Symbol of Command

The Marine Leader’s Sword

Introduction

One thing that stands out about the American republic is that it was born in war.  As statesmen declared the independence of the United States in a somewhat eloquent indictment of King George III, tens of thousands of British soldiers and sailors converged on the American colonies to subdue the rebellion by force.  The war would last eight years.  The revolutionaries armed themselves with weapons that primarily served as hunting weapons; the British military was better armed.

The critical task of supplying colonial troops with the weapons needed to defeat their British enemy fell upon the Congress.  In 1775, few factories in America were capable of producing firearms, swords, and other weapons, but none were capable of producing them in the quantities needed to sustain an army for several years.

At the height of the war, more than fifty-thousand men were under arms: another thirty-thousand troop served in state guard and militia units.  To arm these men against the well-supplied British regulars, Congressional agents gathered weapons from various sources on two continents.  Patriots had begun to store weapons in anticipation of hostilities between themselves and British regulars, some of which came from British armories and storehouses, provisional magazines, and supply ships.

At the beginning of the Revolution, Continental military officers relied on soldiers to bring their weapons from home — their hunting weapons, which included fowling pieces, smooth-bore Brown Bess muskets (suitable for use with ball or shot), and after 1776, the shotgun.  These weapons also included outdated or barely serviceable firearms from the French and Indian Wars and weapons captured from enemies.  It wasn’t a sufficient number of weapons.

It wasn’t long before congressional agents began issuing contracts to produce weapons.  The domestic arms industry struggled to expand to meet demand, but they simply could not meet the need to sustain American troops through a protracted conflict.  Congressional agents turned to France and Spain, who were too happy to supply arms to the Americans.  Shipments from France began in 1776and continued through 1783.

The Edged Weapons

Edged weapons played a critical role in the Revolutionary War.  Battles such as the Guilford Courthouse (North Carolina) were decided in bloody hand-to-hand combat where bayonets, swords, axes, and tomahawks were used with lethal effectiveness.  The battle was a victory for the British, but they marched off with far fewer men than before the battle began.

Infantrymen in close combat, no longer able to load and fire their long guns, relied on hanger (hunting) swords or bayonets.  Hunting swords were short, cut-and-thrust weapons used by German Jaegers and  American riflemen.  The bayonet was the most widely used edged weapon throughout the ages because it transformed muskets/rifles into a spear — which terrified inexperienced/poorly trained troops.  The officer’s small sword was a pervasive civilian pattern worn as part of a gentleman’s formal attire and the most common sword carried by officers during the Revolution.  Officer’s swords were light, straight, and slender in design; Cavalry swords were heavier, longer, and curved.[1]  Shown right, pre-Revolutionary gentleman’s sword owned by Richard Varick, Aide-de-Camp to General Washington.

The Marines

Marine Corps officers and noncommissioned officers have carried swords since the American Revolutionary War.  Presumably, the swords carried by officers ashore were gentleman’s swords, while officers and enlisted men serving aboard ship used cutlasses.[2]  What made cutlasses appropriate aboard ships was that they did not hinder or trip fighting men as they boarded enemy ships, climbed the rigging, or battled an enemy in close-in fighting.  The broad, heavy blade of the cutlass was sufficient for crushing skulls or decapitating heads.

The Continental Navy cutlass was the cousin of the cavalry saber but designed and constructed for fighting at sea, on crowded decks, in rolling seas.  Unlike the cavalry saber, the cutlass did not have the advantage of a galloping horse behind it, so its weight and the muscled arm of an experienced sailor or Marine had to be sufficient to kill the enemy, and the shorter time it took to do that, the better for whoever wielded it.  A large, enclosed handguard shielded the swordsman’s hand.

The cutlass was a highly specialized weapon that evolved from the falchion (shown right).  Between 1740-1780, the cutlass was a sturdy but straightforward instrument with an imported blade and a crude wooden cylinder for a hilt.  The single-edged blade was curved so slightly that it might appear straight at first.  One of the first Americans to make this weapon was Richard Gridley.  Even after 1775, the American cutlass was a crude affair, so whenever possible, rebels captured and used the superior British cutlass, the hilt of which was made of blackened iron.  The grip was hollow for a better balance.

The NCO’s

When serving ashore, starting in the 1820s, Marine NCOs began wearing distinctive short sabers with a cast brass eagle head hilt and curved blades.  In 1859, a completely new sword pattern emerged, originally patterned on the U.S. Army infantry officer’s sword (model 1850).  The Marine NCO sword may be patterned after the foot officer’s sword, but with significant differences.  The Army sword had heavy wide blades, while the early Marine NCO swords had highly polished blades.  These swords were finally incorporated into Marine Corps regulations in 1875 even though they were in use since 1859, and in fact, with slight modifications, remain in service today.  The M1859 Marine Corps NCO Sword is the oldest weapon in continued (unbroken) service in the U.S. weapons inventory.

Today’s NCO Sword features a cast-brass hilt with a half-basket handguard.  It has a leather-wrapped grip bound with twisted brass wire, a slightly curved, single-edged blade, beautifully etched, with a wide central fuller and short false edge.  The NCO sword comes with a black leather scabbard with two brass mounts.

Marine Officer’s Sword

The current Marine Corps Officer’s Sword is patterned on the Mameluke Sword allegedly presented to First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon by the Ottoman Empire, Viceroy Prince Hamet, on 8 December 1805, as a gesture of respect and praise for the Marine’s performance in combat at the Battle of Derna.  Subsequently, in 1825, the Commandant of the Marine Corps adopted the Mameluke Sword for wear by officers.[3] 

In 1859, the Marine Corps prescribed a completely new sword pattern for Marine Corps officers; it was the same sword prescribed for NCOs with differences in brass hilts, scabbard mounts, and hand grips.  The grips of NCO swords were wrapped in leather, while the officer’s grips were covered by sharkskin.  In 1875, Marine Corps regulations again prescribed the Mameluke Sword for wear by commissioned officers; it has been an item of a Marine Corps Officer’s seabag ever since.

The Mystery of O’Bannon’s Sword

Almost everyone, Marine or otherwise, knows about “Chesty” Puller.  My guess is that hardly anyone outside the Marine Corps knows about Presley O’Bannon, who has become a Marine Corps legend.  It has become a tradition in the Marine Corps to name its buildings in honor of those who distinguished themselves as Marines.  One such building at Quantico, Virginia, is O’Bannon Hall.  Literally, every Marine Corps second lieutenant wants to grow up and become like First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon.  He is, to Marines, a man from history who embodies what a Marine should be: Courageous, daring, and resourceful.  I know something of Lieutenant O’Bannon, primarily from my research on the Barbary Wars.  What I know of his sword, however, I picked up from the writings of Brigadier General E. H. Simmons, USMC (deceased).[4]

Presley Neville O’Bannon

As indicated previously, the popular story is that O’Bannon received the Mameluke Sword from Prince Hamet in recognition for his daring exploits during the Battle of Derna.  It may be accurate, but in the absence of written records, we aren’t entirely sure.  But there is a more plausible story, which is just as interesting.

To recap the event, First Lieutenant O’Bannon, a Navy midshipman, and six privates provided the backbone to a force of mercenaries raised and hired by U.S. Naval Agent William Eaton, himself a former U.S. Army officer.  Eaton hired these mercenaries in Egypt and, with O’Bannon as his second in command, marched 600 miles across the Libyan desert, intending to reinstate Hamet Qaramanli to his rightful throne.  Hamet had been forced out of Tripoli by his brother, Yusef, who seized the throne for himself.  Normally, this family matter would not have peeked the interests of the U.S. government, except that in May 1801, Yusef cut down the flagpole in front of the U.S. Consulate and declared war on the United States of America — an insult to the United States that could not be left unanswered.[5]

President Jefferson reciprocated by sending a naval squadron to the Mediterranean (the forerunner of today’s Sixth Fleet), but not much was accomplished in “demanding satisfaction” until Commodore Samuel Barron assumed command of the squadron in September 1804.  Serving under Barron was Mr. Eaton, a scholar of Arabic language and somewhat of an eccentric.

On 27 April 1805, Eaton assaulted the walled city of Derna under cover of smoothbore naval gunfire from the 18-gun brig USS Argus (captained by one of the navy’s greatest commanders, Master Commandant Isaac Hull), the sloop USS Hornet, and the schooner USS Nautilus.  Observing the action ashore, Master Commandant Hull reported: “At about half after three we had the satisfaction to see Lieutenant O’Bannon and Mr. Mann, midshipman of the Argus, with a few brave fellows with them, enter the fort, haul down the Enemy’s flag, and plant the American ensign on the walls of the battery.  And on turning the guns of the battery on the town, they found that the enemy had left them in great haste, as they [the guns] were found primed and loaded.  In two hours, the city was taken.”

So impressed was Hamet with O’Bannon’s courage that he presented him with a jeweled Mameluke scimitar.  This operation was later quite favorably noted by British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, calling it “The most daring act of the age.”  The problem is not with the operation, which is well-documented.  The problem, for Marines, is whether O’Bannon actually received a Mameluke sword from Hamet Bashaw.  If he did, where is it?

According to General Simmons, there are several claims (and possible answers) to the question, noting that senior European officers popularly wore the Mameluke (style) sword.  Napoleon had one.  The Duke of Wellington had one.  Senior flag officers in Great Britain continue to wear the Mameluke sword during ceremonies while in evening dress.  In other words, there were no shortages of Mameluke Swords from the early to mid-1800s.

There is a Mameluke Sword at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis that has “a claim” for being the genuine O’Bannon sword.  According to the curators, after receiving the sword from Hamet, Lieutenant O’Bannon passed it to his executive officer, Midshipman George Washington Mann — and it has remained in possession of the Mann family until it was loaned to the museum.

Midshipman Mann was the son of Colonel George Mann, born in Annapolis in 1783.  Colonel Mann owned an Inn on Conduit Street, which claims to be one of many places where General George Washington rested his weary head — and might account for Colonel Mann naming his son after the nation’s first Commander-in-Chief.

Mann entered naval service in 1801 and was posted to the Mediterranean Squadron.  In 1804, Midshipman Mann served aboard USS Argus, whose Marine Detachment Commander was First Lieutenant Presley N. O’Bannon.  O’Bannon himself received his commission as a second lieutenant of Marines in 1801 and served in the Mediterranean in 1802.  Argus was the ship that transported William Eaton to Alexandria, Egypt, in 1804.  To assist Eaton in his mission, Master Commandant Isaac Hull detached O’Bannon, Mann, and six privates to accompany him ashore.  Eaton’s mission was to locate Hamet Qaramanli in Egypt and, if possible, restore him to his rightful throne.  This particular story ends with the Battle of Derna (1805).

Afterward, Midshipman Mann returned home due to an injury to his eye, presumably received during the fight, but returned to active service in 1807.  The Navy advanced him to Lieutenant in 1809, and he served until 1811 when he resigned his commission and returned home.  The Mann family continues to live in the Annapolis area.

There is no question that the Mann family’s Mameluke sword is genuine.  However, the question remains whether it is the sword presented to Lieutenant O’Bannon.  The question arises from the fact that there is a near-identical Mameluke scimitar in the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, Massachusetts, presented to Master Commandant Isaac Hull by William Eaton, accompanied by a letter written to Hull by Eaton on 14 January 1805.  In this letter, Eaton stated, “Kourshek Ahmet Pasha has given you a present of a superb saber which he intends for you, worth $200, all the gentlemen with me received the same compliment.”[6]

Presley Neville O’Bannon was one of the gentlemen present with Eaton when the swords were presented (i.e., more than one).  Midshipman Mann was also present.  The swords were given to “the gentlemen” in advance of the Battle of Derna, not as a reward for deeds accomplished but in anticipation of an event yet to come.  The Battle of Derna was fought between 27 April – 13 May 1805.  This brings us back to the question, “Where is Lieutenant O’Bannon’s sword?”

William Eaton returned to the United States in November 1805 through Norfolk, Virginia.  At a dinner in his honor held in Richmond, both Lieutenant O’Bannon and Midshipman Mann received toasts in absentia as “… the heroes who first planted the American banner on the walls of Derna.”  The following month, Mr. John Love, a delegate to the Virginia Assembly representing Fauquier County, where O’Bannon was born, proposed that Virginia honor O’Bannon with “… a handsome sword with such appropriate devices thereon as they may think proper.”  Mr. Love’s proposal sailed through both houses of the state legislature.  In January 1806, the governor presented the measure to the Council of State, which named a committee to select an appropriate design for the sword.

Six months later, the committee submitted its proposal to Major John Clarke, Superintendent of the Virginia Manufactory of Arms, Richmond.  The sword design was elaborate with, among other things, the head of a bearded and turbaned Moslem for a pommel and an engraving on the hilt of O’Bannon raising the flag over Derna.  Major Clarke had only just finished the blade in 1809 when he was replaced as superintendent by Mr. John Carter of Richmond.  Carter completed the sword in July 1810.

Meanwhile, Captain O’Bannon had resigned his commission, married Matilda Heard in Frederick County, Virginia, in 1809, and relocated to Kentucky in the same year.  O’Bannon didn’t receive the Virginia sword until the fall of 1812.[7]

At the time of Captain O’Bannon’s death, he was living in the home of his cousin John O’Bannon, in Henry County, Kentucky.  He also died without a will.  It wasn’t until an article about Captain O’Bannon appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1917, written by John Presley Cain (a collateral descendant of O’Bannon), that the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) began looking into the O’Bannon story.  Mr. Cain, having revealed O’Bannon’s burial place on a farm just outside Pleasureville, Kentucky, prompted the DAR to seek the permission of his descendants to move his remains to the Frankfort Cemetery.  O’Bannon was reinterred there on 14 June 1920.

At the ceremony, Miss Margaret Mosely (Kansas City), a third-great niece of O’Bannon, brought the Virginia Sword and had it displayed unsheathed and crossed with its scabbard on top of the gravestone.  In 1941, Mrs. Margaret Mosley-Culver donated the Virginia Sword to the U.S. Marine Corps Museum.  To add to the confusion, the Virginia Sword has been variously described as a Mameluke Sword, which it is not.  It more closely resembles a U.S. Army infantry officer’s sword.

There is also some myth associated with Lieutenant Colonel Commandant Archibald Henderson’s decision to prescribe the Mameluke Sword for wear by Marine Corps officers.  After the U.S. Congress disbanded the Continental Navy and Marine Corps at the end of the Revolutionary War, the only military secretary was the Secretary of War until 1798, when Congress re-established the Navy Department.  During those “in-between” years, uniform regulations fell under the purview of the Secretary of War.  It wasn’t until 1804 that the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Robert Smith, authorized “yellow-mounted sabers with gilt scabbards” for Marine Corps officers.  The wording of the regulation allowed Marine officers to wear just about any sword that met that vague description.

Why Henderson prescribed the Mameluke Sword remains a mystery.  Part of the legend is that O’Bannon and Henderson had (at some point) served together and that Henderson so admired O’Bannon that he prescribed the Mameluke Sword for all Marine Corps officers.  It is an interesting story, but according to General Simmons, unlikely.  If the two men ever met, it was probably a brief encounter.  Henderson did not enter Marine Corps service until 1806; O’Bannon resigned in 1807.

In any case, Henderson’s uniform regulations of 26 April 1825 prescribed the officer’s sword as follows: “All officers when on duty either in full or undress uniform, shall wear a plain brass scabbard sword or saber, with a Mameluke hilt of white ivory and a gold tassel; extreme length of the sword three-feet, one-inch only to serve as a cut and thrust — the hilt in length four-inches and three-quarters, width of scabbard one-inch and seven-eighths, width of blade one-inch.”  This, according to General Simmons, describes Henderson’s own sword exactly.

Between 900-1250 A.D., Egyptian dynasties included several ethnic/cultural groups, such as the Ikhshidids, Fatimids, and Ayyubids.  They were primarily served and guarded by Mamelukes, individuals of Turkic, Caucasian, Eastern, and Southeastern European origin.  The Mameluke was both free-born warriors and indentured fighters — a class of Egyptian knights whose influence increased within the Moslem hierarchy.  The increase in political influence was worrisome to the Ayyubids, as it should have been.  One Moslem historian describes the origin of the Mameluke as “enslaved Christians.”  Accordingly, Moslems looked upon the Mameluke as “infidels,” or unbelievers who refused to surrender to the will of Allah.

In 1250, a Mameluke became Sultan of Egypt, and his heirs ruled Egypt through 1517.  But even when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Mamelukes maintained a considerable hold over the sultanate.  The word Mameluke in Arabic, by the way, means “one who is owned.”  It refers to non-Arab people “enslaved” to Moslem rulers.  Their reputation as fighters (and their uniforms) impressed Napoleon and his marshals.[8]  The French recruited Mamelukes as personal guards and adopted their swords, which, as we can see today, are displayed in numerous paintings of high French officers — such as Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste Antoine Marcelin Marbot.

The sword’s earliest form was a light horseman’s weapon intended for slashing.  When the British manufacturer Wilkinson Swords straightened the blade, they ruined the sword as a weapon, which may no longer matter to anyone since the sword is no longer the first choice in offensive or defensive weapons.

In 1859, Marine First Lieutenant Israel Green commanded a Marine Detachment with service under Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, who was ordered to put down an insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  As it turned out, Colonel Lee was quite pleased with the Marines’ performance at Harper’s Ferry, but Lieutenant Green was considerably less satisfied with his Mameluke Sword.  On cue from a young cavalry lieutenant named James Ewell Brown Stuart, Green rushed John Brown and his men in the firehouse.  Green burst through the door and cut down on the older man’s neck as hard as possible, which bent the sword almost double and did little more than irritate Mr. Brown.  That would not have happened with an M1911A1 at 10 yards.

The Marine Corps prescribed a different sword for officers and NCOs in that same year — one that would cut something more resistant than a birthday cake.

Endnotes:

[1] The difference between swords and sabers is that swords are straight blade weapons, while sabers are (generally) shorter in blade length and curved. 

[2] The cutlass was a relatively short-bladed slashing sword — the shorter length most suitable for shipboard action.

[3] The Mameluke Sword (style) is also worn by flag rank officers in the British Army, and for officers of major general rank in the Australian Army.

[4] Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons (1921-2007) served with distinction in three wars, later serving as the Director, Marine Corps History and Museums, both on active duty and into retirement.  He authored numerous books about the History of the Marine Corps; whatever General Simmons didn’t know about the Marine Corps probably isn’t worth knowing.

[5] Yusef no doubt felt confident that this insult would go unanswered because the U.S. Congress had been paying the Qaramanli family bribes for fifteen or so years; anyone who pays bribes deserves no respect — or so he thought.

[6] At the time, Egypt was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire.  Kourshek Ahmet Pasha was the Viceroy of Egypt.

[7] Presley and Matilda’s union was, according to sketchy accounts, not a very happy one.  The O’Bannon’s were divorced in 1826, remarried in 1832, and then in 1843, Matilda was committed to an insane asylum in Lexington.  Captain O’Bannon passed away in 1850.  Their only child died of cholera in 1835.  My guess is that if O’Bannon left the Marine Corps to marry Matilda, he later in life regretted doing so. 

[8] There is evidence of Mameluke Swords in use by Europeans during the Crusades, likely taken from dead Islamists.  General Simmons believed that the Mameluke Sword may have existed before the time of Christ, notably in Damascus.


Inglorious

Introduction

On 15 April 1861, two days after South Carolina militia bombarded Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring an insurrection against the laws of the United States.  In total, there were only 15,000 men in U. S. Army uniform —  hardly enough men to impose Lincoln’s will on eight seceding states, so to suppress the Confederacy and restore federal authority, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers for 90-days service.  Apparently, Mr. Lincoln was thinking that forcing southern states into compliance would be an abbreviated affair.  He later accepted the voluntary service of 40,000 additional troops with three-year enlistments.  These combined actions increased the strength of the Army to around 200,000.  Whether prudent, Mr. Lincoln’s actions prompted four other states to secede.

