Death Rattlers

VMFA 323 Patch 001Somewhere between the first and fifth of August 1943, three young lieutenants, naval aviators all, swooped down upon a somewhat large rattlesnake resting in the area adjacent to the Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina, captured it, and took it with them to their newly commissioned squadron ready room.  The well-fed snake measured about seven feet in length.  Few people understand why lieutenants do anything.  Observing the antics of a lieutenant, most people roll their eyes and think to themselves, “But for the grace of God …”

In this case, however, the lieutenants were on a mission.  It was to find a nickname for their recently commissioned aircraft squadron.  With all squadron pilots assembled, it was unanimously agreed that Marine Fighting Squadron 323 (VMF-323) would be henceforth known as the Death Rattlers.  Its patch and nickname continue to exist today, as of this writing, for 77-years.  In 1943, VMF-323 was assigned to Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-32, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW).  The squadron’s first commanding officer was Major George C. Axtell, Jr[1].

VMF-323 began combat training almost immediately after its activation.  This squadron, as well as others being formulated, were desperately needed in the Pacific.  In September 1943, VMF-323 was transferred to one of the Air Station’s outlying fields, a Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Facility at Oak Grove.  Its first aircraft was the Vought F4U-1 Corsair[2].  In 1943, VMF-323 was one of eight Marine Corps Corsair squadrons.

F4U Corsair USMC 002In January 1944, VMF-323 was transferred to El Centro, California and reassigned to Marine Base Defense Aircraft Group (MBDAG)-43.  In California, squadron pilots worked to master instrument flying, gunnery, bomber escort, overland navigation, dogfighting, section flight tactics, field carrier landings, and strafing.  Field carrier landing training was a prelude to actual carrier landing qualification training.  When this training period was concluded, VMF-323 moved to Camp Pendleton, California. For Major Axtell, training new officers was a never-ending task since no sooner had he molded his pilots into skilled aviators, they would be transferred to another squadron and Axtell would have to begin the task of bringing along a newer pilot.  Axtell, a qualified instrument pilot before taking command of the squadron, insisted that all of his pilots develop that skill set.  Axtell believed that instrument flying would build self-confidence in his pilots and prepare them for future battles—which proved prescient.

VMF-323’s first casualty occurred on 17 March 1944 when Second Lieutenant Robert M. Bartlett, Jr., crashed his aircraft two miles south of the airbase while on a routine night familiarization flight.  In April, VMF-323 took part in two large-scale joint service air interception exercises.  On 25 May Second Lieutenant John A. Freshour and his passenger, Lieutenant Commander James J. Bunner, USN were killed when their Douglas SBD (Dauntless) crashed into a power line near Camp Pendleton’s airfield.  That month, Axtell focused his pilots on the art and science of dive-bombing and forcing his pilots to avail themselves of an intelligence reading room and a classified material library.  Major Axtell, young as he was, was a task-maker because in addition to learning, practicing, and becoming proficient in aviation skills, he also demanded that his pilots attend aircraft recognition classes and lectures on a host of technical topics —including the geography of Palau’s Islands, Philippines, the Sulu Archipelago, and other island areas these pilots could be assigned to.  A third pilot was lost when Second Lieutenant Glen B. Smith crashed at sea on a routine training flight.

On 7 September 1944, 30 pilots, 3 ground officers, 90 enlisted men, 24 aircraft, and repair parts boarded the USS Breton (CVE-23) as the squadron’s advanced element.  Its rear echelon of 20 officers, 167 enlisted men remained behind for further training.  VMF-323 would be assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.  Ten days later, the squadron catapulted the squadron to its destination at Emirau.  During takeoff, Second Lieutenant Gerald E. Baker crashed into the sea and was killed.  Upon arrival at Emirau, Axtell reported to the Commanding General, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing for duty.  For the next 30 days, VMF-323 conducted local flight training within a fifty-mile radius of the field.  Training included gunnery, dive-bombing, and squadron tactics.  On 24 October, Commander Task Group 59.6 ordered VMF-323 (Forward) to Espiritu Santo, a rear area supply base in the New Hebrides Islands.  On the same day, the Commanding General, FMFPac (Air) placed VMF-323 under his administrative control.

