First Marine Battalion, 1898

John Davis Long served as Secretary of the Navy during the presidency of William McKinley.  Long’s appointment was not without controversy.  Apparently, President McKinley made the appointment without a wink or a nod from Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.  The situation involved some political infighting, which is always the case in national politics.  However, to appease Lodge, McKinley appointed Theodore Roosevelt to the Navy Department’s number-two position.  Roosevelt’s appointment satisfied Lodge because, given Long’s reputation as a hands-off manager, he could count on Roosevelt to “run the show.”

Theodore Roosevelt Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1898

Regarding increasing tensions with Spain, Secretary Long (and others) were doubtful these disagreements were likely to end in an armed conflict, but if it did, Secretary Long was confident that the United States would win it in short order.  Accordingly, Long took no actions to prepare for a state of war with Spain.  Long’s nonchalance was a source of irritation to Roosevelt.  In January 1898, out of concern for the safety of Americans in Cuba, Long ordered the USS Maine to Havana as a show of force.  Within a month, tensions between the US and Spain had reached the crisis stage; with Roosevelt’s insistence, Long finally began to prepare for war.  On 15 February 1898, the USS Maine exploded while at anchor, causing massive casualties.  Of the 26 officers, 290 sailors, and 39 Marines aboard the Maine, 260 men lost their lives, including 28 Marines.

The sinking of the Maine produced a public demand for satisfaction, sentiments echoed by Roosevelt.  Ten days later, Secretary Long took a day off from work.  His absence enabled Roosevelt to issue a series of directives designed to increase the Navy’s readiness for war, including an order to Commodore George Dewey to assume an aggressive posture in the Spanish Philippines.  When Long returned to work, he countermanded some of Roosevelt’s directives, but he did increase his interest in naval preparations for war.

On 16 April, five days before the war began, Secretary Long ordered the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General Charles Heywood, to organize one battalion of Marines for expeditionary duty with the North Atlantic Squadron.  Heywood’s battalion was named the First Marine Battalion.  Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, USMC, was appointed to command it.

Robert W. Huntington LtCol USMC Commanding Officer

The US Congress declared war on Spain on 25 April, effective retroactively from 21 April 1898.  Colonel Huntington had nearly 40 years of active duty service when he assumed command of the First Marine Battalion; he was a veteran of the American Civil War.  On 17 April, Huntington organized his battalion into four companies.  The Commandant’s earlier proposal for a second battalion was never implemented because, at the time, the Marine Corps did not have enough enlisted men to form another battalion while at the same time fulfilling its usual task guarding naval installations.  The First Marine Battalion was instead expanded to six companies: five rifle companies and one artillery company.  Each company had an authorized strength of 103 enlisted Marines, 1 First Sergeant, 4 sergeants, 4 corporals, 1 drummer, 1 fifer, and 92 privates.  The battalion command element included the Commanding Officer (CO), Executive Officer (XO), Adjutant, Quartermaster, and a Navy surgeon.  The battalion color guard included one sergeant and two corporals.

The battalion quartermaster, Major Crawley, excelled in provisioning the Marines for combat duty, and the battalion was ready to deploy on 22 April.  On that date, the Marines marched down to the pier and boarded USS Panther.  Citizens observing the movement from the sidelines cheered their Marines; there was no lack of enthusiasm for a war with Spain.  Panther was underway by 20:00 that very night.  The battalion, numbering 650 officers and men, produced over-crowded conditions aboard a ship designed to carry 400 combatants.  Each meal required three separate servings.

Panther pulled into port at Hampton Roads, Virginia, to await its naval escort[1].  While in port, Major Percival C. Pope and First Lieutenant James E. Mahoney reported to LtCol Huntington for duty at sea and on foreign shore.  The ship continued her journey on 26 April with USS Montgomery as her escort.

The ship’s overcrowded conditions caused some tension and conflict between the ship’s captain and the Battalion commander.  At issue was the duties of Marines while embarked and the right of the navy to discipline Marines.  When Panther arrived in Key West, Florida, Commander George C. Reiter[2], Commanding Officer of Panther, ordered Huntington to disembark his Marines and set up a camp ashore.  Major General Commandant Heywood demanded to know why Reiter ordered the Marines ashore, particularly since Panther was the only troop carrier available to transport the Marines.  Reiter explained that sending the Marines ashore relieved the crowded conditions aboard ship.

Colonel Huntington’s battalion remained ashore for two weeks.  During that time, they exchanged their heavy winter uniforms for summer weight clothing.  Marines with too much leisure time always find ways of getting into mischief, so Huntington ordered a training program involving rifle marksmanship, field sanitation, and company, platoon, and squad tactics.  Marines who were not engaged in one form of training or another were assigned shore patrol duty to ensure that the Marines behaved themselves while on liberty.

With the receipt of new Colt model machine guns, Huntington ordered his machine gunners to attend instruction on crew-serve weapons’ care, maintenance, and employment.  He also provided instruction in fighting in the tropics, the importance of boiling water, and mess cooks learned how to create healthy menus and prepare nutritionally sound meals to help prevent dysentery and diarrhea.  Navy Assistant Surgeon John Blair Gibbs[3] joined the battalion on 1 June 1898.

On 7 June 1898, the Navy Secretary ordered, “Send the Marine Battalion at once to Sampson without waiting for the Army.  Send Yosemite as a convoy escort.”  Huntington’s battalion re-embarked aboard ship and sailed for Cuba.  Major Pope, hospitalized with an illness, remained behind.

During the night of 9 June, Panther and Scorpion collided while at sea.  Scorpion suffered some damage to her fantail, but nothing critical.  Panther arrived at Santiago, Cuba, on the morning of 10 June, and Colonel Huntington reported to Admiral William T. Sampson, who, as Commander-in-Chief of the North Atlantic Squadron, served as the overall naval force commander.  Sampson directed Huntington to report to Commander Bowman H. McCalla, USN[4] aboard USS Marblehead, who would serve as landing force commander.

Commander McCalla entered Guantanamo Bay on 7 June to clear the outer harbor.  A Spanish artillery battery near the telegraph station at Cayo de Toro (on the western side of the bay) fired on the Marblehead and Yankee.  The Spanish gunboat Sandoval soon arrived down the channel from Caimanera to challenge the US presence there, but when Marblehead and Yankee opened fire, Sandoval withdrew.

The importance of Guantanamo Bay was its geography.  Guantanamo has an inner and outer bay, the latter offering good anchorage because of its depth.  The outer bay was an ideal location for coaling operations.  Because of its utility to the Navy, Admiral Sampson sent the Marines to protect ships at anchorage by denying Spanish troops the opportunity to fire at the ships from shore locations.

On 10 June, Commander McCalla ordered Marines from several ship’s detachments ashore to conduct reconnaissance missions inside Guantanamo Bay.  Captain M. D. Goodrell led forty Marines from USS Oregon and twenty additional Marines from USS Marblehead ashore.  Having completed his reconnaissance mission, Goodrell selected a bivouac site for the First Marine Battalion and afterward briefed Colonel Huntington on his designated position ashore.

By the end of the day on 10 June, U.S. Navy ships, including three cruisers (Marblehead, Yankee, Yosemite), the battleship Oregon, torpedo boat Porter, gunboat Dolphin, the collier Abarendo, transports Vixen and Panther and several privately-owned vessels containing journalists dominated Guantanamo’s outer bay.

Colonel Huntington’s battalion began its movement ashore at 1400 with four companies; two companies remained aboard ship to help with unloading supplies.  Company “C” was the first element ashore and assumed responsibility for area security as skirmishers at the top of a hill overlooking the bay.  Sergeant Richard Silvey planted the American flag on the hill, marking the first time the American flag ever flew over Cuba.  Two hundred feet below Company “C” was a small fishing village, which McCalla had ordered fired for health reasons.  The Commander prohibited everyone from entering these buildings.  The remainder of Huntington’s battalion went ashore on 11 June.

Colonel Huntington was not pleased with the bivouac site because it was vulnerable to attack from a ridgeline 1,200 yards to the rear of his position.  McCalla politely listened to Huntington’s complaint and then informed the colonel that he would remain where sited.  The navy needed the Marines to protect ships at anchor from enemy shore bombardment.

Spanish forces first attacked a Marine outpost late that night, killing Privates Dumphy and McColgan of Company “D.”  Due to nasty post-mortem injuries, their remains were difficult to identify.  Contrary to reports in the press, the Marine’s remains were not mutilated, per se, but McColgan did suffer 21 shots to the head, and Dumphy fifteen.  Later in the night, Spanish troops initiated five separate attacks on Marine position, all repulsed.  At about 0100, a Spanish force launched a concerted attack against the Marine perimeter.  During the assault, Spanish riflemen killed Assistant Surgeon Gibbs.  Well-camouflaged Spaniards continued to direct sporadic fire into the Marine perimeter.  Spain’s use of smokeless gunpowder made it difficult for Marines to detect firing positions.

On the morning of 12 June, after the death of Sergeant Charles H. Smith, Huntington moved the camp further down the hill, closer to the beach, to a place known as Playa de Este.  The Marines prepared fighting holes on the hill’s crest and designed earthworks in the shape of a square with a blockhouse in the center, and artillery pieces placed at each corner of the square and mutually supporting machine guns were positioned along the sides.  The earthworks stood chest-high; on the outside of the dirt walls, the Marines dug trenches, measuring five feet deep and ten feet wide.  That afternoon, another Spanish assault killed Private Goode Taurman.

Navy Chaplain Harry Jones, serving aboard USS Texas, having heard of the Marine deaths, volunteered to go ashore and conduct funeral services.  Throughout the services, Spanish sharpshooters targeted Chaplain Jones and harassed the Marines by firing into the makeshift church.  The undaunted Jones nevertheless performed the funeral rites with dignity and aplomb.

Aboard Panther, Commander Reiter’s obstinance continued as he balked at having to unload Marine ammunition and stores.  This problem was solved when Commander McCalla directed that Panther unload 50,000 rounds of ammo with the further admonition, “Do not require Huntington to break out and land his stores or ammo.  Use your own officers and crew.”

Ashore, Sergeant Major Henry Good was killed in a Spanish attack on the night of 12 June.  When the Spanish re-initiated their attack on the morning of 13 June, Colonel Huntington decided he’d had enough harassment by Spanish troops and ordered the destruction of a water-well in frequent use by the Spanish at Cuzco.  It was the only source of freshwater within twelve miles.  With two companies of Marines and fifty Cuban rebels, Captain George F. Elliott[5] proceeded to Cuzco with USS Dolphin providing naval gunfire support from the sea.  Journalist Stephen Crane[6] volunteered to act as Elliott’s adjutant if allowed to accompany the Marines; Huntington granted his request[7].

Sgt Quick in Cuba 1898 USMC Recruiting Poster

Approaching the Spanish defenses at Cuzco, the Marines encountered stiff enemy resistance.  Lieutenant Magill led fifty additional Marines and ten Cubans to reinforce Elliott.  Magill’s mission was to cut off the enemy’s line of retreat, but Dolphin’s naval artillery prevented his advance.  To redirect the ship’s fire, Sergeant John Quick volunteered to signal the ship and did so while exposing himself to intense enemy fire.  In recognition of his selfless devotion, Congress awarded Quick the Medal of Honor.

Ultimately, Spanish troops did escape the Marine assault, but not without incurring significant losses.  Elliott’s force suffered few casualties; two Cubans killed, and three Marines wounded.  Lieutenant Wendell C. Neville[8] was injured while descending the mountain during the engagement.  Twenty-three Marines suffered heat exhaustion and required medical evacuation.  Commander McCalla opined, “…the expedition was most successful, and I cannot say too much in praise of the officers and men who took part in it.”  Subsequently, Spanish probes and sniper attacks on Marine positions were rare.  On 15 June, naval gunfire destroyed the Spanish fort at Caimanera on the bay’s eastern side.

USS Resolute[9], loaded with stores for the Marines, arrived late in the day on 20 June.  Admiral Sampson ordered all stores located on the Panther transferred to Resolute.  On the 24th of June, McCalla ordered a reconnaissance in force to determine if Spanish forces still occupied the extremities of Punta del Jicacal, on the eastern side of Guantanamo Bay.  Early on the morning of 25 June, Huntington assembled 240 men and led them by boat across the bay.  Following the Marines were sixty Cubans under Colonel Thomas.  When the Marines went ashore, they discovered that the Spanish had already withdrawn.

On 3 July, during the naval battle of Santiago, the US Navy destroyed the Spanish navy.  With hundreds of Spanish seamen in the water, the American navy assumed responsibility for rescuing and caring for Spanish survivors.  Over the next several days, the Navy organized Marine guards to escort these prisoners to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Huntington was forced to give up sixty Marines for this duty, and additional Marines augmented them from ship’s detachments.

On 12 July, Commander McCalla ordered Huntington to quarantine the harbor at Guantanamo Bay.  It was more on the order of peacetime duty, which with time on their hands, the Marines began to create their own diversions.  Two Marines decided to raid stores aboard a privately-owned schooner in the harbor, and another was discovered buying liquor from a local source, which was prohibited.  Private Robert Burns, while on guard duty, shot and killed an enormous black pig.

USS Resolute

The First Marine Battalion broke camp on 5 August and boarded USS Resolute for operations at Manzanillo.  The Spanish commander was offered the opportunity to surrender but declined to do so as a point of honor.  Advised to evacuate the town of all civilians, the commander of USS Alvarado signaled that he intended to commence a bombardment at 1530 hours.  The shelling began in 1540 and lasted until 1615 when it appeared that flags of peace were flying over some of the town’s buildings.  Captain Goodrich, commanding Alvarado, sent a boat ashore flying a truce flag, but when the boat received enemy fire, the bombardments continued.  Gunfire terminated at 1730 for the night but resumed at 0520 the next morning.  After daylight, a boat from Manzanillo approached the fleet bringing word that officials had proclaimed a truce and the war was over.  Disappointment among the Marines was evident.

On 18 August, after taking aboard 275 men from an artillery battalion, Resolute embarked for Long Island, dropped off the soldiers, and then continued onward to New Hampshire … chosen by Commandant Heywood to provide the Marines some respite from the tropical heat.  General Heywood greeted his Marines as they came ashore, promoted six of the battalion’s officers for gallantry, and praised the men for their exceptional conduct.  On 19 September, Colonel Huntington received orders to disband the First Marine Battalion.

One remarkable aspect of the battalion’s experience in Cuba was the excellent health of the Marines.  There had not been a single case of yellow fever, dysentery, or diarrhea, which stood in contrast to other US troops’ experience, who were seriously affected by these illnesses.  Major Crowley reported that the use of distilled water for drinking and cooking, good field sanitation, and sufficient food and clothing enabled the Marines to return to the United States “fit for duty.”  Crawley was also insightful in purchasing empty wine casks for use as water containers, which increased the amount of water that could be kept on hand while encamped.

At a parade attended by President McKinley, Sergeant Quick received the medal of honor, and the president announced that a hospital in Kentucky would be named in his honor.

One aspect of the war that surprised Colonel Huntington and his Marines was the amount of favorable press coverage they had received during the conflict.  They were not only the first combat troops ashore, but they were also facing superior[10] numbers of the enemy in their engagements.  As a result of these press reports, the American public learned for the first time about the usefulness of the U. S. Marine Corps as a fighting force.  The press also praised the Marines for their general healthfulness and contrasted this result with the debilitating disease experienced by army units in the same conflict.