In the North

During April, thousands of bright-eyed, excited, adventurous young men streamed into the nation’s capital to join the fight and defend the nation’s capital.  The Army’s General-in-Chief was Lieutenant General Winfield Scott.  His plan for suppressing the rebels was to send an army of 80,000 men down the Mississippi River and capture New Orleans.  As the Army strangled the southern economy, the Navy would blockade all Southern ports along the eastern United States and western Gulf Coast of Florida.  The press was not particularly kind to General Scott or his scheme of maneuver.

In July 1861, thousands of young men were wearing army uniforms and encamped at various locations around the city of Washington.  With members of the press and politicians wagging their tongues daily, political pressure was building for Mr. Lincoln to do something.  Lincoln’s problem was that his Army Commanding General was 75-years-old.  Who would lead these young men into battle?  The president’s ultimate selection was both political and expedient.

Irvin McDowell was a graduate of the United States Military Academy, class of 1838.  McDowell was a competent staff officer with limited command experience.  In April 1861, McDowell was an Army major assigned to the office of the Adjutant General.  In less than a month, McDowell advanced from Major to brigadier general.  The staff officer suddenly found himself in command of the Military Department of Northeast Virginia and Army of Northern Virginia — on paper, around 35,000 men organized into five infantry divisions.  No one knew better than McDowell that he was entirely out of his depth.

Politics ruled the day, however.  With everyone clamoring for Lincoln to do something, he did.  He placed 35,000 men in uniform.  There was no time for much combat training, of course, and McDowell was at least smart enough to realize that this was a problem.  After voicing his concerns to Lincoln, the president told McDowell, “You are green, but they are green also; you are all green alike.” One can only imagine what McDowell was thinking about that sage advice.  But McDowell was more than out of his depth as a field commander.  Thanks to Confederate spy/socialite Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the Confederacy had a copy of McDowell’s battle plan for Manassas.

In any case, Brigadier General McDowell’s battle plan was exceedingly ambitious.  He intended to make a diversionary attack with two divisions, send a third against the Confederate flank, cut off the railway line to Richmond, push the rebels out of Manassas and save the city of Washington.  After reading McDowell’s battle plan, Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard, commanding the Alexandria Line, must have laughed.  McDowell couldn’t have accomplished that even with an experienced army.  He would be facing around 24,000 Confederate and state militia.

In The South

In 1861, Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnson served as Quartermaster General of the U. S. Army.  When his home state seceded from the Union, Johnson resigned his commission and returned to Virginia.  Initially, Virginia officials offered Johnson a commission as a major general in the state militia but later rescinded it and instead offered him a commission as a brigadier general.  Virginia only needed one major general, and they preferred Robert E. Lee to Johnson.  Johnson’s problem was that in the Union Army, he was a brigadier general, while Lee was only a colonel.  Seniority matters, so, rather than serving under someone junior in rank, Johnson accepted a commission as a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army.

Johnson was a talented officer with considerable experience throughout his tenure in the U. S. Army, but there was between him and Confederate President Jefferson Davis a strained relationship.  Initially, Davis appointed Brigadier General Johnson to relieve Colonel Thomas J.  Jackson of his command at Harpers Ferry; he later ordered Johnson to assume command of the Army of Shenandoah.  In this capacity, Johnson would be in a position to support Brigadier General Beauregard at Manassas.

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (also known as P. G T. Beauregard) was the brother-in-law of John Slidell, a lawyer, politician, and businessman.  Slidell previously served as U. S. Minister to Mexico (1844-45).  In January 1861, the War Department appointed Beauregard to serve as Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point.  Five days later, Louisiana seceded from the Union, and the War Department revoked Beauregard’s appointment.  Beauregard vigorously protested such treatment and soon after resigned from the U. S. Army and returned to his home in Louisiana.  Beauregard anticipated that the governor of Louisiana would offer him command of the state militia, but that position was instead offered to and accepted by General Braxton Bragg.  Bragg offered Beauregard a colonelcy, but there was an issue of pride once again, and Beauregard instead enlisted as a private in the Orleans Guards.

Again, President Davis came to the rescue and, on 1 March 1861, appointed Beauregard a Brigadier General and placed him in command of the defenses at Charleston, South Carolina.  Beauregard was the first general officer appointment of the Confederacy, but the process of general officer appointments was haphazard.  In a few months, Beauregard would become a full (four-star) general, one of only seven promoted to that rank, but he would end up junior to four others: Samuel Cooper, Albert S. Johnson, Robert E. Lee, and Joseph E. Johnson.

On 12 April, Beauregard ordered the commencement of hostilities with Fort Sumter, a bombardment lasting 34 hours.  President Davis later summoned Beauregard to Richmond for a new assignment.  He would assume command of the Alexandria Line.[1]  Beauregard immediately began planning for the defense of Manassas, including a concentration of forces along with those of General Johnson at Harpers Ferry.  Johnson was senior to Beauregard, but he was unfamiliar with the Manassas area and ceded tactical planning to Beauregard.  President Davis had great confidence in Beauregard as a field commander, but less with his ability as an operational planner.  Beauregard tended to formulate overly complicated schemes of maneuver without due consideration for logistics, intelligence, and political realities.

Bull Run

There is nothing particularly glorious about battle except, perhaps, in the minds of those who’ve never experienced it.  When the fighting is finally over, there is, of course, deep gratitude among survivors, and a peculiar bonding takes place among those survivors — for a little while — until everyone returns home and the nightmares and guilt arrive.  The guilt isn’t reflective of what combatants had to do in combat.  It’s for having the audacity (or luck) of living through it.  Many of their friends didn’t.

No doubt, the young men of both armies, whether officer or enlisted, had similar thoughts.  Aside from the excitement of a great undertaking, no doubt caused by increased adrenalin, there was also fear — a fear so palpable, one can smell it. Ordinary people fear death, of course, but what concerned these youngsters most was the prospect that fear would paralyze them.  Fear is a powerful thing — no one wants to be a coward.  Youngsters worry about such things.  They fear that in an unannounced split second when it occurs to them that running away offers life and remaining behind guarantees death, they will choose to run away.  A reasonable person will conclude that remaining behind in a fight that they’re losing is an irrational response to utter chaos — but there is nothing rational about combat, and adrenalin is an equally powerful antidote.

Two untrained armies began moving toward one another in mid-July 1861.  Oh, they may have had enough training to know how to line up, and maybe even how to wheel right or left, but they didn’t know (or trust) their officers, they barely knew their NCOs, and they may not have known the name of the man standing next to them.  The bonding process among combatants had yet to take hold.  It was a time when there was no leadership — only followership.  How the man standing next to them reacted to gunfire or exploding artillery influenced how they, themselves, responded to such trauma.  Watching someone running to the rear was a powerful incentive to join him — and so too was witnessing the decapitation of the next man in line.  Panic in the ranks can arrive as fast as flood water, and no one is immune to its effects without intense training and prior experience on the line.

The morning of 16 July began shaping up as a genuine goat-rope; it only got worse as the day progressed.  Formed regiments milled around along the roads while their officers tried to organize them into a line of march, and the men waited patiently while their officers and NCOs struggled to figure it out.  Hurry up and wait is an American military tradition.

After hours of fumbling about, General McDowell finally led his army out of Washington.  It was the largest army ever formed on the North American continent —  around 28,000 men (18,000 infantry) present.  Army commanders mustered everyone they could get their hands on — even Marines.

With pressure from the War Department to bolster McDowell’s army, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells ordered the Commandant of the Marine Corps to form a battalion of “disposable” Marines for duty in the field.  In 1861, U. S. Marines were seagoing infantry; they were not trained for field duty.  Major John G. Reynolds assumed command of the Marine battalion and reported to McDowell.  None of the Marines had any field equipment — all of them were raw recruits.  The best they could do in the upcoming fight was to help resupply artillery units with powder and shot.

McDowell hoped to have his army at Centerville by 17 July, but the troops were unaccustomed to marching long distances.  The distance from Washington to Manassas was 30 miles.  En route, formations would bunch up along the road, stop, wait, and start again.  Some soldiers, bored with the walk (it was hardly a march), would break formation to wander off into an orchard to rest and pick apples from the trees.  They were an undisciplined lot and largely ignored the orders of their officers and NCOs to “get back in ranks.”

On 17 July, Beauregard encamped his army near Manassas — the men busily preparing their defenses along the south bank of Bull Run.  His left flank, under Brigadier General Evans, blocked the stone bridge.  General McDowell was initially confident that he would overwhelm a numerically inferior enemy and equally optimistic that Brigadier General Robert Patterson, whose orders were to engage General Johnson’s Army of the Shenandoah, would prevent Johnson from reinforcing Beauregard.

Weather and climate are among the more critical factors of warfare because it affects both strategy and tactics. July in Northern Virginia is hot and humid, and that’s what it was on 21 July 1861. Rain-swollen rivers impede the flow of troops and supplies.  Muddy roads bring everything to a halt.  Rain prevents muskets from firing — which often necessitated bayonets and hand-to-hand combat.  Wind and rain made everyone miserable.  The exposure to the elements made people sick.  Heat and humidity cause heat casualties.  In short, weather can be a war stopper.

By the time McDowell reached Manassas, he was under a great deal of stress.  The ninety-day enlistments of several regiments were about to expire.  He also received word from Patterson that General Johnson had slipped out of the Shenandoah Valley.  If true, McDowell would face 34,000 rebels rather than 22,000.  On the morning of 22 July, two of McDowell’s commands, their enlistments having expired, left the field.  Despite his pleadings, the soldiers had no interest in remaining on the field.  In McDowell’s mind, time was running out.  He began making rash decisions.  He was starting to panic, and his subordinate commander’s lost confidence in his leadership.

By the time the shooting started, Beauregard’s and Johnson’s armies were tied in with one another, and more reinforcements were on the way.  McDowell received a string of faulty intelligence.

The Battle

The Union forces began their day at 02:30 when two divisions under Hunter and Heintzelman (12,000 men) marched from Centerville toward Sudley Springs.  General Tyler’s division (8,000 men) marched toward Stone Bridge.  In many places, the road approach to Sudley Springs was inadequate for so many men, artillery, and supply wagons in many places being no more than rutted footpaths.  The Union advance slowed to a crawl.  Fording Bull Run did not begin until 09:30, and the Union advance was no surprise to the Confederates.  When the two forces finally engaged that morning, it was more of an exercise in maneuver warfare than frontal assault or envelopment.  McDowell’s commanders struggled to get their men in position.

However, when the Union forces finally did strike the Confederate line, the rebel line collapsed, sending inexperienced boys into a panicked retreat.  The Union might have pursued them were it not for the exceptional artillery support from men like Captain John D. Imboden.  McDowell’s failure to press his advantage gave the Confederates time to reform their line.

At this time, Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson’s Virginia Brigade came forward in support of the re-organizing Confederate defense.  Jackson, accompanied by J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry and Wade Hampton’s Legion, quickly set up a defensive line along the Henry House Hill ridgeline.  Hampton’s Legion thoroughly decimated the New York 79th, whose troops began a helter-skelter retreat.  The only Union soldier from the NY 79th who advanced under Hampton’s withering fire was Colonel James Cameron, the regimental commander.[2]  As Cameron advanced, his men abandoned him and ran to the rear.   Cameron was soon killed.

To shield his men from the Union’s direct fire, Jackson posted his five regiments on the reverse slope of Henry House Hill.  Jackson then placed thirteen artillery pieces to best defend the line, all out of sight of the Union troops.  The Confederate’s smooth-bore guns gave them an advantage over the Union artillery’s rifled guns because the Union guns were too close to their enemy’s positions and fired their more powerful pieces over the heads of the Confederate troops.[3]

Stonewall Jackson

When Confederate Brigadier General Barnard E. Bee (Commanding 3rd Brigade) complained to Jackson that the Union was driving them (forcing them back), Jackson calmly replied, “Then, sir, we will give them the bayonet.”  Bee then returned to his brigade and exhorted them, “There [pointing] is Jackson standing like a stone wall.  Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer.  Let us rally behind the Virginians!”   

It was Jackson’s refusal to yield the line that gave him the nickname Stonewall Jackson.  Afterward, Jackson’s brigade launched a crushing assault against the Union line, capturing Union artillery and quickly sending hundreds of Union soldiers to the rear.  Jackson’s brigade devastated these troops with fire and bayonet.  Still, nothing spooked the Yankees more than the rebel yell, which Jackson (a college professor at the Virginia Military Institute) knew it would.  It was the first time Union troops heard the rebel yell, but it would not be the last time.  It was this daring assault that changed the course of the Battle of Bull Run.

At about 16:00, two Confederate Brigades (Early’s and Smith’s) assaulted Howard’s Union Brigade on Chinn Ridge and pushed it off the hill, delivering devastating casualties.  It was not long before the young boys dressed in Union uniforms decided to live another day.

McDowell’s decision to withdraw was anything but orderly.  Rather than controlling their men and easing their panic, Union officers were running foot races with their soldiers to see who could get back to the city of Washington first.  McDowell ordered Miles’ division to form a rearguard, but those troops were only interested in protecting themselves.  McDowell’s army didn’t rally until they reached the outskirts of Washington.  To President Davis’ great dismay, neither Johnson nor Beauregard pressed their advantage on the retreating Union.[4]  Had they done so, Washington might have fallen to the Confederates at the beginning of the war.

That evening, President Lincoln received his much-awaited report on the battle of Manassas, but it wasn’t what he was hoping to hear.  The message, in abbreviated form, was: “The day is lost.  Save Washington.”

Conclusion

This is the story of two numerically powerful armies, both untrained, both (for the most part) poorly led, and both leaving behind a large number of casualties.  McDowell lost 2,708 men (481 killed, 1,011 wounded, and 1,216 missing).  Generals Johnson and Beauregard lost 1,982 men (387 killed, 1,582 wounded, 13 missing).  On the morning of 21 July 1861, the ranks of both armies contained young boys who were excited beyond measure and full of vinegar.  At the end of the day, some of those boys were broken, discouraged, or dead.  In one single day, the survivors had learned all they would ever need to know about combat.  It would never get any better, but it would get worse.  Whether north or south, everyone who fought that day knew that this one battle was only the beginning of unspeakable carnage.

There would be a second battle at Manassas — in about a year.

Sources:

  1. Alexander, E. P.  Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander.  Gary W. Gallagher, ed.  University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
  2. Beatie, R. H.  Army of the Potomac: Birth of Command, November 1860-September 1861.  Da Capo Press, 2002.
  3. Detzer, D.  Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861.  Simon & Schuster, 2001.
  4. Longstreet, J.  From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America.  Da Capo Press, 1992.

Endnotes:

[1] The Orange and Alexandria Railroad linked markets in northern and central Virginia.  Construction of the railroad began in 1850 and extended to Manassas and Gordonsville in 1851 and 1853.  It was a primary communication route between Richmond and northern Virginia.  The Alexandria Line became a strategic prize coveted by both Union and Confederate forces at Manassas, Bristoe Station, and Brandy Station.

[2] Brother of U. S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron.

[3] One casualty of the Union artillery was 89-year-old Judith Carter, an invalid, who was confined to her bed inside Henry House.  Miss Carter was killed when Union artillery targeted the house, thinking that rebel snipers were shooting from upstairs windows.

[4] Jefferson Davis observed the fight from the battlefield, arriving at around 15:00 that afternoon.  


Leadership, Moral Courage, and Duty

Recently, a number of bloggers and pundits have brought into question certain decisions and actions of our senior military leaders.  Bloggers are by now famous for basing their opinions on something other than a complete understanding of how the military works, which is further complicated because some commenters offer their views without knowing all the facts.

For example, while it is true that the President is the Commander-in-Chief of our Armed Forces, the President does not become involved in every situation that challenges our joint/unified commanders.  A drone attack against suspected Taliban targets would not have warranted presidential involvement, but it may take the president’s authorization to bomb targets in Syria.  There are different protocols for a wide range of situations.

Additionally, political biases too often drive a pundit’s opinions.  It is a situation begging for intellectual dishonesty, and it does nothing to enhance the average citizen’s understanding of events in far-off lands.  If we criticize our senior military leaders, we must base our reproach on what transpires rather than what we think might have happened.

Still, there remains a question about the politicization of our Armed Forces, particularly among our flag officers (generals and admirals, one through four-star officers).  Are they knuckling under to the inexperienced (and often, incredibly flawed) dictates of civilian leadership to achieve promotion and plum assignments?   There is some justification for this concern, particularly in the argument that senior officers have acquiesced to demands for social engineering as a priority over the prime directive, which is the combat readiness of our armed forces and their operational efficiency.

There is nothing I can write that would be an improvement over the speech delivered by Douglas MacArthur at the U. S. Military Academy on 12 May 1962.  General MacArthur’s wise counsel follows sixty-one years of active service.  He had been retired only eleven years when he gave his address.  In my view, MacArthur’s remarks offer a clear view of what our senior-most military officers ought to be, how they should govern themselves while wearing the uniform of an active-duty officer, and how they should behave once retired.  But it is also my view that General MacArthur spoke to all military leaders, from the most junior non-commissioned officer to the highest-ranking commissioned officer.  Thus, the following words apply as much to leaders today as they did on the day of General MacArthur’s retirement.

General of the Army Douglas A. MacArthur

Sylvanus Thayer Award Acceptance Speech

12 May 1962

____________

General Westmoreland, General Grove, distinguished guests, and gentlemen of the Corps!

As I was leaving the hotel this morning, a doorman asked me, “Where are you bound for, General?” And when I replied, “West Point,” he remarked, “Beautiful place. Have you ever been there before?”

No human being could fail to be deeply moved by such a tribute as this [Thayer Award].  Coming from a profession I have served so long, and a people I have loved so well, it fills me with an emotion I cannot express.  But this award is not intended primarily to honor a personality, but to symbolize a great moral code — the code of conduct and chivalry of those who guard this beloved land of culture and ancient descent.  That is the animation of this medallion.  For all eyes and for all time, it is an expression of the ethics of the American soldier.  That I should be integrated in this way with so noble an ideal arouses a sense of pride and yet of humility which will be with me always.

Duty, Honor, Country

Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be.  They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.

Unhappily, I possess neither that eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination, nor that brilliance of metaphor to tell you all that they mean.

The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase.  Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.

But these are some of the things they do: They build your basic character.  They mold you for your future roles as the custodians of the nation’s defense.  They make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brave enough to face yourself when you are afraid.  They teach you to be proud and unbending in honest failure, but humble and gentle in success; not to substitute words for actions, not to seek the path of comfort, but to face the stress and spur of difficulty and challenge; to learn to stand up in the storm but to have compassion on those who fall; to master yourself before you seek to master others; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high; to learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep; to reach into the future yet never neglect the past; to be serious yet never to take yourself too seriously; to be modest so that you will remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.

They give you a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions, a freshness of the deep springs of life, a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of an appetite for adventure over the love of ease.  They create in your heart the sense of wonder, the unfailing hope of what is next, and the joy and inspiration of life.  They teach you in this way to be an officer and a gentleman.

And what sort of soldiers are those you are to lead?  Are they reliable?  Are they brave?  Are they capable of victory?  Their story is known to all of you.  It is the story of the American man-at-arms.  My estimate of him was formed on the battlefield many, many years ago, and has never changed.  I regarded him then as I regard him now — as one of the world’s noblest figures, not only as one of the finest military characters but also as one of the most stainless.  His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen.  In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give.

He needs no eulogy from me or from any other man.  He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy’s breast.  But when I think of his patience under adversity, of his courage under fire, and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words.  He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism.  He belongs to posterity as the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom.  He belongs to the present, to us, by his virtues and by his achievements.  In 20 campaigns, on a hundred battlefields, around a thousand campfires, I have witnessed that enduring fortitude, that patriotic self-abnegation, and that invincible determination which have carved his statue in the hearts of his people.  From one end of the world to the other he has drained deep the chalice of courage.