By 31 October, VMF-323 (Fwd) was fully located at Espiritu Santo and busily involved in setting up the squadron for air operations.  Between 9-28 November, the squadron participated in another round of familiarization flights, gun proficiency, bombing, and squadron tactics.  On 29 November, the squadron’s rear echelon arrived and rejoined the squadron.  MAG-33 attached the squadron on the same day.  Ordnance experts from MAG-33 began installing airborne rocket launchers almost immediately, necessitating additional training by squadron pilots and ground crews.  It was complicated; pilots needed to learn about glide angle, range, proper lead, rock effectiveness, safety, and the characteristics of various rockets.  Added to the already busy training routine was close air support of ground troops.  Unbeknownst to the squadron’s officers, they were being prepared for battle on the island of Okinawa.  As the pilots were practicing air combat maneuvers, the enlisted men were spending more time on the rifle range: Every Marine is a Rifleman.  Expected to develop proficiency with their sidearm, pilots went to the range, as well.  Finally, the squadron’s ground defense crews practiced with anti-aircraft machine guns.  There would be no gravel crunchers to provide security for VMF-323.

On 23 February, MAG-33 issued classified orders to the Commanding Officer, VMF-323: they would fly their 32 Corsairs to Okinawa in echelons.  Combat operations began on 10 April from Kadena airfield.  Weather conditions made Flying conditions poor.  When the dawn combat air patrol (CAP) launched at 0515 hours on their first day, First Lieutenant James L. Brown failed to join the flight.  Initially listed as missing in action, he was later declared killed in action.  On the next day, the airfield came under attack, but there was no damage or casualties.  The Death Rattlers’ first combat kill came that very morning, 11 April.  First Lieutenant Vernon E. Ball was readying for takeoff when a Japanese bomb hit the runway in front of his aircraft.  Ball calmly steered his aircraft around the bomb crater and took off.  Once airborne, Ball observed fellow squadron mate Al Wells shoot down the Japanese bomber responsible for cratering the runway.

On the afternoon of 12 April, a fourteen aircraft CAP noted the approach of Japanese aircraft from the north.  The Death Rattlers split into three divisions.  Six aircraft were diverted northwest from Ie Shima, flight leader Major Arthur L. Turner with Second Lieutenant Obie Stover as his wingman.  The second section was led by First Lieutenant Dellwyn L. Davis, with Second Lieutenant Robert J. Woods as his wingman.  The third section was led by First Lieutenant Charlie Spangler, with Second Lieutenant Dewey Durnford as his wingman.

The Marines were flying at 15,000 feet, 71-miles northwest of Ie Shima when they spotted a multi-engine Japanese bomber about eight miles distant and at an altitude of around 11,000 feet.  According to the Squadron’s official account:

Spangler and Durnford peeled off, followed by Davis and Woods.  Spangler closed from five o’clock and opened fire at 800 feet.  First, he knocked out the tail gunner and the top of the rudder, and then flamed the port engine.  Durnford was closing from seven o’clock, whereupon the Betty[3] turned on him, apparently trying to give the side blister gunner a shot.  Durnford opened fire at 200 feet, directing his fire at the cockpit.  Davis flamed the starboard engine from 100 feet and the Betty spiraled down in flames, exploding when it hit the water.

Meanwhile, a second six-plane element was directed to the Motobu Peninsula.  Captain Felix S. Cecot was flight leader with Second Lieutenant Leon A. Reynolds as his wing.  Captain Joe McPhail led the second section with Second Lieutenant Warren W. Bestwick.  Second Lieutenant Glenn Thacker flew with Second Lieutenant Everett L. Yager.  The enemy approached at about 18,000 feet.  The Marines climbed to 23,000 to gain an overhead advantage.  McPhail reported— 

I spotted some F4Us chasing Zekes[4]; I called out their position and rolled over.  Bestwick was on my wing.  On the way down, four Zekes appeared right under us at about 19,000 feet, flying almost abreast in two-plane sections.  I started firing at the rear plane on the right, at about 400 yards, above and behind.  My first burst was off, and the Zeke saw the tracers.  He made a couple of small turns, and then I started getting hits.  Pieces started coming off around the cockpit, and then he blew up.  The other three scattered.  I then pushed over and came home alone, being unable to find my wingman.

Berwick’s report stated …

Captain McPhail shot at the rear plane on the right.  His Zeke crossed under the rest of their formation and exploded in flames.  I picked the second plane of the first section and fired a long burst and saw it explode.  By that time, the first plane of the second section had broken off to the right and down, so I continued my run and fired a 20-degree deflection shot from behind.  This plane also exploded.  While looking for Captain McPhail, I saw my first Zeke spiraling down smoking, but I didn’t see my second Zeke after firing on him.

