There is no excuse for such behavior, even though there are reasons for it.
Recently landed Marines of the 1st Marine Division on the island of Guadalcanal were not in a particularly happy frame of mind on 11 August 1942. Since their arrival five days earlier, they had been under constant assault by Japanese naval artillery and air attacks. Ground fire and snipers continually harassed the Marines, and they were getting fed up with it.
The Marines weren’t too happy with the Navy, either. Two days earlier, Admiral Fletcher made the difficult decision to withdraw several amphibious supply ships that were in the process of unloading ammunition, food stores, and medical equipment needed to sustain the Marines in ground combat. Although the average Marine grunt didn’t realize it, Fletcher’s decision was prudent and responsible because, had Fletcher not withdrawn those supply ships, Japanese submarines and destroyers would have sunk them.
On 12 August, a Marine security patrol observed what they thought was a white flag near the Matanikau River, not too far from the Marine perimeter. Later in the day, Marines captured a Japanese sailor who, after a liberal dose of whiskey, divulged that many of his comrades in the jungle were starving and on the verge of surrendering.
At this point, Guadalcanal Marines were full of beans, itching for a fight, and still untested in combat. The information received that day was exciting but unverified. A drunken sailor is hardly a good source of information, and while everyone knew what a white flag meant, could it be possible that the Japanese were interested in surrendering this early in the game?
To find out, the Division Intelligence Officer (G-2) was tasked to lead a reconnaissance patrol to the area where an earlier patrol had spotted a white flag. On the evening of 12 August 1942, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Goettge, USMC, the G-2, led a 25-man patrol to verify the veracity of earlier reports, accept the surrender of Japanese soldiers, disarm them, and escort them back to Marine lines. The patrol’s secondary mission was to gather information about the enemy.
The problem was that Marine operations had already scheduled a patrol. Since it wouldn’t do to have combat patrols bumping into one another in the dense jungle or after dusk, the Marines simply re-tasked the patrol and placed it under the operational control of Colonel Goettge.
Goettge hand-selected several men to accompany him on patrol. Lieutenant Commander Malcolm L. Pratt was a navy surgeon. Captain Wilfred Ringer, the 5th Marines intelligence officer; First Lieutenant Ralph Corey, a Japanese language specialist, and First Sergeant Stephen A. Custer, from the 5th Marines staff. The riflemen assigned to the patrol included Sergeant Charles C. “Monk” Amdt, Sergeant Frank L. Few, and Corporal Joe Spaulding.
After loading his men into the Higgins boat, the patrol shoved off at 18:00 hours, a delay caused by Goettge making last-minute changes to the route of march. Rather than leading the patrol directly into the heavy jungle from the Marine perimeter, Goettge elected to ferry the patrol by boat to the west of Lunga Point, east of Point Cruz, and just off the mouth of the Matanikau River. It was already getting dark, so Goettge planned to land his men, bivouac for the night, and proceed up the Matanikau River in the morning.
In the darkness, Goettge lost sight of his landing point, and he directed the landing point further east. As the boat approached the mouth of the river, its engines throbbing loudly in the night, Japanese defenders became aware of their enemy’s presence. As the boat came into contact with the shoreline, the Marines disembarked on the west side of the river — precisely where they were warned not to go.
Once the Marines were ashore, Goettge had his Marines establish a defensive perimeter on the beach. With the Japanese sailor trussed in a tightrope, Goettge, Ringer, and Custer followed the prisoner into the jungle toward the supposed location of the weary, starving, ready-to-surrender soldiers. Shortly after these men disappeared into the thick foliage, gunfire shattered the night. Goettge and the Japanese sailor fell dead; Ringer carried the wounded Custer back to the beach within hail of small arms fire. Dr. Pratt tended to Pratt and a few other wounded men. Members of the patrol returned fire to keep the enemy from approaching their position.
After a few minutes, the Japanese stopped firing. Sergeant Few, Sergeant Arndt, and Corporal Spaulding low-crawled into the jungle to find Goettge and the Japanese squid. Goettge was found dead, with bullet wounds to his head. Spaulding crawled back to the beach to secure the help of additional men. While he was making his way, Japanese soldiers rushed Sgt Few’s positions. Few, thinking the Japanese were his men, called out with a challenge, but rather than offering a password, the Japanese soldier bayonetted Sergeant Few. Sergeant Few, now highly pissed off, grabbed the Japanese soldier’s rifle, took it away from him, bayonetted him to death, and shot and killed another soldier with his pistol.
As Few and Arndt returned to the beach, they killed two additional Japanese. Captain Ringer established a tight defensive perimeter but knew that his vastly out-numbered men could not sustain a major assault. Worse for the Marines, the Japanese knew exactly where they were. It was only a matter of time. Meanwhile, Dr. Pratt, wounded in an earlier fusillade while treating a wounded Marine, died from his wounds. Captain Ringer tried to improvise without a radio by firing tracer rounds into the air. The call for help went unanswered.