As I listened to those [old] songs, in memory’s eye I could see those staggering columns of the First World War, bending under soggy packs, on many a weary march from dripping dusk to drizzling dawn, slogging ankle-deep through the mire of shell-shocked roads, to form grimly for the attack, blue-lipped, covered with sludge and mud, chilled by the wind and rain, driving home to their objective, and for many, to the judgment seat of God.

I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I do know the glory of their death.  They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips the hope that we would go on to victory. Always, for them: Duty, Honor, Country; always their blood and sweat and tears, as we sought the way and the light and the truth.

And 20 years after, on the other side of the globe, again the filth of murky foxholes, the stench of ghostly trenches, the slime of dripping dugouts; those boiling suns of relentless heat, those torrential rains of devastating storms; the loneliness and utter desolation of jungle trails; the bitterness of long separation from those they loved and cherished; the deadly pestilence of tropical disease; the horror of stricken areas of war; their resolute and determined defense, their swift and sure attack, their indomitable purpose, their complete and decisive victory — always victory.  Always through the bloody haze of their last reverberating shot, the vision of gaunt, ghastly men reverently following your password: Duty, Honor, Country.

The code which those words perpetuate embraces the highest moral laws and will stand the test of any ethics or philosophies ever promulgated for the uplift of mankind.  Its requirements are for the things that are right, and its restraints are for the things that are wrong.

The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training — sacrifice.

In battle and in the face of danger and death, he discloses those divine attributes which his Maker gave when he created man in his own image.  No physical courage and no brute instinct can take the place of the Divine help which alone can sustain him.

However horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind.

You now face a new world — a world of change.  The thrust into outer space of the satellite, spheres, and missiles mark the beginning of another epoch in the long story of mankind. In the five or more billions of years, the scientists tell us it has taken to form the earth, in the three or more billion years of development of the human race, there has never been a more abrupt or staggering evolution.  We deal now not with things of this world alone, but with the illimitable distances and as yet unfathomed mysteries of the universe.  We are reaching out for a new and boundless frontier.

We speak in strange terms: of harnessing the cosmic energy; of making winds and tides work for us; of creating unheard synthetic materials to supplement or even replace our old standard basics; to purify seawater for our drink; of mining ocean floors for new fields of wealth and food; of disease preventatives to expand life into the hundreds of years; of controlling the weather for a more equitable distribution of heat and cold, of rain and shine; of space ships to the moon; of the primary target in war, no longer limited to the armed forces of an enemy, but instead to include his civil populations; of ultimate conflict between a united human race and the sinister forces of some other planetary galaxy; of such dreams and fantasies as to make life the most exciting of all time.

And through all this welter of change and development, your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable: it is to win our wars.

Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication.  All other public purposes, all other public projects, all other public needs, great or small, will find others for their accomplishment.  But you are the ones who are trained to fight.  Yours is the profession of arms, the will to win, the sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory; that if you lose, the nation will be destroyed; that the very obsession of your public service must be: Duty, Honor, Country.

Others will debate the controversial issues, national and international, which divide men’s minds; but serene, calm, aloof, you stand as the Nation’s war guardian, as its lifeguard from the raging tides of international conflict, as its gladiator in the arena of battle.  For a century and a half, you have defended, guarded, and protected its hallowed traditions of liberty and freedom, of right and justice.

Let civilian voices argue the merits or demerits of our processes of government; whether our strength is being sapped by deficit financing, indulged in too long, by federal paternalism grown too mighty, by power groups grown too arrogant, by politics grown too corrupt, by crime grown too rampant, by morals grown too low, by taxes grown too high, by extremists grown too violent; whether our personal liberties are as thorough and complete as they should be.  These great national problems are not for your professional participation or military solution.  Your guidepost stands out like a ten-fold beacon in the night: Duty, Honor, Country.

You are the leaven that binds together the entire fabric of our national system of defense.  From your ranks come the great captains who hold the nation’s destiny in their hands the moment the war tocsin sounds.  The Long Gray Line has never failed us.  Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country.

This does not mean that you are warmongers.

On the contrary, the soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

But always in our ears ring the ominous words of Plato, that wisest of all philosophers: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

The shadows are lengthening for me.  The twilight is here.  My days of old have vanished, tone and tint.  They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were.  Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears, and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday.  I listen vainly, but with thirsty ears, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll.  In my dreams, I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield.

But in the evening of my memory, always I come back to West Point.  Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.

Today marks my final roll call with you, but I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps.

I bid you farewell.

____________

These words, so eloquently delivered, must serve as our guide in determining the worthiness of our military leaders.  Duty, Honor, Country.  Even though we all recognize that civilian leadership must control the military, there is no obligation for any soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine to obey an illegal order or directive or any inherently inept order that could lead to a battlefield disaster.  No individual can fulfill his duty who does not have unshakeable integrity.  As officers and NCOs, our integrity demands that we place the good of our nation and those entrusted into our care ahead of personal comfort or advancement.  As General MacArthur said in 1951, our integrity will lead us to perform our duty as God gives us the light to see that duty.

There are consequences to performing one’s duty, of course.  One’s superiors may not agree with a leader’s decision — censure is always possible. Still, if we have relied upon our best judgment deciding, that is all anyone can ask of another.  Every leader must prepare to refuse an order, especially an illegal directive, particularly a foolish order.  “No, sir, I will not execute that order.  Here is my resignation.” If we do not have principled senior officers or our flag officers lack the moral courage to resist political pressure opposing a “proper” decision, then there is something substantially wrong with the process we employ in choosing our senior-most officers.  Every American military leader must realize that a bended knee is not one of our time-honored traditions.

At Penobscot

The first colonial resolution for creating a naval force came from Rhode Island on 12 June 1775.  One old saying is that “necessity is the mother of invention.”  Not that a navy was a new idea, but rather the realization that if the colonies intended to make good on their declaration of independence, they would need freedom of navigation and stout defense of the colony’s long coastline to do it.  Rhode Island took this initiative because the Royal Navy’s harassment costs to that colony’s shipping were high.  Two months later, Rhode Island proposed a single Continental Fleet (funded by all thirteen colonies, of course).

In October 1775, Congress passed a resolution creating the Continental Navy.  It would take something more than a piece of paper to build an adequate navy, of course, and the fact is that the Continental Navy had a somewhat rough beginning.  But by the early part of 1779, America’s naval effort against British shipping had a favorable impact.  Privateers, particularly those working the Atlantic between New York and Nova Scotia, had become exceptionally proficient in intercepting and assaulting British cargo vessels — so well, in fact, that by the spring, the Royal Navy began escorting convoys of cargo ships to North America.

The downside of the British convoy system was that it siphoned off Royal Navy ships from other tasks.  Moreover, the activities of American privateers forced the British to develop the strategy of taking shelter in protected anchorages near active sea lanes — places from which they could dispatch patrols against American raiders.  The coast of Maine was especially useful in this regard because of its many estuaries, because the region contained a large number of British loyalists, and because the forested areas in Maine were a primary source of timber for American shipbuilding.[1]

General Sir Henry Clinton, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in the colonies, instructed the commander of British forces in Nova Scotia, Brigadier General Francis McLean, to establish a fortification on the Penobscot River — one capable of housing 400-500 men, with a magazine.  Beyond the construction of a fortification, Clinton also instructed McLean to offer land grants to local inhabitants in exchange for their oath of loyalty to the British Crown.  McLean’s regiment would consist of 400 men from the 74th Regiment of Foot (Argyle Highlanders) and another 100 men from the King’s Orange Rangers (a loyalist regiment in New Jersey).[2]

In May 1779, General McLean decided to enlarge his force to 640 men.  Four-hundred forty of these would come from the 74th Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Campbell, and, since the King’s Orange Rangers could not provide an additional 100 men, McLean decided to excuse the rangers from service and replace them with 200 men from his own regiment, the 82nd.

General McLean’s convoy departed Halifax on 30 May escorted by HMS Blonde, HMS North, HMS Nautilus, HMS Albany, and HMS Hope.  Pathfinders reconnoitered the banks of the Penobscot River in mid-June to find a suitable site for the fort.  McLean decided on a peninsula that extends into the bay from the eastern shore known as Bagaduce.  At the time of McLean’s arrival at Bagaduce, the land was covered by an evergreen forest of fir and pine.  A protected bay opened to the South.  For his building site, the General chose an elevated plateau near the middle of the peninsula.  From that position, McLean’s cannon could command access to the bay.  A thick forest obscured the river (western side) of the arm.

Once General McLean’s force and supplies had been off-loaded, he anticipated that Captain Andrew Barkley, commanding the flotilla, would leave several ships at anchor in the bay.  Barkley, however, intended to withdraw all his ships except HMS Albany (under Captain Henry Mowat).  An argument ensued between Barkley and McLean, which was only resolved when Barkley became aware that several American frigates operated off the coast of Halifax.  Without Barkley’s flotilla, Halifax was virtually at the mercy of the American navy.  Eventually, Captain Barkley permitted HMS Albany, HMS North, and HMS Nautilus to remain behind at Bagaduce along with McLean’s transport ships.

American rebels quickly learned of McLean’s landing.  One rumor warned that General McLean commanded 1,500 men.  Brigadier General Charles Cushing of the Massachusetts militia suggested that several county militias might be required to disengage McLean.  Rebel spies kept the Council of Massachusetts regularly informed of McLean’s activities.[3]  With so much reliance upon the sea for its economic welfare, it would only be a matter of time before the Americans challenged the British in Nova Scotia.

The alarmed Council of Massachusetts wasted no time in making an appeal to the Congressional Navy Board for their assistance in removing the British threat.  The Navy Board advised its Marine Committee of these circumstances and tendered its recommendation that Congress order its ships to address this new British threat.

Money was tight in 1779.  Even before the Marine Committee could formulate its reply, the Navy Board sent a letter back to the Massachusetts Council informing them that the Navy Board concurred with any “proper measures” Massachusetts may undertake to dislodge the enemy from Penobscot.  Apparently, without saying as much, the Continental Congress thought it would be great if Massachusetts paid for the operation.  Congress did offer them the services of Captain Dudley Saltonstall and four Continental Navy ships to achieve the ouster of the British garrison at Penobscot, however.

As a senior Continental Navy officer, Saltonstall would serve as commodore of Continental and Massachusetts ships.[4]   Preparation for the sea began aboard the sloops Warren, Providence, and Brige.  Taking a ship to sea in 1779 was difficult because recruiting experienced crews was nearly impossible.  Experienced sailors preferred to serve aboard privateers where the pay was better and sea passages much safer.

On 29 June 1779, the Council of Massachusetts formed a small committee whose task was to direct the province of New Hampshire to raise a militia.  The Council of New Hampshire agreed to send a 20-gun privateer, the HampdenHampden was armed with six and 9-pound cannon and carried a complement of 130 men.  In addition to Hampden and the four Continental ships, the American flotilla would include three vessels of the Massachusetts Navy, twelve privateers paid for by Massachusetts, and several merchant ships hired to carry supplies from Boston and militia from York Lincoln, and Cumberland counties.

In addition to Continental Marines serving aboard Captain Saltonstall’s ships, the plan for the Penobscot Expedition included 1,500 militia recruited from Maine’s three southern-most counties.  Unfortunately, it was no easier to recruit soldiers than it was sailors and Maine recruiters fell short of their quota by around six hundred men.

The solution to Maine’s shortage of volunteers was conscription, which netted mostly young boys, invalids, and elderly men.  Without waiting for a second draft effort, Maine’s Adjutant General marched his 433 men to a rendezvous at Townsend (present-day Boothbay Harbor).  The number of men drafted from York and Lincoln was also disappointing.  At Townsend, militia Brigadier General Solomon Lovell, the designated commander of land forces, could only muster 873 men.

There was no time to train these men.  The Council of Massachusetts wanted to assault Bagaduce before the British could complete the construction of their fort.  General Lovell opted to take his small force ahead to Bagaduce while a call for more men went out to adjacent colonies.  If mustered, these additional men would proceed to Bagaduce as soon as possible; if not, then Lovell would have to make do with what he had.

Small groups of transport ships and privateers rendezvoused in Nantasket Roads during mid-July.  Given the primitive communications of the day, one wonders how long a ship’s captain would wait around for something to happen before losing interest. Still, by 23 July, all naval units were anchored off Townsend, and militia began boarding their transports.

Captain Saltonstall’s flotilla set sail on 24 July.  He had earlier sent Tyrannicide and Hazard ahead to scout for British ships.  A short distance into the Bay, Captain Williams of the Hazard dispatched Marine Second Lieutenant William Cunningham ashore to find local inhabitants who might provide valuable intelligence about enemy activities.  We do not know the details of Cunningham’s scouting party; we only know that he returned with three men.

After Saltonstall arrived in Penobscot Bay on 25 July, Captain Williams dispatched Cunningham and his men to the flagship Warren to brief Commodore Saltonstall on what they’d learned.  Meanwhile, through other sources, Saltonstall learned of the presence in nearby Camden of Mr. James Mills Mitchell, a man reputedly familiar with the area where the British fort was under construction.  We know Saltonstall conferred with Mitchell; we simply do not know what they discussed.

After that, Captain Saltonstall ordered Lieutenant Brown, commanding Diligent, to reconnoiter the riverbank near Bagaduce.  While performing this mission, Brown observed three men waving from shore to gain his attention.  One of the three men reported that he had observed British activities and estimated the number of soldiers between 450-500.  He said that the fort was not quite half-completed.  Brown sent these men along to Warren, where they made their report to Captain Saltonstall.  Lieutenant Brown had no personal knowledge of McLean’s dispositions or activities, but that didn’t prevent him from advising Saltonstall to prepare for an immediate attack.  In Brown’s opinion, the fort could be “easily taken.”

Commodore Saltonstall was not easily persuaded.  He remarked to Brown, “Only a madman would go in before they had reconnoitered, and it would be the height of madness even to attempt it.”  Saltonstall was wisely prudent because nothing of what had been reported to him had any basis in fact.  Saltonstall, for example, was told that the fort’s walls were barely three feet high when the fortification was much further along.

General McLean had either co-opted local inhabitants or pressed them into labor parties to strengthen the fort. He had mounted his cannon to support his infantry, the defensive lines had been closed, and his construction included chevaux-de-frise defensive works.[5]  His shore battery firing positions had been raised to allow for firing in barbette. McLean had also stripped the cannon from the starboard side of British vessels (they were arranged in line with the port side outward), placing these cannons at various sites ashore.

In preparation for the American assault, General Lovell directed Marines and militia to probe the British line. Undercover of naval artillery from Hazard, Tyrannicide, and Sally, Lovell ordered the landing force ashore on Sunday, 25 July (the first day of hostilities).  Seven American boats were able to approach the shore, but strong winds produced a severe chop in bay waters, preventing most boats from reaching shore.  Seven boats did approach the beach, but intense British fire turned them back. Irregular cannonades were exchanged with minor damage to either side. Lovell canceled the attack.

The sporadic naval fire was again exchanged throughout the day on 26 July, with minor damage to either side. Still, the action did cause the British to re-position their ships further up into the harbor to tighten their defensive line.

At 18:00 on Monday, Captain Saltonstall dispatched Marine Captain John Walsh to Banks Island, where the British had established several cannon positions.  Walsh secured his objective, but with no further orders, he set up defensive positions on the island and ordered his Marines to begin constructing field cannon positions from which the Americans might fire on British ships and land positions.  Walsh’s landing forced the British ships to once again re-position themselves.

While Walsh led his Marines to Banks Island, Major Daniel Littlefield, commanding militia, led an assault force to seize a British position near the entrance to the Bagaduce River.  While approaching the shore, a shot from British cannon landed in Littlefield’s boat, killing him and three others.  General Lovell detailed a third force of men to go ashore and begin constructing a siege position.  The Americans were under constant British fire throughout their effort to develop a foothold.

On Tuesday evening, a substantial disagreement developed between General Lovell, his deputy, Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth,[6] Captain Saltonstall, and a few more senior naval commanders.  Militia officers favored a vigorous naval assault against the British vessels in the harbor.  If these ships could be destroyed, they argued, the land campaign would be more easily started and more likely of success on the harbor side of the peninsula.  Navy officers, including Saltonstall, argued that the army and Marines should first land and overrun the fort; this would allow the American fleet to “safely destroy the British vessels.”  Overrunning the fort would be easier said than done given the precipitous cliffs fronting the fort.  Further complicating the discord between the naval and land commanders, several privateer captains grew impatient and circulated a petition urging Saltonstall to proceed with this operation without further delay.[7]

At this council of war, which was held aboard Warren, the Americans decided to proceed with their assault on Bagaduce.  The landing force consisted of around 850 militia and 227 Marines.  Eighty cannoneers served under Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere.

Saltonstall directed that preparations for the assault begin at midnight, which achieved little more than deprive the men of sleep.  His plan divided the landing force into three sections.  As the senior Marine officer, Captain John Walsh would lead his men ashore on the American right.  Colonel McCobb’s Lincoln County militia and LtCol Revere’s artillerists would serve in reserve.  Colonel Jonathon Mitchell’s Cumberland County militia would go ashore on the American left.  Once ashore, Brigadier General Wadsworth would exercise overall command of the land forces.

Loading flat bottomed boats with so many armed men was a time-consuming effort, and the men were left standing in the boats for most of the night.  American naval fire began at 03:00.  At first light, the landing boats began their movement to shore under the cover of a dense fog, which made the movement to shore dangerously confusing.  Marines and militia began their landing at around 05:00; they were met by heavy British musket fire.  Moving in small groups, the men started their climb up the precipice essentially one-handed while holding their weapons on their non-dominant hand.

Mitchell’s force encountered McLean’s 82nd Regiment.  For the most part, the 82nd was composed of inexperienced soldiers, which allowed the militia to overrun them without much difficulty.  On the right, Walsh confronted McLean’s more experienced men, then serving under Lieutenant John Moore.[8]  While the Marines advanced with deadly resolve, Lieutenant Moore, with only twenty soldiers remaining alive, was equally tenacious in holding the line.  Captain Walsh was killed, his second in command, First Lieutenant William Hamilton was severely wounded, yet the Marines continued their assault.  Moore, in danger of being encircled, finally withdrew to the fort.

As the Marines regrouped, they counted their losses of 34 men, including Welsh and Hamilton.  Marine First Lieutenant William Downe assumed command on the right and continued his assault.  According to Downe, it looked as if General McLean was ready to concede the fort — and might have done so were it not for the fact that the Marines did not receive the naval artillery support they expected from Saltonstall.  Saltonstall’s failure to support the Marines and murderous fire from the British forced Downe to assume defensive positions.

By the end of the day, the Americans had established a 180° defense and proceeded to move their artillery ashore.  McLean, however, was firmly in control of Fort George.  Concentrated artillery fire forced the Americans to entrench.  Sleep-deprived, the militia were becoming unruly and not simply a little displeased with the navy’s lack of artillery support.

Sometime during the morning of 29 July, Commodore Saltonstall decided that it might be a good idea to construct a fortification facing the British.  Captain Salter of Hampden and Captain Thomas of Vengeance would supervise the work of sixteen engineers to build the American fort.  Now, if Saltonstall believed the militiamen were rowdy on 29th July, the attitude of the troops on 5 August was positively murderous.  They were tired of “dicking around.”

General Lovell, commanding ground forces, sent a note to Saltonstall asking whether his ships would enter the harbor to support the land force.  Everyone ashore wanted to know the answer, but Saltonstall felt it necessary to convene another series of war councils before answering.  Saltonstall decided, finally, that Lovell would receive no naval support until after he had taken Fort George.  At a subsequent meeting of militia officers, it was unanimously decided that if those were Saltonstall’s terms, he could bloody well take the fort himself.

For his part, General Lovell was steadfast in keeping the Massachusetts Council apprised of the progress of the Penobscot Expedition; the Council had heard nothing at all from Saltonstall.  When the Council finally understood how dire the situation was at Penobscot, they requested immediate reinforcements from General Horatio Gates, who was then at Providence.  Gates had no opportunity to respond to this emergency — it would have taken him far too long to recruit adequate reinforcements.  In any case, by that time, the Penobscot Expedition had already fallen apart.