Lieutenant Thacker had followed Bestwick on the original pass going after the fourth Zeke in the formation.  He made an attack run on the Zeke and his guns knocked pieces from the fuselage, causing it to smoke.  The Zeke, however, rolled, pulled up tightly, and escaped.  Thacker claimed a probable kill as a result of his action.

At the same time, Captain Cecot dove from 23,000 feet to 5,000 to fire at a Jack[5].  The Jack rolled, Cecot fired at his belly and saw it smoking.  He was unable to observe further damage.  He too claimed a probable kill.

The remaining section, composed of lieutenants John Ruhsam and Robert Wade, were returning to Kadena because Wade’s landing gear could not be retracted.  Just south of Motobu, a Zeke dove out of the sun and made a pass at Wade’s plane.  Wade lowered his flaps and made a tight run.  The Zeke shot past, rolled, and dove to the deck.  Wade followed him down and was almost in firing position when Ruhsam opened fire with a 30-degree deflection shot and the Zeke burst into flames and crashed.

During this flight, all squadron pilots involved encountered Japanese aircraft for the first time.

VMF-323 flew a variety of close air support and bombing missions over the next few days, the seventh and last mission of 22 April was a record-breaker.  The last mission was an eight aircraft formation led by Major George C. Axtell, the squadron commander.  The flight departed Kadena at 1500 hours and did not return until around 1915.  During this flight, VMF-323 downed a record 24 (and three-quarters) enemy aircraft.  The squadron’s records reflect that the action was fast and furious.

Major Jefferson D. Dorah, Jr., squadron executive officer, burned five planes and exploded a sixth, all within twenty minutes.  Major George B. Axtell shot down five planes within fifteen minutes.  Twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Jeremiah J. O’Keefe also shot down five planes, one of which tried to ram him after it caught fire.

FA-18 Hornet 001Flying combat aircraft is a dangerous vocation.  This was true in 1945, it is more so now as our young men fly high-performance aircraft with exceptionally complicated technology.  Every moment of a training or combat flight is a teaching moment.  Bad things can happen to machines, and it is the human pilot that must respond to each “sudden” and sometimes catastrophic failure.  In April 1945, VMF-323 pilots learned about fire discipline.  Some used up their ammunition too quickly, wastefully, which at the moment the last round was fired, rendered that bird as combat ineffective.  Other pilots dropped their external fuel tanks too soon, which threatened their ability to return safely to base.  They learned from their mistakes, of course … or they died because of them.

VMFA-323 is the home squadron of my good (and long-time) friend Pablo, who occasionally comments here.  Pablo has been an aviator for more than 50 years.  That is … fifty years of accident-free flying.  He is a certified instructor pilot, a certified glider pilot, and certified to teach glider flying.  He is also a much-sought-after aviation safety instructor/lecturer.  He will attest to the risks associated with aviation and most likely agree that these innate risks, when combined with high anxiety combat maneuvering, makes military flying the most challenging vocation anyone could ever ask for.  It should not surprise anyone that there are aircraft mishaps, and that good young men and women die in them.  Given the operational tempo of our military air wings, what is surprising is that there are not more mishaps.

As Brigadier General Chuck Yeager (USAF) once said, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.”

Sources:

  1. Chapin, J. C. Fire Brigade: U. S. Marines in the Pusan Perimeter.  Washington: USMC Historical Center, 2000.
  2. Pitzl, G. R. A History of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323.  Washington: USMC Historical Center, 1987.
  3. Sherrod, R.  History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.

Endnotes:

[1] Lieutenant General George B. Axtell (1920-2011) was a World War II flying ace, recipient of the Navy Cross, and the youngest commanding officer of a Marine fighter squadron.  General Axtell served through three wars and retired from active service in 1974.  In addition to command of VMF-323, he also commanded VMF-452, VMF-312, Marine Carrier Air Group-16, Marine Air Control Group 1, Marine Aircraft Group 12, Force Logistics Command, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, and the Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic.  In addition to the Navy Cross, he was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, three awards of the Legion of Merit with combat valor device, two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and seven awards of the Air Medal.

