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.

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.