By 13 August, General McLean had nearly completed his fort and a British fleet, having heard of the assault on 28 July, was en route to Penobscot under the command of Admiral Sir George Collier.  Lovell and his officers, no longer participating in expedition planning with the naval force, developed their own plan for assaulting the British fort.  Before the operation could be implemented, however, a heavy fog set in.  When it lifted, Collier’s flotilla was observed entering the lower bay with ten warships.  Although fewer in number than the Americans, the British fleet was experienced, proven in warfare, and more heavily armed.  Saltonstall was lucky that a rain squall appeared, followed by more fog and then darkness — but the American’s luck didn’t hold.

At first light, the British began their approach.  The American ships broke and ran from the fight and headed upstream, hoping to find small inlets where they could hide.  By nightfall, most American ships, including transports, had either been captured by the British or destroyed by their own crews.  Most of the landing force fled through the Maine wilderness, leaving behind them on the shores of the Penobscot River the smoldering remains of the American fleet.  The expedition’s survivors began filtering into Boston during the first week in September.

News of the Penobscot disaster shocked and demoralized the colony of Massachusetts.   Except for the three Continental ships and one ship from New Hampshire, the Massachusetts colony agreed to indemnify the owners of its ships for any damages or losses.  Including the cost of the expedition, Massachusetts added more than £4-million to its debt.  Worse, Massachusetts had lost its entire navy.  Someone would have to account.

Courts-martial exonerated Generals Lovell and Wadsworth of ineptitude.  Commodore Saltonstall, on the other hand, was tried and found guilty of gross incompetence.  A navy board determined that Saltonstall was wholly unfit to command a navy ship and stripped him of his commission.

As for the Continental Marines, their numbers being relatively small, they were never able to influence the events of the Penobscot River Expedition.  They performed admirably when called upon, as evidenced by the seizure of Banks Island, and seizing the heights at Bagaduce. Still, this valor was insufficient to compensate for the navy’s failed leadership.

There are as many lessons in failure as there are from success.  Despite achieving a near-victory, the Americans guaranteed their own defeat — first by failing to maintain unity of command, second by failing to develop a communications plan, third by poor operational planning, the employment of an untrained militia, and worst of all, timid senior commanders.

The cost of Penobscot was high.  From a strength of around 700 soldiers and ten warships, McLean held off an American force of 3,000 (navy and militia), 19 warships, and 25 support vessels.  McLean lost 86 men, killed, wounded, captured, or missing.  The Americans gave up 474 killed, wounded, captured, or missing, 19 warships destroyed, and 25 support ships sunk, destroyed, or captured.  General McLean retained his small settlement in Maine until the British force was withdrawn of their own accord.[9]  General McLean passed away from an illness in 1781. 

The United States did not seriously consider another large-scale amphibious operation until the Mexican-American War (1846-48).

Sources:

  1. Bicheno, H.  Redcoats, and Rebels: The American Revolutionary War.  London: Harper Collins, 2003.
  2. Buker, G. E.  The Penobscot Expedition: Commodore Saltonstall and the Massachusetts Conspiracy of 1779.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2002.
  3. Smith, C. R.  Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975.

Endnotes:

[1] Maine was then known as the Eastern Provinces of Massachusetts Bay.  Some historians believe that Maine might have been looked upon as a location for a new British colony — one set aside for British loyalists in American.  It would be called New Ireland, and it would be located between the Penobscot and St. Croix rivers.

[2] Roughly one-third of the residents of New Jersey remained loyal to the British crown.

[3] Boston had become a center for privateering activities; McLean’s presence in Maine threatened the privateers, who were heavily invested in ships and crews. 

[4] Saltonstall (1738-1796) was a descendant of Sir Richard Saltonstall and John Winthrop, who governed the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century.  Politically well-connected in the colonies, Dudley received his commission in the Continental Navy upon the recommendations of his brother-in-law, Silas Deane, who served  on Connecticut’s Naval Committee.  He first commanded the flag ship of Commodore Esek Hopkins, Alfred and was responsible for hiring John Paul Jones as First Lieutenant.  In 1779, Saltonstall was the senior Continental Navy officer based in Boston.

[5] The chevaux-de-frise was an anti-cavalry defense work consisting of a portable frame covered with several to many long-iron projections, spikes, or spears.

[6] Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth (1748-1829) served as a general officer in the Massachusetts militia, district of Maine, as Adjutant General of Massachusetts, and as second in command to Brigadier Solomon Lovell during the Penobscot Expedition.  He later served as a congressman from Massachusetts.  He was the grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

[7] Thirty-two naval officers from 11 ships signed the petition.

[8] Later, Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore (1761-1809), also known as Moore of Corunna, was known for his tenacity in combat.  During the Peninsular War, Moore repulsed the army of Marshal Soult at Corunna, giving up his life in a valiant contest of martial will.

[9] A fictionalized account of the Penobscot Expedition was the subject of Bernard Cornwall’s book entitled The Fort (published 2010).


Tampico & Veracruz, 1914

Porfirio Diaz

It is probably fair to say that Mexico and the United States, with few exceptions, never achieved the status of good neighbors.  There are reasons for this, of course.  For a summary of this long-troubled relationship, please visit Old West Tales.[1]  José De La Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori served as President of Mexico for 31 years.  Some historians claim that he was a ruthless dictator; others picture him as a bit kinder.  Either way, he was a Mexican patriot who developed a worldview that was consistent with his background and experience.  He first served as president from 1876 to 1880 and again from 1884-1911.  Throughout this period, Diaz was legally elected to the presidency.[2]  That he was a no-nonsense chief executive, there can be no doubt.  The reality of politics is that it is a ruthless business, and in Mexican history, there has never been a shortage of bandit revolutionaries.  This particular history, of course, helps to explain present-day Mexico.  In any case, circumstances forced President Diaz to resign from the presidency on 25 May 1911, and he subsequently fled to Spain, where he lived the balance of his life.

Beginning in 1911, Mexico suffered through a number of revolutionary contenders for the presidency, including Bernardo Reyes, Francisco Madero, Pascual Orozco, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Ricardo Magon, Jose Maria Pino Suarez, Venustiano Carranza, Aureliano Blanquet, Plutarco Calles, Mario Velasques, Felix Diaz, Victoriano Huerta, and Alvaro Obregon.  The Mexican revolution lasted until 1920.

President James Monroe (1817-1825) was the first executive to formulate US policy toward Latin America, referred to as the Monroe Doctrine.  President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) issued his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904, but we must credit President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) for implementing the US policy that refused to recognize any revolutionary leader not elected by popular vote.  In 1913, President Wilson refused to acknowledge the presidency of General Victoriano Huerta,[3] who had been installed as president (by agreement with U. S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson).[4]  According to President Wilson’s biographer, the president stated, “There can be no certain prospect of peace in America until General Huerta has surrendered his usurped authority.”

Admiral Mayo

Civil upheaval in Mexico threatened the safety of American citizens and the properties of Americans doing business there.  Owing to Wilson’s concern for American lives and business interests, Admiral Henry T. Mayo, Commanding the US Fifth Squadron, Atlantic Fleet, was dispatched to Tampico, Mexico in 1914.[5]

Admiral Mayo’s squadron included USS Dolphin, USS Connecticut, USS Minnesota, USS Chester, and USS Des Moines.  Tampico, a central oil-producing region, was besieged by Constitutional forces.  Generally, the relationship between the U. S. Navy and President Huerta’s federal garrison remained cordial.  For example, on 2 April, Admiral Mayo directed the captain of his flagship USS Dolphin to render honors to Mexico to honor the commemoration of General Porfirio Diaz’s capture of Puebla from the French in 1867.  Dolphin fired a 21-gun salute.

Typically, at the end of duty hours, ship’s work permitting, ship captains allowed crew members to boat ashore and engage in recreational activities, such as baseball, with the local townsmen.  On 6 April, Constitutionalist rebel forces under Colonel Emiliano Nafarrete occupied La Barra, Doña Cecilia, and Arbol Grande.  General Ignacio Zaragoza, the Tamaulipas governor and commander of the federal garrison, sent his gunboat Veracruz to shell the rebel forces that had stationed themselves behind oil storage tanks.  Admiral Mayo played it straight.  He sent a letter to both leaders stating that while he intended to remain neutral, he would take all steps to protect American lives and property.  Admiral May began to evacuate Standard Oil Company executives, workers, and their families but refused to land troops to cover its refinery.

After additional rebel attacks near the Iturbide Bridge on 7-8 April 1914, foreign nationals began asking for refuge on Admiral Mayo’s ships.  The U. S. Consul in Tampico sent an urgent message requesting help in evacuating the American population.  On the evening of 8 April, Mexican rebels detained a Marine Corps courier from the US Consulate, but he was released unharmed after an hour.  Meanwhile, running short of fuel, USS Dolphin’s skipper, Captain Ralph Earle, visited the American Consulate on 9 April, where he arranged refueling from a German national named Max Tyron.  Captain Earle agreed to take fuel delivery from Mr. Tyron’s dock, located near the Iturbide Bridge.

USS Dolphin, 1914

The duty of taking possession of this fuel fell to Ensign Charles C. Copp, who organized a whaleboat and crew to proceed to Tyron’s dock, pick up the fuel, and return to Dolphin.  Ensign Copp and his crew were unarmed; the American flag was flying fore and aft on the whaleboat.  Neither Copp nor anyone in his crew was able to speak Spanish.  While loading the fuel, an armed squad of Zaragoza’s soldiers surrounded the sailors.  Two crewmen, Coxswain G. H. Siefert and Seaman J. P. Harrington, remained on the whaleboat, but they too were taken at gunpoint.  Mexican soldiers escorted the men to Colonel Ramón Hinojosa.  Hinojosa released the sailors to continue their work but informed them that they would not be permitted to leave the dock without Zaragoza’s permission.

Mr. Tyron took a launch out to Dolphin to inform Captain Earle and Admiral Mayo of what happened.  Mayo ordered Earle to seek the release of his men under strong protest to the government of Mexico.  Earle, accompanied by Consul Miller, met with Zaragoza, who apologized — offering that his soldiers were ignorant of the laws of war.  Within an hour, Hinojosa released the sailors, and they returned to their ship with the fuel.[6]

Admiral Mayo viewed the incident as an insult to American sovereignty, grave enough in Mayo’s opinion, to demand reparations.  Mayo ordered Commander William A. Moffett to deliver a note to Zaragoza informing him that seizing men from a naval vessel, flying the United States flag, was an inexcusable act of war.  Admiral Mayo further demanded a formal repudiation, punishment of the individual responsible, and that he hoist the American flag in a prominent position ashore and render a 21 gun salute, which Mayo would return from Dolphin.

General Zaragoza referred the matter to the Mexican ministry of war in Mexico City.  President Wilson learned about this incident from William Jennings Bryan.[7]  The president told Bryan, “Mayo could not have done otherwise.”  President Wilson then added that unless the government of Mexico complied with Mayo’s dictate, grave consequences might result.

At the time, Nelson J. O’Shaughnessy was the American chargé d’affaires in Mexico City.[8]  Roberto Ruiz, Mexico’s foreign minister, paid a visit to O’Shaughnessy on 10 April and informed him of the incident.  Ruiz’ opined that Admiral Mayo should withdraw his demand.  After all, Zaragoza did apologize.  O’Shaughnessy and Ruiz met with President Huerta later that day.  Huerta agreed with Ruiz.  After the meeting, Mr. O’Shaughnessy released a statement to the press that indicated Zaragoza had detained Marines, not sailors, and that the Mexicans had paraded them through the streets of Tampico.  None of that was true, but its effect on the American people was electric.

On 12 April, President Huerta decided that Zaragoza’s verbal apology was sufficient.  In his opinion, the United States was given ample satisfaction.  The Mexican government would not apologize further, nor would any Mexican officials salute the American flag.  The next day, O’Shaughnessy further informed the press that either the salute would be rendered — or else.  On 14 April, President Wilson ordered Vice Admiral Charles Badger to sail the Atlantic Fleet into Mexican waters.  When President Huerta learned of Wilson’s order, he was elated, thinking it was the best thing to happen during his administration. Still, on 16 April 1914, Huerta agreed to a simultaneous saluting which signified that both sides were satisfied with the end of a conflict which “at no time” had been severe.

Despite Huerta’s reversal, Wilson decided that the Atlantic Fleet would remain in Mexico to prevent any incidents of ill-will or contempt for the United States — which Huerta had exhibited in the past.  Wilson had misunderstood Huerta’s meaning by “simultaneous.”  President Wilson warned Huerta that he would consult with Congress on 19 April with a view of taking such actions as may be necessary to enforce respect for the flag of the United States if Huerta did not render proper honors to the flag of the United States.

True to his word, on 20 April, President Wilson sought Congressional approval for the employment of the Armed Forces.  President Wilson intended to seize Vera Cruz “to get rid of Huerta” and his illegitimate authority in Mexico.  Wilson also learned on 20 April that a large shipment of arms and munitions were en route to Mexico from Germany.  Thus, the unfolding incident was far more involved than the issue of Huerta’s disrespect to the nation’s colors.  Congress provided its consent that same evening, and President Wilson immediately ordered landings at Vera Cruz, seizure of the city’s customs house, and directed the interception of arms from Germany.[9]

On to Veracruz

On the morning of 21 April, Rear Admiral Frank F. Fletcher began preparations for the seizure of Veracruz.  His orders were simple and direct: seize the customs house, prohibit off-loading war materials to Huerta’s forces or any other Mexican political party.  Landing operations under Navy Captain William Rees Rush began at approximately 11:00 when Marines of the 2nd Advanced Base Regiment from USS Prairie and Bluejackets from USS Florida started their movement to shore.[10]  A provisional battalion was also formed from the Marine Detachments, USS Florida, and USS Utah, who accompanied the Bluejackets into Veracruz.

Commanding the port of Veracruz was Mexican General Gustavo Maass, who, despite the American Consul’s warning not to interfere, could not surrender his post to the Americans.  He ordered the 18th Regiment under General Luis Becerril to distribute rifles to citizens of Veracruz and prisoners in the La Galera military prison and then proceed to the waterfront.  He then ordered the 19th Regiment under General Francisco Figueroa to defend the piers.  Finally, Maass sent a telegram to the Minister of War, General Aurelio Blanquet.  General Blanquet ordered Maass not to resist the landing but withdraw his forces to Tejería.

Once ashore, Captain Rush exercised overall command of the Bluejackets while Lieutenant Colonel Wendell C. Neville assumed command of the Marines.[11]  In furtherance of Admiral Fletcher’s objectives, Rush dispatched three companies of Bluejackets to occupy the customs house, the post office, and the telegraph office.  Colonel Neville directed his Marines to capture the railroad terminal, roundhouse, train yard, cable office, and the power plant.

Although most of Maass’s troops accompanied him to Tejería, liberated prisoners under Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Contreras (and a few civilians) opposed the Marines as they made their way inside the city.  The first casualty was a navy signalman stationed at the top of the Terminal Hotel.  At around 13:30, the U. S. Navy intercepted and detained the ship Ypiranga before its crew could unload its shipment of arms and munitions.

At the end of the first day, American casualties included four dead and 20 wounded.  Given these shootings, Admiral Fletcher decided that he had no choice but to expand his operations to include the entire city.  The following day, Fletcher ordered Rush and Neville to occupy Veracruz.  To accomplish this, Admiral Fletcher signaled USS San Francisco, USS Minnesota, USS Hancock, and USS Chester to land their Marine Detachments, bringing the number of Marines and Bluejackets ashore to around 3,000 men.

Marines began their advance into Veracruz at 07:45 on 22 April.  The Marines, experienced in street fighting, made an orderly and tactical movement, but a regiment of Bluejackets under Captain F. A. Anderson, without experience in urban warfare, marched in parade formation toward the Mexican Naval Academy.  Mexican partisans, who had barricaded themselves inside the parade ground, easily targeted Anderson’s Bluejackets, which halted his advance.  After Captain Anderson signaled for naval gunfire support, USS Prairie, San Francisco, and Chester pounded the Naval Academy, ending Mexican resistance.

As Marines and Bluejackets continued their advance, Colonel John A. Lejeune led the 1st Advanced Base Regiment (originally bound for Tampico) ashore.  By nightfall, more than 6,000 Americans occupied Veracruz, including a small aviation detachment from USS Mississippi.  The aviation detachment’s participation marked the first time naval aircraft became targets of ground fire.

Meanwhile, Colonel Joseph H. Pendleton assembled the Fourth Marine Regiment (4th Marines) at Puget Sound.  The regimental headquarters units incorporated the 25th, 26th, and 27th Marine companies.  After sailing from Washington State aboard the USS South Dakota, the regiment added four additional companies from Mare Island (31st, 32nd, 34th, and 35th companies).  Along with USS Jupiter, the task group proceeded to Mazatlán (west coast of Mexico), joined later by USS West Virginia, and reinforced by the 28th and 36th companies.  Pendleton’s 4th Marines was a contingency reserve.  There was no landing by the 4th Marines in Mexico.

A third provisional regiment of Marines, assembled in Philadelphia, arrived at Veracruz on 1 May under the command of Colonel Littleton W. T. Waller, who, upon landing, formed a Marine Brigade and assumed overall command of the 3,141 Marines.  Pending the arrival of an Army brigade under Brigadier General Frederick Funston, Admiral Fletcher declared martial law.[12]  Once the Army arrived in Veracruz, seagoing Marines and bluejackets withdrew back to their respective ships, and Admiral Fletcher turned over control of the port city to General Funston.

After Venustiano Carranza overthrew President Huerta, the United States withdrew its armed forces from Veracruz on 23 November 1914.  Subsequently, relations between the United States and Mexico improved somewhat. However, the American occupation of Veracruz did lead to several anti-American revolts in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Uruguay.  Mexico expelled resident US citizens from Mexican territories, and the British government criticized Wilson’s policies in Mexico.  On a positive note, however, the US occupation of Veracruz did persuade Mexico to remain neutral during World War I.  After the Zimmerman affair, however, the United States and Mexico returned to their traditional rocky relationships.

Sources:

  1. Cooper, J.  Woodrow Wilson: A Biography.  New York: Vintage Books, 2011.
  2. McBride, W. M.  Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1865-1945.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
  3. Millett, A. R.  Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps.  New York: The Free Press, 1991.
  4. Quirk, R.  An Affair of Honor: Woodrow Wilson and the Occupation of Veracruz.  Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1962.
  5. Santelli, J. S.  A Brief History of the Fourth Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1970.
  6. Sweetman, J.  The Landing at Veracruz, 1914.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1968.

Endnotes:

[1] See also, a six part series of the relationship between the United States and New Spain, Mexico, and Mexican Texas, beginning with Spanish America (24 June 2019).

[2] The statement only suggests that while he may have availed himself of corrupt voting irregularities, a tradition in Mexican politics, he didn’t seize power through force of arms.

[3] Victoriano Huerta (1850-1916) was a Mexican military officer and the 35th President of Mexico who seized power from  Francisco Madero in 1913, installed Pedro Lascuráin Paredes as his puppet, who then appointed Huerta as Secretary of the Interior.  Within an hour, Lascuráin  resigned the presidency — an action that brought Huerta into the presidency.

[4] President Wilson removed Henry Wilson from office as a result of making the so-called Embassy Agreement.

[5] Henry Thomas Mayo (1856-1937) graduated from the USNA in 1876, served in a number of career progressing billets, including his service as aide-de-camp to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.  After graduating from the Naval War College, he commanded several capital ships.  He was promoted to rear Admiral in 1913.

[6] Admiral Mayo criticized Ensign Copp for allowing foreign soldiers to seize his vessel. 

[7] A three time candidate for the presidency, Bryan served as Wilson’s Secretary of State.