The Spanish-American War also demonstrated that the Marine Corps could play an essential role in future Naval operations and this was important because, as a result of the war with Spain, the United States had acquired Pacific bases that would require a military defense of the Philippines, Guam, and additional Pacific Ocean area advanced bases.  The war also illustrated how quickly a Marine Corps combat unit could be assembled and dispatched to foreign shore[11].  Subsequently, “combat readiness” became the hallmark of the United States Marines —and continues to this very day.

Sources:

  1. Clifford, J. H. History of the First Battalion of Marines.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1930.
  2. Collection of private papers, Colonel Robert Watkinson Huntington, USMC (Retired), Marine Corps University archives, and Gray Research Center, Quantico, Virginia.
  3. Documented histories, Spanish-American War, Naval History and Heritage Command, online.
  4. Feuer, A. B. The Spanish American War at Sea.  Greenwood Publishing, 1995.
  5. Stewart, R. W. The U. S. Army and the Forging of a Nation, 1775-1917.  Washington: Center of Military History, 2005.
  6. Sullivan, D. M. The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War, Volume 1, 1997

Endnotes:

[1] Panther required an escort because the ship was unable to defend herself at sea.

[2] Reiter was promoted to Rear Admiral (Lower Half) in 1905 and was detailed to Chair the Lighthouse Board until his retirement in 1907.

[3] The 40-year old Dr. John Gibbs was among the first medical doctors to receive an appointment as a surgeon in the US Navy Medical Corps.  He was instrumental in helping Colonel Huntington train his Marines in field sanitation, nutrition, and healthy cooking.  Within a few days, a Cuban sniper would kill Gibbs while he carried out his duties as a field surgeon.

[4] McCalla (1844-1910) was a Civil War veteran of the US Navy whose courage under fire and leadership earned him the respect and admiration of Navy and Marine Corps officers alike.  McCalla participated in the blockade of Cuba and was responsible for cutting submarine cables linking Cienfuegos with the outside world, thus isolating the Spanish garrison there, and led the invasion of Guantanamo Bay.  Advanced to Rear Admiral in 1903, McCalla retired from active duty service in 1906.

[5] Served as the tenth Commandant of the Marine Corps (1903-1910).

[6] Authored the Red Badge of Courage in 1895.

[7] On 18 June, Colonel Huntington received an order from McCalla not to allow any reporters near his camp or enter his lines without a pass from McCalla.  Any reporter attempting to do so was to be arrested as a POW and taken to the Marblehead.

[8] Awarded the Medal of Honor, served as fourteenth Commandant of the Marine Corps (1929-1930), died in office.

[9] Formerly, SS Yorktown, she was purchased by the US Navy on 21 April 1898 for service as an auxiliary cruiser/troop transport.

[10] Spanish forces outnumbered Americans 7 to 1.

[11] At the beginning of the war, the United States Armed Forces were unprepared for foreign conflict.  The Navy was barely adequate to its task, the Army was understaffed, underequipped, and under-trained.  The army’s only recent combat experience was the Indian wars in the American west.  What may have “saved” the Americans during this war was the fact that the Spanish were even less ready for war.  Thanks to the urgings of Theodore Roosevelt, Dewey’s Pacific Fleet was well positioned to strike the Spanish in Manilla Bay.  Operationally, it may have been one of the Navy’s greatest successes, although the Navy’s destruction of the Spanish fleet won the war in Cuba.

Re-Visiting World War I

—on Armistice Day, 2020

June 1918

The sweaty Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines marched wearily through the pitch-black of the night along a hard-packed wheel-rutted road.  German shelling had stopped a few hours earlier.  The respite allowed these Marines to reach La Voie du Chatel unmolested and take up their fighting positions in a clump of woods about a mile farther.  The battalion was down to three companies; the colonel had detached one rifle company to reinforce another battalion.

The wood contained little in the way of underbrush, so there was no way for the Marines to conceal themselves.  When dismissed from marching formation, the men broke ranks and began eating their cold rations. Some of the Marines remained on their feet, eating erect; others wearily sat on the ground to nibble and rest.  There may not have been much food, but there was plenty of tobacco, and the men took advantage of it.

Even after daybreak, the wood remained dim and damp from low cloud cover and early morning dew.  The Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Frederic Wise, a nineteen-year veteran of Marine Corps service, established his command post under a few trees on the edge of a thicket not far from the road that came down from Champillon.  Allied artillery began promptly at 0600 —right on schedule.   The thunder of distant guns brought slouching Marines to their feet, and they stood silently listening.  Then came the rifle and machine-gun fire heard from afar; it was ominously distinctive.  After a few moments, the Marines returned to what they had been doing, mostly resting.  They were tired.  Very tired.

After an hour or so, 2/5 Marines saw the walking wounded as they approached along the adjacent road.  Some of the men struggled by themselves; others walked in groups.  Some of the men had their arms wrapped in slings; others had bandages wrapped around their heads.  They all hobbled along, some using their rifles for crutches.  A few blinded men followed behind others with their hands resting upon the men’s shoulders ahead of them.  The injured men brought with them various accounts of the distant battle.   None of it being particularly good news.  The Germans had repelled their assault.  The attack was a disaster, they said.

Sometime later, behind the long line of injured men, came a group of motorized ambulances.  They stopped not far away, across the road from Colonel Wise’s command post, and began to set up a dressing station.  In the distance, the battle raged on.  After the ambulances came, the stretcher-bearers.  Someone had pressed these captured German soldiers into service.  The line of stretchers was not too long, and the Marines of 2/5 wondered if injured men told them exaggerated stories.  The stretcher men took their charges into the dressing station.  Some of the Marines wondered aloud at the foolishness of having medics so far from the battlefield.  Damn, Marines question everything.

At around 1100, a company of Army engineers passed by, moving toward Champillon.   Their captain soon appeared marching along behind them.  His face was pale, and he seemed much disturbed.  “The attack has failed,” he told the Wise.  “The Marines are cut to pieces.”  A few of Wise’s Marines, who stood nearby along the edge of the wood, heard this and muttered, “Bullshit.”  The captain soon continued on his way.

By noon, the distant fire slackened, but the men no longer paid any attention to it.  There was no excitement among them.  Some of the Marines slept; others sat around smoking.  Not long after, a runner came up the road with messages from Colonel Neville, the regimental commander.  Colonel Wise had orders to proceed with his Marines to the northeast edge of the wood, northwest of Luc-le-Bocage —there to await further orders.  The Sergeant Major passed the word, which prompted the NCOs to get their men on the road.  “Mount up.”   After mustering the men, the Marines stepped off in compliance with their orders.  One Marine noticed a German observation balloon hovering far above them and passed the word back through the ranks.  It was a bad sign.

An hour later, the Marines arrived at their newly assigned position on the wood’s northeast section.  The terrain was completely different; this section of wood afforded good concealment.  Company commanders dispersed their men, and sergeants inspected their positions, admonishing them to spread out—avoid bunching up, assigning them fields of fire.  Colonel Wise (post-war picture at right) walked among his Marines checking on his captains’ work —they, in turn, supervising the work of their lieutenants, and the sergeants, who already knew what to do, muttered “yes sir” and got on with it.  The veteran NCOs knew that setting into defensive positions is an ongoing process; there is always time to improve fighting positions —but there does come a time when the effort is less urgent, though no less critical.

When the Germans were not directing artillery fire against an allied advance, they used their big guns to harass suspected bivouac areas.  It seemed to the Marines that there was never any shortage of German artillery.  The enemy preferred shelling at night because it denied rest to the allied forces.  On this night, the shelling began at 2200.  Shell after shell poured into the wood.  The noise was deafening.  There was also the sound of shrapnel whizzing overhead, of trees crashing down.  The Marines leaned in closer to mother earth.  There were a few casualties, but not too many.  Then, as suddenly as the barrage had begun, it stopped.

At midnight, another messenger arrived —with new orders.  Colonel Neville ordered Wise to move his men again.  Wise had two hours to assemble his men, move them once more along the Lucy-Torcy Road, locate Colonel Feland[1], the regimental executive officer, and obtain orders about what next to do.  Wise signed for his orders and called for his captains.  Mustering the men in the dark after two hours of heavy shelling would be no easy task.  Wise sent out runners to find the Fifth Marines’ headquarters.  Locating Colonel Feland in the dark of night would be a miracle.

Wise already knew the score.  The battle of 2 June 1918 produced mixed results.  The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines had done rather well against the Germans, but the Germans severely mauled the 3rd Battalion.  The brigade’s objective had been the Bois de Belleau, and German resistance stopped the Allied advance.

Company officers and NCOs mustered the men as they came out of the woods in two’s and threes.  The Lucy-Torcy Road formed a defile between the high ground on both sides of the road.  On the right of the line of march was the Belleau Wood; Colonel Wise knew that the wood was teeming with German troops.  His map informed him that the road would open up into a sloping grain field about one-half mile distant.  It was not unlike a bottleneck from which his Marines would spill out onto a table.

When NCOs and officers finally organized their companies, and all hands accounted for, Colonel Wise stepped off, leading his Marines between those high banks.  But Wise was worried.  He knew they would soon encounter terrain that afforded no cover at all.  The night was still—the only noticeable sound was the crunching of booted feet.  There was no muttering in the ranks.  Wise thought the night was too still.  He didn’t have a good feeling about what lay ahead.  About 100 yards before the bottleneck, Wise halted his battalion and ordered them off the road.

When the road was clear of Marines, Colonel Wise called for a lieutenant and two rifle squads to reconnoiter the road ahead.  After a slow advance over a couple of hundred yards, rifle fire suddenly erupted from the left, the sound of which was unmistakably Springfield rifles.  Colonel Wise hollered out, “Ceasefire god damn it.  What in the hell do you mean by shooting us?  We’re Americans!”

The firing stopped —the shooters revealed themselves.  They were all that remained of the 3rd Battalion.  “Look to your right,” someone advised, “The Germans are in the Bois de Belleau.”  Colonel Wise no sooner started his men back the way they had come when the Germans opened fire with machine guns.  Their aim was low, but several Marines received wounds.  And then the entire German line opened up; most of the fire was indiscriminate and ineffective.  When Wise and his Marines returned to the battalion’s main body, he instructed his company commanders to take cover along the ridgeline on the left of the road and tie in with what remained of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.  Colonel Wise shuddered; he was well aware that had he led his battalion further down the road, the Germans might have destroyed 2/5.

While conferring with his company officers, Captain John Blanchfield suddenly grabbed at his groin and then fell to the ground.  A sniper’s well-aimed shot brought him down.  Two young NCOs picked him up and carried him to safety, but he was soon dead.  German fire continued unabated.  Overconfident, Germans began standing up and shooting at the Marines.  Germans also wounded Lieutenant Sam Cummings and several others; their comrades helped them along.  Some of these young men were beyond help.  The well-disciplined Marines held their fire.  There was no good reason to reveal their exact position.

When the NCOs had finally positioned their Marines, the battalion extended a mile in distance.  German fire continued, and it didn’t take much urging for the Marines to begin digging in —just in time for the arrival of more German artillery.

Colonel Wise made his way to his battalion’s left flank to find out about the remnants of 3/5.  He found fifty men; they were all that remained of a rifle company.  The lieutenant commanding the platoon had done a good job establishing defensive positions for his Marines.  They were in mutually supporting foxholes but nervous, which is not unusual.  The lieutenant apologized for firing on Colonel Wise; he explained that the Germans had been probing the Marine’s position for several hours.  Wise informed the young officer that he was now attached to the 2nd Battalion.

Within a half-hour, the soil being sandy and easily disturbed, 2/5 Marines were well-entrenched and expecting a German attack.  No attack materialized.  There were only persistent artillery and a constant stream of machine gunfire.  A continuous stream of machine-gun fire is not how experienced troops fire their automatic weapons; Wise suspected that the German troops were new to the line.

At 0900, Colonel Feland came up behind the ridge on foot.  He informed Wise that 1/5 was now on his left; there was little left of the Third Battalion.  He told the battalion commander, “Stay here and hold this ridge.”

Just as the Marines concluded that the German shelling couldn’t get worse, the German began to employ trench mortars on the Marine position.  Trench mortars were aerial torpedoes about four feet long and packed with explosives.  Once fired, they sailed through the air and landed along the top of the ridge; when they exploded, the entire ridge line shook.  The bombardment kept up for the whole of the day.  Gas shells fell, as well, but they were few.  In time, the regiment sent up a machine gun section to support the 1st and 2nd battalions[2].  No one entrenched on the Marine line could understand why the Germans did not launch a full-scale assault.  Had they done so, with so few men, no defense-in-depth, and no opportunity to establish secondary positions, the Germans would have crushed the First and Second Battalion of the 5th Marines.

The Marines were still on that ridge on the third day.  They held out against German artillery and murderous machine-gun fire; they maintained their position.  The Marines had nothing to shoot at, except trees.  Owing to the Marine positions’ disbursement and the depth of their fighting holes, the third day passed with few casualties.  The supply sergeant sent up cold food in the evening with resupplies of ammunition.  The Marines, on fifty-percent alert, slept as well as they could.  German artillery began again on the morning of the fourth day.

At 0900, a runner came up with a message for the Battalion commander; the Brigade Commander, Brigadier General Harbord,[3] wanted to see Colonel Wise at his headquarters.  It was an unusual meeting.  Without going through the regimental commander, Harbord ordered Wise into the attack on Belleau Wood.  Wise went straightaway to the regimental command post to inform Colonel Neville of his orders and requested the return of his third rifle company.

General Harbord had given Wise carte blanch authority to execute his attack.  What Wise did not want to do was to use the same unsuccessful strategy employed by the 6th Marines.  Using the same old playbook would only cost his Marines more suffering.  What Wise wanted was to hit the Germans where they weren’t looking —from behind.

LtCol Wise called for his company commanders.  Captain Wass, Captain Williams[4], Captain Dunbeck, and First Lieutenant Cook soon appeared.  They were red-eyed, unshaven, and dirty.  Wise explained the mission assigned to 2/5, informed him of his plan, outlined the risks, and asked for their opinions.  They agreed with Wise; there was no good reason to launch a frontal assault.  Wise informed his officers that 2/5 would move out at 0400 for an attack before daybreak.  In addition to the standard allotment of 100 rounds of ammunition, each Marine would receive two bandoliers (60 rounds each).  Colonel Neville directed 1/5 relieve 2/5 on the line at midnight.  (Shown right, Captain Lloyd Williams, USMC).

For the rest of the day, company officers and NCOs readied their men.  The Marines displayed no excitement at all.  They were veterans and, as such, resigned to whatever fate had in store for them.  Colonel Wise conferred with Major Terrill, the officer commanding 1/5, and Major John A. Hughes, commanding 1/6, to confirm the midnight relief.  Hughes agreed with Wise’s plan.  A frontal attack would be suicidal, he said.  Hughes offered good insight as to the German defenses and the terrain.  Hughes told him that within the wood was a knoll that extended a mile long and about a half-mile wide.  The knoll rose sharply from the surrounding field; there was an outcrop of boulders cut with gullies and ravines with thick underbrush inhibiting good observation beyond a few feet.  Within this tangle, Hughes continued, were well camouflaged German machine gun nests, protected by fallen trees and woodpiles.  Hughes told Wise to expect sniper fire from ground and treetop positions, by shooters desperate to defend the wood.