[2] The Corsair was developed by the Chance Vought Aircraft Company, designed and operated as a carrier-based aircraft and entered service in the Navy-Marine Corps in 1942. It quickly became one of the most capable fighter-bombers in the US arsenal and, according to Japanese pilots, the most formidable American fighter in World War II.  The Corsair saw service in both World War II and the Korean War.  It was retired from active service in 1953.

[3] Betty was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi G4M twin-engine land-based bomber.

[4] Zeke was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

[5] Jack was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (lightning bolt), a Japanese Navy aircraft

The Warrior No One Forgot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bane of humankind is our moral frailty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—John 15:13

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

Before He Was a General …

Julius Caesar was a Marine.

SPQR 001Before the Empire, Rome was not a sea-faring nation and the early Republic did not have an effective navy.  This changed with the First Punic War (264-241 BC) against the maritime city of Carthage.  Rome was nothing if not serious about its military and naval prowess.  By 256 BC, Rome had a navy of 330 ships, the most popular of which included the two-deck quadrireme (with two banks of oars) and the quinquereme, which were galleys with five decks and three rows of oars.  These were not “row boats” as a modern person might imagine them.  The quinquereme required 300 men (mostly slaves) to propel it through the water.p

After the end of the Second Punic War (202 BC), Rome discarded its standing navy in favor of relying on ships provided under contract and treaty with noted maritime cities.  In time, Roman coastal settlements and their overall economy suffered as a result of pirates operating with impunity in the Mediterranean Sea (Mare Nostrum) and this provided an impetus for Rome to reestablishment its naval legion [1].

Julius Caesar was born into a minor aristocratic family that claimed descent from the mythological son of Aeneas, supposedly the son of Venus. According to Pliny the Elder [2] the cognomen Caesar originated with an ancestor who was born by caesarean section, but there are three additional explanations for the origin of this name: (1) An ancestor was known for having a thick head of hair; (2) he had bright gray eyes; and/or, (3) he killed an elephant in battle.  Julius Caesar issued coins featuring images of elephants, which suggests that he favored the third possible origin of his name.  In any case, the Caesar family were not particularly influential.  Julius Caesar’s father was Gaius Julius Caesar, a man who reached the level of praetor, the second highest of the Roman Republic’s elected magistrates.  He governed the province of Asia through the influence of his prominent brother-in-law, Gaius Marius.  Caesar’s mother was Aurelia Cotta, a very influential family that produced several consuls.

Julius was educated by Marcus Antonius Gnipho, a noted orator and grammarian from Gaul, and although not much is known about Julius’ youth, it has been said that he was educated in the art of war by a former primus pilus, or the senior centurion of the first cohort in a Roman legion.  His military tutor would have instilled in him the expectations of a Roman military or naval officer.  What we do know is that Caesar’s formative years were turbulent.  Between 91-88 BC, Rome experienced the so-called Social War, which had to do with the policy governing Roman citizenship and social status.  At the same time, Mithridates of Pontus [3] threatened Rome’s eastern provinces.  Domestic confrontations existed between the optimates (upper class) and populares (advocating reforms in the interest of the masses).  Rather than representing political parties, these two groups were loose confederations of like-minded individuals.  Caesar’s uncle, Gaius Marius, was a popularis, while Marius’ protégé Lucius Cornelius Sulla, was an optimas.  Rivalry between these two groups led to civil war.

Both Marius and Sulla distinguished themselves during the Social War and they competed for overall command of the war against Mithridates. Initially, command was given to Sulla, but it was later passed to Marius.  Upset, Sulla led his army to Rome (the first time a Roman general ever threatened Rome with his army), reclaimed his entitlement of command, and forced Marius into exile.  Once Sulla departed Rome to campaign, Marius returned at the head of a makeshift army.  He and his ally Lucius Cornelius Cinna seized the city, declared Sulla an enemy of Rome, and through his army took revenge on Sulla’s supporters.  Marius died in 86 BC, but his supporters remained in power.

In the next year, Julius Caesar’s father died suddenly, so at the age of sixteen years, Julius became head of the family.  In 84 BC, Julius was nominated as Flamen Dialis, high priest of Jupiter.  The position not only required a patrician [4], it also required that the position holder marry a patrician.  To satisfy this requirement, Julius broke off his engagement to Cossutia, a wealthy equestrian [5] plebeian, and married Cinna’s daughter, Cornelia.