[8] Nelson O’Shaughnessy (1876-1932) was a career diplomat born in New York City, was well-educated, gaining degrees from Georgetown University, St. John’s College, Oxford University, and the Inner Temple in London.  His earliest posts were at diplomatic missions in Denmark, Russia, Austria-Hungary, 1905-1911, and most notably in Mexico, 1911-1914, where his service gained him national notoriety.  As chargé d’affaires, O’Shaughnessy represented the interests of the United States in Mexico after the recall of the Ambassador following the coup of Victoriano Huerta in 1913.  A Republican, O’Shaughnessy alienated himself from President Wilson’s Democratic administrations by his cordial relationship with Huerta.

[9] Germany had long sought to incite a war between Mexico and the United States.  Another Mexican-American war would reduce the possibility of bringing the United States into the European war and slowed the export of American arms to the European allies.  For quite some time before World War I, Germany aided Mexican revolutionaries by arming them, funding them, and advising them.  German Naval Intelligence Officer Franz von Rintelen attempted to incite war between the US and Mexico by giving Victoriano Huerta $12 million in cash.  The German saboteur Lothar Witzke, who was responsible for bombings at Mare Island (San Francisco) and in New Jersey was operationally based in Mexico City.

[10] The Marine Corps Advanced Base Force was the Corps’ first task organized combat unit made up of coastal and naval base defense forces generally of battalion or regimental sized units (depending on its mission).  Initially, Neville’s unit was more or less on the same level as a reinforced battalion landing team which expanded in size once the Marines went ashore.

[11] The term “bluejacket” is generally used to denote a British or American sailor and often used to distinguish sailors performing landing force operations ashore from Marines.

[12] “Fighting Fred” Funston (1865-1917) was a Medal of Honor recipient with combat experience gained in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars.  In 1896, Funston was a volunteer with the Cuban Revolutionary Army who fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain.  Suffering with malaria, Funston returned to his home to recover.  In preparation for war with Spain, Funston was commissioned a colonel with the 20th Kansas Infantry.  He was promoted to Brigadier General in recognition of his undaunted courage under fire during the Philippine Insurrection.  Funston was not a favorite of Mark Twain, an avowed anti-Imperialist, who denounced Funston in an article published in the North American Review.  Funston’s public argument with Republican Senator George Frisbie Hoar resulted in President Theodore Roosevelt reprimanding Funston and ordering him to remain silent on public issues.  Funston was promoted to Major General in November 1914.  Funston died of a heart attack while attending a concert in San Antonio, Texas.


The Road to War

U. S. Marine Corps Defense Battalions

Some Background

The Marine Corps mission, now a long tradition, is to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, or to repel the enemy’s assault by fire and close combat.  No matter what occupational specialty assigned, every Marine is a trained rifleman.  Up-close and personal is how Marines fight.  As an organization, the Corps has two essential purposes: (1) making Marines, and (2) winning battles.

People who seek to join the Marine Corps are already psychologically unique because every potential recruit knows what the Marine Corps will expect from them from the very beginning of their enlistment process.  Knowing this, however, is insufficient.  Every enlisted recruit and every officer candidate must measure up to the Corps’ uncompromising high standards.  They must demonstrate that they have what it takes to serve as a US Marine.  They do this either at recruit training depots or at the officer candidate school — which is where they earn the title, MARINE.

Marines are naval infantry.  Between 1775-1900, Marines primarily served in ship’s detachments, navy yards, and provisional forces for expeditionary service ashore.  Between 1900-1940, Marines participated in irregular warfare and counter-insurgency operations in support of American foreign policy.  Conventionally, Marines served with enviable distinction in the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and in the Middle Eastern Wars.

Organizationally, the Marine Corps is composed of its Headquarters element (Headquarters Marine Corps) (HQMC), its supporting establishments (Marine Corps Bases and Air Stations), and the Operating Forces.  The Operating forces (presently) consist of three infantry divisions, three air wings, three logistical commands, and their reserve counterparts.  The Marine Corps organizes its deployed forces as Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs), which range from battalion landing teams to reinforced infantry divisions.  While war strategies are matters for senior (flag rank) officers, battlefield tactics frequently fall within the purview of Marine noncommissioned officers (NCOs). 

The structure of the Marine Corps (1775-present) has been an evolutionary process.   At its beginning, Congress authorized the recruitment of two Marines battalions and directed that their officers organize them for service aboard ships of war as riflemen.  Historically, the size of the Marine Corps has expanded and contracted to meet the nation’s demands in times of peace and war.  In the Revolutionary War period, for example, the size of shipboard detachments depended on the ship’s size to which assigned. The size of the Marine Corps depended on the missions assigned to it by Congress.  Following the Revolutionary War, the new U.S. Congress determined that it could no longer afford to maintain a naval force, so both the Navy and Marine Corps disbanded between 1783-1798.  The Navy and Marine Corps have continuously served the American people since 1798; their size in ships and manpower ceilings is always a matter for the Congress to decide.

Sea Change

1898

Victory over Spain in 1898 was a pivotal event because it propelled a somewhat backwater United States onto the world stage and had a sudden and significant influence on the growth of the US Navy and Marine Corps.  With victory over Spain came vast territorial acquisitions that included the Philippine Islands, Guam, Samoa, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.  These were in addition to already existing US interests in Central America (Nicaragua and the Isthmus of Panama).  Territorial acquisition meant that the United States would have to defend these faraway places, and the only service that could do that was the US Navy — challenges never imagined before 1898.

Realizing that the post-Civil War Navy was initially out of its depth in this new world order, the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) established the General Board of the Navy in 1900.  The Board’s membership included the Navy’s most senior officers, men who were at the end of their careers upon whom he could rely on offering deliberate and objective analyses of world events and offering recommendations on a wide range of issues — from ship design to naval strategy and contingency planning and training.  The General Board undertook the development of war plans for responding to anticipated threats against the US East Coast, the Antilles, and, eventually, the Panama Canal.

Initially, the General Board of the Navy viewed Great Britain as a “most likely” threat to American interests and sovereignty.[1]  With greater allied cooperation with the United Kingdom, however, the General Board turned its attention toward Imperial Germany,[2] especially after Spain sold its Central Pacific territories to Imperial Germany and German military construction projects  in the Pacific and coastal China.  Japan’s victory over Imperial Russia in 1905 forced the US to consider conflict with the Japanese, as well.[3]

In late 1901, the Navy General Board demanded that (then) Major General Commandant Charles Heywood develop a four-company infantry battalion for expeditionary and advanced base defense training.  The Navy Board envisioned a Marine battalion that could rapidly deploy (ship to shore) in defense of American territories as part of the Asiatic Fleet and do so without awaiting the arrival of US Army units from the United States.  The writings of Captain Dion Williams,  (then assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence), emphasized the importance of the Navy’s ability to refuel its ships from Pacific coaling stations.  Since it was incumbent upon the Navy to defend those advanced bases, the Navy turned to the Marine Corps for this purpose.

One achieves an understanding of warfare by reading history and then thinking about an event’s causes, its actors, what they did, why they did it, the mistakes they made, and the consequences of conflict.  Learning how to prepare for war is a bit more complicated — often involving many years of trial and error.  In 1907, a battalion under Major Eli K. Cole[4] participated in a training exercise in Subic Bay, the Philippine Islands.  It took his Marines ten weeks to set emplace 44 heavy shore battery guns.  The lesson the Marine Corps learned from this exercise pointed to the wisdom of pre-staging men and material as “rapid response” elements of the naval expeditionary forces.  Cole’s exercise prompted the Navy Board to recommend establishment of permanent advanced bases within the Navy’s defensive sphere.

In 1913, Major General Commandant William P. Biddle ordered a Marine Corps Advanced Base Force.  He named it the 1st Advanced Force Brigade.[5]  Biddle further re-designated the Brigade’s two regiments as the Fixed Defense Regiment (under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles G. Long)[6] and the Mobile Defense Regiment (under Colonel George Barnett).[7]

World events temporarily interfered with the Corps’ effort to improve the Advanced Base Force concept.  In 1914, the President dispatched a Marine expeditionary force to Vera Cruz, Mexico.  The Marines used this event to test and validate previously developed theories;[8] these, in turn, providing essential lessons for ongoing developments in Marine Corps force structure.

SgtMaj Dan Daly USMC

During World War I, the 4th Marine Brigade operated as one of two brigades within the US Second Infantry Division.  The 4th Marine Brigade consisted of the 5th Marine Regiment, 6th Marine Regiment, and the 6th Machine-gun Battalion.  A fully deployed combat brigade was a significant increase in overall Marine Corps strength, but the American Expeditionary Force in Europe was not the only iron in the fire.  HQMC formed an additional expeditionary brigade for service in the Caribbean and Central America during the so-called banana wars.  In 1919-1920, post war reductions in funding forced the Marine Corps to disband several infantry regiments/separate battalions.

In 1921, Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune continued the work undertaken in previous decades — work that actually continues today.  Each achievement, methodological or technological, becomes the foundation upon which new ideas emerge — and so it goes.   In 1933, creating and perfecting the Advanced Base Force led to the creation of the Fleet Marine Forces (Atlantic and Pacific) — which became an integral part of the United States Atlantic and Pacific Fleets.

The primary mission of the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) was the seizure and temporary defense of advanced bases, in concert with US fleet operations.  In the 1920s and 1930s, the United States participated in a series of naval conferences designed to reduce the likelihood of war by limiting armaments (i.e., the size of national navies).  It was, at best, a romantic assumption.  The US Congress began thinking defensively, prompting a significant reduction in the size of the military services.  Defense is not how the Marine Corps wins battles; senior Marine officers remained focused on offensive operations and defensive thinking had no appreciable impact on the readiness planning of the Fleet Marine Force.

 The vast range of US territories and the requirement to defend them continued as a vital interest to the Navy and as a primary responsibility of the Marine Corps.  A formal review of responsibilities assigned to the Army and Navy, designed to avoid duplication of effort, determined that the Army should confine itself to continental land operations. The Navy should focus its attention on the security of overseas territories and possessions.

By 1937, the Navy began to consider creating Marine Corps security detachments, particularly at vulnerable locations in the Pacific, in conjunction with Plan Orange.  Initially, the Navy Board envisioned security detachments as battalion-sized organizations.  In 1938, the Navy Board recommended the placement of defense battalions at Midway, Wake, and Johnston Islands —in sufficient strength and size to repel minor naval raids.

Defense battalions were coastal artillery units armed with 5-inch guns (6), anti-aircraft guns (12), machine guns (48 .30 caliber) (48 .50 caliber), searchlights (6), and sound locators (6).  The Battalion’s usual complement involved 28 officers and 482 enlisted men, but a battalion’s size depended on the specific size of the area the battalion was charged to defend.  Once ashore, owing to the size of naval guns, the Battalion would become “immobile.”  In effect, once defense battalions assumed their positions, there would be no retreat.[9]

Initially, the Marine Corps envisioned four defense battalions; their importance (in relation to the Marine Corps as a whole) was significant.  Of the Corps’ total strength (27,000 officers and enlisted men), 9,000 Marines would serve as part of the Fleet Marine Force, and 2,844 of those would serve in defense battalions.

Defense battalions began to form in late 1939.  By 7 December 1941, there were seven active battalions: the 1st, 2nd, 6th, and 7th formed at Marine Corps Base, San Diego, California; the 3rd, 4th, and 5th formed at Parris Island, South Carolina.  The 5th Defense Battalion was the first such battalion to deploy to a potentially hostile shore.

Under the command of Colonel Lloyd L. Leech, the 5th Defense Battalion deployed to Iceland in June 1941 as part of the 1st Marine Brigade (Provisional).  In addition to the 5th Defense Battalion, the Brigade included the 6th Marines, 2nd Battalion, 10th Marines, and various other supporting units to reinforce British forces charged with blocking any German attempt to seize Iceland.  To facilitate training and instruction for the American Marines, the brigade commander assented to the 5th Defense Battalion’s incorporation into the British air defense system.

Over time, it became increasingly unlikely that Germany would seize Iceland.  However, while the Pacific command urgently needed the 1st Brigade, its eventual reassignment was contingent upon the arrival in Iceland US Army units to replace the Marines.  Before Pearl Harbor, statutory provisions precluded the assignment of non-volunteer troops to overseas locations.  Army conscripts could not serve in Iceland until a state of war existed between the United States and its adversaries.  The Brigade was finally relieved by Army units in March 1942.

Of the remaining defense battalions, all but one (2nd) deployed to the Pacific before Pearl Harbor.  The 2nd Defense Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Raymond E. Knapp, joined the 2nd Marine Brigade in Samoa in January 1942.  Already serving in Samoa was the 7th Defense Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Lester A. Dessez.[10]  The 7th Defense Battalion was the first FMF unit to operate in the South Pacific theater of operations.

The 3rd Defense Battalion formed in late 1939.  After initial training, the Battalion embarked for Pearl Harbor in April 1940.  In September, the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific ordered elements of the Battalion to Midway Island.  The entire Battalion reformed at Midway in February 1941.  In September 1941, the 6th Defense Battalion replaced the 3rd Battalion at Midway, which then returned to Hawaii and participated in defense of Pearl Harbor. Also, in Hawaii on 7 December 1941, was the 1st Defense Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Bert A. Bone, and the 4th Defense Battalion, under Colonel Harold S. Fassett. 

The preceding may seem like an orderly process, but it was far from that.  Moving large numbers of Marines and their heavy (and expensive) equipment is never easy, rarely tidy, and always compounded by higher headquarters.  For instance, in 1939, the 1st Defense Battalion formed by renaming the 2nd Battalion, 15th Marines, and then reorganizing it, re-equipping it, and re-positioning it to serve in its new role.  In February 1941, the 1st Defense Battalion arrived at Pearl Harbor from San Diego.  No sooner had the Battalion arrived when higher authority split it apart into subunits and redistributed them throughout the Central Pacific.  FMF Pacific (also, FMFPac) dispatched Detachment A, 1st Defense Battalion to Palmyra Island (arriving 10 March).  A month later, HQMC renamed the unit “Marine Detachment, 1st Marine Defense Battalion, Palmyra Island.” Additional subunits became Marine Detachments at Johnston (mid-July) and Wake (late-July).  Thus, on 7 December 1941, the 1st Defense Battalion had subunits on three atolls with their headquarters element remaining at Pearl Harbor.

By early December, Marine defense battalions defended Midway, Johnston, Palmyra, Samoa, and Wake.  The global war plan, then in effect, renamed “Rainbow Five,” called for the development of air bases at all these sites.  After 7 December, the United States had to concede Guam (and its small naval facility) to the Japanese owing to its position in the center of the Japanese-held Marianas Island group.  The Navy’s intention behind creating these small forward bases was two-fold.  Samoa would help protect communication routes in the Southwest Pacific; Midway, Johnston, Palmyra, and Wake were offered for the protection of Oahu installations.  None of the forward bases provided much protection, however.

At Pearl Harbor

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor started at 0755 on 7 December 1941.  The assault lasted two hours.  The defense battalions offered limited (and generally ineffective) opposition to Japanese forces.  This generally poor performance was not the fault of the defense battalions, however.  Japan’s attack was a surprise event well-timed for Sunday morning.  Accordingly, all US responses were haphazard. 

Before the Japanese attack, the United States was already preparing for hostilities — albeit with only limited intelligence information.  Hawaii-based commanders heard nothing from Washington beyond cautionary advice.  Reacting with caution, senior commanders ordered all munitions secured at widely dispersed locations.  Motor vehicles were carefully stored in are motor pools, berthed ships and parked aircraft were lined up neatly for ease of monitoring security — in case Japanese agents attempted to sabotage American military equipment.  When the Japanese attacked, air defense positions had no ammunition with which to shoot down enemy planes.  Within a few moments of the attack, air and ground commanders ordered munitions, but there  were no vehicles available to transport it.  By the time ammunition did arrive, the Japanese attack was over.

Within six minutes of the beginning of the Japanese attack, Marines from the defense battalion had machine guns set up and engaged the enemy.  These were the only weapons used in the defense of Pearl Harbor.  It was a bit too little. 

Within mere hours after Japan’s attack, Navy and Marine commanders took steps to reinforce outlying island garrisons, rushing substantial numbers of Marines to Midway, Johnston, and Palmyra.  These Marines and their equipment came from the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Defense Battalions. Midway’s assets included 17 Scout/Bombers, ferried to the island commander via the aircraft carrier USS Lexington.  Once the ship returned to Pearl Harbor, additional flights were direct over-ocean movements.  The distance from Pearl Harbor to Midway was 1,137 miles.

Guam

The situation on Guam was bleak.  Lieutenant Colonel William K. McNulty’s 122 Marines (and 15 additional Marines serving on detached duty with the Guamanian Police Force) were overwhelmed by Japanese forces.

Johnston Island

Johnston Island, a spec of sand in the middle of the ocean, was too small and too close to the Hawaiian Islands to risk a land assault, but it was a tempting target.  Major Francis B. Loomis, serving as the 1st Defense Battalion executive officer, was present at Johnston Island when the Japanese made their move against Pearl Harbor.  As the senior officer present, Loomis assumed overall command of American military assets.

The first contact the Johnson Island Marines had with the Japanese occurred on 12 December when a submarine surfaced  8,000 yards off Sand Island and began firing green star clusters, which exploded high overhead.  Marines returned fire with a 5-inch gun, and the submarine withdrew.  Three days later, two Japanese ships opened fire and damaged several buildings and an oil storage facility.  Again, the Marines answered with a 5-inch gun, and the enemy ships withdrew before suffering any damage.  On the nights of 18, 21, and 22 December, enemy submarines returned to deliver harassing fire.  By the end of the month, reinforcements arrived from Hawaii, adding another 5-inch battery, another 3-inch battery, and 16 more machine guns —but the Marines heard no more from the Japanese for the duration of the war.

Palmyra Island

Palmyra Island experienced a single Japanese attack on 24 December.  A Japanese submarine surfaced 3,000 yards offshore and fired its deck guns at a dredge in the lagoon.  The 5-inch battery drove the submarine away.  Lieutenant Colonel Bone, commanding the 1st Defense Battalion, arrived with reinforcements at the end of December.  The Palmyra garrison became 1st Defensive Battalion in March.  Spreading Marines all over the Central Pacific had the effect of diminishing unit cohesiveness within the defense battalions.  To solve this problem, local commands absorbed the various “detachments” into their organizations.

Wake Island

By mid-December world attention was focused on events unfolding at Wake Island.  The unfolding battle electrified everyone.  On 7 December 1941, the Wake Island detachment totaled barely 400 officers and men, including 9 officers and 200 enlisted men who had only joined the detachment in the previous month.  The detachment commander was Major James P. S. Devereux.  The Island’s air support squadron included 12 F4F-3 Wildcats of Major Paul A. Putnam’s VMF-211 detachment, which arrived on 4 December.[11]  Putnam reported to Devereux, who reported to the Island Commander, Commander Winfield S. Cunningham, USN.

There were no optimists among the Marines of Wake Island.  Devereux’s detachment was understrength; one battery of 3-inch guns was completely unmanned.  Two other batteries could field only three of four guns (each), and Echo Battery had no height-finding equipment.  Ground and anti-air crew-served weapons were only half manned.  The detachment had no radar and no sound-locator equipment.  By the time Wake Marines learned of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, VMF-211’s dawn patrol was already aloft.  Putnam dispersed his remaining aircraft, and the detachment’s Marines manned their posts.

Shortly before noon on 8 December (Wake Island was in a different date-time-zone from Hawaii), 36 Japanese bombers attacked Wake Island, their bomb load mostly hitting the airstrip where seven of the eight parked Wildcats were destroyed, exploding aviation gas storage tanks, and killing 23 of the 55 enlisted aviation ground crewmen.  The bombers returned each day for the next six days, always at the same time of day.  Each day, the Japanese inflicted more damage and took more lives.  At 0300 on 11 December, a Japanese assault force appeared offshore.  Warships moved in after dawn to begin raking fire prelude to troop landings.  By 0615, the Marines had severely damaged the cruiser Yubari and sunk the destroyer Havate.  Additionally, Marines damaged a light cruiser, two destroyers, and a troop transport.  The Japanese withdrew to Kwajalein Island.