Colonel Wise was thankful for his conversation with Hughes, and for the fact that he would not have to make a frontal assault against the German positions.  But his relief was short-lived.  At midnight, General Harbord sent forward another message, countermanding his earlier order and directing Wise to make a frontal assault from the Wood’s southern edge.  Major Hughes’ 1/6 would attack on the right of 2/5[5].  To make sure that the Germans knew the Marines were coming, Harbord ordered a rolling barrage of artillery beginning at 0400.  Wise was dumbstruck.  It was now necessary to change his entire scheme of maneuver.  He called up his company officers and gave them their new orders.

At 0300, the 2/5 was ready to attack.  The early morning hour was still.  Colonel Wise informed his officers that he would establish his command post to the right of the battalion line.  Birds began to chirp; Wise later remembered how amazed he was that there were any birds at all in those woods.  With his Marines positioned for the attack, Colonel Wise awaited the commencement of allied artillery.  The morning light slowly revealed an odd, very eerie looking terrain.

A rolling barrage began at 0400, rounds dropping several hundred yards in front of the Marine position.  A cultivated field extended upward to meet the thick wall of the Belleau Wood.  Artillery pushed dirt high into the air, tons of soil dropping back to earth in a disorderly fashion.  As the bombardment began to creep forward, German machine guns came to life.  The Germans could not see any Marines yet, but the barrage informed them of what direction the attack would come.

Platoon sergeants blew their whistles; on cue, the battalion began its movement forward, now in plain sight of the Germans.  They had the range of these Marines, and young men started dropping, but the line moved steadily on.  In Colonel Wise’s opinion, the Germans could not have done better if they had ordered the attack themselves.  Marines dropped one after another.  In time, the Marine advance disappeared into the wood, and suddenly, German machine-gun fire abated.  Now it was time for the Germans to die.  Company commanders sent word back to Wise: objective achieved; casualties many.

Marines began escorting prisoners to the battalion command post.  These men were from the Jaeger Division.  The prisoners told the Marines that there were 1,800 Germans inside the wood[6].  The Marine strength, before the attack, was half that.  The German soldiers taken as prisoners said that they were glad to be out of the war.

The Marines took the wood.  Every shred of post-battle evidence pointed to the fact that it was a horrific fight.  In front of the German machine-gun nests were dead Marines.  Inside the next lay the remains of Germans.  A strange silence engulfed the entire area.  Colonel Wise looked for Captain Williams.  He instead found Williams executive officer; Captain Williams was dead.  It was pure carnage.  As the Marines continued their advance, Germans feigning death rose and shot them in the back.  This behavior so thoroughly pissed-off the Marines that they stopped taking prisoners; they even shot Germans who had thrown down their weapons —not out of cruelty, but for survival.  A dead enemy can’t kill you.

What made attacking German machine gun positions so dangerous, beyond the obvious, was how the Germans positioned their automatic weapons: Germans protected the first emplacement with two carefully camouflaged machine-gun nests behind it.  As the Marines assaulted one such position, machine gun crews in the rear would wait until the Marines seized the forward nest before opening fire —which was essentially how Second Lieutenant Heiser, of Captain Dunbeck’s company, lost his life.  A stream of machine-gun fire decapitated him.  Among the German soldiers in Belleau Wood, machine gunners were the first to surrender.  Unhappily for them, U.S. Marines were not very inclined to accept their surrender.

Colonel Wise’s companies fought their way through the Belleau Wood, from one side to the other.  A lot of Marines died in the process of taking the wood.  The attack began after daylight, but in some places, the wood was as dark as night, visibility impaired by think foliage, complex terrain, a place with no discernible landmarks.  If one happened to turn entirely around twice, he would lose his sense of direction, and only a compass could set them straight.  The density of the wood’s underbrush made close combat savage, deadly work.  Up close and personal could not have been more personal.  What made the American Marines stand out from their U.S. Army contemporaries was elemental courage, gallantry, fortitude, and the mental and physical hardening and determination instilled into them by their drill instructors.

At the end of this fight, German soldiers still occupied the northeast sector.  Colonel Wise no longer had enough men to take it.  Moreover, he didn’t have a sufficient number of Marines to defend what he’d taken.  Half of 2/5 lay dead, dying or wounded on the field of battle.  Colonel Wise had to establish a defensive perimeter that extended nearly two miles with what remained of his battalion.  Everyone left alive knew that a counterattack was only a matter of time.  Colonel Wise approached Major Hughes and requested the loan of a company of Marines to press the remaining Germans, but just then, General Harbord’s courier told Wise not to bother cleaning up the Germans; Army artillery would do the job.  Colonel Wise shook his head because he knew artillery would do nothing to defend Belleau Wood.  Major Snow brought up two companies of combat engineers; Wise promoted them to infantry and set them into defensive positions.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of stretcher-bearers emerged from the wood.  For some, medical attention mattered; for most, it didn’t.  This carnage was the price of glory; a word one never hears from the lips of a combat Marine.  There is glory, of course, but only in the sense that young, well-trained American Marines can overcome their natural fear of death to accomplish that which is necessary, and in this process, distinguishing themselves at the most critical of times.

Semper Fidelis

Post Script

The Battle of Belleau Wood exacted a heavy toll on the 4th Marine Brigade.  Within this brigade of 9,500 Marines, 1,000 lost their lives while in action, 4,000 more received serious battle wounds from gunfire or mustard gas —a 55% casualty rate.  Colonel Thomas Holcomb’s 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, suffered 764 casualties out of roughly 900-man assigned.  The battle ended in victory for the American Expedition Forces, but its significance went far beyond a single bloody engagement.

In subsequent years, the Marine Corps underwent a substantial reorganization and a change in direction, from its traditional role of serving in ship’s detachments to a multi-purpose force in readiness.  The Corps’ senior officers who were ultimately responsible for this reorganization were men who fought at Belleau Wood, including future commandants John A. Lejeune, Clifton Cates, Lemuel Shepherd, Jr., Wendell Neville, and Thomas Holcomb.

The list of Belleau Wood combatants also includes Roy Geiger, the only Marine to command a U.S. field army.  Charles F. B. Price commanded the 2nd Marine Division in World War II.  Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith commanded V Amphibious Corps in World War II, and Keller E. Rockey commanded the 5th Marine Division during the battle for Iwo Jima.  Merwin Silverthorn was a sergeant in the 5th Marines who later retired as a lieutenant general as one of the Marine Corps’ foremost authorities on amphibious warfare.

Modern Marines refer to these World War I veterans as the “Old Breed.”  The men identified above later shaped the Marine Corps in its new image: a force in readiness.  They created and implemented intense training programs, adopted new weapons, devised new battlefield tactics, emphasized the importance of contingency planning, and instituted rigorous education programs for officers, noncommissioned officers, and entry-level Marines.  Wisely, the Marine Corps learned many lessons from the Battle of Belleau Wood, and these lessons in turn prepared future Marines for World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle Eastern Wars.

Endnotes:

[1] Logan Feland (1869-1936) was a career Marine Corps officer who retired as a major general in 1933.  He participated in the Spanish American War while serving with the 3rd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry, and as a Marine Corps officer from 1899.  In every battle in which he served, Feland was at the forefront of the fight.  He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Army Distinguished Service Medal, and five awards of the Silver Star medal.

[2] At this particular time, all crew-served weapons were held in readiness by the brigade, distributed to regiments on an “as needed” basis.

[3] James Guthrie Harbord (1866-1947) was a senior officer of the US Army who, during World War I, commanded the 4th Marine Brigade during the battles of Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood.

[4] Captain Lloyd Williams commanded the 51st Company, 2/5.  He will live forever in the hearts of Marines for his famous reply to a French colonel.  As the Marines took their positions on 2 June, relieving elements of the French army, the colonel was attempting to acquaint the Americans with the realities of the situation outside Belleau Wood and not trusting his spoken English, wrote a note to Williams ordering him to retreat.  Captain Williams looked at the colonel coldly and said, “Retreat hell!  We just got here.”  Other Marine officers parroted Williams’ eloquence several times since then.

[5] Major Hughes later claimed that he received no such order from Harbord.

[6] It was actually around 2,500 Germans.

245th Anniversary of the U. S. Marine Corps

10 November 1775 — 10 November 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know this because I am a United States Marine.

Marine Glider Pilots

On 20 May 1941, German forces launched an airborne invasion of the Island of Crete.  It was the first airborne invasion in history.  German casualties at the end of the first day were massive.   Greek and allied forces in defense of Crete were confident they could hold off the German Luftlandeschlacht.  Those defenders were wrong.  On the second day, German airborne units seized the airfield at Maleme, and from that base, pushed the defenders entirely off the island.  It wasn’t long after that when the Secretary of the Navy telephoned the Commandant of the Marine Corps and asked, “Dude, how cool was that?”

The Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC), Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb,[1] had already announced his decision in October 1940 to designate one battalion of each infantry regiment as “air troops.” Marine Corps planners envisioned that these “air troops” would fly to their destinations.  Holcomb further imagined that one company would be trained parachutists, and the remaining two companies would e “air-landed” troops.  The verbiage was confusing, but this was the language used in 1940: air-troops vs. air-landed-troops.  One problem that went undiscovered until well-into pre-combat training was that the United States lacked enough aircraft to accomplish vertical assaults.  Another pinch of sand in the “para-Marine” concept was landing Marines in dense jungle terrain.  Oops.

After 1941, the subject of glider aircraft was always associated with the Marine Corps’ concept of airborne assault forces, which originated from “high level” interest after the successful German airborne invasion of Crete.  Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was in awe of the concept.  He directed General Holcomb to study the issue and determine whether it held any promise for amphibious operations.  Because the German’s operation in Crete involved gliders carrying 750 troops, the Commandant was also asked to consider glider operations.

Apparently, what the Commandant meant by “air troops” in 1940 was parachutists, and what he meant by “air-landed” troops were Marines landing near the battle area in aircraft.

As for the suitability of such aircraft, it was the duty of the Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics to study the feasibility of such operations and for procuring suitable vehicles to facilitate such tactics.  Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) would only recruit men for such service once the Navy decided they were both feasible and practical for projecting naval power ashore.  When the Chief of Naval Operations asked the Commandant how he intended to go about staffing a glider program, General Holcomb opined that he would find second lieutenants to volunteer for pilot training.  He would select co-pilots from among the noncommissioned officer ranks.  I can almost see the CNO’s eyebrows fluttering before he artfully changed the subject to another pressing issue.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Aeronautics, which had already undertaken gliders’ study, found Secretary Knox’s suggestion underwhelming.  In 1940, Naval Aviation had far more significant problems to deal with than glider feasibility.  Besides, the Navy had already studied (and shelved) the possibility of using gliders as flight training vehicles.  They determined that gliders did not contribute as much to flight training as engine-powered aircraft.  In any event, the Chief, Bureau of Aeronautics advised the CNO that glider design studies were underway, noted that these projects incorporated both land and sea-based gliders.  He had serious reservations about the practicality of gliders in any capacity.

Nevertheless, CMC issued his call for volunteers in July 1941, advising all officers (second lieutenant through captain) that he needed 50 officers and 100 NCOs during the fiscal year 1942 to undertake glider training.  Initial training would occur at civilian schools, restricted to officers only until the Marine Corps could establish a glider school for enlisted men.  HQMC anticipated the need for 75 gliders capable of transporting ten combat loaded troops and two pilots —judged sufficient to transport one airborne battalion.  Such a project would challenge any early-war aeronautical industry but made even more perplexing because the largest glider manufactured in the United States in 1941 was a four-seat model not intended for people wearing combat gear.  Europeans had developed larger gliders, however, so American builders knew that it was doable.

Seeking to provide its unwanted assistance to the Bureau of Aeronautics, HQMC identified “desirable” features of the aircraft in its design: For instance: (1) The ability to take off from land or water; (2) Capable of transporting equipment, including light vehicles, 37-mm anti-tank guns, and if possible, light tanks[2]; (3) Configured for static line paratroop jumping; (4) Machine gun mounts for self-defense while airborne, and (5) a weight capacity of 12 men, each weighing 250 pounds in combat gear.  It is difficult to keep from laughing.

The Navy’s BuAer evaluated two prototypes, both of which fulfilled the Marine Corps’ requirement.  One of these was an amphibious, float-wing model available for production and open to bids.  The second glider was a twin-hulled seaplane glider whose plans were still on the drawing board the day before yesterday.

Glider pilot training presented unique problems.  When HQMC learned that the Army had enrolled officers in a soaring school in Elmira, New York, The Commandant directed First Lieutenant Eschol M. Mallory to evaluate this training.  By the way, Mallory was a Marine Corps Aviator who had certain biases against the idea of glider aircraft.  While in Elmira, Mallory learned that there was a second school in Lockport, Illinois.  Taking it upon himself to investigate both facilities, Mallory wrote a report for the CMC recommending that (1) glider training be restricted to qualified naval aviators because of (a) control problems, (b) navigation issues, and (c) because night/instrument flying precluded safe flight operations with novice pilots on the stick.  Additionally, in recognizing that 150 glider pilot trainees could not be pulled from existing resources, small as they were, Mallory recommended that should the CMC decide to proceed with the program, that (a) novice pilots be sent to the Lewis School outside Chicago and (b) that experienced pilots be sent to the Motorless Flight Institute at Harvey, Illinois.

The process of glider development was, from this point on, somewhat convoluted.  A series of conferences in 1941 to evaluate the progress of glider adaptation to Marine Corps combat service seemed favorable.  By October, the HQMC position on glider utilization had been fully developed and enunciated by the CMC.  Planners actually envisioned that gliders would be outfitted with outboard motors so that they could maneuver inside lagoons and other protected areas.  Of course, a few questions remained, such as the location of operating facilities where they would not interfere in regular aviation operations.

The CMC, who had earlier resisted the creation of commando battalions, was now on record as fully supporting the notion of glider operations within parachute battalions.  In retrospect, the situation illustrated senior leaders’ inability to foresee all possible tactical situations and the impact of their reluctance to conduct an adequate study, feasibility assessment, or experimentation and training.

Vernon M. Guymon

In November 1941, four Marine Corps officers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Vernon M. Guymon[3], enrolled in the glider pilot’s course at Motorless Flight Institute.  All of these officers were qualified naval aviators.  Guymon had been awarded the Navy Cross for his role in the air evacuation of sick and wounded Marines during the Nicaragua intervention in 1929.  Eight additional officers reported for training at the Lewis School.  All officers graduated shortly after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  But to maintain their proficiency, they had to fly —and at this early stage, there was still no glider aircraft in the Marine Corps aviation inventory.

In early January 1942, the Director of Aviation at HQMC indicated some hesitance in proceeding with the program.  First, he recommended a “temporary allowance” to form a glider detachment instead of a permanent glider organization.  The CMC concurred, and on 15 January, approved the temporary assignment of 14 officers and 56 enlisted men to the newly created Glider Detachment.  The manufacturer delivered one and two-man gliders to the Marine Corps during mid-March; the first 12-man gliders’ delivery was promised a short time later; it was a promise unfulfilled.  On 16 March 1942, the CMC requested the CNO to approve the formation of Marine Glider Group (MGG) 71, which would consist of an H&S Squadron 71, and Marine Glider Squadron (VML) 711.  The CNO approved the requested table of organization.

Activation of MGG 71 took place at the Marine Corps Air Station, Parris Island, South Carolina.  Initially, the group was equipped with three N3N-3 trainers, one SNJ-2, one J2F-3, one JE-1, and seven (7) two-man gliders.  Two of these gliders were kept in reserve.  HQMC assigned Lieutenant Colonel Guymon as Group Commander.