Once Sulla defeated Mithridates, he returned to Rome to finish his civil war with Marius’ followers.  He re-took Rome in 82 BC and had himself appointed as dictator [6].  Sulla wasted no time destroying statues and other symbols of Marius.  He also ordered his body exhumed and thrown into the Tiber River.  By this time, Cinna was already dead, killed by his own men during a mutiny.  The proscriptions of Sulla, issued daily, ordered hundreds of his political enemies killed or exiled.  Thugs were hired to track down these enemies and kill them.  Sulla then targeted Julius Caesar, a nephew of Marius (and son-in-law of Cinna).  By Sulla’s decree, Caesar was stripped of his inheritance, Cornelia’s dowry, and his priesthood [7].  Caesar, however, a young man with integrity, refused to divorce Cornelia.

Roman Gally 001Instead, Caesar went into hiding —which he accomplished by presenting himself to a tribune for enlistment into the naval legion, formed when Sulla decided to rid Mare Nostrum of pirates.  Caesar had traveled at great danger to himself to the port city of Ostia Antica.  Questioned carefully, as all candidates for legion service were, Julius admitted that he was a wanted man by order of the dictator, Sulla.  After presenting his papers to the tribune, an endorsement under the seal of Marius, he was quietly accepted for service aboard a galley.  Because of his relationship to Marius, it is likely that young Caesar was appointed to serve as hastatus posterior, the lowest centurion rank, which would have placed him in command of eight to ten marines (also, milites) [8].

After four months of serving aboard ship as a tesserarius (watch commander) on coastal patrol, Julius Caesar was anxious for combat.  What young officer doesn’t want to test his courage —prove his own worth?  He would get his wish at the pirate fortification at Methymna on the island of Lesbos.  Julius felt he was ready; he felt that his men were ready.  It has been said that young Caesar inquired of his centurion the number of enemy inside the fort and he was told that the number of enemy didn’t matter; whether there were five men, or five hundred men, these Roman Marines were going to take that fort with the number of men at their disposal —about one-hundred in total.  The conversation, if it occurred, provides an interesting insight into the mindset of the Roman legionnaire.  Winning a battle was important, of course, but it was secondary to honorable service as Roman soldiers.

Caesar, who wisely remained wary of Sulla, stayed in Asia with the legions for several years.  After serving aboard the Roman galley, he fought under Marcus Minucius Thermus [9] in Asia, and Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus [10] in Cilicia [11].  By every account, young Julius Caesar was an exceptional officer whose self-confidence and arrogance knew no limitation.  As stated earlier, Caesar’s military career began during Sulla’s anti-pirate campaigns and he served with distinction during the siege of Mytilene, for which he was presented with the civic crown.

Young Julius CaesarIn 79 BC, Sulla resigned the dictatorship, re-established consular government, and retired to private life.  He died in the next year, aged 60 [12].  Learning of Sulla’s death, Caesar felt safe enough to return to Rome —but he was a citizen without means, having forfeited his inheritance and his wife’s wealth.  For a time, Caesar turned to the law and served as a legal advocate.  In this profession, he was quite efficient and well known for his oratory, passionate advocacy, and ruthless prosecution of corrupt officials.  Striving for perfection, Julius traveled to Rhodes to study rhetoric under Apollonius Molon, who had been Cicero’s teacher.  En route to Rhodes, however, Caesar was kidnapped by Cilician pirates and held prisoner for ransom in Pharmacusa.

Held as a captive for 48 days, Julius Caesar maintained an air of superiority over his captives.  He participated in their games, exercised with them, and when he was tired of listening to their babble, he would command them to silence.  He also recited poetry to his captives and ridiculed them and mocked them for their lack of understanding.  For their part, the pirates found young Caesar entertaining.  When they demanded twenty talents of gold [13] for his release, Julius demanded that they require fifty.

Once the ransom was paid and Caesar was released, he returned to Rome, raised a fleet of ships, and pursued his captors with utter determination.  He had them imprisoned in Pergamon and demanded their execution.  The governor of Asia refused, however, preferring instead to sell them as slaves.  Julius Caesar would have none of this —so he returned to the seacoast and had them crucified, as he had promised he would do while he was still in captivity.  The pirates apparently thought he was joking with them; he wasn’t.  Although, as a demonstration of mercy, Julius Caesar had their throats cut before crucifixion.  He left their bodies to rot.