In the following week, Marines lost an additional three aircraft to Japanese bombers, half their trucks, and engineering equipment, most of their diesel fuel and dynamite, and the motor pool, warehouse, machine shop, and the blacksmith shop was wholly destroyed.  The Japanese destroyed the last two Wildcats on 22 December during aerial combat.  By this time, the Marines at Wake Island were running a pool on their expected shelf-life.

At dawn on 23 December, another Japanese assault force appeared offshore.  One-thousand Imperial Japanese Army and 500 Imperial Japanese Navy prepared to land on Wake Island.  Marines engaged the first wave of Japanese at 0245, but none of the 5-inch guns were able to take destroyers/transports under fire.  The 3-inch guns inflicted some damage, but not enough to hinder the landing.  Lacking any infantry support, overwhelming Japanese forces pushed the Marines back to secondary defensive positions.  Gun crews, in defending themselves, had to forsake the big guns.  By 0500, the Marines realized that the dance was about over.  At dawn, enemy carrier-based fighters and bombers arrived overhead.  Devereux advised Cunningham that he could no longer maintain organized resistance.  With Cunningham’s concurrence, Devereux surrendered his force to the Japanese landing force commander.

The story of Wilkes Island unfolded differently, however.  At Wilkes, the battle raged so fiercely that at daybreak, Captain Wesley Mc. Platt[12] not only destroyed the Japanese landing party after the initial Japanese assault, but he also reorganized his men and ordered a ruthless counterattack, killing every Japanese soldier he could find, one after another.  Captain Platt was out of contact with Devereux and did not know of the surrender until around 1330 when Platt saw Devereux approaching a Japanese officer.  Platt was not a happy camper, but he obeyed Major Devereux’s order to relinquish his arms to the Japanese.

Midway

Admiral Yamamoto’s plan for seizing Midway Island was typically complex.[13]  He also based his assumptions on faulty intelligence.  He believed that only two aircraft carriers were available to the Pacific Fleet after the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.  After the repair of USS Yorktown, the Navy had three carriers: Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown.  He also misread the morale of  the US Armed Forces and the general American population.  Admiral Yamamoto was a crafty fellow, but he did not know that the Americans had broken the naval code.  The key for the Americans was learning that the Japanese designation of Midway Island was JN-25.

Lieutenant Colonel Harold D. Shannon ordered his 6th Defense Battalion to “general quarters” as soon as he learned of the Japanese attack at Wake Island.  It was a sensibly prudent order, but its effect was that it kept his Marines on edge for an extended period.  No action developed that day, but shortly after dark, the Japanese destroyers Akebono and Ushio arrived offshore.  Their mission was to harass the Island’s defenders and determine the placement of Marine shore batteries.  Two Japanese rounds hit the Island’s power plant and disrupted the communications center.[14]  As the two ships set up for their second run into the beach, Shannon ordered his Marines to engage enemy targets at will.  Battery A’s 5-inch guns remained silent due to the break down in communications, but Battery B and Battery D opened up with their 5-inch naval artillery and 3-inch anti-aircraft guns.  The .50 caliber machine-guns fired once the destroyers were within range.  The Japanese ships withdrew shortly afterward.

Reinforcements and resupply soon arrived from Hawaii.  Among the heavy weapons were 7-inch guns removed from World War I ships that had been in storage for many years.  Midway Island was well-armed and adequately manned to repel an enemy assault; the American defenders responded to several Japanese probing raids early in 1942.  Aviation assets at Midway included both Navy and Marine Corps combat aircraft.  The Navy had four PBY squadrons (31 Patrol planes), and six Grumman TBF Avengers from VT-8.  Marine Corps aircraft included Scout/Bomber squadron VMSB-231 (17 SB2U-3 Vindicators), and the remainder of VMF-221 (arriving at Midway from USS Saratoga with 14 F2A-3 Brewster Buffaloes).  Following the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Pacific Fleet quickly replaced lost aircrews with additional Navy and Marine Corps air squadrons.

In May 1942, FMFPac reinforced the 6th Defense Battalion with three additional 3-inch batteries, a 37-mm anti-aircraft battery, a 20-mm anti-aircraft battery, and two rifle companies from the 2nd Raider Battalion with five light tanks in direct support.  FMFPac ordered all Marine aircraft at Midway consolidated under Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-22.  The MAG received 16 SMD-2 Dauntless Diver Bombers and seven Grumman Wildcat fighters.

As the Battle of Midway Island began on 4 June 1942, it became apparent that the defense of the atoll was of secondary importance to the air engagements at sea, but Midway was the bait that had drawn Yamamoto’s task forces within range of US carrier aircraft.  The Marines ashore were, however, ready for any eventuality.  PBYs from Midway first spotted Japanese naval units at 0900 on 3 June.  Army B-17s launched that afternoon to bomb the Japanese fleet, but none of the bombs hit their targets.  At 0545 on 4 June, Navy PBYs fixed an approaching air assault position consisting of over 100 Japanese torpedo, dive bombers, and escort fighters (numbers estimated).  US aircraft were in the air within ten minutes to intercept them.  Japanese Zeros easily destroyed Marine buffaloes, but not without losing several bombers and fighters of their own.  The survivors arrived over Midway at around 0630.  The Japanese attacked lasted thirty minutes.  Marine anti-air defenses claimed ten kills and seemed anti-climactic, but Japan’s air assault was what the Navy fleet commander wanted.  As these planes returned to their carriers, US aircraft followed them.

The Battle of Midway’s significance was that it signaled the end of the United States’ defensive war and the beginning of America’s offensive.  In these early days of a long war, the Defense Battalions’ Marines had played their role and contributed to the war effort.  With the arrival of additional Marines, most of whom had enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor, many found their way into the Defense Battalions.  By the end of 1942, the Marine Corps had 14 defense battalions.  Two years later, there were twenty such battalions.

Guadalcanal and beyond

The assault of Guadalcanal was the first American land offensive in the Pacific war.  The 3rd Defense Battalion provided support to the 1st Marine Division’s landing.  The landing force commander split the Battalion to support simultaneous operations at Guadalcanal and Tulagi.  The Battalion’s machine-gun sections and 90-mm anti-aircraft guns[15] went ashore in the first assault waves.  Similarly, the 9th Defense Battalion supported the assault on the Munda Peninsula in July 1943.  By this time, defense battalions employed 155-mm and 40-mm guns.  On Vella Lavella, the 4th Defense Battalion’s 90-mm gun was the Japanese pilot’s worst nightmare.  Both the 9th and 14th Defense Battalion went ashore with the landing forces at Guam in 1944.  When Japanese aircraft were no longer capable of threatening Marine occupied terrain, senior officers decided that the battalions had served their purpose.  HQMC disbanded most defense battalions after the war —but one (sort of) remains today.  One Marine responsibility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is to defend the naval base.  This mission is similar to that of the World War II-era defense battalion.

Sources:

  1. Cole, E. K.  Advanced Base Force Training.  Philadelphia: 1915.
  2. Davis, H. C.  Advanced Place Training.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1911.
  3. Jackson, R. H.  History of the Advanced Base.  Records of the General Board of the Navy, 1913.
  4. Jackson, R. H.  The Naval Advanced Base. Records of the General Board of the Navy, 1915.
  5. McBride, W. M.  Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1865-1945.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  6. Millett, A. R.  Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps.  New York: The Free Press, 1991.
  7. Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1974.

Endnotes:

[1] Incorporated as War Plan Red.

[2] Incorporated as War Plan Black.

[3] Incorporated as War Plan Orange.

[4] Eli Kelley Cole (1867-1929) graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1888, served as a naval officer for two years, and transferred to the US Marine Corps in 1890.  In 1915, Cole, Williams, Earl H. Ellis, John H. Russell, and Robert H. Dunlap were the Marine Corps’ deepest thinkers.  While commanding the 1st Provisional Brigade in Haiti, he received the Navy Cross Medal.  He later commanded the US Army’s 41st Infantry Division during World War I, and served as the first Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.  He passed away while still serving on active duty.

[5] The forebear of the 1st Marine Division.

[6] Designated 2nd Regiment, Advance Base Brigade on 18 February 1914 (today, 1st Marines).

[7] Designated 1st Regiment, Advance Base Brigade on 18 February 1914 (today, 2nd Marines).

[8] Fleet exercises were important rehearsals in the development of amphibious warfare and the establishment of advanced base defenses, including the art and science of loading/un-loading ships, transfer of equipment from ship to shore, employment of shore artillery, signal science, combat engineering, harbor construction/defense, and the employment of automatic weapons.

[9] See also, Wake Island (in three parts).

[10] Colonel Dessez’ also formed and trained the 1st Samoan Battalion (infantry) (territorial reserve).

[11] One of Putnam’s flight officers was Captain Frank C. Tharin, a graduate of the US Naval Academy (1934).  While serving on Wake Island, Tharin distinguished himself through his courage and aeronautical skill against overwhelming Japanese air forces.  He was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star Medal, and two Air Medals.  Tharin spend the war in a Japanese POW camp.  I worked for LtGen Tharin in 1968 at a time when Tharin served as the Operations Deputy to the Commandant of the Marine Corps.  General Tharin passed away in 1990.

[12] Wesley McCoy Platt survived the war as a POW.  The United States subsequently awarded him the Silver Star Medal, Legion of Merit, and Purple Heart Medal.  During the Korean War, Colonel Platt died of wounds while serving on the staff of Major General Oliver P. Smith, USMC, who commanded the 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir.

[13] Warfare is by its nature complex; overly complicated war plans simply increase the likelihood of failure at critical moments of the battle.  

[14] First Lieutenant George H. Cannon, a communications officer, received severe wounds from Japanese guns but he refused evacuation until the communications center was once more up and running.  Cannon died shortly afterwards. He received the Medal of Honor posthumously, the first Marine to receive the nation’s highest medal during World War II.

[15] The round of the 90-mm gun weighed 23 pounds.  It had a maximum range of 39,500 feet.


One Face of War

Private First Class John Wilson Hoffman, USMC

Lott, Texas is a small town in Falls County.  The settlement began in 1889 with the construction of the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railroad.  The town was named after Uriah Lott, who at the time was president of the railroad company.  In 1889, the settlement involved a total of around two-hundred folks.  They were church-going people, as evidenced by the fact that Lott, Texas had three churches in 1892.  There were also two cotton gins, and two gristmills.  In 1892, there were 350 people living in Lott and by then the town had a weekly newspaper.  In eight more years, the town had grown to 1,200 citizens.  Besides those working for the railroad, there were local farmers who raised corn and cotton.

But Lott was typical of small Texas towns.  Economic conditions were meager, and folks scratched out their existence through hard work barely rewarded.  And, as with most other Texas communities, the Great Depression took its toll and people began to move away.  In 1930, only 650 people were recorded living there in the national census.  Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration helped, of course.  Government subsidies encouraged diversification from farming into stock raising and truck farming.  Even now, though, economic opportunities are limited, and the town relies heavily on the speed trap along State Highway 44/US Highway 77.  In 2010, 759 people lived in Lott, Texas.

One of its citizens, born and raised for a time in Lott, was John Wilson Hoffman.  One of four children, John was born in 1922.  His parents, John Wilson Hoffman, Sr., and Sadie Hoffman, moved their family to Houston in 1929.  John graduated from Stephen F. Austin High School in the class of 1940 and the 18-year old went to work for Lindle Air Products Company as a shipping clerk.  In August 1942, John was 20-years-old, the nation was at war, and the young patriot John Wilson Hoffman, Jr. joined the United States Marine Corps.

J. W. Hoffman

After recruit training, the Marines assigned Hoffman to the 18th Marine Regiment — combat engineers with the 2nd Marine Division.  The regiment was not slated to participate in the Battle of Guadalcanal, but the 6th Marine Regiment was organizing and needed men to fill their ranks.  In mid-December 1942, John Hoffman was one of several dozen engineers transferred to the 6th Marines and Hoffman ended up in Lima Company, 3/6.  The regiment shipped out to New Zealand for pre-combat training.

The ladies of New Zealand are lovely to look at, and young Marines are easy to fall in love — as did John W. Hoffman, and he was so much in love with his New Zealand lassie that he didn’t want to leave her.  When 3/6 sailed for the Solomon Islands, John was not among them.  In fact, no one saw Hoffman again until 7 January 1943, when he surrendered to New Zealand police in Wellington.

When 3/6 returned from Guadalcanal in late February 1943, Hoffman was waiting for them at Camp Russell.  Hoffman received a court-martial for missing his movement.  During war, this is a serious offense — but it could have been worse.  Had his superiors charged him with desertion in time of war, he may have faced a death penalty.  Hoffman was found guilty of “missing movement,” and sentenced to ninety days in the brig.  He was also fined $15.00 per month for three months.  It doesn’t seem like much of a fine, but Hoffman was only making $50/month in 1943.

After three months of confinement in a Marine Corps brig, Hoffman was a changed man.  Upon release, he returned to his unit, stayed out of trouble, and applied himself to combat training.  His transformation from a love-starved puppy to a fighting grunt was so impressive that his company commander promoted him to Private First Class (PFC).

John Hoffman had become a “squared away” Marine.  When Lima Company mustered for their next combat assignment, John Hoffman was present and accounted for.  What no one in Lima Company knew was that their next assignment would take them to a tiny atoll in the middle of a very large ocean.  The atoll had a name — Tarawa.  The island was Betio.

Far above the station of mere privates, America’s war planners had been looking for an air base capable of supporting operations across the mid-Pacific — to the Philippines in the South, and to Japan in the North.  The need for advanced bases led these war planners to focus their attention on the Mariana Islands, which at the time were heavily defended by the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy.  Before the US could seize the Marianas group, they would have to control the Marshall Islands, but the Marshalls were cut off from direct communications with Hawaii by a Japanese garrison  on the small island of Betio, on the western side of the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.  Before the Americans could concentrate on the Mariana Islands, they would have to neutralize the Japanese on Betio.

Betio Island is Tarawa’s largest.  It is located about 2,400 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor.  Despite its size on the atoll, it is infinitesimally small.  It is a flat island, two miles long, triangle shaped, and at its widest point, only 800 yards from shore to shore.

If Evans Carlson’s diversionary raid at Makin Island accomplished anything at all, besides getting good Marines killed, it was that it sent a signal to the Imperial Japanese that their Island defenses were vulnerable to American attack — and that the Americans viewed the Gilbert Islands as an important objective. 

Thus warned, the Japanese reinforced Betio with its 6th Special Landing Force (Japanese Marines).  In total, the Japanese island commander, Rear Admiral Tomonari Saichiro, commanded 5,000 defenders.  An experienced engineer, Saichiro directed the construction of the Betio defenses.  Saichiro’s plan was to stop the Americans before they reached the island’s shore; and if that failed, then to make the American’s pay dearly for their audacity.  The Evans Carlson gave the Japanese a year to perfect Betio Island’s defenses.

The Gilbert Islands campaign was the largest invasion force yet assembled for a single operation in the Pacific.  There were seventeen aircraft carriers, twelve battleships, twelve cruisers, sixty-six destroyers, and thirty-six troop transports.  Aboard the transports were the 2nd Marine Division and the US 27th Infantry Division — totaling 35,000 troops.  The Marines began their assault at 0900 on 20 November 1943.  The 6th Marines, under the command of Colonel Maurice G. Holmes, would dedicate the 1st Battalion (William K. Jones, commanding) and 3rd Battalion (Kenneth F. McLeod, commanding) in the third and fourth wave assaults at Green Beach.[1]

It was at Green Beach, during the fourth wave attack, that Private First Class John Wilson Hoffman, Jr., met his end.  As Lima Company moved up to relieve elements of the 1st Battalion, an enemy bullet found Hoffman and instantly killed him.  The Marines of Lima Company gently laid his body to rest along with thirty other members of his company.  They did their best to mark the grave site as lethal battle raged around them and the Marines continued to move forward under heavy Japanese resistance.  It was a horrific battle.  The movement of tanks, artillery, and troops soon obliterated the grave marker.

As with so many other Marines who died at Betio over a period of 72-hours — 1,009 killed, 2,101 wounded — the Marine Corps eventually notified Hoffman’s parents that their son’s remains were unrecoverable.  History Flight[2] recovered John Hoffman’s body, where it had lain undisturbed on Betio Island for 76 years.  John Hoffman finally came back home to Texas in the spring of 2020.  There was no one left alive in John’s family who remembered him.

Some gave all.

Sources:

  1. Alexander, J. H.  Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
  2. Graham, M. B.  Mantle of Heroism: Tarawa and the Struggle for the Gilberts.  Presidio Press, 1998.
  3. Hammel, E. & J. E. Lane.  Bloody Tarawa.  Zenith Press, 1998.
  4. Smith, H. M.  Coral and Brass.  New York: Scribeners & Sons, 1949.

Endnotes:

[1] The 2nd Battalion (Raymond G. Murray, commanding) was assigned to assault and occupy the outer islands of Tarawa.  Murray later commanded the 5th Marines during the Battle of the Pusan Perimeter during the Korean War and in that capacity, participated in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.  Both Jones and Murray achieved flag rank with Jones retiring as a lieutenant general and Murray as a major general.

[2] History Flight is a privately operated non-profit organization dedicated to researching, recovering, and repatriating the remains of American servicemen from World War II through the Vietnam War period.  Since 2003, History Flight has recovered 130 missing servicemen in both the ETO and PTO.  John Hoffman’s remains were one of these.


The 8th Marines Go To Texas

There is so much myth surrounding the life and times of David Crockett that hardly anyone knows the truth about the man.  We know he was born in 1786 and gave up his life for Texas Independence on 6 March 1836.  He was 49-years old when he died — in those days, 49-years was a long time to live.  One of the stories about Crockett surrounds his political career.  He served in the Tennessee General Assembly between 1821-1823 and served as a member of the U. S. House of Representatives from 1827-1831 and 1833-1835.  When Crockett decided that he was done with politics, he allegedly told someone, “You can go to hell; I’m going to Texas.”  And he did.

Crockett went to Texas for the same reasons as other folks back then.  There was an adventurer in Crockett, the same as there was a sense of adventure in most people who migrated west.  The difference was that as a member of the US House, Crockett was fully aware of what was going on between the Texians and Mexico’s centrist government.  Most of the pioneers had no clue at all.  Crockett entered Texas with both eyes wide open.  He knew what he was getting himself into — and he believed that the Texas fight was one worth having.  Was he also looking to enrich himself in land?  Of course, he was.  There were no “commies” back then seeking to hold hands and sing kumbaya.  Taking a piece of scrub land and molding it into a profitable enterprise wasn’t for the faint of heart.   

What we also know to be a fact is that Texians, Texans, and Americans have never gotten along well with Mexicans.  There are no similarities between the two cultures, and while there are plenty of good arguments from both sides of any issue confronting Texians, Texans, and Americans, there was never any “earned trust” between these people.  This uneasy relationship continues to this very day; and today, as in 1915 (or at any other time in our history with Mexico), the association was often deadly.

There was always a good reason for revolution in Mexico.  The reasons are as valid today as they were in 1824, 1836, and in 1910.  Arguably, no one associated with government in Mexico ever developed compassion for their citizens.  Ever.  Mexican politicians who became the inheritors of Spanish America were always completely focused on enriching themselves;  building a vibrant nation and society was never a priority, and still isn’t.  As the descendants of Spanish Peninsulares and creoles, today’s politicians remain welded to an unwieldy class structure that makes one group of people forever better than the one just below their own.  One would think that after 500 years of this “caste” system, the people would throw it off and demand better from their government.  But — no. 