N3N-3 Trainer

By the summer of 1942, Guymon believed that training in two-man gliders was a waste of time.  Since all glider pilots (so far) were qualified naval aviators, the only training these pilots needed was transitional flying —best achieved in the 12-man gliders.  Colonel Guymon’s point was moot, however, because the Marine Corps still did not have 12-man gliders.  A search for a suitable glider base was undertaken and eventually selected at Eagle Mountain Lake, Texas.  HQMC considered additional sites, but none ever developed as glider bases or training facilities.

Two-place Glider

MGG-71 departed MCAS Parris Island on 21 November 1942 and arrived at Eagle Mountain Lake two days later.  Training continued even though the 12-man gliders still had not been delivered.  In February 1943, HQMC ordered the glider program’s suspension until the Marine Corps could satisfy the Pacific theater’s more pressing needs.  At HQMC, the Plans and Operations Division and Aviation Division jointly concluded that parachute battalions and glider squadrons were impractical in the Pacific War’s island-hopping campaigns.  CMC ordered the glider program terminated on 24 June 1943.  The Navy Department reassigned all USMC Glider aircraft to the U. S. Army; the Eagle Mountain Lake facility transitioned to a night fighter training base.

Sources:

  1. Updegraph, C. L. Jr., S. Marine Corps Special Units of World War II. History and Museums Division, HQMC, Washington, 1972.
  2. Sherrod, R. History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.
  3. Grim, J. N. To Fly the Gentle Giants: The Training of US WWII Glider Pilots.  Bloomington: Author House Press, 2009.

Endnotes:

[1] Thomas Holcomb (1879-1965) served as the 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps (1936-1943).  He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on 13 April 1900.  Holcomb was awarded the Navy Cross medal, four awards of the Silver Star Medal, and the Purple Heart.  Holcomb was a descendant of Commodore Joshua Barney of the Continental Navy.

[2] Proving that not every Marine officer was a genius unless one officer intended to defeat the program on the drawing board.

[3] Vernon Melvin Guymon (1898-1965) was a highly decorated Marine Corps mustang officer who retired as a Brigadier General in 1949.  Throughout his 30 years of service, he was awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, and two Purple Hearts.  While serving as a gunnery sergeant, Guymon was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in December 1918.  After service in the so-called Banana Wars in the early 1920s, he applied and was accepted for flight school.  He was designated a naval aviator on 15 November 1926.  Following the deactivation of MGG-71, Guymon was assigned to MAG-12 in the Pacific Theater, where he served as the Group Commander and later as Chief of Staff, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing.  Brigadier General Guymon retired from active duty on 1 March 1949.

The West Florida Expedition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painting by Charles Waterhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flying Sergeants

Aviation history began before there were airplanes and the first use of aviators actually began with lighter-than-air balloons.  In 1794, French observation balloons were used to monitor enemy troop movements.  Balloons were also employed during the American Civil War, as part of the Army Signal Corps, for observing enemy movements and artillery spotting, and this in turn necessitated the development of a system for communicating between aviators and ground personnel.

In 1906, the Commandant of the Army Signal School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Major George O. Squier, began studying aeronautical theory and lectured student-officers on the Wright flying machine.  One of his fellow instructors was a captain by the name of Billy Mitchell, whose expertise included the use of balloons in reconnaissance missions.  Mitchell also became interested in aeronautical principles.

Major Squier later served as an executive assistant to the Army’s Chief Signal Officer, Brigadier General James Allen.  In 1907, at Squier’s urging, Allen created the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps.  In December of that year, the Signal Corps requested bids for a heavier-than-air flying machine.  Not everyone in the Army agreed with this development, but ultimately, the Aeronautical Division became the world’s first military aviation organization[1] when it purchased the Wright Model A aircraft in 1909.

American naval interest in aviation followed the Royal Navy’s interests in developing aviation capabilities in 1908, when Prime Minister H. H. Asquith approved the formation of an Aerial Subcommittee within the Imperial Defense Committee.  At this time, the British were primarily interested in dirigible airships for over-water reconnaissance.

In 1910, American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss contracted with the U. S. Navy to develop and demonstrate an aircraft utility for ships at sea.  One of Curtiss’ pilots, Eugene Ely, took off from the cruiser USS Birmingham anchored off the Virginia coast in late November 1910.  Then, in January 1911, Ely demonstrated the ability to land on a navy ship by setting down aboard the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay —efforts which validated Curtiss’ theory.  At the time, landing and takeoff platforms were crude temporary constructs.  On 27 January 1911, Curtiss further demonstrated the suitability of naval aviation by piloting the first sea plane from San Diego Bay.  The next day, Navy Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson became the first Naval Aviator when he took off in a Curtiss grass cutter.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when First Lieutenant Alfred Austell Cunningham[2] reported to the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland “for duty in connection with aviation.”  Lieutenant Cunningham became the first Marine aviator in August of that year when he took off in a Burgess Model H aircraft, presented to him by the Burgess Company of Marblehead, Massachusetts.

In those early days, the Navy and Marine Corps had different concepts of naval aviation and they were substantial enough to lead Marine aviators to conclude that the Marines should have their own section within the Navy Flying School (created in 1914).  In the next year, the Commandant of the Marine Corps authorized the creation of a Marine Aviation Company for duty with the Advanced Base Force.  The company, manned by ten officers and forty enlisted men, was assigned to the Navy Yard, Philadelphia.

A major expansion of the Marine air component came with America’s entry into World War I.  Wartime enlargements resulted in renaming organizations and a substantial increase in personnel.  In July 1918, Marine Aviation Company was divided and renamed First Aeronautic Company and First Marine Air Squadron.  The aeronautic company deployed to the Azores[3] to hunt for German submarines, while air squadrons were activated and assigned to the 1st Marine Aviation Force in France.

In France, Marine aviators in provided bomber and fighter support to the Navy’s Northern Bombing Group.  Within the short time span of America’s participation in World War I, Marine aviators recorded several aerial victories and credit for dropping in excess of fourteen tons of ordnance on enemy forces.  In total, the 1st Marine Aviation Force included 282 officers and 2,180 enlisted men operating from eight squadrons.  Second Lieutenant Ralph Talbot[4] was the first Marine Corps aviator to earn the Medal of Honor for action against the Luftstreitkräfte, the air contingent of the German Imperial Army.

By the end of the First World War, Marine aviators had gained aeronautical expertise in a wide range of air support roles, including air to air, air to ground, close air support for ground troops, and anti-submarine patrolling.  Congress authorized an aeronautical force of 1,020 men and permanent air stations at Quantico, Parris Island, and San Diego.  From that time forward, whenever and wherever Marines confronted an enemy, their aviation arm accompanied them —at the time, in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and in Nicaragua.  It was during the Banana Wars that Marine Corps pilots expanded their unique application air air-ground tactics, resupply of ground forces in remote locations, and air-to-ground communications.

If there was one area where Marine aviation stood apart from the other services, it was in the number of enlisted men serving as pilots, especially in time of national emergency/war.  Enlisted pilots were not a “new” concept.  The French air services employed enlisted men as pilots, but if there was a general rule, it would have been that commissioned officers were the primary source for aviators[5].  The Navy implemented its (enlisted) Naval Aviation Pilot designation in 1919.  The Marines, as part of the Naval Services, also authorized enlisted men to serve as pilots.  First Sergeant Benjamin Belcher was the first Marine enlisted man to serve as a NAP in 1923.  Some of these men later received commissions, such as Marine Ace Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth A. Walsh[6], who scored 21 kills and earned the Medal of Honor during World War II.  Walsh served as an enlisted pilot in the 1930s until he was commissioned in 1942.  In that year, there were 132 enlisted pilots serving in front line (fighter/bomber) squadron.  In later years, enlisted pilots flew helicopters and jet aircraft.

Technical Sergeant Robert A. Hill, USMC performed 76 combat missions as the pilot of an OY aircraft.  Hill earned the moniker “Bulletproof” because he often returned to base after a combat mission with massive amounts of bullet holes in his bird.  Hill was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for evacuating wounded Marines near the Chosin Reservoir while under heavy enemy fire.  Enlisted pilots also flew R4D[7] transports, which were also used to medevac wounded men and the remains of men killed in action.

During the transition from propeller to jet aircraft, enlisted pilots trained in the Lockheed P-80 (also, TO-1) but only after 1949 and not without some objection by a few squadron commanders who did not want enlisted men flying high performance aircraft.  It was a bit confusing and difficult.  Some of the enlisted pilots in the Korean War had been commissioned during World War II and then reverted to their enlisted ranks in the post-war demobilization period.  Some of these temporarily commissioned pilots left the Marine Corps after World War II and then later regretted doing so.  It was possible for these men to re-join the Marine Corps, but only as enlisted men.  Reenlistment within 90 days entitled these men to rejoin at the rank of Master Sergeant (in those days, E-7[8]), and if beyond 90 days, they could be accepted as Technical Sergeant (E-6).

VMF-311 was ordered into the Korea War with its F9F Panthers and several NAP pilots.  Master Sergeant Avery C. Snow was the first NAP to complete 100 combat missions in a jet aircraft.  Snow achieved the rank of captain during World War II while serving with VMSB-232.

In 1952, Master Sergeant Lowell T. Truex was ordered to fly over an area near the Yalu River.  During his pre-flight briefing, Truex was told that Air Force F-86s would fly escort for his mission.  He was not at all happy to learn that he had no escort and he was flying alone in Indian Country.  When Truex spotted several MiG-15s taking off, he started sweating.  He hurriedly completed his photo-reconnaissance mission and returned to base.  Truex had a few unkind things to say about the Air Force during his post-Op debrief, but he was reassured that the Air Force birds were on station and had kept a close eye on the MiG’s.  The problem was service-rivalry; Air Force pilots had little regard for Marine Corps enlisted pilots, so they occasionally went out of their way to make the flying sergeants feel uncomfortable.

Master Sergeant James R. Todd completed 101 combat missions before rotating back to the States.  He flew 51 missions in Banshees, 10 in the F9F, 23 in the F7F, 13 in F4U-5Ps, and four escort missions in F4U-4Bs.  The F4U-4B was an armed aircraft, but in all the others, Todd had only his sidearm for self-defense —and a high-performance engine.  Like many of his contemporaries, Todd had been commissioned as a second lieutenant in World War II.  He was mustered out in September 1946 but returned to active duty in November of the same year.  He resigned his commission as a first lieutenant and then enlisted as a private.  After the ceremony, he was advanced to the rank of master sergeant.  He received photo reconnaissance training at NAS Pensacola, Florida so that by the time the Korean War broke out, he was well-experienced recon pilot.  It was a skill that would come in handy in the Korean conflict.

Note that in addition to their flying duties, NAPs also shared responsibility for supervising their squadron’s various divisions (flight line, powerplant, airframes, avionics, tool shed, and supply sections).

Enlisted Marines also flew combat missions in the Vietnam War, but by this time there were only a few remaining NAPs.  In 1973, there were only 4 NAPs on active duty;  all four of these men retired on 1 February 1973: Master Gunnery Sergeant Joseph A. Conroy, Master Gunnery Sergeant Leslie T. Ericson, Master Gunnery Sergeant Robert M. Lurie, and Master Gunnery Sergeant Patrick J. O’Neil.

A colorful era in Marine Corps aviation ended with the retirement of these flying sergeants.

Endnotes:

[1] The progenitor of the US Air Force.

[2] Cunningham (1882-1939) from Atlanta, Georgia, served in the 3rd Georgia Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American War.  Following his voluntary service, he worked as a real estate agent in Atlanta for ten years until 1903.  In 1909, he received a commission to second lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps.  His enthusiasm for aviation was contagious and he soon convinced the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General William P. Biddle, that aviation was well-suited to the concept of the advanced base concept.

[3] An autonomous region of Portugal, an archipelago consisting of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic.

[4] Ralph Talbot (1897-1918) from South Weymouth, Massachusetts, joined the U. S. Navy in 1917.  Owing to his participation in college level artillery reserve training, the Navy appointed him as a Seaman 2nd Class.  After ground training and flight training, he was appointed Naval Aviator #456.  At the time, the Marine Corps was having problems recruiting aviators so Talbot (and a number of other Navy pilots), in realizing that he would be in a better position to receive a combat assignment in the Marine Corps, resigned his navy commission and accepted a commission in the USMC.  He was assigned to the 1st Marine Aviation Force for duty with “C” Squadron.  Talbot was killed in an accident during takeoff at La Fresne aerodrome, France.

[5] At the beginning of World War II, the Royal Air Force would have been even worse off during the Battle of Britain were it not for their enlisted pilots.

[6] See also: A Damned Fine Pilot.

[7] This aircraft became a workhorse for America.  From its first design, the aircraft had several service and mission designations, including DC-3, R4D, C-47, Skytrain, Dakota, RC-47, SC-47, Spooky, EC-47, C-53, C-117, and C-129.

[8] In 1949, the highest enlisted grade was Master Sergeant (E-7).

The Captain …

… was as Mad as a Hatter[1]

Pierre de Landais (1731-1820) was born in Saint-Malo, Department d’Ille-et-Vilaine, Bretagne, France.  He was the son of one of Normandie’s oldest families whose wealth enabled him to attend the Ecole de la Marine.  Pierre might have had a notable career in the French Navy were it not for the fact that his father exhausted the family fortune providing a brilliant display of fireworks to entertain Mme. De Pompadour[2].  Under these circumstances, Pierre was unable to purchase promotion[3] and Pierre remained a midshipman until he was 32-years old.

In 1762, Pierre served aboard a French ship during France’s unsuccessful defense of Quebec.  During an engagement with a British warship, Landais was wounded, taken prisoner, and transported to England.  As a midshipman, Landais had no value as a prisoner and he was soon returned to France.  He later participated in the first French circumnavigation of earth (1766-1769), sponsored and led by Admiral Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville.

French Lieutenant Landais

In 1775, aged 44-years, Lieutenant Pierre was discharged from the French Navy.  Two years later, Pierre accepted an appointment to command a merchantman for Hortalez et Cie —a shell company controlled by French entrepreneur Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais[4] (1732-1799).  Through the shell company, Beaumarchais smuggled arms and money to America through the West Indies.  Landais delivered his illicit goods to an American agent at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which made him a hero among the American rebels.

Massachusetts was so pleased that they granted Pierre “honorary citizenship” and paid him in French currency the equivalent of £12,000.  To these grateful people, Landais proudly proclaimed that he “had served as a captain in the royal navy of France, had commanded a ship of the line, had served as chief officer of the port of Brest, and was of such worth and estimation for his great abilities at sea that he could have any honors or advancement in his own country that he pleased to accept.”

In 1777, the gratitude of Americans toward the French was such that they looked for ways of manifesting their appreciation in some public act.  In Massachusetts, Landais spent a great deal of time in the company of John Adams[5], who later observed that Landais was an enigma: he was frustrated in his ambitions, disappointed in love, unable to win the affection or respect of his officers, and intensely jealous of everyone else.  From John Adams diary, “There is in this man an inactivity and an indecisiveness that will ruin him.  He is bewildered and possesses an embarrassed mind.”  Worse, perhaps, Landais was deeply paranoid, convinced of plots against him.

In 1778, someone (we aren’t sure who) encouraged Landais to apply for a commission in the Continental Navy.  The Marine Commission of the Congress dutifully considered his application and initially rejected it (for reasons unknown[6]), but six weeks later, on 9 May, Congress did offer him a captain’s commission to serve as the officer commanding USS Alliance.