Next, Ringer asked for volunteers to return to the Marine perimeter. Sergeant Arndt, a trained scout and a strong swimmer, agreed to swim five miles back for help. Arndt departed at around 01:00 on 13 August. As Arndt waded into the surf, the remaining men accepted their situation in stride; they were, after all, Marines.
Slowly and carefully, Japanese soldiers approached the Marine position. The closer they got, the more accurate their rifle fire. Twenty Marines dwindled to ten. Custer had fallen to gunfire. An hour had passed since Arndt went into the water, and Ringer had no idea if he’d made it. He dispatched Spaulding on the same mission.
An hour later, the Marine’s situation turned desperate. Only four Marines remained effective, including Ringer, who led his men toward the jungle with hopes of concealing themselves. Within a few moments, only Sergeant Few remained alive. If the sergeant had any chance of survival, he had to leave the area immediately. He did not believe any of his comrades were still alive. While under enemy fire, Few headed for the surf. Upon reaching deeper water, Few observed the Japanese mutilating the dead Marines. “The Japs closed in and hacked up our people,” Sergeant Few testified. “I could see their swords flashing in the sun.”
At 08:00, an exhausted Sergeant Few dragged himself out of the water near Marine’s lines and delivered his report to a Marine officer. Within a short time, the 5th Marines commander ordered Company A, supported by two platoons from Company L and a machine gun section, to proceed to Point Cruz. The problem was that they were looking for the Goettge patrol where he was supposed to be. A thorough search of the area failed to locate the remains of the Marines — that was the official report. However, Private Donald Langer, one of the scouts, reported spotting dismembered body parts half buried in the sand. Before Marine headquarters could organize a third search party, a tropical storm hit the island, and the remains of the Marines were washed out to sea.
The final disposition of the remains of the Goettge patrol is unknown. What is not disputed is that the Japanese mutilation created far-reaching consequences. Accounts of what happened spread throughout the entire Pacific theater. The least of these consequences was that the 1st Marine Division lost its entire intelligence section in a futile, ill-conceived, poorly executed patrol. The worst of these consequences (arising from two provocative Japanese behaviors — perfidy and mutilation) was that the Marines began hating the Japs with unbridled passion. They subsequently refused to take prisoners, even those few who indicated surrender. And the Marines were angry at themselves for having fallen for such an obvious trap. They wouldn’t make that mistake again.
News of this incident reached the United States through Richard Tregaskis. No one in the United States thought that their armies should take prisoners. “The only good Jap is a dead Jap” became a popular catchphrase, and in the minds of Marines and soldiers alike, if the Japs wanted a dirty war, they’d get one. Private Langer recalled, “After this, ‘no prisoners’ became an unspoken agreement.” After the Goettge incident, the brutish killing of Japanese became as common as Pacific Island palm trees.
Two wrongs do not make a right — we all heard that from our parents. At the same time, on this issue, those who monitor battlefield behavior (as well as the folks back home) must understand that war is not a humane endeavor.
The military forces of all countries train their combatants to locate, close with, and kill the enemy. Armed conflict is, by its very nature, deadly. Combat is an adrenaline-rich environment, fluid, stressful, and always influenced by the actions (or perceived actions) of the opposing force. Combatants make life and death decisions within split seconds, and no combatant is ever dispassionate about what transpires within those mere seconds.
The enemy is not human. He is the enemy. He must surrender or die. The duty to inflict death or greater pain and suffering on the enemy is what we pay our soldiers to do, and they must do it with intentional resolve, in the space of a second, in a lethal environment. Once these events have begun, they cannot be turned on and off again as a faucet. No government bureaucrat or military lawyer has the right to judge these events when they’ve never experienced them firsthand.
Before and during the Pacific War, Japan’s imperial forces violated every tenet of generally accepted battlefield proscriptions. They murdered, mutilated, tortured, raped, and inflicted grossly inhumane treatment upon those who, as POWs, could no longer defend themselves. When American Marines and Soldiers became aware of these inhumane behaviors, they reacted as any civilized person would (or should). In this context, the Japanese obtained their just rewards at the hands of U. S. military personnel.
Bergerud, E. M. Touched with Fire: The Land War in the South Pacific. Penguin Books, 1997.
Manchester, W. Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific. Little/Brown, 1980.
Tregaskis, R. Guadalcanal Diary. Landmark Books, 1943; Modern Library, 2000.
Wukovits, J. The Ill-Fated Goettge Patrol Incident in the Early Days of Guadalcanal. Warfare History Network (online), 2016.
 Unit 731 under LtGen Shiro Ishii, was established under the direct order of Emperor Hirohito. POW victims suffered amputations without anesthesia, vivisection, transfusing horse blood, and biological weapons testing. Ishi was never prosecuted because the U.S. Government offered him immunity in exchange for handing over the results of his experiments. We may deplore General Ishi for his incredible inhumanity, but we must abhor the American government even more.
 Feigning injury or surrender to lure an enemy and then attacking or ambushing them.
 Sergeant Few was prominently mentioned in the book titled Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis, who described him as a half-breed Indian “vastly respected by the men because he is, as the Marines say, ‘really rugged.’”