There are many lessons to be learned from history.  This one may offer modern leaders a worthwhile perspective in how to deal with brigands, pirates, and terrorists.

Sources:

  1. Froude, J. A. Life of Caesar.  Gutenberg e-Text, 1879.
  2. Goldsworthy, A. Caesar: Life of a Colossus.  Yale University Press, 2006.
  3. Thorne, J.  Julius Caesar: Conqueror and Dictator.  Rosen Publishing, 2003

Endnotes:

[1] Pirates, as with brigands, took advantage of weak military control wherever they could, thriving on the fringes of warfare along neglected coastlines.  Rome initiated several campaigns against Mediterranean pirates over its long history, the first of which likely occurred between 80-67 BC.  Beyond booty, pirates also kidnapped citizens and held them for ransom.  If the ransom was not paid, then the pirates would sell their captives into slavery.  In 67 BC, for example, the Legate and former consul Pompey was charged by the senate with ending piracy.  By commandeering Greek-made galleys and organizing them into thirteen fleets, Pompey managed to scatter (not eradicate) the pirates in less than two months.  In his war against pirates, Pompey took 20,000 prisoners, impressed 90 ships, and recovered enormous treasures.

[2] Gaius Plinius Secundas (23-79 AD) was a Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher; he was a naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, and a friend of Emperor Vespasian.  Pliny the Elder died while attempting to rescue a friend and his family by ship during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

[3] Also known as Mithridates the Great (reign from 120-63 BC), he was of Persian origin and king of Hellenistic-era Pontus, a large area surrounding the Black Sea.

[4] Originally, the word patrician suggested the ruling class of families in ancient Rome.  It was a significant distinction in the Roman kingdom and early Republic, but less so by the time of the late Republic and early Empire.

[5] The Roman equestrian order ranked second to the senatorial class.  In modern parlance, a male equestrian would be a knight.

[6] A dictator of Rome was a magistrate entrusted with the full authority of the state to deal with a military emergency or to undertake a specific duty.  Generally, dictators were appointed to no more than six months in office.  Sulla’s appointment included no such restriction.

[7] Eventually, Sulla lifted his retribution against Julius Caesar, mostly through the intervention of Caesar’s mother’s family, which included allies of Sulla.  Even afterward, however, Sulla remained wary of Julius Caesar.  He could see “many Marius’” in him.

[8] Roman military ranks only generally equate to modern military structures.  Formalized rank came as a result of reforms instituted by Marius, but the term “commander” was generally applied only to consuls (politicians of high standing), dictators, and occasionally to praetors.  Beneath the commander was the legatus(legate), a general rank officer appointed for three-year terms.  This distinction is important because the legions were always subordinate to the proconsul (or governor) of the province to which they were assigned.  Legates were generally drawn from the Roman Senate.  Below the commander and legate were tribuni militum (military tribunes) organized in six ranks.  The senior of these (tribunus laticlavius) (also, second-in-command) would in time become a senator, the others served as equestrians (knights) and were generally equivalent to modern-day majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels.  The third highest officer in the legion was the praefectus castorum, also equivalent to modern-day colonel, but more on the order of a senior chief warrant officer elevated from the enlisted ranks (centuri).  Each legion was divided into ten cohorts (each cohort roughly equivalent to a battalion).  The senior-most cohort centurion was also called Primus Pilus (first centurion or also, tip of the spear).  Each cohort consisted of three manipula; each of these had two centuries, each ranging from 60-160 men.  Each century was commanded by a centurion (roughly, captain) and assisted by junior officers called Optio (roughly, lieutenant).  Within cohorts, centurions were ranked as follows, from senior-most following primus pilus: Primus prior, pilus posterior, princeps prior, princeps posterior, hastatus prior, and hastatus posterior.

[9] Soldier and statesman, Thermus directed efforts against Mytilene on the Island of Lesbos, suspected of harboring pirates.

[10] A staunch supporter of Sulla, Isauricus was appointed proconsul governor of Cilicia with the responsibility of clearing out pirates within his province.  His command lasted from 78-74 BC, which included the naval and land forces.

[11] The south coast region of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).

[12] Sulla’s dictatorship is generally believed to have destabilized the Roman Republic to such an extent that it eventually caused the collapse of the republic.

[13] A talent is a weight of measure of roughly 67 pounds.  Twenty talents would equate to 1,340 pounds; 50 talents would roughly equal 3,350 pounds of gold.