USS Alliance, 1778

Alliance was a 36-gun frigate originally named Hancock.  Her keel was laid in 1777 on the Merrimack River near Amesbury, Massachusetts.  The ship was launched on 28 April 1778, renamed Alliance on 29 May.  Alliance is believed to have been the first warship built in America.  She was brought down the Merrimack River from Salisbury to Newburyport and then to Boston in early August.  In Boston, the ship was ordered to prepare to receive the entourage of the Marquis de la Lafayette[7] and transport them to France; Lafayette’s mission was to petition the French Court for increased financial support for the American cause.  Preparations for sea did not proceed very well because not long after taking command of his new ship, Captain Landais encountered problems with his officers, which delayed the marquis’ departure.

Captain Matthew Parke American Marine

Apparently, the Alliance’s officers were happy to remain aboard ship, but unhappy with serving under Landais.  These were all experienced seamen.  We do not know their specific complaint, but I assume that they were underwhelmed, either by the quality of Landais’ seamanship or his leadership.  The officers probably anticipated that this would not be a happy cruise.  In any case, Landais requested that Congress replace several of his officers.   At an inquiry to determine the cause of this unhappy relationship between Alliance’s Captain and his officers, Marine Captain Matthew Parke[8] served as spokesman for disgruntled ship’s officers.  In Parke’s view, if even one officer was replaced, then the Navy Committee would have to replace them all.  Ultimately, Landais withdrew his demand for the removal of officers, but the animosity between Landais and his officers continued; Captain Parke of the Marines had earned no favor with Captain Landais.

Worse than Landais’ dysfunctional relationship with ship’s officers was his poor treatment of the crew.  Port towns are renowned for rumor, innuendo, and the rapid transmission of unhappy news.   It did not take long for word of Landais’ shoddy treatment of the crew to spread among those looking for birthing.  Consequently, Alliance was unable to recruit a full crew for service at sea.  Although, part of this was that eligible crewmen preferred instead to join privateers, where the pay was better.

Significantly short of the number of crewmen needed to man a frigate, Alliance was forced to draft seamen from USS Boston, and an additional 30 French crewmen from the squadron of Admiral d’Estaing —all of whom were recovering from some sickness.  Additional shortages remaining, Alliance took onboard British prisoners who opted for service in the Continental Navy rather than spending their days locked up in rat-infested holding cells.  Most British prisoners “signed on” as Marines.

Alliance finally shoved off on 14 January 1779 and for the most part, the journey was peaceful and calm —although Alliance did seize two Swedish vessels as prizes and the frigate lost her topmast in a storm.  During the early morning hours of 2 February, a mutinous plot was uncovered among the ship’s English-speaking crew.  All hands were called on deck and held there while officers searched personal belongings for weapons and evidence of the conspiracy.  Landais convened a court of inquiry to question alleged ringleaders.  Two of the ringleaders were Master at Arms John Savage and Marine sergeant William Murray.  Eventually, Sergeant Murray admitted that he and Savage (along with 70 men) intended to seize the ship and sail her to England.  Lafayette, Murray said, was to be placed in irons and delivered to the British government.  Landais ordered the mutineers placed in irons and the ship continued to Brest, France —arriving on 6 February.

Commodore Jones

In Brest, Alliance remained in port for a month while undergoing repair.  In early April, John Schweighauser, an American commercial agent, informed Captain Landais that he was to proceed to port on the Loire River.  There, John Adams had arranged for a swap of prisoners with the British at Nantes.  Adams boarded Alliance expecting to return with Landais to America, but while in port, Landais received new orders directing that he report to Commodore John Paul Jones[9] at L’Orient.

At L’Orient, Captain Landis and Mr. Adams called upon Captain Jones, who was then aboard his ship Bonhomme Richard.  At this meeting, Landis learned that he would be placed under the command of Captain Jones.  Captain Landais did not want to serve in a squadron; he preferred to sail on his own and he deeply resented having to join Captain Jones’ flotilla.  Added to this, from every account, Landais and Jones detested one another almost from the start.  For his part, Mr. Adams was disappointed in not being able to return to America aboard Alliance.

Disagreement between Jones and Landais wasn’t long in coming.  In terms of modern command relationships, disagreement between commodore and captain may seem strange.  In 1779, Captain Jones served as commodore of a flotilla of American and French naval vessels, but he did not command them because each ship’s captain was free to act as he pleased irrespective of the commodore’s wishes.  On 25 August, Jones’ flotilla was at sea and Jones became troubled by the fact that several of his squadron’s small boats were lost in the dense fog off the Irish coast[10].  Captain Landais desired to pursue a prize vessel into the treacherous waters along the coast with limited visibility, but Jones, fearing the loss of Alliance, ordered Landais to remain with the fleet.  Landais was not obliged to obey, arguing that he had the right to pursue when and where he thought proper “in this and every other matter.”

Jones, with a full realization that the command relationship was at best tentative, tried to reason with Landais, but Captain Landais was adamant and proceeded to accuse Jones of incompetence in losing the small boats, to begin with.  Jones, now in a fury, responded that Landais had slandered his superior officer and would not have it.  Both officers believed themselves affronted, and according to the code of gentlemanly behavior in 1779, Landais challenged Jones to a duel … choosing the sword.  This would, of course, give Landais an advantage given the French tradition of swordsmanship.  Jones was known as a hothead, but at this moment, there were larger fish to fry.  Jones suggested that duty must be their priority; he suggested they put aside their animosity until they were on land, where they could resolve the matter —as gentlemen.

American Sailor 1778

During the Revolutionary War period, sailing ships were crewed by seaman representing a variety of countries.  With the naval powers of Europe being constantly at war, neutral seaports in the North Atlantic abounded in captured ships, taken to port as prizes of war, auctioned and sold with some proceeds distributed among the officers and crew.  Once the ships were sold, the men who crewed them were left stranded in the neutral port until they could sign on to another ship.  It was in this way that the number of seafaring men increased; it also explains why there was among them no sense of national allegiance.  Captain Jones’ crew aboard Bonhomme Richard was a crew like this.  They were multilingual, scurvy-ridden, argumentative louts; they obeyed orders because they would have a close encounter with a cat o’ nine tails[11] if they didn’t.  To keep the crew in line, Jones divided them into watches with one of these always keeping a wary eye on the other.

During one foray, Jones’ squadron searched for British shipping in the Bay of Biscay.  During a squall, both Bonhomme Richard and Alliance were blinded and on a collision course.  The bow watch aboard Bonhomme Richard gave shouts of warning in a language other than English or French.  Captain Landais assumed that Bonhomme Richard was under siege of a mutinous crew and left his quarterdeck to retrieve weapons from his cabin.  The bowsprit of Bonhomme Richard tore into Alliance’s rigging, which damaged her mizenmast.  At that moment, Jones was asleep in his cabin.  It was no more than an accident at sea, but the incident did nothing to ease the tension between Jones and Landais.

On the late afternoon of 23 September 1779, sailing off Flamborough Head, England, Commodore Jones’ squadron came across the 44-gun HMS Serapis[12] and her consort HMS Countess of Scarborough.  The British ships escorted 44 small merchant vessels carrying naval stores.  The unarmed or poorly armed cargo ships hastily changed course for the nearest British port for safety.  Jones hoisted his signal lantern ordering Alliance to join Bonhomme Richard in the upcoming battle, but Captain Landais ignored Jones’ signal and maintained his course.  The battle was joined when Serapis opened fire, blasting Bonhomme Richard in a devastating broadside.  Jones lost several guns and crew in the first volley.  Worse for Bonhomme Richard, her hull was breached, and her rudder was badly damaged.  Alliance finally joined the battle, approaching from Bonhomme Richard’s stern.  Serapis, intending to fire on Alliance, raked Bonhomme Richard again.  Jones ordered identity lanterns hoisted higher to keep Captain Landais from getting confused.  Captain Landais was not confused, however, when he fired point-blank into Bonhomme Richard and then, turning away, unleashed a second barrage into his commodore’s ship.

Captain Richard Pearson, Royal Navy

The British Officer commanding HMS Serapis, Captain Richard Pearson[13], RN, was horrified by the damage done to Bonhomme Richard, but the two ships were locked together in a desperate struggle, each ship hoping to survive.  Jones’ Marines were killing the crew of Serapis from their perches in the topsails.  The crew of Bonhomme Richard continued to fight valiantly even as the ship began to sink beneath them.  The battle lasted more than four hours.  HMS Serapis finally struck her colors and Captain Pearson surrendered his sword to Captain Jones.  When morning arrived, the American ensign was flying over both ships, but Bonhomme Richard was sinking and would not last the day.  After the battle, Captain Landais confided to one of his officers that he intended to help Serapis sink Bonhomme Richard.

British flotilla operating nearby posed a serious threat to Commodore Jones’ squadron, so he was anxious to depart, but before Jones could return to the sea, the captured Serapis needed considerable rework to make her seaworthy.  The work took seven days.  Jones’ squadron then consisted of Serapis, Alliance, Countess of Scarborough, Pallas, and Vengeance.  His orders were to put in at Texel[14], but Jones preferred instead to call at Dunkirk where his prizes and prisoners could be placed under French jurisdiction.  His captains refused, however, insisting that Jones follow his original instructions; if the commodore did not wish to follow those orders, then he must proceed to Dunkirk alone.  Jones opted to accompany the squadron to Texel.

The American fleet’s very presence in Texel made his Dutch hosts nervous.  They agreed to allow the refitting of the squadron’s damaged ships but refused to accept any of his 500 prisoners.  Consequently, Jones was forced to retain his prisoners in the cold, damp, rat-infested hold of Serapis.  Many of these men were sick, but the Dutch remained adamant.  In late October, Jones’ Dutch hosts finally allowed him to remove wounded men and house them in the fort.  If Jones wanted these men cared for, then he would have to do that himself; Jones assigned this task to his Marines, which were also employed as guards for the prisoners at Texel, the prisoners aboard Serapis, and as members of the work crew repairing damaged ships.

On 15 October, when American Commissioner Benjamin Franklin[15] received charges of cowardice against Captain Landais, which were validated by the statements and oaths of several squadron officers, he ordered Landais to Paris.  Based on the evidence presented, Franklin suspended Landais from command of Alliance, which infuriated Landis to no end.

Captured British Ship HMS Serapis

Once France agreed to assume financial responsibility for the squadron (all except for Alliance), and to avoid rupturing the delicate relations between France and Holland, Captain  Jones transferred his flag, all American officers and crew (and most of the ship’s stores) from Serapis to Alliance.  Captain Jones was not pleased with the state of the discipline of Alliance’s crew; he wasn’t encouraged by the conduct of Landais’ officers, either.  They were too fond of rum.

Disgusted with the Dutch, Captain Jones sought the first favorable wind to depart from Texel; he waited four weeks.  Jones finally made his break, escaping through British pickets without incident but Alliance was not a happy ship.  Quarrels broke out between ship’s officers, one group supporting Landais, the other devoted to Jones.  The primary issue was Landais’ cowardice in the fight off Flamborough Head.  Jones instructed his officers to carry out their orders smoothly, professionally, and quietly and dispense with petty arguments with Landais’ officers.

On 10 February 1799, Jones put in at L’Orient and moored beside Serapis, which was awaiting condemnation.  Alliance underwent repairs and refit.  By mid-April, Jones received orders to return Alliance to America with large supplies of arms and clothing for General Washington’s army.  There was still the question of prize money[16], however, and to resolve the issues, Captain Jones frequently traveled to Paris.  Captain Landais, meanwhile, plotted to regain command of Alliance.

It was not difficult for Landais to agitate the crew against Jones; he convinced them that Captain Jones had neglected their interests in the matter of prize money.  The crew even wrote to Benjamin Franklin declaring that they would not raise the ship’s anchor until their wages and prize money had been paid, or until their captain (Landais) was restored to duty[17].  Marine Captain Matthew Parke was vocal about his refusal to sign such a letter.

On 12 June, Captain Jones returned to L’Orient, assembled his crew, and solicited whether anyone had any complaints.  The crew remained silent; their stillness gave no occasion for Captain Jones to act on their behalf.  After Jones went ashore, Landais went aboard and seized control of Alliance.  All officers of the Bonhomme Richard were sent ashore.  Landais then ordered Captain Parke to arm his Marines with bayonets and station them to guard the gangplank.  Anyone attempting to board without Landais’ permission was to be impaled.

Neither Jones nor any of his officers made any attempt to regain control of Alliance.  Instead, Jones returned to Paris to ask for increased authority from Commissioner Franklin.  But, by the time Jones returned, Landais had already departed L’Orient for Port Louis.  French authorities responded to Franklin’s request for assistance by laying a boom across the narrow strait outside Port Louis, through which Landais would have to travel.  The boom would force Alliance to pass within cannon shot of two French forts guarding the straits.  The French also stationed a gunboat to guard the boom, as well.  Suddenly, surprising everyone, Captain Jones gave up his intent to regain Alliance.  According to Jones, he did not want squabbling between American and French officials to give aid to their common enemy.

No sooner had the French removed the barrier, Captain Landais sailed through the strait, destination America.  En route, Landais placed Captain Parke under arrest in quarters for eleven days as punishment for his refusal to take an oath of obedience to Landais.  Parke’s arrest soured the officers and crew of Alliance.  To emphasize his authority, Landais ordered into irons any crewman who complained about Parke’s treatment.  On 11 August, the ship’s officers and crew revolted.  By this time, the ship’s crew were convinced that Captain Landais was utterly mad.  According to the testimony of Seaman John Kilby, “Landais conduct was such that … [it convinced the officers and passengers] that he was in a measure beside himself.”

Dismissed Captain Landais

Upon Alliance’s arrival in Boston, the Navy Board ordered Captain John Barry to relieve Landais of his command.  Landais refused to resign, however, so three stout Marines under the command of Captain Matthew Parke dragged him out of his cabin and took him ashore.  At his court-martial, even Pierre’s friends opined that he was probably insane.  The verdict?  Landais was judged guilty of allowing private goods shipped aboard a warship, of being incapable of handling a ship.  He was “broke in rank” and judged unfit of serving in the Continental Navy.

Pierre Landais later became a resident of New York; his share of prize money paid him an annual annuity of $100.00.  From this amount, he saved enough to afford an annual visit to the seat of government (first, Philadelphia, and later the federal city named Washington) to petition the Congress for their reconsideration of his dismissal.  He asked for the restoration of his rank and payment in arrears.  Congress would not hear of it … and Captain Pierre de Landais went to his grave with an intense hatred of John Paul Jones. 

Sources:

  1. Allen, G. W. A Naval History of the American Revolution.  Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1913
  2. Crocker, III. H. W. Don’t Tread on Me.  New York: Crown Publishing, 2006
  3. Ford, W. C. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789.  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1937
  4. Norton, L. A. The Revolutionary War’s Most Enigmatic Naval Captain: Pierre Landais.  Journal of the American Revolution, Online
  5. Meany, W. B. Commodore John Barry: Father of the American Navy.  New York/London: Harper Brothers, 1911
  6. Morison, S. E. John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography.  Boston: Little/Brown, 1999
  7. Smith, C. R., and Charles H. Waterhouse. Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975.
  8. Thomas, E. John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy.  Waterville: Thorndike Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] This is a British phrase used to suggest that a person is suffering from insanity.  The phrase is thought to have originated from Bedfordshire where local men worked in the hatter business, which used mercury in the hat making process.  Their exposure to mercury caused symptoms like madness.  Louis Carol’s reference to a character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is only casually related to Hatter’s Disease.