What caused the Mexican Revolution of 1910 was the increasing unpopularity of El Presidenté Jose de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz Mori.  He was known simply as Porfirio Diaz.  He’d served as President of Mexico for 31 years.  He served in office for so long because he observed the golden rule: whoever owns the gold, makes the rules.  Plus, it seems that Mexico’s founding fathers never quite got around to solving the question of presidential succession.

Not only did Mexico have a revolution in 1910, one that lasted for ten long, bloody years, Mexico also experienced a series of armed insurrections.  It was a time when every thug with a bandolier called himself general, and every army general commanding a platoon was a self-perpetuating thug.  The groups in armed conflict, and the men involved in these lawless shootouts, when listed altogether, remind one of the greater Chicago telephone directory.

In 1910, one might have imagined that things could not have ever gotten worse in Mexico.  They would have been wrong.  The situation in Mexico between 1910-1920 was so bad that no rational person could have imagined what was next on the agenda.  Casualty estimates range from 1.7 million to 2.7 million people killed (military and civilian).  Of innocent bystanders alone, somewhere between 700,000 and 1.1 million.  Within four years, conditions were such inside Mexico that American politicians began to view them as presenting a clear and present danger to the peace and stability of the United States.  It was serious enough to justify two (2) separate US interventions: the invasion of Vera Cruz (1914) and the twelve-month-long Poncho Villa Expedition (1916-17).  In addition to the two US expeditions, there was another confrontation — which occurred after thousands of Mexicans invaded Texas to escape the violence in Mexico (see also, Sedition in Texas and The Bandit War).  It did not help to improve relations with Mexico when it was learned that Germany was making an attempt to coopt Mexico into attacking the US southern border.

Send in the Marines

When President Woodrow Wilson decided to commit American blood to the defense of Paris, France in 1917, it was necessary to mobilize the U. S. Armed Forces.  At the very moment when Wilson made his fateful decision, there were only two (2) military services even partially ready for combat: The United States Navy and the U. S. Marine Corps.  The Navy and Marines were “most ready” because they had already demonstrated their capabilities in the Spanish-American War.  The Army, meanwhile, were still organized almost exclusively for fighting hostile Indians in the western states.  Mobilization in 1917 was a herculean task — and it speaks well for the American people that they were able to pull it off in such a short period of time.

One of the units activated in 1917 was my first (home) regiment, the Eighth Marines.  Of course, a number of regiments were brought online in 1917, not only for use in Europe, but also in areas far away from the European battle zone.  In total, fourteen regiments of Marines were activated by the middle part of 1918.  Most of these never served in the European conflict but were deployed either in the Caribbean or remained in readiness inside the United States.  The 8th Marine Regiment was one of these stateside infantry units.

At the time, Marine Corps regiments lacked the structure of subordinate battalions.  There was only a regimental headquarters element, and independent numbered companies.  The 8th Marines included its headquarters, 103rd, 104th, 105th, 106th, 107th, 108th, 109th, 110th, 111th, and 112th rifle companies totaling 1,000 officers and men under the command of Major Ellis B. Miller.  In 1917, owing to the “different kind of war” unfolding for the United States in Europe, the Marine Corps recognized the wisdom of adopting the U. S. Army’s battalion structure.  If the Marines were going to fight a sustained land engagement, particularly alongside Army units, they would have to adopt an organizational structure that was identical to that of the Army.  The structure, for the regiments dispatched to Europe, included three subordinate battalions, each with a headquarters company, and four rifle companies — an increase in strength to 3,000 men.  Since the 8th Marines was not earmarked for service in Europe, the standard pre-war organization was retained.

The regiment’s first orders from HQMC was to prepare for deployment — to Texas.  The contingency plan was to send the 8th Marines into Mexico if needed in the defense of the United States’ southern border — particularly in light of the fact that there was no improvement in Mexican/American relations after Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa, and the growing concern among American citizens living along the border for their safety — particularly in light of Germany’s attempt to involve Mexico against the United States.  Should it become necessary, the 8th Marines would make an amphibious assault at Tampico and seize the oilfields there.

After arriving at Fort Crockett[1], the 8th Marines resumed its normal duties, which included field training, weapons training, and amphibious operations.  In August 1918, a newly organized 9th Marine Regiment under the Third Marine Brigade joined the 8th Marines at Fort Crockett.  These units had been stationed in Cuba to safeguard sugar mills from insurrectionists and saboteurs working with German agents.  It was in this way that the 8th Marine Regiment became a subordinate command, along with the 9th Marines, of the 3rd Marine Brigade.

This presence of a large force of U. S. Marines in Texas — not too far distant from the Mexican border, continued through 1919.  There was never any attempt to hide the purpose of these Marines and Mexican officials were fully aware of the United States’ willingness to intervene in Mexico’s internal affairs.  Accordingly, a steady supply of oil from Tampico continued to flow to the United States and its allies.  This duty assignment was the 8th Marines most important contribution to the First World War. After eighteen months in Texas, HQMC directed that the 8th Marines move to Philadelphia.  There, on 25 April 1919, the regiment was deactivated. 


Endnotes:

[1] Fort Crockett, constructed in 1903, was named in honor of frontiersman and member of the U. S. House of Representatives, David Crockett.  Fort Crockett was a facility of the U. S. Army Coastal Artillery Corps at Galveston, Texas.  During World War I, Fort Crockett served as a training base and pre-deployment training facility.

The First Hell

When Marines landed on Guadalcanal, they came ashore without opposition.  A small Japanese construction force assigned to complete the airfield at Lunga Point wisely withdrew as soon as they realized there were Marines in the area.  Guadalcanal did eventually turn into a combat cesspool, but not during the initial landing.

Marines landing on Tulagi, however, faced off against a determined enemy.  This enemy would eventually let go, of course, but only over their dead body—and the U. S. Marines were plenty capable of accommodating them. 

On 7 August 1942, the Japanese, in their insufferable arrogance, continued to imagine that it could maintain their presence in the central Pacific region, even after their two attempts to extend their homeland defensive perimeter were thwarted in the Battle of Coral Sea (May 1942) and at Midway (June 1942).  These two back-to-back victories gave the Allied forces the opportunity to seize the offensive elsewhere in the Pacific.  Allied planners decided to make this move against the British Solomon Islands: Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Gavutu-Tanambogo.

As part of their campaign that resulted in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) sent naval infantry to occupy Tulagi and nearby islands in the southern Solomons.  The Third Kure Special Naval Landing Force occupied Tulagi on 3 May 1942 [Note 1].  These troops almost immediately began to construct a seaplane base, ship refueling facility, and communications station on Tulagi and Gavutu/Tanambogo and the Florida Islands.

Aware of these activities, Allied planners became even more concerned when they observed Japanese efforts to construct an airfield near Lunga Point.  Admiral Ernest J. King, serving as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet, devised a plan to deny the use of the Solomon Islands.  Otherwise, the Japanese would be positioned to threaten supply routes between the United States and Australia.  King’s long-term objective was to seize or neutralize the Japanese base of operations at Rabaul.  The Solomon campaign would also enable the Americans to support Allied efforts in New Guinea and open the way to re-take the Philippine Islands.

Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, Commander, United States Pacific, established the South Pacific theater of operations, placing Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley in command to direct the Allied effort in the Solomon Islands.  Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, U. S. Marine Corps, moved his 1st Marine Division from the United States to New Zealand for pre-combat training.  Additional Allied units (land, naval, and air forces) established bases in Fiji, Samoa, and New Caledonia.  Vandegrift’s established his forward headquarters at Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides.  The Solomon campaign would become known as Operation Watchtower.

Initially, Watchtower excluded Guadalcanal—until Allied intelligence noted the airfield construction at Lunga Point.  Nimitz then decided to incorporate Guadalcanal.  The expeditionary force involved 75 warships and troop transports (both American and Australian), which assembled near Fiji on 26 July 1942.  There was only time for one rehearsal landing.

Major General Vandegrift commanded 16,000 Allied (mostly U. S. Marines) and he intended to lead the majority of these ashore on Guadalcanal on 7 August.  Vandegrift assigned a second offensive operation to his deputy commander, Brigadier General William H. Rupertus [Note 2].  Rupertus would command the assault on Tulagi with 3,000 Marines.

Bad weather in the southern Solomon Islands allowed the Americans to approach Guadalcanal undetected early on the morning of 7 August.  The amphibious ready group split into two groups, one earmarked for Guadalcanal, and the other for Tulagi, Gavutu-Tanambogo-Florida.  Aircraft from USS Wasp attacked the Japanese installation on Tulagi in advance of the landing, destroying 15 seaplanes.  The cruiser USS San Juan and destroyers USS Monsoon and Buchanan conducted pre-landing bombardments.  To provide supporting fire for the main landing, the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines (1/2) made an unopposed landing on Florida Island at 07:40—guided to their objective areas by Australian coast watchers.

The Battle for Tulagi

Tulagi Island is roughly two miles long and about a half-mile wide.  It’s location is south of Florida Island, 22 miles across Sealark Channel from Guadalcanal.  A ridge rising 300 feet above sea level marks the northwest-southeast axis.  Two-thirds of the way down from its northwest tip, the Ridgeline is broken by a ravine, and then rises again toward a triangle of hills.  The farthest southeast hill is designated Hill 208, and the farthest northeast hill is designated Hill 281.  Three thousand yards east of Tulagi are the islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo.  Gavutu Harbor on the Northeast end of the island, and Purvis Bay, southeast of Gavutu, forms an ideal deep-water anchorage.

At 0800, two battalions of Marines made an unopposed landing on the western shore of Tulagi, about midway between the two ends of the oblong shaped island [Note 3].  Thick beds of coral prevented landing craft from reaching the shoreline, so the Marines went over the side of their landing craft and waded ashore—a distance of about 110 yards.

The Marine landing surprised Tulagi’s Japanese defenders and it took them some time to organize their defenses.  The overall Japanese commander of the Tulagi contingent was Captain Shigetoshi Miyazaki of the Yokohama Air Group.  Miyazaki radioed his commander in Rabaul, IJN Captain Sadayoshi Yamada, informing him that Tulagi was under attack, that he was in the process of destroying signals, and his intention to resist the Americans to the last man.

2/5 secured the Northwest end of Tulagi without opposition and then joined Edson’s Raiders in their advance toward the southeastern end of the island.  Japanese resistance was stiff, but isolated.  Around noon, Captain Suzuki, commanding the 3rd Kure Force, repositioned his men on Hill 281 and a nearby ravine at the Southeast end of the island.   Japanese defensive positions included dozens of tunneled caves dug into the hill’s limestone cliffs.  Each of these contained machine-gun positions protected by layers of sandbags.  The Marines reached the primary line of resistance (MLR) near dusk and dug in for the night.

Japanese naval infantry attacked the Marine perimeter five times during the night.  Their tactics included ferocious frontal attacks and small unit attempts at infiltration.  The Marines met teach assault by fire and close combat.  Although taking a few casualties, the Marine line held through the night; the Japanese gave up far more dead or wounded.  Twenty-two year old Private First Class (PFC) Edward H. Ahrens, from Dayton, Kentucky, assigned to the 1st Raiders, single-handedly engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat, killing thirteen Japanese before he too was killed [Note 4].

At daybreak on 8 August, six Japanese infiltrators shot and killed three Marines before they were eliminated.  Later that morning, 2/2 landed to reinforce the landing force; 2/5, surrounded Hill 281 and the ravine.  Pounding the enemy with mortar fire, the Marines launched a coordinated attack with satchel charges and well-aimed small arms fire.  Each assault on Japanese held caves and machine-gun positions was expensive.  Japanese naval infantry fought from foxholes, slit trenches, pillboxes, and caves.  Machine-gunners fired their weapons until killed; when one gunner fell, another would take his place and this process continued until everyone in that position was dead.

Stiff Japanese resistance continued until late afternoon, although the Marines found a few stragglers over the next several days, engaged them, and killed them.  In total, only three Japanese soldiers surrendered on Tulagi.  Forty Japanese escaped by swimming to Florida Island.  Over the next several months, Marines tracked down these escapees and killed them.

The Battle for Gavutu-Tanambogo

Gavutu and Tanambogo were islets, so-called because they were little more than exposed mounds of coral rising out of the sea.  The Japanese constructed a seaplane base on Gavutu.  The highest point on Gavutu was Hill 148; on Tanambogo, Hill 121—hills the IJN defended with concrete bunkers and a series of well-fortified caves.

Separating the two islets was a causeway extending some 1,600 feet.  Nearly six hundred troops occupied these islets, including a number of Japanese and Korean civilians assigned to the 14th Construction Unit.  The two islets were mutually supportive; each was in machine gun range of the other.

Marine commanders mistakenly estimated an enemy force of around two-hundred men.  Following a naval bombardment, which  damaged the seaplane base, Marines of the 1st Parachute Battalion stormed ashore at Gavutu at noon on 7 August 1942.  Because naval gunfire had damaged the seaplane ramp, the Marines had to disembark their landing craft in an exposed position.  Japanese defensive fire began ripping up the Marines, wounding or killing one in every ten of the battalion’s 397 troops.  The landing force scrambled to get out of the killing zone. 

Captain George Stallings, the battalion operations officer, ran forward to direct the forward movement of two Browning machine guns and a mortar section.  He directed these weapons against Japanese positions to suppress their murderous fires.  Dive bombers arrived to help suppress the Japanese, with some success.  After about two hours of intense combat, the Marines reached and began climbing Hill 148.  From the top, they began working their way down the other side, clearing Japanese positions with satchel charges, grenades, and hand-to-hand combat.  Other Marines at the top of Hill 148 began delivering automatic weapons fire against the Japanese on Tanambogo’s Hill 121.

The battalion commander radioed General Rupertus for reinforcements before assaulting Tanambogo.  Rupertus detached a company from 1/2 on Florida Island to assist in the assault, ignoring the advice of his operations officer that one company would not be sufficient.  Rupertus reasoned that since most of the Japanese on Tanambogo were aircrew, aircraft maintenance, and construction personnel with no combat training., one company would do.  Again, the Marine hierarchy under-estimated Japanese strength and fighting spirit.  The rifle company was sent to Tanambogo shortly after dark on 7 August.  The Marines came ashore while illuminated by the fires created by earlier naval bombardments.  Five of the landing craft received heavy automatic weapons fire as they approached the shore, which killed or wounded several navy boat crewmen.  Realizing that his position was untenable, the company commander quickly transferred his dead and wounded to the remaining boats to be taken back to the landing ship.  He then led twelve Marines in a sprint across the causeway to cover on Gavutu.

During the night, heavy thunderstorms dropped torrential rains on the islets.  Under this cover, the Japanese launched several assaults against the Marine perimeter.  General Vandegrift, monitoring the operation from Guadalcanal, ordered 3/2 to prepare for landing on Tanambogo the next morning.  The battalion began moving ashore at 10:00 on 8 August.  Initially, the landing received air support from carrier-based attack aircraft, but General Vandegrift called it off after two aircraft accidentally dropped their bombs on Marine positions — killing four Marines.  USS San Juan directed accurate naval gunfire on Tanambogo lasting for about thirty minutes.  Marines from Gavutu provided covering fire while 3/2 went ashore, which enabled the battalion to complete its landing phase by 12:00.

3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines began its assault at 16:15, supported by two Stuart light tanks.  One of these tanks became stuck on a large tree stump and was isolated from its infantry support.  Fifty Japanese airmen assaulted the tank and set it on fire, killing two crewmen and nearly beating the remaining two Marines to death before infantry fire killed most of the attackers [Note 5].

3/2 Marines began clearing operations by systematically destroying the Japanese cave network with satchel charges and hand grenades.  During the night of 8 August, Japanese defenders initiated several assaults, which frequently involved hand-to-hand engagements.  By noon on 9 August, all Japanese resistance on Tanambogo ended.  During the battle for Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo, Marines killed 863 Japanese soldiers/airmen and took twenty prisoners (most of whom were civilian laborers).  Marine and Navy losses were 122 killed in action, 200 wounded.

The U. S. Navy quickly turned the Tulagi anchorage into a naval base/refueling station.  Japanese naval superiority in the “slot” forced Allied ships into the refuge of Tulagi during hours of darkness and ships encountering significant battle damage were usually anchored at Tulagi for repairs.  Later in the war, Tulagi became an operating base for the Navy’s patrol-torpedo boats; Florida Island became an American seaplane base.

Once officials declared the islets “secure,” General Rupertus’ landing force joined the rest of the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal.   

Sources:

  1. Alexander, J. H.  Edson’s Raiders: The 1st Marine Raider Battalion in World War II.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000.
  2. Christ, J. F.  Battalion of the Damned: 1st Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge, 1942.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007.
  3. Hammel, E.  Carrier Clash: The Invasion of Guadalcanal & The Battle of the Eastern Solomons, August 1942.  St. Paul: Zenith Press, 1999.
  4. Jersey, S. C.  Hell’s Islands: The Untold Story of Guadalcanal.  College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008.
  5. Miller, J.  Guadalcanal: The First Offensive.  Washington: Center of Military History, 1995.

Endnotes:

[1] The Special Naval Landing Forces were not called “marines,” but their purpose was identical to those of their American opponents: to project naval power ashore.

[2] William H. Rupertus (1889-1945) was a highly decorated Marine Corps officer who participated in the Banana Wars, as a China Marine, and in World War II at Guadalcanal, New Britain, and the Marianas  Island campaigns.  A distinguished marksman and a member of the famed Marine Corps Rifle Team, Rupertus was the author of the now famous Rifleman’s Creed.  

[3] Commanding officers were: 1st Raider Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Merritt A. Edson; 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5), Lieutenant Colonel Harold E. Rosecrans.  Company B and Company D of the 1st Raiders were first ashore, followed by Company A and Company C.  Japanese defenders did not make a serious attempt to oppose the landing; they instead withdrew into a network of caves and dugouts intending to inflict as many casualties on the Marines as possible.  Edson soon realized that naval and aerial bombing had no effect on the Japanese defenses unless they were “direct hit.”

[4] Posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

[5] Marines later discovered 42 Japanese bodies around the tank, one of whom was the Japanese executive officer of the Yokohama Air Group, Lieutenant Commander Saburo Katsuta, and several of his seaplane pilots.  The overall commander at Tanambogo was Navy captain Miyazaki, who blew himself up inside his command post during the late afternoon of 8 August.

The Atlantic War, 1939-45

Some background

Most people associate the World War II Era Navy and Marine Corps with the Pacific War — which is certainly accurate; the U. S. Navy was unquestionably the dominant force in the Pacific.  But the Allied powers could not have won the European war without superior naval power, as well.  Victory at sea was a keystone for allied triumph over the Axis power in all World War II theaters.

  • Pacific-Asian fronts
  • Europe (Nordic, Western, Eastern fronts)
  • Mediterranean, Africa, Middle East

Victory at sea involved the formidable task of keeping sea lanes open for the movement of troop transports,  combat equipment, raw materials, and food stores — in massive quantities earmarked for the United Kingdom, nearly isolated by hostile German forces.

Complicating the Navy’s Atlantic mission was the fact that theater area commanders had to compete for limited naval resources.  There were only so many aircraft carriers, only so many landing craft, only so many carrier-based aircraft — only so many men.  It was up to theater area commanders to find the best way of distributing these limited assets where they would do the most good.  As one can imagine, the Navy’s mission to protect ships, men, and material over vast areas of the world’s major oceans was no small undertaking — and neither was denying access to them by the Axis powers.

Within 15 years from the end of World War I, Germany began rebuilding its military and naval forces.  Between 1933 and 1939, without opposition and emboldened by European politicians who sought to avoid war at any cost, Germany seized and annexed Alsace-Loraine, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.  When Adolph Hitler discovered that the “free world’s” only response to this aggression was appeasement, and in concert with the Soviet Union, he launched a lightning invasion of Poland.  Allied powers responded to the invasion by declaring war on Germany, prompting Germany’s invasion of Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France — and then began its assault on the United Kingdom through aerial bombing and naval blockades.  Once Germany believed that it had neutralized the United Kingdom, Hitler foolishly invaded the Soviet Union.