[2] Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour (1721-1764) was the official mistress of Louis XV (1745-51) and remained a favorite at Royal Court until her death.  Official mistress … those French!

[3] In these days, military officers purchased their promotions rather than earning them.

[4] Beaumarchais was a polymath with skills in watchmaking, invention, playwright, musician, diplomat, spy, publisher, horticulturist, arms dealer, satirist, financier, and revolutionary.

[5] In 1777, Adams was a delegate to the Continental Congress serving on as many as 90 separate committees, one of these being Chair, Board of War and Ordnance.  It was likely that in this position, Adams met with Landais.  In late 1777, Adams was appointed US Envoy to France, serving until March 1779.

[6] Rejection may have come from John Adams, who was a member of the Marine Commission.

[7] Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier.

[8] As one of the first Marine officers, Matthew Parke served alongside John Paul Jones on the Ranger during his highly successful cruise in British home waters, as well as serving on Alliance during the Battle of Flamborough Head.  The Continental Marine uniform consisted of green coats with white facings and tall leather collar to protect the neck from sharp edged weapons (hence, the term “Leatherneck”).  Captain Park’s portrait dates to around 1800.  Portraits of Continental Navy officers are rare; portraits of Continental Marines even more so.

[9] In 1778 “commodore” was an honorific title bestowed upon navy captains appointed to lead several ships, also referred to as a squadron.  The relationship between a commodore in command of a squadron and his subordinate captains was more on the order of a loose confederation since each ship’s captain was free to ignore the commodore and go their own way as they saw fit.  This was probably the result of the fact that one or more ships were captained by French officers who owed no allegiance to the birthing United States.

[10] It was customary in those days to lower boats, particularly in dense fog, to search for the presence of enemy ships.

[11] A multi-tailed flail commonly used to administer punishment in the British and Continental army and navy.

[12] HMS Serapis was named after the god Serapis in Greek and Egyptian mythology.  Captured by Jones, Serapis was later transferred to the French Navy serving as a privateer.  She was lost in 1781 to a fire.

[13] Pearson (1731-1806) was an experienced naval officer.  After his fight with Bonhomme Richard, the English people embraced him as a true British hero.  He was knighted and received many accolades from the English people.  Responding to a question about how he felt that the officer he defeated in battle received a knighthood, Captain John Paul Jones answered, “If he’ll meet me on the high seas again, I’ll make him a Lord.”

[14] Today, the Netherland’s largest and populated island.

[15] Franklin served as U. S. Commissioner to France from 1776 to 1785.  Among his accomplishments was the securing a critical military alliance between France and the United States, and the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

[16] Given the fact that France financially supported the combined American/French naval fleets, captured ships not converted to war ships or cargo vessels (and their cargoes) were sold at auction.  The proceeds from these sales were then divvied up between the treasury of France, and the officers and crews who had made the capture.  Delays in making these payments to crewmen was common and, not surprisingly, a major source of the crewmen’s complaints.

[17] It is almost laughable to imagine that this rather unsophisticated group of crewmen wanted (either) their money, or Captain Landais.  One suspects that Captain Landais himself slipped that one in …

Retribution

cropped-old-corps-ega.pngBrigadier General Robert Leamy Meade was truly “Old Corps.”  Born in 1842, he was the nephew of Civil War Major General George G. Meade.  On 14 June 1862, Robert L. Meade received an appointment as a U. S. Marine Corps as a second lieutenant.  A year later, he led a raid against Fort Sumter, South Carolina and, despite this courageous effort, Meade was captured by its rebel occupants and spent the remainder of the war as a guest of the Confederate States Army.  After the war, in recognition of his “gallant and meritorious service” while getting himself captured, Meade was brevetted to First Lieutenant.

In the post-war period, Meade served in several assignments that were typical of Marine Corps service in those days.  He commanded the Marine Detachment aboard the first US warship to visit Cochin (present-day Vietnam), he served as Commanding Officer, Marine Barracks at the New York Navy Yard, and later as the barracks commander in Boston.  It was while serving in Boston that the Assistant Secretary of the Navy prevailed upon Major Meade to consider hiring a construction company that was known to the secretary for their good work in military construction projects.  Meade considered the Assistant Secretary’s suggestion as wholly inappropriate and somewhat arrogantly rebuffed Theodore Roosevelt’s recommendation.  It was in this way that Robert L. Meade acquired a life-long political enemy.

The incident, while minor, illustrates how little politics has changed over the past 130 years.

In 1898, Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental in starting a “splendid little war” with Spain, known today as the Spanish-American War.  At the time, Lieutenant Colonel Meade was serving as the Fleet Marine Officer aboard the USS New York, during which time he participated in the Battle of Santiago in Cuba.  Meade’s inconsiderate (and some say, ungentlemanly) treatment of Spanish prisoners of war prompted Captain Victor Maria Concas y Palau, serving in command of the Spanish cruiser Infanta Maria Teresa to complain in writing about Meade’s poor attitude.  In his letter, Captain Palau stated quite emphatically that Meade’s lack of humanity contributed to the death of several Spanish sailors by refusing to afford these wounded men adequate medical treatment.   Captain Palau also complained about Meade’s blatant disrespect toward Spanish officers.  Both of these charges are very likely true.

Nevertheless, in 1899, Meade was advanced to the rank of colonel and received orders to assume command of the 1st Marine Brigade in the Philippines.  He would replace Lieutenant Colonel George F. Elliott, who was transferred back to the United States.  Meade, as it turns out, was very much the same kind of man as his contemporary, Henry Clay Cochran, who was known as cantankerous, a stickler for adherence to regulations and protocol, and harshly critical of almost everyone and everything.  Meade was also known for having pronounced affectations and for having little hesitance in offering a sharp rebuke.

One of the things that drove Meade into a tyrannical rant was a lack of punctuality among his officers and men.  He would not tolerate it, and he trusted no man to be at an appointed place and time without constant reminders.  Anyone who was late for muster, or late in reporting for duty, received ten days of arrest.  There was never any discussion about this.  Meade ruled his officers and men with an iron hand.  One of Meade’s officers observed, “The Colonel puts a crimp in everyone’s style.”

Meade R L BrigGen 001Not long after Colonel Meade (shown left after retirement) arrived at Cavite, Philippine Islands, he began issuing a stream of seemingly inexhaustible orders and was intent upon informing his officers of every rule, every regulation, and every policy imaginable.  His officers, especially the lieutenants, deeply resented being treated like schoolboys.  The lieutenants particularly disliked Meade’s insistence that they dine in full uniform.  He would not permit them to remove their blouses and dine in their shirtsleeves, which given the excruciatingly hot and humid conditions in the Philippines, might have been warranted.  After all, it wasn’t as if the officers were dining at the White House.  Every meal made these junior officers even more resentful of Meade for his silly protocol.  Each meal added insult to injury.

Being lieutenants, the young men began to look for ways to convey their profound unhappiness to the colonel of the brigade, but none of their ideas, each presented at clandestine assemblages, seemed plausible (or safe).  No one was foolish enough to present their complaint directly to the colonel, of course, because to do so would end any possibility of a career in the Marine Corps.  Besides that, all their ideas seemed completely impracticable.  The young officers continued to suffer and fume among themselves.

But then, since the Lord has a soft spot in His heart for lieutenants, Colonel Meade was laid up with rheumatism, a painful condition producing great discomfort.  In those days, the only remedy for rheumatism was light duty and topical treatments.  Colonel Meade’s physician confined him to his quarters while undergoing medical care.

In the Marine Corps, there are few intelligence gathering systems more efficient or impressive than the junior officer’s spy network.  It wasn’t long before the lieutenants learned of Colonel Meade’s intense hatred of monkeys, which in the Philippines are quite populous.  The constant chattering and scampering about of primates atop the corrugated tin roof of the colonel’s quarters was particularly annoying and they could not be quieted.  Colonel Meade endured this constant racket for two full nights, and the longer it went on, the more profane Meade became.

Colonel Meade’s orderly was Private Coughlin.  Coughlin’s good friend was a young man who performed orderly duties for the lieutenants.  The source of their information thus established, the lieutenants learned about Meade’s unhappiness with the monkeys and his muttering threats about having them shot.  They also learned about the colonel’s double barrel shotgun, which he kept stored in a closet, and that Colonel Meade had ordered Coughlin to obtain a box of double-ought buckshot shells.  It was this information that prompted the lieutenants to call another clandestine meeting.

Philippine Macaque 001The plan called for two groups of lieutenants.  One group, having collected a sum of money from all members of the lieutenant’s protective association, purchased every caged monkey they could get their hands on from the nearby village.  The second group performed a careful safety inspection of the shotgun shells.  That very night, in the safety of early morning darkness, Meade’s lieutenants liberated the caged monkeys into trees surrounding the Colonel’s quarters.

At dawn, the roof of Colonel Meade’s quarters was a solid mass of squabbling monkeys —so much so, in fact, that there was hardly any room for any more of them on the colonel’s roof or in any of the surrounding trees.  If this wasn’t bad enough, the cheeky monkeys were leaping from the trees to the colonel’s open windowsills.  At one-minute past dawn, Colonel Meade roared for his orderly.  “Private Coughlin!  Bring me my god-damned shotgun!”

Private Coughlin was quite worried.  The colonel was beside himself, stomping from one end of his quarters to the other, cursing like a sailor.  Considering the colonel’s state of mind, Private Coughlin was anxious about placing a weapon in his hand, but of course, orderlies do not argue with their officers.  Coughlin dutifully took the shotgun out of a closet and presented it to his commanding officer.

The expression on Colonel Meade’s face was maniacal.  Refusing to take the weapon, the colonel roared at Coughlin, “Private, I want you to shoot every one of these god-damned monkeys!”  Less than twenty feet away, sitting on the windowsill of the colonel’s bedroom, was a screeching monkey.  “And start with that bastard,” Colonel Meade added, pointing.

Private Coughlin loaded the double barrel weapon and took aim.  The Monkey defiantly chattered and shrieked at Coughlin, but the Marine, a veteran of several battles, calmly pulled the trigger.  The blast was deafening, and shotgun residue filled the space between Private Coughlin and the windowsill.  One might have expected to observe a monkey shot to pieces.  No, the monkey remained in the window —more agitated and fussing even more loudly.  Confused, Coughlin first looked at the weapon, and then at Colonel Meade standing a few feet away.  “Shoot him, damn you,” the colonel thundered.

Private Coughlin again took aim and pulled the second trigger.  Another loud blast followed by even more residue … and the monkey, remaining very much alive, began running helter-skelter inside the colonel’s bedroom.  Colonel Meade stood staring in disbelief.  Private Coughlin was perplexed. He didn’t understand … but the purple-faced colonel who stomped off into his drawing room understood.  Someone had reloaded his shotgun shells with sawdust.

Colonel Meade’s lieutenants had taken their revenge.

Later that morning, after consulting with his adjutant, Colonel Meade passed the word that henceforth, the officers would be allowed to dine in shirt sleeves.  That very night, quite amazingly, all but a mere handful of monkeys disappeared from around the Colonel’s quarters.

A few weeks later, Colonel Meade received orders transferring him to serve as Senior Marine Officer at the International Legation in Peking where he would occupy his time dealing with the so-called Boxer Rebellion.  Eventually, Meade returned to the United States for medical reasons.  In recognition of his distinguished service in China, Meade was brevetted to the rank of brigadier general on 13 July 1900.

In 1903, Major General Charles Haywood retired from his post as Commandant of the Marine Corps.  With Haywood’s retirement, Brigadier General Meade became the most senior officer on active duty.  According to tradition, Meade was next in line to serve as Commandant, and he might have received that appointment were it not for the fact that President Theodore Roosevelt had a long memory.  Passing Meade over, Roosevelt instead promoted George F. Elliott to Major General and appointed him to serve as Commandant, U. S. Marine Corps.

Brigadier General Meade retired from active service in 1906.  He passed away in 1910 and was buried with honors in Huntington, New York.

Source:  Colonel Frederic M. Wise, USMC (Deceased): A Marine Tells It to You.  J. L. Sears Company, 1929.  Colonel Wise was a lieutenant serving in the Philippine Islands at the time of the monkey incident.

Alamo of the Pacific, Part II

Wake Island Prisoners of World War II

—By James W. Wensyel

Early on the morning of December 8, 1941[1], Wake Island hummed with activity. For months, the wishbone-shaped Pacific atoll of three small islands–Wake, Wilkes and Peale–less than 10 miles long and barely above sea level, had been the site of construction work. Working feverishly to complete an airstrip and defensive fortifications were 449 U.S. Marines of the 1st Defense Battalion, commanded by Major James P.S. Devereux; Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF)-211, equipped with 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats, led by Major Paul A. Putnam; 71 Naval personnel; a five-man Army radio detachment, commanded by Captain Henry S. Wilson; and 1,146 American civilian construction workers of the Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases Company, managed by Dan Teters –all under the overall command of Commander Winfield S. Cunningham.

War with Japan was imminent, and an airstrip on Wake, about 2,000 miles west of Hawaii, would allow American heavy bombers to strike the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands. And, if Guam were lost to the Japanese, Wake would be one of the closest American outposts to the Japanese mainland. Each day work began early and finished late. There were no other diversions on the tiny, barren atoll, and the defenders all realized that war could begin at any time.

Around 7 o’clock that morning an Army radio technician on Wake picked up a radio alert from Hawaii: ‘Hickam Field has been attacked by Jap dive bombers. This is the real thing.’ Devereux shouted for his bugler, Alvin J. Waronker, and soon the clear notes of ‘General Quarters’ sounded across the atoll.

At 8:50[2] the Marines raised the American flag on its staff, something Marines did every morning all over the world, and Waronker began to sound ‘To the Colors.’ In the past he had had trouble with the bugle call, never getting it quite right, but this time he did not miss a note, and for several minutes all activity stopped as each man stood at attention and saluted the flag. Devereux recalled: ‘The flag went up, and every note was proud and clear. It made a man’s throat tighten just to hear it.’ Not long after the flag raising, 36 Japanese Mitsubishi G3M2 Nell bombers crossed Wake in three V-formations. Soon their fragmentation bombs, accompanied by a steady drumming of machine-gun fire, tore the island to pieces. For Wake’s defenders, the war had begun.

Japanese land-based aircraft from Roi in the Marshalls, later joined by aircraft from approaching Japanese carriers, pounded the atoll day after day. Before each attack, a dwindling number of American Wildcat fighters rose to meet them. At 3 a.m. on December 11, a Japanese invasion task force commanded by Rear Adm. Sadamichi Kajioka, consisting of a light cruiser, six destroyers, two troop carriers and two armed merchantmen, confidently approached Wake’s beaches. Marine gunners let them close to 4,500 yards before their 5-inch naval guns opened fire. Their patience was rewarded with the sinking of one Japanese destroyer and damaging of the cruiser and three additional destroyers. Kajioka retreated, now knowing that Wake would not be taken without a fight.

By the 21st, the last of the Wildcats had been destroyed in dogfights over the atoll. With nothing left to fly, Putnam’s aviators were assigned duty as riflemen. Japanese airplanes now roamed over the island at will, pounding American positions in preparation for a renewed attempt to seize the atoll.

In the dark, rain-swept early morning hours of December 23rd, Kajioka returned, his fleet bolstered by four heavy cruisers and various other warships, including landing craft, to assault Wake’s beaches with more than 900 well-trained infantrymen of the Special Naval Landing Force. At 2:35 a.m., the first Japanese landing barge ground ashore. Soon a desperate battle was being fought across the atoll between groups of men fighting with rifles, bayonets, grenades and fists. The Americans fought hard, but more Japanese landed and pushed them toward the island’s center. Teters’ civilian construction workers, many of whom had manned anti-aircraft guns earlier in the fight, now took up rifles and grenades to fight beside the American servicemen.

At dawn, Devereux and Cunningham, separated but talking over the single phone line between the islands, took stock of the situation. The American flag still flew from a battered water tower, the highest point on Wake, but Japanese flags fluttered everywhere else. Reports from the three islands were discouraging; there were simply too many Japanese and too few Americans. Cunningham radioed Pearl Harbor: ‘Enemy on island. Issue in doubt.’

Meanwhile, enemy planes continued bombing and strafing while Japanese ships, beyond the range of the few remaining shore batteries, shelled pockets of American resistance. Devereux, unable to contact his remaining strongpoints, had no idea what was happening a few yards beyond his own command post. Later he would reflect: ‘I tried to think of something …we might do to keep going, but there wasn’t anything …We could keep on expending lives, but we could not buy anything with them.’

Cunningham, as the ranking officer, made the inevitable decision to surrender. The naval commander phoned Devereux to tell him the depressing news. The major gulped, then quietly agreed, ‘I’ll pass the word.’

Devereux and Sergeant Donald R. Malleck, who carried a white cloth tied to a mop handle, then walked across the island, ordering surviving Americans to lay down their weapons. Stunned defenders threw away rifle bolts, destroyed delicate range-finding instruments, drained hydraulic fluid from recoil cylinders and then surrendered. Eighty-one Marines, eight sailors and 82 civilian construction workers had been killed or wounded.

The Japanese, however, paid a heavy price for their victory. The fight for Wake Island had cost them two destroyers and one submarine sunk, seven additional ships damaged, 21 aircraft shot down and almost 1,000 men killed.

Enraged by their losses, the Japanese treated their prisoners —military and civilian— brutally.  Some were stripped naked, others to their underwear.  Most had their hands tied behind their backs with telephone wire, with a second wire looped tightly from their necks to their wrists so that if they lowered their arms, they would strangle themselves. Personal valuables were taken, and wounds ignored.

The prisoners were then jammed into two suffocating concrete ammunition bunkers. Later they were herded to the airstrip and made to sit, naked, on the blistering hot concrete. When the Japanese set up machine guns nearby, most of the prisoners expected to be executed. That night, bone-chilling winds replaced the heat. The prisoners sat there, still waiting for food, water or medical treatment. The unfortunate prisoners remained sitting on the airstrip for two days. Finally, they were given food, much of it spoiled by the heat, and water, contaminated from being placed in unclean gasoline drums. Piles of assorted clothing seized earlier were placed before them; an individual had little chance of finding his original clothing. Marines found themselves in civilian dress, civilian workers in Marine khaki. Private First Class Carl Stegman, Jr., was dressed in a bloodstained shirt, ill-fitting Marine trousers and a pair of sneakers.  Lieutenant John Manning would begin his captivity in a pair of Marine trousers and two oversized, hip-length rubber work boots.

After returning his prisoners’ clothes, Kajioka, resplendent in white dress uniform and gleaming samurai sword, read a proclamation to the assembled prisoners. When he concluded, a Japanese interpreter informed the Americans that “the Emperor has graciously presented you with your lives.”  To which a resolute Marine croaked, “Well, thank the son of a bitch for me!”

During the next 10 days the prisoners were given small amounts of food taken from the remaining stores on the island. They cared for their own wounded with whatever supplies they could obtain.

On January 11, 1942, Kajioka informed the prisoners that they would soon be transferred. This was alarming news because although they had been poorly treated by their captors, both sides had come to some accommodation with one another. Now all that would change.

The next day most of the prisoners were taken to the merchant ship Nitta Maru.  Before boarding, however, they were forced to run a gantlet of cursing and spitting Japanese sailors who struck them with clubs, fists and heavy belts. Crowded into the ship’s hold, they next confronted a Japanese officer who shouted the rules that would govern them.

Thousands of miles from home, crammed into Nitta Maru‘s dimly lit hold, with several buckets for toilets, no heat or ventilation and confronted by brutal guards, the prisoners’ future was bleak. Even so, they were luckier than the 380 prisoners the Japanese kept on Wake to rebuild the island’s defenses. Those unfortunates would slave away until October 1943, when, in retaliation for the strikes on the island by a U.S. Navy task force and fearful of an Allied invasion, the Japanese garrison murdered them all.

It took Nitta Maru six days to reach Yokohama, Japan. During that time the prisoners never left the ship’s hold and were given only tiny amounts of food.  Not understanding Japanese was no excuse for prisoners who failed to instantly obey their captors’ shouted orders. Beatings were commonplace.  In one instance a Japanese guard thought he saw PFC Herman Todd talking without permission.  The private was ordered to jump up and grab an overhanging beam. As Todd hung suspended above the deck, a Japanese bayonet was thrust at his stomach while a Japanese petty officer beat him with a pick handle.

Once they had reached Yokohama, eight American officers and 12 enlisted men were sent to a prison camp in Japan while the remainder of the men continued on to Shanghai, China.  On the voyage to China, Lieutenant Toshio Sato, commander of the Japanese guard detachment, selected five Americans, three seamen and two Marines, at random, blindfolded and bound them, and took them on deck. There, surrounded by 150 Japanese sailors, the Americans were made to kneel. Sato then read to the Americans in Japanese: “You have killed many Japanese soldiers in battle. For what you have done you are now going to be killed … as representatives of American soldiers.”  The bewildered, frightened Americans understood none of his speech.  Perhaps it was just as well, for when Sato finished speaking the five unfortunates were beheaded.  Their bodies were then used for bayonet practice before being thrown overboard.

After landing at Woosung the prisoners were forced to march five miles to what the Japanese called the Shanghai War Prisoners Camp —seven gray, ramshackle single-story buildings with no fresh water or plumbing and limited electricity. To deter escape, the camp was surrounded by barbed wire, electric fences and four constantly manned guard towers.

The prisoners were housed in large, open rooms called sections. Within each section 36 men slept shoulder to shoulder on wooden pallets. Although the temperature seldom exceeded 20 degrees, most of the men wore ragged garments and many had no shoes. There was no heat. In the cold, crowded rooms disease spread quickly. Enforcement of prison rules was simple —if any man in a section misbehaved, all were punished.

At Woosung the Japanese commissary routinely issued food for only 300 prisoners. Rations provided only about 500-600 calories per man per day.  Each of the Wake prisoners would lose at least 60 pounds during his captivity at the prison.

The Americans would never forget Woosung.  The bleak loneliness, bitter cold winds whistling through their flimsy huts, wormy stone-studded rice and dawn-to-dusk work made a lasting impression.  The excesses of the Japanese guards only added to their misery. Although a few of them adopted a live-and-let-live attitude toward the Americans, most of the guards were brutal.

The worst of the Japanese at Woosung was Isamu Isihara, a civilian interpreter who enjoyed beating the helpless Americans.  Although he was a civilian who had once driven a taxi in Honolulu, Isihara wore a samurai sword and insisted that the prisoners treat him as an officer.  Without reason or warning he would fly into a rage, and the prisoners dubbed him the ‘Beast of the East.’

Sergeant Bernard O. Ketner later recalled: “I was severely beaten by Isihara. He struck me four times … with a saber.  Later … the sentry held a bayonet against my abdomen [while] they beat me with their fists … I was kicked in the testicles twice.  Isihara spit in my face and called me a white American son of a bitch.  I was then thrown into the brig for four days, two of which I was given no food.”

When the former British governor general of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Young, refused to salute him, Isihara tried to behead Young with his sword.  Finally, Japanese military officers took the sword away. Instead, Isihara resorted to a leather riding crop with a leaded handle that could be used as a blackjack.

Commanding the Woosung prison camp was Colonel Goichi Yasue, notorious for his violent and unpredictable temper.  He organized the prisoners into 10-man’shooting squads,’ explaining that if “one-man escapes, the other nine die.”

Yasue, whom the Marines called ‘Useless,’ died in March 1942, and was replaced by Colonel Satoshi Otera, dubbed ‘Handlebar Hank’ by the Marines for his moustache. Otera, more concerned with his personal comforts than with his duties, could also be very harsh. In one instance he discovered a hole in a 100-pound bag of sugar and in retaliation denied all of his prisoners food for 72 hours.

The Japanese captors’ attitude toward their prisoners was based on Bushido, the code of the samurai warrior. Bushido taught blind loyalty to the emperor and a disregard for death. A soldier should die before surrendering. Those who surrendered to the enemy surrendered everything, even their lives. Thus, the prisoner became the slave of his captor, to be spared or killed as the captor wished.  As an interrogator explained to the prisoners, “You gave up everything when you surrendered. You do not even own the air that is in your bodies—you are the slaves of the Japanese.”

At Woosung life became a war of wills.  Devereux recalled: “The main objective of the Japanese … was to break our spirit, and on our side was a stubborn determination to keep our self-respect whatever else they took from us.  That struggle was almost as much a part of the war as was the battle we fought on Wake Island.”

Colonel William H. Ashurst, Commander of the Marine Detachment captured at the U.S. Legation at Tientsin, his executive officer, Major Luther A. Brown, and Devereux ensured that their fellow Marines would never succumb to their captors.  Ashurst and Brown, using Brown’s battered copy of the Army field manual, The Rules for Land Warfare, repeatedly confronted Japanese officers with their violations of the Geneva Convention of 1929, prescribing proper treatment of prisoners of war.

Devereux insisted on the same military discipline found at a stateside Marine base. He also insisted that the Marines exercise every day, despite their weakening bodies. Some hated him for maintaining such practices, but later, when they saw that they were winning the mental battle with their captors, most respected him for leading the way.

Despite the terrible conditions inflicted on them, American prisoners saluted their officers, maintained their chain of command, and walked with pride and dignity. They held their own religious services and, using fellow prisoners as instructors, began a series of classes —including history, English, photography, beekeeping and navigation.  They leveled a field for softball and soccer and began a vegetable garden.

Occasionally they scored small victories against their captors that encouraged them to fight on.  Put to work repairing roads, the prisoners instead widened or deepened potholes or loose-packed the dirt so the holes would soon get worse. Assigned to clean weapons, they polished the metal until it was too thin to be safely fired, lost parts, hid bearings, loosened bolts or substituted incorrect parts.

Survival was never easy.  Soon after their arrival at Woosung, the prisoners began to die of illness, untreated battle wounds and malnutrition.  Others died more violently. In June 1942, a young Japanese sentry playfully pulled the trigger of his rifle, and Lonnie Riddle, a civilian construction worker, fell dead at his feet.  Two months later Seaman Roy K. Hodgkins was electrocuted while trying to recover a softball from beneath an electrified fence.  Later, Marine Corporal Carroll W. Boncher died when he accidentally fell against the same fence.

After nearly a year at Woosung, the Americans were moved to another prison camp at Kiang Wang.  By now they were hardened to days with little or no food, brutal guards and backbreaking work, but it all became even worse upon their arrival at Kiang Wang, which Devereux called “the worst hellhole in our captivity.”

At Kiang Wang, Japanese engineers ordered the Americans to build what they described as a playground complex for Japanese children.  The prisoners were forced to engage in a year-and-a-half’s labor to complete the complex, which they called the “Mount Fuji Project.”  Divided into six-man work teams, the prisoners first cleared an area 600 feet long by 200 feet wide, all by hand. Each team had a few crude spades and perhaps a mattock.  They were forced to remove the soil in large woven baskets slung on their backs.

When they had cleared the large area, they began to build an earthen mound 45 feet high, a miniature Mount Fujiyama.  As it grew, the prisoners laid a narrow-gauge railroad track up its slope.  Then they pushed small mine cars, loaded with dirt and stone, to its summit.

When American officers realized that the ‘children’s playground’ really was to be a large rifle range for the Japanese army, they protested, citing Article 31 of the Geneva Convention forbidding prisoners of war to work on military projects.  Otera, however, dismissed their complaint with a sharp retort, “Japan did not sign the Geneva Convention.”

By the summer of 1943, as a result of their sparse prison diet and 12-hour workdays, the prisoners were living skeletons, plagued by dysentery, tuberculosis, pellagra, influenza and malaria.  Month after month of hunger, cold, pain, bone-weary fatigue, loneliness and despair were severely trying the prisoners.  Despite the privation, there was only one rule –survive.

Many prisoners remembered that only the occasional delivery of packages of food, medicine and clothing from home, and the personal, and dangerous, intervention of two men saved their lives.

Loved ones heard little from the prisoners but continued sending them packages and letters.  Most mail got as far as the prison camp but never reached the intended recipient.  Japanese guards pilfered the packages or kept them in supply rooms for months before delivering them to the prisoners.  By September 1943, an estimated 1,000-1,500 pieces of mail had reached the prison camp, but only 719 of them had been given to the prisoners.  Christmas mail arrived on December 23, 1943 but was not delivered until April 12, 1944.  Mail that did reach the men, however, kept them apprised of the war’s progress.  Although Japanese censors read each letter and would not deliver obvious reports of Allied victories, some cleverly disguised messages slipped through.  In one case, the prisoners learned of the American victory at Midway Island. ‘Uncle Joe and Uncle Sam met at the halfway house and had one hell of a fight.  Uncle Sam won,’ read the letter.

Critical to the Americans’ survival was the intervention of Edouard Egle, a Swiss representative of the International Red Cross.  Because they saw their Shanghai War Prisoner Camp as a model for the world, the Japanese allowed Egle far greater access to the American prisoners there than other camps.  Egle was a very competent, compassionate man.  Between 1942 and 1945, he constantly risked Japanese retaliation by insisting upon providing medical and dental help for the prisoners and by supplying them with food and medical packets.  Although Japanese guards looted the packets, enough got through to help the Americans survive.

Egle also provided clothing for the ragged prisoners (critical during the bitter-cold winter months), some heating stoves, books, seeds and livestock for the prisoners’ farm.  Learning that four American doctor-prisoners, aided by a kindly Chinese doctor, had set up a small hospital in the prison compound and were performing surgery with razor blades, closing incisions with common thread or fishing line, and treating dysentery with grains of burnt rice scraped from cooking pots, he provided them with medical instruments and other desperately needed supplies and equipment.

In March 1944, with the prisoners’ situation desperate, Egle personally delivered six food parcels and a pair of coveralls, a cap and a pair of boots to each prisoner.  For some of the men it was their first change of clothing in two years.

The prisoners also remembered the kindness of an American civilian, ‘Shanghai Jimmy’ James, a Minnesotan who, at the outbreak of the war, owned four American-style restaurants in Shanghai that the Japanese somehow allowed to continue operating for some time.  At Christmas 1942, Shanghai Jimmy provided a Christmas tree with trimmings, cigars, cigarettes and a hot turkey dinner for the Woosung prisoners, a tremendous boost to both health and morale.  He continued to send food, medicine and other help to the prisoners until he, too, was interned in the prison camp.

In the spring of 1945, the Americans’ lot improved.  The prisoners received a shipment of food and medical packets, and the Mount Fuji Project finally ended.  More important, their captors saw that the war was winding down.  The Allies’ drive across the Pacific was nearing Japan, and American warplanes had begun bombing Shanghai. The Japanese now knew that the war would soon end, and the Allies would be the victors.  The guards now made the occasional friendly gesture to their prisoners.