Following the First World War, the United Kingdom decided to place all of its military aircraft under the Royal Air Force, completely neglecting its naval arm vis-à-vis sea-launched aircraft.  As a result of this poor thinking, the United Kingdom lost its maritime superiority.

In the years leading up to World War II, Royal Navy Aviation competed with the RAF for scant resources.  The decision taken by Britain’s war policy board was that strategic bombing must occupy a higher priority than seaborne attack aircraft — and did so even after the United States proved that long-range bomber aircraft were only marginally effective against moving ships at sea.  The use of B-24 Liberator aircraft against Japanese ships of war during the Guadalcanal campaign in 1942-43 reinforced the American’s earlier conclusion.

In 1939, the Royal Navy had a substantial base structure at both ends of the Mediterranean, at Alexandria, Egypt, Gibraltar, and Malta.  The French Navy had naval bases at Toulon and Mers-el-Kébir and deluded themselves into believing that the Mediterranean was “their sea.”

In September 1939, when the UK declared war against Germany, there were only seven aircraft carriers in the British fleet.  These were capital ships highly vulnerable to German submarines, battleships, and land-based aircraft.  Because the British had no carriers in the First World War, there was no battle-tested procedure for protecting aircraft carriers.

Substantial loses during the UK’s initial carrier operations underscored weaknesses of command decisions and employment doctrine.  HMS Courageous was lost in the second week of the war, sunk by the German submarine U-29HMS Ark Royal might have been lost in the following week were it not for defective torpedoes fired by U-39.  From these two incidents, the British Admiralty decided that carriers were too vulnerable for use as a submarine screening force.  In early June 1940, HMS Glorious was lost to German battleships off the coast of Norway [Note 1].

At the beginning of 1942, the U. S. Atlantic Fleet operated Carrier Division Three, which included the fleet attack carriers (CVA) USS Ranger, USS Hornet, and USS Wasp, and the escort carrier (CVE) USS Long Island.  Over the course of the war, American and British carriers became increasingly effective in a number of operational assignments — from providing air cover during amphibious operations to patrolling in search of enemy ships.

Unlike the Pacific war, where naval and ground commanders planned and implemented combat strategies and operations, European heads of government were the decision-makers in the Atlantic war.  Both Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler directly involved themselves in the details of operational planning; in contrast, Franklin Roosevelt left the details of fighting to his military commanders.

The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic was a contest of strategies between the Allied and Axis powers.  Both sides attempted to deny use of oceanic shipping.  British and American navies sought to blockade German shipments of raw materials from Norway; the Germans attempted to block American shipments of food and vital supplies to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.

Germany relied principally on its submarines, merchant raiders, battle cruisers, and land-based aircraft to destroy American shipping — of those, submarines were by far the most effective [Note 2].  Allied use of aircraft carriers contributed significantly to the ultimate success of the Battle of the Atlantic — used not only to protect convoys, but to locate and destroy German submarines, as well.  This success was the direct result of the Allied capture and deciphering German code machines.

In September 1939, Germany had fifty-seven submarines; twenty-two were suitable for combat operations in the Atlantic and only eight or nine could operate “on station” because of the time it took to return to their base for fuel, refit, and replenishment.  By March 1940, this small submarine force accounted for the sinking of 222 Allied ships — including two aircraft carriers, a cruiser, and two destroyers.  Germany’s application of underwater naval assault was “unrestricted,” evidenced by Germany’s sinking of the civilian passenger ship Athenia.

On land, it took Germany only six weeks to conquer France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands (10May-24 June 1940).  With the fall of France, Germany was able to establish a submarine base along the French coast, which brought their U-boats 1,000 miles closer to Allied convoy routes.

Within the space of two years, the production of German U-boats was sufficient to allow Germany’s Grand Admiral Erich Raeder and Admiral Karl Dönitz to begin employing submarines in groups (from eight to twenty) (the wolf pack).  In April 1941, German submarines destroyed half the convoy ships transiting from Halifax to Liverpool.  The action was significant enough to cause President Roosevelt to order the transfer of USS Yorktown, three battleships, and six destroyers from the Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic Fleet.  In September 1941, Roosevelt transferred 50 American destroyers to the Royal Navy [Note 3].  It was at this time that the United States Navy began escorting Britain-bound convoys as far as Iceland.  Despite these efforts, by the time the United States entered the war, German U-boats had destroyed 1,200 cargo ships.

American Attitudes, 1939-41

The American people well-remembered the terrible loss of life during World War I and they wanted nothing whatever to do with another European War.  Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for reelection with the promise of neutrality [Note 4].  When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Roosevelt declared American neutrality — but he also established a “neutral zone” in the Atlantic within which the United States would protect shipping.  The Navy assigned USS Ranger to patrol this “neutral” zone.

Even before 1939, Roosevelt’s opposition party in Congress watched developing world events and the president with growing concerns.  Members of Congress were well aware that Roosevelt was itching to involve himself in the European war, so in the 1930s, the congress passed a series of neutrality acts (1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939) that reflected the mood of the American people.  Americans had become isolationist and non-interventionist.  Whether these were carefully thought-out restrictions may not matter today, but the Acts made no distinction between victim or aggressor.

As Congress pushed back against Roosevelt’s apparent desire to engage in the emerging world war, Mr. Roosevelt crafted clever ways around congressional restrictions.  The so-called Lend-Lease program was enacted in early March 1941; it permitted President Roosevelt to provide Great Britain, Free France, the Republic of China, and Soviet Union with food, oil, and war materials [Note 5].   Congress earmarked more than  $50-billion for this purpose (about 17% of the USA’s total war expenditure) (in modern dollars, around $600-billion), most of which went to the United Kingdom.  Under this agreement, nations receiving war materials could use them until returned to the United States (or were destroyed).  Very little war material was returned to US control [Note 6].  The net-effect of Lend-Lease was that it removed any pretense of neutrality by the United States.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, President Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.  On 11 December, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States.  Mr. Roosevelt had his war.

Carriers and Their Functions

Large areas of the Atlantic were beyond the range of land-based aircraft in Canada, Iceland, and Great Britain.  The UK, with insufficient fleet resources, initiated programs to enhance convoy protection.  In 1940-41, Britain converted three ocean-going vessels, a seaplane tender, and an auxiliary cruiser  [Note 7] to help extend the protective range of land-based aircraft.  They called these vessels Fight Catapult Ships (FACs), Catapult Aircraft Merchant Ships (CAMs), and Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MACs).  Germany sank three of these ships in 1941 — the same year the British converted thirty-five additional merchant ships into catapult ships.

In January 1941, the United Kingdom began converting captured German merchant ships to escort carriers (CVEs).  While CVEs were slow and lightly armored, they did provide platforms for dispatching and retrieving land-based aircraft.  Britain’s first CVE was christened HMS Audacity.  The ship carried six operational aircraft with room for an additional eight, but because there was no hanger deck or elevator, aircraft were maintained on the flight desk.

In April 1941, the United States began converting merchant hulls to CVEs.  The first American CVE was christened USS Long Island.  A second American CVE was transferred to the UK, who christened her HMS ArcherArcher was capable of operating 15 aircraft.  The Americans constructed five additional CVEs, (transferring four to the Royal Navy): HMS Avenger, HMS Biter, HMS Dasher, HMS Tracker, and the USS Charger.

Lessons learned from USS Long Island led to substantial improvements to forty-four successive CVEs.  The new constructs were capable of carrying between 19-24 aircraft.  Thirty-three of these went to the United Kingdom.  Additional CVEs were constructed from tanker hulls, which were longer and faster than the merchant hull ships.

Aircraft carriers operating in both oceans had similar functions.  They supported amphibious landings, raided enemy ports, searched for enemy submarines, escorted merchant convoys, transported aircraft, troops, vital supplies, and served as training platforms for carrier-rated pilots.

The Turning Point

In the spring of 1943, German submarines assaulted 133 Allied ships, a major decline from previous periods.  The Battle for the Atlantic had taken an abrupt turn.  On 21 April, Germany sent 51 U-boats to attack a 42-ship convoy transiting from Liverpool to Halifax.  Designated Convoy ONS-5, the shipments were protected by nine naval escorts.  U-boats sunk thirteen ships; escort vessels and Catalina flying boats sunk seven U-boats and badly damaged seven more.  In total, for that month, Allied forces destroyed 43 German submarines.  For the next six months, beginning in May 1943, the Allies dispatched 64 North Atlantic convoys with 3,546 ships to Great Britain.  Not a single ship was  sunk en route.

Faced with such massive losses, Grand Admiral Dönitz ordered his submarines into the Central Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.  These were the areas used by the United States to transport men and materiel to the Mediterranean to support operations in Sicily and the India-Burma campaign.  To counter Dönitz’ strategy, the U. S. Navy authorized anti-submarine groups, which included destroyers and CVEs, to operate apart from convoys.  Between June – December 1943, Allied hunter-killer groups [Note 8]  destroyed 31 German U-boats, including ten of the so-called resupply submarines.  Admiral Dönitz’ strategy in the Central and South Atlantic fared no better than his North Atlantic scheme.

Hunter-killer battle groups were a team effort.  CVEs used the F4F Wildcat fighter to look for submarines, and when spotted (either by air or radar), dispatched TBF Avengers with bombs, depth charges, and torpedoes.  Allied destroyers and destroyer escorts served to screen the CVE hunter-killer groups [Note 9].

By the end of 1944, the Allied powers dominated the Atlantic.  Dönitz moved his submarine force around, but the US & UK were reading the admiral’s mail.  He ordered 58 U-boats to counter Allied landings at Normandy.  German U-boats sank four Allied ships at the cost of 13 U-boats.  After Normandy, Dönitz withdrew his submarines to Norwegian waters, which drew the Allies’ attention to the German battleship Tirpitz (a sister ship to Bismarck), which lay at anchor in Norway.  Tirpitz did very little during World War II, but the ship did offer a potential threat to Allied navies.  In early 1944, the Allies’ focus on Tirpitz deceived the German high command into believing that an Allied invasion of Norway was imminent.  Once Tirpitz was sunk in November 1944, the Royal Navy felt comfortable sending the carriers HMS Formidable and HMS Indefatigable to the far east to join the British Pacific Fleet.

At the beginning of 1945, HMS Implacable was the only Allied fleet carrier in the Atlantic, supported by 12 British and 10 American CVEs.  All other fleet carriers were sent to the Pacific Theater to finish the war with Japan even as the war with Germany continued.  Thirty German U-boats attacked a 26-ship convoy in February 1945, supported by German Torpedo-Bombers, but aircraft from CVEs Campania and Nairana drove the U-boats away with no loss of merchantmen.  Convoys bound for Russia continued through May 1945 [Note 10].

Marines in the Atlantic

We seldom read or hear about Marines who served in the Atlantic War.  This is very likely because fewer than six-thousand Marines participated in Atlantic, North African, and European campaigns during World War II.  Of course, before the war, US Marines served at various U. S. Embassies.

In 1941, about four-thousand Marines of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade served in Iceland through February 1942.  But given the expertise of U. S. Marines in amphibious warfare, the Navy Department assigned several senior Marine officers to serve as planners/advisors for invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy.  For example, Colonel Harold D. Campbell [Note 11], an aviator, was responsible for planning air support for the 6,000 man raid on Dieppe [Note 12].  Marines were also responsible for training four U. S. Army combat divisions in preparation for their amphibious assault of North Africa.  In North Africa, Marines from ship’s detachments executed two raids in advance of the main invasion: one operation involved seizure of the old Spanish Fort at the Port of Oran; a second raid secured the airfield at Safi, Morocco.  Both operations took place on 10 November 1942, the Marine Corps’ 167th birthday.

Fifty-one Marines served with the U. S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), participating in behind the lines operations in Albania, Austria, Corsica, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Rumania, Sardinia, and Yugoslavia from 1941 to 1945.  See also: Marines and Operation Torch, Behind the Lines, and Every Climb and Place.

At sea, Marines assigned to detachments aboard battleships and heavy cruisers served as naval gun crews during the North African, Sicily, and Normandy invasions [Note 13].  Reminiscent of the olden days of sailing ships, Navy ship commanders sent their Marine sharpshooters aloft to explode German mines during Operation Overlord (the invasion of Normandy) [Note 14].  On 29 August 1944, Marines from USS Augusta and USS Philadelphia participated in the Allied acceptance of the surrender of Marseilles and 700 German defenders.

When General Eisenhower assumed the mantle of Supreme Allied Commander, his staff consisted of 489 officers.  Of these, 215 were American officers, including Colonel Robert O. Bare, who served on the staff of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, Allied Naval Commander.  Bare worked on the plan for the Normandy invasion.  While serving with the British Assault Force, Bare was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.  At the completion of his tour in Europe, Bare participated in the Palau and Okinawa campaigns.  During the Korean War, Bare served as Chief of Staff, 1st Marine Division.

Colonel Jeschke (1894-1957)

Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk served Eisenhower as Commander, Western Naval Task Force.  Assigned to Kirk’s staff was Marine Colonel Richard H. Jeschke [Note 15].  Jeschke served Kirk as an assistant planning officer in the operations staff.  Of the total 1.5 million Americans serving in Europe, 124,000 were naval personnel.  Fifteen-thousand of those served on combat ships, 87,000 assigned to landing craft, 22,000 assigned to various naval stations in the UK, and Marine Security Forces, United Kingdom.  On 6 June 1944, Rear Admiral Don P.  Moon (Commander, Force Uniform), frustrated with delays in landing operations, dispatched Colonel Kerr ashore to “get things moving.”  Kerr diverted troops scheduled to land at Green Beach to Red Beach, which expedited the operation.  Colonel Kerr credited the low casualty rates during the landing to the accuracy and rate of fire of naval artillery.

The landing at Omaha Beach was a different story.  German defenses inflicted 2,000 casualties on a landing force of 34,000 men.  Rear Admiral John L. Hall dispatched Colonel Jeschke and First Lieutenant Weldon James ashore at Omaha Beach to observe and report back to him the effectiveness of naval gunfire support from USS Texas.

Colonel John H. Magruder II, USMC served as the naval liaison officer to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group.  Many Marine officers were assigned to various posts because of their fluency in foreign languages.  Magruder was fluent in Dutch.  Major Francis M. Rogers served as an interpreter for General Edouard de Larminent, Commander, II French Corps.  Rogers was fluent in both French and Portuguese.    

Sources:

  1. Allen, H. C.  Britain and the United States.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1955.
  2. Dawson, R. H.  The Decision to Aid Russia, 1941: Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.
  3. DeChant, J. A.  Marine Corps Aviation Operations in Africa and Europe.  Washington:  Marine Corps Gazette, 1946.
  4. Donovan, J. A.  Outpost in the North Atlantic.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1992.
  5. Edwards, H. W.  A Different War: Marines in Europe and North Africa.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1994.
  6. Eisenhower Foundation.  D-Day: The Normandy Invasion in Retrospect.  Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1971.
  7. Morrison, S. E.  The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963.
  8. Menges, C. A.  History of U. S. Marine Corps Counter-intelligence.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1991.
  9. Roskill, S.  The Navy at War, 1939-1945.  Chatham, Kent, Great Britain: Mackays of Chatham, 1960.

Endnotes:

[1] Glorious was ordered to help evacuate aircraft during the UK’s withdrawal from Norway.  The ship left the main body of the fleet when discovered by the German battleships.  German 11-inch guns literally ripped Glorious apart.  Alone, without aircraft aloft, and only 4-inch protective guns, Glorious had no chance of survival in a hostile sea.  Captain Guy D’Oyly-Hughes, commanding Glorious, was a former submarine skipper.  He decided to set out alone so that he could, once at sea, court-martial Wing Commander J. B. Heath, RN, and Lieutenant Commander Evelyn Slessor, RN, who had refused to obey an order to attack shore targets.  Heath admitted his refusal, but argued that his mission was ill-defined and his aircraft unsuited to the task.

[2] German submarines accounted for 70% of world-wide allied shipping losses.

[3] The agreement was also known as the Destroyers-for-Bases Agreement.

[4] In a joint statement issued on 14 August 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill announced their joint goals for the world following World War II.  Later dubbed The Atlantic Charter, it established an outline of objectives that included dismantling the British Empire, the formation of NATO, and a general agreement on tariffs and trade.  An American-British alliance was formed in 1939 with Roosevelt and Churchill secretly meeting eleven times.  The Atlantic Charter made clear Roosevelt’s support of Great Britain, but in order to achieve the charter’s objectives, the United States would have to become a participant in the war.  This could not happen, politically, unless there was first of all a cataclysmic event that propelled the United States into the war.  From 1939 forward, Roosevelt did everything he could to cause the Japanese to attack the United States —which they did on 7 December 1941.

[5] Canada had a similar program they referred to as “Mutual Aid.” 

[6] The Lend-Lease arrangement with China (suggested in 1940) involved a plan for 500 modern aircraft and enough war materials to supply thirty divisions of ground troops.  With the Chinese civil war “on hold” until the defeat of China’s common enemy (Japan), Roosevelt dealt independently with both sides through General Joseph Stilwell.  Neither Chiang Kai-shek nor Mao Zedong ever intended to return Lend-Lease equipment to the United States; rather, both sides intended to use these armaments on each other after war with Japan was settled.  As it turned out, American Marines died from weapons and ammunition manufactured in the United States when turned against them by Mao’s communist forces in 1945.

[7] OBVs were merchant ships pressed into service by the Royal Navy and converted into auxiliary carriers.

[8] The hunter-killer groups included US CVEs Card, Bogue, Core, Block Island, Santee, and HMS Tracker and Biter.  USS Block Island was the only American CVE sunk in the Atlantic War.

[9] At a time when the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty (1922) limited the construction of large battleships, the United States began building replacement ships for obsolete World War II destroyers.  The Navy produced 175 Fletcher-Class destroyers (DD), designed as torpedo attack ships with a secondary mission of anti-submarine warfare and screening for capital ships.  Destroyer Escorts (DE) were a smaller variant ship with specialized armaments capable of a smaller turning radius.  Both ships were referred to as “tin cans” because they were lightly armored.  They relied more on their speed for self-defense.  During World War II, the U. S. Navy lost 97 destroyers and 15 destroyer-escorts.

[10] Convoys to Russia during the war involved 740 ships in 40 convoys, which provided 5,000 tanks and more than 7,000 aircraft.  German U-boats destroyed 97 of these merchantmen and 18 escorting warships.  Germany lost three destroyers and 38 U-boats.

[11] Harold Denny Campbell (1895-1955) served in both the First and Second World War.  On 6 December 1941, Colonel Campbell assumed command of Marine Aircraft Group 11 at Quantico, Virginia.  In May 1942, he was personally selected by Lord Mountbatten to serve as a Marine Aviation advisor to the British Combined Staff.  After promotion to Brigadier General in 1943, Campbell assumed command of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing in Samoa and in 1944 commanded the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing in the Peleliu campaign.

[12] The raid was conducted by British and Canadian commandos.  Tagged as Operation Jubilee, the purpose of  the amphibious raid to test the feasibility of lightening raids for intelligence gathering and boosting the morale of “folks back home.”  It was a much-needed learning experience because aerial and naval support was inadequate, the tanks were too heavy for a “lightening raid” and the Allies under-estimated the strength of German defenses.  Within ten hours of the landing, the German army killed, wounded, or captured 3,623 British/Canadian commandos.  The British also lost 33 landing craft and a destroyer.  Operation Jubilee became a textbook lesson on what not to do in an amphibious operation.

[13] U. S. Navy battleships usually included a detachment of two-hundred Marines; battle cruisers usually had a detachment of around 80 Marines.

[14] I am trying to imagine a Marine sharpshooter 200 feet in the air on a pitching ship, shooting German anti-ship mines with any degree of accuracy.  Damn.

[15] Colonel (later, Brigadier General) Jeschke (1894-1957) served with distinction in both the Atlantic and Pacific campaigns: on Guadalcanal, and during the invasions of Sicily and Normandy.