Japanese frustration at the course of the war and at the prisoners’ continuing resistance, however, still made life hazardous and uncertain. The Kiang Wang prison was located between two military airfields.  American airstrikes against these facilities endangered their countrymen.  Sometimes Japanese guards, angered at the bombing, took out their frustration on the prisoners.  On January 20, 1945, for example, when prisoners cheered U.S. North American P-51 fighter planes shooting down a Japanese plane, furious guards bayoneted three of them[3].

While listening to a clandestine radio, the prisoners learned that the Allies were nearing Japan. Then Boeing B-29s, en route to bomb Japanese installations around Shanghai, appeared overhead.  On another occasion, American fighter planes buzzed the prison compound, so low that the prisoners reveled in the pilots’ waves of encouragement.  The Americans were getting too close for the Japanese, who were not about to release the Kiang Wang prisoners. On May 9, 1945, they loaded them aboard a train for a five-day trip to Fengtai, eight miles southwest of Peking. During the long train trip from Kiang Wang to Fengtai the only successful escape occurred. Five Americans —two Marines captured from the legation at Tientsin, two Wake Island Marines and one Marine pilot— jumped from the prison train.  Finally found by Chinese Communist troops, they walked for 42 days through more than 700 miles of occupied China before reaching friendly territory and freedom.

The Fengtai prison, a large brick warehouse surrounded by a moat, barbed wire and guard towers, held more than 1,000 prisoners in an area 200 yards long by 146 yards wide. Prisoners slept on Fengtai’s hard concrete floor and used a single spigot for water.

Fortunately, the Americans’ stay in Fengtai was brief.  On June 19, they again were crowded into boxcars for another hard ride, this one to Pusan, Korea, where they were held in shacks, stables and warehouses until a ship could be found to carry them across the Tsushima Strait to Japan.

At dusk on June 28, the prisoners boarded a small coastal steamer for the hazardous 12-hour trip across the strait to Shimonoseki, on the southwestern tip of Honshu.  At Shimonoseki they were crowded into another train.

Seeing the mass destruction American bombers were wreaking everywhere on the Japanese homeland while riding on the train, one Marine exclaimed, ‘I never saw such destruction in all my life.’  They were in Osaka during a B-29 raid and, while changing trains in Tokyo, narrowly escaped death or injury when an angry civilian mob attacked them as their Japanese guards looked the other way.

At Osaka some of the prisoners were diverted to a prison camp at Sendai.  Most of them, however, continued to the northern tip of Honshu, where they were ferried across narrow Tsugaru Strait to Hakodate, site of the group’s final prison.

Hakodate’s guards were brutal.  A Marine recalled: ‘The Japanese required every prisoner to stand up and bow or salute every member of the guard whenever they passed by.  If the prisoner was … slow … the guards beat him.  Prisoners were beaten because they could not understand the Japanese language….’

Most of the prisoners worked 12-hour shifts in a coal mine; others worked in a lumberyard.  Some Marine prisoners labored in an iron mine seven days a week, with a daily ration of three small bowls of rice and soybeans or a small teacup of soup made from weeds.  Civilian foremen beat prisoners to encourage better production or, it seemed to the Americans, for the fun of it.  In one instance, three Japanese civilians were beating Marine Sergeant Bernard H. Manning when PFC Norman H. Kaz interfered. Japanese guards then beat Kaz senseless before tying him to a pit timber at the bottom of the mine shaft.  Then, for two weeks he was beaten every day, emerging with a pair of black eyes, a broken nose and several teeth knocked out.

After they had been at Hakodate for several weeks, however, the Americans noticed that the attitudes of their guards and civilian supervisors changed. The brutal interrogations and beatings ended, prisoners were fed a bit better, and their captors even began to smile cordially at them. One day a Japanese guard explained to one of the prisoners, “Very soon we will all be friends again.”

In late July 1945, Japanese officers treated American officers to a formal dinner at which they offered many toasts to their guests, bowed often and professed friendship with the Americans.  Finally, a senior Japanese officer stood and proposed a toast to “everlasting friendship between America and Japan.”  The other Japanese smiled, nodded and waited for an appropriate response from the Marines.

The American officers sat quietly for a long moment, the gaunt, haggard men looking uncertainly at each other. Then, Major Luther A. Brown, for so long a thorn in his captors’ side, stood, looked about and said matter-of-factly, “If you behave yourselves, you’ll get fair treatment.”

There were other encouraging signs.  On August 15 a mine official suggested that Leonard Mettscher work in another part of the mine because it would be “less dangerous there.”  And on the same day, the prisoners’ work ended early, an unprecedented gesture.  From scraps of a Japanese newspaper they also learned that the Soviet Union had entered the war, attacking Japanese-held Manchuria.

The next day the prisoners woke to find their prison unguarded. Fearful of reprisals by local civilians, the Americans stayed inside the camp.  Later that day, Japanese boy-soldiers, so small that the tips of their bayonets stood high above their heads, appeared at the camp’s perimeter, apparently more intent on protecting the prisoners from civilian assault than in preventing their escape.  That night the prisoners’ rations were increased.

On the 17th they learned about the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  On the 23rd several Marines scaled the prison’s fence and ventured around the nearby village.  Seeing them, young Japanese guards begged them to return to the safety of the camp. The following morning, a Japanese army colonel assembled the prisoners to announce that Japan had surrendered to prevent further bloodshed.

The prisoners now decided to wait for the U.S. Army’s arrival rather than wander around the countryside of a defeated nation.  On August 28 and 30, B-29s parachute-dropped 55-gallon drums crammed with food, medicine and clothing to the war-weary prisoners, a sure sign that their rescue was near.  Many of the men, so long deprived of adequate food, became sick from the feast that followed.

On September 1, Hakodate’s prisoners used colorful cargo chutes to fashion an American flag and, using a Japanese bugle, for the first time in three years, nine months and 21 days Marines sounded ‘To the Colors’ as they hoisted their makeshift flag above the prison camp.  Cautiously, more adventuresome Americans now began to explore the area outside their prison.  On September 9, during the last airdrop of clothing and provisions, a parachute bearing a fuel drum packed with supplies malfunctioned, killing a Marine and two Army prisoners.  They were the last Wake Island prisoner casualties of the war.

Several days after these final tragic deaths, troopers from the 1st Cavalry Division reached Hakodate. For the prisoners there the long war was at last over.

This article was written by James W. Wensyel and originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of World War II magazine.  For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine!

Endnotes:

[1] Date/Time variation is accounted for by the International Dateline.

[2] Colors are raised each morning at 0800, without variation.

[3] It is certain that had the situation been reversed, the Americans would have done the same.

Alamo of the Pacific, Part I

Some Background

wake-islandWake Island is so small, it was probably one of those statistical anomalies that Alvaro de Mendana ever found it in 1586.  As was the custom back then, Mendana claimed the island for Spain, and may have even planted a flag —but since no one lived on the island, it was probably a ho-hum moment.  I imagine the ship’s crew was disappointed, too.  Then, in 1796, England’s Samuel Wake, of the merchantman William Henry, stumbled upon the atoll and named it after himself.  Again, owing to the absence of humankind, no one’s feelings were hurt.  Then on 20 December 1840, USS Vincennes brought the explorer Charles Wilkes and the naturalist Titian Peale to the atoll where they conducted a series of surveys and lent their names to the other two islands of the atoll (now consisting of Wake, Wilkes, and Peale).

Wake Island (a US unorganized territory) (something it has in common with Washington, D. C.) is one of the most isolated places in the world.  Discounting Air Force/Space Force personnel stationed at Wake Island, the nearest human population to Wake Island is in the Marshall Islands, 592 miles away.

During the Spanish-American War in 1898, an American troop ship bound for the Philippines stopped at Wake, and because Major General Francis V. Greene regarded Wake Island as a war trophy, hoisted the Stars and Stripes over the island and proclaimed it a territory of the United States.   At the Treaty of Paris (ended the Spanish-American War) Spain relinquished all claims of sovereignty over Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, all islands in the West Indies, and all islands within approximately 116 degrees of latitude and 127 degrees longitude east near and including the Philippine archipelago.

The treaty was amended at the Treaty of Washington three years later adding several additional islands located southwest of the island chain of Palawan that had been omitted from the original treaty; no other specific islands or locations of any kind were included —and since Wake Island did not fall within the boundaries of either treaty, it technically remains within the auspices of the Spanish crown.  Nevertheless, possession being nine-tenths of the law, the United States retains possession of the Wake Island atoll.

Advanced Bases

Commercial shipping after 1850 became increasingly dependent on coal-fired ships.  Twenty years later sailing ships were becoming a thing of the past.  The consequences of coal-fired ships is quite extraordinary.  There would be no commercial advantage to coal-fired ships if there were no dependable coaling stations at strategic locations throughout the world.  Without coaling stations in the Pacific Rim, the United States would not have been able to compete with other western nations for a share of Asian trade.  The economic advantages of coaling stations thus becomes self-evident.

The actual location of these coaling stations (no doubt in consultation with the US government) was a decision left in the hands of the shipping companies, and this too makes perfect sense.  Shipping companies, after all, determine their own shipping routes, in turn governed by trade relationships.  Commercial interests could lease land for coaling stations, but they could not guarantee the security of the stations, coal, employees, or ships.  Only governments can do that … through treaties enforced by navies, of course.  It was this situation that led the United States to its interests in the Pacific Rim.

Over time, an international naval presence prompted occasional uprisings by local natives, some of which were provoked by competing nations (Germany, for example).  In any case, coaling stations morphed into advanced base structures.  Protecting America’s advanced bases became a focus of the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps.  Marine security forces (initially as Marine Barracks) eventually evolved into Marine Defense Battalions of the Fleet Marine Forces, which included coastal artillery.

Modern academics, particularly those in liberal colleges and universities, tell us that American Imperialism is a shameful thing because it involves policies aimed at extending political, economic, and cultural influence over areas beyond its boundaries.  The argument is simplistic.  Every nation seeks to influence areas beyond their borders and do so in a myriad of ways: military conquest, gunboat diplomacy, negotiating treaties most favorable to themselves, economic penetration, and intervention when necessary to protect their interests and investments.  No matter what the academics say, imperialism is not a uniquely American idea.  Global trade is the fuel of the world economy and has been for several hundred years and it is natural to seek trade relationships favorable to one’s own country.  In defense of America’s global trade policies (going back in time, of course), European and Asian nations were happy to parcel up large sections of China for their own purposes; the United States was alone in arguing for an “Open Door” approach, which recognized Chinese sovereignty and sought to protect its administrative integrity.  Protecting US advanced bases wasn’t so much an example of imperialism as it was common sense.

In the 1930s, the development of aircraft capable of flying across the Pacific Ocean produced a similar set of circumstances for the United States.  Lacking the ability to fly non-stop across the Pacific Ocean, commercial aircraft companies considered mid-Pacific coaling stations as one solution to their refueling problem, and it made sense that these (mostly) island locations could also provide mechanical repair services and offer some respite to passengers and crew. 

Japanese Interests in the Pacific

Anyone who can argue with a straight face that the Japanese mounted a sneak attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii is simply unaware of the history of America’s advanced bases in the Pacific.  Let’s look at it.

During the First World War (1914-18), Japan participated as an ally of the Entente Powers[1] and played an important role in securing the sea lanes in the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans from Imperial Germany’s naval domination.  Taking advantage of Germany’s preoccupation with the European war, Japan seized German possessions in the Pacific and in East Asia.  Japan accomplished this without a large-scale mobilization of its military and naval forces (this would occur later, in the 1920s).  The story of Japanese preeminence in the Pacific is a long one, and somewhat complicated, but it is enough to note here that Japan used World War I as a springboard for expanding its sphere of influence throughout the Pacific, in China, and in Southeast Asia.

In the early 1920s, particularly after observing the comportment of Japanese diplomats at the Washington and London Naval Conferences, American strategists correctly predicted Japanese behavior over the next two decades.  From 1933-40, Japan became a threat to the peace and stability of the entire Pacific rim.  America’s isolated advanced base structure was jeopardized by Japanese militarism.

In January 1941, the United States began construction of submarine and aviation facilities on Wake Island, which lies some 2,400 miles west of Honolulu, Hawaii.  Designated U. S. Naval Activity Wake, the atoll became an American outpost from which Navy and Marine Corps aircraft could patrol the likely approaches to the US territory of Hawaii.  Ultimately, as history teaches us, Wake Island protected nothing at all.  The Pacific Ocean is vast.  Wake Island is very small.  Navy and Marine Corps aircraft were limited in their fuel range.

Summary of the Battle

Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack and the Battle for Wake Island were simultaneous operations.  For Hawaii, the battle was over in a few hours.  At Wake Island, the battle raged for sixteen days.  At 0800 on 7 December 1941, the Marines raised the American flag over Wake Island.  It is something Marines do every morning.  Fifty minutes later, 36 Japanese bombers on their way to Pearl Harbor pummeled the Island’s facilities.

The Japanese returned to Wake in force on 11 December 1941, meeting for the first time the spirited resolve of the American people and their military.  The battle, when joined, involved 499 Marines of the 1st Defense Battalion and VMF-211 Detachment (12 pilots, 38 enlisted mechanics), 71 sailors of the Naval Activity Wake, and 6 soldiers.  The island also contained 1,146 civilian construction workers.  In terms of armaments, the Marines manned six coastal artillery pieces, 12 anti-aircraft guns, and 12 fighter/bomber aircraft.  Over the next 16 days, the Marines lost all of their aircraft in aerial combat, suffered 52 killed, 49 wounded, and 2 men missing in action.  Of the total contingent of military personnel, 433 became prisoners of war.  In addition to these military losses, 70 civilian workers were killed, and 1,104 were detained as prisoners of the Japanese.  180 civilians died while in captivity.

The Japanese invading force included two aircraft carriers, two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, eight destroyers, two patrol boats, two troop ships, one submarine tender, three submarines, and 2,500 Japanese infantry troops.  Japanese losses included two destroyers sunk, two patrol boats sunk, heavy damage to two troop ships, the loss of 30 aircraft, 484 troops killed in action, 125 wounded in action, and 2 missing in action.  Japan’s first invasion attempt had failed.

For the first few days, it seemed as if the Marines might successfully defend the island against the Japanese, but the Americans at Wake suffered Japan’s relentless aerial bombings and strafing.  An American naval relief force from Hawaii was considered, but after the devastating losses at Pearl Harbor, US high command finally decided that the Marines and sailors at Naval Activity Wake were on their own.  The US could simply not afford the loss of another capital war ship, and certainly not one of its few aircraft carriers.

When the second Japanese landing force arrived on 23 December, it overwhelmed Wake Island defenders.  The Marines kept up their stout defense for five hours, but the Naval Activity Commander, Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham, decided that it would be prudent to surrender all hands.  In total, 1,616 Americans were taken prisoner and transported to Japan and China.  The Japanese retained nearly a hundred civilians on the island to perform labor.  On 5 October 1943, the Japanese marched these men to one side of the island and executed them with machine gun fire.  One civilian escaped and carved a memorial to his into a large rock, which read, “98 US PW 5-10-43.”  The message remains today.  Unfortunately, this escaped civilian was later recaptured and executed.

(Continued next week)

Endnotes:

[1] From the French word for friendship, understanding, or agreement, this was an alliance between the Russian Empire, the French Third Republic, and Great Britain; it formed a counterweight to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy during the same conflict.  Unlike the Triple Alliance, the Triple Entente did not provide an alliance of mutual defense.